Knitwear designer Robynn Weldon considers herself a designer in training, albeit the training has been going on for more than 25 years.
Robynn was gracious enough to take the time to talk with me about her beginning in knitting, a new project in the works and valuable advice for everybody wanting to get started in knitwear design.
Tell us a little bit about yourself. Who are you, where do you live? What is your educational background?
I’m South African born, now settled in Switzerland with my Swiss-born husband and two small children. Before moving here in 2013 we spent 11 years in London, long enough for me to feel quite connected to the UK as well as South Africa.
My degree is in English, and my professional background in newspaper and magazine publishing, which has come in useful for self-publishing. Right now I’m at home with the kids, and trying to use this career break to build my design skills and portfolio – although I do find it very difficult to carve out time for work. I don’t get half as much done as I’d like. The ideas are there, the creative energy is there, but the time just isn’t.
Did you undertake formal training in college or within the industry, or did you find your way into knitting via a different route?
No, none. I became hooked on knitting while in boarding school – everyone in my family knits and crochets, it was an obvious way to pass the time! And none of my knitting role models ever seemed to use patterns, so creating my own designs was also just the obvious thing to do. It was a long time before I started actually writing and sharing them, though.
What are your favorite projects to knit?
Hard to answer – I can’t really think of anything I don’t like to knit, except homewares and toys (I’m all about wearables). I’d say I like adult garments best but I’ve made very few of them in recent years, because of lack of time.
How would you describe your style?
I haven’t really put out enough patterns yet to have established a design style. I know what I’m interested in: wearable designs with a romantic flair, styles that will still look good in a few years but have a distinctive, even quirky quality. There’s a tension in my design: I’m energised by great colour combinations but I don’t gravitate to colourwork of any kind, I prefer creating interesting stitch patterns. So I’m exploring ways of bringing that colour energy into a project that’s really more about texture. My Kissable baby set is one example: the jacket is colour blocked in two shades of brown, with the tiniest of bright orange details to enliven it. The combination makes me deeply happy!
What inspires and influences the designs you create?
My inspirations are very pedestrian. It’s usually not about the beautiful patterns of lichen on a tree, or light on the sea – I mean sure, those images inspire ideas and I keep photos for that purpose. But what I actually design comes from my practical needs. What am I going to do with this gorgeous yarn? How am I going to keep my toddler’s neck warm? How can I freshen up my wardrobe this winter? It makes for pretty boring pattern blurbs!
I do keep an eye on fashion and (more importantly) knitting trends; I like to see what’s getting everyone’s juices flowing. But I don’t try to do the trends. Funnily enough, back in high school I wanted to work in fashion (more buying than design, since I never could sew). It took me years to realise that while I love clothes, I really don’t like fashion. I don’t like the whole idea of change for change’s sake, and the focus in the fashion business on cleverness rather than beauty. But of course I’m as influenced as anyone else by what’s around me. I know there comes a point when the silhouette than you loved so much last year suddenly feels completely wrong and frumpy. And as a designer I need to watch out for that; not so much trying to keep up with what’s new, as trying to avoid anything that’s going to soon feel OLD.
What types of materials do you prefer to use?
Always natural fibers. I appreciate the value of acrylic (and a good cotton/acrylic blend is a very useful thing!) but it makes me sweat terribly. I’m very much a wool person these days, I love how forgiving it is, and how versatile. As you know I used to run Purlescence– an online shop specializing in luxury knitting supplies – so I have a very well developed stash of premium hand-dyed yarns, and I truly love them, but I’m always on the lookout for really robust, unassuming basics too. I’m nervous of single-ply silks and merinos; I don’t want to spend hours knitting something that will start to pill from the moment I put it on.
Do you have a favorite knitting related book or a favorite project from one of your favorite knitting books?
Wow. I am deeply attached to all my knitting books! But I don’t know if I’ve ever actually knit anything from any of them, they’re more there for inspiration. I use my many stitch dictionaries constantly, of course. And Clara Parkes’ Knitter’s Book of Yarn is probably my top favorite of all the books, it’s both enormously useful and very enjoyable to read.
Please walk us through the process, from idea to the finished design, of one of your pieces.
Well, the Elfbaby hat was a process and a half! I conceived it when my first kid was a baby, although at the time I hadn’t written any other patterns. She needed a hat, and I wanted a pattern to promote sales of a particular yarn. I imagined a pixie-style hat, with the long point for cuteness, and a garter-stitch chevron border to pull in gently while showing off the variegated yarn. Between the business and baby wrangling, I didn’t have time to work out the numbers, so I asked my mother (who was visiting) to have a go. She made a beautiful hat, gave me her notes, we took some photos and then… completely failed to publish the pattern.
Partly this was because I was so busy, partly because I wasn’t really happy with the pictures, and then Claudia lost the hat! Meanwhile the yarn used was no longer in production. And then I sold the shop, and life happened, and it was only five years later (having put out a few free patterns meanwhile) that I finally got back to the hat.
Revisiting it I realized that my mother’s pattern, though lovely, wasn’t quite what I’d wanted. She had increased the stitch count for the brim, to compensate for the chevron pulling in – which defeated the purpose, as well as making for an off-puttingly huge cast-on. (I think it was 238 stitches? For a baby hat!) I also decided I wanted to try some other border options. After a whole lot of swatching (and many, many sample hats) I ended up with three different, interchangeable borders. I wrote the pattern up in a full range of sizes, from baby to large adult, and laid it out, but I still needed photos (and wasn’t having much luck with my own kids). Luckily a friend who is a keen photographer loved the design, made a couple of hats for her own family and friends, and agreed to supply me with beautiful photos. So then I was FINALLY ready to publish what became my first for-sale design. It’s done pretty well and I think Lorna’s photos are a huge part of the reason. Getting photos that really sell the design continues to be a big challenge for me.
