Friday, January 22, 2016

An Interview with...Courtney Spainhower

Cicely Shawl

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 Courtney here and here on Ravelry.

Where do you find inspiration?

This is always a tough question to answer because so much of my work is for publication within a collection. The easy answer is that I’m inspired by the information the editor provides in their mood boards. I take liberties with these – and as a designer you have to because “inspiration” is a fine line to walk. I normally think first about the mood the editor is looking for, then take queues from the board in the form of silhouette, fabric textures, and colors.

What is your favourite knitting technique?
I love texture – knit and purl, ribbing, slipped stitches... I find myself wanting to pack as many textures and techniques as I can into one piece, then reining it in and stripping selectively. I also find myself pushing to use any technique that will make the knitting process easier and more enjoyable. Many times this means searching out ways to knit seamlessly or in one piece so that finishing is kept to a minimum.

How did you determine your size range?
Size ranges are often dictated by the publisher I’m working with. Each magazine or book will have a set range of sizes and they ask that the pattern has a certain number within that range. I try to spread out my sizing to fit as many as possible – even ranging to fit from a 32” bust to a 52” bust.

Gather Pullover

Do you look at other designers’ work or are you afraid that you will be influenced by their designs? 
I have gone back and forth about this over my design career. It’s often helpful to see what is trending with knitters via Ravelry; a quick glance will tell if shawls are dominating or sweaters, but I don’t make a habit of searching out other designers' work. However, if I’m feeling particularly blocked, I’ll flip through my old knitting pattern books or browse collections online. It’s my equivalent to writer’s block when sitting down with a good book is a nice break from the pressure of putting pen to page.

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

I love this question. It’s tricky and there are so many facets.

I remember the struggle of pre-design knitting very well, and so I truly sympathize with those needing support. I am happy to do a bit of hand holding to get someone through a pattern because I think knitting is wonderful (!) and for me, it’s all about an enjoyable process. The downside is: I learned quickly that it’s also an ordeal for someone like me who is raising a family and working to meet publication deadlines to create self-published works.

I simply don’t have enough hours in the day to produce a pattern myself that will have all the extra information that some knitters expect (though I think I provide a generous amount of information). Also, writing patterns is not easy; there is a whole lot of calculating, there is a whole lot of creative energy spent, there is a ton of research that is done, and at the end of the day – it’s not the most lucrative profession.

From a designer standpoint, the tough days are the ones where I’m answering emails asking how to “M1” because with the amount of information at our fingertips, it’s faster for the knitter to enter “M1 knitting” into a search engine. I’m accustomed to having to pack a lot of information into a limited amount of space for magazine work and I omit abbreviation lists and photos. I try to think of those folks that are going to print my pattern out and carry it around in their knitting bag… so, I include the minimum information required. I have many photos on my Ravelry page and on my website; I don’t feel the need to add them to the printable downloads. This makes some people nuts. I also have a downloadable list of abbreviations on my website.

What I have found is that something always comes up, and I’ll never appease the masses. I’m okay with that. I love what I do and I have learned to self-publish pieces that I was particularly inspired to create without the influence of editors and publishers.

Quills Arrow Shawl

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

I have a rotation of about a dozen test knitters, but these folks have lives, so when many of them are unavailable for a deadline, I’ll call for testers. I’ve only used a few sample knitters and that was for my first book. I prefer to do my own sample knitting for any other design work.

Did you do a formal business plan?
Wow – such a great question. No, I didn’t. When I decided to dive into the knitting industry, I had no experience, I had no vision, and I had no plan. All I was armed with was a desire to make money knitting, one way or another. Fortunately, my husband was very supportive and really pushed me to stay on track even if it meant changing directions entirely. My first thought was to knit pieces for sale via Etsy and local retailers. I learned what a hard road that was and thought it made more sense for me to design and write patterns for sale. It seemed logical to do the work once and continue earning revenue for the lifetime of the pattern. I spent almost a year feeling like I was wandering around in the dark.

