Friday, January 27, 2012

An Interview with...Michelle Porter

Michelle in Fondle Pattern 311 Cable V-neck Vest

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. Michelle says that 
initially, she began a career in fashion merchandising. However, her real love has always been knitting. As a young child her grandmother taught her the basics of the craft. She learned to follow complicated patterns for doll clothes and advanced her skills very quickly. Since those days she has worked in yarn stores, owned a yarn store, worked for a yarn distributor, taught lessons, wrote knitting patterns and now she designs and writes patterns for her own line.

You can find Michelle here

Where do you find inspiration?
Inspiration is the most exciting part of designing! It can come at anytime, anyplace – so I always keep a small pocket sketchpad with me for quick notes and drawings. I love to look through fashion magazines and insider reports to see what is trending. I’ll go to stores to see what they are trying to sell and I ask my friends what they are looking for, to buy or to knit. Mostly I try to design things I or someone I know would wear. Once I have lots of notes on possible designs, then I go to the yarns and wait for them to tell me what they want to be. Sometimes I buy bags of yarns that I just like the look or feel of. Other times I’m given certain yarns by the supplier. Either way, it’s the fondling of the yarn that tells me what to make. I do a lot of swatching and mock ups to work out the suitability of designs to the yarn’s qualities and textures. For example, is the yarn slinky and drapey, or is there a lot of body and elasticity? Is the yarn built for outerwear or evening wear? Does it have good stitch definition or a halo of fluff? Sometimes I have to change my design concepts for the chosen yarns, once I really begin working on it full scale. I guess you could say each yarn’s own personality is my inspiration.

What is your favourite knitting technique?
It’s easier to list my least favourite techniques. I do not enjoy intarsia, or stranded colour work that involves more than 2 colours at a time. I enjoy an easy rhythmic flow to my knitting with pattern repeats that can be learned quickly. I usually choose textured stitches that use the features of the yarn to its best advantage. I also have no favourite construction method; seams vs. no seams, top up, top down or sideways – I use them all. I do especially like clever shortcuts and so called “thinking outside the box”. It’s still thrilling to invent or be taught a new way of doing things.

How did you determine your size range?
I am constantly adjusting my size range, based on each individual design. Mostly I design garments that need to fit a certain way – some tight, some loose, so I usually give my patterns 6 sizes: small to 3X-large. This gives the knitter a lot of choices. Also I describe in the pattern how the garment should fit and the intended ease. I give as many finished measurements as I feel are relevant. After working in a retail fashion environment for years (visual merchandiser and fashion consultant), you get to know what kinds of fit people need. Most folks choose sizes too big for themselves. Once you choose the chest measurement, the sleeves and shoulders are the hardest to fit. I try to allow places in the design for you to make adjustments for your individual sleeve and body lengths. If you find shoulders seldom fit, then choosing raglan styles will help out. Basically I try to fit as many common sizes as possible, even though we all know there is no such thing as an “average” body shape.

Do you look at other designers’ work or are you afraid that you will be influenced by their designs?
Oh, I am always interested in other designers’ work! I buy most of the knitting magazines and although I can’t remember the last pattern I knit from one, I read almost all the directions through. I often wonder why they choose to use certain techniques or yarns. I like to see how the instructions are worded and whether a chart is needed. I admit it can be frustrating though, when you see a really close resemblance to the design you have been working on for months, get published by someone else. But these consistencies in design and fashion are always happening. It’s just a reflection of the trends. That’s why when you shop at the mall; all the stores are selling something similar. We like to think we are immune to this in the knitting industry, but how else could you explain the universal popularity of such items as: ponchos, cowls, infinity scarves, fingerless mitts, ruffle scarves, lace shawls and wildly coloured socks? It’s funny though, lately these items have influenced commercially manufactured clothing, rather than the other way around, as it was in the past. I think most designers are influenced by other designers, whether they are going along with the crowd or against it. And it’s important to know what else is out there. You need to know if you are filling a niche or if your designs are even of interest to anyone else.

