When I first started knitting, I very quickly made the jump to constructing my own patterns for basic shapes. I was in my late 20s. Having learned knitting basics as a child, it was not hard for me to get back into it. I made a pair of mittens, following a '70s era pattern for hats and mittens in both crochet and knitting. The pictures were comically out of fashion, but the basic mitten shape works no matter what decade it is. Once I knew how to increase and decrease as well as knit and purl, I figured that was all I needed to know to knit a basic sweater; the sweater just took more stamina. I had another '70s pattern called Six Classics By Bernat which featured sport and worsted weight cardigans and pullovers, with a variety of neckline options. I made a very simple raglan pullover in worsted weight yarn. I did not make a gauge swatch. As I was knitting, I could see it was too big, but I kept going because it was the late '80s and giant sweaters were in and I've always liked my clothes a bit oversize. It was huge. I decided to try again on a different sweater, and was more careful about gauge. I wore that second sweater for years, until after having my first child. It had an all-over texture of knits and purls, was made from a Brown Sheep yarn called Cotton Top, and wore like iron. And now we're coming to the design part of the story.
My husband wanted me to make him a sweater. Or maybe I wanted to make him a sweater. We weren't married yet, and I had never heard of the boyfriend curse, but wouldn't have paid attention if I had. So, I went to one of the three local yarn shops in Ithaca NY where we were then living. I had seen a pattern for an all-over textured sweater that might suit him. Then I picked up some yarn on sale, which was more like a DK weight, but I didn't know the difference. The pattern I remembered seeing was actually all-over cables, which I didn't think I was ready for. But the yarn shop had another pattern with a knit and purl texture. It was written for worsted weight yarn. The clerk tried to tell me that it wouldn't work, but I said, "I'll just recalculate how many stitches to use based on the gauge I get." She seemed dubious, but I did just that and it was fine. The pieces were, after all, rectangles and trapezoids. Then I had the AHA! moment. I didn't need to buy patterns for rectangles and trapezoids! Or even raglan-sleeve shapes, which were kind of like mutant diamonds. Anyone who passed 5th grade math could do this. And I was free! It was, after all, the '80s, and sweaters came in two sizes: big and bigger, and with very little in the way of shaping.
Since that time, sweaters have followed the fashion trend toward leaner, more body-conscious styles. It's more of a challenge to write a pattern for a fitted garment that will accomodate a range of sizes from XS to XXL and fit and flatter every body. It isn't just rectangles anymore.
I while back I read a post on The Knitting Curmudgeon in which she mentioned that she considers herself more of a pattern drafter than designer. I can't find the post now, but the gist of it was that writing patterns for simple items isn't designing, in the same sense that thinking through complex garment construction is. A few days ago, on a designer list serve, a young woman expressed a similar sentiment. She commented that putting a stitch pattern onto a top-down raglan isn't really designing and she was, for one, sick of seeing top-down patterns on the market.
Is Alice (She Who Cannot Be Named) Starmore a designer? For a lot of years, most of her work has involved putting gorgeous color combinations onto simple shapes. Same with Kaffe Fasset. Yes, you can come up with examples for each of these two that counter that statement. But, the majority of their work has been more about the color and less about the garment construction, compared to someone like Norah Gaughan. So, are they not 'designers'? How about people who figure out ways to arrange holes and decreases on a rectangle or triangle to make a lace shawl? Are they not designers?
I made a comment on KCs blog about the post in question. I said, "Maybe being a designer doesn't mean as much as you think." Making the simplest of choices about the best marriage of yarn and pattern is designing. Yes, it's a lot simpler than calculating waist or bust darts. But it's designing never-the-less.
Not all designing is truly original
What? Is that heresy? How often have you seen a new pattern for a basic pullover or cardigan? At least several times a year, if you spend much time looking at magazines, knitting pattern books, and yarn company pattern offerings. Maybe it's in a new yarn that a yarn company wants to sell. Maybe in this year's colors. Maybe they fiddle the gauge up and down or play with the design ease a bit. But designers and the folks who hire them keep releasing new versions of tried and true classics because there's constant demand, and knitters will want to make those garments. That first sweater I made was from a pattern with very out-of-date photo styling. I had to use my imagination a bit to see why it was still a fine pattern. A lot of knitters will not do that. So, is writing a new pattern for a long-standing concept not really designing? Do you choose the color? Do you choose the gauge? Do you see if the gauge suits the yarn? Do you tweak the silhouette so that it doesn't look passe? Those are all design decisions. No, they aren't as complex as planning exactly where to put the short-rows for a D cup bust, but they are still design decisions.
About those top-down patterns. This comment got under my skin a bit. I've written several top-down patterns. They can be harder to write out than those for garments constructed in pieces. Easier to execute, harder to write. And one of the great benefits of top-down construction is the ease with which one can alter and adjust for personalized fit. But this, too, makes it harder to write a complete pattern. I don't consider it a sell-out or less work to release a top-down pattern than I would one knit conventionally. And I don't consider the end product to be an inferior garment. Choosing to explore this construction method doesn't make me less of a designer. I still have to consider the marriage of materials to design, the fiber content, the color, the shaping, textures, collars, bands, edge treatments. The list goes on. And further, top-down construction is not limited to raglans. I happen to like raglan lines. I much prefer them to set-in sleeves, and not just because they're easy. But top-down one piece construction can be used for set in, drop, modified drop, or saddle shoulder sleeve treatments.
I think a designer is person who gets a vision of the garment or item she wants to create, and plans how to create it. Those plans might be very complex or relatively simple. The item being designed might involve a completely original way of constructing the style of garment, or might be merely a new reworking of an age-old concept. But, you say, doesn't that make 80% of the people who knit designers? Well, yes, probably. But I don't see that as a problem. I don't like all the art that so-called artists make, but I don't dispute their right to the term. Similarly, I don't like all the designs that knitting designers create. And sometimes, I think, the more complex or innovative construction can be worse from a wearability and function point of view than something more straight-forward. Spend a few minutes looking through the images from fashion shows on Style.com and you'll agree that designing often has very little to do with making the clothes that most of the people want to wear. If I can write a pattern that people want to wear, and they buy it, and enjoy the result, am I less of a designer than someone who creates a new way to cover two arms and a torso, but no one wants the result? And if every knitter whoever took up yarn and needles and made a scarf with a stitch pattern from Barbara Walker is also a designer, then I say, the more the merrier.