I recently had the privilege of interviewing designer Laura Chau about her design process. I asked her for the interview because it seems like she is revealing an amazing new design every other week and I had to know how she does it. Her designs are extraordinary, beautifully photographed and really hard not to notice.
Levina, her newest pattern
How did you learn to knit and how did you figure out that you wanted to be a designer?
A close cousin taught me, in the car on a road trip when I was 12. I learned the long-tail cast on and then the knit stitch, and I knit a huge garter stitch scarf after that. I put it down for a long time after that, but when I was starting university I saw a girl on the bus knitting and thought, I should do that again! I went to a local craft shop and bought some yarn, pulled out a needlecraft book from my shelf and worked on re-learning how to knit, and how to purl for the first time. I soon discovered the world of knitting on the internet, and I learned lots of things very quickly. My first design, Lucy in the Sky, came about while I was working in a yarn shop. I’d started there not very long after I got back into it, and I learned a ton of stuff on the job, such as how to fix mistakes, reading your knitting, and not taking it too seriously! I’d knitted quite a few sweaters from patterns before I decided to design one, so I felt pretty comfortable with the basic construction of a sweater. We’d gotten in a new yarn at the shop that I really loved, and I was looking for a pattern to use it for but didn’t find anything that fit the idea in my head, so I decided to try making my own. Downloadable patterns were pretty new, but I’d bought some others before, so I decided to put mine up for sale as well. I used to email back each person who bought it with the file! Around the same time, Amy Singer asked if I would like to publish something in Knitty – of course I was delighted. Serrano was the first thing I put out that wasn’t self-published, and I’ve had several other pieces in Knitty as well over the years. Mostly I used knitting to keep me sane while in university – I kept knitting up new things, blogging about what I was working on, and it turned out some other people wanted to make what I was making too! I kept up the self-publishing and eventually I had a nice little library of patterns. I taught myself to use spreadsheets for grading, and how to lay out patterns. Working at Lettuce Knit really helped me feel comfortable about my knitting ideas and creativity, and there were lots of people to bounce ideas off of (and of course, lots of beautiful and inspiring yarns). When I finished school, I was fortunate enough to work with Wiley publishing to release my book, Teach Yourself Visually Sock Knitting. I told myself that if I needed more money, I could always look for a “grown-up” job and put knitting on the back burner. So far, that hasn’t happened. I recently left the yarn shop after many years, and I’m really enjoying the freedom to work on my own ideas on my own time. Of course Ravelry has changed the knitting landscape tons, and I probably wouldn’t still be doing this if it wasn’t for them! The website makes it really easy to connect with knitters, make new customers, and handle the technical side of things. I certainly couldn’t have kept up with emailing each person who ordered a pattern!
You wrote on your Ravelry page that you are trying to make a go as a full-time yarnier. Is that a reality? What does a typical work day look like?
Yes, knitting has been my full-time job for about five years, which included working in the yarn shop and teaching. Because knitting is so labour intensive, the time that I work can be all over the place! Since leaving the yarn shop in January, I usually try to keep my computer work (pattern math, writing, sketching, emails, blogging) to during the week so that I can relax on the weekends with my partner. Of course I’m still knitting in the evenings and on the weekend though! Because there are so many stages to writing a pattern, in one day I might be swatching, sketching, knitting the middle of something, editing photos, and doing math. I don’t do all those things every day, except knitting!
You have designed some BEAUTIFUL sweaters, my favorites being the Pekoe, the Matcha and your brand new one, Levina. Where does your inspiration come from? Do the designs come to you first or are you inspired by the yarn first?
These days I’ve been mostly coming up with ideas first. I sketch either on paper or in Illustrator using a pen tablet, but sometimes all I do is write a note to myself about the idea. I have pages and pages of just scribbled ideas, some of which don’t pan out, some I just forget about (oops) or some other idea comes along to distract me! I have a pretty extensive stash so I do try to make ideas and yarns work together. Of course, I also do buy yarn without a plan just because it’s pretty, and let the yarn tell me what it wants to be. I look at a lot of fashion, design, and other websites and blogs for inspiration, as well as knitting books. Inspiration can come from anywhere. While I’m certainly not immune to trends, I try to make things that will be wearable for more than a season – knitting takes so long, you’d better be able to wear it for awhile!
Just Enough Ruffles
Once you’ve got an idea that you want to move forward with, what is your design process after that? Do you have a set way you work? Do you knit your own samples?
Generally the process is about the same, though the time spent at each stage varies. For a sweater, say, I’ll swatch and start a spreadsheet for the math. I work out most numbers first then write up a rough pattern before or while I knit. I’ve gotten a lot better at either writing first then knitting, or writing as I knit, because I’ve had too many times where I thought, oh I’ll just write that later, then can’t remember what I did! I always knit my own samples. I have hired sample knitters a few times to produce items for display, but that’s only after I knit the original. I got into this because I love knitting, and I love the finished products, which are more often then not for my closet! Once the knitting is complete I’ll snap a quick photo for my tech editor, go over the written pattern a few times to see if it makes sense, then send it to be edited. While that’s going on I try to do the pretty photos, which I do myself (except for the ones from Afternoon Tea, which I hired a photographer for). I’ll also roughly lay out the pattern if I feel like it. Once the edited pattern comes back I’ll make changes, insert photos and do a few rounds of proofing before publishing.
Tell me about your decision to self-publish.
Since I’ve both self-published and worked with a publisher, I do have both sides of the experience. I would say most people self-publish because it is so easy now, it’s a good way to get started and is lower cost. I like having control over every aspect of my patterns, from knitting to layout, and I like being able to publish on my own timeline! I had about six months total to write my book, with several interim deadlines – not my favourite way to work. Because I had no say in page layout, some things were done in a different way than I would have preferred (like not having a close enough shot of a stitch). I love self-publishing because it lets me work with others if I want, but mainly I can work on my own and not be waiting for other people all the time. I guess I’m a bit of a control freak about it!
Are you the type to have a business plan and goals, or are you the type that just knits what she likes because others will like it too? How serious of a business woman are you?
I don’t have an extended business plan because I just don’t work that way, and I like being able to go in different directions or work on different projects if the inspiration strikes. I do however have a registered business that I pay taxes on! As a sole proprietor my entire income is from knitting in one way or the other, so I know I need to continue to publish, change, and grow in order to keep up. I don’t design things that I wouldn’t wear myself just because I think it’ll make money – I have to love the design and the knitting.
I’m hoping this interview will attract and benefit some newer designers, like myself. Is there any advice you would give? What is the most important lesson you’ve learned?
Ravelry has really changed the way designers and creators interact with knitting consumers – it’s so easy now to self-publish with very low risk. However, on the flip side there are also so many people publishing that it can be difficult to get noticed. My general advice is to go for things and not be too afraid! Experiment, educate yourself, and don’t be scared to ask for help or advice. I would like to say that I’ve grown a thicker skin through all of this but sometimes that just isn’t true. My confidence in my work has grown, though, and as I’ve gotten a bit older I can see that there are all kinds of people in the world, and there’s not much point in getting caught up in opinion. If you put energy and love into your work, it’ll show.
Many of Laura’s designs can be downloaded here and you can follow her on her blog here.