Making It Work

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!

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.

Working With Creativity: 6 Tips From My Inbox

shadecards The second post in an accidental series on working with your creativity. Thank you for your feedback! The first post was about finding inspiration and taking hold of your own ideas. This post is derived from numerous email conversations I have had over the years. Grab a cuppa and let's go!

1) I am not creative but would love to know how I become one.

I believe that we are all born creative beings but somewhere along the way, some of us lose confidence in our own creativity. One of the defining things about us humans is that we make stuff. Look at us! We made fire and flint tools; now we land tiny machines on comets!

Do you cook? Do you bake? Do you garden? You are creative.

So, your job is actually to allow yourself to play and make stuff just for the sake of making. Get in touch with your younger self who told herself stories whilst playing. Make time to faff about.

2) I am really creative but things never look like they are supposed to. What am I doing wrong?

This is a really big question.

First of all, I hear you: I have all these ideas in my head and they rarely come out looking like what I expect. That is a perfectly normal phenomenon - so normal that it was discussed many thousand years ago by the famous Greek philosopher Plato in his Allegory of the Cave. So, be kind to yourself and look at your creative project with an objective eye. So, it doesn't look like it's supposed to but does it look like something else that is just as great?

Secondly, there is something to be said about practising your skills and knowing the tools of your craft. It is pretty straightforward: if you are an excellent cellist, you will find it easier to write a great piece for cellos; If you are a skilled lace knitter, you will find it easier to design a lace pattern; If you are a writer, having a good vocabulary helps you write characters who sound like actual individuals.

In summary: be kind to yourself but also acknowledge when you need to brush up on skills.

3) I'm a writer & designer, but I'm yet to write & design anything. Can you help me get started?

Some tough love: if you don't write or design, you are not a writer or a designer. Simple as that. I used to date someone who called himself a writer but he had never written anything. It was all in his head. Unless you get the words out of your head and on to paper (or screen), it doesn't count.

Some less tough love: I am a creative and I know all about fear and how easy it is not to do anything - your brain will give you a tonne of reasons why it's easier not to create. My personal demon is how nothing I create will ever measure up to the ideal version in my head (see above!). When I get a visit from that particular thought, I sit down and play. I doodle and I play around with scraps of art material. And then I get on with things. Months later I will look back at things I made and wonder why I ever found them troublesome and imperfect.

The best way to get started is to sit down and make some stuff. It doesn't need to be Pride & PrejudiceMona Lisa, or the most elaborate cabled cardigan ever - you just need to get started. It gets easier.

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4) Where do you find inspiration? What books can you recommend?

You need to hunt your own narwhals. Find out what is specific to you and your interests. In the words of a (not very good) 1990s British song: I got to be myself/ I can be no one else..

Try narrowing down who you are as a creative being and what you will mine for inspiration. Essentially, it is not about finding a lot of influences that look great on paper. You need to nail down who you are because it makes creative decisions a lot easier.

I'll use myself as an example: I like art, music, books, history, culture and films. Pretty generic, huh? I like early 20th century avant-garde art, Antipodean weird pop music, TS Eliot, prehistoric archaeology, print culture (particularly early printing), and the film director Todd Haynes. Looking closer, all these things/people seem to inhabit a place of instability and societal shifts. That's a pretty rich seam to mine from a creative point of view. It also means that I can easily identify what aligns with my values and my skill set. I'd be so bad at designing a collection of baseball-inspired sock patterns!

The only piece of advice I can give is that you should try to look outside your particularly creative field. If you are into knitting, get really good at knitting but also keep tabs on other creative fields, read about other interests, and listen to podcasts about deep sea exploration (or whatever). The author Vladimir Nabokov was obsessed with butterflies, the poet Emily Dickinson was allegedly a passionate baker, and the actor Vin Diesel loves table-top gaming.

Who are you as a creative? What makes you you as a maker?

5. What tools do I need to get started? What do you use?

Many people love having beautiful, expensive tools and they have elaborate rituals that help them in their creative work. But I am going to give it to you straight: a £50 journal, six types of washi tapes, three expensive pens, and the perfect mug will not make you a writer, designer, or artist. These things may make you feel you are settling into a creative space - which can be very helpful - but the starting point is always your own imagination.

(Having said that, I do love stationery as much as everyone. I even have washi tape in the house, but I mainly use it for taping up sprained fingers.)

I like uni-ball rollerball pens - they are easily available, feel good in my hand, and not so expensive that I'll cry if I forget one on a train. I use small journals: unlined for sketches and general mindmapping; squared for quick charting and schematics. I use Scrivener for writing, Open Office for spreadsheets and databases, Stitchmastery for knitting charting (Crochet? Google is your friend) and Scribus for general layout. You need to figure out your own configuration and (this is crucial) you need to learn how to use the software programmes, so they become helpful tools rather than something that stops you making.

Remember: Your imagination is the important thing. You cannot buy that.Caspar David Friedrich - Wanderer above the sea of fog

6. Best advice ever for a wanna-be creative?

Butt, meet chair.

Sit down and do it, in other words. Don't wait for inspiration. Make inspiration come to you. The more you are sitting in that chair working away, the more likely it is that you will have a brilliant idea. The idea of floating about your life waiting for inspiration to hit is a terrible notion brought to you by Romanticists who were mainly aristocratic wastrels floating around high on opium. So, don't do that.

Do this: Butt, meet chair.

