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….

New hat pattern! or, another way to cable without a cable needle

There are some great tutorials out there about how to make knitted cables without using a cable needle. The hat above represents a completely different way of thinking beyond the cable needle: use colorwork to create a faux cable. The next photo shows the effect even more clearly:

See how the sage green sections look like cables crossing over each other? I think it would be lovely on socks, too. If you have Luise Roberts’ wonderful little colorwork stitch dictionary called 1000 Great Knitting Motifs, you will find this stitch pattern on p. 105.

I just made this hat pattern available on Ravelry, and it will soon be up on the KnitPicks web site as well. It’s a quick knit, so if you’re looking for something last-minute for the holidays, this might just be the ticket.

On an unrelated note, I would just like to note that we here in the Land of the Large Eyebrows do not believe in trimming our eyebrow hair. No, we do not.

Sizing up

As a designer, you never really know which of your creations are going to grab the most attention. In my case, one of my earliest designs is also one of my most popular: this kids’ pullover called Langstroth, as worn by our resident cutie pants.

The sweater has a really simple construction — easy stitch pattern, raglan shaping, all in the round. I knew I had to eventually add some men’s sizes, too.

Et voila, Langstroth Sr, as worn by Cutie Pants Sr.:

(Gorgeous photo taken by my brother-in-law, Danny DeAngelis.)

One of the many pleasures of working up this new version of the design was working with the test knitters (ComradeYarnman, AntBee, and amhart on Ravelry). Their ages ranged from teenager to middle aged, and both men and women were represented. Each handled the job so conscientiously and each gave me great suggestions for clarifying the pattern. I really appreciate their help.

I’ve got more in the works, including a kids’ scarf and a men’s cardigan – stay tuned!

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.

_____________

* 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.

Lace love/hate

Here’s the latest thing off my needles, the Alhambra scarf, designed by Anne Hanson of Knitspot. (I can show it to you because I didn’t design it — weird how that works, isn’t it?) It’s knit out of some lovely KnitPicks Shadow that a thoughtful former student gave to me.

Like so many of Anne’s designs, Alhambra hits that sweet spot where complex-looking lace meets actually-not-so-difficult stitch pattern. Just enough repetition that you don’t have to be a slave to the chart, but just enough variation that you don’t want to cut yourself to death ever so slowly with your thindly thinny little laceweight yarn.

Here’s the thing, though: I’m not a fan of lace, generally speaking. It would seem that in the universe of knitters, this makes me the inhabitant of a remote planet, population 4. Knitters get FREAKY for lace. Even women in their 20s are churning out lace shawls as if they had actually come back into style.

Don’t get me wrong — I kid you lace lovers because I love. And I get the delight in the technical challenge that is lace. My tastes just run on the other end of the spectrum from Super Femme.

But this scarf? It has a different quality that isn’t quite so…. lacy. I think it would be possible for a man to wear it, too. What do you think?

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!

Vintage men’s patterns? Hilarious!

Many knitting magazines send out their calls for designs with “inspiration boards” or “mood boards.” (For example, you can see the inspiration board for the spring 2011 issue of Interweave Knits here.) These documents give designers some themes, images, and other gentle shoves to get the creative juices flowing — and to ensure that many of the submitted designs will work together.

As a college instructor, I can appreciate the wisdom in this. If you give a student this as a writing assignment — “Write a paper about anything under the sun.” — most of the time you’re going to get a whole lotta crapola on a stick. Give students a starting line and a direction and they can run a lot farther.

So, the stupendous new online knitting magazine called Twist Collective recently put out its call for winter 2010 designs. If you follow that last link, you will see that this issue’s three themes are vintage ice-skating gear, 1940s glam, and something to do with sari colors (couldn’t quite figure out that last one — I think it was mainly a color inspiration mixed with a push toward fantasy).

The first theme gripped me. As you have seen, I have been trying to carve out a niche as a designer of boys’ and men’s knitwear, so I immediately started to think about vintage-inspired garments of the type that men would have worn ice skating once upon a time. I soon found Truman Capote looking rather dashing:

There are two problems here: first, most American men would no longer be caught dead in a fair-isle sweater of this boldness. The standard-issue heterosexual man might dabble with the metrosexual look by daring to have Shoes with no Laces fer Crying Out Loud. But let this heterosexual man and his overblown sense of fashion adventure suffer no delusions: Truman Capote can still skate circles around him.

Second, the pullover shown above is about as good as it gets: most knits that men wore back in the heyday of ice skating at Rockefeller Center are nothing short of hideous. (If you want a good 20 minutes of rolling on the floor laughing, check these out. I especially love the dudes using pipes and books as props. Cables make me smart and peppy!)

The challenge, as always, with designing menswear is to hit that sweet spot between “I’ve seen that a million times before” and “You couldn’t get me to wear that if you were my dying mother and you knit that for me with your gnarled fingers.” With women, older girls and young children, there’s a pretty wide margin between those two points. With older boys and men, the margin is about as wide as my tolerance for BP Oil.

This designer, Jared Flood, seems to have mastered that fine art. What makes his designs so wildly popular with men? I think it’s the careful pairing of just the right semi-luxurious yarn with expert but simple shaping. OK, the guy is also a brilliant photographer, which doesn’t hurt.

So now I’m off to try to pull off something like that. Here are some more of my inspiration images: