Purls

On Designing Knitting Patterns

The other week I gave a talk to the Kirkmichael’s Women’s Group about my life in knitting (it is a good life and one that I am happy to have, even if the path there was one of slings and arrows). The talk went well and I received some excellent questions. I’d like to share one of them with you.

How do you design patterns?

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I design two types of patterns, essentially. I design for others, and I design for myself.

The first kind of pattern is a response to somebody else’s idea, product or moodboard — “seaside rendezvous: pastel colours, shells, beach, ice cream; summery garments and accessories perfect for wearing on holiday” — or maybe I have been asked to design a pattern for a new yarn. I like these sort of challenges because they push me outside my comfort zone. To use my seaside rendezvous example, I do not typically work with pastel hues and I will need to study the moodboard images hard before I know what atmosphere my design’s supposed to evoke. Spending time on Pinterest and Google Images is literally part of my job description!

The second kind of pattern is much more labour-intensive than you might expect. I tend to start with a story, and I need to figure out how to translate the story in my head into something on the needles, and eventually a wearable piece. A good example of this is my Rubrication shawl from This Thing of Paper. I knew I wanted a big, red shawl named after the practise of adding red lettering to books. I also knew I wanted to design something which would function as a metaphor for writing and creating. Eventually I created a pattern in which the stitches are reminiscent of quills and nibs and ink dripping down the leaf of a page (yes, I included leaves too). Working out how to interpret my story is a process full of swatching, of writing, and figuring out how to distill the core idea.

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But how do I design the patterns?

Ah, the technical aspect! I teach design classes and this is what I tell my students: you need to have an idea and you also need to know how that idea works mathematically.

I do a lot of swatching and I have a few boxes just devoted to yarn for swatching as I need to have a lot of bases covered: 4ply handdyed, worsted-weight woolly yarn, mohair lace yarn, Shetland-style yarn in various colours .. Once I have my idea sketched, I’ll find a suitable yarn and work a swatch (at least 6” by 6”). Sometimes I like the resulting swatch, other times I have to knit a lot of swatches.

Once I like the swatch and I’ve blocked it, I start by working out the gauge. Depending upon the type of pattern I’m writing I might need to plug numbers into a spreadsheet (hello, garment designing) or I know roughly what kind of base numbers I’m working with (hello, shawl construction and increase ratio).

I always, always calculate and write the pattern before I start knitting, because I don’t want to waste time knitting up something which won’t work late in the knitting process. An example of this would be a bottom-up sweater where the stitch numbers don’t work with the yoke design. As a knitter, you will be able to fudge away those extra 7 stitches. As a designer, I need to know the right numbers.

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Designing one-off patterns for myself is not something I do very often, but somehow I ended up doing just that last month. It felt like a combination of responding to a yarn pattern request and designing something because I had something stuck in my head.

The Hillhead hat pattern was a frivolous, unplanned pattern (I plan my pattern releases somewhat obsessively) that somehow wormed its way into the world. I had stuffed three balls of yarn into my suitcase while I was travelling and was doodling in my notebook. When I was a child, my gran knitted me a much-loved colourwork sweater and I was trying to recreate the stitch pattern.

The end result of all this unplanned activity was a hat. I put the work-in-progress on IG, worrying that I had knitted myself into a dead-end. Instead the kind comments encouraged me to continue and it was a design process much unlike anyone I’ve experienced before. I did not try to tell a story (apart from trying to remember a stitch pattern from my childhood) and most of the knitting was done whilst travelling with very little preparation beforehand.

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On a slightly funny note (or maybe it speaks to the year I’ve had), this morning I found a folder with a collection’s worth of already-written and -charted patterns that I had forgotten all about! I will need to sift through the designs and see which ones are viable, then figure out where the ‘gaps’ in the collection are before designing into those gaps. But that sets me up for 2019 and all the things ahead.

Anyway, I hope that answered a few questions about my design processes and how my design brain works. I’m not as prolific as some designers, but I do work hard at getting you some nice things to knit!

The Tale of A Scarf: When Knitting Chooses You

 September 2014 - wearing the scarf

September 2014 - wearing the scarf

Everybody says that I chose knitting, but I think knitting chose me. Yesterday I was looking through a drawer and came across a scarf I knitted in early, early 2008. Around the neck it went and I wore it running various errands. I wore it as a secret badge of honour.

This is what I was, this is me now, and this is what knitting brought me.

I fell horribly, terribly ill shortly after I moved to the UK. I don't talk about it much because it is a really boring topic, but I was very ill for many months. The illness meant I had to stay in bed and I could only do a very limited number of activities. I read a lot of books but I needed something else to do.

After one of my hospital visits, I persuaded David to stop at a local yarn shop. I bought a crochet hook and two balls of Twilley's Freedom Spirit from a quirky girl in the shop. I liked the name of the yarn and I liked that it was green. Dave was surprised I knew how to crochet. I made a hat that evening.

I crocheted more hats and gave them to friends. I realised that yarn was expensive and that crochet used a lot of yarn. On our next visit to the yarn shop, I bought a pair of knitting needles and three balls of Noro Silk Garden. I sat in bed wondering if I could remember how to cast on. While I was trying to remember, I looked down and my fingers had done it. Muscle memory from years ago. My body which had almost given out on me was now helping me. Knit two, purl two..

 the scarf

the scarf

And this is it. A humble k2, p2 scarf in a Noro yarn. Looking at it now, my stitches are incredibly even, the edges are (mostly) slipped and the fringe is a bit awful looking. Starting this scarf was the start of many things in my life. Recovery, finding friends, building up a new life, and settling into what would become a passion and a career.

I knit a lot. I have knitted many, many things much more beautiful and much more complex than this scarf. But this is where it all began. This is when knitting chose me.

The Festival Survival Guide - the 2018 Edition

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A couple of years ago I posted this little survival guide to knitting festivals. With the Edinburgh Yarn Festival just a few days away, I thought it was time to revisit the guide and share some of my favourite tips!

Attending a fibre festival is always a great day (or weekend) out. You are surrounded by people who love the same activities as you do, and you get to do some serious knitwear-spotting too. It can also be a really exhausting time because there are just so many things to see and do - and you might find yourself so overwhelmed that you end up leaving empty-handed and slightly burned out. 

  • Plan ahead. Start by looking through the vendor list and visit their websites, so you know roughly what to expect. Make a short-list of your must-visit vendors and grab the official EYF marketplace map to find out where their stalls are. This stops you from feeling completely overwhelmed by all the squishy yarn goodness on offer!
  • Plan ahead, pt 2. Look through your Ravelry queue and make a note of yarn requirements for those must-knit-next patterns in your queue. Do the same for any needles or hooks you may want to pick up at EYF. You don't want to buy a 3mm needle when you actually wanted a 3.25mm needle! And nothing's worse than picking up a perfect skein of yarn and then realising the pattern calls for two skeins!
  • Plan ahead, pt 3. If you are meeting up with far-flung friends at EYF, make sure you have exchanged phone numbers before heading out! Also make sure to describe yourself ("I'm short with curly brown hair and will be wearing a blue/white/yellow Speckle & Pop shawl ") if you are meeting up with internet friends who may not have met you before.
  • Food. If you have special dietary requirements, always make sure to bring a back-up lunch. Personally I always carry some bottled water to keep myself hydrated and a small bag of mixed nuts to snack on so my blood sugar stays level throughout the day.
  • Bags. Scotland has implemented the carrier bag charge (very good news for the environment!) so remember to bring your own carrier bags. You can also buy gorgeous tote bags at the event, of course.
  • Wear sensible shoes! You will be on your feet most of the day, so leave your high heels at home. I hear the "wear sensible shoes!" advice all the time and yet I keep seeing miserable-looking people in high-heeled boots at events.
  • Budget. Unless you are a multi-millionaire, chances are that you will have to make some tough decisions at EYF. Decide before you leave home how much you are going to spend. Decide how much you'll spend on yarn, how much on notions, and how much on cute accessories like tote bags, mugs etc. Then leave room in your budget for impulse buys. Even the smallest budget should have an impulse buy allowance. You will fall in love with something unexpected.
  • Travel. The EYF website contains everything you need to know about transport, so make sure you know your train times and keep your tickets in a safe spot. Allow yourself plenty of time to get to and from the venue. Make sure you have a perfect travel project on the go - travelling to a fibre festival is part of the festival fun!
  • Be Prepared! If you are taking a class, make sure you know what you need to bring 5 days before you need it. Then you will have time to stash-dive or pop into your nearest LS before the event itself. 
  • Be Social! Say hello to people! Smile and talk knitting while you are waiting in a queue. Let strangers know how awesome their cardigan is. Enjoy the atmosphere. If a vendor or a tutor has been especially incredible, let them know! Take pictures of amazing things and share them on the internet. Use hashtags both during the weekend and afterwards when you share your memories. 
  • Remember to Breathe. Fibre festivals can be exhausting (especially because so many of us are introverts). If you get tired, take a break. If you need some fresh air, go for a short walk. Nothing is more important than you enjoying yourself, so be kind to yourself rather than push through. The perfect buttons will still be there ten minutes later.
  • And just have fun! This is going to be one of the highlights of your year. 

