Saturday, June 20, 2009

Top-Down Design Tutorial 2: Whatcha gonna knit?

Sometimes it starts with a vision:

I want to knit my daughter a sweater that's kind of like a Napoleonic-era British naval captain's jacket but not nearly so fussy.

I want to knit my daughter a sweater that's like a 1940's suit jacket with a kicky peplum and cables down the front.

I want to knit a comfy zippered sweatshirt that doesn't fit like a sack.

I want to knit my grandmother an elegant tailored jacket that's suitable for the weather in Arizona.

And sometimes it starts with the yarn.

What shall I make with this nubbly blue linen that I got on sale and which has now aged nicely in my stash?

Has the time come to knit up this delicious gray tweed Peace Fleece? If so, what shall I knit with it?

It amazes me how hard it can be to get the right sweater idea together with the right yarn. I mean, it's all just yarn, right? You should be able to find the right kind of yarn in just the shade of the right color to match the sweater vision dancing in your brain. And you should be able to imagine the exact sweater that will make a particularly luscious yarn sing.

In real life, though, it doesn't work like that. Finding the right yarn with the right properties for the project I have in mind is amazingly difficult, considering all the yarns out there in the world. Finding the right project for a particular type of yarn can be equally difficult. Once the yarn and the pattern come together, the stitch pattern still needs to be worked out. Yarn, design, and stitch patterns all need to come together into one living, breathing whole.

When I look through yarn catalogs or knitting magazines, the yarn and the projects often seem mismatched. Sometimes, the poor yarn has been knit too tightly (so it can't breathe) or too loosely (so it loses its personality). Sometimes the yarn is being asked to do something that cotton or wool simply can't do well. Sometimes the stitch pattern doesn't work with the yarn; sometimes the yarn can't stand up to the design; sometimes the mix of yarn, stitch pattern, and design is just too much.

Not only does the yarn need to suit the design, but the yarn and the design also need to suit the prospective wearer. I can't count the number of times a knitter has come up to me, admired one of my children's sweaters, and then sighed to me, "But how do you get them to wear them?"

That usually isn't a problem. I have trouble getting the boys not to drag their sweaters through the dirt, stretch out the necks of their sweaters, and just please stop growing so fast so I don't have to lengthen the arms on that sweater again. I don't, however, have any problem getting them to wear their sweaters. They love them, even the shapeless dishrag of a sweater that I made out of the nubbly blue linen and wish I could bury somewhere far far out of sight.

This knitter takes dictation. I don't knit my children the sweaters I want them to wear; I knit them the sweaters they ask me to knit. If this means sweaters with the Linux Tux or a unicorn on the front, so be it. If this means a sweater in dishwater-purple and a zipper, I can handle that. If this means that I have to rip out the fancy color work in the yoke because the child in question can't stand that particular shade of gold, to the frog pond it is.

So, basically, design isn't about me at all. It's about the fiber, the wearer, and the purpose of the sweater. What is the sweater going to be asked to do? Where is it going to be asked to go?

I want my sweaters to look natural, inevitable, almost as if they just grew on the back of the wearer. I want them to fit their jobs, to do what sweaters are supposed to do. I don't want them to scream "I'm a terrific sweater! Look at me!"

I want them to whisper it.

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