to the point: q&a with leila raven, part 1
October 27, 2019
Our fearless leader in all things creative, Leila Raven, replaced Pam Allen as Creative Director in the fall of 2017, after Pam retired from the company. While we ramp up to the much-anticipated release of her new book, To the Point: The Knitted Triangle (pre-orders open in just a few days), we wanted to bring these two brilliant minds together, and share with you, our dear readers and fellow crafters, a series of questions that Pam posed for Leila to answer.
We present this interview to you in two parts: The first installment focuses mainly on Leila's journey from uninitiated fiber enthusiast to knitwear designer; in the second (stay tuned!!), Leila shares her experience in the design and creation of her new, utterly gorgeous book.
For those of us who love hearing the tales of origin and process from fellow makers, this is a must-read. We'll let Pam and Leila take it from here…enjoy!!
PA: Let’s begin with a simple question: How and when did you learn to knit?
LR: I think it was at the tail end of 2003, 2004. I was on the mend from an emergency procedure and, as I’m sure so many knitters can relate, needed something to occupy my hands and my brain to avoid going crazy. While I was in the hospital, my then mother-in-law visited, and one day she brought along a mitten project. I was transfixed by the magic maneuvering she was doing with what seemed like an inexplicable number of sticks (she was using DPNs) and decided that was that—I needed to get on board that train.
I taught myself first how to crochet, then knitting came quickly after, using patterns and tutorials I could find online. At the time knitting blogs were a big thing, and I read them religiously. Knitting books were also my teacher: Elizabeth Zimmermann, Vogue Knitting, and Barbara Walker’s treasuries were and continue to be the pillars of my knitting life.
PA: First item finished?
LR: I’m pretty sure it was a 2x2 ribbed scarf in Noro Kureyon, in rainbow colors that shifted throughout the yarn. It was far from rectangular, or in colors I’d ever actually wear, but damn if it wasn’t fun. I learned so much on that simple project alone.
PA: How did you evolve from knitter to designer?
LR: Pretty soon after I began knitting I bought a drop spindle, and quickly after that, a spinning wheel. I became obsessed with spinning my own yarn. Back then there was no Ravelry, so finding a knitting pattern that worked with my handspun was challenging. Because of that, I decided to figure out how to write up my own pattern, and the New New Shale cowl was the first one that I put out there. I had a knitting blog for about 5 minutes and hosted the pattern there. Then Ravelry came into the world and changed everything.
I self-published a couple more patterns (at the time I was working as a medical transcriptionist, and designing was just a creative side outlet) and also posting my knitting photos on Flickr. I believe that’s where Jared Flood and I first discovered each other’s work. His encouragement of my design work was the first major stepping stone to where I find myself today.
PA: Which leads to the broader question: Where do your ideas come from—do you find swatching brings ideas to you?
LR: I love thinking about stitch patterns and exploring ways of modifying them into something new, and from there, what kind of knit they would really shine in. It usually starts with just a basic urge to knit “a cabled thing” or “something texture-y.”
I’ll pore over my favorite stitch dictionaries and start swatching...usually after a few rows in, I start to wander into experimentation territory, and the swatch meanders all over the place. I love looking at other knitters’ beautiful, perfectly square swatches of a single stitch pattern, but most of mine tend to become more of a lengthy, ribbon-like evolution of the initial stitch pattern into something else completely.
Once I land on something I’ll usually swatch again one more time, this time of just the final stitch pattern, to find the best gauge and needle size to use for the intended project. I can’t overstate how important this step is.
PA: What is the relationship between swatching and design?
LR: Obviously, for me swatching plays a critical role in the initial concept stage. It’s a necessary communication between your materials—yarn/fiber, needles, and stitch pattern—that equips you for formulating an intentional idea. By themselves, they’re like letters of the alphabet, and your choice of materials together form specific words. These words are then your tools to tell a story—the design itself.
Things like sense of scale of the stitch pattern, the resulting gauge with your needle choice, the resulting hand of the fabric. You need to know these things, they’re all crucial to the final piece, and when you change up any one thing about your materials, the results tend to be quite different. The story changes.
There’s a lot of tweaking, nudging, correcting, to arrive at the sweet spot of balance. For me there’s no other way to get that essential understanding than with swatching, unless you find it more appealing to simply play it by chance, cast on, hope for the best, and be willing to frog and repeat it all over again as many times as it takes to eventually land on what works.
PA: Any comments on how yarn and design go together for you?
LR: In my opinion yarn choice is crucial to a design. I’m a big believer in listening to the yarn tell you what it wants to be (and what it does not). I don’t think substituting yarn is as simple as finding a similar weight, yardage, and suggested gauge and swapping them out. How yarns are spun, which fibers they’re made of and how they behave in various types of stitches plays a big part in the final result. Knitting twisted stitches in a fuzzy woolen-spun 2-ply yarn isn’t going to look the same as twisted stitches in a smooth, firmly twisted worsted-spun yarn made up of many plies, even if they’re both 100% wool, for example.
So you have to think through what it is that you want, and what it will take to get there. And be willing to test and experiment and change your mind, because you never know (even when you think you do, by this point).
Then it’s swatch, swatch, swatch. It’s good to do at least one or two swatches in basic stockinette and garter stitch first, to see how the yarn behaves and what gauge it likes to be worked at in its “natural state,” before adding all the bells and whistles of stitch pattern, needle size consideration for the yarn’s fiber content, weight, intended drape for the design, etc. Sometimes the specific yarn I wanted to use just doesn’t end up working out. I’ll either change the components of the design to work with it, or go with a different yarn that will hit the mark.
And that does it for this part of the interview! Read the rest of the interview on pre-order day, 10/31! We here are all extremely excited to see this book go out into the world, and we hope you are, too.