Once upon a time, nearly 10 years ago now, I was on the brink of launching this blog. I asked a few knitters I respected (although didn’t necessarily know) for their feedback and advice. One of the knitters I turned to was Kirsten Kapur. Kirsten didn’t know me from any other knitter, but I asked her anyway because I followed her blog, I knit her patterns, and I just generally loved her style.
She was super gracious then – offering me encouragement and welcoming me to the blogging world. As she’s become a bigger and brighter star in the knitting world, I still like following her, I knit her patterns, and still . . . I just generally love her style.
When I was first toying with a new idea – Asking Questions – I talked to Kirsten and asked her what she thought, and -- if she’d be willing to be my first interview “subject.” She was equally gracious now as she was 10 years ago, when I was writing my first blog posts.
Here we go! Please read along as I ask questions . . . of knitwear designer Kirsten Kapur!
(. . . and be sure to read all the way to the end for some special surprise treats. . . )
Kym: Hi Kirsten! I’m so excited to have you join me here on my first ever Asking Questions blog post. Let’s start at the beginning. Can you tell me about learning to knit? Like . . . when did you learn to knit, who taught you, what were some of the first things you made? What are your first memories of knitting, and why did you want to learn to knit in the first place?
Kirsten: I don't actually remember learning to knit, so I must have been very young. My mother was always making things -- sewing, quilting, knitting, bargello, needlepoint, flower arranging, gardening, she even made large braided rugs for our kitchen and family room. My earliest memories are of playing on the floor of my mom's sewing room while she made clothes for my sisters and I. I wasn't very good at sitting still while someone tried to teach me a new skill, so my mom just let me play with the materials. Eventually I figured things out on my own and started making very simple dresses for my dolls out of scraps of her fabrics.
At some point I must have picked up yarn and needles, and either she showed me (in a rare moment of sitting still) or I figured out how to make a knit stitch on my own from watching her. As a teenager I quickly learned that my mom would buy fabric and yarn for me when she wasn't willing to buy new clothes, so I started making my own. I knit and sewed through college and in my early twenties, but at some point I stopped knitting and didn't pick it up again until I was in my early 40's. Just as knitting blogs were becoming popular.
Kym: So when did you start playing with knitwear design? Was designing something that always appealed to you. . . or did you just kind of fall into it? When did you realize you were, truly, A Designer? What is your absolute favorite Through the Loops design? Do your designs ever surprise you? And Where do you tend to find your design inspirations?
Kirsten: In my twenties I worked first as a clothing designer, and then eventually as a textile designer, where I designed prints for fabrics. Knitting is the perfect combination of the two since it involves both the shape of the piece as well as the surface texture.
I hadn't knit for years, but in the early 2000's I picked up my needles again. I discovered knitting blogs, around 2004 and read them voraciously, but rarely commented. I loved all of the conversation about different techniques that I'd never been exposed to, and the projects being posted were very inspiring. I wanted to try it all. As a result I learned a lot of new skills. Finally in April of 2006 I decided I wanted to be part of the conversation and started Through the Loops. It was a great community, everyone was very supportive and welcoming.
From the moment I discovered independent knitting patterns, I knew I wanted to try designing. Within a few months of starting my blog I published my first pattern, drawing on the skills I honed in the garment industry as well as those I learned from other knit bloggers. My first few patterns were pretty simple, but as my skills grew I started to publish more complicated things. A few years later I took the plunge and purchased charting software. That changed my design significantly since it allowed me to easily manipulate stitch patterns, and fit them into shapes other than rectangles. I love the way charting patterns is part puzzle, part drawing, and the way it simplifies the process of making one stitch pattern morph into another. Access to this software led to a lot of shawl designs. In the early days most of the money I made designing went toward supporting my knitting habit.
But as my kids neared college age I decided to take it more seriously and try to help pay for their educations with the income. That's when it became my full time job. My designs surprise me all of the time. I make a lot of decisions as I knit the sample, especially with shawls. So I seldom know exactly how something will evolve when I first cast on. I have a rough idea of shape, design, and basic structure, but beyond that decisions are made, and things are changed as I knit. Some days I feel like I'm ripping out more than I'm knitting.
I'm not sure what my favorite design is. I wear my September House pullover all winter, my Bradford Road wrap is my go-to on cold days, and I have a pair of Kanagawa mittens that I knit for myself using 11 colors, that are super warm. I also love the colors in all three of these knits. But I have a soft spot for a few of my sleeper patterns too. There are some patterns that I really like that hardly anyone has knit. A few that come to mind are Teresa's Pansies (there's not a single project listed on that one), Anticipating Autumn, and Atlantic Avenue.
Sometimes inspiration is easy, I wake up in the middle of the night with a eureka moment. Bradford Road was one of those. Other times I see a yarn and instantly know what I want to do with it. Then there are the times when the inspiration just isn't there. I have worked with some gorgeous yarns that for one reason or another just don't work up the way I'd envisioned. These take a lot more thought, swatching, ripping, and reknitting. For these I usually start with stitch dictionaries, and my charting software and go from there.
