Friday, April 29, 2011

Self vs. Traditional Publishng

I get a lot of questions about why I`m not pursuing being published in a mainstream magazine. My main reason at this point is that I`m very deadline resistant. Two corporate jobs in my past had extremely tight time lines. I hope to get over this eventually but since I`m in charge here, I`m in no hurry. As for the online magazines, a designer told me that she has done better long term with self-publishing vs. online magazines. She`s not sure why but perhaps people don`t go back as much to older issues? She also feels that traditional  magazines are likely to be a different customer base than online, I'm not so sure about that one. Part of the problem with all of this is that it's just opinion. Profits are so narrow in the Knitting industry that there is not a lot of market research going on.

I recently worked on a magazine submission because I was given a very long time line for it but I discovered a few things during the process. Having an external time line changes the rhythm of the work. I'm not free to shift gears and explore new ideas as they come up in the way I normally do. I know this slows down my production but it also increases my creativity. I often work on several projects at a time as a way of "cleansing my palette". I find the off time from a project often allows my brain to work on solutions in the background and I come up with better ideas, both design related and technical solutions.

Holding my own copyright is an issue for me. The pattern I did has copyright reverting back to me in 6 months so in this case it is not a barrier.

I like collaborating with others but on the other hand some aesthetic decisions are changed to accommodate another persons vision, which may or may not improve the work. Ultimately it's just that the work is not totally true to me (maybe I'm a design diva?).

The design has to be held to a preset level of difficulty, therefore details of construction may be changed to meet that standard. Most designs can be technically executed in more than one way. Normally, I just pick the one I think is best for that particular project and then assign level of difficulty based on what I did not the other way around. Having worked with more than one tech editor I can guarantee that they don't all agree on what makes a pattern beginner, intermediate or advanced. It's a difficult target to hit at the best of times.

There is also the extra detail of conforming to their template, which may or may not be clear, as every tech editor also has different standards that don't always agree with the publication's standards.

Traditional publishing also has space as a limiting factor. That means a lot more abbreviations and the possibility that the stitch patterns may be written or charted but maybe not both. When I self publish I often use both formats. It also means less detail is given to the Knitter. Advanced Knitter's may prefer this but others may appreciate more detail.

Any thoughts?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

But is it Art? Some more thoughts

I'm still thinking about the whole issue of art vs. craft and the semantics of what it all means. The original post is here

Several museums and schools have removed the word craft from their names because the word has a negative connotation. As an example: The California College of Arts and Crafts changed their name to California College of the Arts. As I understand it they did not change the curriculum, just their name.

This is from the American Craft Museums web site:

"The American Craft Museum today announced that it is changing its name to Museum of Arts and Design. The Museum's new name expresses the institution's mission as a contemporary museum dedicated to celebrating materials and the processes of transforming them into expressive objects - transcending the boundaries that currently separate craft, art and design. The name change also affirms the Museum's commitment to presenting the work of artists from around the world and its role as an international educational resource." 

(BTW this is one of my favourite NYC museums. I've been there many times.)

"Craft, art and design are overlapping and inextricably linked fields of creative activity that need to be appreciated as a continuum," noted Holly Hotchner, the Museum's Director. "The new name more accurately reflects the interdisciplinary and inclusive nature of our collections and programming. We are a contemporary museum about materials and creative processes, which are at the core of all the arts. We are dedicated to exploring how today's artists and designers-coming from increasingly diverse artistic backgrounds-engage and experiment with different materials and approaches to making objects."

What do you think? Once major institutions remove the word craft from their names I think it's pretty clear just how negative the connotations of the word have become.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Why the answer isn't simple and easy.

I answer a lot of knitting questions. I belong to several different knitting groups and there is a variety of skill levels at all of them. To be honest, I like answering questions as I often learn more from the process of figuring it out than the Knitter who asked it in the first place.

When I worked in my LYS, I assisted many Knitters with patterns that were giving them trouble. Once we had a customer who was so unhappy with my answer she ended up talking to all of the three other staff members who were in that day and even though we each gave her several options to solve her problem she still went away unhappy muttering to herself "that there must be a book that would explain how to do this properly". In this situation I think it was a case of the Buddhist quote: "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear” and our student wasn't yet ready. 