Do you have a mentor?
I wish I had a mentor. I was never active in any knitting groups, I never took a knitting class, and I never actually immersed myself in the local knitting community. Everything I learned came from books and the internet after my mother-in-law took a knitting class and showed me how to cast-on and knit. She hadn’t gotten to “purl” yet ;)

If anything, I’m the modern knitter cliché, having been most influenced by Elizabeth Zimmerman. I didn’t love her for her patterns though – I loved her for her attitude. She was against fussy knitting, seaming, and was an outcast in the knitting world during her early years trying to break into the industry. I think she and I would have gotten along quite well.

Catena Hat

Do you use a tech editor? 

I have used a tech editor in the past. I have also had unpleasant experiences where patterns were “corrected” incorrectly or debates arose about measurements. This was my personal experience though and I know there are tons of amazing tech editors out there! It was earlier in my career when I really needed the support and it caused me more work and headaches.

I have since turned to my test knitters who are lovely folks and who are happy to knit a pattern and look for typos and mathematical errors. It seems no matter how many eyes/hands are on a pattern, mistakes still make it through and that’s something I try to correct as quickly as possible. This is true for published works also – it’s not the independent designer’s curse.

How do you maintain your life/work balance? Keeping balance is always the struggle. There was a time, not long ago, that I would be so fretful about deadlines I would be up all night working, then run the kids to school, and work a bit more before crashing for a few hours. That sort of schedule isn’t built to last and I have an auto-immune disorder that rears its ugly head when I start to over-extend myself.

Now, I have scheduled times for computer work when the kids are at school and I knit whenever possible while maintaining my insanely early bedtime. If I don’t get to all the emails or finish as much on a pattern as I wanted, I put it to the top of the list and begin again the next day. This used to be so hard for me because I didn’t want to appear lazy or disrespectful, but I had to forgive myself and accept my limitations. The only time I go into serious work mode when the family is home from school/work is if I have a deadline zooming toward me, but that is rare.

Wild Violets Shawl

How do you deal with criticism? 
I come from a fine art background which means I spent a great deal of time in studio classes where critiques were part of the daily schedule. I learned many, many years ago that any criticism about my work is not an attack on me – on my person – but an opinion or observation about something I made. It’s hard in the beginning to see that division and trust it.

Now, any criticisms about my works I take either with a grain of salt, as in 'you and I aren’t really matched in taste or style and that’s okay' or, if someone has very specific issues with my designs, I listen and really take the notes to heart. I will think about those negative remarks as I move forward with my future designs because I want to have pieces available that appeal to a wide audience.

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

Once I got into the rotation of pattern submissions, I was receiving a steady flow of money. It took about two years to really ease into that rotation though. In the beginning it seemed insane to do all that work and have to wait six months or more for payment. My first published piece was a pullover for spring and I was working on it at the tail end of the previous summer. When spring came and I was working on pieces for the following winter, I was happy to have incurred at least some revenue! Now, I have a good system and can work up patterns in a fraction of the time, meaning I can take on more and make more as a result.

What advice would you give someone who wants to pursue a career in knitting?
There are many ways to have a career in the knitting world and so, first off you must find your place. As I mentioned previously, I struggled with that exact thing early on and I think we’re all able to lock in our passions, just not always coming from the same direction. There are folks that can knit the same thing dozens of times and sell them for great margins. I go crazy just knitting a second sock or fingerless glove and so knitting the same thing over and over made me bonkers. Others find that dyeing yarn really clicks with them – and those folks can find success rather quickly. Design takes a certain personality I think, and all the fussiness takes the joy of knitting right out of it for many. I know some make extra cash as sample knitters, there are highly respected tech editors, the list goes on and on…

Once you’ve found your sweet spot in the industry, it’s time to start getting to know other folks in the industry, either via social media or attending trade shows/conventions. Being friendly and offering your services can do wonders for your new career. The hard part comes when you start to feel resistance and you must push forward. I think working in any creative industry requires a fair amount of grit!

What’s next for you? 

My first book, Family-Friendly Knits, hit the shelves in November – which would have been a great opportunity for me to take a little time off. Instead, I began working on a proposal for my second book. I’m also working with three yarn companies (Feel Good Yarn Co, Kettle Yarn Co, and Berroco), designing patterns that will be released in 2016.

Little One Yoke Cardigan

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