Kym: So what is your basic process . . . from design inspiration to pattern release? And what do you think your run-of-the-mill knitters (like me!) might be most surprised about regarding the process of getting one of your designs from inspiration to sales?
Kirsten: Design inspiration varies. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with a new idea that I just have to get on the needles, other times I'll see a yarn that immediately inspires a pattern. But there are also times when inspiration doesn't come immediately, and takes a fair amount of work. I'll pour over stitch dictionaries, knit swatch after swatch and really push myself to come up with something I'm happy with.
Once I have a plan I make the basic charts which will evolve and change a lot as I make the sample. If the pattern is a garment I create a spread sheet with all of the sizes from the start. Sometimes a pattern won't work for all sizes, and I want to know that up front.
After all of the charting, spreadsheets, and planning I cast on and knit my sample, which as I've said can change a lot as I knit. I fully write the pattern as I knit. This way I can do an initial vetting of the pattern, and if there's a repeating stitch pattern I can knit from both the charts and the written instructions to make sure they both are correct.
Once the pattern and sample are complete the pattern goes to test knitters and my tech editor. They all make my patterns better by pointing out confusing parts, suggesting alternate wording, or finding true errors. While all of this is happening I do photos. Sometimes I do the photos myself, other times I hire my friend Gale Zucker to do it. If I'm designing for a yarn company like Miss Babs, or mYak, they take the photos.
If a pattern needs a tutorial I make a video and put it up on YouTube. After I get all of my feedback from test knitting and tech editing I put the finishing touches on the pattern, add the final photos, and get it ready for publication. On publication day it's uploaded to Ravelry, and I post about the release on Instagram, Facebook, in my Ravelry group, and usually send out a newsletter.
I think the thing that would surprise most run-of-the-mill knitters is how difficult it is to get new designs noticed. There are so many people publishing patterns these days that new releases can be missed very easily.
Kym: I’ve knit several of your mystery shawls over the years, and I know many of my blog readers have knit both your mystery socks and mystery shawls. When you design a “mystery knit,” how is it different from designing a “regular knit?" How do you decide where to break down the clues — and how does that impact the design? What makes a GOOD mystery design? Do you like knitting mystery knits yourself?
Kirsten: I love designing mystery patterns! The process is very different than my other designs. First of all the people who participate in my MKALs are talented and adventuresome knitters. They are not necessarily advanced knitters, but are the kind who are fearless and willing to try new things. This allows me to throw a lot into a design, so the patterns are an absolute delight for me to create.
In order to be a good mystery, a pattern can't be predictable. Something new, and hopefully surprising, needs to happen in each clue. I think some of my best designs have been mysteries because in order to push the MKAL participants, I end up pushing myself. Last year's mystery shawl, Vine Pops, is one of my favorites. I like the way one clue flows into the next on that design.
With socks the clues break down pretty easily into cuff, leg, heel, foot, and toe. With shawls it's not quite as obvious. It depends on the design, but usually I start a new clue at an obvious change in the design. This can make some clues much shorter or longer than others. Usually the first clue is shortest. I think of it as a little warm up. The next several clues are usually the longest, and ideally the last clue is on the shorter side too when people might be starting to burn out.
I seldom have the time to knit other's patterns, so I've never actually participated in a mystery KAL. I'd love to do one of Romi's though. Her patterns are gorgeous, and intelligently designed.
Kym: How about . . . I give you a soapbox and ask you to talk to knitters about what it’s like to be designer. What would you like us to know about designing as a profession?
Kirsten: Unless you are one of the top designers -- and I mean the very elite -- designing is an extremely hard way to make a living. A single pattern takes hours and hours from concept to publication. I would venture that most full time designers who publish regularly work much longer hours than they would in most other jobs. Many also travel a lot to teach to make ends meet. Supplies, good tech editing, sample knitting, and photography, are expensive, so until sales cover those things, a designer isn't making an income.
Kym: What can knitters do to support the work of designers we love and follow?
Kirsten: If you like a designer's work, be sure to support their new releases, even if you won't be knitting them right away. If you see a pattern you love from a designer you've never heard of, take a chance, and buy the pattern. Knitting patterns are not very expensive at an average of $6-8, compared to independent sewing patterns which are anywhere from $14-18 for a pdf file -- more for a printed pattern.
You can obviously support designers by purchasing their patterns, but there are other things you can do too, repost and talk about their work in social media, to your knitting friends, and in knitting groups, join their mailing lists, follow their hashtags on Instagram, or simply head over to their designer page on Ravelry from time to time and see what's new. It's so easy to miss new releases. You are also really helping the designer if you upload your project to Ravelry (extra points for good, modeled photos) and if you like it, give the pattern a five star rating.
Kym: What can knitters do to encourage new and emerging designers who may not get as much notice as some of the more established designers?
