Friday, April 25, 2014

An Interview with... Susan Sarabasha

Susan wearing Windswept, baby Julia is wearing a hand spun sweater from Susan's fiber
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 Susan here and here on Ravelry.

Susan teaching spinning at the Southern Adirondack Fiber Fest.

Where do you find inspiration?
Usually I find inspiration in nature - flowers and natural themes are my favorites. Clematis Vine came from my garden.  Tamarack and Spruce from a trip to the Adirondacks and Rainforest from this long cold winter when I need to see GREEN in a place that didn't get snow.   

Sometimes I have colors in mind that need a name. Other times I see something that by itself inspires a colorway.   For Sherbert and Ernie I dyed up some yarn and then took it to my Knitting Group. It contains sherbet colors of watermelon, lime, cantaloupe, banana and mango but I thought that too bland a name. One of the women came up with the final title which I love. I even designed a dish of sherbet with the characters faces on the scoops as an ad.

What is your favourite knitting technique?
Right now it's I-cords but I also go on fair isle binges and then lace binges.  So I guess it just depends on when you ask.

How did you determine your size range?
Size range for patterns is usually determined by the magazine or website where I want to get the pattern published and its submission guidelines.  At the very least I do S,M and L.  A hat I'm working on right now is being sized in 15",17", 19" and 21" as I think it will work for all ages.
Do you look at other designers' work or are you afraid that you will be influenced by their designs?
Oh I do look.  Sometimes I get inspired by a grouping, other times I just see what colors and styles are trending.  This winter I designed two cowls as it seemed that was all my knitting group wanted to work on.

How do you feel about the so called controversy of "dumbing down" patterns for knitters?
I'm very mixed on this subject.  If you look at patterns from 40 - 50 years ago they assumed the knitter knew quite a bit and to my best knowledge there were a lot of knitters then so the 'pithy' directions didn't stop them. Today's knitter wants more explanation than that.  My best test knitter, who passed last summer, was an expert knitter, yet she wanted me to do more explaining.  So I try to include at least an abbreviation section and list the main stitch techniques needed and add more explanation to the 'easy' patterns which I expect more beginners to be using.

Could you tell us about the book proposal that you are currently working on? 
Sure.  I'm working on a book, whose title right now is I-cord Mania.  It includes patterns using I-cord cast-on, bind-off, edging and my own Internal I-cord.  I'm not a writer, so I have been procrastinating by designing more patterns for the book.  In the long run that's a good thing but in the short, it doesn't get my proposal out there.  However, I'm now very close.  I have the intro written and a chapter on making a swatch using the methods.  I've started a Technique section and am putting the pics together.  I have about 8 patterns ready to go which, hopefully will be enough to get this accepted by a publisher.

You are known for having "un-vented" an internal I-cord which has been featured in a number of your patterns. Could you tell us the story behind the un-invention?
Some of you may know of a sewing technique / feature called a welt. You’ve most often seen it on western style shirts separating one section from another.  Usually it’s made by folding the ends of two parts of the garment over and together, then sewing them down making a nice delineation between two sections.

While thinking up Verve for Knitter’s magazine (K109, 2012), I imagined such a nice delineation between the sections without binding off and picking up stitches to make that thick line.  Boing!  I-cord.   So I searched and searched EZ’ books and then on the internet, finding I-cord cast on, bind-off, applied cording and edging but, alas no I-cord that did not have at least one side free. I thought about this for a while and then placed the instructions for cast-on (adding stitches) and bind-off (removing stitches) side by side.  “Hmmmnnn,” I said to myself, “How can I do both at once but still maintain the same number of stitches?” I worked each looking at how they formed.  AHA!  Put them together! That idea produced more than several false starts and frogged samples. However I made myself take exacting notes, which got themselves crossed out, erased and replaced. I fiddled and faddled but eventually my brain did figure out how to make my very own UNvention – the Internal I-cord.  It worked great for flat knitting but the skirt is knit in the round.  So there ensued more trial and error samples that, of course, led eventually to a fairly simple solution, which can be seen and knit in several projects in my proposed book.

You teach a number of classes related to knitting on the topics of spinning, spindling and dyeing, how has this affected your growth as a designer?
Knowing how yarn is made has made a big difference in my designing.  I'm known as a micron snob. :^)  Over the years I've become intimately acquainted with many kinds of wools from many kinds of sheep plus luxury fibers.  My favorites are Blue Face Leicester, silk, and cashmere, alpaca and angora blends. The down side is that I know that if a label only says wool that it's probably milled from the wool pool which is a mix of meat, milk and wool sheep fleece which makes it a harsher fabric than if only good quality low micron fleece was used.  As a result I only dye fiber and yarns that I consider 'next to skin' soft.

How many sample/test knitters do you have working for you or do you do it all yourself?
Sadly, my very best, fastest and most accurate test knitter passed away last summer and I haven't found anyone who meets those standards again yet.  I have one person who edits for me but the better test knitters nearby are slower than I would like so I wind up test knitting for myself which is not ideal.

Did you do a formal business plan?
Sadly, or not, no.  I don't know how to do one.  I do have goals but they are fluid and can change as the times change. Over the years I find I have gone from concentrating solely on dyeing to more pattern making and kits.

Do you have a mentor?
I had a mentor when I started my business and he was invaluable. I learned so much from him, such as not rushing a customer, not walking around behind a customer being ready to help but by just saying,"Let me know if you have any questions." and by watching their faces as I did when I taught middle school.  I can see the questions forming so make myself available.

What impact has the Internet had on your business?  
I designed and edit my own website which takes a bit of time but is more responsive to whatever is going on. My business is split between internet sales and Fiber Fairs. June, July, Sept and Oct are Fair months and the rest of the year I rely on my newsletters and advertising.

Do you use a tech editor?
No, but I sure would like to meet one and work with that person.  I think my patterns would be oh so much better if I did.

How do you maintain your life/work balance?
When I started Spinning Bunny I was still teaching middle school, knitting through meetings and dyeing at night.  After a while I noticed that my teaching was burning out and that the part time, fledgling Spinning Bunny had increased to over 20 hours a week on top of the average 50 hours teaching week. I took a long hard look at what I wanted to do, what made me happiest and leaped.

How do you deal with criticism?
I try to be mature about it but am just too soft inside I think.  However when the criticism is given with love and meant well, within a few hours or days I see what can be changed and do it willingly.

How long did it take for you to be able to support yourself?
Alas I am still working that one out.  I have a pension that pays my regular bills.  Until a couple of years ago, when the bottom fell out of the economy, Spinning Bunny was doing better and better each year and I was able to pay myself.  Fiber Fairs are still excellent but internet sales have dropped. More recently I have had to put money into the business.  Hobby crafting is a place the average person can pull back on when money gets tight.  We all have a large stash we can use.  I am hopeful we will pull through this to the other side.
I also can't see how anyone can make a living just selling patterns.  We need to also teach workshops to get our names out there and create a demand.  I see a book as another way to do that.

What advice would you give someone who wants to pursue a career in knitting?
The old adage of 'Don't quit your day job'.  BUT if it's something you love and you are seeing good feedback then slowly build it up.  One day you'll realize it has grown enough to support you and then you can jump in with both feet.  Networking with other knitters and designers is important too as is maintaining a connection with your local knitting and spinning community.
             Sherbert and Ernie Socks in Bare Bones Pattern


  1. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview. I like seeing another way that fiber crafters can network and find out about each other.

  2. Good job, Susan. Can't wait to see your book.

  3. Good job, Susan. Can't wait to see your book!