I will be teaching three classes and also floating about before/after the classes. Please do say hello if you see me! This Thing of Paper will be available from selected vendors at the festival, and I'm always very happy to chat about it. 

If you have any good yarn festival tips, please leave them in the comments!

Making Some Changes: Teaching

Later this week I will be updating the workshop & events page with all the details about what's ahead. It's already been announced that I'm teaching at EYF next month, but I'm also teaching at two other events this spring/summer. Dublin's Woollinn has a fantastic line-up and I cannot wait to visit Ireland for the first time. I'll also be at Yarningham for the first time alongside some of my favourite people.

I will be announcing more details (including the marvellous LYSs I'm visiting this spring),  but I want to expand a bit on some decisions we've made at Casa Bookish.

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Since 2014 I have been a full-time knitting designer and teacher - and it is a lot of work. I spend a lot of time on the road, I could do admin as a full-time job (and have now hired Penny to help out), I design, I write, I edit, I learn about spreadsheet functions and tax regulations, and occasionally I even knit.

I also have a chronic health condition.

My work is flexible enough to allow for days when my condition flares up, but I do have to factor in extra time to do some things (like photo shoots). And  when I get back to work, I have such a workload that I push myself to get through the things that have piled up. And then I have a flare up etc. 

 Sitting down at the photo shoot.

Sitting down at the photo shoot.

Over the last two months, I have had some major conversations with my assistant Penny and my partner/photographer David. I have to make some changes or both my creativity and my health will suffer. We have concluded that while I love to teach, teaching takes up so much of my time and energy (prep, travel, teaching, travel, recovery) that we need to be very smart about how much I do.

Going forward, you will see me more often at festivals and doing LYS residencies than at one-off classes. I am so appreciative of all the LYS owners and organisers who have all stepped up in support. Thank you thank you thank you! Everybody has been so kind and understanding - this is why the knitting community is so special. 

(As always, if you are a festival organiser or a LYS owner, we'd love to hear from you. We have precious few slots available for the rest of the year - but do get in touch. I've also begun taking the first few bookings for 2019). 

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If you are a knitter, I hope you understand why I am not just popping by your LYS every two weeks or so. Please take advantage of when I am teaching at a nearby festival or teaching at a LYS - it will most likely be a while until I will be back. I also know it can be frustrating if everything's already booked by the time you hear about my class - but I'd still love to say hello to you (and please understand if I need to sit down while talking to you). 

Teaching is so magical: I love seeing you flourish and take on new challenges. Thank you for letting me be a tiny part of your making life. Let's make this work together.

The Cardigan Conundrum

A few years ago I wrote a pattern and knitted a cardigan. 

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The cardigan was part of my ongoing Authors & Artists series, and I rather loved it. I knitted it in a yarn gifted to me by my grandmother (who would later fall very ill). Granted, the colour was not one I would have chosen but I have grown to love it so much over time that I now consider aqua one of my everyday wardrobe colours. 

Trouble arose, though, when I realised that the gift yarn did not behave very well. It is an alpaca/wool mix which is warm and soft - but also refuses to keep its shape and pills quite a bit. Though we did a photoshoot for the cardigan in York, I never finished the pattern because I did not feel comfortable endorsing the yarn.

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Working professionally as a knitwear designer means accepting responsibility. My pattern needs to be error-free, easy to follow, and yet spacious enough for people to add their own modifications if they want to do so. I also need to provide clear photos so people can see the neckline, basic construction, and any particular details. Finally, I am also aware that I am endorsing a yarn when I mention what I have used. 