Kirsten: There are so many talented designers who deserve to be noticed. When I teach or go to a knitting event and see everyone wearing the exact same shawl, sweater, or what-have-you it worries me. The incidence of this has increased over the years that I've been designing and teaching. I want the variety of design choices to continue to grow, but if it's hard to be noticed, some lesser known or newer designers probably won't stick to designing very long, and we could miss out on some really great work as a result. I'd love to see people commit to knitting one design from a more obscure designer for every super popular pattern that they knit. You might just discover the next big thing!
Kym: You do so many cool things BESIDES knitting -- sewing, weaving, fabric design, shoe-making(!) — what do you enjoy the most? How do these other hobbies or practices influence your design work? What advice do you offer to others . . . in terms of “following your muse?”
Kirsten: Right now I'm all about sewing and ceramics. I'm completely obsessed with both. I give myself Mondays off from design work and spend the entire day in the ceramics studio. My twin daughters moved out recently so I finally have the space for my own sewing room (whoohooo!). As I've gotten older it has become more and more difficult to find ready-to-wear that fits me well, is comfortable, and that I feel good in. Sewing is the perfect solution. I've got 8 or 10 go-to patterns for tops, skirts, pants, and dresses that I know work well. I'm constantly looking for more so I can have some variety. Luckily there are a lot of wonderful independent sewing pattern designers, so there are many options.
My sewing pattern searches have shown me how important seeing images of designs on a variety of people with different body types, ages, and skin colors is. I do a lot of hashtag searches on Instagram to find photos of projects made from specific sewing patterns to see if the pattern might work for me. My daughters are mixed race, and many of the models I've used over the years have been people of color, so I think I've done a pretty good job of showing different races. However, they've nearly all been young and/or thin. Searching for sewing patterns has made me realize that I could definitely do a better job of showing my designs on more mature models, and on larger bodies -- frankly on people who look more like me. I'm actually considering using myself as a model for my own designs from time to time. When I can find someone else to take photos, that is.
My advice to others is to be fearless, try new things, and don't be afraid to be bad at something. My first few ceramic pieces are homely, warty things, and I love them because they represent a new adventure -- one of them holds my pot scrubber by the kitchen sink, and the other sits on the table next to my knitting chair and is the perfect for holding tape measures and stitch markers as I work.
I can honestly say I was the worst in my ceramics class when I first started about 6 weeks ago -- I'm not being humble here, I could not get that clay to behave! But I'm pretty proud of the things I'm making now, this morning I even drank my coffee from a mug I made. I still have a lot to learn, but for me things are the most exciting when I'm discovering and trying to master new skills. Likewise, shoe making was very far out of my comfort zone, and I can't say I wear the shoes I made very often, but I had a wonderful time and learned so much.
Kym: How do you deal with stress in your life?
Kirsten: I have knit my way through the loss of both of my parents. I can't imagine spending those hours by their bedsides without the comfort of knitting. I feel lucky to have a strong creative drive. As my father used to say, "What do people without hobbies do?" I am at my happiest and most relaxed when I am creating. I could do a better job with exercising. In the past when I have been committed to exercise it has really helped relieve stress. But where to fit it in with all of this making? ;)
Kym: So what’s coming up for you next, Kirsten? Tell us what you’ve got up your sleeves!
Kirsten: My annual TTL Mystery Shawl KAL is normally in June, but this year I need to push it back. I have a few too many deadlines to get a good design completed in time, and my tech editor is in the process of moving, so her time is very limited. I hope to do the KAL in September this year -- maybe we could all meet up at Rhinebeck to show off our shawls, meet in person, and take a group photo.
Beyond that, I'm dabbling in textile design right now. If anyone wants to see what I've been up to, my Spoonflower shop is here. Sometime down the road I hope to design some simple and approachable knitting & sewing patterns that use my original textile designs. I haven't completely finalized my plans for this, but they would involve yarn and fabric that coordinate so that you might sew a simple skirt and knit a top that work together. I'd like these to be very simple sewing patterns that are approachable for those who are new to sewing. That's down the road though. Probably in 2020 at the earliest.
Kym: And that’s it for my questions, Kirsten! Thanks so much for this behind-the-scenes look at your work and your life. I appreciate your taking the time to talk to me and allowing me to share your story. Bye, now!
Kirsten: You’re welcome, Kym. Bye!
Not only was Kirsten gracious enough to answer my questions, but she has also offered the following extra-cool treats:
- From now until May 15, all Stepping Away From the Edge readers will get 20% of Kirsten’s self-published patterns. Just enter the coupon code MULHERNMAY when you check out on Ravelry, and the discount will be taken off your order.
- AND . . . If you respond with a comment to this blog post, you will be automatically entered into a drawing for Kirsten’s digital version of Saturate/Desaturate. (This is Kirsten’s ebook featuring featuring 5 of her fabulous designs). The deadline for commenting is Thursday, May 11. The winner will be notified by email.