Friday, October 4, 2013

An Interview with...Elizabeth McCarten

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 Elizabeth here and here on Ravelry.

Where do I find inspiration?

The answer is, “in a lot of places”. I love clothes from certain periods of history, especially Regency, Edwardian, and 1920s women’s fashions. The silhouettes from those times, with either high or low waists, are so flattering. Think “Out of Africa”, “House of Eliott”, and more recently, “Downton Abbey”. The latter inspired my Downtown Jacket with its back flaps that evoke a riding jacket. Some binge viewing last Christmas holidays of the 1987 BBC production of the Lord Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane mysteries led to Harriet’s Jacket (I think I’m revealing my age.) So, TV and movies are definitely a source of inspiration. My fantasy trip would be a walk through the BBC wardrobe department. 

A second place I look to for ideas is books—not necessarily knitting books, although I have some favourites in that category. At the top of the list is “Poetry in Stitches”, by Solveig Hisdal, now out of print, I believe. The lush photographs of Scandinavian textiles and landscapes as well as the slightly irreverent approach (the bird’s nest hat/crown comes to mind) appeal to me most strongly in the dark days of winter. My Trellis Waistcoat emerged after some prime time with this book. Lisa Lloyd’s “A Fine Fleece” is another book I keep close to hand. Her beautiful garments from handspun represent to me the highest form of the art and craft of knitting, and spurred me to take up spinning with both drop spindle and wheel. Likely, I wouldn’t have come up with the Buttonbox Waistcoat without this book. An example of a non-knitting book that has influenced me is “William Morris, Artist, Craftsman, Pioneer”, by Ormiston and Wells, a gift from my husband. This had a huge influence on “Vinland”, the hat and mitts set you see in the most recent issue of Twist Collective. 

Finally, I look to ready-to-wear fashions. I design clothes that I want to wear, so I keep my eyes open for garments that look good on me. This is something of a challenge given that I don’t live in a big city with access to lots of interesting fashions. If I try something on and love it so much that I want to wear it out of the shop, then I try to figure out just what makes it so successful. Is it the silhouette, the way it drapes, the colour, the style of the buttons or the type of closure? Often I’ll purchase an item and use whatever quality that made it special in a design of my own. The shawl collars you see on my cardigans evolved out of this experience.

What is my favourite knitting technique?

I’m not sure if I have one favourite technique. However, I do have a favourite approach, which is to knit seamlessly and, as much as possible, in a way that allows me to try on a sweater while it is still in progress. There’s something so organic about a garment knitted without any seams, and while I understand the arguments in favour of seaming, I just don’t enjoy working that way. Knitting is supposed to be pleasurable, right? So, I employ most of the tricks of the seamless knitter, including top-down, bottom-up, and side-to-centre construction, steeks, perpendicular joins, and even double-knitted pockets (in a soon to be published Cossack-collared jacket). When it comes to finishing, you’ll notice that I use quite a bit of I-cord. This is probably due to the influence of Elizabeth Zimmermann, on whose books and videos I cut my knitting teeth, back in those pre-internet days. I just love the way I-cord finishes a knitted edge and allows you to position invisible buttonholes while trying on an almost-completed cardigan.

How do I determine my size range?

I’m a small woman, only 5’1”. I started designing out of frustration with the process of constantly having to alter other people’s patterns to fit. Since I design for myself and for my bird-like daughter/model, it’s safe to say that I’m most comfortable sizing patterns for small women. The details on my garments, including shawl collars, front openings, and vertical cables, are all meant to help the wearer look taller, but because many of my designs involve try-on-as-you-knit techniques, they’re pretty easy to adjust lengthwise, if necessary. I try to be precise about where any length adjustment should occur. As far as width goes, most of the designs I’ve published on my own go up to about a size 48” bust.  

When I’ve designed for Twist Collective or Knitty, I’ve had to extend myself and grade the designs up to larger bust sizes. I really think, though, that it’s very difficult to write a pattern for a tailored piece that works well across a very wide range of sizes. The problem has to do with body shape. Two women, each with a 50” bust, might be completely differently proportioned. My friend Deb Gemmell (who is even smaller than I am!) has devoted time to exploring this issue in her  recently published booklet for larger women, and I think anyone in the large size category would do well to have a look at their thoughtful suggestions.  

Editor's note: I was Deb's co-author on the booklet. Our observations and measurements were taken on many plus size women who volunteered to assist with the project. The range of specific measurements showed zero correlation to one another which is not the case with standard sizing which is based on bone structure as opposed to weight distribution.

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

I definitely look to see what other designers are doing. I remember Lucy Neatby saying in one of her classes that she avoids doing that and, when you look at the creative ingenuity of her work, it’s apparent. I don’t aspire to be so inventive. My work (or is it play?) is all about ending up with wearable garments. I don’t subscribe to any print knitting magazines, but I keep abreast of what’s current online and I look at things on two levels. First, I take note of designs that provoke some sort of immediate emotional attraction. Then, I step back and, as with ready-to-wear fashions, I try to analyze on the intellectual level what exactly is going on in a design that’s raised that response. Finally, at some point down the road, I might use that element in a way that incorporates my own unique seamless and try-on-as-you-knit approach. The small cuff details in my Wakefield Redux and Zora cardigans are a good example of this process; both were inspired by Lisa Lloyd’s heavily cabled cuffs in her Gaelic Mist cardigan.

