Tuesday, March 20, 2007

What is a Designer?

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.


Kathy Kathy Kathy said...

Oh, I'm more and I'm merrier. In other words, I agree. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. If a tree falls in the forest,... Keep the shiny side up and the dirty side down, don't take any wooden nickels, write if you get work and call me in the morning.In the meantime, keep your nose to the grindstone. I love your designs-concoctions-tweaks-work-style.

Elizabeth said...

Do I really write with that many platitudes? I'd better proof-read more carefully! ;-)

YarnThrower said...

I enjoyed reading your essay! It reminded me a little bit of Elizabeth Zimmerman with her never-ending encouragement to be a thinking knitter.... And thinking knitters, particularly those who do not have "perfect" figures, have to "design" out of necessity, or else live with ill-fitting garments or extremely limited pattern selections. Anyway, thank you for your thoughtful analysis!

Guro said...

Nice, well written words, Elizabeth. Similar content has been bobbing around in my brain from time to time. There should be a knitters "I'm a designer" (insert ball of yarn and needles here)t-shirt!

knitaly said...

I agree with you, and I believe that the one who tries to do something does right! Just do what you want to do! Judgment and taste have nothing to do with how much your work is easy or complex

knitaly said...

...ah! I never told you I approve your motto thoroughly "What counts is what you learn after you know everything"

Batty said...

Honestly, if someone writes up a pattern for something I want to knit, and the pattern is comprehensible and clear enough, I don't care how many people have done t he same thing or a similar thing before. I'm just grateful that someone took the time and wrote the pattern so I don't have to make it up myself.

Bezzie said...

Well put. A lot of people do qualify as "designers" under your definition.
But on the other hand I've noticed that it seems at least, for every 10 people who can design there are at least 10 people that *need* a pattern and can't seem to have that ah-ha moment you described above.

Webbo said...

Really great post and one I heartily agree with. Several times I've looked over a pattern and thought, "Well of course that's how you do that!" but if I can't figure something out on my own then I'll happily pay for someone else's solution to my problem.

Carina said...

I totally agree. I don't consider myself a designer, but I'm also completely incapable of following a pattern as written and often end up totally changing it. That, and I design many of my own things. I just don't think of myself as a designer because I don't do many sizes and publish what I write up.

Oh, and that top-down comment was nasty. I infinitely prefer top-down, and it's not like you have to do only raglans. For kids, top-down is a far better way to go, and I really like it for me, too.

jpknits said...

Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

I notice a parallel trend with student designers: an "if it's not out there I'm not designing. It's a notion worth debunking.

Similarly, an architect doesn't have to bail on the basics of construction in order to have designed, right?

Always enjoy visiting your blog.

jpknits said...

Bah. I need to proofread my comments better. Lost a set of quotation marks and an end to a sentence.

blanket said...

That reminds me: I've been up late a couple of nights recently and watching Masters of The Universe--the cartoon--and thinking, somebody wrote this (it's the most schematic, half-baked writing imaginable); this was written by A WRITER who was employed and paid. If basic and serviceable things can be done well, then they can be done badly, too. Self-conscious design "features" are just part of the mix. It's all about solving problems in your medium.

Kathy Kathy Kathy said...

You certainly do NOT write with that many platitudes, but I do.

emily said...

Very good post, Elizabeth. I agree that the idea of a designer is kind of ridiculous. I design a lot of stuff I never write out a pattern for-- is that designing? Really, what I present a designed pattern for other people to knit, I am saying, hey, if you want a sweater that looks like this, here's what you could do. That could be color, yarn choice, shaping, cables, etc.
I read a couple comments that my Knitty pattern Cactus Flower was "meh" and had a boring shape... not that I agree it was meh (bright orange mohair is not meh) but it _was_ a pattern that was more about a yarn concept than a gimmick or any overly complex cables or what have you. My design philosophy is that there is not point in piling on all the tricks in a single garment. One or two tricks in a garment is way more beautiful and compelling I think. I just finished a writing up a pattern that kicked my ass, and I definitely felt like a designer on that one.
I occasionally wonder why people get so excited over sock designs when they all seem the same to me, but that's because I don't care to knit socks and have never tried to design my own, so I couldn't know how complex it is. And, who would want to knit socks that arent pretty much like all the others? weird shapes would be a disaster.

Becky said...

I have a question about linking to your Soltice Hat pattern. Could you email me, please. Thanks!

rebecca (at) moonfrog (dot) com

Carol said...