I was very surprised by something that happened often. A customer would come in with a question and be shocked that we could not instantaneously answer. Usually it was with regard to a specific pattern. Often the question was posed in such a way as to mislead us as to the nature of the real problem. Many Knitters were surprised when we would ask to see their work. It was a common experience when assisting Knitters that the customer thought we should resolve their problem without reading the pattern or picking up our needles to test a stitch pattern when they said it was wrong. 

We were frequently questioned as to why we couldn't just look at the knitting and see where their mistake was in the pattern. We would also get phone calls asking us to explain pattern instructions based on what the Knitter said was going wrong without the time to read the pattern or the option to examine the work. We could relate to the frustration the Knitter felt, but felt very limited in our ability to solve the problem. It made me realize than knitting is much more layered and complex that it initially appears to be.

When I read Sally Melville's post from December 23rd, (you can find it here) I was struck by how true this part is.  Sally said "I liken knitting patterns more to mathematical proofs than recipes. So imagine sticking a few lines in the middle of a mathematical proof under someone's nose and asking Can you explain this? It's no wonder that the folk in the yarn shop can't do it!"

I think Sally's analogy is the best one I've seen on this topic. So please when you are asking other Knitters for help; be patient and understand that they need to work through the problem slowly. Once they do they can answer the question and figure out if the pattern is wrong or if the Knitter is making an error in execution.

Friday, April 22, 2011

An Interview with...Glenna C.

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 Genna here and here on Ravelry

Where do you find inspiration?
This is always the hardest question to answer! Often, it is the yarn itself. When I have been given a yarn to work with, or pick one out of interest, I often go through a process of swatching it out or pondering the colour or drape, and that tells me the kind of idea set I'm going to be working with. Sometimes, inspiration for the garment itself just comes out of the blue, when I'm not looking for it, and then I run off to find yarn that will work with that idea.

What is your favourite knitting technique?
I love cables, as is probably evident from the number of projects I have that use cable twists of various kinds. They are such an effective way to add both texture and structure to knitted garments, and once you get the hang of doing them I think it is just as easy as garter stitch - but always seriously impressive-looking to knitters and non-knitters alike!

Do you look at other designers' work or are you afraid that you will be influenced by their designs?
The knitting community is so vibrant, particularly online, that if I avoided looking at other designers' work, I would probably have to stop using the Internet! I like designing for what interests me, and tend to be motivated more by those interests and desires more than anything else.

How do you feel about the so called controversy of "dumbing down" patterns for knitters?
Well, I suppose I didn't know there was a controversy about it! It is definitely a hard balance to strike, as a person who writes patterns. On the one hand, I believe very strongly that we are all capable and intelligent folks who don't always need absolutely everything spelled out for us all the time. I really enjoy going back to things like Elizabeth Zimmerman's patterns, where she gives guidelines and encouragement rather than specific row-by-row instructions. Any knitting pattern is an opportunity for the knitter to become a better knitter, and that has to happen because the knitter is engaged with it.

At the same time, all of us are busy folks. I love complexity in my design and knitting, but not all the time. Sometimes I need things to be simple or simplified, and clear step-by-step instructions help out with that. And I also know that I often offer designs with a bit of complexity in them, so if I didn't write out clear instructions, I'd have a hard time offering patterns! Thankfully in the world of PDF downloads, we aren't limited by word count, which is fantastic.

At the end of the day, I think knitters should strive for the same kind of balance - look for patterns that will challenge you and stretch your capabilities, and expect that there will be some styles or design techniques that will bit of a struggle at first, but the result is that you will be a better knitter. Challenge is a good thing.

How many sample/test knitters do you have working for you or do you do it all yourself?
I do have a couple of test knitters that help me out, but it's likely that I'll be on the hunt for more in the next year. I knit all my designs myself, often as a first crack at it and as a partnering step to writing out the pattern and thinking through the instructions.

What impact has the Internet had on your business?
It is safe to say I wouldn't have a knitting design life without the Internet. Years ago I first started reading knitting blogs and encountered knitters who were working on their own patterns and projects, and it made me think I could do the same thing. Blogging was my first entry into the knitting Internet community and is a presence I am planning to keep for a while. It is a way for me to think and write about knitting and the knitting world, and one part of that is being able to report on my designs when I complete them and make them available to the world. My patterns are almost entirely available online, through Ravelry and Patternfish, so I wouldn't have much of a design career without the Internet, that is for sure! I like that these media are available for knitters in such a user-friendly fashion.

