Behind the scenes: Hitch, Vertigo, and the San Juan Bautista Shawl

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Today, my blog is the 12th stop on the blog tour for Hitch: Patterns Inspired by the Films of Alfred Hitchcock, edited by Stephannie Tallent. Since I both designed a shawl for this book and also did the page design and layout for the book itself, I thought I’d take you behind the scenes on both parts of the process.

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In addition to my love for designing for men and boys, I also have a penchant for designing garments with unusual constructions. I’ve loved unusually constructed garments ever since I first knit Elizabeth Zimmermann’s Baby Surprise Jacket – an ingenious design that looks like a malformed jellyfish until you perform the origami maneuver at the end that transforms your jellyfish into a perfect little sweater.

When I saw the call for designs for Hitch, I knew this was another perfect opportunity to design against the grain. As a director, Alfred Hitchcock reset all the cinematographic rules, so I wanted my design to be similarly off-kilter.

My direct inspiration came from this iconic movie poster that Saul Bass did for Hitch’s film Vertigo. (Bass also did the poster for West Side Story, The Shining, and many other great films, by the way.)

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I decided to translate that wonderful spirograph shape into a two-color shawl. The colors were easy: an orange-red and a light gray, kindly provided by Shibui Yarns. I experimented with several different combinations of stripes and stitch patterns, until I hit upon a simple, two-row, knit-and-purl stripe with yarnovers that fit the bill. The yarnovers run in one direction and the stripes in the other in a way that I thought was quite reminiscent of the original poster.

All that was left was to mimic that dizzying spiral shape. I found that if I cast on a certain number of stitches at the end of every so many rows (more detail available in the pattern, obviously), then the shawl grew outward in an intriguing spiraly way:

Vertigo Shawl swatch

In the end, I had a shawl that is simple to knit and did not feel over-designed – but that has maximum graphic impact:

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I’ve called it the San Juan Bautista Shawl after the old Spanish mission where Hitch filmed the climactic bell tower scenes. It turns out the bell tower was a complete fabrication created as a movie set – the actual mission’s tower had burned down decades earlier – which I thought was a fitting tribute both to Vertigo‘s own deceptions as well as the fact that this shawl is deceptively simple to knit.

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Once I had finished designing my piece for the book, I had the pleasure of laying out the book for Cooperative Press, where I’m the art director. The editor, Stephannie Tallent, had done an exceptional job of choosing garment designs that complemented each other well, and she had also smartly limited the color palette for the yarns to red, black, gray, and white. Even though more than 25 designers contributed to the book, the collection looks as cohesive as if one designer had done them all.

Our photographer, Nick Murway, specializes in dramatically lit shots, and CP’s editor/publisher, Shannon Okey, selected an elegant vintage wardrobe kindly loaned to us by Deering Vintage. The combined look was very Hitchcock. (By the way, the model pictured above is one of my former students, Marie Draz, who is a brilliant doctoral student in philosophy and just happens to have a classic Grace-Kelly-like beauty.)

It was my lot, then, to pull together all these striking elements into a book. Stephannie and I perused through various Hitchcockian fonts, finally settling on Filmotype Kingston for its elegance and legibility. (The body text is all in Century Schoolbook, a font used frequently in the 1950s.) For the book’s color palette, I of course adhered to the same black-and-white-and-red-all-over look of the garments. The rest of the book design was relatively straightforward, but I did add a few fun elements like using a small Hitchcock silhouette as the icon that you click on in the digital version when you want to return to the table of contents.

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Do check out the 28 other gorgeous patterns in this book. As someone who designs mainly for guys, I should point out that there are some patterns in here for you as well: the Robie Sweater, the Exakta Hat, and the Kentley socks.

