Anatomy of a Knit Design II

Busy, busy, busy! But busy is DEFINITELY better than the alternative!

Virgo’s Horoscope (Aug 23 – Sep 22)
by Rick Levine

Sunday, April 7, 2013 – Running willy-nilly into the day by doing one thing after another may not be the best use of your vivid imagination today. You are in the midst of a busy time, and the more structure you give to your calendar, the more time you have for fun and relaxation. You won’t have to sidestep any of your responsibilities, but you need to cultivate your creativity if you want to do it all.

Well, I don’t know about ‘doing it all’ – but I certainly want to get it ALL done!

Oy, it’s been an insanely busy time, a good time, but very busy.

Spring is always a little crazy because the magazines are preparing their Fall & Winter issues, which means a lot of colliding deadlines.  I’m sure that as crazed as I feel with 16 designs on the needles right now, the yarn companies are feeling even MORE pinched for time!


Louet yarn for a BIG project – multi colored!

Every time the mailman comes by with another package I feel a mix of excitement (oooh, what yarn is it THIS time!?) and dread (oh, I hope they sent a yarn that’s easy to work with!)

The kids are totally OVER rolling yarn for me, it’s no longer fun or profitable at 25¢ a ball.

Yarn selection is a huge part of any design, and a lot of knitters would be interested to discover how little control designers have over most yarn selections.

The Dream


Some beautiful Madeline Tosh for an upcoming Interweave issue – my yarn choice – yay!

A designer sketches up a lovely sweater, drops their hand into a basket at their side and pulls out the PERFECT yarn for the project, knits up a complete and perfect swatch in the first attempt, sends it off to an editor who says, “YES! We MUST have this!” and the perfect yarn and lovely sweater are married in a public ceremony on the pages of your favorite knitting magazine.

The Reality

A designer gets a call for submissions and after perusing the styles / colors / themes for the specific issue at hand has a few different ideas floating around in their head.


NOT the yarn or colors I’d expected,
but I kind of like them!

They do about a dozen sketches, each one with a variation on the theme of the issue, until some of them resonate with the designer.

The designer riffles through their working yarn collection (I keep my yarns in separate IKEA containers in bookshelves in my basement – er – office).  Every now and then I have to ‘harvest’ yarns that are no longer available (it’s useless to swatch something for a magazine if the yarn isn’t going to be available!) and contact yarn companies to send me a few balls of their new yarns.

This has become harder as more and more folks seem to be entering the designer fold and ask yarn companies for yarn.  Some companies outright refuse to send sample balls any more, they’ve just been overwhelmed with yarn requests.

With a selection of several yarns that MAY work for the sketch, the designer begins swatching.  So many elements go into this part of the process; is the motif a repeating one? If so, how many stitches repeat? Is it going to be too hard? Too simple (boring)? Is it memorable?


So how exactly DID I do this?

As the swatch is worked, notes and mini charts are sketched up.  I can’t say how many times I’ve worked up the PERFECT swatch only to be faced with it in future with NO memory of how I actually created that pattern.

These days I draw a chart either in illustrator, or very quickly on my ipad using Procreate, then save it with a scan of the swatch in my database so I can access it (and remember it) easily.


or this…?

I put the swatch and sketch together, along with any design notes, and send it off to the editor. 

The Dream

In the perfect world the design is accepted, the editor contacts me and asks me which yarn I’d like to use.  I suggest a company, they say, “Perfect!” and the yarn arrives within the week and the sweater’s finished by the following Friday.  This happened recently with a design in Lorna’s Laces, and I was the happiest girl in the Twin Cities!

The Reality

In the real world the design may be accepted, at which point the editor may or may not contact me to ask my advice on yarn.

The editor must juggle the need to use the yarns of advertisers (it only makes sense!) and the need to use a wide variety of yarns in different fibers, price ranges, textures, etc.

Plus they have to fit whatever yarn they choose into their issue palette (finding the right yarn in the right color is harder than one would think)


Freia yarn I would use for ANYTHING!
And I can’t wait to get started with it!!

Sometimes an editor will just go with what I’ve suggested, which is great – and also forces me to OWN the yarn choice and make it work no matter what.

Other times the editor will suggest a different yarn, and contact me for my opinion and to help with color selection.  This is always welcome, I love having some input into the final design.

But often a box of mystery yarn will just appear on my doorstep, with no hint of which garment, issue or magazine it’s to be used for.  Emails are sent, clarification is achieved, and sometimes it’s a shock to see what yarns/colors have actually been chosen for a garment.

