When did inspiration first strike – when did you first pick up your needles, and why?
I learned to knit at school aged 8 from a terrifying home economics teacher. I was very glad I was good at it because the kids that struggled had a really hard time. It did take me the entire first lesson to work out how to make a slip knot though! There was a mnemonic involving lifting up a cake and picking the cherry off the top that got me nowhere. That was a very inauspicious start, but I think it taught me that it’s worth persevering with new techniques.
The first really creative knitting I did was when I was doing my textile design degree. I turned to hand knitting to make some of my swatches because I found that the fabrics I was getting from machine knitting weren’t expressive enough. I could add a lot more texture and colour to hand knits. Of course at college you still have to stick to the brief, so the main fabrics for a project had to be made on a machine but it made my sketchbooks a lot more fun!
How did you start designing, and who do you design for?
I hadn’t been knitting seriously for a few years when I started knitting again whilst pregnant. Yes, I know it’s a cliché! Then it became a running joke at my knitting group that I never could knit to the pattern. They started teasing me about when was going to start designing my own stuff. That coincided with my kids being past the baby stage so I was starting to get some brainpower back. I’ve worked in other creative and design fields in the past and I knew I needed to do something creative again or I’d actually go crazy!
I mostly design for myself. I mean that in two different ways.
Firstly, I’m quite a harsh critic about what I’m designing. I always ask myself; “Would I actually wear this, or is it the sort of thing I’d just get out of the drawer, try on, look in the mirror and take off again?” It’s really important to me to design for a real person. If I’m not designing with me in mind it’ll be a specific friend whose style I know well and I can see wearing a particular colour or style.
It also means that I won’t write a pattern that needs one skein…aaaaand a tiny bit of a second skein. I resent it, so I’m not doing it to someone else! I love one skein projects, and stash busters, and things to knit with that perfect yarn, and designs for beautiful but problematic yarns. So I make the assumption that other knitters feel the same. I want to design things that knitters (like me) actually want to knit, and enjoy knitting! Happy Knitting is a Big Thing for me. A few people have asked me to sign their pre-ordered books and I’ve been signing them with “Happy Knitting.” Thinking aloud, that has GOT to be my new hashtag: #happyknitting – !
Secondly, I usually design my own patterns for self-publishing. I love the direct contact and feedback that I get this way. I think it makes patterns and designs better. I do sometimes submit designs for magazines but it’s pretty rare that I’ll do that. I feel a bit distant from the knitters, plus I often work closer to when the pattern is being published than the magazines, so it’s hard to get far enough ahead.
Tell us a bit about your brand new first book – where did you get the inspiration, what was your process, how did you go about preparing to write it and release it?
I was being increasingly asked about when and whether I would do a whole book of designs, so I thought it was time. I started sketching loads of ideas for different accessories, and then it struck me that the most popular kinds of patterns that I’ve designed were all flexible patterns. They’re all designed so that knitters can choose the yarn they love, not feel they have to use something they’re not passionate about just because it’s what the designer has specified.
So I pulled out all the mitts and hats – things that have to fit properly – and focused on the designs that would make it fun for a knitter to play with the colours and yarns they could use, without having to worry about gauge and measuring so much. That meant cowls, scarves, shawls…and eventually, also a blanket.
I started with a rough structure based on a few things I knew I wanted to include, such as one-skein projects and things for variegated yarn. It was definitely time to design another deco-influenced lace cowl since it’s been a while since I designed Song of the Sea and I love that cowl! From that came the need for a flat project (the blanket that wants to be a shawl or scarf, if you play with it) in the same lace because I used to get emails every week about converting Song to a flat pattern, and I wanted to keep everyone happy from the start this time.
I love stripes, and wanted a shallow triangle scarf that I could wrap around in winter, so I designed that in cosy garter stitch. I’ve had lots of feedback about how hard it is recolour multi-coloured projects, so I came up with an easy concept and clear structure. I also knew I wanted an asymmetric triangle shawl for the simple reason that I want to knit one and I hadn’t designed one yet. The overwhelming choice of 4ply/fingering yarns out there meant that became a design about playing with pairs of yarns. I do genuinely design things I want to knit myself!
