The following is an email conversation that I had with Shannon Okey, who recently wrote and published The KnitGrrl Guide to Professional Knitwear Design. Shannon kindly provided me with a review copy, and if you read all the way down past the interview, you’ll see how my design business has already grown from the advice she gave!
Christa: Hi Shannon! I’ve followed your blog tour - interesting interviews! I liked how different bloggers had a different focus to their questions, based on where they themselves were in their designing career. I’m still quite new to design and have just started getting published in the last year, so some of my questions will be coming from that angle!
If you were to make a graph to show the various things you do to generate income, how does your “minimum to maximum effort or time committment” chart of various work tasks relate to your “minimum to maximum financial gain” chart? Are you happy with your current balance, or is there something you’d like to shift more time towards?
Shannon: THAT is a good question. I always make more money when a project involves more writing than knitting, because I am spectacularly fast writing-wise, and not so much knitting-wise. I wish I was a superspeedy knitter, but I’m not. So if there is an article to be written, or a book, or… that’s going to be less time for more money. Of course, with the knitting, once that pattern is done and published, it can generate income infinitely — something magazine articles don’t do!
C: Chapter 12 in your book has amazing interviews with other designers talking about how they work… can you paint us a picture of how YOU work? Do you structure your day/week/month with specific to-do lists, or bounce around doing whatever work you feel like doing, or…? Do you hit spikes of frenzied activity through the year, or is it all fairly steady? Oh, and relating to a discussion happening in the Designers forum on Ravelry, do you ever make things from other people’s designs? How do you balance work knitting with personal knitting?
S: I can’t even tell you when the last time I knit something from someone else’s pattern. And that’s not to sound snotty — I WANT to, I just don’t have TIME to — so I’ve been steadily accumulating a collection of Things To Knit When I Have Time. When that ‘when’ will be, I do not know.
As a general rule, I’ve usually got short term, medium term and long term projects going at any given time. Short time is stuff with deadlines in the next week or two, medium is a few months out, long term is “longer than that or when I get to it.” This also intersects with other peoples’ own project deadlines. So, while Hunter (Hammersen, who is currently doing a sock book for Cooperative Press) is aiming to have her book’s text done (and me editing it!) in the next month or so, there are also longer-term things on the agenda such as getting the photos done, finishing the layout, etc. What this means in all reality is checking today’s to-do list and finishing as many things as I can, and adding to the list as I go along. It’s neverending!
C: I’ve been getting some opportunities to work with print and online magazines and knitting book authors lately, and I’ve been making some rookie mistakes along the way. Thankfully, I have also had my apologies accepted and am learning from these experiences! In your work as a publisher, what are some unforgivable mistakes that would keep you from giving a designer a second chance? Is there a higher level of exceptionally poor behavior that would have you actively warn your publishing peers away from working with someone?
S: Refusing to use the yarn the magazine sent and actually sending it back without any consultation. Now, I’ve been in a position where a yarn isn’t the nicest yarn ever — Nicky Epstein put it best, you have to be willing to work with everything from acrylic to cashmere — but the only time I’ve told the editor “sorry, I can’t work with this” was when the yarn was actually a PROBLEM. Not “I don’t like it” but “if this pattern is knit with this yarn, THIS bad thing will happen and your readers will be very sad.” And a good editor will come back and say ok, “what do you suggest?”, or “how can we fix that, then?” Look, if acrylic is good enough for Nicky Epstein, you can sure as hell put up with it, too! So I think that petty, demanding behavior that doesn’t have some solid reasoning behind it is pretty much a dealbreaker.
C: I’m curious about designing for mass production, being the person who knits swatches and then sells them to apparel producers (at least, that’s how I have heard it works!). Do you have any experience in this area to share, or links to resources for designers who want to add this revenue stream to their work?
S: I don’t have much experience with this but from what little I know about it, you’d probably have a better shot at this kind of work if you lived in New York or another major garment manufacturing city — if I was running Ralph Lauren’s knitwear division, I’d probably favor the people who could talk to me on the phone and pop by the office the next day with the sample.
C: Now that the Knitgrrl Guide to Professional Knitwear Design has been published and out for reviews and readers to buy, is there anything that you wish you would have added or emphasized more in the book? Is there an update or Vol 2 or a companion workbook coming down the pipeline?
S: I think that an updated edition would be likely in a year or so because no doubt some of the technology will have changed by then. The beauty of having so many people purchasing the book digitally is that sending out updates is not only possible, but easy! There are some other related books coming down the pipeline but not for a little while yet…
C: Thanks so much, Shannon!
The Knitgrrl Guide to Professional Knitwear Design is worth its weight in gold: it doesn’t teach you anything about designing with ease, grading patterns, or shaping a sleeve cap, but you will learn everything you need to know about the background work that a knitwear designer does to be successful!
Managing social media, using professional organizations, submitting to magazines, writing book proposals, providing customer support, dealing with printers, developing wholesale relationships… it’s all here, and presented in a friendly, easy-to-read format that feels like a sit-down chat with Shannon (and the dozens of industry professionals that she interviews in Chapter 12!)
My own journey of design included a wonderful mentorship with Kim Werker (we swapped her business guru-ship for some of my hoop dance classes) which got me to the point of submitting proposals to Twist Collective and Interweave Knits. Now that I’ve been published with Twist, Knitscene, and have a few patterns coming out in other people’s books in 2011, I was at a bit of a loss for figuring out the next step. Thanks to Shannon’s book and the conversation we had, I now have a contract in hand for my first knitting article!
Shannon points out that patterns have the potential to generate income for a lifetime, where magazine articles don’t… but I was shocked (and excited!) to find out that an article pays nearly the same as a fairly simple sweater pattern.. without the time spent knitting!
I am already plotting future article ideas (some with accompanying designs, some without), and figuring out the best publisher for each… and I’m thrilled! Next on my list: bump up the frequency of my blog posts, get back into podcasting, and figure out the balance of self-publishing and submissions that will work best for me and my empire-building! (Hee!)
Thanks again, Shannon - this has been awesome!
Visit Shannon’s blog for the other stops along her blog tour!