Friday, May 21, 2010

An Interview with...Alison Green Will

Once a week I post interviews with interesting designers about their insights on their experience of working in the Knitting industry. I’ve noticed that every designer makes their living in a slightly different manner bringing their own unique presence to the Knitting world.
Where do you find inspiration?
I'm inspired by what I see people wearing - especially when I visit New York, where I used to live; there are so many different kinds of people with different styles there, I always see interesting silhouettes that will find their way into my work. Also I collect stitch dictionaries and especially like finding unusual ones from other countries. I love playing around with different stitch patterns and thinking about how to best use them in a garment.
What is your favourite knitting technique?
Almost everything I design has some cables or lace - or both. Actually, combining cables and lace might be my favorite. Something else I return to again and again is knitting a cable panel lengthwise for an edging, picking up stitches along one side for the sleeve or the body. I started off making hats this way and can't seem to stop using that technique.
How did you determine your size range?
It's important to me to offer a wide range of sizes. I always write my patterns to fit at least 30-50" bust, sometimes up to 55" or so. That seems to satisfy the vast majority of knitters. When I first started publishing sweater designs, I did some informal polling of my plus sized knitting friends, and they indicated that that would be a good range. It's nice to see that many publications seem to be offering that kind of range now, which I think was less common before.
Do you look at other designers’ work or are you afraid that you will be influenced by their designs?
I definitely look at other designers' work. It's important to me to see what is popular with knitters and to be aware of where the industry is going. Also, even though I don't have time anymore to knit up other designers' patterns, it's fun to see them and dream of having more knitting time (or maybe a second set of hands)!It's inevitable that we'll be influenced by garments that we see around us, and I don't think there's anything wrong with being inspired by what other designers are doing.
How do you feel about the so called controversy of “dumbing down” patterns for knitters?
It's not something that I'm terribly concerned about. When I teach, I do try to help knitters become less reliant on patterns spelling out every last detail, and to encourage them to think about how to adapt patterns to fit their own body and style. But at the same time, the current generation of knitters mostly didn't learn from mothers and grandmothers, but rather most of the knitters I know taught themselves or took a class. (And I'm one of those also - no one in my family was a knitter, at least that I'm aware of.) So we're a generation that "grew up" as knitters more reliant on patterns, not having as many other knitters in our households who we could go to when we were stuck. Of course the Internet does help alleviate some of that.
How many sample/test knitters do you have working for you or do you do it all yourself?
I usually knit my samples myself. Right now that works out best financially, and it also allows me to adjust things as I go, which I generally prefer. I must admit that I rip out and re-work things a lot.
Did you do a formal business plan?
No, I haven't done that, although perhaps I should.
Do you have a mentor?
Not in any formal way. When I was first getting into designing, I was working for Berta Karapetyan, the founder of Karabella Yarns, at her retail store in NYC, School Products. She was definitely a mentor for me, teaching me a lot of what I know about grading patterns and other design issues. After I had worked in her shop for a little while, she hired me to write patterns for the designs she was doing for Karabella, which was kind of a trial by fire! I was extremely lucky to meet her when I did - at the time I had no idea what a great designer I was signing on to work for.
Do you have a business model that you have emulated?
No. The business aspect of the business can be a bit of a struggle for me. Part of me wishes I didn't have to deal with all of that and could just focus on the craft. But that's just a fantasy! At the end of the day, it is a business, and it's probably good for me to stretch in that direction.
What impact has the Internet had on your business?
The Internet has been hugely important to my business. Although I do some wholesaling, most of my pattern sales have been through my website, Ravelry, and Twist Collective, and my most popular design by a very long shot is Helena, my baby sweater pattern in Knitty's Summer '08 issue, which I still get a lot of emails about, so I know that people are still knitting that one.
Furthermore, besides my business being mostly online, I feel that the Internet has helped sustained a "knitting boom" for many years now - far more than most of us predicted during the Fun Fur scarf craze in the early 2000's. Because most of us didn't have knitting mothers and grandmothers to turn to, we went online to find other knitters, and it's been amazing to see so many of the scarf knitters branch out into complex patterns. I remember when Jenna Wilson's Rogue sweater became popular, thinking how great it was that so many new knitters were taking on a challenging pattern - and succeeding! For me, since I tend to design things that have a lot of knitterly details like cables and lace, that was really wonderful to see, and gave me hope that my kind of knitting wasn't going to die out anytime soon.
Do you use a Tech Editor?
Yes, absolutely. Having a good tech editor check your pattern is crucial. I also work as a tech editor, and when I was just starting out doing that, I found it kind of empowering to realize that even the best, most famous knit designers have errors in their patterns! No matter how good you are, you've got to have a tech editor!
How do you maintain your life/work balance?
It's really challenging, since I also work other jobs to make ends meet. For me, it's having other activities that I enjoy, like spending time with my awesome husband, and friends and family, singing in my church choir, doing yoga... having other pursuits besides knitting is really important, since knitting is no longer just a hobby. Before I started designing professionally, I used to knit every day. Now I don't necessarily do that, since knitting is work now, even if I can do it in front of the TV.
How do you deal with criticism?
Well, I try to keep it in perspective. I try to see where the person is coming from, and think about what is true and helpful about the criticism and what might just be one person's opinion. Also, for when I'm feeling really down about myself, I keep a "praise" file of complimentary emails, reviews, etc that I've received about my work. That file can be good for an ego boost when I need one.
How long did it take for you to be able to support yourself?
I'm still working on that one! As I mentioned above, I still work some other part-time jobs. Sometimes I think I could make the leap if I had more savings, so that I could continue to pay my bills while I shifted my full-time focus to my design work and built up the business more intently, but it feels like a very risky move to do it right now. My business has definitely grown enormously in the last couple years, but I'm not totally supporting myself with design work yet.
What advice would you give someone who wants to pursue a career in knitting?
Marry rich! (Just kidding. Sort of.)Cultivate relationships with other designers and industry professionals. Know that it takes a lot of time and perseverance to be successful. As in any creative field, you're going to get a lot of rejections, but you just have to believe in your work and your talent and keep putting it out there.
Also, and this probably goes without saying for most people, but remember that even though this is a "hobby" industry, we're still professionals. It's important to behave like a professional in your dealings with the knitting public, and with others in the industry, and to make a professional-looking product if you're self-publishing. In my mind that goes along with the whole issue of fair compensation for designers - it's important to be professional if we expect to be paid accordingly.

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