For this particular cardigan, I am satisfied that I have fulfilled most of my professional duties, but I am uncomfortable recommending a yarn that left me unhappy after a few months of wear. I used the given yarn out of sentimentality (and I think of my grandmother every time I wear the cardigan), but I would not want others to use the same yarn. 

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After my first photos of the cardigan (and wearing the cardigan at events), I have been asked for the pattern several times. This is genuinely lovely to hear. I really appreciate that I can design things that other people will want to make. It is truly, truly one of my favourite parts of my job.

However, part one:

Immediately after I finished knitting the cardigan, This Thing of Paper happened. The next 18 months were spent living & breathing TTOP. The aqua cardigan pattern was shoved to one side. I brought the pattern out of hibernation the other day, and it needs some love. Not only did I learn a lot about writing garments from working on my book, but I also need to finish grading the aqua pattern across seven sizes. I need to reknit it in a yarn I am happy to endorse and we need to do another photo shoot.

However, part two:

In recent months I have begun shifting my personal style. I used to wear a lot of 1950s inspired clothes: dresses with full skirts and nipped-in waists, cute retro coats found in vintage shops, and I'd have red lips & dark hair with a short fringe. A cropped cardigan is perfect for that sort of wardrobe. Yet I am moving away from 1950s inspired clothes towards something slightly more .. well, that is a blog post for another time. I don't really wear cropped cardigans anymore. 

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The cardigan conundrum. I posted something about this on Instagram and some of the comments stated that "it's okay just to have something that is just for you, Karie". It is a nice sentiment, but sadly that is not how I roll.

I am so lucky to have the job I have and nothing - nothing  - I knit is ever just for me. I design and knit intentionally - and part of that intention is always that knitting is communal. I designed the aqua cardigan because I wanted to make something with my grandmother's gift, because I wanted a cropped cardigan, and because I wanted to share my idea with the world. The inspiration for the cardigan is also pretty amazing, I tell you. 

I think the solution is to start from scratch, rewrite the pattern, grade it, and create a cardigan pattern that can be worked as both a cropped cardigan but also as a cardigan I want to wear now. It might take a while (because I'm busy at work on something else) but that is a definite solution.  

Thank you to Helena who wrote to me about the cardigan (and included photos of her dogs). There is always a way.  

This Thing of Paper: Introducing the Marginalia Jumper

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Welcome to the eighth of ten posts introducing the patterns in This Thing of Paper. We are launching the book on November 30, so I want to take you through the patterns and their stories. We are almost there!

I shouldn't play favourites, but the Marginalia jumper is really one of my favourite patterns in the book. It is a beautiful Everyday Wardrobe jumper that is easy to knit and even easier to wear. It is a top-down raglan jumper with a raised back (which makes it fit even better) and waist shaping. The only real interest is a slip-stitch pattern along the hem and the wrists. I rarely knit my patterns twice due to time constraints, but I've made Marginalia twice. 

The jumper is worked in Blacker Yarns Lyonesse DK - a gorgeous wool/linen blend which relaxes as you wear it. I am fairly obsessed with this yarn as the feel of it against your skin is absolutely amazing, It relaxes as you wear it which the pattern takes into consideration. As written and worked in Lyonesse DK, your finished Marginalia will have some degree of ease, but if you substitute with a less drapey yarn, your garment will be more fitted. 

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Marginalia is named after the practise of writing in the margins of books. I know some people hate the idea of writing in books, but I love encountering previous readers in the margins of my secondhand books. I wanted to design a garment that was relatively straightforward but had some "writing in the margins". I have been somewhat obsessed by the idea of the paratext for years and early incarnations of Marginalia had me exploring the idea of making the paratext into text. In knitting terms, that meant thinking about what made a jumper into a jumper - the body, the sleeves, the openings for the head/body/hands, the idea of a front & a back and the ribbing. After deciding that nobody wanted a three-sleeved jumper or an all-over rib garment, I started working on the idea of marginalia (itself a paratextual element) and the notion of 'making marks'. I thought about ink slipping across the surface of a page - and the idea of a slip-stitch pattern around the, ahem, margins of the jumper became obvious. 

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Like so many of the other patterns, Marginalia was shot on location at Innerpeffray Library, Scotland. We used the small room off the main reading room for this shoot — the 19th century and 20th century books are kept in there — and I loved curling up in the comfortable reading chair and looking out across the fields dotted with sheep. I could have stayed there forever. 

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