On Being a Designer

This year I learned what it means to be a knitwear designer, and it’s not what I thought. Brace yourself for a candid recap.

While I’ve been knitting for 30 years, and designing my own patterns for myself and my family for many of those years, I’ve only been an official designer of patterns for the public for a year. It has been the most educational year of my life. Being able to knit professionally and design patterns for yourself, and even being a proficient writer do not prepare a person for writing a knitting pattern and publishing it for the public. That’s an entirely different animal.

What I love about design is the process: alone in my house swatching, calculating, frogging, scribbling, knitting… laptop to my left, mound of yarn, needles and notebooks to my right, the thrill of seeing something in my head come to life, and the technical component of articulating it in words and numbers. There’s a bit of mystery and intrigue about it all, and then finally — it comes to life, shows me what it wants to be, and goes off to other knitters to see if what came out of my brain translates into logic for someone else. And then, when it makes sense to more than just me and the kinks are (hopefully) all worked out, it makes its way into the world. It sounds charming, doesn’t it?

What no one tells you as a new designer is that the most important things you’ll need in your repertoire are a thick skin and a Ph.D. in Customer Service. You don’t realize you’re signing up for a career in customer service when you become a designer, but that’s really what the design process is ultimately for: to create a product for a customer. It ain’t for sissies. I might not have learned these lessons so quickly, but I’ve had some success this year on a larger scale than I had expected, and with that success has come a few surprises.

Putting yourself out there means opening yourself up to criticism. And praise, there’s some of that, too. But what I’ve found is that the happy knitters are busy being happy about their experience and not likely to jot down a positive comment (I do the same thing, it’s human nature). Because of this, my mantra is “no news is good news.” It’s the disgruntled ones who will take the time to tell you what they think. It only happens once in a while, but it’s funny how those negative comments stick to your ribs like peanut butter. And as a newer designer, I find that often the comment is reasonably legitimate and deserves to be heard and acknowledged. Sometimes it’s just an unhelpful opinion, but sometimes it’s a legitimate gripe. Your job as a designer is to determine which is which, make changes when they’re needed, and let the rest go.

I didn’t start out this year with a thick skin and if I were being truthful, I’d say I’m still not there yet; I’m working on it. However, I’m ending the year with a better understanding of what criticism means and a greater ability to take it under advisement without it crushing my confidence into smithereens. One can’t really have an ego and be a knitwear designer; the design process squeezes it right out of you.

I’ve had to learn that my designs are a product; a product I perceive to be an extension of myself, but which the customers who purchase it see only as a product. If they have something to say about it, positive or negative, I have to keep it an arm’s length and remember it’s about the product and it’s not about me. If you ever decide to become a knitwear designer or a professional artist of any kind, this is something you must know. Everyone’s a critic.

Criticism, though uncomfortable, can be a powerful tool for improvement. If one person takes the time to say they had a question or a problem with a line in your pattern, even if no one else has had an issue so far, there might be others who will struggle. I’d rather know the problem exists and have an opportunity to fix it, than to have my work perpetuate a quiet struggle among the knitters who attempt it. My goal is to create patterns that don’t cause headaches; if my design is giving someone trouble, it might be an opportunity to be more clear/specific, or make a correction that will create a better product over-all. In some cases the problem really isn’t the pattern. But either way, criticism gives us an opportunity to take another look and see if we could do better.

We can always do better. 

I learned two really cool things this year from the charming and brilliant Norah Gaughan (or at least, from being in one of her classes). First, one of her designs that went through a strict tech editing process still ended up with a rather ambitious errata due to errors that made it into the published book. This made me feel so much better; if it can happen to Norah, it can happen to anyone. Not that we’d do it intentionally, but no matter how careful we are, sometimes a mistake gets through. And when it does, people will let you know.

There can be no burying your head in the sand. When you take upon yourself the mantle of knitwear designer, you must be willing to stand behind your work. 

The second thing I learned in my class with Norah came from another student during the break. I learned that it’s impossible, absolutely IMPOSSIBLE, to please everyone all the time. Logically I know this, but the point was driven home when a student in the class went on an exhaustive rant about the fact that DPN’s had been required for the class. “No one uses DPN’s anymore. NO ONE! She should have said we could use magic loop!”* This is a much-abbreviated version of the conversation; it went on a good five minutes and then morphed into a complaint about the fact that knitting books waste twenty pages on “how to knit” topics and it’s a waste of her money buying a book that devotes so much space to something she already knows. The lovely Norah was diplomatic, unwavering, gracious. The student indicated that she takes pleasure in writing emails or letters of complaint to designers and publishers, and described some of her complaints in detail. The class was quiet, jaws on the floor, hearing her rant and rave and spew the kind of negativity one wouldn’t have expected among a group of knitters. (Knitting is, after all, a fairly relaxing hobby. Isn’t it?) A few of us reminded the student that there are real people on the other side who have to read or hear those comments, and how would she feel saying those things face-to-face? “Oh, I do that, too! I will speak my mind to anyone, any time!”

