What Julia Topdown Around taught me...

Thought I’d share with you an experience I had recently. A wonderful experience.

As many of you know, I’ve been at this knit design stuff for decades now. What I didn’t know is how much my design is informed by what is easy for me to conceptualize and execute. I have a certain way of thinking and working. I have always striven to create new things, but at the same time I realized I have stayed in a comfort zone design-wise that I had not been aware of. Until recently…

A few years ago I designed a simple, yet elegant raglan top called Julia Tee. It was worked in my Silke yarn, with some waist shaping in an elongated garter stitch and while the edges were self-finishing it needed to be seamed. It was well-received back then and has been worked in a variety of different yarns by diverse knitters over the years. In light of the ever-increasing popularity of topdown circular knitting, I decided my Julia (image below), would be the perfect garment on which to apply these new-to-me techniques. 

Should be a no-brainer, I thought. I always knit first and write the pattern afterwards, so I took the existing Julia pattern, figured out the number of bind-off sts at the neckline and cast on. I immediately had to acknowledge that I was out of my comfort zone in more ways than one (make that four), but I slogged away, struggling to find the ease and joy I usually associate with knitting. I felt like I was working in the dark, felt unsure about my gauge, felt a lot of things none of which were pleasant. Several stall outs and self admonishments later, I finally finished it and vowed to myself I would never do another topdown, circular or even a raglan design. I put the results away. I didn’t want to be reminded of intuited the pattern writing anguish to come.

A few months later I took my new Julia out of its hiding place and brought it to a trunk show at The Frayed Knot in Savannah. It was a good-looking little top, after all, and maybe if it was popular there I would be inspired to actually write the pattern for it. And popular it was… I even pre-sold a few copies. The pressure was on. After avoiding starting on the new pattern for as long as I dared, I finally had to get to work. The discomfort of the knitting had receded in my mind and I could, once again, appreciate the design for its simplicity and for the joy I knew it would bring some of my customers.

I’m sure that some of you must be chuckling… How can reimagining an existing pattern and transforming it into one for topdown circular knitting cause such distress for an experienced knit designer? You’d think it would be easy for me. And, indeed, theoretically it should have been. It’s just that I was having some kind of block and the accompanying fear and emotional anguish were making the whole process quite daunting and unpleasant.

I rolled up my sleeves and for two days I struggled with my internal compass for pattern writing and spatial thinking and, after yet another failed diagram, figured out how to wrap my head around the new visualization process in my head. Thank goodness! Pattern writing is always a bit stressful and something I take very seriously. I am, after all, asking someone to trust that they will be able to make a replica of a garment in a photo. A garment that they may or may not ever see in person. The pattern writing process demands that I paint as clear a picture as possible of what to do using a shorthand of words and numbers only the initiated can interpret.

It’s been many, many moons since I have been this challenged in my work. But I didn’t give up, even though I’ll admit at one point, I even entertained the thought of hiring a colleague to work out the pattern for me. I was that desperate to escape the discomfort I was feeling. Once I cracked the code of how I needed to think to get the instructions for one size of my new Julia Topdown Around down on paper, I experienced a temporary sense of achievement. But I wasn’t done yet… I allowed myself a day or two to savor my partial success, but then it was time for grading the pattern. More insecurity, more improvised, chaotic sketches and my calculator was running warm. I even coupled in my math teacher knitting friend for support. I was encouraged by the feeling of accomplishment from a couple of days before though, and so I just hunkered down and worked steadily until it was done. 

And then it occurred to me. This is how knitters must feel when they are trying something new. That I had been afforded the chance to be a beginner again, the chance to plow through a challenge that I knew intellectually was well within my capabilities, but which was nevertheless wreaking havoc, and the feeling of triumph at the end. And all of a sudden I understood and could share in the joy that I meet in my travels when knitters proudly show their work. I suddenly felt rewarded that my design work might be part of someone else feeling good about their personal accomplishments. And what a great feeling that is!

I will always love how individual pieces seamed together influence and inform aspects of my design work, but as part of my own personal development I’m sure I will revisit the topdown circular world again soon. I now better understand the lure of topdown circular knitting choice. But perhaps best of all, I now have a deeper understanding of and respect for the opportunities for learning that knitting affords us and how it can foster joyful personal expansion that can be shared with others! 

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