27 January 2012

Maybe it's a weekly blog.

I'd like to get back in the daily swing of things, but for the moment daily activities include knitting like a fiend, shepherding children to/from school, feeding the family, and doing laundry. I will fold blogging back in there at some point. Maybe even with photographs (I received a new lens from my parents for Christmas but for some reason am intimidated by it, even though I put it on my wish list and am really excited to have it and all - just need time to get to know it, I guess).

So, we left off with swatching. When my swatches aren't lie-y lying liars, they are extremely helpful. Heck, even when they do lie, they're helpful. I know most of the time I'd just like to dive in on knitting the PROJECT, but we all know the heartbreak that can ensue. Plus, when I'm designing, the swatch is the cornerstone of the design.

After the swatch comes the math. Luckily for me, it's basic math, which my parents would quickly point out has always been one of my strengths. Once we got to imaginary numbers, I quit, but I'm seriously quick on the basics. Usually, I calculate the cast-on number for my key size, whether that's me or the size I've contracted to produce for the sample. For now, most of my designs are bottom-up, so I start with the hem. Since, in addition to working from the hem, I prefer working in the round, I figure out the start of the sleeve right away and usually cast on a sleeve first. That way I finish one sleeve right away, while I'm "full of prance" as Elizabeth Zimmermann said. Plus, I won't end up on sleeve island or suffer from second sleeve syndrome (cousin to the dreaded second sock syndrome or SSS).

I know some designers who write up the entire pattern before they knit a stitch (aside from the swatch), but I prefer starting with some calculations, then take notes as I go. Sometimes the design happens on the needles. Oftentimes I'm still working out an idea (usually a crazy, I should be able to do this with knitted fabric kind of idea, like adding ribbing for shaping in Turn of the Glass). As a designer I'm most interested in manipulating the knitted fabric to do what I want it to do, or what I think it should be able to do. And exploring the brilliant engineering that EZ pioneered (if you're interested, you should check out her Knitting Workshop). An Aran for Frederick came about because I was curious to see how cables would work into her hybrid yoke idea.

Once I've successfully finished the piece, I consult all the notes I've taken, mostly in my Moleskine notebooks, and write up the pattern for the size I've knit, leaving spots for the other sizes. And then it's time for the spreadsheet! I'm no Excel power user, but I manage to get my OpenOffice spreadsheets to calculate everything for the various sizes. Usually, I have rough numbers to start and then I massage them to make things smooth for all you knitters. For instance, I will have to adjust the number of stitches between cables, but not too much or it will start to look like a different sweater. I started out looking at Marnie's amazing spreadsheets (that woman really knows how to make Excel do her bidding!), though I ended up creating my own since hers was for a sweater knit in pieces.

When I'm massaging those numbers, I refer to the brilliant chart Ysolda compiled for different sizes [link], which has been extremely helpful. Grading patterns is a challenge. You don't just add an inch or two all around in all directions for each size. You do have to finesse it. I've also built a lot of checks into my spreadsheets, converting stitch counts back into measurements to make sure we haven't veered into crazytown.

And the really cool thing I've figured out sort of how to do is calculate yardage requirements. I was really worried about doing this when I started designing sweaters. It seemed like it would just be guesswork. It is a somewhat inexact science, since knitters take up yarn into stitches at different rates, but still. I keep careful track of how much yarn I use in the sample, then use the spreadsheet to come up with some calculations as to how many stitches went into the whole piece. I always make these a little generous, so you have a cushion. Plus, I wouldn't want to calculate each and every stitch, especially with shaping in some garments. Anyway, I was very excited when I figured out that part of designing and grading.

Happily, all this crazy spreadsheet work has, thus far, meant that my patterns are pretty clean as far as my numbers go. Of course, after it's all written up, it goes off to my tech editor to make sure things are correct.

20 January 2012

Swatches are lie-y, lying liars

I think the title says it all, don't you? Looks like I am not halfway through the current OTN project. Sigh. Never mind that I swatched a good-sized swatch, washed it, let it dry (sometimes, having patience on that is difficult), and measured carefully. It seems I should have measured larger samples, especially for the stitch gauge, in this instance. I usually measure in a few places on the swatch, but I think this time it would have been better to measure over a greater area rather than double-check my measurements over smaller areas. Lesson learned. And now shared.

18 January 2012

This is not a monthly blog.

Goodness gracious, where have I been? I haven't posted since ... December 19th?! Apparently, I've been busy. Last-minute Christmas knitting (bears for the girls and one of their cousins, hats + mittens + felted balls for the other cousins, scarf for Mom, as-yet-unfinished hat for Dad, and trying to design a cap for my sister), baking and candy making, and three weeks of kid wrangling, including over the East River and through the air to the grandmothers' houses. Life would be easier if Penelope's preschool calendar was in sync with Isobel's and Stephen's.

Penelope's bear
Penelope's Christmas bear (Isobel's needs minor surgery before her photo shoot)
Amidst all that I agreed to a design for Knitscene (yay!) and have been talking with the editor of the now semi-annual Jane Austen Knits (double yay that a one-time idea has turned into a regular publication) to do some projects for that. So, on my plate I've got one done, except for some last-minute calculations, one half-way through the process both in knitting and pattern, and one that's just a sketch and a swatch. Being a designer keeps one pretty busy!

On Sunday, before visiting the Marketplace at Vogue Knitting Live, we went swimming with some friends and their kids, and the missus asked me how exactly one goes about designing a sweater. So I thought I'd write a little bit about my process here. Of course, it's different for every designer, and it's not even the same every time for me. But here goes...

Inspiration comes in different forms. Sometimes I'm inspired by a call for submissions, sometimes it's an empty spot in my closet/sweater drawer, and often it's a "crazy" idea that I have to see through to the end. There are, of course, a wide variety of crazy ideas from a stitch pattern to a detail in a museum piece to my ever-increasing understanding of what you can do with knitted fabric. The more you knit, the more you'll know. I like interesting details, prefer working mostly in one piece (and in the round, if possible), and am always inspired by the brilliance of Elizabeth Zimmermann.

Next come the doodles! Nick would tell you that I've been in training for this since college, when my notebook margins were littered with dress sketches. Now, it's a succession of Moleskine note and datebooks that bristle with notes, descriptions, lists, and, of course, drawings.

And then, most often, comes the yarn (sometimes it comes first - we all know how it can go at the LYS: the yarn just demands to come home with you, saying "You'll figure out later what I'm meant to be"). I'm a loose knitter (the only relaxed thing in my world! Kidding! Sort of :) , so I often have to go down a needle size or two from the ballband suggestion, if I'm knitting a sweater. For lace, of course, you go up a needle size, and down for socks, mittens, even hats on occasion. The great thing about being the designer is that you are swatching for the fabric you want, not a particular number of stitches per inch. It's freeing, though it puts a lot of pressure on said swatch when writing the pattern.

More to come ... tomorrow? I'm not sure this will again become a daily blog, but I'm going to aim for at least a few times a week. Happy New Year!