How do you maintain your life/work balance?
If I figure that out, I'll let you know!
But seriously, folks...Well, right now, I try to do a little bit of something every day. A bit of work, a bit of exercise, a bit of knitting (sometimes more than a bit), cooking and eating food I enjoy, a bit of procrastinating...And trust that things will get done. In achieving balance as a knitter and a knitting designer, I am committed to always having something on the needles that is not of my own design. I need to always be reminded that knitting is something I enjoy and something that I continue to learn from, and it helps to not always be in charge of all the decisions that go into every project I complete.

How do you deal with criticism? 
So far, at least, I have been lucky enough not to have too many complaints - or at least, not many have been directed at me! So I am hoping that is a good thing. But I try to take concerns seriously and address them one at a time. If a knitter is struggling with something in one of my patterns, I do my best to help her out and adjust the pattern for future use, if it might help. Still, none of us can please everyone all the time, and we all do the best we can.

How long did it take for you to be able to support yourself?
Knitting design isn't something I'm able to do to support myself, at least not at the present time. But I am continuing to work at it and grow my design portfolio, and am hoping to expand further in the coming year or two. 

What advice would you give someone who wants to pursue a career in knitting?
Give it a try, keep going, and do what you enjoy.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Knitting Classes and Mindset

I read this book some time ago and I highly recommend it. I'm going to be teaching at the DKC Frolic soon so this topic is timely for anyone taking classes.
Carol Dweck says on her website: "In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort. They’re wrong. In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities."

I've realized that I fall clearly into the growth mindset. I'm always confident in my ability to learn and enjoy setting challenges for myself. I'm naturally curious and find myself playing the "What if game" whenever I'm swatching with a new yarn or stitch. 

I have also found in this past year that identifying my weaknesses has led to more growth in every area that I have pursued. I'm getting faster and better with the challenges I set myself in everything from public speaking to charting my designs and developing new ideas. At the same time I continue to search for ways to improve.

I read recently that Howard Gardner, who studies intelligence as it relates to education said that  “successful learners believe—from experience—that there is a high, if not complete, correlation between amount of sustained effort and ultimate performance.” 

In other words, practice, practice, practice! I think the difference for those that benefit from taking classes is that good learners make lots of mistakes, the same as poor learners do. However they have the ability to learn from their mistakes because they understand the advantage and don't waste time berating themselves for their failures. They just move on and do better on the next attempt.

Monday, April 18, 2011

DKC Knitter's Frolic

I'll be teaching at the Frolic again this year. Pattern Drafting Made Simple for Knitters. 

My class will be an all day event on Sunday. My focus is to give students all the skills they need to adjust existing patterns for better fit and to flatter the body. I will be covering some basic pattern drafting skills but the idea is to know enough so that you can alter a pattern, not necessarily to design from scratch. 

I'll also give you some background in understanding why patterns are written the way they are and how that knowledge will allow you to customize the fit.    

Topics include some bust and shoulder adjustments that will be new to Knitters as well as changes to length and how to correct the fit on set-in sleeves. Much of this knowledge has come to me from the years of sewing and tailoring classes in my past. 

I hope to see some of you there.

Friday, April 15, 2011

An Interview with...Anne Corcoran

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 Anne here on Ravelry  and her patterns are here.

Where do you find inspiration?
My inspiration comes from poetry, nature. I like sets. For example - the 4 seasons, the signs of the Zodiac, which I am working on now. I am also part way through an exploration of light and lace.

What is your favourite knitting technique?
I love knitting lace.

How did you determine your size range?
You don't really have worry about size with lace.

Do you look at other designers' work or are you afraid that you will be  influenced by their designs?
I have never really look at the work of others. I have to have something come together from my inspiration, the stitches, and the garment shape.

How do you feel about the so called controversy of "dumbing down" patterns for knitters?
I don't dumb down patterns. I knit in fine yarn, with fairly simple stitches and very little return row patterning.  I tend to like to keep things fairly simple anyway.

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

I have one crack test knitter who keeps me on my toes!!

Did you do a formal business plan?
No formal plan.

Do you have a business model that you have emulated?
The templates are out there of designers who have pattern lines. I just decided one day to focus on lace.

What impact has the Internet had on your business?
I could only do my business with the Internet.

Do you use a Tech Editor?
I did use a tech editor, but there were still mistakes.