I’ve never been in a position where I thought the chosen yarn wouldn’t work at ALL, but I have been close (not for a long time, though – thankfully!)  Once two different yarns arrived for the SAME garment when wires were crossed at the magazine and two folks did the sourcing. Hilarity ensued.


Louet Gems worked as a flower for a millinery trim
for a issue of Piecework.

The Dream

Back in my perfect world, I have PLENTY of yarn in the right color, all dye lots match, and I’m able to knit up the piece so quickly my needles catch fire.

The Reality


Anzula yarn on hold for a future WONDERFUL project!

In the real world, often I barely have enough yarn for some projects (this is as much my fault as anyone else’s because often I come up with the yarn requirements – something I’m not as good at as I’d like…) 

There may be dye lot issues (why this should be I do not know, but it’s happened three times in the past month – it’s an annoyance) and I either have to get new yarn all in the same dyelot, or deal work around the problem in some creative way (sleeves in one lot, front in another, back in a third – the difference is usually so small that it’s not noticeable and can be easily corrected in pre-press.)

And that, my dear readers, is the yarn acquisition portion of a commissioned hand knit/crocheted design.

Next I’ll write about the process of actually knitting up a sample garment, and keeping track of the instructions/changes as I work through the design.

Anatomy of the Hand Knit Design Process

Winter’s supposed to be slow and draggy, but this has been an incredibly busy few weeks.

For the past 6 months I disengaged from submitting designs to any magazine while I finished History on Two Needles. When it was finally ‘in the can’ just before Christmas I discovered I was just a bit too late to submit to a few magazines I’d really been hoping to get into.

So I submitted late – I’m still waiting to hear if I may have struck it lucky – but I’m not holding my breath.

However, I did just hear that 5 designs were accepted for a theme driven publication (very exciting!) and I have designs out to 4 other publications right now on which I’m waiting to hear the outcome.

The ability to submit electronically is one of the great boons of our modern publishing era, but not every editor can accept electronic submissions. I’m fortunate in that I’ve built up a large enough body of work with various editors that when I submit something, the recipient usually has a good idea of what they will receive. This makes electronic submissions more feasible than it might be for someone who is be submitting for the first or second time to a publication.

That submission marked the beginning of a 4 week period when I was either swatching, sketching, researching, or driving (to California and back) and BOY are my arms tired.


Submitting A Design

Submitting designs to a magazine is a time consuming process. Every designer is different, but for me most of the work is research; looking up current fashion trends, experimenting with stitch patterns to create fabric with the right drape, spending time looking at compelling images from nature, science, the arts – anything that can get my mind moving.

If the entity I’m submitting to has a theme, I research that as well. I’ll watch movies or TV shows that are part of the theme, read books or reviews of articles, check out websites (I am particularly fond of Jane Austen’s World)

I love using Pinterest to store my research and find new sources of inspiration. I know there’s been some contention about Pinterest, but I find it to be an amazing tool and I love using it.

Once I have an idea, I do one of three things:

  • Multi Drape Kimono Schematic

    Multi Drape Kimono Schematic

    Create a rough sketch
    This helps me work through details that I might not have thought out in full; how will it close? what shape is the collar? are the sleeves full length or a variation? Is the back an entirely different pattern?

  • Multi Drape Kimono

    Multi Drape Kimono

    Create a measured sketch (schematic)
    This is helpful if the design is unusual in it’s shaping, like my Multi Drape Kimono featured in the premiere issue of Knit.Wear from Interweave Knits

  • Miliary Spencer research from the Kyoto Institute

    Spencer from the Kyoto Institute

    Find research that takes the place of a rough sketch
    If I can find a created piece from a different era that has the same detail and shaping I want to accomplish in my knit garment, I’m happy to use it as a basis for a more finished sketch.

Once I’ve done at least one of the above steps, I look for a yarn I think would knit up well and create the drape I like.  I also look for a good stitch pattern, this usually goes hand in hand with finding a yarn.

Stitch pattern seen at Opitz Outlet in St. Louis Park

Lovely stitch pattern seen at Opitz Outlet in St. Louis Park

I sometimes find stitch patterns in the most unlikely places, I’ve photographed bricks, walkways, the garments of passers-by, woven fabrics, clouds, tide patterns in the sand; ANYTHING that gives me the rhythmic feeling I’m looking for in my stitch pattern.

RS & WS of a slip stitch pattern worked in Malabrigo & Lorna's Laces Pearl.

RS & WS of a slip stitch pattern worked in Malabrigo & Lorna’s Laces Pearl.

