June 01, 2013

Designer in Focus
Gudrun Johnston & Ysolda Teague

デザイナーインタビュー <br>Gudrun Johnston & Ysolda Teague

Photo by Ysolda Teague


Interviewed by Meri

We have very special guests for this issue, Gudrun Johnston and Ysolda Teague.

Gudrun has just published her second pattern collection, “Knit With Me”, with Quince & Co., and has also designed a cute pullover, “Ninian”, for us. Ysolda, as many of you know, self published several books online, has been teaching widely, and is a guru of knitting “the perfectly fitted sweater”.

We asked about their paths to becoming designers, and their design inspirations.  The interview was conducted in October 2012 during the Squamitalia! workshops.


Interview with Gudrun Johnston

Meri: Gudrun, could you please tell us about your Shetland heritage?

Gudrun: Sure. My parents moved to Shetland in the mid-60s, and had 4 children who were all born in Shetland. We were there for 13 years, and my mom had a knitwear business in the early 70’s called The Shetland Trader. She focused herself in the designing. For the knitting she found highly skilled local women. Some stockinette parts were done by machine as well. It was a made-to-order type of arrangement.

She was still running the business when I was very small, but I was not really aware of what she was doing at the time. Still, I remember my siblings and I were used as models for the children’s knitwear my mother had designed. We moved away from Shetland when I was about 4, and I mostly grew up in mainland Scotland. I learned to knit as a teenager during that time, but it was not until after I moved to Massachusetts with my husband that I went back to knitting. It was like beginning from scratch. After my first project, I was completely hooked. That was about 8 years ago.

Meri: Wow, not that long ago.

Gudrun: No. And I didn’t start designing straight away. I did start to adapt patterns to suit my own needs, though.

Meri: How did that turn to designing professionally?

Gudrun: First, I sort of randomly made up a skirt for my daughter and decided to submit it to Knitty.com. There wasn’t much time so I had to do everything very quickly. I spent 2-3 days in front of the computer, which was my first time writing a pattern, took photographs of my daughter wearing it, and sent it in to see what would happen. I was surprised and delighted when it was picked. Since it was going to mean I had an online presence, I thought that maybe I should have a blog. So I started one! For this, I picked the name of my mother’s old business, The Shetland Trader. That was the beginning of it.

Ysolda was already out there and blogging – she has a similar story. (Ysolda: You’re not supposed to talk about me just yet. ;)) She was one of the first people I made contact with, probably because she was from Scotland too, and because she was on Knitty already. I got into contact with other people who had blogs. We communicated online so easily. There were several people who were extremely helpful for me starting out, giving advice. It just grew from there.

Meri: So it wasn’t like you decided one day that you would become a designer?

Gudrun: No, I didn’t make any specific decision. And it didn’t really occur to me that I could make money with my designs. I think it was good timing as well because Ravelry started a short time after that. Suddenly, there were a lot more people discussing knitting and looking for new patterns online. That has been a big factor in the success I’ve had. It has only been in the last 2-3 years that I feel I can call designing a job. I treat it more seriously. I’m at it every day, really. I get to travel and teach. And, yes, I am actually able to make an income from it, which is very wonderful.

Meri: Do you feel that your Shetland heritage affects your design in any way?

Gudrun: Definitely. When I started to design on my own, I felt it would be good for me to have a niche, because there were many designers out there. So it was a natural thing to do – I was interested in knitting and Shetland knitting specifically. I was more drawn to Shetland lace than the Fair Isle aspect, even though my mom did more Fair Isle when she was designing. It still influences me as a designer, but lace was where I got started.

Meri: I see. And which one is your favorite piece that you ever designed?

Gudrun: So far, the most satisfying piece was a lace weight cardigan called Laar (http://www.ravelry.com/patterns/library/laar) . There was something magical about how my initial idea and sketch became a garment that was almost exactly how I envisioned it. That’s not something that happens often.


Photo by Jared Flood


Meri: Your answer leads to the key question today – can you describe your design process?

Gudrun: I suppose it varies. Magazines and websites that publish patterns sometimes send you mood boards. Or they have an idea of what type of garments or style they are looking for. Sometimes you don’t have a choice of which color to use. So you have a boundary set, and you have to work within it. But if I am just coming up with designs on my own, without those boundaries, then it often starts with a particular yarn or color that stands out to me. Then I knit swatches with it. I try different stitch patterns until I find one that I like. And that dictates what the actual design will become.

For Laar – that I just mentioned as one of my favorites – I saw a cone of yarn sitting in a yarn shop. It was the color of it that initially drew me over there. I wondered what I could knit with it? I swatched with it with larger needles. It gave a sort of drapery and soft texture, and I thought it would look great in a cardigan or something very delicate. After that, I started sketching.

Sometimes I am drawn to a particular shape in a sweater. Sometimes I see things in non-knitted garments – the shapes of their necklines or something – that give me ideas. It’s really about paying attention, and taking inspiration from things that strike me.

With “Knit with Me”, I had the idea to make it a mother-daughter collection. Each design can be worn by mother and daughter. I wanted to create designs that didn’t have to look too matchy and that had an ageless quality. That gave me a boundary to work with. I could see there would be something I like but my daughter would not. The trick was to find looks that would appeal to young and old. Or… older.

So, there is not one specific process that I go through.

Meri: But you tend to start with swatching?

Gudrun: Yeah, I tend to start with swatching and the yarn. And sketching. Sometimes my sketches are exactly what I had in mind, all the ideas in the sketch work together. More often, though, you have to make changes, because something you think of doesn’t work out, or sometimes the changes you make improve on the original idea.

Meri: That explains what I feel about your designs. You seem to have a very good sense for working with the qualities of the yarn, and often it has a very “wooly” feeling to it. Your designs don’t feel like you draw something and then tried to achieve it with knitted fabrics.

Gudrun: I think you are definitely right. The yarn dictates shapes and textures and what the garment will become.

Meri: Lastly, I’d like to know who inspires you as a designer?

Gudrun: Gosh, a lot of people. Obviously, Ysolda, and Jared Flood for his simplicity and photographic presentation, Veronik Avery, Olga Buraya-Kefelian for her uniqueness, Kristen Johnson, also known as Assemblage. 


Photo by Ysolda Teague

Interview with Ysolda Teague

Meri: Who’s your favorite, Ysolda?

Ysolda: I’m drawn to designers who take a knitterly approach. There are lots of people who can design a pretty garment but the one’s I find most interesting are those who play around with the interaction between stitch patterns and the architecture of the item. Norah Gaughn’s work, for example, is often quite simple but there’s always something unique that would be interesting to knit. Kate Gilbert and Cookie A. also spring to mind, I’m pretty excited that Cookie has started creating sweater patterns. Right now I feel pretty out of touch, I don’t get to spend as much time looking at new designs as I used to, but I do love to browse Ravelry’s “hot right now” page when I get a chance. It feels like we’re at such a creative time, there are so many people trying out designing and some of them have really new, exciting ideas.

Meri: I heard you’re very knowledgeable about techniques and have been teaching quite a lot. But how did you learn all those things?

Ysolda: I have a photographic memory? Not quite, but I was that annoying kid who found exams easy because she could regurgitate the textbook. When I first got into knitting I was obsessed, but I didn’t know many knitters, so I read everything I could find. Most of the books were really old, they weren’t as beginner friendly as modern books, but that also meant that I didn’t know some things were considered difficult. I just tried things out, and ripped it out when they didn’t work. I really got into knitting when I realized what you could do with techniques; I wasn’t very interested in following patterns (or very good at it) so I experimented with stitch patternsand recipes for basic items. And while I was doing that I kept hunting for new things to learn, I probably read every technique book there was.

Meri: Wow.

Ysolda: I wouldn’t be surprised, because I am really, really dorky when I’m into something. And I don’t mean I browsed through them, I read them like novels, from cover to cover, and can probably tell you a little about the publication history as well as the content. I even read stitch dictionaries for fun, not just flipping through the pictures for ideas, but reading all the instructions. I’m pretty sad…lol

For some reason I was interested in the way things were explained, I wanted to learn that code. When I was in primary school, I remember loving it when the homework was to write a recipe or an explanation of how something worked. The one thing I learned in high school that seems most relevant to what I do now was from my physics teacher. He ran contests to explain how things work, like how a battery works, in the fewest number of words, and I always won, probably because I was the only kid who thought that was a fun task. How a battery works in 19 words! Which of these words doesn’t matter? How can you explain something as concisely as possible without losing the meaning?

