I know what boys like… I think

Boys. Why are they so hard to knit for?

Several years ago, I set foot into the thickets of knitwear design, armed only with this Machete of Truthiness: namely, my belief that boys have more adventurous, unexplored tastes in knitwear than we give them credit for.

Now that my Machete of Truthiness has been blunted on the Cruel Realities of the Marketplace, I can feel my confidence waning. Patterns for boys — and for men — just don’t sell very well. I could assume that it’s just my own patterns that don’t do very well, but I know from talking to more established designers that I’m not alone.

Here’s my latest boys’ sweater pattern, Baird, made for KnitPicks’ Independent Designer Program and also available on Ravelry. My lovely test knitter gushed about the pattern in a most ingratiating way and I was so pleased with myself.

Aaaaaand… a month after the pattern’s release I have sold precisely zero copies.

See that fake smile my son has on his face? This is right after telling me, “I actually like this one, Mom,” and right before never wearing it again.

I tell you all of this not to initiate a pity party, but because experiences like this have taught me a lesson. Maybe I have been going about this the wrong way. Maybe the key to designing knits for boys is not to figure out how to “trick” them into wearing kid versions of the garments that we adults like to knit and wear. Maybe the key is to remember that boys are people with their own child interests that overlap very little with the concerns of adult fashion.

What if, in other words, I thought about what boys want — want to play with, want to have in their hands, want in their lives — and figure out how to knit it?

Grown women — and many girls — have been taught to obsess about their clothes. But most boys and men have not. In fact, they are taught to feign as little interest in clothing as possible. This means that those of us who knit and design for men and boys have largely taken the safe route of providing utilitarian clothing. Because guys still need to dress — it’s just that many of them don’t want to have to think about it too hard.*

But clothes are just one corner of the world that knitting can produce. Knitting can make costumes and toys and hiding places and modes of transportation.

It’s time for a big think. And then some sketching.

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* Of course I know that not all men are this way, and I loves me some fashion maven man. But most men are not that, and if you’re designing you have to take that into account.

Sheltered: Introducing Modern Tartan

c Meg Kelly 2010

Hello, all. I hope you are each encased in human and yarny love today. Here in Austin, it’s 55 degrees and pouring rain, but tomorrow we’re headed to Baltimore from a more traditional winter wonderland.

I got an extra Christmas present this year: today, Hill Country Weavers released its pattern line featuring Shelter yarn: and the men’s sweater pictured above is my contribution. Hill Country Weavers is the big local yarn store here in Austin, and is one of nine flagship stores carrying Shelter, the beautiful new yarn designed by Jared Flood, aka Brooklyn Tweed.

Jared, of course, has his own beautiful line of patterns for his yarn. A group of designers here in Austin decided to try our own hand at the yarn, seeing what it would do under an Austin influence, thanks to some prompting from HCW’s owner, Suzanne Middlebrooks. The whole pattern line is gorgeous — and gorgeously photographed.

c Meg Rice 2010

This men’s pullover, called Modern Tartan, looks complicated, but is actually quite simple to knit. Not just simple, but also fun, since you start at the top and knit down, leaving very little seaming. You do have to cut a little — that zippered neck there comes from a steek that you cut down from the collar. But do not fear the steek, dear knitter — especially when the steek is to be cut into such a lovely, sticky wool like this one. This yarn wants to hang onto itself like so much velcro.

There is another way that the yarn and design marry well together: Shelter is so lofty in its construction that the sweater stays quite light — a good feature for the average hot-blooded male.

Design-wise, the trickiest thing to figure out on this sweater was how to make the raglan increases play nicely with the stranded color work. I finally landed on an easy explanation for how to do the increases that I think makes the final product look much more polished.

c Meg Kelly 2010

If a men’s sweater in five different colors of Shelter is too spendy for you, there are certainly viable alternatives. The wool you use needs to be worsted-weight, pretty sheepy (no super-softy, drapey wools), and relatively light. Berroco’s Blackstone Tweed or – even cheaper – Shepherd’s Wool from Stonehedge Fiber Mill would be great alternate choices.

Really, most classic worsted-weight wools would work — like Cascade 220 (ooh, I’d love to see this in a bunch of their tweed colors) — but just be advised that those heavier wools would make a warmer sweater. Seriously warm and toasty might be just the sort of thing you’re looking for right now.