How do you maintain your life/work balance?
I knit in the evening and on weekends.  I run Infiknit during the week and I cook and clean, shuttle the kids around and knit around these activities.

How do you deal with criticism?
I use to get really upset when there was an error in a pattern. One knitter was really very nasty about it - she is now my test knitter. I have decided that if this were meant to be, it will be, despite errors, set backs, criticism etc. I am a type C personality.

How long did it take for you to be able to support yourself?
Q.A. is not self-supporting yet.  It is my retirement project.

What advice would you give someone who wants to pursue a career in knitting?
Do it. Just don't quit your day job. Have a back up plan - i.e. plan to teach or something. Know that you will have to be a three-ring circus to generate any amount of a following. Which means doing what I see Mary Beth Temple doing on my Facebook wall - she tweets regularly, posts as often,does designer "spots" on audio & video. Travels all over the country, all the time - as does Lucy Neatby, Fiona Ellis, Cat Bordhi.

It is the rare designer that can just knit it and they will come, because they have to know where you are.  If you advertise, plan to spend about $10 - 20,000.00 per year on advertising and your design will have to be so good that people will come back again and again and again.

See another interview with Anne here, in which she works under her second identity as Carol Tomany.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

But is it art?

Photo courtesy of

sifis / Joseph Sakalak

I'm still thinking about the whole issue of art vs. craft and the semantics of what it all means. The original post is here

Below I've listed a few more of my rambling thoughts on this subject.

One of the definitions of art vs. craft I read, included a section that postulated that a highly intellectual explanation by the artist is what makes it art. I don't agree with this view as it means that what art is determined is by the maker not the viewer. I could come up with this type of description for many of the items I've made so that argument just doesn't make the cut for me.

I recently read about how art quilt makers are trying to distance themselves from traditional quilt makers.  It struck me that it is similar to what I see going on in Ravelry threads  over knit vs. crochet or acrylic vs. natural fibers. For whatever reason people want to separate themselves from what they view as less valuable in others. It is making me think that our view of value maybe skewing this whole discussion in a way I'm not sure is meaningful.

In the knitting community there is intense interest in male knitters and if they are gay or straight. One of the Yarn Harlot books had an essay on how things made by a male Knitter are seen as much better than items produced by women. When I read the book I mentioned in my original post about art and craft there was some discussion about the fact that it took white male artists to give fibre credibility in the art world. This leads me to believe that this an issue of gender not art . 

Women, knitting, art, any more comments???

Monday, April 11, 2011

A Field Guide to Knitters Part 2

Orenburg Shawls courtesy of Galina Khmeleva

Part 1 is here.

Part 2: a continuation of my light hearted look at Knitters. 

Lace Knitters (Lacesso knitcreo)

This species of Knitters typically works with the finest weights of yarn. They produce a large variety of projects but by far the most popular appear to be shawls.They prefer their knitting to be of the holey variety. Some show a proclivity towards highly romanticized and overly feminine pursuits as the reading of Jane Austin and Bronte sister novels. Some lace knitters specialize, focusing on Shetland, Orenburg, Estonian or more obscure lace traditions.

Habitat and range
They are now everywhere...and often sneak lace into knitting projects in whatever way they can, socks, scarves, hats and cardigans. They appear to have originated in both mainland Europe and the Shetland Islands but origination is unclear due to the fragile nature of their product.
The definition of lace knitting varies. Some Knitters make a distinction between "lace knitting" and "knit lace," saying that lace knitting is created when you have pattern rows only on the right side of the work, while knitted lace has pattern rows on every row with no resting row.Their calls often include discussions regarding the points of their needle tips. Preferences seem to be for long and pointy but materials differ widely from slick metals to stickier woods and bamboo. Forms of cast on and cast off are debated with many schools of thought. A few slip into a completely different tradition using crochet hooks to cast off.

Art Knitters ( Ars knitcreo) 

This group has a highly developed aesthetic, honed over many years of practice. Often they have experimented with many different types of materials before settling on construction techniques of knitting. They tend to forms of work that include large scale installations in public spaces. Many also utilize machine knitting due to the volume of knitting required.

Habitat and Range
Most often found in Art schools and galleries. Frequently working on or holding the designation Bachelor of Fine Arts.

Most are of a highly intellectualized variety and include a large amount of social commentary. Discussions include choice of mediums, meaning to the greater human condition as well as self expression and challenges to cultural preconceptions. Acceptance into the larger art world was relatively late in the last century and socialization with the traditional knitting world is relatively rare.
Field Guide to Knitters:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Part 4
Part 5

Friday, April 8, 2011

An Interview with...Joan Janes


Once a week I post  interviews with interesting Knitting Professionals about their insights on their experience of working in the Knitting industry.  I’ve noticed that every one of them makes their living in a slightly different manner bringing their own unique presence to the Knitting world. 

You can find Joan here.

Tell me how you got into the business of running a yarn store?
I have loved knitting and yarns since my high school days when my first summer job was in a spinning mill and salesroom.  I’ve dreamt about my own shop for years.  In fact, the name of the shop, Little Red Mitten, has been my email address since 1999 - I wanted a name that was visual, easy to remember …and easy to spell.  While living south of the border, I immersed myself in knitting correspondence courses through TKGA.  It wasn’t until we moved back to our home town in 2008 that plans started to come together.  After the local yarn shop announced that it was closing, we found our dream location (an 1842 former tearoom in the historic district of the city) and made the decision to go ahead. 
Because of my early exposure to (factory) spinning and the years that I had waited for a chance to learn to spin at a wheel, I decided to carry spinning supplies and small looms for people with desire, but little opportunity.  

How long have you been in business?
Little Red Mitten opened in February 2009, so it has been just over two years.

Do you run the store by yourself or do you have employees, if you do how many people work at your shop?
I don’t think this is something that one could do all on her own.  I’ve been fortunate to find several good people to work in the shop, and my husband, Matt, helps look after the office, the computers and the building.

How did you choose the yarns that you carry in your shop?
My goal is to provide a selection that appeals to a wide range of people with different tastes, requirements and budgets.  I carry mostly natural fibres but also have good quality acrylic blends.  I have many standard, well-known yarns plus I love to carry exciting hand dyed yarns from smaller companies and individuals.  I discovered some of my favourites while working in a yarn shop in South Dakota (a few blocks from Knitter’s Magazine ‘headquarters’) and I’ve spent years absorbing ideas from books, magazines and the Internet.

What have you done to create a sense of community in your store?To encourage people to sit, knit and relax, Little Red Mitten has a comfortable, bright community room with lots of seating …and a coffee machine.  We have two very popular, weekly knitting groups on Wednesday afternoons and Friday evenings.  We regularly share info about knitting for various charities, and always seem to have something interesting on the go - we've even knitted a scarf for the Jumbo monument down the street from us!  To help customers plagued by “stash guilt,” we accept their bags of unwanted yarns and donate them to schools, seniors’ homes and charity knitters.  We also have occasional contests so that knitters can inspire each other, and show newer knitters what is possible with two sticks and some string.

Teddies for Tragedies

Mitten Contest

Jumbo with scarf

What is the biggest lesson running a yarn shop has taught you?
I have learned that it takes a lot of energy and a lot of different people to make a business successful.  Little Red Mitten is based on providing good service and good products so that customers can be successful and satisfied with their finished products.  We rely on our staff, teachers and suppliers to focus on making and keeping the customer happy.

What is your favorite part of what you do running the shop?
Teaching was my main reason for opening Little Red Mitten.  Helping knitters understand what they are doing, learn how to solve their problems and then see the logic in knitting always makes me smile inside.
Getting to know visitors and trying to brighten their day, just a bit, is a personal goal.  (Having lived in several communities for short periods, I know how nice it is to be recognized by a friendly person.)

Did you do a formal business plan?
Yes, my husband insisted on this!   
Did you take any courses in how to run a business before you opened?
Yes – a very brief one called “Starting Your Own Business” at the local Business Resource Centre.

What impact has the Internet had on your business?
Many people find and contact us because of the Internet but this is still a small portion of our business.  One of my goals is to have more of my patterns available online. 

How do you maintain your life/work balance?
Is that possible?  I aspire to having more free time …to knit, design, plan classes and, oh yes, relax.  It’s great when you love your work!