How do you feel about the so called controversy of “dumbing down” patterns for knitters?
I hope I’m not offending too many knitters out there, but I try to write my patterns for real dummies! I also include myself in this group! If there is any way to miss-read, miss-interpret, count wrong, or measure wrong – I will find it! So, I try to include stitch counts whenever it changes and describe exactly where you are measuring. I remember to state which needles you are using and if increases and decreases are done in pattern, how and where. I hope all the questions are answered on the pattern, with no ambiguity. I feel all patterns should include a difficulty rating and “beginner” patterns should really include nearly everything.”Experienced” patterns can get away with less detailed explanations and an assumption of a degree of knowledge. Every pattern should include a tension gauge done in the stitch pattern used and an abbreviations key. I do try to keep my patterns for yarn companies to 3 pages, though, so it can be printed easily on a folded sheet. For my Fondle Patterns collection, I make them as many pages as I need and include several photographs. I also like to use a flat photo of the sample garment (not on a model) to help with the construction. Sometimes my blog has more photos and notes than the pattern. If a knitter still has questions, I am very happy to answer by email.

How many sample/test knitters do you have working for you or do you do it all yourself?
I mostly do all the knitting myself. It’s hard to do all that developing without actually knitting it. I do have one knitter that I can use who instinctively knows what I’m after and how to read my vague instructions and interpret my sketches. She is very good at finding problems and questionable bits of instruction. As good a friend as her, that I know I can count on to meet deadlines, is one of my most valuable resources!

Do you have a mentor?
I can’t say that I have just one mentor, but I have had many. There have been some very precious women friends in my life whose own experiences have helped me in my career path. Their advice and encouragement has been and is priceless. Whenever I run into an obstacle, I know someone in my “circle” has already dealt with something similar.

Do you have a business model that you have emulated?
Not really, other than following the old quote “do what you love; the rest (money) will follow”. I also think being honest and sincere will pay off. I don’t believe in “putting on airs” or pretentiousness. I’ll always give my true opinion...sometimes even if you didn’t ask.

What impact has the Internet had on your business?
Fondle Patterns is an internet business. I do all my direct selling of PDFs on my website through email or Ravelry. I sell through Patternfish. I also do all my correspondence with the yarn suppliers like Diamond Yarn, through email and websites. Paypal and internet banking are crucial for the financial transactions that make an internet business possible. Facebook, blogs and Ravelry are essential to share our work. Without the world wide web of knitters my knitting circle would only number in the handfuls. Now I can be reached by anybody, anywhere! For me (and I expect most), the internet is essential!

Do you use a Tech Editor?
I actually do some tech editing work myself and it really requires a disciplined amount of concentration. In the past I have used a good friend who is an expert knitter to “proofread” my patterns. She also test knits bits and pieces, critiques and makes recommendations. I’m not sure I’ll be able to get her help in the future, so I’m working on a deal with another designer, that we tech edit each others. It is very hard to find someone else who can knit and read patterns at the level required to tech edit…and is also available and affordable.

How do you maintain your life/work balance?
My lifestyle suits my design career very well. There is only my husband and myself, no kids or pets. I am constantly knitting and designing, even as I do housework or entertain friends. Most of my social activities already revolve around knitting, so no one is surprised when I pull knitting out of my bag at a party or camping trip. I sometimes knit all night long, if I’m on a roll or a tight deadline. Sleeping ‘till noon and working in my pajamas aren’t a problem. Neither is drinking cocktails and watching DVDs while I work. I still find time to go to the gym once in a while and pursue my hobbies of gardening and doll restoration (knitting counts as work). I’m happy to say my husband is very supportive and proudly wears his handknits!

How do you deal with criticism?
Without truthful criticism, there is no way to improve, so I welcome it! When I was in art school we did a critique on every piece of work, without showing our names, so we wouldn’t be swayed by whose work it was. This exercise was really helpful to get us used to receiving criticism and giving it out. It’s helpful to think of criticism as another word – “feedback”.

What advice would you give someone who wants to pursue a career in knitting?
To avoid being a “one hit wonder”, you really need to have experience in all aspects of the knitting industry. You need to know customers, yarn and selling. Then you have to find your niche. You have to consistently do it well and offer customer support. You also need a reliable secondary income, while you are getting established. A big dose of self confidence is also crucial!


  1. All your designs are versitile and all your models are beautiful and look great in the style they are wearing - I especially like the classic mens V neck vest - very nice and comfy cozy, I think I got a new knitting project now for Februaty.

  2. The v-neck is nice, but that purple, split sleeve tunic is awesome!