And if you enjoyed reading this post, try these others stops on the Hitch blog tour!
9/28/2013: Sunset Cat Designs
10/5/2013: Knitting Kninja
10/7/2013: Herrlichkeiten
10/8/2013: Knit and Travel
10/9/2013: Knit & Knag Designs
10/10/2013: Wooly Wonka Fibers
10/11/2013: Verdant Gryphon
10/15/2013: Impeccable Knits: Shifting Stitches
10/16/2013: Rewolluzza
10/21/2013: Knitwear Designs by Carolyn Noyes
10/22/2013: Peacefully Knitting
10/23/2013: Dark Matter Knits (You are here! Thanks for stopping by. Come back, won’t you?)
10/24/2013: Turnknit: Dani Berg Designs
10/25/2013: SweetGeorgia Yarns
10/28/2013: doviejay knits
10/29/2013: Triona Designs
10/30/2013: Tactile Fiber Arts
11/2/2013: A B-ewe-tiful Design
11/4/2013: A Knitter’s Life
11/5/2013: Catchloops
11/6/2013: Yarn On The House
11/07/2013: Ramblings
11/12/2013: Hazel Knits
11/13/2013: Knitcircus
11/19/2013: indigodragonfly
11/9/2013: Fyberspates
11/25/2013: knittingkirigami

The big career move, nearly two years on

Marie, herself an academic, recently left a kindly inquisitive comment on my blog, asking how my career transition was going from history professor to knitting designer, editor, teacher. It made me realize that this was a good time to take stock, in writing, about how that transition has gone. It has been nearly two years since I took the big plunge, quit my hard-won academic job and plopped into the deep end of the freelance pool.

You may be curious about the answer – how has it gone? – and frankly, as I sit here preparing to write, I’m awfully curious myself.

I know the general sense of the answer: the transition has been rockier than I would have hoped, but I regret nothing. (And if you, too, are now humming Edith Piaf to yourself, you can thank me later.)

But it’s all in the details, right – and that’s the interesting bit to sort through. Well, here are a few of my thoughts, geared less toward self-analysis and more toward what I’ve learned that might help others….

1. As a freelancer, I’m kind of like a small business, so maybe I can cut myself a break that I’m not entirely solvent yet. Small business owners hear over and over again that it can take months and even years to start making a profit. I had grand visions of making at least half of what I earned when I had a full professor’s salary and benefits. I was delusional. I’m making about one quarter of what I earned before, and it has been tough financially even though we prepared by cutting way back on our expenses.

The good news is that I do have work – more than I can take on, actually – and that seems like a good sign that as my experience grows, I can earn more for that work. I am not despairing. OK, there are moments late at night where I do, but those are relatively rare.

And you know what? I’d rather be struggling to do what I want to do than settling because it’s safe. I truly, truly believe in that.

2. It’s really interesting to think about where my particular skills might be badly needed in the industry. When I was teaching, I knew exactly what I was supposed to do, and what kind of skills I needed in order to do it. I could be as creative as I liked, but the required parameters of what I needed to do each day were pretty clear.

Now I have to think much more entrepreneurially, which is terrifying but also fun. I really have to think long and hard – and repeatedly – about what I have to offer and where that might be needed. I’m really good at teaching, so classes are an obvious choice, but then I have to think creatively about where I might teach, because there are so many local yarn store and fiber festival classes available. Perhaps teaching at nursing homes? Maybe some summer camps for kids?

I also am pretty good at graphic design, and the past couple of years working for Cooperative Press have helped me improve them immensely. I’ve been thinking about (and approaching) who might need those services in the knitting industry: knitting designers who might need better pattern templates, schematics, and charts? Indie dyers who might want a spiffed-up graphic identity for their yarn/fiber labels, signs, and business cards? Many ideas bubbling away and some already in action.

You get the idea: I’m WERKIN’ it.

3. I don’t get quite as much respect as I used to, though, and that grates on my nerves. As a professor, I had become very accustomed to being treated like a smart, competent human being. I don’t think I realized how much that mattered to me until it was gone. I now regularly have people treat me with minimal respect – because they see me as “just” a customer service rep for my publisher or “just” some freelance hack that they can push around or “just” a mom who has all the time in the world to volunteer for everything because she doesn’t have a “real” professional life.

What really gets my goat about this is that I have never for one minute forgotten that everyone deserves to be approached with respect. I was never that asshole prof who crapped all over the department secretary’s desk and expected her to clean it up with a smile. So it’s not even like I’m getting my comeuppance. I’m just getting uppance that no one deserves and it pisses me off.

