Friday, December 28, 2012

An Interview with...Margaret Radcliffe

Photo copyright Mars Vilaubi

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

You can find Margaret here and here on Ravelry.

Where do you find inspiration?

Because I am a “process” knitter, I tend to take inspiration from the integration of structure and detail in a knitted garment. First I’ll get an inkling of a way to use a technique I’ve been exploring in some new way, I’ll fiddle with it, and eventually I will end up with a complete project.  For example, lately I’ve been playing with bindings which enclose the edge, and collars, and plan to work on some tailored jacket-type sweaters where the cardigan front is finished inside and out along the front bands and the neck edge is finished inside and out where it meets the collar.  I can envision playing with both color and with texture in these jackets, so there’s no telling how wide a range of designs will come of this.  For me, at this point in my career, it’s all about the details.

What is your favourite knitting technique? 

I can’t say that I have one.  I tend to work for an extended time with one technique, and then to want to do something entirely different.  If I’ve been working a lot with color, I’ll suddenly feel the urge to make a creamy cabled sweater in natural wool.  If you do need a straight answer on this, I find that I love working stranded or Fair Isle knitting, because it is such an efficient and flexible use of knitting as a medium

How did you determine your size range? 

I assume you are asking about the size range for my Maggie’s Rags line of knitting patterns.  I try to make the range as wide as possible so long as the proportions of the garment will work in the particular design.  For example, a garment for an adult with a strong diagonal motif will not look at all the same in a very large size, where the length and width of the front are almost equal, as it does in a smaller size where the length is longer than the width.  I also determine the size range based on the age group the sweater would appeal to.  Some of my children’s sweaters would appeal to pre-school to early elementary and are sized to fit that age group.  The one occasion where I made a bad decision was on my Orca Mittens, which I assumed should be sized for children.  I got so many requests for adult sizes that I added notes on how to adjust them on my web site.

Photo copyright Margaret Radcliffe

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

I’m not afraid to be influenced by other designers’ work.  I find it very interesting to see the wide variations in how we apply the same techniques.  What I do fear is that I’ll see a design so similar to one I am already working on that I will be accused of copying, even though I developed it independently. Because I do very little design work now (most of my time is focused on teaching and writing books and articles), this really isn’t a big issue for me.

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

I must confess, wasn’t aware that there was a controversy.  I do think there are some issues with what editors are willing to accept.  For many magazines and books, there are space limitations that don’t allow for the explanation of unfamiliar techniques within a pattern.  In these cases, the editor has to make a decision about what to accept, always keeping in mind the work’s customer base.  If a book or magazine is intended to appeal to a wide range of knitters, from beginners up, they have to be careful not to put off their customers.  On the other hand, in cases like this, it would be nice to see an attempt to help knitters learn new approaches by including an article on the unfamiliar technique or construction, to support a pattern using it in the same issue.  I think that everyone would gain from this.  I have a regular column focused on technique in Knit ‘N Style magazine, and even so I am frustrated sometimes by how little I can cover in the space allotted.  Since I self-publish my patterns, “dumbing down” doesn’t apply to my own designs—I try to make the pattern only as detailed as necessary to convey what needs to be done and frequently include tips and hints on how to accomplish what’s specified in the instructions.

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

I currently have one working for me on a regular basis.  For my patterns, which as I said are not my current focus, I would knit at least one sample myself as part of the pattern writing process, and then have at least one person test the more complex designs in a different size than I had knit. I have found that not all test knitters are as good at detecting problems in the writing as I am, possibly because they are too good at knitting!  Sometimes, without realizing it, they adjust for problems that might have stymied a less assured knitter

Did you do a formal business plan?

Not really, but I did come up with a model.  I wanted a business that would not run me into debt, that would not require me to deal with payroll or employment issues (because simply learning and complying with ever-changing laws will eat up all your time), and that would be flexible enough to evolve over the years so I wouldn’t become bored, This dictated that I would be not only the owner but the sole employee and that there must be low overhead. My overhead is minimal since I work out of my home. I also wanted the business to grow slowly, both so that I wouldn’t rack up a lot of debt and so that I wouldn’t be driven crazy trying to keep up. Growing slowly also makes it possible for the business to be flexible, because you don’t have so much money tied up in products that you cant afford to move on to something more interesting and more lucrative.  It also made it possible for me to do this part time so that I could spend more time with my children while they were growing up. Over the last 15 years, I’ve moved profitably from pattern publishing, to teaching, to technical and copy editing, to writing, so I guess my business model worked.

Do you have a mentor? 

No. Unless you count Elizabeth Zimmermann’s books.

Photo copyright Margaret Radcliffe

Tell me a little about your latest book on circular knitting. 