How long did it take for you to be able to support yourself?
I am happy that I can employ some wonderful women …and my husband is my best supporter!
What advice would you give someone who wants to pursue a career in running a yarn store?
It can be a very fulfilling way to spend your time since knitters are such wonderful people.  If you are a very focused person, the shop can become your life.  So stay healthy and force yourself to take a break, maybe even doing something other than knitting …at least, once in a while.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Why Clothes are Important...More on Body Image and Knitters

Nancy Etcoff of Harvard in her book Survival of the Prettiest says that “appearance is the most public part of the self the visible self that the world assumes to be a mirror of the invisible inner self.

I think that in general we don’t take clothes seriously enough. We think fashion is frivolous yet all human societies have adorned themselves in some way. We are rarely naked in our day to day life. We let the homeless live on our streets but if they take off their clothing they get arrested.

Fashion gets covered by every news source in print, TV and on their websites. Appearance is so important that it shows up on the diagnostic lists of mental health professionals for both depression and dementia. Our clothing signals our place in the world. We judge others quickly by how they are dressed because until they start to speak that is often the only clue. Friends tell me stories about their little kids becoming hysterical when their clothing choices are thwarted. Teenagers have to have the “right”, “cool” or “in” item and without it it’s a blow to their self esteem. When we send our children to schools that have them wear uniforms the first thing the kids do is personalize their outfit in some way by modifying it. I’ve been on the subway with uniformed Catholic schoolgirls and while they are all wearing the same basic clothing they have all made it different in one way or another. Parents, teenagers and schools all fight about what the kids wear. 

There are non-verbal messages given by clothing that range from Boobs = Bimbo and glasses that make you look smarter and we all know what hooker clothing looks like. Yet often we are in denial about our own appearance - we say we want to be comfortable or that clothes shouldn’t matter.

Clothes are associated with rebellion, from the 60’s hippies to punks, Goths, beatniks, hip hops and all sorts of political, social and cultural groups. Each one of those words conjures up a strong visual image for us all. 

Most importantly we tell others what to think of us with our clothing and often we send the wrong message. People are judged by how they look. If I had turned up inappropriately dressed at a speaking event the audience members would have looked at me and thought to themselves “That’s tonight’s speaker? I’m also pretty sure that they wouldn’t think "HUMMMM she'd be a lot more attractive if she just dressed better so I'm going to focus on her inner beauty". 

We all make assumptions about others based on their appearance. Clothing is like the interior of your home people make judgments based on what they see but those judgments are more about your values than they are about your square footage or the colour of the walls. The body is just a container like your house is. If you go in see a lot of clutter, its dirty or everything is shabby we make judgments about the value people hold for their own home. If you see people dressed with no thought to their appearance we make a judgment that they don't value themselves and consequently we stereotypically don't value them either.

Clothes = Social communication

I think that others are often not reacting to how you look they are reacting to what your look says about how you value yourself and using that as a clue to how they should value you. We all have a list of flaws that make us feel self - conscious, everyone focuses on what they think is wrong with their bodies rather than on their clothing and I think that’s a mistake.

Clothes Matter!  A friend told me a story a while ago. She and her boss interviewed 6 people for a position in her firm. All 6 were equally qualified so they were looking for a good fit with the team. A couple of months later I asked how the new hire was working out? My friend told me things were OK they had the usual learning curve issues at first and then she said but there was one really strange thing that happened. I asked “what’? And she told me they were really surprised to see that their new employee was quite a large lady, neither of them even noticed during the interview! She did tell me as well that the new hire is beautifully and appropriately dressed for work. That story tells me that people are not always judging you for your physical flaws but for your appearance in the bigger sense. And they do it fast, in the moment, and then move on. Seeing only the negatives is something we do to ourselves.

Friday, April 1, 2011

An Interview with...Jen Hagan

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 Jen here.

Where do you find inspiration?
Inspiration for knitting designs can come from all over the place and sometimes when you least expect it, like when simply trying to relax and enjoy a movie with my husband at home on the couch. I keep a little sketchbook handy for times like these. Sometimes I’ll see a garment in a movie and a whole other idea will come from it. It can be inspired by a detail in the garment or just the mood of the film. I have purposely put on movies from the 30’s and 40’s while knitting or crocheting for this reason. Some of my designs are inspired by garments I want and can’t find or that I haven’t seen already made. Other times, I am most inspired by stitch patterns and the yarn itself. I love perusing stitch dictionaries. So many options! One way that I tone down the choices is by only using stitch patterns that work well together, not throwing them in willy nilly. I also try to pay attention to fashion. I’ll periodically plow through a stack of fashion magazines, taking this detail or that and asking myself how I can apply it to knitting design. 