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

I’m on the fence on this. Having acquired a lot of my knitting skills through Elizabeth Zimmermann’s famous newsletters, I learned early on to enjoy recipe-style patterns, in which a lot of the details are left for the knitter to work out. I was living in Washington, DC during those years and, if I was stumped, I could pick up the phone, call Schoolhouse Press, and most often Meg Swansen herself would answer and offer assistance. I still prefer to knit from a sketch with only a few numbers, Japanese style. 

However, I recognize that there are a lot of knitters who need more details, so I try to cater to them as much as possible by specifying which method of cast-on to use, where best to make length adjustments, which method of increase to use where, etc.  At the same time, in only one design, Harriet, do I indicate an exact number of stitches to be picked up for borders. This is in part due to the fact that a knitter may have chosen to lengthen a garment, in which case the total number of stitches would be different, and in part due to my loathing of the traditional method of dividing a border up with pins and picking up a set number of stitches in each segment. Instead, I always give pickup ratios (2 stitches out of 3 rows, for example), one for straight edges and another for diagonal stretches. In addition, I always state clearly to pick up and knit into the back of a stitch at corners and other areas where there are little gaps to close. This is a trick that many less experienced knitters benefit from having spelled out. 

The one area that I find really tough to deal with is mirror-imaging. In my Perth Cardi, which incidentally is the design I wear more than any other, the pattern stitch is centred in both the front and back and mirror-imaged away from the raglan seamlines. To put this into words or charts for each size would take an extraordinary amount of writing. But simply to say, “Centre the Chart pattern stitch in the front and back sections in the next row”, would be insufficient for a great many knitters. So, I adopted a sort of halfway house in that I state that the pattern is to be centred, but then I go on to explain how to calculate this. My hope is that this will encourage less confident knitters to move away from being mere “blind followers”. That said, In Brookline, Twist Collective’s tech editors were uncomfortable with this approach and chose, for simplicity’s sake, not to mirror image the pattern stitch. If you follow the pattern as published, the mirror-imaging won’t be there, but I hope confident knitters will feel free to do it on their own initiative.

How many sample/test knitters do I have working for me or do I do it all myself?

I do it all myself right now, but I’m starting to think about using help. There are only so many hours in a day and, believe it or not, I have a life beyond just knitting! (I’m a former lawyer and remain a performing musician in the field of early, i.e. pre-Bach, music.)

Did I do a formal business plan?

Are you kidding? I just go with the flow and learn by trial and error. I have the luxury of not having to live off my knitting, so any income that emerges at the end of the day is always a pleasant surprise. That said, I’ve recently begun to earn enough that a business plan might be in my near future.

Do I have a mentor?

Not exactly. I have designer friends who are useful when I need to chat about something of either a design or business nature. Natalie Servant has been incredibly helpful with getting me up to speed on Ravelry, Deb Gemmell is always full of information on the business side of knitting, and Fiona Ellis has been generous with her referral to Vogue Knitting (and her spare room!)

Do I have a business model that I have emulated?

Not so far (see my answer above re my lack of business plan). I’m at the stage when I’m really just starting to think along these lines. I admire Kate Davies’ work very much, and I love the way she’s been publishing independently while supporting the British wool industry. A few weeks ago I had dinner with Juju Vale, who works out of Loop, the UK yarn shop, and spends her summers here in Kingston, ON. She was quick to point out that independent publications are their best sellers and has encouraged me to think in this direction. I’d love to do something of that sort, but honestly have no idea how to get it going. Combined with some teaching, that would be a satisfying career. And given that I’m getting launched at age 56, there’s no time to lose!

What impact has the Internet had on my business?

I wouldn’t be doing this if it weren’t for the Internet. The Internet is SO important, let me count the ways:

1.       As in the book publishing world, it’s democratized the design world by removing the traditional gatekeepers. All you need is a good design, well-written, with great photos, and there you go, courtesy of Ravelry.

2.       In turn, the Internet makes the work of other designers accessible to me, both for viewing and purchasing. The way Brooklyn Tweed markets its products through Look Books is brilliant.

3.       Knitting is more affordable than ever. There’s no need to buy a whole book of patterns; just purchase the one design you want. Need yarn from across the continent? Just click and order.

4.       The Internet has made possible a direct line of communication between knitter and designer. Having problems with instructions? Dash off an e-mail message and you can get an answer quickly. Last month, when a knitter wrote regarding her version of Harriet’s Jacket, “I l.o.v.e. the pattern!” it made all the number crunching involved in writing up the design worthwhile.

