Friday, August 25, 2017

An Interview with...Kathleen Sperling

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 Kathleen here and here on Ravelry.

Where do you find inspiration?
In all seriousness, all over the place! That said, though, most of my ideas have probably come from adapting the motif from something else into a knitted item - the inspiration item usually being a textile or art piece, often historical (e.g. Bukhara cowl, Delft beret, photo lower down). There are so many beautiful things in the world that can be translated into knitting! That's my absolute favourite go-to method if I want to stimulate inspiration. But I've also had a fair few ideas that have just come to me, kaboom. Usually this happens because several things I've been thinking about or noticing all fall in place, and my brain decides to put them together and make an idea for me (e.g. Hat-heel socks, photo lower down, Around the Block Blanket). And sometimes, I'll have just a basic idea of what I want to do, and the idea will take shape as I'm trying to put it together (e.g. Leaves and Lace blanket, Arguyle sweater, photo above).
What I've found over the years is that, for me, knitting design inspiration is like a muscle - the more I "exercise" it, the stronger it gets. When I first started designing, the ideas were few and far between. But the more I designed, the more ideas showed up; kind of like a snowball rolling downhill. Now, I always have lots of ideas on the go that I want to try all at once! Often I have to put ideas on the back-burner so I don't get distracted from the thing I was already working on. And sometimes inspiration hits so hard that I have to dump whatever I had going on at the time!

What is your favourite knitting technique?
I don't know that I actually have one, to be honest. I will knit anything if it appeals to me, no matter what methods are involved. I love all kinds of different knitting techniques, they're each awesome in their own way. When designing, I'll use whatever works best to make my idea "go", be it lace, cables, texture, steeking, entrelac, knitting flat, whatever. Most often, though, I turn to colourwork to create what I'm looking for. I'm a huge fan of both stranded knitting and double knitting. However, one thing that I figured out how to do, which I love, is knitting a graft instead of sewing it. I hate sewing grafts, so having that alternate technique in my pocket means that I don't feel like avoiding projects that use grafting; or - also bad - getting a project almost completed and then ditching it when I come to the grafting part! (Video at

Do you look at other designers’ work or are you afraid that you will be influenced by their designs?
Oddly enough, I'm not worried about this. I'm fortunate enough to have (so far) a steady stream of ideas that are my own. So I can relax and enjoy the fantastic work of other designers. Some designers, however, are so amazing that you can't help thinking, "Arrrrgh, that's so incredible, I wish I had thought of that first!!!" (While knowing the whole time that you couldn't have possibly done as good a job!) Sharon Winsauer is probably the best at making me feel this way.

How many sample/test knitters do you have working for you or do you do it all yourself?
So far, I've been doing it all, as I'm a fast knitter. Also, the prospect of managing test knitters feels much more stressful to me than just going ahead and doing it myself. However, some of the very lovely knitters at my stitch night have offered to test knit whenever I want, and I've also been researching some of the test knit groups on Ravelry as a possible test knitting pool to draw from. It's definitely on my list of things to start doing.

Did you do a formal business plan?
No. But I'm not just winging it. I have the basic concept in my head, even if I haven't ever articulated it in writing. And I continue to modify the plan in my head as the business moves forward.

Do you have a mentor?
No. But I do look at other designers and take on-board the things they're doing that I really like and want to also do; as well as the things they're doing that aren't for me.

Do you have a business model that you have emulated?
Only in terms of what I perceive to be a fairly standard indie designer model - design lots, self-publish, get into publications and yarn company offerings so you can put your name out there, advertise where you can, etc.

Do you use a tech editor?
Sadly, no. I'd like to, but my sales at this stage don't justify the cost. However, I feel confident in my own tech editing abilities, and it seems likely that I'll actually get into that branch of the industry at some point down the road. Certainly when I work with publications, the samples that come back to me for proofing usually have only minor changes from my original submitted instructions. I'm lucky to have a passion for detail and thoroughness, and a solid knowledge of pattern writing conventions. I also seem to be good at understanding what details knitters need to have to succeed in finishing a project, and explaining those details so they'll understand.

How do you maintain your life/work balance?
With difficulty! I have a day job, a husband, three children, and other hobbies that I'm passionate about, in addition to the knitting. One thing that helps a lot is that I have about three hours of commuting time per day during the week.
I came to the conclusion some years ago that, unless you're wealthy enough to make some of the big time-sucks in life go away (i.e. job and housework), you cannot possibly do it all; there's not enough time, and there's not enough energy. Something has to give. For me, my top priorities are my kids, my marriage, and keeping myself sane by doing things I love. That usually means that the first thing to be dumped is my household chores! (Also getting enough sleep. I'm quite bad at that, too.)

How do you deal with criticism?
It depends on the criticism. When it's reasonable and delivered reasonably, I think to myself, "Oh yes, that's a good point," and set about fixing it, and then announcing and explaining the correction to the audience who needs to know about it. However, when the criticism seems less reasonable, and/or is delivered in an unreasonable way, that always stings. For this, I allow myself some venting time. If I feel I need to respond, I will then settle down and write a (hopefully!) helpful and professional reply. Sometimes this leads to really productive interactions that I never would have predicted, given that it started out with criticism that got my back up! And sometimes in the course of writing my "helpful and professional reply", I'll realize that the person being the most unreasonable in this situation is actually me. I think the most important thing, if responding to criticism, is to make sure that I've moved out of that unreasonable "why, I never!" head-space, and firmly into the "how can we fix this" head-space before I even think of hitting Send. Internal venting first really helps me with this.

How long did it take for you to be able to support yourself?
I don't support myself with the knitting work - hence the day job. At the moment, the design work merely provides an additional bit of income. I'd love to be able to do this full-time, but as I'm the sole income earner for my family, I don't have the luxury of being able to take that risk.

What advice would you give someone who wants to pursue a career in knitting?
From what I've been able to see, I think that the vast majority of people who do successfully support themselves with their knitting career have more than one arrow to the string, so to speak. It seems excruciatingly rare that a person is able to earn a living wage just by selling their designs. I may be wrong in this perception, but I would advise someone who wants to pursue a career in knitting to make sure they're doing more than one knitting-related thing. For example, design and teach; or work for a magazine and dye yarn; or tech edit and work at a yarn shop; that kind of thing. I would also warn the said someone that, naturally, this means having to be very busy! As I understand it, a knitting career - assuming you're aiming for income on par with a full-time job - means an extremely busy life.

What’s next for you?
I'm super-stoked about what's next for me! Right now I'm working on a collection of accessory patterns based around a single theme: manuscript illuminations from the medieval period of Western Europe. This is an incredible source of inspiration for beautiful patterns - I absolutely love every single design in this collection and can't wait to share it with the knitting world. So far I've released three patterns from the collection individually, and hope to have the rest all ready to go sometime this fall (hopefully sooner rather than later).
After that, I've got a few designs that I want to modify from their original prototypes, and get those published as well. Plus there are samples on the go that I need to finish and turn into more designs, and new ideas to try, and, more publications to break into... I get excited just thinking about it all! Probably my favourite part of designing is getting to share what I've made with others. My future goals are all about getting to do that as much as possible.

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