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How I became a sweater designer

Hi Friends!

If you voted on my poll on Instagram - thank you! - it sounds like most of you want to know how I learned to design sweaters. Fair warning, I’m going to let my nerd flag fly in this post!

I grew up immersed in fiber arts

A toddler wears a handsmocked tank top and sits on a riding mower .
Just wearing a hand-smocked shirt to mow the lawn, NBD.

I grew up in the fiber arts. I’m one in a long, long line of fiber artists - quilters, sewists, knitters, smocking, embroidery - I think everything except weaving! I started sewing garments in elementary school, completing (with lots of help) a near expertly finished cape for a school project on Shakespeare when I was around 9 (mom, are you reading this? Is that right?).

Costuming informs my design aesthetic and understanding of the body

I sewed some of my own clothes in high school, and around that time, I also got into fantasy costuming. My friends and I competed in full contact live-action roleplaying events up and down the eastern seaboard and as far west as Texas and Indiana. If you think some of my knitting patterns require seaming, can I tell you about the time I hand-sewed all the casings for a hoop skirt during a weeklong power outage?!

Costumes don’t look right if they’re all woven fabrics; they need texture and dimension. We were in college, and working with tight budgets. If you want to make inexpensive fabric look like a period piece, you’re going to be adding in mixed media like leather and elaborate buttons, but also trims and embroidery. I think this is what drives my love of deeply textured sweaters! Stockinette is just fine, but wouldn’t you like some depth and interest?

Tip - the biggest difference between fancy indie-dyed yarn and box store acrylic is, in my opinion, the depth. If you’re working with a low-depth yarn, use it in a textured garment!

A young woman in a red dress with a black and white corset. The dress  has two enormous overskirts.
Huge hoop skirt under here! I did not make this corset, but I drafted and sewed the rest.

By the time you’ve made a handful of leather corsets, you have a pretty good idea of how a line moves across the torso, and by college, I was doing commissioned pieces for fancy events. To do that, I’d usually start with a basic pattern block, some measurements, and sketches I’d worked up for my client.

We did all of our own costuming and armoring – so I got pretty handy with leather and steel too. Working in armoring taught me a LOT about how the body moves in a garment. Sure, a drop shoulder might tear if you don’t give it enough room to move – but do you know what happens to your shoulder if you try that with steel?

A crowd of people in fantasy reenactment gear.
Nothing prepared me for armhole shaping quite like this.

Working as a tailor elevated my fit and finish skills

Eventually, I started working as a tailor in a small shop. There were only three of us, and the owner of that shop invested heavily in my education. I remember at my interview, she asked me if I worked from patterns, and I, embarrassed, answered ‘yes,’ assuming she would rather me be 'creative.' “Good,” she replied resolutely. “I only hire sewists who are expert pattern readers.”

A young woman sits, with a grey and peach speckled raglan cable sweater on.
Details like perfect necklines and graceful yoke shaping make this straightforward sweater shine.

She started me off on the basics – hems all day. But over time, she gave me more and more responsibility. Before I knew it, I was reshaping body contours, reconstructing waistbands, placing zippers – the works. Nita was generous to me in countless ways – allowing me to arrive early and sleep in the fitting room for a few hours (I lived far away, and my partner and I shared a car), taking me to major educational sewing conferences, even explicitly teaching me many of the unspoken rules about professional environments that were going right over my head. She gave me the tools to translate my ideas into wearable garments, and the language to be taken seriously in professional spaces – I owe her so much!

So anyway, that’s the part of my story that might be a little different from other designers!

Translating all that to knitted sweaters

The rest is much more familiar. I knit obsessively. I couldn’t find any more patterns that I really felt like knitting, and I had some ideas. I’d been pretty harsh to myself in my head about whether my ideas were any good, but I figured everyone who’s good today started out as a beginner, and I decided to give it a try.

But maybe you’re here for some technical resources?

First, early on I invested in A Masterclass in Grading. I’m a huge fan Sarah’s work, and through that I started listening to Sarah and Kristina’s tech-tips.

I read knitwear books regularly and repeatedly and have my favorites – Amy Herzog’s Ultimate Sweater Book, Shirley Paden’s Knitwear Design Workshop, and Ysolda Teague's Little Red in the City.

Finally, I spend time doing my own self-assigned homework. I experiment with the math, draft muslins, and deconstruct popular knitting patterns. Sometimes I like the fit across the whole range, and see how the designer makes that work. Other times, I can see that I don't love the way a garment changes across a grade, and I take notes on that too. It's a process of constantly learning!

One last thought. I learned to knit by making endless baby sweaters. I didn't have a baby, I didn't have any plans to make a baby, and none of my friends had babies. But I was hooked on the quick construction - I could try out new techniques every week! It turns out that was a great template for learning to design knit sweaters too, and while I have lots of ideas for kid sweaters still - I'm really excited to be working on a whole portfolio of adult sweaters. More soon!

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