So I wasn’t just interested in knitting, even when I hadn’t thought about writing my own patterns, I was analyzing how they were written. For lots of people the pattern writing is a chore and they’d love to just do the design part but for me it’s actually part of the appeal of my job, although it can sometimes be tedious!

I didn’t really ever knit from patterns much; I’m not very good at following instructions. I made one hat and a few sweaters from patterns, but I think only one of them actually followed the directions correctly.

Back then, I remember I was knitting a sweater from a pattern, and there was a decrease that didn’t make sense. I thought there was a better choice than the one used in the pattern. But, I thought, there must be a reason for choosing this method. And I kept knitting, waiting for the reason to emerge, until I reached the end of the pattern. And it never did, there was no reason. I was so mad!

So when I teach, I try to encourage my students to have that confidence. Sometimes you are right, sometimes you do know better than the designer. Of course, sometimes you are wrong. Then you just have to rip it back, but at least you learned something.

Meri: Was that when you started to design?

Ysolda: I’d been making up my own projects for a while, but just for myself, I hadn’t been writing patterns. My “getting published” story is similar to Gudrun’s. I submitted a pattern to Knitty, but I had no idea anyone actually read it. Several people I knew could knit, but they didn’t want to talk about it obsessively like I did, so I was really excited when I found Knitty. For the first few issues they had a fairly small pool of designers. Discovering that there were about twenty people out there (as I thought) who were as into knitting as me was thrilling.

One day I was browsing the website and found page titled “submission guidelines”. It all seemed fairly straightforward: “send us a word document and some pictures”. I didn’t have a digital camera, so my mum took some pictures of me wearing the cardigan. I had to get them printed and scan the prints.

I think that was only the third sweater I’d ever knit, and I had no experience writing a pattern. I didn’t know much about contemporary pattern writing or different construction methods, the ones I was most familiar with were either really old or very traditional British patterns. I didn’t know anything about calculating different sizes with formulas, but I’d drafted sewing patterns before. So I took out graph paper, drew each piece, counted how many stitches and rows there were and turned that into a pattern. Then I did the other size, and the next. It took forever but it worked! It’s not the most interesting pattern ever, but it works.

Meri: So you read all those books after that?

Ysolda: Yeah. I was still devouring everything I could get my hands on. I learned how to calculate sleeve caps from a Knitty article on that topic. But a lot of books were simply not readily available – many of them were out of print and there are still no books on some of the things I wanted to learn.

Knitty also suggested providing a blog link. I’d been reading a few craft blogs, but that was my motivation for starting my own: so I could complete my pattern submission. I started it in June, and for the first few months the only people who read it were real life friends. Then I woke up one morning in September and found there were thousands of hits on my blog. I thought it was being attacked or something. But Knitty had come out and I was on the cover. It turned out there were more than twenty obsessive knitters out there and they were leaving comments like: “I love your Knitty pattern, where are all your other designs?”

There were no other designs, so I thought I’d better make some and that’s how I became a designer.

Meri: Almost overnight.

Ysolda: Back then, I really didn’t have a clue what I was doing. For example, I’d never heard of technical editing. When I did the Knitty pattern I got a nice email from someone saying “I don’t think this number works out”, but I didn’t know that her job had a name. I didn’t hire a technical editor for my first patterns because I didn’t know I could, so my first patterns were terrible. Some very sweet people wrote to me about the mistakes. Things have changed a lot since then; the expectations are really different. On the other hand, nowadays I don’t think you have an excuse to design and self-publish a pattern without knowing what tech editing is. There are so many resources, like the various groups for designers on Ravelry, that make it easy to learn from other people’s experiences. Back then, my customers were really understanding. They were willing to put up with a lot of revisions because they were excited that there was someone who was doing things differently. They were also happy that they could contact me and I’d fix the problem. The direct relationship between designer and knitter was pretty exciting and there were new designers emerging and working outside of the existing publishing framework.

