A month or so ago, I asked you all what questions you have for knitwear designers . . . and wowza! you all came through with some brilliant ideas! Two of my favorite designers, Kephren Pritchett and Albina McLaughlin, agreed to answer your questions and I’m so excited to share this Q & A with you 🙂
Kephren is the mind behind Kephren Knitting Studio. You have likely ooh’d and ahhh’d over her patterns in Interweave Knits, Knit Picks, and Knit Scene; you have also heard me wax poetic about her beautiful indie designs, such as the Sand Shawl, the Peony Shawl (immediately below), and the Storm Clouds Shawl (also below)
Albina is the one-woman show behind LB Handknits. You have heard me talk all about her many, beautiful designs, including Scéal Gra (first image below), Sunny Every Day, and Laítis. She has helped to bring Irish indie yarns to the fore and has an incredibly intuitive mind for knitting all the things.
Albina Mclaughlin, wearing her work in progress henley design (below)
By the Orchard Gate [ https://www.ravelry.com/patterns/library/by-the-orchard-gate ]
A Pale Fire [ https://www.ravelry.com/patterns/library/a-pale-fire ]
Rusticana [ https://www.ravelry.com/patterns/library/rusticana ]
Sunny Every Day [ https://www.ravelry.com/patterns/library/sunny-every-day ]
In this installment, we focus on questions about yarn and inspiration, the difference between knit and sewn fabric, and the uniqueness of knitting patterns. I hope you enjoy . . . and look closely, because you may even see your name or question below!!
Q. Does the designer have a yarn in mind as he or she thinks about the pattern? Does the type of yarn change often in the pattern development phase? —lsjames
Kephren: I usually start with a mental picture of the design, whether it’s cabled, lace, or colorwork, and the elements of the design help me to determine the type of yarn I want to use. Then I swatch with the yarn I plan to use for the design or a similar yarn I have in my stash and find out if the design works the way I want it to in that yarn. Sometimes it doesn’t, and I swatch again with different yarn. If It still doesn’t work by the second or third yarn choice I might have to change the design idea or give up on it altogether.
When I’m working with a publication I specify the qualities that I think the yarn should have to fit the design best, (drape, fuzziness, stitch definition, etc.) and I swatch with a yarn that has those qualities, but I’m rarely assigned the yarn I swatched with for the final pattern. The editors try to match the yarn I’m looking for with the yarns they have available, but sometimes the yarn I’m given may be a different weight or fiber content than I envisioned. Then I just have to make it work!
Albina: I usually have a yarn in mind even at the earliest stages of pattern development. My approach to design is quite visceral, and so from the very start I need to be able to imagine the texture and drape of the garment in order to think about its construction. In that sense, the yarn and design go hand in hand for me, and I would not normally change yarns in the course of the design process. I should mention also, that at the moment a good portion of my design work is either for, or in collaboration with, yarn companies – which means the yarn is often a fixed variable. So in those situations, if something is not working I need to tweak the design in order to accommodate the yarn and never the other way around.
Q: I would love to know how a designer knows their pattern is unique. There are so many patterns in the world that I wonder how anyone can come up with something new, and yet there are beautiful new patterns coming out every day. —Twinkle
Kephren: I like Elizabeth Zimmermann’s philosophy of “unventing”. Knitting has been around for a long time, so even something that is new to you is probably not new. That is to say, I don’t worry much about being unique. If a common technique is what works best, that’s what I’m going to use, but it is fun to play and try different ways to do things.
Albina: I don’t think we can ever know for certain – just as we don’t know whether any of the things we say, write, draw, even feel, are absolutely unique. I try not to let it worry me, as thinking about it too much can sap confidence and impede creativity. But as far as practical steps to ensure my pattern does not repeat an existing one: I do check for patterns with similar attributes before I dedicate too much time or energy to an idea. For example, at the moment I am working on a fairly classic henley top with certain details which I hope will make it interesting and different. Before committing to the process, I went though every single henley pattern listed on ravelry to make sure that a similar design did not already exist. Doing this does take some time, but I think of it as a necessary part of the design process. That being said, I think every human-generated design has something intangible that makes it a bit special, even if it is one of many similar designs. Think about the time you saw that perfectly ordinary raglan sweater, and it stood out from all the other perfectly ordinary raglan sweaters? Uniqueness can be fascinatingly subtle.