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I occasionally teach classes on designing, creativity and how to move from vague ideas to full-blown project. Keep an eye on my workshop schedule if you are interested. Over the next few weeks, I'll be adding other blog posts on working with creativity and various aspects.

Everything Is About Narwhals: Finding Inspiration & Working with Creativity

This is a long overdue post. I get asked a lot what I am reading, how I work and where to find inspiration. I hope this post will be a road-map for you to discover your own inspiration and finding your own creative path. First, let us travel back to my childhood in Denmark. I grew up in a small town of roughly 3,000 people and I loved our local library. My favourite section was what the local library classification system (DK5) called the "00-07 section: General Works" - a grab bag of encyclopedia, books about books, interdisciplinary books etc. As a child, I'd walk in, pull down a few books and sit in a chair reading until my mum returned from the shops. It was a scattershot approach but it led me to different sections I never would have discovered otherwise. I learned about Roman slaves, costume history, parapsychology (hey, section 14 was just the next book case along) and so forth.

I've spent some time thinking about this in the context of ebooks & digital downloads (which I adore). I love being able to walk over to my book shelves and discover a paragraph about historical knitting, domestic work, or even a technical run-down of various cast-ons. I crave context and knowledge. I relish discovering new ideas simply by picking up a random book.  I am a big fan of owning physical (knitting) books - that chance of discovery is priceless.

All if this is written from the perspective of someone who works with knitting professionally on a full-time basis. I realise I am writing this from a privileged perspective (and as someone who does not mind a cluttered home).

What do you do if this is not your reality? Let's take a look at the general principles of everything is about narwhals.

  1. Chance: Start by opening a random book,  or typing in a random word into Google Image Search, or walking down a street you don't know.
  2. Open Your Eyes, Ears & Mind: what is interesting? what captures your imagination? what is different? what is new? what is awesome?
  3. Document. Keep a commonplace book; use Evernote (making sure to tag), take photos, draw and doodle.
  4. Everything is About Narwhals. Suddenly you will notice the same thing everywhere: you'll see the same motif recurring or the same ideas propping up in all sorts of places. If you get interested in narwhals along the way, suddenly you'll realise everything is about narwhals.
  5. Begin Your Creative Project. You'll have your scattershot notes, your own sources, your own documentation and your own story. How does it all fit together?
  6. Make stuff! And hopefully share it with the world because the world needs creative people.

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Narwhal by chibiwolf1005

Obviously not everything is about narwhals, but it is a neat way of explaining how creativity works for me. To couch in more high-brow terms, my creative work is synthetic (derived from Greek "synthesis":  'with' + 'placement' - σύνθεσις). I work my way to a coherent idea by placing many ideas together and then I find out what happens. 

So, while I can tell you what I am reading and I share photos on Instagram of amazing things I see, the really important thing is that you go out and find your narwhals.

Let's look closer at steps 5 and 6 above.

5. Begin Your Creative Project: you have your narwhal idea, you also have scraps of paper, doodles, and maybe even a Pinterest mood board (here's a random one of mine). This is the point where you sit down and try to make sense of it all.

  • Do you have a colour scheme?
  • Do you have recurrent motifs?
  • Do you have stories you want to tell?
  • How do you want to communicate your ideas?

This is when you start sketching or writing. Remember you are currently working to put things together and you are working your way towards a project. Do not be afraid of commit ideas to paper because you are not making final decisions. Just play and combine.

6. Make Stuff: you have your big idea ready to go and you know the colour/motifs/story. This is the time to create your beautiful piece.So, sit down and make it. Take ownership of it as well because it could not have come into being without you. You rock.

Addendum: I occasionally teach classes on designing, creativity and how to move from vague ideas to full-blown project. Keep an eye on my workshop schedule if you are interested.

Change Is Good; Change Is Slightly Scary

Casa Bookish has seen some pretty big changes over the last few weeks. It is a really exciting/scary time for me and I want to share a few glimpses of what is going on. Team Bookish has expanded slightly. I've admitted that doing admin isn't my idea of a great time (and that I spend too much time on it), so going forward some of you will start encountering Katherine rather than myself. She has vast experience organising creative brains and she's already made my working life a lot easier behind the scenes. I hope you'll welcome Katherine to the Bookish fold  - she enables me to focus more on designing and she loves a good spreadsheet!

You may have heard me mention this on social media: I'm working on a rather big project. I'm currently doing research and getting the details right, so I can start talking about it properly. It is a book-sized project and it's a somewhat ambitious & left-field one (this is from a woman who did a collection inspired by Mesolithic archaeology, land art, and psychogeography!).

I've shared a few images on Instagram recently that I think you might find interesting.

I keep journals - commonplace books and creative journals, more specifically. I've kept them since I was 14 years old and they are some of my most prized possessions. They are probably not interesting to most people (I jotted down a lot of 'profound' lyrics when I was 14) but I love looking through them.

The images I think you might like are from the creative journal I kept when I was working on the Doggerland collection (the Mesolithic archaeology one).

I find it so fascinating to see how I was working towards a very specific design vocabulary - dots, lines .. more complex motifs - and working on the basic conceptualisation of the projects - .. tools out of what's available .. not making heirlooms but making practical items for here and now. I remember looking at Late Mesolithic pottery and thinking about how the decoration was achieved by pressing reeds into fresh clay - how would I translate that into knitting?

Right now I'm working with a new creative journal filled with similar musings on a completely different topic and a very different concept. Yet again I'm thinking about design vocabulary, colour palettes, and doing the necessary groundwork.

I really, really hope you'll like it.