Giftalong Designer Interview with Kathleen Dames
She is a busy mom of three and has some beautiful designs for sweaters, shawls, scarves, hats and fingerless mitts. Check them out here. I have some serious cable envy!
How long have you been crocheting/knitting and how did you first learn?
My grandmother taught me to knit when I was a kid, but she lived a couple of hours away from me, so I didn’t see her often enough and didn’t have anyone to turn to when I got stuck.
Eleven years ago my colleague taught me to knit again (it was Thanksgiving a year before my oldest daughter, who just turned ten, was born. We would knit together at work at lunch most days, and having someone I could turn to was invaluable.
How long have you been designing and what led you to design?
I kind of started designing in a small way right away. The first large-scale project I wanted to do was a poncho from Melanie Falick’s Weekend Knitting, but I wanted to use a different yarn and maybe just 2x2 ribbing instead of the baby cable (since I didn’t feel like I knew what I was doing there). The LYSO looked at me like I was crazy when I told her all that. There are lots of knitters who just want to follow the pattern and get the thing like the thing in the photo, but I guess I’m not really one of them (I love them BTW - without them I would just be knitting for myself).
The first pattern I published was the EZ as Pi Lace Beret, which is a seamless hat worked from the center out based on Elizabeth Zimmermann’s Pi Shawl idea - I wasn’t ready for a whole shawl at that point.
I see you were influenced by Elizabeth Zimmermann. How does what you learned from her works influence your designs?
First and foremost I LOVE that Elizabeth Zimmermann told us all that we are the boss of our own knitting. And she’s right! So many knitters are women, and many of those women have been raised to be good and follow directions rather than trust their own inner voices. I love that more and more knitters are really exploring their own thing and understanding that one of the great things about knitting is that we are creating these things ourselves, which means we can do it how we want!
I kind of got off on a tangent :) Anyway, EZ’s focus on seamless knits and exploring different ways to use techniques to great effect are the elements I try to incorporate into my designs.
Why crochet/knitting? What is it that interests you? What do you enjoy most about the craft?
I love that knitting is an activity that results in a tangible thing. I love that I can make it so personal that a sweater fits me just right (and one of the tricks to that is being honest about your measurements, embracing your shape, and then going forth to highlight your best bits and camouflage the rest). Knitting’s portability appeals to me - I can’t plug a sewing machine in on the subway. And the geek in me loves that out of two basic stitches (knit and purl), you can make just about anything - like binary code.
What influences your style?
While I have an abiding interest in fashion, I’m more interested in style, so I don’t worry about what color might be in vogue next year. I live in New York City, but I’m a mother of three, so I guess that means I want to look good, but I need to be comfortable. I design for myself ultimately, so I’m always looking to fill spots in my wardrobe.
How does the weather where you live influence what you design and knit?
Living in NYC means you’re rarely truly cold - most apartments are overheated, so I’ve been working more in fine gauge yarn lately. But I’m originally from Chicago and lived in Boston for much of my adult life, so I do like a good worsted weight sweater. Wool is my fiber of choice, maybe with some silk or sparkle thrown in, but I don’t work with bast fibers too much since I live up North.
What inspires you and/or your designs?
I find inspiration all over the place! I spend most summers in Maine, so a lot of my designs have a nautical bent. Then there are the Jane Austen patterns - she’s my favorite author, so when Jane Austen Knits had its first submission call, I was all over that. What I love about most of my JAK designs is that they tell stories: the Arans for Anne and Frederick each incorporate cable patterns that relate to those characters. Right now I’m exploring ideas inspired by the Unicorn Tapestries up at The Cloisters in Manhattan, but I also have a snapshot on my phone of someone’s off-the-rack sweater on the street that I want to consider for the shape and then put my own pattern(s) into it.
What challenges do you face when designing and how do you overcome them?
Mostly these days it’s staying focused and organized (see: three kids). I love the brainstorming and knitting, but I find getting the ball rolling on writing and grading the pattern to be a challenge. Once I’m in that head space, things usually go pretty smoothly, and I do love a spreadsheet for grading sizes, but sometimes it’s tough to force myself to sit at the desk and write when I’d rather knit.
What about designing and producing patterns are you most adept at, what parts are you most fond of, and what parts are challenging? (Pattern Grading, the last week of editing, coming up with a name for a project, self promotion?)