5.       The errata problem is more easily solved. Remember the old days when you’d buy a book in a yarn shop and, if you were lucky, there’d be a little slip of paper (which you’d inevitably lose) tucked into the flyleaf with the corrections printed on it? Thank goodness those days are gone. Now, at the click of a mouse, an entire pattern can be updated, with notices to all purchasers. However, I’ll add that it’s important for designers not to succumb to the temptation to be less than meticulous just because corrections can be made more easily.

6.       Online magazines are exploring new business models that compensate designers more fairly for their efforts. With Twist Collective, designers earn ongoing royalties amounting to 50% of their sales. I’m so lucky to have been able to participate in this venture.

7.       Ravelry is, in my opinion, at the heart of why and how the Internet has become so important. Project posting can generate excitement about a design and increase sales momentum. Before knitting a pattern, knitters can check out what other knitters have had to say about it. The ability of knitters to connect online to learn new techniques, share experiences in a knit-a-long, or organize travel to a fibre festival has increased interest in knitting in general and grown the customer base. Ravelry allows me to see who’s buying my patterns, where they are, and what other projects they’re interested in. I’ve discovered that outside of Canada and the US, my biggest client base is in Germany. Who’d have guessed?

8.       While Ravelry tends to focus attention on the hottest, most talked about designs, blogs are a means for designers to maintain interest in past work. I try to highlight older designs from time to time by re-working them in new ways. It’s been fascinating for me to see my reader base grow, while during this same time I’ve been developing my own unique voice as a blogger. Blogs are also a great way for designers to offer a slice of their own life to readers. Not all designers want to do this, or have the time, but I enjoy it and have the impression that for many of my readers, the blog is a little escape from their day; it’s the fantasy life they’d like to have (financial pressures off, no 9 to 5 job, no commuting, historic homes with Lake Ontario out the front door…) Having such a connection with my customers keeps them interested in what I’m doing and looking forward to what’s next.

9.       Finally, the Internet allows me to become a teacher. Through my blog, I’m able to offer mini-tutorials in various areas relevant to my designs, such as steeking, attaching I-cord borders, working perpendicular joins, grafting underarms, etc. These are among my most viewed posts. Recently, I’ve begun including links in my patterns to these posts so that knitters are alerted to their existence as a source for extra help.

Before leaving this topic, I’ll add that there can be such a thing as too much connectedness, and for reasons of privacy and to avoid too much distraction, I’ve decided not participate in either Twitter or Facebook—at least for now.

Do I use a tech editor?

Not at this time, unless I’m dealing with a publication that provides one. I tend to turn out designs rather slowly because after I write up a draft in multiple sizes, I like to knit one or more versions from the draft instructions. This usually results in a second or third draft before the pattern is finally published online. I should add that my background in legislative drafting and legal editing has turned out to be surprisingly good practice for pattern writing.

How do I maintain my life/work balance?

My work is mostly my play, so this isn’t an issue. The only hectic moment I’ve had so far was when I was knitting the sample of Brookline for Twist Collective and, because of the timing of the holidays and Canada Post’s schedule, I ended up knitting frantically all Christmas morning while everyone else in the family was unwrapping gifts. Worse things could happen!

How do I deal with criticism?

I try to take a deep breath and view the criticism as objectively as possible. When I brought Zora out last spring, one Ravelry member complained that my lovely, evocative photos didn’t properly show the front of the cardigan. I acknowledged, publicly, that she was right. I explained that I had had a rough time getting time and cooperation from my daughter. Isabel, who was in final exams in her computer science degree, and the end result was that I really didn’t have any good photos of the front. I decided to post a couple of the not-so-good ones and stated that I hoped that would help. I’m currently spinning for my own Zora and hope to get some front photos of it being worn by me.

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

I’d start by pointing out that a “career” doesn’t have to mean a job that generates an income large enough to make one self-supporting; a lot of designers, like me, see it as a means of producing a nice second income for a household, one that covers a lot of life’s frills (for me, that means clothes, travel, and, of course, wool). Assuming someone already has adequate design skills, I would recommend learning as much as possible about the non-knitting areas needed to be successful. Those include, but are not limited to, photography, web design, and how to start up and run a small business. Having a commerce, graphic design, or computer science degree would be helpful. Start to gain a reputation by submitting to knitting publications, and build a network online and in the real world by attending events where there are opportunities to meet and talk with designers who’ve made it. Be creative and take chances, but keep your day job (ideally something not too exhausting) until you’re ready to make the leap. I’m not there yet, but I’m definitely enjoying the ride!

If you enjoy reading my blog, I'd really appreciate it if you would tell your knitting friends or share links to your favourite posts online with Twitter, Ravelry or Facebook. Word of mouth is really helping to grow my business as knitters respect the views of other members of our community. Thanks!


  1. I enjoyed reading this, very much!

    Thank you.

  2. I enjoyed reading this too! I just started knitting less then 2 years ago upon the announcement of my first grandchild, learning online and absolutely love it, having a project in mind before ending the last. I was very impressed with your story, thank you for sharing!