Friday, September 11, 2015

An Interview with...Sue McCain

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 Sue here and here on Ravelry.

Where do you find inspiration?
Pretty much anywhere, from the person sitting in front of me at church, to something I see on TV, to someone I pass on the street. Stitch patterns also speak to me. I love browsing through stitch dictionaries with no specific project in mind. I often find a stitch that I just love first, and then build a sweater around it.

What is your favourite knitting technique?
I think that would be cables, though I also enjoy lace and mosaic knitting. My mother taught me to knit, and my third sweater was an allover cable and bobble sweater. I had been so intimidated by cables, but when she showed me how easy it was, I was hooked. I'm always looking for interesting cable patterns.

How did you determine your size range?
I'm 6' tall, so I understand the difficulty of finding clothes to fit. I started knitting in the first place because I was tired of sweaters with sleeves that weren't long enough. It made sense to me to just make my own sweaters. In addition, at the time I started my first pattern line, I was a plus size, so combine that with my height, and every sweater I knit had to be reworked to fit me.

From the start, I couldn't see limiting my size range to 3 or 4 sizes, thereby leaving out an entire segment of the knitting population. From just a business standpoint, you're missing out on a lot of potential sales. I've heard someone say that their sweater would only look good on sizes up to large or extra-large. Shouldn't it be up to the knitter to decide what they want to wear? If you're a 6x and want to wear a halter top and tutu, that's up to you. Plus sizes seemed to me to be an under-served part of the market, as are very small sizes. So I now typically work with a range of 11 sizes, covering women's bust measurements from 24-66".

Do you look at other designers’ work or are you afraid that you will be influenced by their designs?
As a professional knitting technical editor, I'm looking at other designer's work every day. I'm periodically sent a collection of 30 samples for editing, and it's always like Christmas opening up the boxes to see what the designers have created. The best part is the many stitch patterns and construction methods that they use.

While I'm editing, I occasionally make note of a technique that appeals to me, for potential use in future designs. My patterns aren't usually complicated in terms of construction, but you never know when something might come in handy, or what new world might open up. As an example, I was the editor on Wendy Bernard's Custom Knits books, and it was from her that I learned about top-down set-in-sleeve sweater construction. I was so intrigued by it that I decided to launch Basix, which is a line of all top-down set-in-sleeve patterns.
How many sample/test knitters do you have working for you or do you do it all yourself?
I have one sample knitter that I work with. I've known her for years and appreciate not only her great knitting skills, but also the fact that she can pick up on errors and inconsistencies before the pattern is even formally written up. That's a huge help for me. That said, I knit the last few samples myself, since I wasn't entirely sure of some of the elements, and I wanted to be able to work them out on the needles. For the Boulder Top-Down Hoodie, I think I reworked the hood 4 times from the bottom up until I was pleased with the result. Sometimes you just gotta play with the design yourself.

Did you do a formal business plan?
I did at the very beginning, and oddly enough, I'm not making the millions I'd projected. Seriously, though, I did make a plan, but once I got up and running, it's been mostly a question of evolving as the industry changes.
Do you have a mentor?
Not really. I talked with a few knitting industry professionals early on, but then just did what made sense to me at the time. Since I've been in the business for a while now, I've developed friendships with other designers. Sometimes we'll have long conversations about what's going on for me and for them. It's usually about what we've noticed in our sales, what we've tried, what works, what doesn't. It's so very easy to become isolated since I work from home in a niche industry – it's not like there's a knitwear designers guild in my area. So when designers have the opportunity to get together, the focus of the conversation is almost always about how to improve sales.

Do you use a tech editor?
Absolutely. As a professional tech editor, I believe in the importance of having someone go through my pattern and check for errors, inconsistencies, clarity, etc. It's really hard to read your own work without reading what it's supposed to say rather than what it actually says.
How do you maintain your life/work balance?
What balance? I think that's a battle that a lot of small business owners have, especially those with a home office where work is always beckoning. I definitely need to work at it more, because I need more down time to recharge.

How do you deal with criticism?
Respectful constructive criticism is helpful - I'm interested to hear if a knitter finds that a pattern I've written is unclear or has an error, because I want to make sure that my patterns are the best that they can be.

On the other hand, we've all seen instances where a person is just cranky for whatever reason (bad day at work, frustrating relationship), and you happen to be the unlucky one who is the recipient of their wrath. Fortunately such incidents have been few and far between, and I've tried to handle them with grace and respect. Then when I'm done, I whine to my dog about it – Rory always takes my side no matter what. It's all about perspective. I'm not perfect and sadly never will be in this life. I will make mistakes, as everyone else does. So I own up to them and rectify them to the best of my ability, then move on.
How long did it take for you to be able to support yourself?
Because I combine pattern sales and technical editing, I've been blessed to be able to support myself almost since I started in 2003.

What advice would you give someone who wants to pursue a career in knitting?
Don't quit your day job. No, really. Unless you can get a job working for someone within the industry, consider your knitting career to be a part-time side gig until you get to the point where it supports you. That way there's less financial pressure, so you can have fun with it and explore what you want to do, rather than worrying about paying the bills. That can take the fun out of anything you love.
What’s next for you?
Work. LOTS of work. I've got a few ideas for some ebooks, and there are always swatches waiting to be turned into patterns.  And maybe this year I'll take a vacation (famous last words). In Scotland. And I'll find a way to make my knitting career pay for the vacation. 
​Maybe I'll launch a line of knitted kilt patterns.​

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