Once a week I post interviews with interesting people about their insights on their experience of working in the Knitting industry. I’ve noticed that every one of these individuals makes their living in a slightly different manner bringing their own unique presence to the knitting world.
You can find Leah here and here on Ravelry.
Where do you find inspiration?
My inspiration comes from a lot of different places – recent designs have been inspired by the paintings of Harvey Dunn and N.C. Wyeth, modern Americana music, and the way snow trickles down mountains to make rivers. I tend to be more fanciful in my inspiration when it comes to accessories and more character-driven in my garments. I like to think about a type of person or an event and design a sweater around that moment. I’m particularly drawn to rural farm women in the 1930s and 1940s who demonstrated a combination of utility and beauty I admire.
What is your favourite knitting technique?
It depends on what I’m working on! Right now, I’m having a bit of a love affair with using multiple yarn-overs in a row in my lace work, which opens up the fabric in a different way.
Do you look at other designers’ work or are you afraid that you will be influenced by their designs?
I definitely enjoy looking at other designers work and wish I had more time to knit it. I feel solid enough in my own design style that I can appreciate others work, but I probably tend to look more at people’s work that isn’t similar to my own. For example, love seeing the traditionally-inspired colorwork from my European peers or the very geometric and structurally-driven work of someone like Bristol Ivy or Olga Buraya-Kefelian. They help to remind me of all the things that knitting can be and help me push the boundaries of my own designs.
How do you feel about the so called controversy of “dumbing down” patterns for knitters?
I think that everyone should have access to making, which means a range of patterns for different skill levels. I’m often surprised that my simplest patterns are some of the best-selling ones. As for the language used within the patterns, what can be clear to one person is obtuse to another. I work with several different publishers and they all have different preferences, some of which don’t align with my own.
I try to make my patterns as clear as possible, but I think that trying to teach someone a new technique in a four-page pattern is asking for trouble and that there are better platforms for learning – the local yarn shop being number one, but also the proliferation of online courses and tutorials.
I recently held my first in-person event and the most frequently heard comment I received was variations on ‘Your patterns are beautiful, but I’m not there yet.” I think as designers, it’s easy to forget that a lot of people are still learning and that not everyone is as obsessed with knitting as we are! I’ve started trying to identify the challenging bits of my new patterns and working out tutorials for my blog to help people through it. They’re a ton of work, but people really appreciate it.
I think a good balance is happening in the indie sewing world – where the pattern instructions themselves are not that different from the commercial patterns that have been the same for decades, but that they offer a certain level of “hand-holding” through tutorials or sew-a-longs for those who need them. I sewed my first pair of jeans last year and I don’t know if I would have taken the plunge if the pattern designer hadn’t included tutorials for some tricky bits.
How many sample/test knitters do you have working for you or do you do it all yourself?
I’ve used one or two sample knitters in the past with various levels of success, but my preference, when deadlines allow, is to knit it myself. I often like to adjust the pattern as I knit it, which you can’t do with sample knitters. Maybe after I get another 50 patterns under my belt, I’ll feel more confident that I can write a whole pattern exactly as I want it from a swatch, but I don’t think I’m quite there yet.
Did you do a formal business plan?
No, but as my business grows more complex, it would probably be a good idea.
Do you have a mentor?
No, but I’d love one, if anyone’s offering! I do, however, live in an area with a disproportionately large amount of knitwear designers, so I benefit from bouncing ideas off of them. I also have a great relationship with the owner of my local yarn store (www.yarnonthebrain.com) who offers great encouragement, as well as insight into customers.
Do you have a business model that you have emulated?
She’s not a knitting designer (though she does have crochet patterns), but I really admire how Alicia Paulson runs her business (www.aliciapaulson.com). I especially appreciate how she works seamlessly between several different crafts. I’ve always been more of a Jane-of-All-Trades kind of person, with a wide range of interests rather than a specialist, so the opportunity to design in several different arenas appeals to me and is the direction I’ve been shifting my business in the past year or so.
Do you use a tech editor?
Yes. I use them on every single one of my self-published patterns. I think it’s so important to have a second set of eyes, especially when grading to multiple sizes or using an usual construction technique. A good tech editor will help make your pattern not only accurate, but clearer as well.
How do you maintain your life/work balance?
That’s probably the hardest part. I work a full-time day job and have a 3½ year old child at home, so while I can squeeze knitting in on my carpool days and while watching TV, a lot of my work (photography, layout, editing, etc.) gets done at night when everyone’s gone to bed. I stay up much later than I should sometimes, but I have a hard time relaxing, so it’s a good outlet for that energy. At the same time, occasionally I have to remind myself that it’s okay to take a break. My daughter sometimes asks me to nap with her and it’s a good reminder to slow down and give her a snuggle.
Prior to delving into knitting design, my creative outlet was theatre. I studied it in school, did a number of internships, and it was central to my life for several years until I burned out and doing theatre lost its joy for me. That experience was very informative for me and it’s something I keep in mind as I try to build my business. I take my business (Ms. Cleaver Creations – www.mscleaver.com) and my freelance design work very seriously and I hope that someday it can be my full-time job, but it’s no good to me if I build myself a job that ends up making me miserable, so I try to regularly ask myself what’s working for me and what isn’t – and the day job gives me more flexibility in figuring that out over time.
How do you deal with criticism?
I try to take it with a grain of salt, but not ignore what may be valid criticism. I’ve had people complain that my yarn requirements were off when the pattern clearly stated that the sample used all of X number of skeins and recommended the purchase of an additional skein. I’ve had people complain about the wording of a pattern that was rewritten in the style of the publishing company. There’s really not much I can do about that and I try not to give it much brain space. But if someone contacts me with an error or has issues about fit or construction. I try to listen and make adjustments as possible. All that said, I still get a sick feeling in my stomach the first time I see any piece of criticism – no one likes to be criticized, but I also realize that I’m still learning – and I’m only going to get better over time.
How long did it take for you to be able to support yourself?
I’ll let you know when I get there!
What advice would you give someone who wants to pursue a career in knitting?
1) Making a living by selling one-off patterns alone is very difficult (though not impossible) – if you want to do it full-time, think about how you can build off that platform – is it making books/collections, teaching, doing kits, doing tech editing or photography for other designers, etc.?
2) The creating/designing part you love, is only a small part of a creative business - there are a lot of parts like accounting or marketing that you may find less appealing or an excellent chance to grow your skills.
3) Don’t go it alone. Find a network to support you and if you need help with some of the more business-y aspects – find it! There are many excellent (and free!) resources, like the SBA business counseling services in your community (https://www.sba.gov/tools/local-assistance/wbc) – many of whom have experience with creative business clients.
What’s next for you?
I’m very excited about the coming year. I’ve been knitting pretty far in advance of release deadlines, so there’s a slew of new patterns coming out from me that I’m quite proud of. I’m also going to continue to expand the scope of my business to include more kits and embroidery patterns. But what I’m most excited about is submitting my first book proposal!