The amount of time I spend  swatching, photographing and ripping out is difficult to quantify. By simply fiddling around I am able to get a good sense of what the yarn WANTS to do, and how to best compel it to work the way I’d like!

Recently I’ve been playing with slipped stitch patterns, I love to juxtapose a multicolor variegated yarn with a dark neutral or black, and here’s a stitch pattern I’ve come up with which looks just as interesting from the right side as the wrong side.

When I have all the pieces; my sketch, swatch, a schematic if I feel it would be useful and any other details, I create a composite image to send electronically to an editor.

Military Spencer; finished sketch & research

Military Spencer; finished sketch & research

I use Photoshop magic to recreate the appearance of an all-over pattern on my garment by isolating an area from the swatch and recreating it in my computer sketch (here’s a link to a previous blog post from 2011 on my swatching & photoshopping process)

Recently I’ve been using an iPad application called Procreate, which I’m absolutely in LOVE with! It’s brought back a great deal of my joy of sketching and has made me love my iPad even more!

Then I send in the sketch and swatch and hope for the best!

Design Non Acceptance

If my design isn’t accepted, the chances are good I’ll never hear. Often I have to contact an editor to double check that a design is open to submit to a different publication. This can be infuriating, as some magazines insist that you DO NOT CONTACT THEM for six months after submitting.

That’s great for them, but since it’s considered very bad form to submit the same design to more than one publication at a time, this ties up a time-sensitive design and makes submitting problematic. The sheer number of designs I need to come up with to satisfy multiple submission dates (usually occurring within the same 2 week period) can be frustrating. Often I’m left wondering if Design A would be more likely to be accepted by Publication X, Y or Z, and it ends up as a type of crap shoot.

Thoughtful editors will let a designer know in a timely manner which designs aren’t being seriously considered. I’m absolutely cool with an editor holding a design for a while, even if they decide that ultimately it’s not for them. What’s infuriating is when they hold every design submitted for the full 6 months, then accept none of them. But I find it’s rare to run into an editor who works this way.

Design Acceptance

If my design is accepted, the editor will be in touch to offer or ask suggestions on which yarn might work well (they have editorial and advertising considerations, so I don’t always get my first choice of yarn!) and we’ll set a design fee and a due date for the garment.


I’ll receive a contract outlining all of these details, plus the disposition of my design after the publication date; Who will own the rights? Will the pattern be for sale at the publication website? If so, how will the profits be divided? These are VERY important questions and must be addressed.

New designers are usually too excited when they have a design accepted to bother about the details, but they should! Contract reading is as important a skill for a hand knit designer as sketching, swatching and coming up with good ideas!

Designer fees haven’t increased much in the past 30 years, more’s the pity, and publishers sometimes count on the eagerness of a designer to see themselves published to keep the fees low.

At this point in the process there are already hours of work, perhaps a dozen, invested in a design, and that doesn’t even begin to count the hours spent knitting – or the fee paid to a knitter to work up the garment. All of this time has to be compensated in some way (financial isn’t the only reasonable compensation, but it’s an important one!)

Chosen Yarn - I was allowed to pick my own, which is a lovely luxury!

Chosen Yarn – I was allowed to pick my own, so I chose Jared Flood’s Shelter, which was a lovely luxury!

Yarn Day!

Then the yarn arrives, and it’s an exciting day! If I’ve hired a knitter I’ll swatch up the stitch pattern and double check the instructions I’ve already written based on my schematic and my swatching yarn.

This is the point where it’s vital to get in touch with the editor if there seems to be any problem with the yarn. If the end result isn’t going to be possible because of a misunderstanding about the fiber properties, it’s best to get it settled as soon as possible!

Knitting The Sample Garment

Once everything is squared away with the yarn and pattern, a package of information and materials is sent to my knitter, or I’ll undertake to knit the garmet myself.

Finished Design

Finished Design

I much prefer to knit my own garments when possible. This allows me to discover any tips or shortcuts that may make knitting the garment easier and more enjoyable. After all, we don’t just knit things to have a lovely piece when we’re finished, we knit to make ourselves HAPPY! I can tell when I knit a pattern that’s been thoughtfully written to include good, intelligent design choices. I try to accomplish this with my own patterns, I don’t know if I always succeed!

When the garment is finished I like to block it with steam using my favorite Scuncii Steamer, and then I photograph it on my mannequin, on my daughter or on a friend, in great detail, so I have a record of the design.


