Friday, July 2, 2010

An Interview with...Kate Atherley

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 Kate's blog here and you can find her here on Ravelry.

Where do you find inspiration?

I love traditional techniques and patterns, and I enjoy reinterpreting them for modern tastes. For example, I have used gansey stitch patterns and construction for socks; and I love using very traditional Shetland stitch patterns in modern colours.

What is your favourite knitting technique?

I'm going through a lace phase at the moment. If you're asking about straight up technique, I would have to say my most favourite and comfortable technique is working in the round on dpns. It feels so very natural.

How did you determine your size range?

Being a petite sort myself, I always ensure that I design petite-friendly sizing. For women's garments, I tend to start with a 30 inch bust measurement and go from there. A pet peeve of mine is socks that come in only one size - I have a size 6 foot, and a very good friend of mine has a size 11 foot - one size fits all is a filthy lie! If we're going to the trouble of knitting something, it should fit well and precisely. For garments, my size range has been greatly increased through my work with Knitty - Knitty insists, very fairly, I think, on a broad range of sizes.

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

This is an interesting challenge. After all, there are only so many stitches and constructions and techniques. I had an experience just the other week that shows that even if you don't look at other designers' work, you might still be copying. I had been working on a beginner-friendly lace shawl, and I landed on a stitch pattern that I thought was manageable and interesting, and the shawl was going very well. When it came time for the edging, I chose one of my favourite simple but elegant patterns, and was happily knitting away. A few days later, I was browsing some of my favourite blogs, and found a friend of mine working on a previously-published shawl that is almost exactly the same as the one I was working on. So I think it's a risk you run either way, producing something that looks like something else.

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

Kate emailed me about this question to ask (Can you clarify this question for me? I'm not sure I know what you are referring to. I do want to discuss this, however - I have some very strong opinions on how patterns are written. If what you are referring to is taking something that's written in the style of EZ or the European magazines (one size only, that sort of thing), and turning it into a recipe that's detailed, clear and helpful for knitters of all levels, then I would have to say that this is a wonderful development! What's the controversy?)

I emailed Kate back "The dumbing down question was a result of two different conversations with 3 BIG name knitters. The choice of words was a result of one designers actual words. The general thought-line was that while Knitters want really inexpensive or free patterns they strongly criticize any pattern that does not explain every technique individually. So where does a pattern end and a technique lesson begin? It was also observed that some Knitters won't buy reference books or even go online to look up techniques. The term "spoon feeding" was also tossed around. The question was included because of those conversations which I felt were a little skewed to the negative viewpoint.To be honest I was just curious how the majority of designers feel about those issues."

Kate says "I tend to see the other side of things... patterns that are incredibly vaguely or poorly written. This is the problem with a lot of self-published patterns online. I had a student in one of my classes pay $5 for a pattern on Etsy that didn't even have gauge info. And there's a lot of designers out there who are self-publishing who don't bother getting it technically edited or proofread. We're doing knitters a disservice if we let bad patterns go out there - if a pattern doesn't work, knitter are more likely to assume it's their mistake or issue, and we're risking them giving up knitting entirely. I have spent two hours (paid) with a student recently who needed help deciphering a pattern published on the Craft Yarn Council of America site that's very poor. Take a look: See how it states cast on 51 sts right near the top? So that's what my poor knitter did. Except that you need to cast on 99 sts, and it says that further down.

(This sort of thing makes me very cranky.)

It's a very interesting discussion - I can't say I've seen a lot of knitters being totally helpless or being unwilling to look stuff up. The internet has made this so much easier, so they don't have to buy books or do any "difficult" research, so it's all a bit more accessible. I do see knitters needing help with techniques, absolutely, and I really don't think we can explain absolutely everything in a pattern - but for the most part, I think the industry errs on the side of not explaining enough.

My livelihood depends on people enjoying this hobby, and if the patterns are poorly written or difficult to follow, they won't enjoy it, and I'm out of a job. I'm happy to provide extra info to keep 'em knitting. Will I explain how to knit and purl? No. But will I explain how to do a Russian Lace bind off, or which increase I mean when I say "M1". I also teach a Pattern Reading class, in an attempt to help knitters feel more confident about tackling a pattern.

Again, though - I haven't had the same experience as these other designers. Maybe I've not had enough years of the same repetitive silly questions, and maybe because I started in this industry as a teacher, I'm more forgiving... ?

OK, enough ranting."

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

I have a group of three or four knitters I call on to help me out, but for the most part I do the work myself - knitting the item is the way that I work it out.

Did you do a formal business plan?

Formal? Not business school formal, but I do have a plan. Like so many others, knitting started as a sideline for me. When I realized that I couldn't manage my two lives, I built a plan for what work I'd need to do to bring in regular income and grow my business. Am I keeping to it? Mostly! Some stuff is going faster, some slower, but at least I have goals.

Do you have a mentor?

Not in the knitting world specifically; the man I consider my mentor comes from my old like, back in the technology industry. I do make a point of exchanging ideas with a few of my favourite LYS owners - I have learnt a lot from them, and value greatly their openness.

What impact has the Internet had on your business?

A lot of business is still local - I do a lot of teaching at stores in and around the Toronto area - and so that's not specifically Internet-dependent. That having been said, as a teacher, I love the power of the Internet as a communication and teaching tool - I definitely use my blog as a teaching support, and love the other references out there like that I can refer my students to. And as a designer, I love that I can publicize and sell my designs all over the world. And I love that I can stay in touch with other designers and shops and publications and friends.

Do you use a Tech Editor?

God yes! I sometimes even deliberately use a non-technical editor - that is, I have someone who isn't a knitter, or isn't a strong knitter, to review my patterns to see if they make sense. My hubby has proofread a lot of my patterns, and he couldn't knit to save his life.

How do you maintain your life/work balance?

I do a terrible job at this! But given that a large part of my work - specifically, the actual knitting - can be carried around with me, and done while in the car, or when out with friends and family in bars and restaurants, or when visiting, or at the game, or the movies, it's ok that I'm working all the time. My family and friends are very tolerant!

How do you deal with criticism?

I can learn from all feedback, positive and negative. Feedback about problems with a design, or a disappointing class, or a poorly written pattern is critical to help me improve what I do. There are times when someone may simply not agree with me. We all have a right to have an opinion, and I welcome any and all reasonably stated opinions - and I will likely have an opinion right back!

How long did it take for you to be able to support yourself?

I am fortunate that my partner has a steady job with benefits, so I can handle the vagaries and inconsistent flow of income that comes with being freelance in a creative field.

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

The same advice I would give to anyone in any field: know your strengths and weaknesses. Use your strengths to help others, and get someone to help you with your areas of weaknesses. Me, I know that I'm great with the numbers so one of the things I do is technical editing; and I'm terrible at layout and photography, so I use others to help me with that.

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