Friday, November 9, 2012

An Interview with...Larissa Brown

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 Larissa here and here on Ravelry.

Where do you find inspiration?
I'm drawn to repetitive patterns and bright or especially tenderly soft colors all around, in everyday things. I also look at yarn a lot. I just put it on the table while I'm working on something else and look at it out of the corner of my eye. I get ideas from its texture and the way it catches light. Finally, I love old stitch dictionaries. The most groovy one in my collection is the Monarch Illustrated Guide to Knitting by Pam Dawson. **

This year, I'm especially inspired by an exciting and very personally moving project--a novel I'm writing. It takes place in the 900s in Iceland, and my research for that book--including a recent trip to Iceland--has led to a new collection of shawls and wraps that I just started publishing. ***

The collection will come out progressively over the next 12 months. As I'm writing the novel, I'm also sketching and swatching. The first shawl in the series, called From the Fields, was created after I researched cutting an acre of grass by hand with a scythe. A cabled shawl is coming up, based on one of my characters and using some Einband yarn I bought in Reykjavik.



How did you determine your size range?
I create mostly accessories, so the sizes are less exacting and the range is more limited than a garment designer. Wrists don't vary that much! Scarves and shawls are easily adjustable by the knitter. I encourage knitters to consider what they want and many of my patterns are designed specifically to be adjustable for any yarn and any finished size.
(c) Michael Crouser

Do you look at other designers' work or are you afraid that you will be influenced by their designs?
I love looking at other designers' work. It's inspiring and thought provoking. I am glad to be influenced by my accomplished peers, in spirit, creativity and quality of execution. I aspire to (and do think I mostly achieve) the quality of knitting, photographs and pattern design that I see around me on Pinterest, Ravelry, Craftsy, and in person when I meet with other designers. Talking in person about our work is really exciting and motivating. I love to hang out and discuss what we have going on behind the scenes. I'm fortunate to have friendships with many successful and creative designers.

How do you feel about the so called controversy of "dumbing down" patterns for knitters?
I believe the more one tries to explain a simple thing, the harder it gets to understand. There is a point at which more specificity and instruction in a pattern gets more confusing.

I try to consider who is going to knit a particular design. Is it a super easy pattern but might attract complete beginners? Is it an intermediate pattern that beginners probably won't approach? There is a balance between providing a pattern that can be used by people on each end of the probable spectrum.

I define a pattern as the instructions to make a particular design. It may include instructions to make variations, but basically it's the "how-to" document for XX scarf or YY hat. The necessary skills and techniques to make that item are something best learned outside of a pattern document. For example, learning to form simple cables should be accomplished by reading, taking a class, learning from a friend, at a LYS, etc.

Whenever possible I have more than one person--sometimes dozens--test a pattern. I get a lot of feedback on whether I've given too much or not enough detail. If the pattern includes a potentially new technique, I do
not try to teach the technique in the pattern, but I will include links to online videos or articles as reference. ****

All that said, I think it's very frustrating for me (and perhaps other designers) when we receive questions for support that are actually from people who need a basic knitting class, reference book or multiplication table. In particular, many of my peers and I have noticed that free patterns create this kind of demand. "How many do I cast on if I want this to be an inch bigger? I'd like an answer today. I'm waiting." (No please or thanks, and no kidding, this was a real note for one of my very simplest patterns.)

**** Only in one of my e-books do I provide some math direction so that a knitter can use my table to create any size and design of bonnet. (That e-book is called Bonnet Love.) And in one pattern I walk through the way to make a Latvian Braid because I use an unusual method from Anna Zilboorg's books, which are somewhat rare and can be hard to find.
(c) Michael Crouser

How many sample/test knitters do you have working for you or do you do it all yourself?
I'm a slow knitter, but fast at thinking up new ideas for patterns! So it's been crucial for me to gather knitters. I have about six people I can regularly call to make the samples seen in my photographs, and another six or more that I can beg.

Test knitting is a different thing altogether. Test knitting is not focused on creating the sample to be photographed. It helps determine if a pattern is fun and understandable by knitters. When I do a test knit, I usually introduce it as a knit-a-long on my Ravelry group. There I can get anywhere from five to 20 knitters to make their own and tell me how it goes. For my first book, Knitalong, I had 100 or more people make some of those patterns. 

Do you use a tech editor?
Related to the above question, test knitting is not the same as tech editing. A test knitter may tell me things like, This yarn is irritating to work with and doesn't show off the stitch pattern, or I don't get the idea of this shape! A technical editor will catch an error like, You note your increases take place on the RS, but they don't, they take place on the WS. They find mistakes and inconsistencies.

And yes, I do work with a tech editor unless the pattern is dead simple. Her name is Katherine Vaughan, and she's great.

Did you do a formal business plan?
No, but very recently my husband has been using SPSS (a program for statistical analysis) to analyze my sales data and I've done some research into where I want to go next.  

Do you have a mentor?
I have many people I look up to and whose standards I try to emulate. In particular, my editor Melanie Falick, who I pretty much believe to be infallible. Her sense of design and her standards have really defined how I work. From her, I've learned about how to work professionally with a designer, photographer or publisher and lived through making tough decisions about things that didn't rise to our acceptable standard or weren't right for publication. In fact, I think that because I worked with Melanie first before any other publisher or editor, I now have some very high expectations of publishers of my patterns when they appear in books and magazines.

What impact has the Internet had on your business?
It is my business. I don't sell patterns anywhere else, and even my first book was about Internet knit-a-longs.

How long did it take for you to be able to support yourself?
Hah! In good months, my design business pays for our groceries (which is considerable, since we really like good wine and expensive coffee.) But I don't make anywhere near the income I would need to support my family. This is a labor of love, at least at this time. It would be wonderful if I could reach a tipping point where my designs sold thousands of copies reliably.
(c) Michael Crouser

What advice would you give someone who wants to pursue a career in knitting? 
Absorb everything you can and be an avid collector of images, yarns and other inspiration. Knit a lot of swatches with many different yarns, take a lot of photographs of anything that looks cool to you.

When you have sketched and swatched and designed a couple early things, then apply to magazines with your designs. Maybe try those where you can submit a proposal and don't have to complete the project on spec, to give yourself the experience of taking one idea through concept, sketching, swatching and describing it to other people on paper.

And don't  worry about copying other designers. Look long and hard at the designs of those you love. (I think of this as akin to worrying about getting bulky if you work out too much. Hah, I should be so lucky.)

Finally, don't expect to make a living at least for a good while, and make sure your plan is diverse. I think the designers who make a living at knitting do other things besides designing and writing books, such as teaching classes all over the country and developing their own yarn lines. Some have branched out beyond that, too, like Leigh Radford's beautiful line of ceramic cups. I don't think that for more than 90% of independent designers, patterns alone will be your whole career and entire business.  

(c) Michael Crouser


  1. Thank you, Robin, you've made me look so intelligent! I really appreciate this opportunity. And I love how you closed with the shot of my sweet boy.