It’s always a good idea to label the sample clearly with the designer name, the publication, the editor and a return address. The number of samples I’ve never received back is truly staggering. Each publication will have different shipping requests, some prefer a certain shipper, some use an account number, some want the designer to pay the shipping and may or may not reimburse this expense. I always insure my package, even if it’s not required by the publication.


In all honesty, by the time a design is published it’s a bit of a fading memory! I get excited when I happen upon one of my designs, remembering how much I loved working it up!

Published Pattern, Jane Austen Knits Issue 1

Published Pattern, Jane Austen Knits Issue 1

Of course, this amnesia also means that I have a hard time staying on top of my invoices, making certain I’ve been paid (or that I’ve even sent one OUT!) which is embarrassing to admit. I use a database to keep track of when I’m paid for a design (usually upon publication), how much, the check number, etc., but it’s easy to let it get away from me.

Questions & Corrections

When questions about the pattern roll in, which they inevitably do, some publications prefer for me to forward the questions to their tech department for answering. Since they’ve the last set of eyes to see the pattern, and may have made changes in my original worksheet numbers, this makes sense. Often questions are based on a misreading of a pattern (it can be confusing to read ANY pattern!) but sometimes there’s a problem with the pattern that must be addressed.

Now that Ravelry is ubiquitous, it makes it easy to upload a correction to a pattern that I sell from my own website. Otherwise, knitters need to check the publication’s website – or the designer’s errata page – to discover if there are any updates to a pattern they’ve purchased.

A note about contacting me. Email is best. I don’t make it to Ravelry as often as I probably should.

And that is the short version of submitting and creating a hand knit design. I haven’t even touched on dealing with various styles in magazines, sizing a pattern from XXS to XXL, and the other parts that take up so much of a designer’s time. Have I mentioned that design fees haven’t gone up much in the past 30 years..?


Sending Up A Flare

I’ve meant to write about Ireland for a few days now, but finishing up a new design AND a sudden Fibro Flare-up have shut me up for a few days.

Not always a bad thing, some might say…

It’s so weird to have the fibro sneak in when I least expect it.  I had a few days in Ireland of a flare up, but it passed quickly and most of my time there was simply dedicated to experiencing such an amazing country.

I have been trying to watch my diet, to get in as much walking and biking as I can, because that’s been a help with the fibro, however I realized today (as my shoulders started aching and my throat became sore) that I’d skipped my vitamin D for at least 3 days, and BOY am I feeling those effects.

Not the nicest way to confirm how helpful the Vit D3’s been, but it’s a DEFINITE confirmation!  It has seriously been like a miracle drug for me.


I’m finishing up a small accessory crochet piece for Interweave (I’m having a hard time making the working up of it as elegant and fun as I’d like, I don’t like the patterns to feel too kludgy & overworked) but what I have REALLY spent a lot of time on in the past few weeks is my first piece for Twist Collective.

I’m SO excited!  I love the whole idea of Twist Collective, love that they (along with Ravelry and Pattern Fish and Interweave) offer designers a much more fair percentage than the 10% Soho Press (Vogue) seems to fee is appropriate for online pattern sales.  I credit TC (along with my own beloved Stitch Cooperative) with creating a new sense of empowerment among designers – empowerment is GOOD.

Colrain Knits Like Buttah

The cardigan I’m working up for TC is done in Valley Yarns Colrain, which is an absolute DREAM to knit with!  I meant to get a lot of it done in Ireland, but I ended up driving more than I’d expected, so most of the knitting took place on the plane and back home in my knitting chair.  Body comfort definitely affects knitting speed.

It’s a simple design, a slouchy kind of pull-it-on cardigan, but I think it will be appealing and it’s DEFINITELY fun to work up. 

Plus it has a cool belt, but that’s all I can say – you’ll have to wait until August to see the entire kielbasa…


The Emerald Isle, the trip of a lifetime for my family, deserves an entire blog post (or five) of it’s own.  And my shoulders are killing me.  So while I rest up and allow the vitamin D3 to work it’s magic, please feel free to check out all the pictures from my Flickr account from Donegal, Ulster, Dublin and all points in between!


I’m not teaching a lot in the US this year, I’m not teaching a lot at ALL, but I WILL be teaching in Columbus the first week in June!

The entire Stitch Coop will be offering some FABulous classes, with a special discount offered for those who sign up over this holiday weekend. We’re teaching at the Courtyard by Marriott in downtown Columbus, and the classes are open to EVERYONE – TNNA attendees AND any knitter who’d care to come along for the ride!  Sign up this weekend for a juicy 10% discount!