Friday, March 15, 2013

An Interview with....Alexa and Emily of Tin Can Knits

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 Tin Can Knits here, their Ravelry group is here.

Where do you find inspiration?

Alexa: I find inspiration almost anywhere, but I am particularly inspired by the natural landscapes of Vancouver and the Pacific Northwest that inspired the designs and concept for Pacific Knits.

Emily: I see patterns in nature, art and architecture, and imagine how these shapes and structures could be adapted into lace patterns, or inform the lines of a garment.  I also am inspired by the act of knitting itself; the simple way that fabric grows as yarn is looped, and looped and looped around itself.
What is your favourite knitting technique?

Alexa: It has to be cables, they are so simple yet they look so impressive. 

I love lace and prefer to knit garments or accessories with shaping that is simple, rhythmic, and easy-to-remember, as I don't like to count rows or referring to the pattern too often. 
How did you determine your size range?

We designed the Gramps cardigan because we loved the idea of seeing little babies and kids in 'grown up' looking clothes.  And there are so many adorable children's patterns that would be perfect for adults!  The vision of matching father-daughter or mom-baby knits has inspired us from the beginning.  At Tin Can Knits we believe in providing a very high value to our customers, and our sweater patterns are like 3 patterns for the price of one, with baby, child and adult sizes.  While it is definitely more work to design, grade, tech-edit and test-knit 16 sizes (rather than the traditional 5-7), we believe it is worthwhile to provide this kind of flexibility; and our customers agree!
Do you look at other designers' work or are you afraid that you will be influenced by their designs?

Alexa: While I spend most of my time working on my own designs these days I wouldn't be half the knitter and pattern writer I am today without knitting other people's patterns. 

Emily: I am completely blown away by the wealth of talent in hand-knitting design.  I love to look at other designers' work, but I try not to compare our work to theirs.  Alexa and I have become pretty clear about the kind of work we want to produce, and the longer we work together the more I feel we are hitting the mark.

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

As our pattern standards have developed, we have become more concise in our pattern writing.  Knitters' skill levels vary, and some customers require further guidance, so we continually develop in-depth tutorials to illustrate the techniques used in our patterns.  <>
We produce patterns and books for print, so it is not feasible nor beneficial to include all of this detailed information in each pattern.  Also, when writing patterns in 16 sizes, the pattern writing must be very concise or the pattern length would become unmanageable.  I believe these constraints result in designs which have a pleasing simplicity.

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

Knitting something is part of the design process, so we always knit our designs ourselves.  In developing our garment designs, we knit both a child and an adult sample, as we find this is necessary to test our sizing / design assumptions, and to develop a clear pattern and fun-to-knit design.  After grading and preliminary tech editing, our patterns are tested by a large group of test knitters (most sizes knit by two or more people).  Our testers give us feedback on fit for each of the garment sizes, pattern readability, accuracy, and yardage.   We would never be able to knit each of the 16 sizes ourselves!

Also, to illustrate the range of sizes our patterns are designed in, and create adorable kid / dad shots, we have been working with sample knitters more in the last few months; for example in creating the multiple samples in our holiday collection, Great White North.  <>

How are you managing the decision making in your partnership?

We are almost a collaborative team so we make decisions together. Sometimes one of us will take the lead on a project and delegate to the other but that is more for management of specific projects than for business decisions.

Where did your company name come from?

We thought of two little girls playing with tin cans as phones, you know, with a string running between them.  As we have worked almost exclusively long distance (with Emily living first on Vancouver Island and now in Edinburgh) we do business online or over the phone, our logo / name is fairly accurate! 
Did you do a formal business plan?

When we wrote our first book, 9 Months of Knitting, we simply wrote the book, and when it was done it meant we were in business together!  Since then we have become more focused on Tin Can Knits and left our other jobs to work full time.  Before publishing Pacific Knits, we put together a business plan and goals, defined what success means to us, and brainstormed strategies for getting there.  We are learning to assess new projects to determine how they will contribute to our larger goals and plans
Do you have a mentor?
There are many people we look up to but not a mentor per se. 
Do you have a business model that you have emulated?
Who do we dream to emulate? We'll never tell..... 
What impact has the Internet had on your business?
Most of our work is sold online.  The Internet is essentially what allowed us to start our business.  While we absolutely LOVE and support our local yarn stores we also love Ravelry and knitting blogs!
Do you use a tech editor?
Because we are a team, we each tech edit the other's patterns.  Combined with rigorous test-knitting of almost all sizes of each pattern, we achieve a very high level of pattern accuracy. 
How do you maintain your life/work balance?

Alexa: not always that well. It's tough to find time for everything in life and sometimes I drag my kids to photo shoots, yarn stores, and the post office too much but I'm starting to find a good work/life balance. 

Emily: I must admit I am currently pretty terrible at achieving balance... Tin Can Knits is new and we are working very hard to create excellent work and bring it to market.  During deadlines I work far too many evenings and weekends.  On the flip side, the flexibility of owning your own business means it is easy to take holidays, and I have travelled quite extensively since we started Tin Can Knits; visiting Spain, Germany, England, Mexico, and coming home to Canada too!
How do you deal with criticism?

There are different kinds of criticism; the uninformed (and often quite unhelpful) criticism that comes from people with no understanding or appreciation of the process and thought that goes into the design of hand-knitting patterns.  When we receive that kind of criticism we respond politely, then try to forget it.

The other kind of criticism, which we love to receive, is that of our peers who are participating in the industry.  Receiving feedback and constructive criticism from other knitters, designers, editors, and yarn shop owners is highly valuable as it helps us improve our products, business practices, and the way we communicate with our audience.  While criticism may momentarily wound our pride, it is an honour when more experienced businesspeople share it!
How long did it take for you to be able to support yourself?
The jury is still out on this one, but we are getting closer all the time. 
What advice would you give someone who wants to pursue a career in knitting?

Emily: To succeed, you must recognize what you are doing as a full-on career and a business, and work at least as hard or harder than you would as a professional designer in another field like graphic design or architecture.  From the outside it may look like an ideal and rosy career path, but often I don't feel like I have any time to knit because I am tech editing, working on layouts, writing blog posts, or pitching our next book idea!  And when I do sit down to knit, it is usually because I have a sample sweater than needs to be shipped in a few days, so have to cram in a few days of 10-hour a day knitting!  But it is worth it, because I find it extremely rewarding to own and direct my own business, and to work with Alexa who is a very supportive, positive and creative partner.
Alexa: It's more than just the love of knitting and pattern development. To really pursue a career in knitting involves a whole host of other skills and commitments that may not seem obvious at first glance. While I wouldn't have it any other way, it is still work!

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