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Untangling: Toby Roxane Barna

Toby Roxane Barna

I discovered Toby Roxane Barna when I came across her London Underground collection of shawls (I still need to knit Highgate, which was my tube stop when I did a semester there in 2001) and was very excited when she posted to Indie Untangled last year.

Soon after posting to the Marketplace, Toby expressed interest in participating in the Where We Knit yarn club. Both she and Margaret of French Market Fibers decided to draw inspiration from rivers — the Hudson in Toby’s case, the Mississippi in Margaret’s — so it seemed fitting to match them up.

Toby’s designs are classic, with a modern twist, and pretty much exclusively use indie-dyed yarn — and she recently started dyeing yarn herself! I spoke with her a little more about her time across the pond and her thoughts on color.

When and how did you learn to knit?

I learned how to knit a little later than most people, I think — and it’s kind of a long story. I graduated from college in 2009 and there were no jobs to be had. So, I moved back in with my parents and started working at a local cafe. The owner of the cafe was a knitter, and on Saturday mornings she hosted a little knitting group. Since my mom is also a knitter, I told her about it, and she started going. Once the knitters found out I was the daughter of a knitter and didn’t know how to knit, they decided I needed to learn. They taught me, and it turned out I was good at it — actually, it turned out it was, like, what I was supposed to be doing all along. I’d always done all kinds of art and crafts because I find that if I’m not making something I’m not happy. Knitting turned out to be my perfect medium.

How did you end up studying knitwear design in London?

Once I got good at knitting and began working at yarn shops, I realized I wanted to find a way to make a career out of knitting. Designing seemed like the best way to do that, and I thought about going back to school. After doing a bunch of research, I found a summer course in knitwear design at the London College of Fashion… I had never been to Europe and I really wanted to do some travelling, so I saved some money and went. I LOVED it! I would love to go back one day.


What did you learn in school that translates into designing patterns for hand knits?

Well, ninth grade geometry turned out to be shockingly useful! I go through graph paper like you wouldn’t believe. The course I took in London was focused mainly on designing knits to be mass produced, which isn’t the direction I’m going in right now, but I did learn a lot about planning and creating a cohesive collection from start to finish. Now that I’ve begun dyeing my own yarn (stay tuned for more news on that front…!) I’m excited to be able to design palettes of colorways to use for designing knits.


Tell me about what inspires your designs.

A lot of time, it’s the yarn. I’m all about hand-dyed yarn, and I find that it often tells me what it wants to be. I also like to read fashion and runway magazines and look for silhouettes that might lend themselves to interesting interpretation in knitwear.

What’s the first thing you do when you start designing a pattern?

That’s a really good question… I’m not sure it’s ever the same! It depends a lot on the pattern. For accessories like shawls, which don’t require specific measurements the way sweaters do, I usually just start knitting. I sometimes don’t know how a pattern will turn out when I start it. For sweaters, I do a ton of planning before I even touch the yarn. I’ll make a swatch, and then do a schematic on graph paper and decide what sizes would make sense to include in the pattern, then I calculate all the relevant numbers for all the sizes using an Excel chart, and THEN I start knitting. Then I usually translate the Excel chart into a written pattern, either as I’m knitting or after it’s finished.

How have your color preferences changed since becoming a designer?

You know, I’d never really thought about it until now, but my color preferences and — how to phrase it… color awareness? — have definitely changed since I became a knitter. I’m not sure it changed when I started designing, but when I started knitting and fell in love with hand-dyed yarns, I became SO much more aware of color. I used to (and still kind of do) wear mostly black and gray—I had a major goth phase in high school and they say you always carry with you vestiges of the first style you ever thought was really cool. Anyway, I still wear a lot of blacks and neutrals only because they’re perfect starting points for layering a really colorful shawl or cardigan. 🙂 I find I’m drawn to jewel tones and colors with a lot of depth—you can really only get that depth from hand-dyeing. It requires some layering of colors.


I understand that you weld. How did you start and what other crafts do you engage in, aside from knitting?

Oh man, what art media HAVEN’T I tried? I have done varyingly extensive work in pencil, charcoal, oil paint, acrylic paint, piano, cross-stitch, pen & ink, marker, sewing, watercolor, print making, clay molding, crochet, book making, spray paint, crayons, oil pastels, and that’s all I can think of off the top of my head. I learned how to weld in a sculpture class in college and to be honest, I spent more time chiseling off things I’d accidentally welded to the table.

Where is your favorite place to knit?

At the moment, my favorite place to knit is at a little park by the river, here in Saugerties. It’s quiet and lovely and full of trees and I find it very rejuvenating.


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