The book is called Circular Knitting Workshop, is published by Storey Publishing, and was released in March 2012. It’s a bit of a departure from my two earlier books, The Knitting Answer Book and The Essential Guide to Color Knitting Techniques. They are reference books, focused purely on technique,  bits and pieces you could use in your knitted projects. 

Circular Knitting Workshop differs in that it’s focused instead on structures. It’s based on a firm foundation of techniques (the first three chapters are ALL about techniques as they apply to circular knitting), and there’s one chapter dedicated to converting flat patterns for circular knitting, but the rest of the book is about how to make things circularly.  This is done through a series of projects that showcase the flexibility of circular knitting, the kind of project that I would use in teaching a workshop on the subject.

It starts out easy with simple, unshaped tubes to make a variety of things like hats, headbands, hand warmers, and bags. Each subsequent chapter builds on the earlier ones, working through shaping different kinds of hats and bags, socks (with several heels and toes), shawls and scarves (learning to make flat things circularly, mittens and gloves, vests and sweaters.  In every project, there are instructions for just one size, with notes on how to make it any size, and notes on how to make it in the opposite directions (i.e. from the top down versus bottom up, or from the perimeter to the center versus center out.)  Within each chapter, the projects move from basic to complex.  The final sweater in the book is knit sideways, with a steek for the bottom and the neck opening!

The most important thing that people should understand about this book is that it’s not a pattern book, but a group of small projects designed to familiarize you with techniques and approaches that may be unfamiliar.  Then, you can take you new skills and apply them to everything you knit in the future.

Do you use a tech editor? 

I do not use a tech editor for my patterns.  Since I am also an experienced knitting tech editor, I set them aside for a few weeks, then read them and knit sections based on the garment to insure that they are correct.

All of my books have three levels of editing: the project editor (who oversees the content, illustrations, layout, etc., and supervises the other editors), the tech editor (who insures that the knitting instructions are as correct and as clear as possible), and the copy editor (who is responsible for correcting misspellings, punctuation, and making the text adhere to the publisher’s standards).

How do you maintain your life/work balance? 

I don’t!  It’s a constant struggle to make time for work, or when I’m overwhelmed by work to make time for the rest of my life. I do try to set reasonable deadlines, not promising anything that I know I can’t deliver in the time allowed, but I am in crisis mode on both fronts more often than I’d like. On the other hand, I’m never bored!

Photo copyright Margaret Radcliffe

How do you deal with criticism? 

It’s always saddening to know that someone doesn’t like your work.  I tend to react emotionally first, so I wait for that feeling to die down and then try to evaluate the criticism rationally.  Sometimes, the complaint is that I didn’t do or include something that I intentionally (for very good reasons) decided against.  In that case, all you can do is shrug and bear it.  Other times, the criticism is unreasonable, and there’s really nothing you can do about it but move on.  Sometimes the criticism is spot on, and I take it into consideration, improving my course materials, correcting an inaccuracy or confusing statement in a pattern, or reporting the problem to my editor for inclusion in future printings of a book.

I feel that it’s most important to turn out work that you yourself respect and, if you have colleagues or peers that you trust and respect, to value their opinions equally with your own.

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

My professional knitting activities are only part of the portfolio of work that I do, so I can’t pretend that they support me entirely.  I’d say they make up about 50% at this point, and that I reached this level of profitability after about 7 years, but you must remember that my plan was to grow the business slowly.  I feel I’ve met my goals because I’ve made good profits in all but two years at the very beginning and my business continues to grow.

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

Be aware before you begin that the needs of a business for record keeping, promotion, tax reporting, etc., can take all of your time. Look for local services that help small business startups understand the required licensing, record keeping and accounting. If you have no background in business, take a few courses at a community college or online in management, accounting, and marketing to get off to a good start. Reading books and articles on these topics is good, but it helps to have someone to answer your questions.

Focus on what you love about knitting, and build from there.  Bring your own individuality to your designs, or your teaching, or your yarn dyeing, or whatever it is that you do—don’t try to imitate anyone else because it won’t work. Think about the kind of work you really want to do and whether pursuing it as a career is going to require you to change your focus.  Be realistic about the value of your time; it’s not a good career choice if you’re only making a few cents per hour of work, with no prospect of increased profit in the future.  Make the portfolio of services or products you offer and our customer base as broad as possible to reduce your risk.  Always keep an eye on costs versus potential profit and price your products and services accordingly. In other words, treat it like a business, because it is.

Join a trade organization like The National Needlearts Association that will put you in touch with your peers, your customers, and your suppliers, keep you abreast of industry trends, and provide opportunities for professional development.

Photo copyright Naomi Skena.


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