Can you show us photos of your stash and your work space?
I have such resistance to this question, because my workspace is such a disaster zone! But I’ve been pretty vocal lately about the false image created by online crafters, in which everything is always picture-perfect and unattainable, so it’s only fair to show you the ugly truth (with suitably appalling pictures).
I try to keep my desk clear (I hate working amid clutter) but as you see that doesn’t happen. Fairly or not, I blame the kids, both for dumping stuff and for keeping me from getting work done. The rest of the room isn’t much better either (a sofabed covered in my husband’s junk, stray toys over the floor). Not the most inspiring studio.
My stash is stored in this great Ikea cupboard, actually designed as a computer workstation. I have far too much stash, I’m trying to get rid as I feel it’s weighing me down. I love each and every yarn but en masse, it’s too much. There’s also a bunch of fabric in there – I still don’t sew, but I keep fantasizing that I will, and have promised my poor impatient daughter a princess dress!
Which software do you use on a daily basis?
Does Twitter count? That and email are probably the only things I use every single day. For designing I use EnvisioKnit, Excel, InDesign and Affinity Photo, but I don’t get to spend nearly enough time on design work for those to be in daily use.
Of all your designs, do you have a favorite?
Oh yes. The one I’m working on right now. You’ll have to wait a couple of months to see why, but I bet it’ll be your favorite too. It’s the first adult garment I’ve made in a while and I love it so much.
Who are the people who have or currently inspire you in the knitting/crochet world?
I’m very much inspired by Ruth Garcia-Alantud (Rock and Purl) – for her professionalism, her hard work and attention to detail. Ruth has taken her business seriously from day one and it shows. Ysolda Teague is a role model for how she handles self-publishing, exploiting the freedom to create beautiful books that add tons of value which traditional publishers probably wouldn’t support. (She’s also possibly the only designer from whom I’ve knitted more than one project – evidently I really like her style!) And I admire Julia Trice enormously for having a very clear sense of what she wants to achieve with her design work, for putting out consistently great work, and for being a wonderfully supportive, encouraging presence in the Ravelry Designers group.
What was your most frustrating experience in design? What didn’t work? (Only because we as knitters like to know that EVERYONE frogs)
I frog so much. I have way more concepts that I’ve completely given up on than I have finished designs. The Elfbaby hat was originally supposed to come with a set of matching stockings, and they looked cute, but impractical; I never actually put them on either of my two babies. So that was the death knell for them. I also had a pattern accepted to Knitty years ago – long before my actual first published pattern, Twist & Shout – but I pulled it before publication, when I realized in a panic that the cotton yarn made it far too heavy and it stretched hopelessly out of shape within a couple of wears. I’ve learned a lot about yarn choice since then!
If you could knit anything for yourself, what would you knit and what yarn would you choose?
This is the beauty of it – at this early stage of my design career, I figure I can knit exactly what I want! I knit patterns from other designers to learn from them, and I knit my own ideas according to what feels right for me. Right now I’m working on a bamboo T-shirt that mashes together two patterns (Pintuck T-shirt by Lien Ngo, for the shape, and Gavotte by Cecily Glowik Macdonald, for the draped neck). I’m also knitting a sample for a soon-to-be-released cowl pattern in hand-dyed sock yarn, and I’ve just started this gorgeous new lace design that I love. It’s in a stunning BFL/silk blend from Dublin Dye Co and I just want to coo at it all day long.
What projects are you currently working on?
I’ve got something super secret on the go… it’s knitting related, but not a pattern, or a book. I can’t wait to tell all but there’s still a way to go.
What would you most like to knit that you haven’t made so far?
I’ve never tried Entrelac, so I want to learn that – I have my eye on Ruth’s Entrelac Butterfly Shawl, by Ruth Thorne. I also love Nancy Marchant’s fresh brioche designs, they offer so much scope for playing with colour!
Where would you like to see your designs in five years?
Given childcare constraints I think it’s going to take me much of that time just to get into gear as a designer: to refine my style and get into the rhythm of regular production. In five years’ time I’d like to have a solid portfolio with a coherent point of view (at present I think it’s a bit too ad hoc, driven as I say by my practical needs). I hope to have produced a lot more adult garments, and to have had designs published in a magazine or two. I even have plans for a few books – somewhere down the line!
What would be your number one piece of advice to someone wanting to get started in knitwear design?
Remember that even the most successful designers, whether self-publishing or otherwise, have more than one stream of income. So don’t expect to make a living from design alone, even if you achieve great popularity. You’ll need a second string to your bow if you want to support yourself through knitting, be it your own yarn line, or teaching, or whatever. And if you are self-publishing, you need to invest in your business: don’t skimp on tech editing, photography, layout or anything else. Great presentation is essential to attracting customers, and solid editing and testing are essential to keeping them.
That’s two pieces of advice. Since I obviously can’t count I may as well add another: look for support – be it a mentor, a design buddy or the welcoming arms of the Budding Designers crew on Ravelry. It’s enormously helpful and encouraging having other minds to bounce ideas off, and share your frustrations. I have particularly enjoyed the virtual company of Emily K. Williams, my partner in the Miranda’s Lounge group on Ravelry – and it’s great having two people to boost activity and membership in the group, also.
Thank you for this interview, Robynn!
Robynn Weldon founded online store Purlescence in 2006 (and sold it in 2011) and now can’t imagine not being professionally involved with the craft community in some way. She is looking forward to finding ever more interesting ways to pursue her passion for stitchery.