Merry Christmas, and warmest wishes to everyone, whether this is your holiday or no.

Midlife crisis averted

It’s big announcement time. I am leaving my job as a tenured, salaried, health-benefitted full professor at a charming liberal arts college to begin a full-time career as a knitter.

HAHAHAHAHAHAHA.

No, actually, I’m not kidding. As of May 2011, I’ll be on leave from Southwestern and I doubt that I will be returning.

The nervousness you hear in my voice is what “disbelief at my own audacity” sounds like. Yes, I’m actually doing it — that thing that just about every crafting blogger says that they want to do but quite reasonably balks at after assessing the very considerable risks. And I could not be happier. Happy but nervous. I repeat this again, nervously, but you know what? I like happy but nervous. It reminds me of that delicious feeling that you get before going out on stage to perform in a play. You could fail so so miserably and so so publicly — but without that risk how else could you get that electric goosepimply feeling?

To cut to the chase: what will I be doing to support myself? Or, to put a finer point on it, what will I be doing to meet my goal of earning at least half what I have as a professor? Mainly working at Hill Country Weavers, a venerable yarn store that has been an Austin institution for 30 years. It’s a great place to work for all kinds of reasons, not least that it has an inspiringly creative and engaging clientele, more kinds of yarn than you thought it was possible to fit in a Victorian bungalow, and an amazing location on Austin’s quirky South Congress Avenue.

I have lots of additional schemes in mind, many of which I have already begun: designing my own knitwear, teaching knitting classes, freelance writing, podcasting…. It’s all very exciting. In fact, it made me a little sad the other day to realize how many years it had been since I had had that feeling.

It’s funny, you know: for over a decade now, I have been mentoring college students who are making their way out into the world of work. There are these things that I tell them over and over again, such as:

  • “People will keep asking you what you are going to do with the rest of your life. You don’t have to know what you’re going to do with the rest of your life. You just have to have a plan for the next few years.”
  • “What can you do with a major in history? Put it in a nice frame and hang it on the wall. And then use what you have learned in all of your classes and go get the most amazing job you can find.”

I have other stock speeches that I’ve built up over time, but it’s struck me in recent months how much I need to heed my own words in these two. Yes, I spent six years in graduate school and then the typical harrowing time on the academic job market trying to get one of the handful of jobs available. Yes, I worked my butt off to earn tenure. And you know what? I don’t regret any of it. I learned so much from being a teacher and a scholar. But I have entered a phase in my life where I need something more tactile. In short, I can’t let the fact that I’ve worked so hard to get to this place in my academic career keep me from pursuing my passions in this new direction.

It has been even harder for me to heed my own advice about planning for the future. I’m the kind of person who needs to know what’s next. Not just tomorrow but a decade from now. The trait has stood me in good stead in a lot of ways, but I have decided that I also could stand to relax that impulse a little. I don’t have to know exactly where all this is heading. I just need a good plan for now, and then we’ll just have to see.

It feels good to release this news out to you all in the world, some of whom are very good friends, some of whom have become dear to me through the magic of online connection, and some of whom are complete strangers. Each step like this makes my decision feel that much more official, and it’s like all my internal organs suddenly got a bit more buoyant. I think I have been putting off this more public announcement (and thus my lack of blogging lately), but in the end, you can’t fight buoyancy.

Oh, hai…

… I have been knitting so hard I think my face is going to fall off. I’m pretty sure I have fused all the knuckles in my hands together into one fused-up fusey bone. My eyeballs actually hurt.

It’s almost over. I’m nearly finished with Sweater 3 of the Original Sweater Designs Triathlon. I’m in that last running portion where you fall down many, many times, and at some point along the way you actually crap your pants. But you keep running anyway. (If you’re thinking I’m especially bizarre right now, go watch this. And then you’ll still think I’m bizarre but you’ll know that I’m not alone.)

I wish I could show the sweaters to you in their entirety (the images here are detail shots from two of them) because — and I say this with all humility — they kick ass and I am a genius.

OK, I’m not really a genius because it just might be true that anyone wearing this last sweater will need to have flesh removed from their underarms in order for the garment to fit properly. That might be true. I won’t know until I can snag a man with a 38″ chest and cram this thing over his head. Won’t he be pleased.