Let me very clear that most people don’t treat me this way. But it’s a lot more than it used to be.

4. On the other hand, I’m still free, and that’s a very good thing. The one thing I knew I could never give up about my previous job was the autonomy. I am a really bad employee. I’m not very good at taking orders. I like to do things my way. I like being my own boss and setting my own schedule. I’m sure this is true of most people, but after getting the taste for a rather extreme form of work autonomy in academia – I could come in and leave whenever I wanted as long as I showed up for my classes, obligatory meetings, etc.; I decided what I was working on each day; I decided how I would teach my classes with minimal oversight – I knew I could never really go back to the standard boss-employee relationship. I’d probably get fired within a few weeks. Thank the stars that the person I do most of my work for – Shannon at Cooperative Press – has a high tolerance (and frankly, a healthy love and respect) for independently minded people. I got extremely lucky there.

In all, I’m glad I did this, and I still have so much learning and growing to do. I don’t think you can ask for a better outcome than that.

A different kind of designing

I’ve been gone from here a while, I know. My fingers have been on a mouse more than they’ve been on the needles lately. You see, I started working for this very cool independent publisher nearly a year ago and now I spend most of my time turning other people’s designs into pretty books.

I really, really miss knitting design, and I need to start making more time for it. But I have to say, it’s been fun rediscovering my love of graphic design, too. The last time I did any of that seriously was in 1992 when PageMaker and Quark XPress were the hot software. I actually read the Quark XPress manual cover-to-cover — partly because that’s how much fun I am and also because my boss was whiny about how hard page layout was and I wanted to lord it over her how well I could sling around some text on a screen.

Did you know that I’m secretly petty? Yeah, you probably did. It’s an ill-kept secret.

Anyway, that was a million or maybe just 20 years ago, but software has, ahem, changed a little. Now there’s Adobe InDesign and if I could marry it and make little PDF babies, I would. Creating a book on that software feels like flying after you’ve been riding on a skateboard. With a missing wheel.

I’m sure there are more metaphors I could mix there, but let’s just stop that, shall we? I’ve already grossed you out with the PDF babies.

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Here’s a cover I made! I like the book’s interior even better, but I don’t want to give away any of Kate’s patterns…

So now I get really lost in page design and some days I look up and it has gotten dark and I haven’t even made coffee yet. Because I am, as the English like to say, a nutter.

And then, every once in a while, I think, That’s still someone else’s book. And then I think about working on my own and it gives me a little stomachache and I go back to converting someone else’s imperial measurements to metric for a while.

Well, it will come. In addition to being slightly obsessive, I am also the world’s most impatient person — in some ways a paradoxical combination — so I just need to keep telling myself: it’ll come.

How to pitch a knitting or crochet book: tips for designers

Thanks to the internet, and particularly thanks to Ravelry, what was once an exclusive world of knitting and crochet design has now become a republic filled with fresh, new talent.

The possibilities for publishing and publicizing individual patterns have expanded online — not only through Ravelry, but also on Etsy, Craftsy, and a multitude of excellent online knitting magazines like Twist Collective. However, at the same time, the opportunities for print publishing appear to be shrinking. Print publishing is going through very hard times these days, as anyone knows who has followed the fate of newspapers, university presses, and trade publishers.

In other words, as the number of craft designers who want to publish books is expanding, the opportunities for them are in some ways contracting.

I don’t mean to be discouraging, and certainly there are still publishers (like the one that I work for) seeking out innovative ways to navigate the brave new book market. But if you want a chance to get heard when pitching your pattern book idea to a publisher, now more than ever you’re going to have bring your A game.