As I said above, I love the creative process, where I put the stitches and shape together, and as an English major, I enjoy naming my patterns. Grading is satisfying once I take myself in hand and sit down at the desk. I was an art director in a former life, so I do my own layout and direct my photo shoots. As an introvert, I find self-promotion my biggest challenge (well, that and waiting for test knitters to finish because I want to share my latest pattern with the world NOW :) I’m getting more comfortable talking about my work and what’s great about it, but that is definitely the area I would like to improve.
What is your favorite design of yours, why?
They are all my babies, so it’s tough! I like to explore techniques, so there are clever bits in every pattern. I’m probably proudest of Sailor’s Valentine: it’s got the storytelling cables and hybrid yoke (like the Arans for Anne and Frederick), and then it has the turned-heel hood that takes that beautiful Heartstrings cable straight up the back and over the head. I just love that it worked the way I imagined!
What is your favorite project of yours, why?
That is a difficult choice. Probably the original sample of Bloc Party cardigan. The purple version that was in Knitty is beautiful and puts handspun to great use, but I originally designed it to put a skein of tosh sock in the Rhubarb colorway to good use by breaking up any possible pooling or flashing with garter stitch short rows. It’s probably the sweater I receive the most compliments on from muggles because the yoke is like a party.
What pattern/design are you most proud of, why?
I’d have to say An Aran for Frederick. It was my first big cabled design, and the EZ-inspired hybrid yoke ended up being the perfect vehicle for all those cables. Thanks to that format, the Ensign’s Braid cables went up onto the shoulders like epaulets, which just added to the piece since it was inspired by a naval officer. I’m always excited when it gets really cold in New York because I can put it on and be super cozy (otherwise I’d pass out from the heat - Brooklyn Tweed Shelter is a seriously warm yarn).
How many WIPs do you currently have and do you think you will ever finish all of them?
Generally, I work on one project at a time or I fear I would lose my marbles. I might start swatching something while I’m in the finishing stages of another piece, but I really am pretty monogamous. That doesn’t mean I don’t have some orphan mittens in the stash and a few fits of startitis, but it’s more the yarn and sketches that weigh on me rather than actual WIPs. I have projects on Ravelry that are tagged “hibernating”, but it’s more that I haven’t been honest with myself about letting them go and reclaiming the yarn :)
What was the last thing you crocheted/knit for yourself?
The Purly Pullover that I just finished! I tracked its progress on Instagram and plan to write it up “real soon now”. It was kind of a gift to myself this Fall to explore some ideas like knitting the whole thing in the round and then turning it inside out to wear the purl side. It’s a fairly straightforward raglan, but there are some knitterly details that I plan to capture when I write the pattern. The great thing about designing for oneself is that most of the time I knit for me. The sad thing is that my children are like the cobbler’s children: no shoes (or sweaters). I do knit them hats and mittens regularly, and I owe both my girls cardigans. Maybe over Winter Break I’ll focus on them for a little while.
What do you most enjoy about knitting or crochet?
I love that it keeps my hands busy, as well as my mind. I love that it connects with almost all the senses: sight (color, texture), sound (needles clicking), touch (all those fibers), smell (wool fumes!) - no taste though, at least for me.
What are your favorite stitches?
It kind of depends on my mood. Sometimes there is nothing like stockinette - so soothing that I can knit without looking. And then sometimes it’s the satisfying balance of a lace pattern: if you increase here, you have to decrease there, and there will be a rhythm to it. My ultimate favorite is probably a cable, though. They look so daunting and yet it’s such a simple trick to do a cable. When I did my first one, I was like “That’s it? No way!”
What is/are your favorite crochet/knit tool(s) or notion(s)?
It’s actually a lack-of-tool: cabling without a cable needle. Love it! I couldn’t do the cable-encrusted sweaters without that technique. I mean, I could, but it would take longer. I really should do a video of how I do it. Otherwise, I would say a long circular needle. With the Magic Loop technique, you can make something big or small. And you don’t have to worry about losing a DPN.
When you aren’t crocheting/knitting, what are you doing?
Taking care of those kids and my darling husband. Teaching my kids’ friends how to knit after school. Perfecting my homemade pizza. Documenting my adventures on Instagram @kathleendames - as a transplant to NYC, I feel like I’m constantly exploring and observing, so I try to share that in my feed. Getting as efficient as possible with housekeeping so I can get back to knitting and designing. Blogging and tweeting and being on Ravelry. Talking to people about knitting - I gave a TEDxYouth talk last month at the kids’ school about knitting and design, and I’ll be speaking at Knitty City next month as part of their Young Designers series (and am pretty tickled to be a “young” designer), as well as appearing in their booth at Vogue Knitting LIVE. But mostly I’m knitting and designing!