Two good things

1. As one of their final projects for my first-year college seminar on knitting, my students “yarn bombed” our campus. (Yarn bombing is when you knit or crochet up some stuff to adorn public spaces.) They did some wonderfully creative and happy-making work.

Among my favorite pieces: this bike that several students contributed to. Our campus has yellow bikes that anyone on campus can use, so the four bikes that are yarned up get a lot of exposure. Don’t you think the knitting adds a whole new layer of community to a community bike? You can view photos of our yarn bombing night here.

2. I am so close to finishing one of my three “due in October” sweater designs that I can taste it. Taste the victory, that is, not the yarn. I actually have tasted yarn and it’s not very tasty. The nearly finished garment is a women’s sweater for Yarn Forward magazine.  The second of three (a child’s hoodie for a book of kids’ designs) is also very nearly done — well more than half-way there.

The third (a men’s sweater for a local yarn store, knit in Jared Flood’s beautiful new Shelter yarn line) has not gotten past a healthy swatch, but I’m feeling cocky now. Cocky despite the fact that there has been an inordinate amount of ripping back going on over here. Most recent mistake? I got nearly all the way up the yoke of my second sweater when I realized that I’d forgotten to bind off the 10 stitches at the armpit of each sleeve. BLAAAAAAST! That meant ripping back the entire yoke. It would mess with my confidence if I weren’t too tired to feel anything but a bit numb.

Color palette generators

Oh boy, has the beginning of the school year kicked my butt with a vengeance. My first-year seminar began last Monday; regular classes began today; and I just taught my first knitting class at the Knitting Nest. Then I have at least five patterns to write between now and mid-October. Not to mention my two classes at Fiber College in a couple of weeks….

All of those knitting classes are new classes, by the way. Classes that I have never taught before and that therefore need planning.

Ha ha. Ha hahahahahahaha.

Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa…. KABLOOEY! (Splat.)

That was the sound of my brain exploding approximately two minutes from now. Could somebody please grab a mop?

But enough about my organ failure. Let’s get back to design tips and tools!

The tool that I’m going to discuss today, I found a couple of years ago. And then promptly forgot about it until just recently. I’m talking about color palette generators. These are free programs online that will take one of your favorite photographs (which you either upload or link to its web address) and generate a palette of colors from it. In other words, it pulls colors out of the photograph, spreads them out in distinct color swatches, and sometimes even gives you the Pantone number for it.

As an example, here is a photo that I took in March of some crocuses peeking out of the North Carolina woods, along with the palette the site generated:

There are many uses for this device, but among them is designing color work for knitting. Many people complain that they have trouble putting together different colored yarns for color work such as fair isle. This helps you out of the jam. You know you like this photograph. Now you can distill some of what works about this photograph to a palette that you can then use in a sweater or other garment.

Now go play!

Finally, I can show you one!

After much (by necessity) secretive knitting, I can finally show you a completed design. A few days ago, KnitPicks posted my pattern –called Dawson — for a men’s shawl-collared pullover knit from their new merino-cashmere blend.

There’s my dear boy modeling it on a typical, blistering summer day here in Austin. Impressive how he’s not even breaking a sweat, isn’t it? I had to arrange the shots carefully so as not to show in the background the 20-somethings in bathing suits diving off their boats into the river and the 30- and 40-somethings on shore who were dripping sweat into their iced coffees.

I’m really proud of this design, mainly because I calculated all the measurements completely from scratch. That is, I took the standard measurements for men of different sizes and calculated how that would translate into directions for each size. This was a bit of a nightmare when it came to the set-in sleeves because the shaping on that kind of sleeve is complex.

I’m also really happy with how well the stitch pattern married up with the yarn. Capra, the yarn used in this design, develops a slight halo after being knit and worn, so you need a stitch pattern with some sharpness to it. But then, most sharply defined stitch patterns are either ribs or cables — totally expected for a men’s sweater, yawn — or a bit too femme. After much swatching with different stitches, this simple combination of knits and purls fit the bill.

I loved working with this yarn. It provides rather affordable access to cashmere. While $90 for a size small might seem like a lot, it is a cashmere blend, and that is a men’s small we’re talking about.

I’d be grateful for any feedback you are willing to offer.  Also, let me know what patterns for boys and men you wish were available. I’m in the market for new ideas to pursue!