Then there were a few ideas that I’d been playing with just before I officially started on the book. Yarn Tamer (a cowl for that very wild impulse-buy, tamed with one sober skein) had been waiting nearly a year to be brought to life from its little swatch. It amazes me sometimes how long it takes an idea to go from swatch to published! The Yarn Tamer swatch was earmarked for mitts, but since I’d ruled those out for the book, and the fabric has to be worked in the round (for sanity at least), it became a cowl. I do a lot of that, process-wise: love the yarn, research and swatch to find a fabric in which it works, decide what the fabric could best become and then design the form it is going to take.
I wanted to show a few of the directions a flexible pattern could take, so that a more cautious knitter could be encouraged to try something else. I hadn’t decided how many to show, but then my lovely graphic designer created ideas for the layout. The one I loved best showed 3 “play” ideas, plus the original pattern. That meant there were days when my kitchen table was a sea of yarn while I tried to match up every pattern with yarns and colours, for at least four possible options, without repeating myself! I also wanted to include some ethical choices, yarns familiar to British and American knitters, and indie dyers. For every pattern. It got complicated. I wound up with a big sheet of paper, a lot of stickies and colour-coding, which eventually became a spreadsheet. Oh, and I wanted to encourage spinners to use their yarns too!
As far as writing and releasing the book goes, I realise I don’t have as much to say. It happened in such a rush! A massive team of sample knitters, testers and tech editors needed patterns. I needed a shoot with a (fabulous) team of models, make-up and photographer, plus a location and helpers. I wrote a plan and stuck to the dates! A friend recommended I book the shoot date with everyone and then I just had to achieve it. I have small kids and need to work to their schedule, so it doesn’t leave room for slippage anyway. I had some great advice once: “Hope is not a plan.” It works for me.
What is your favorite thing to design, and why?
I love scarves, shawls and cowls because they are invariably fun to knit. There’s no stress about fit and you can play with colour without it becoming overwhelming. I also love hats and mitts because they’re quick and therefore rewarding. I am embarking on sock knitting in the hope that I’ll find them as fun as mitts. I can’t rule out sweaters in the future, though I do keep saying “not yet!”
When it comes to inspiration, where do you turn for creativity?
I am often inspired by the yarn. I love a great project for one skein of spectacular hand-dyed 4ply/fingering, so that’s how Trailblazer scarf came about. I got carried away so it grew into a shawl too; I didn’t want to neglect some of the equally beautiful DK yarns I had found. These ideas became Trailblazer and Colour Trail.
I love vintage stitch patterns and have nearly all the Vogue Knitting Books going back to 1931. I’ve been a bit obsessed about them, but I have stacks of others. I like the thirties to the fifties in particular. Playing with some of the stitches in these, taking them in different directions, is great fun. The eyelet pattern in Affinity shawl and the mesh lace on the aforementioned scarf and shawl are from vintage sources. They’re not the original stitches, but they’re born out of using a vintage stitch as a starting point. I make a swatch of the original so that I can understand it, and then start tweaking the stitch pattern as I go, making a few centimetres in each variation. Then I’ll pick things from the developed swatches to use for a design.
I do a bit of looking for vintage garments to help spark ideas too. Heart Deco was inspired by a vintage cardigan I found at a thrift store. I played with the way I was repeating the lace, and suddenly found I was looking at interlocking hearts! When you’re designing you have to be open to these accidental discoveries. Sometimes swatches need to be parked for another design but this time it was great to just go with it.
The overall shape for a design often comes from the fabric and the way it’s constructed. I do keep an eye on the fashion world but try not to be too seduced by it. It’s helpful to know what’s going on, with longer-running themes, but I don’t want to be part of the machine that drives consumption by insisting that the newest thing is best. I’m interested in things that are a little more timeless, given the investment of time, money, effort – and often love – that goes in making our handknits.
Thanks, Louise! If you loved the patterns in this post, click here to check out her new ebook, Knit Play Colour, which is available as a digital download, and add it to your basket. To see all of Louise’s patterns, click on the image below. Love Louise’s patterns? Tell us in the comments!
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Last updated: October 1st, 2015.