This is the sixth in a series of blog posts featuring the fabulous sponsors of the 2018 Rhinebeck Trunk Show.
When I heard the news that Carol would be making a trip from Ireland to Rhinebeck — and that she wanted to see Indie Untangled in particular! — I was thrilled. Here’s a chance to learn a little more about her, and how her background as a structural engineer informs her stunning designs.
How did you decide to become a knitwear designer?
I really sort of fell into knitwear design! When I left school I couldn’t decide what I wanted to do, swinging between art and science/maths. I started by doing a year in art college but I really missed working with numbers, so after the year I switched to engineering, specializing in structural engineering. I spent several years working in engineering and when my second son was born I set up an online natural parenting shop. After my fourth son was born I sold the business and intended to become a full-time mum. That plan didn’t work out too well for me, by the time he was 5 months old I was craving some mental stimulation. I discovered an online yarn shop that had just opened up in Ireland and I started to relearn how to knit. It came back to me very quickly and I was obsessed!
Within a year I had published my first pattern and from there my first book was only a few years later. For the first time in my life I had found the perfect blend of art and maths. It’s very hard to be a knitwear designer without enjoying both ends of the spectrum; you need to be able to imagine and create the knitwear and then have the ability to do the number crunching to manipulate all the different sizes and make sure they work.
How has your training as a textile artist and then as a structural engineer informed your designs?
Starting off as a structural engineer — or any type of engineer — makes you a very logical thinker. The design, whether it is a garment or a building, has to make sense. When knitting, every stitch sits one on top of another. If you need it to be bigger you have to increase and if you need it smaller, you need to decrease. This means that design has to follow a logic path, and makes sense. This ability to dissect a design’s construction gives me the tools to turn design on its head and create new construction techniques and directions.
Tell me about what inspires your designs.
You many notice that I design a lot of cardigans. This is probably because I wear cardigans almost all the time! I think frequently designers like to design what they find useful on a personal level. After that it becomes about combining shapes, colours and stitch patterns in ways that make me happy. I often find that I have a picture of what I want to design, from there I combine sketching and swatching to see if I can make it work or how I need to change the initial idea so that it flows and makes knitting sense. I love autumn (fall) in shops; they are filled with new colours, knits and shapes. I spend a few mornings wandering in town getting a feel for the colours and trends of the season, zoning in on ones that mesh with my own aesthetic perspective.
You have created your own yarn line. How did that come about and what does that entail?
My yarn line happened accidentally, but it was a very happy accident! The yarn company, Fyberspates, distributes my patterns and self-published books and they had just started a yarn line with Rachel Coopey, Sock Yeah! I was saying how much fun that sounded and they suggested that I also start a yarn line with them. Between us we decided on the fiber blend; the two main criteria I had were that I wanted a sport weight yarn and I didn’t want a Superwash. After that I planned out the colours for the yarn (they are dyed by the mill) and got a yarn label designed. It was such a fun experience creating a yarn line and it somehow feels like it adds an extra dimension to my design work being able to work all the way from the yarn right through to the finished design.
Is there a construction method you haven’t tried yet?
I don’t think so! There are a few construction techniques that I’ve use very rarely but I think I’ve given most a try. I’ve knit sweaters from the bottom up, top down and from side-to-side. I’ve tried raglan, set-in sleeves, circular yokes, drop shoulders and contiguous. I have designed sweaters in pieces and seamed them together but it’s not my favourite method. I’m definitely a fan of seamless in all its guises!
When and how did you learn to knit?
I actually have almost no memory of learning to knit. In primary school in Ireland when I was small everyone learned to both knit and sew. It has however changed now and is dependent on individual teachers and their personal preferences. My mother was able to knit but found it too slow, preferring to crochet or sew. Her mother however was a fantastic knitter, producing new sweaters for all her 5 children every September when they went back to school. As I learned to knit so young it feels like a very natural thing for me to be doing, very similar to writing or reading. It was when I picked up knitting however as an adult that I learned how to refine my knitting and read a pattern.
What’s the first thing you do when you start designing a pattern?
I swatch, swatch, swatch. It doesn’t matter what is in my head or what I draw on paper if the yarn doesn’t agree, it won’t work! So, I swatch, sketch and them measure. Once this is done I can start working on the numbers and write up the bones of the pattern. This way when I begin knitting the finished piece I can tweak and rewrite the pattern as I work to make sure it’s as accurate as possible.
What are your favorite colors and have they changed at all since you started designing?
My colours are usually on the rustic end of the scale; all shades of green, rusts, ochres and pumpkin plus the very useful grey. In the yarn line I had an advantage because of the fiber content of the yarn. With 20% yak it means that the base, undyed colour of the yarn is a light beige. This means that all the colours that are overdyed on it will have a muted, rustic feel. I started with all my favourite colours and then grouped them into neutrals and brights/contrasts so that there were lots of options to combine colours. I do find as a designer that I have to fight against my own colour biases especially with larger projects. When I do books I try to have a good range of colour representation if possible.