Friday, March 22, 2013

An Interview with...Helen Hamann

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 Helen here on Ravelry. Her Ravelry group is here and her Peru tour group is here.

Where do you find inspiration?
Everywhere I can. Sometimes, the inspiration may be found in a fashion magazine, but usually it may be a coat or woven jacket.  What attracts me may be the shape and cut of the coat and how it drapes, or maybe it could be an interesting collar or special detail.  Often times I had found inspiration for a color combination on a nature photograph or even with pottery, or works of art.

What is your favourite knitting technique?
For shaping a unique piece there is nothing better than short-rows and these can be used in so many different ways that the sky is the limit to what you can achieve with them.

How did you determine your size range? 

Size is a very difficult thing to determine and fortunately in this business we do not use S, M or L, but rather chest circumference.  At the beginning, when I first started to design specifically for patterns, my sizing was much smaller, but then I realized that I needed to add larger sizes.  In the issue of sizes, a designer also has to consider the fit she is looking to achieve with a given design.  Some pieces are meant to be much tighter than others, while a coat has to provide enough room for layering.

Do you look at other designers’ work or are you afraid that you will be influenced by their designs?
I do not mind looking at old issues of knitting magazines or even flipping through a new issue that comes in the mail.  Very seldom do I find something that truly Wows me, but again, I am not looking at the piece unbiased.  Rather, I am looking at it as a whole package and at its interesting features, i.e. color, design, uniqueness, interesting features, techniques and how well are all these put together in the piece.  For instance, there are some designers that are great putting together color schemes that are fantastic, but when you look at the pieces they have designed along the years, you see that basically they all look the same in terms of shape, the only difference between one and another is the pattern/colorway/motif used.  I believe that I do not limit myself to just one aspect of designing. Rather, I want to create a masterpiece in its own right by the elements that I utilize in its creation and then the piece as a whole will achieve perfection.

How do you feel about the so called controversy of “dumbing down” patterns for knitters? 
I am not aware that there is a controversy about this issue.  What I do know though is that basically there are two types of knitters: the ones that need to have a pattern spelled out to the last detail in order to “grasp” what they need to do and the ones that just need general directions.  Obviously, this will depend on the complexity of the design.  I, as well as my native Peruvian knitters, do not need directions at all.  All we need is a photo and the dimensions and we can do the rest.  But I know that the bulk of the knitting population cannot do this.  And that is perfectly understandable.  That is why we need patterns and designers to write the instructions for them.  I know though, that European patterns are much more generic, while American patterns are extremely detailed to the point that, in some instances, row-by-row directions are given.  These are two philosophies of life that may never be reconciled, and that is okay.

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

I do it mostly all by myself because sometimes I start with an idea and may change direction half way through because I realize that there is a better way to achieve what I wanted.  Almost all the pieces in the calendar 2010, 2011 and 2012 were knitted by me with a few exceptions.  The ones that were not were knitted by my knitters in Peru, to whom all I need to do is explain over the phone what I want and they are able to understand my requirements.  In a couple of instances, they were not exactly what I wanted, but all was not lost, since I was able to fix the pieces.

Did you do a formal business plan?
I have done formal business plans many times, the last one being for my yarn business.  As a designer, I am not sure you need one, unless you are planning to make a massive production.

Do you have a mentor?
No, I don’t.  I wish I did, because that would have helped me avoid the myriad of mistakes I have made over the years.

Do you have a business model that you have emulated?

Again, no.  For the most part, I had to be adapting to the change in circumstances, market demands and the spending habits of my customers.

What impact has the Internet had on your business?  

My patterns have seen a constant flow in sales thanks to venues such as Ravelry and Patternfish.  Before, I had to sell them directly at shows in hard copy format.  The internet has saved me a lot of money since I do not have to print the patterns in glossy format.

 Do you use a tech editor?  

Absolutely.  This is critical since you need a different pair of eyes to spot the errors and typos.  And sometimes even after publishing, customers called to point out issues we missed, be it a typo or an error in the math.

How do you maintain your life/work balance?  

Two years ago, I was doing this (designing that is) exclusively.  Now I have a full-time job because conditions have changed and I am not able to support myself just with my designing.  Maybe in the near future, things will change again and I can go back to designing full time.

How do you deal with criticism?  

I welcome any comments from my customers regarding the accuracy of my patterns and I also welcome any comments students may make to improve the quality of my teaching or the delivery of a given subject.  It hurts me though when people make derogatory comments to other people and it reaches my ears some way or another.  I would be extremely thankful if people were more open and came to me with their comments.  They will make me a better designer, a better teacher and certainly a better person.

Could you tell us a little about the tours you run to Peru?  

These are usually the highlights of my year.  As you may already know, I am a native of Peru and had a hand-knitting manufacturing company there back in the 80s with more than 400 knitters working with me.  In those days, I sold my designs to fashionable retail companies all over the world – that is how I started designing.  Then in the 2000s, I shifted to designing for yarn distributors and knitting magazines and later in 2007, I contacted my old friends in Peru to produce a yarn collection for sale in the US and overseas.  I mention all this so your readers understand that I know the industry very well and the country as a native.  The first tour to Peru was in 2006 and there have been several after that.  The main focus of the tours is the Peruvian textile industry past and present.  With slight differences, the places we have visited are a museum with a large collection of pre-Colombian textiles, an alpaca farm, a vicuna chaccu (where the vicunas are herded by hundreds of people into a pen to be sheared), the alpaca mills in Arequipa, the Inca capital city of Cusco, the Sacred Valley and the Center for Traditional Weaving, Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca.  A couple of times, we were very fortunate to pair the trip with the “Alpaca Fiesta” organized by the International Alpaca Association.  This not only included a fair and some very interesting events such as a very special fashion show, but also workshops related to alpacas and their breeding.  Most of the travelers have marveled at the quality and variety of the Peruvian cuisine which is rated as one of the most exquisite cuisines in the world.  And of course, I have to add that many were keen on buying everything in sight, including yarn, blankets, sweaters, and the myriad of fascinating crafts Peruvians are so good at creating.

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

I have given a partial answer to this question before.  From 2006 to 2009 I could live on what I was making selling yarn, patterns and finished garments, as well as teaching classes and designing for some knitting magazines.  But things started to go south for me after that.  I do not know if this was just happening to me, or it was a reflection of the whole industry.  It could also be that I lost my “touch” as a business woman and I made the wrong decisions at the wrong times.  I don’t know.  I am only hoping that in the not too far future I will be able to support myself exclusively on my designs and my knitting.

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

With everything else, you need to have something different to offer in an otherwise crowded environment and you need to stand out from the crowd.  Maybe it could be just fabulous designs, or it could be a proven and sound teaching technique.  Or even you may find a new niche within the industry that no one has explored before like the kids from Ravelry.  They came in at the right time with something that many people were willing and happy to embrace and they created a revolution within a stale industry.  But like everything else, it takes a lot of hard work, dedication and a commitment to your dream.

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