Huh. 

No one really knew what to do with that. But it was informative, don’t you think? Sometimes you’ll run into a person who’s angry and they’re going to be angry no matter what you do or say.  Most people aren’t like that (and so far none of my customers have been). But it’s important to know they’re out there, and if you’re lucky, they’ll buy your pattern and you’ll learn all kinds of good lessons about not taking things personally. 🙂

It’s been an education. I’ve learned to keep my laptop next to me and type as I knit, rather than to rely on my memory or scribbled notes to keep an accurate account. I’ve learned to have as many testers as possible before a pattern goes live, because everyone catches something different. I’ve learned to be more patient — a rushed pattern is not a good one. I’ve learned not to check my email on my phone before I roll out of bed, lest a negative Ravelry comment send my heart racing before I’ve even had my coffee. I’ve learned that making mistakes is part of being human and the important thing is to get back in the saddle and keep going. I’ve learned that knitting design is 75% technical and 25% creative, and it’s the technical part I love most (but also takes the most work). I’ve learned that being a designer means being brave and being willing to accept constructive criticism and learn from it. I’ve also learned how amazing it is to send my creation into the world and see it come to life on others’ needles. It’s a bit like raising children and having them leave home, wondering if you did enough, wondering if they’re going to make it on their own. (Two of my sons moved away from home this year, so this analogy is fresh in my mind.) I learned not to do two knit-a-longs at once (holy insanity, Batman). I learned that I can’t do everything alone and am beyond grateful for my diligent group of testers (shout-out to Dee, who has been testing for me from the beginning). I’ve learned to listen more. A lot more.

There are a lot of really wonderful parts about this process. It’s not that I want to discount them or focus on the negative, it’s just that I went into design by the seat of my pants, not realizing just how challenging it would be sometimes. It was all wine and roses in the beginning. Write a pattern, send it out there, it will be great! It was not as simple as that.

What the hard lessons have taught me is just how grateful I am when things DO go right; how proud I feel when the process works and the finished product is awesome.  I feel proud that I keep doing it, keep putting myself out there, keep taking the risk, even though. I have gained infinitely more respect and admiration for those who’ve paved the way before me. I appreciate the work that has gone into the hundreds of thousands of patterns on Ravelry (not to mention the thousands of published books), the time involved, the blood, sweat and tears. I now know what goes into the making of a seemingly-simple pattern; it’s so many more hours and so much more elbow grease than you would imagine. For that, I tip my hat to everyone who’s ever been brave enough to share their ideas with the world and charge money for them.

Lastly, I’ve learned to charge for my work. Putting a price on your work is the final act of daring; offering a pattern for free is like closing your eyes and flinching when you attempt a free throw. You might hit the hoop, or you might throw a foul and hit an innocent bystander. I understand where that tendency comes from (I was the same way in the beginning) — but if you’re not ready to put a price on your work, you’re not ready to be a designer. This might seem harsh to someone who just wants their work to be seen by the light of day and isn’t quite sure their design merits a price tag just yet. I get it. Sure, do a little promotion. Make it free for 24 hours if you must. But ultimately, putting a price on it says that you have faith in what you’ve created and that you’ll stand behind it. It means you’ll read the disgruntled comments and respond. It means you’ll answer questions and make clarifications when necessary. Then, down the road, if you want to give back with a freebie now and then, okay. But ultimately, to be a designer is to know that the 15 – 100+ hours you’ve put into a design deserve to be compensated, and that you’re willing to take ownership of what happens to it when it leaves the gate.  It’s too easy to say, “I didn’t charge you for this pattern, so what happens after you download it isn’t my problem.” Oh, but it is. I’ve seen this disclaimer on some free patterns and it’s a shame;  if you give birth to a pattern, you must be willing to accept a small measure of responsibility for what happens when it reaches its audience, inasmuch as is related to the quality and clarity of the design. It’s the job. BUT, what you shouldn’t take responsibility for is other people’s opinions of you, negative comments that aren’t warranted, or people who are critical for the sake of being critical — that’s not your baggage. Own the part that’s yours, fix something if you need to, and let the rest go.

After all of this, I am so very grateful. My eyes are open. My edges are smoother. My designs are better. I am thrilled for what I’ve learned this year, even for the less comfortable lessons. I’m grateful to the knitters who took a chance on my work when I was new and untested. I’m grateful for the comments that helped me improve, and the knitters who shared their experiences with me so I could learn from them. I’m grateful for the hundreds of knitters who supported my work this year. I’m grateful for the designers who created the landscape that makes it possible for newbies to join the ranks, and for Ravelry for creating the network that brings us all together. I’m grateful for the people I’ve met, the friendships we’ve formed, and the new ideas that have been born from this process.

If you’re thinking of being a designer, I hope you’ll go for it. Be brave. It’s terrifying, but I’m still glad I’m here.

Cheers to a new year, new lessons, new growth!

M.

*I use DPN’s and not magic loop, thank-you-very-much.

Share on facebook
Share on pinterest
Share on email
Share on print

Responses