What is your favourite knitting technique?
Cables have always been one of my favorite knitting techniques. They take so many forms that I could honestly only design with cables and never run out of ideas, but I wouldn’t really want to limit myself and couldn’t. I enjoy experimenting with almost all types of knitting and crochet and want to keep adding to my skills, so I’ll try anything!
How did you determine your size range?
I like to include sizes for very small women on up to larger sizes for women who have fewer options. They are the ones least represented by the ready-to-wear industry and are sometimes making custom garments for themselves just like I am. Everything in between is naturally included, and as long as I’m grading the pattern or multiple sizes, why not? I like to include at least ten sizes in every pattern, but that can be limited by stitch pattern. The smaller the stitch repeat, the more this is possible. I’m having fun right now experimenting with structure more than with stitch pattern, however. I am studying top-down sweater construction and all the many forms it can take. This all makes it even more possible to include a wide size range.
Do you look at other designers' work or are you afraid that you will be influenced by their designs?
I don’t really worry about being influenced by others’ designs, but rather am highly inspired by looking at others’ work. Sometimes I will buy someone else’s pattern to learn from them, but I am too strong-minded to be swayed into copying someone’s design and believe whole-heartedly in being true to myself and my vision. Besides, I have so many ideas already, with more coming on a steady basis, that there's no need to look elsewhere.

How do you feel about the so called controversy of "dumbing down" patterns for knitters?
Coming from an educational background, I feel that I am in a position to teach something with my patterns. I try to include all the steps needed to work my designs, but that is with the goal of keeping instructions clear. I also want anyone who uses the pattern to have at least a fighting chance of completing the project. This only applies to my own published patterns,  because freelance patterns often come out much shortened and sometimes changed in the process. I don’t have much control over that. I completely understand the argument, however, about how we pattern writers these days hold the knitter’s hand too much and train them to expect this instead of leading them to do more thinking and planning of the project on their own. I own and love all of the Elizabeth Zimmerman and Barbara G. Walker books and those such as Knitting in the Old Way by Priscilla Gibson-Roberts and Deborah Robson. I wish I could be that brave and simply give the knitter the bones of the project and say, “Go! I’ve given you a starting point, so now you take it from there.” I keep the image in my mind of the knitter who has already put in a brain-grinding day at work and just wants to relax in the evening or during the weekend with a project that already has all the difficulties figured out for him or her. Then he or she can just relax and trust the pattern and enjoy the craft. I think it’s my job to create that pattern and I keep trying to learn how to do this better all the time. Feedback from knitters, whether through e-mail or in classes I teach, can help greatly with this, especially when it’s given respectfully and in a positive manner.
How many sample/test knitters do you have working for you or do you do it all yourself?
When my wholesale pattern business was at its peak, I had about six sample knitters working with me and as many testing. These days I am making most of the samples myself and only paying for testing and editing. Like so many other businesses, I have had to trim the budget lately.
Did you do a formal business plan?
I have always had an informal business plan which changes all the time. I would never recommend that anyone do a business like I have done this one. I’m going to be honest, because it may help someone. It doesn’t really do anyone any good to perpetuate myths. I only knew starting out that I love this craft, but not enough to want to be a production maker. My husband and I could see that, for us, creating patterns was far better than making product. I set about learning to write knitting patterns by creating designs based on what I liked and then painfully learning how to write the instructions. I used to teach writing—how hard could this be? Very hard, that’s what. It’s very hard to do it right. But, I am a good researcher and self-learner so I know how to find the necessary information to get the job done. As soon as I realized that I needed to become a professional, I joined the Association of Knitwear Designers (AKD) and was encouraged to submit designs for publication. Truly, being self-published has its limits. You learn more by collaboration. While I was still trying to figure all this out, I was approached by a few people with requests to expand. I didn’t know that I could say no. I thought I had to say yes to everything or risk the parade passing me by. Some of these decisions were made before I was ready, which can force you to grow, and that happened for me. Some of these decisions can get you in over your head, which also happened for me. For about three years, I was just peddling as fast as I could and trying to keep up. Last year, because of the economy and because of some personal decisions, things slowed down a bit. I’m actually sort of glad—it gives me a chance to rethink and learn better how to do my job.
Do you have a mentor?
As an AKD member, I had a mentor in Jackie Erickson-Schweizer (HeartStrings FiberArts) and she was a terrific help to me. I also made many friends of fellow designers through AKD and in other lists and forums. I have a nice group of people with whom I can discuss issues encountered in this business. We bounce off one another and that helps tremendously. I am very fortunate to have a small network of generous, big-hearted folks to call on.
Do you have a business model that you have emulated?

I think you can tell by my previous answers that I am making this up as I go. However, these days I am paying more attention. When I see someone who’s successful in what I want to do, I note what they’re doing. I might take a small piece of what they do and adapt it for my business. Mainly, though, I keep brainstorming about ways to do things differently than anyone else.
What impact has the Internet had on your business?
I don’t think there’s a designer/pattern writer who can’t say their business has been affected by the Internet. On the one hand, it has given us access to such a wealth of talent. I am amazed every day by what knitters and designers envision and create. On the other hand, I think it makes everyone a “designer.” Some people are writing patterns without having put in the time and hard work of learning how to do it well. There is a difference. These days, anyone can write a pattern and put it up for sale online. The buyer really has no way of knowing if they are getting a well-written pattern or one that has just been thrown together, sometimes without having been tested, let alone edited. Granted, there isn’t a huge investment in trying out a pattern. What you really want, though, is to have that pattern be so good that the knitter comes back for more. I would never put a pattern up for sale until someone else works through it. Even though I know how to write, I make crazy mistakes.
Do you use a Tech Editor?
Always. I work with two tech editors. Any pattern of mine up for sale has been professionally edited. Sometimes they have been edited numerous times. These days I usually ask one of my editors to check a pattern before I send it to the tester. Then after the pattern is tested, we do another check before publishing.

How do you maintain your life/work balance?

That’s a tough one. I went through a complete rethinking of this issue during the middle of last year. I had a tough business experience during the first half of 2010 and had to take a month off the reassess just what this was doing to my life as a whole. I had just spent something like four years with my head down totally working my a** off, barely taking any time off at all and I still wasn’t making a living. It took something really almost devastating to my business to make me see that I had to return to a more balanced life. My mantra has become, “Work smarter, not harder.” I had to let go of some very stubborn personal notions about quality and commitment and realize that I was not only cheating myself but cheating my husband and the rest of my family. I had to realize that I could slow down and still do a good job.My office is in my home, so it’s very hard not to work all the time. I have had to make some new rules, like turning off the computer at 5 P.M. and most weekends not even turning it on to begin with. I have even started allowing myself to do personal knitting and crocheting some weekends and some days none at all. In the past few months I have done more knitting for my family, especially my grandkids. I have to let myself be okay with projects for work taking longer. Quality of life is more important.
How do you deal with criticism?
When I first started my business I didn’t take this very well, I must admit. I had to get my confidence built stronger before I learned to see criticism for what it is—just one person’s opinion. I have since learned to look at it more objectively. I have to take every bit of feedback and ask myself which is worthy of attention. Unfortunately, most criticism comes from this knitter or that knitter who is very frustrated, either from getting into a project over his or her skill level or from not reading the pattern thoroughly enough before getting in a snit about it. I honestly wish every knitter would read and research the question more before firing off an e-mail to any of us pattern writers. Then after trying to find the answer on their own, I wish the disgruntled would at least frame the question politely and in a respectful format. I wish you could see some of the e-mails I get. Some of them look like the person is drunk and fell on the keyboard. Don’t misunderstand—I don’t get tons of these, but it only takes one to ruin your moment. I no longer let them ruin even a whole day. Another type of criticism I see is through comments left on Ravelry, whether in the notes on his or her project page or in forums. People, listen. We can see these. Imagine that you are in the room with me. In fact, imagine that we are sitting around a table knitting together. Would you choose your words differently? Enough said.
How long did it take for you to be able to support yourself?
I’m still trying to get there. I have already cashed out my IRA from my teaching years and if it weren’t for my husband believing in me and paying far too many of the bills around here I would not be doing what I do. It remains to be seen how long I will be able to keep doing it fulltime.

What advice would you give someone who wants to pursue a career in knitting?
Don’t quit your “real” job. Expect change and lots of it. This business does not pay well and it changes all the time. Be steadfastly true to yourself, carve out your own niche, and become the best you can at that. If you really love what you do, be willing to adapt and never, ever give up.”