June 01, 2015

Featured Interview: Norah Gaughan - Issue 7


Interviewed by Meri

Photo courtesy of Woolspire.

The guest of this issue is knitwear designer Norah Gaughan, who left Berroco’s Design Director position in 2014, and became a freelance designer from her home studio.  The recent announcement that she became a part of the Brooklyn Tweed Design Team was a big surprise, a sign she is up for a new challenge. We are very happy to give you an interview with one of the most esteemed knitwear designers of our generation.


Thank you for doing this interview, Norah, while you are busy between teaching workshops and designing.  I have been following your work since Knitting Nature, which is a fascinating book that inspires many knitters to this day.  I’d like to start with a question about how you got started.  You grew up in a family of artists, and were surrounded by diverse tools and materials. What was it about knitting that fascinated you in particular?

I’ve always loved how portable it is. You can knit inside or outside, while nestled in a cosy chair, or even while walking. The ability to rip out easily if I’ve made a mistake or changed my mind was (and still is) appealing as well. I was already pretty good at sewing, by hand and machine by the time I learned how to knit, but cutting out fabric and sitting at the machine makes me a tad nervous. I feel like I have to be in a hurry. Knitting is calming to me. Plus, I’ve always loved indulging in TV, or watching a movie, and making something at the same time. I like the practicality of making something to wear. (I love clothes.) 

You wrote in your book that, for a while after graduation, “knitwear designer” did not feel like a real career. How did you become one, and what helped you to feel differently? 

Since my parents were both freelance illustrators, I did know that a freelance career was possible. I was good at math and science in school at a time when women were making some real strides in terms of equality in the work place. It was a good thing that girls were told that they could do anything, especially careers that had been thought of as ”men’s jobs.” However, the flip side is that I had to get over thinking that a traditionally ”woman’s job” wasn’t worthy. 

I think the conflict still exists among a lot of us who work in the field around the world.  You have to be strong enough to tell yourself that what you are passionate about makes you happier than what you are expected to do.

For many younger knitters who have started to knit in the last several years, Knitting Nature is probably what comes to their mind when hearing your name. Do you feel that nature-inspired design is how you design knitwear, or is it one of the repertoires you have mastered over the years? 

Writing Knitting Nature was a turning point for me. It was so great to work on a larger project with a more intellectual theme. I hadn’t really looked to nature for inspiration before that, maybe for a surface pattern or two, but never before as a framework for the structure of a garment. Once I delved into thinking about building garments with polygons, spirals and fractals they became a permanent part of my design vocabulary, or my repertoire as you put it. 

What interests you the most about knitwear design these days? 

Right now I am kind of hung up on geometric shapes. I started teaching a class about designing with large geometric shapes as the main parts of your garment. After collecting great inspirations on Pinterest, I became more fascinated than ever with the idea. Once you get started, one idea leads to another.

Writing Knitting Nature was a turning point for me. It was so great to work on a larger project with a more intellectual theme.

Could you please describe your design process? Do you tend to start with motifs, or do you sketch a design of the whole garment? 

I love surface patterning – knitted cables, textures, even wood-carving. Earlier in my career, my design process used to start with the surface pattern, and the garment shape seemed secondary. While I was working at Berroco, and starting especially during the few years I spent together with Margery Winter, I learned to think about the desired result first – about the garment type and the look and feel of the finished result before starting to swatch. These days I am mostly likely to sketch an idea, swatch, (maybe re-sketch), and then draw a schematic before I write the instructions. Each step brings changes and adds details. 

You spent 9 years working for Berroco as design director. Could you please tell us about your experiences and your responsibilities there? What did you learn from the experience? 

I learned how to work with a team and how to lead a design team, how to get a lot done in a short period of time – also how to let go and accept unexpected changes. 

Balance was definitely the key. The business of a yarn company is selling yarn. That doesn’t mean they can’t indulge artistic designs. In fact, Berroco puts a lot of stock in the quality of their designs and a lot of attention to getting consumers to notice their emphasis on design. When working as a team, it was important to think about all levels of knitters, and also present a wide variety of styles to show off each particular yarn. I was given much more of a blank canvas when it came to the books with my name on them, although I was still aware that the purpose of my patterns was to sell yarn. The Norah Gaughan series of booklets (vol 1-16) were fun for me because I was free to explore different directions each season. One season all of the pieces were based on crystal formations, another season was all on fungal forms. 

Doing something new, something a bit scary that I haven’t mastered before gives me motivation.

You have 16 pages of patterns on Ravelry! Among so many patterns you’ve published, do you have any particular favorites? What type of design gives you greater motivation? 

Doing something new, something a bit scary that I haven’t mastered before gives me motivation. I like to feel clever. I have a really hard time designing super simple things, because I can’t show off at all. I LOVE super simple things and I greatly admire designers who have that skill mastered. I guess, truth be told, I am more sure of my brain than of my design aesthetic. 

I think knitwear designers need both, otherwise pattern writing would be a disaster.  And you surely do have both! So now you are part of the BT Design Team. How did that happen? 

Jared Flood asked if I would be interested in working with Brooklyn Tweed in some capacity, and after discussing the options I became the new member of the design team. I’m honored to be asked and to be working with the team. They’re a talented and fun group. I admire every one of them. The times we get together are rather magical. I know that my designs are affected by the group dynamic and tastes; which is energizing.

Berroco has so many yarns to choose from when designing, and it is like an artist can choose from  a wide range of mediums to work with, while BT basically has two types of yarn that are of similar construction. Do you find that a challenge? What are the possibilities you find in BT’s yarn? (I love BT yarns, I knit almost everything with them.) 

I love wool and I adore Brooklyn Tweed yarns. However, working with Brooklyn Tweed is only one part of the work I’m doing now. I’m working on another book, and I am free to pursue projects with other yarn companies as well. I have more choices than ever. That said, I work well within parameters. I like the challenge of designing within the bounds of any particular project. Given all the choice in the world I tend to get a bit paralyzed.

You have been in this business longer than most other designers. What has changed in terms of the knitting culture and business in the States? 

Years ago I wished for a way to get an esoteric or specialty product to the right consumer. 

I see the market has changed quite a bit - and amirisu is probably a part of it - thanks to the Internet.

We’ve come to the last question.  How do you spend your free time? Does that influence your knitting in any way? 

Free time? I do tend to knit a lot. If I don’t have much free time, it’s because I’ve done it to myself. When I do manage to pull myself away from my needles, it’s probably to do something outdoors with my husband. He and I are really interested in good local food. We buy meat from local farmers and John is a great gardener. Searching out new sources and preparing food is a big part of our weekend activities. All this thinking about locally grown meat and vegetables has made me more interested in local wool products as well. I like the idea of using yarn from breed specific sheep, and I seek out local yarn near home, and especially when traveling.

Locally produced food and products are given larger attention and shelf-space in Japan as well.  That makes living outside of big cities more appealing than ever, which is a wonderful thing.  

Well, thank you, Norah, for taking your time answering questions.  We look forward to continue seeing your designs in many publications, hopefully in amirisu as well!


Manila from Berroco: Norah Gaughan Vol 15

Dabotap from Berroco #348, Berroco Cosma. Bottom: Gavarnie from Berroco: Norah Gaughan Vol 16

 Chainlink from BT Winter 15