Q. I would like to ask what inspires a designer to create. Is it a feeling that there are not enough types of patterns, such as men’s sweaters, or simply what they find fun or challenging? —haysmom25
Kephren: I like to design mostly shawls and sweaters, and my inspiration is different for each type of pattern. A shawl can be just about any size or shape, as long as it can be wrapped around the shoulders, so my inspiration for those patterns is more abstract. I like to start with an idea like raindrops on water, or the shape of the wave that forms behind a fast moving boat, and create a shawl that visually interprets that idea.
For sweaters my inspiration is more practical. I think about how the sweater is going to be used; what kind of weather it will be worn in, what the wearer will be doing while she’s wearing it, and what design elements would add to its functionality and make it interesting to knit. My sweater ideas come from what I want to wear and what I need in my wardrobe too. When I was living in Louisiana a lot of my sweater designs used three-quarter length sleeves, fingering weight yarn, and lace patterns. Since I’ve moved back to Wisconsin I’m designing sweaters with higher collars, thicker yarn, and cables.
Albina: For me it’s not really either of those things, and I do not know how to even categorise what inspires me. Usually, the design just sort of pops into my head, and then I feel compelled to make it. Sometimes it’s a vague feeling, other times a very specific and detailed visual, or even an entire scene that develops around the design. For example, I recently designed a cardigan called By the Orchard Gate, which I conjured up in the process of wandering through the grounds of an abandoned orchard near my house. I was passing though this rusting gate and for some reason began to think about how, years ago, this must have been a romantic spot for local couples to meet. I then imagined a young woman running out of her house at night to meet her sweetheart in the orchard, and in my imagination she was waring this specific cardigan. Why it works like that for me, I cannot tell you, but that is how most of my designs happen.
Q. It seems that there are many more options working with fabric, especially in terms of drape and shape. Do knitwear designers ever get silhouette envy? It seems that we have only boxy, floppy or fitted, for the most part because we are working with drapey rather than fabrics with more body. Have you ever had a garment in mind that you just couldn’t work into a pattern for knit fabric? —KittenWhiplash
Kephren: I’ve done more knitting than I have sewing, so maybe I just don’t know enough to feel limited, but I don’t. I feel like there are many options with knit fabric that you don’t have with sewn fabric, like the ability to shape the fabric three dimensionally as you make it, or to transition from one type of fabric to another, like garter stitch to stockinette to ribbing, seamlessly.
Knitted garments don’t have to be floppy and shapeless either. If you look at designs by Shirley Paden and Mel Clark you’ll see examples of knit garments that are just as structured and fitted as garments made from woven fabric.
Knitting does have some limitations; even though you can knit skirts and pants I think those types of garments are better suited to sewing, but sewing has the same kinds of limitations. Can you imagine socks sewn from woven fabric? That’s definitely something better suited to seamless knit fabric.
Albina: In the past I have been frustrated at not being able to knit a jacket that felt sufficiently jacket-like. No matter what methods and tricks I’d employ, my knitted fabric was not behaving like woven cloth. It took a stint as a weaver’s assistant last year, for me to appreciate that weaving is weaving and knitting is knitting; they are different methods precisely because the aim is to create fabrics with different properties and potentials. So, over time, I have come to better understand and enjoy the parameters of knitted fabric, and, subsequently to work with it rather than against it. I even think I could make that jacket now!
Thanks so much, Kephren and Albina for sharing your ideas and expertise! And thanks to everyone who submitted a question for the giveaway that inspired this Q & A interview! Happy knitting! 🙂