So I learned as I went along, but I’m not sure I’d actually recommend that approach to someone starting out today!

It’s fun to meet people who have been reading my blog from the very beginning and have followed this journey with me.

Meri: So you are mathematical, read a lot, and taught yourself how to design. Can you also describe your design process?

Ysolda: I think a lot of it is about overcoming the feeling that you are wasting time if something doesn’t work out. If you have an idea, it might not work the first time, or even the second, but maybe the third will be wonderful. The only way to get there is to work through the process of failing and trying again.

When people tell me that they want to become a designer, my question is always “do you like ripping out your work?” Most knitters will do anything to avoid that but once you it, it can feel quite cathartic. They don’t try more complicated things because they don’t want to rip their work back. It’s not going to work unless you get over that. You don’t have to like it, but you have to accept it.

Meri: And, where do you start? Yarn, sketch, or…

Ysolda: I don’t sketch very often. Sometimes I doodle, but I’ll keep adding notes and details on top so it ends up looking like an illegible scribble, for me it’s just a way to work through my ideas. The only times I sketch the final design idea is to communicate my ideas to an editor.

Instead of sketching I prefer to make really elaborate swatches. Sometimes I have a technique or a stitch pattern in mind that I want to adapt, or there will be a sweater construction or silhouette that I want to try, or there’s a yarn I’m excited to try. There isn’t a set catalyst for an idea, but it’s always a matter of working out the best combination of those elements.

I know some designers have a more organized approach, but in my case I just bring many things together. It’s often more about editing, knowing what to remove is as important as knowing what to add.

Meri: It means you are more experimental?

Ysolda: Yeah, I suppose so.

Meri: I guess you have tried and read so many things that you already have pieces in yourself to try.

Ysolda: Yeah, and sometimes it takes a long time. I tried this idea and didn’t like it, but 3 years later I came back and thought “oh that was a pretty good idea, but the stitch pattern did not work well with the garment”.

Meri: But that explains it – I made your Rose Red hat and was surprised by how complicated it was – the combination of stitch pattern and the construction.

Ysolda: It’s just a bunch of cables with increases and decreases… but yeah, I like combining stitch patterns with construction elements.

I meet many people from all over who want to know how to learn or where to study, but there isn’t really a set path. You can take random workshops with designers, but even at a fashion school, knitwear design is only part of the course and it’s commercial knitwear design where you make flat pieces with a knitting machine. That’s certainly useful, but it is not going to be enough. You will not learn how to write knitting patterns and you won’t learn a lot of techniques that work well with hand knitting that don’t work with knitting machines. Those are often the techniques that make hand knitting interesting.

In some ways it’s encouraging for new designers that none of us have really studied designing knitting patterns. There are people who studied fashion design or commercial knitwear design, but we all took very diverse paths to get here. There are a lot of knitwear designers with PhDs. Staying at university was actually my plan b if this didn’t work out (although I never decided what to focus on!).

A lot of us took random classes, read, and experimented. It’s getting easier and easier to find resources to learn from. It’s also more intimidating because there are more people designing and knitter’s have much higher expectations.

Ysolda: Rarely. Well I hardly have any spare time. Almost all of the knitting I do is for work, but I still enjoy it. I just can’t sit still without doing anything.

Gudrun: It feels alien to me to watch a movie without knitting.

Meri: Yup, I totally feel the same.

Gudrun: It makes me feel on edge if I finish knitting a project and don’t have anything to knit because I haven’t finished calculation or something.

Ysolda: Yeah that’s when I knit swatches. I just moved my studio out of my house but I still knit at home and I’ve been trying to work on more things that aren’t for work. There is still lots of yarn at home – my linen closet is towels and yarn – because I have no other place to put them.

Meri: What do you like to knit?

Ysolda: Almost anything but I am not a big sock knitter, I don’t like anything where you have to make an identical pair. I prefer knitting a sweater because I can spend a lot of time just knitting without having to stop and work something out. My favorite thing to knit is actually a stockinette! I like designing with cables but I don’t like to knit them that much because you have to keep pausing to cross the cables. Whereas with lace and stockinette, once you get the rhythm it gets easy and flows.

Meri: Well, thank you, it has been a great pleasure talking to you both, and I learned quite a lot!