Having been in the shoes of both author and editor of knitting pattern books, let me offer some advice on how best to pitch a book idea:

  1. Follow instructions. It’s sad but true that many prospective authors don’t do this. Just like when you’re answering a call for designs from a magazine, you should read whatever guidelines the press offers for proposals and follow them to the letter. If you can’t pay attention to detail when writing a proposal, you’re not going to inspire confidence that you can produce a polished book project.
  2. Be as specific and concrete as possible. Editors want to know your big vision, but we also want to see that you have already swatched and sketched, and thought through the nitty-gritty details of what your collection will look like, even how it might be styled and photographed.
  3. Show that you know what the hell you’re doing. Before you pitch a book idea, you should have substantial experience with publishing individual patterns, even if all those patterns are self-published. However, the publisher will be even likelier to think you would be good to work with if you can show that you have already worked with other editors, such as at a knitting magazine. Either way, you should already have a solid, working knowledge of how the design process works from conception to swatching, pattern writing, grading, tech editing, test knitting, and styling and photography.
  4. Provide a snapshot of your audience and how to reach them. Your job as author does not end when your book is published. No matter how big your publisher is, you will likely be the main engine behind the publicity and marketing for your book. (Get those images of the fully paid book tour junket out of your head. Hardly anybody gets those anymore.) Even at the proposal stage, you should be able to provide a detailed picture of who the audience is for your book. Are there similar, successful books that you can point to that reach a similar audience? Are there related designs on Ravelry that have garnered huge popularity? Do you have a blog — or are there similar blogs — that have loyal followings? Are there clear channels for reaching this audience when publicizing the book? You should have answers to all of these questions ready to hand when pitching your book idea. Be able to demonstrate that there are people out there hungry for what you have to offer.
  5. Think of creative ways to engage the online world with your book. Publishers are desperate to figure out how to take better advantage of online technology, but most are ridiculously uncreative about how to do it. When thinking about what you can do with your book, be imaginative — as wildly imaginative as possible — about how you could connect your book to online technologies. Could your book be made available digitally, perhaps in app form? Could you use a Kickstarter campaign or similar online tool to help cover some of the upfront costs on your book? (Remember, publishers are strapped for cash these days — you might need to help raise funds to carry out your vision.) Could you create technique videos to go along with your book and post them to YouTube? Could you create a promotional video like this gorgeous one to lure readers into the world of your designs? What else could you dream up that would take your idea beyond the traditional limits of published knitting and crochet designs?

Any other tips to share? Do you have questions?

Yarn support: that’s the way to do it

ImageRarely have I encountered a business relationship that’s as kind and respectful as that between knitting designer and yarn company. When you design a sweater, yarn companies typically provide gratis the yarn that you need to knit the sample – which in and of itself is a pretty sweet deal. But on top of that, I have had universally good experiences dealing with yarn companies, from Malabrigo to Cascade to Berroco to KnitPicks. (Stacey, who runs KnitPicks’ Independent Designer Program, is a particular standout.) All have responded quickly and courteously and have even offered great ideas.

Even so, few can compare to Yarns of Italy, a relatively new yarn distributor that develops and purchases yarns in Italy and then sells them in the US for great prices. They have been selling on Etsy for a while, but more recently decided to go more big time. If you have been to TNNA in the last year or so, you have probably seen them.

In fact, to fill out their TNNA booth, the company held a design competition not long ago, asking designers to create something with each of their yarn lines. I was lucky enough to get to do the design for their Volute line, a gorgeous cotton-acrylic blend. (And let me tell you: gorgeous and cotton-acrylic blend are not phrases I typically put together.) The zippered cardigan above, called Velluto, is what I came up with.

All along the way, Kim (one of YOI’s owners, and the creative director) was a delight to work with. She has a whip-smart sense of humor and an easy manner, but is also very professional at all those times where that’s needed.

During the most recent TNNA, Kim even posted a photo of their friend, a handsome Sicilian gentleman, wearing my sweater. In all, I got the overwhelming message that these people love good design and want to do whatever they can to support it.

And then yesterday, I was looking at their just-launched web site, and saw that they had named one of the colorways in their Innamorata line after me! Innamorata is a luscious merino that comes in two weights and a gorgeous palette. Each color is named for a woman that the YOI owners like, and I got to be on the list! In fact, I’m light gray, since that’s the color of the sweater I designed for them. It is such a lovely and generous gesture. (My mother immediately ordered a sweater’s worth, of course. 🙂 )

You’ll definitely see me designing more with their yarns….