Friday, June 25, 2010

An Interview with...Shannon Okey

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.

You can find Shannon at

Where do you find inspiration?

It sounds cliched, but EVERYWHERE. I'll give you a funny/gross example:">Exploded View was inspired by frog dissections. The thought of 'opening up' the sweater to allow for some really cool user-friendly customizations was appealing, and then I worked out a way to make it function nicely as a pattern. I really love printed fabric, although I don't do a lot of colorwork knitting -- if nothing else, seeing new color combination's helps give me ideas for new ways to juxtapose color and texture.

What is your favorite knitting technique?

I love cables.">Rivulet, my most popular sweater pattern, uses cables for its shaping, which is something I like to do as it's both visually interesting and functionally useful. I have plans for some more extensively cabled design patterns in my design notebook at the moment, it's just a question of when I'll have time to work on them.

How did you determine your size range?

I try to offer the broadest possible size range I can or, barring that, I write my patterns in such a way that they encourage the knitter to think and to do his or her own customizations for a perfect fit. When I was editing [UK-based monthly print knitting magazine] Yarn Forward, our size range was 30-50" on EVERYTHING, and we were making moves towards expanding the range even higher as I left. I'm not a small person, I am firmly on the plus side of the scale right now, so I really do sympathize with the majority of knitters who are in the same boat. I think it's important to offer a broad range of sizes so long as it doesn't have a material impact on the design itself.

Do you look at other designers’ work or are you afraid that you will be influenced by their designs?

Of course I do! I think anyone who says otherwise is being disingenuous. Even if you don't sit down and study other handknit designers' patterns, you can't help but be influenced by the designs you see in fashion magazines, on runways, etc. I don't fear being influenced by another designer's work -- I work my own way, I have my own process, and presumably so does everyone else. You can't help but come up with different end results. Similarities are usually the result of a greater overall trend at work; for example, the large number of 'infinity scarf'-type patterns last fall.

How do you feel about the so called controversy of “dumbing down” patterns for knitters?

I don't agree with dumbing down anything for anyone, and especially not knitters! Knitters are clever people. They do, however, consistently underestimate their abilities. I see this again and again when I teach, and it's very frustrating for me. In the larger scheme of things, I think that everyone who is providing patterns to the knitting world -- be they individual designers or large publishing companies or somewhere in between -- they need to acknowledge that publishing the same old thing over and over does no one a favor. My personal joke is that there are too many "50 Easy Projects for Size 50 Needles!" books out there and not enough Teva Durham/Norah Gaughan/etc-level books that challenge knitters and push the medium forward. I want to see less of the former and a lot more of the latter!

How many sample/test knitters do you have working for you or do you do it all yourself?

It varies. I have a few sample knitters who work for me off and on, and I've hired outside firms such as">Fair Trade Knitters when a deadline did not permit doing all the work myself. I do knit a lot of my own samples but I'm actively working on moving away from that so I can increase my output.

Did you do a formal business plan?

I have a business plan but I'm not so sure you'd call it formal! A bank manager would probably fall over reading it. (Though, for the record, my bank manager did let me videotape a promotional video for my new book with $1000 in one dollar bills stacked up next to a garden gnome, so maybe mine's more open-minded than most). I find my accountant to be a very good source of pushes-in-the-right-direction when we do the taxes every year.

Do you have a mentor?

Yes and no. I've had mentors for specific aspects of my business and life as a designer -- for example, I call Jillian Moreno my 'fairy knitmother,' because she really helped me out when I was signing my first book deal contracts. I do, however, have a small private mailing list of other designers to call on when I have questions or problems, and that's been invaluable -- we can help each other out on tough problems, or even just serve as a cheering section for one another as needed. I also find that some of the other designer-focused mailing lists I'm on serve a mentor-like purpose, too, but only the private one will really open up on a public forum when the subject is touchy.

Do you have a business model that you have emulated?

No. I started full time design work in 2004 when I simultaneously signed 2 book deals at once (Knitgrrl, and Knitgrrl 2). I then went on to write, edit or co-author 10 other books. It's only recently that I've moved towards the single-pattern-sales model that is more common these days. If anything, I've done it the reverse way that one would expect!

What impact has the Internet had on your business?

The internet is and will continue to be a major part of my business. My knitting website split off from my personal one in 2004, and I was blogging about knitting on the personal site even before that. You could say I was an early adopter, technology-wise. Being a part of Knitty at the beginning definitely helped as well. And now, with Ravelry, and my">online teaching website, I find the internet to be an integral part of the way I not only make my living, but also communicate with the knitters who make up my audience.

Do you use a Tech Editor?

Absolutely. I can't imagine NOT using a tech editor. That way lies ruin...

How do you maintain your life/work balance?

This is something at which I am very very bad, if you're looking at it from the outside in. My work IS my life, more or less. I am constantly thinking about it, constantly scribbling down notes to myself or sending an email about something or planning a new project, or... However: I have started a new "no computer on weekends" rule which my boyfriend calls "Shannon's Amish on weekends." This also encourages me to pull out the needles and experiment instead of concentrating on clearing my inbox and any number of other tasks I have to do.

How do you deal with criticism?

That depends on what kind of criticism it is. If it's warranted (there's a problem with a pattern, whatever), then I accept it, make whatever changes or fixes are necessary, and move on. If it's not warranted, I ignore it. "Phantom disagreers" on Ravelry? Not worth worrying about. Complaints about the facilities where a class was held? Unless I'm in charge of that facility or event, it's not something I had control over, so I can't change things -- sorry. I constantly ask myself "is this something that I can fix, or have fixed? is this issue within my control?" If it isn't, then it's not worth spending time on. I don't mind criticism as long as it's something I can reasonably be expected to address. This might sound a little harsh, but seriously -- the more time you spend worrying about the people who don't like you, the less time you have to allocate to the people who do.

What advice would you give someone who wants to pursue a career in knitting?

Funny you should ask. My new book,">The Knitgrrl Guide to Professional Knitwear Design just launched at TNNA (The National Needle Arts Association, aka the largest knitting trade association) this month. It's the first-ever book targeted to designers of all experience levels who want to sell their work professionally, whether to magazines, publishers, or direct-to-consumer. It's over 250 pages long, and it includes interviews with more than 30 top designers, editors and professionals in the industry. I decided it was time for someone to write a book for designers that would put them on the right path -- there are plenty of "what NOT to do" examples in the book that are based on personal experience, or stories from other industry people I know, such as magazine editors, yarn company name it. I think one of the most useful sections in the book is the part that asks the reader to really evaluate what it is he or she likes to do and how to make that a part of your design career. Very, very few designers are making a comfortable living selling patterns alone -- many have other sidelines (whether it's teaching, or writing books, or...), and most have more than one of those!

If you want to pursue a career in knitting, it's doable, but you need to be realistic -- it takes a lot of hard work to get to the place you want to be!


  1. Really enjoyed this interview. Shannon is such a force!

  2. I'm reading her new book now and the section about sidelines really helped me! I think I may start offering tech editing services because that aspect of designing my own patterns seems to come fairly easily to me :)

    Thank you Shannon! You are a great help, such an inspiration and all around phenomenal person :D