Friday, October 19, 2012

Guest Post: knitwear designer Jill Wolcott

I am a hand knitwear designer.  Unlike most hand knit designers, I didn’t come to this because of my love of knitting.  In fact, I re-discovered hand knitting after I began to do machine knitting which I came to as a fashion designer! 

I learned to hand knit as a tagalong with my older sister’s Brownie troop to lessons at the local yarn shop in Olympia, Washington.  I was 6 years old and loathed everything about it.  We learned the English method and I would happily have abandoned my project if my mother hadn’t made me finish it.

My mother was a knitter and I always think of her sitting in a chair in the living room with her feet on an ottoman, the New Yorker on her knees and her knitting needles clicking.  She knit primarily stockinette (probably to aid with reading progress).  We were thrilled when she learned Seed Stitch and we got something other than rib trim on our cardigans.  She is what I call a flicker—she flicks her yarn with her right forefinger.  I leaned to Continental Knit in 1995.  I wrote a Continental knitting instructional book with my former business partner in 2006 for which I did 96 illustrations.

I knitted the odd piece in the years intervening being 6 and 1993 when I started submitting machine knit designs to magazines. I had turned to machine knitting after moving to a new city where there were no jobs for my design skills.  I figured people always needed sweaters!  When I began learning how to use the knitting machine I disliked almost everything being created by machine knitters.  I pulled out old Vogue Knitting magazines (I had always kept a subscription to that even though I didn’t really knit) and figured out how to accomplish things I liked using my hand knitting knowledge (and occasionally calling my mother) on the knitting machine.

In 1994 before leaving for a vacation I picked up yarn from the sale bin of a local yarn shop because I didn’t feel I could stand to be away from knitting for two weeks.  I really enjoyed the portability of hand knitting and had a great time designing and knitting a sweater.  That sweater was an intarsia patchwork of different stitch patterns in three colors, put together in a planned random pattern.  I was hooked on hand knitting.

I started to do hand knit design as well as machine knits.  I like almost every type of stitch pattern, although I am not inclined to do much stranded knitting.  I love vintage lace patterns, and often find myself dissecting patterns to find their hidden elements.  Mostly though I am pursuing an idea, so I find stitch patterns that suit the concept.

The first knitting pattern I wrote was for a coat for a friend’s toddler daughter.  I wrote a variation of that design for a pattern that I sold to Machine Knitting News.  I think my first hand knit pattern was for Knitters.  I had a terrible time learning how to write effective patterns.  What magazines publish didn’t really seem clear to me; I think I struggled for about five years before I realized that I just saw things differently.  I call myself “directionally dyslexic”.  I have a hard time with right and left, and right side and wrong side conversions.  I do shaping for both sides in my patterns, and am pretty meticulous about tracking right and wrong sides.  I don’t have to be as concerned about how much space I use.  I also do my charts to reflect the stitches on the side you are looking at because I can’t do the mental transition.  Really, I’m not as dumb as this makes me sound! 

I have my own pattern line which allows me to write in a style that is clearer to how my brain functions. I have about 50 patterns currently available on my website, and at least that many more available on Ravelry in an old format while waiting for transition to my new format.  I always have about two dozen projects in the works.  Unlike many hand knit designers, I don’t knit my samples.  I write the patterns from swatches and they are knit (almost always just once!) from my instructions.

Knitwear design is rewarding because I get to create both shape and fabric.  I never cease having more ideas than I could possibly pursue, and every day I love sitting down to knit swatches.  The challenge is that knitwear design is not valued within the hand knitting community and it is extremely difficult to make money at it. 

At heart I am a fashion designer.  I love and follow fashion,  and I try to translate what I see in fashion for people who knit.  I look at all types of garments and translate elements and shapes into my designs.  I want to design things that, for the most part, will be fashionable in three years if that’s how long you take to knit it.  I create contemporary fashion, not fast fashion.  I am inspired by yarn, and stitch patterns, but almost always it comes back to fashion and style for me.

My advice to knitters is to enjoy the process.  It be just about the knit product, you should allow yourself to experience the pleasure of all that yarn running through your fingers, how you feel about your accomplishments, learning new things, and seeing what transpires as you manipulate your yarn and needles.  In the end, if you had to knit the same ball of yarn over and over, it could still be a pleasure (well, for a while).  We get too focused on the price of the materials we are using and how long it takes and we forget how much we get out of it.  Not only do we create things, we entertain ourselves, sooth ourselves, and help us get through things we’d just rather not (kid’s sports, waiting rooms, family visits, you name it!).

The most important things I am working on right now are books. I am focusing on redoing the Continental knitting method book.  I am changing the voice and the focus.  I want to provide how-to-knit instruction, and also give guidance through many of the things needed to transition from scarves to creating garments or more complex projects.  After that I have about five books to write!

I am a solo business owner for the first time in over 10 years.  This has proved to be more enjoyable than I thought it would be, although it is also scary and unnerving sometimes.

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