Well said. I don't see why we have to catagorize anything. The world is full of multi-tasking, cross-over jobs. Why does anyone need to be pegged and who gets to have the last word on what 'design' means? If someone wants to buy it, so be it.

enallagma9 said...

Reminds me of the old 'discussion' about art vs. craft, especially back in the days when I did a lot of quilt-making. I suppose that, in terms of knit design, people are really trying to distinguish between design-that's-just-a-few-tweaks-to-an-existing-design and design-that-takes-a-lot-of-real-work. Often designers in this latter category, once they've established a body of work over the years, demonstrate their character, their personality, their self, in their work - I'm thinking of people like Teva Durham or Norah Gaughan here.

It's all design, in one way or another. For myself, I know that tweaking the number of stitches for the fingers in a published glove pattern, so the glove fits my, ahem, muscular, fingers, counts as 'minor' design. I almost always use a different yarn, certainly a different color, than a published pattern; that's ' minor' design, in my world.

'Major' design, in my sense of the word (i.e., feel free to ignore this), means taking an inspiration from the beginning and carrying it out in a project. For example, once upon a time, I designed and knit a sideways-knit pullover, with Kaffe Fassett-like red and blue tiger stripes slanting diagonally to meet in a V at center front and center back. For me, this is a lot more work, and thus I don't do it much right now. My knitting seems to be squeezed amongst all the rest of my life, and I don't have the time or energy to do more than 'minor' design right now. I regret that fact.

Perhaps that regret is why I'm so wordy about this subject right now. Thanks for making me think, Elizabeth!

Magatha said...

I cannot understand any valid argument about denying someone "designer' status for writing a pattern. No matter the source of the decorative portion or any other design element put together in that particular pattern.
Designers can look at a pattern book, a color swatch a basic sketch and dream up something special. They use resources and inspirations, these things don't pop fully grown from any designer's head. They make up prototypes, they write arduous first draft patterns and then have to work out the bugs with a test knitting or twelve.
I don't want to do any of that, so I will happily call anyone who does that for me a "designer". So in a nutshell, we agree. :-)

DeeAnn said...

I love this discussion and agree wholeheartedly. Classics became classics for a reason. Utilizing classic construction techniques in a pattern of your own making, with self determined details is no less a 'design'. And some of us just love those classics :)

B said...

Well said. I quit buying patterns, because a lot of time I kick myself for not looking at the picture more closely and adding that lace panel into the basic shape myself.
Off topic, I have randomly stumbling upon a lot of WI knitbloggers this week!

Cindy G said...

Bravo Elizabeth! I started "designing" about two days after I learned to knit and purl, and followed a trajectory not unlike yours. Why should "design" be considered an exclusive term? We are all capable of creativity, let's celebrate, and encourage, that.

ColorJoy LynnH said...

I'm finding this post months and months after you wrote it, but I'm moved by your well-put opinion.

Personally, I think that simple often is what flatters the body best. Creating something that works well is just as wonderful as creating something that is eye-catching on a runway (but not so wearable in real life). They have different purposes, but both are valid in my mind.

I mostly design socks and accessories. For me, the number one thing after making something I like to wear, is explaining how to do it. In my world, designing a knit piece and explaining how to make it are two tasks absolutely inter-related. I sometimes knit socks with three stranded colors in the same row, but I have thus far chosen not to write that sort of item as a pattern. Those who love to buy my patterns thus far appreciate the clarity and ease I try to incorporate in the text/photos.

On the other hand, I knit a self-portrait... I will never explain how I did that (ie write that pattern)... for one, because it's not so useful to someone else, and for another, because I'm not exactly sure how my process went. It was a multi-month process of following my intuition.

When I know I'll be issuing a pattern, I pay close attention to the process involved. I don't always write down everything as I'm making it up on the needles, but later I go back and count stitches and rows and figure out how others can do it in different sizes.

I admire the funky, artful stuff displayed on a wall. I've actually framed single multicolored socks and hung them for a few art shows.

But I admire garments when they work well on a body. And twenty different top-down raglans will all have slightly different fit and finishing... and very, very different instructions.

I believe that part of my art when writing patterns is the instruction part. Of course, some do not approach this as I do. I was a computer instructor before I was a knit designer, so that's my take.

It is delightful to make your digital acquaintance. I've been to Madison many times, it's a lovely place to spend a few days (the food is incredibly good there).

I hope to stay connected...