to the point: q&a with leila raven, part 2

Continuing Pam Allen's conversation with Leila Raven from Sunday, we turn from Leila's start as a fiber fanatic and as a knitwear designer toward the creation of her first book, a celebration of triangular shawls. Read on!

PA: To the Point is your first book—what made you want to do a shawl collection?

LR: I just have always loved shawls from the start, especially triangles. They’re satisfying to knit. I love wearing them like scarves, bundled around my neck in the wintertime. They double as woolly hugs when needed. They're comfort, expressed in knit stitches.

Being able to take a basic shape and fill it in so many different ways with beautiful stitches really appeals to me. I love designing sweaters and other accessories, too, but there’s something about simplicity that is driving my design these days, and this type of project is about as simple as it gets while still being engaging. Triangular shawls really pare things down to the essentials of knitting, and what even is that? It’s a question I tend to mull over whenever I’m working on a project.

I have never been an innovator—more of a refiner. This book is a celebration of that, because to be honest, I feel like we’ve gotten away from this a little bit in current knitting trends. There’s a kind of fear in the design world about copying, or lack of originality—which is ironic, because we are all still working with knits and purls. We also celebrate knitting traditions of different cultures and eras. Everything we work with came about thanks to the hands of the past. 

Is a book of shawls too simple? I worried about that for about a minute, then tuned in to my heart. Some of the attitudes I see out there right now seem to be more about making a name for yourself and standing apart from the crowd, than about good design or an enjoyable and rewarding result. I don’t see that as a positive mentality to encourage and pass on to the next generation of knitters and designers. In producing knitting patterns, the whole point is to put our work out there for others to make use of. So above all else, design should be accessible to the end user, our fellow knitter. There is plenty of room for innovation, as long as accessibility isn't sacrificed. 

PA: I think the first Leila Raven (note: formerly Raabe) pattern I ever saw was a piece you did for Brooklyn Tweed, a green shawl knitted up from a straight edge into a triangle. I’d never seen that construction before. I loved how that structure expanded the design potential of a triangle, away from the center spine. So one of the things I really like about your book is your discussion of the ways to make a triangle shape. Do you have a favorite method? Do you find that you think differently when working with different construction methods?

LR: There’s a shawl in the book, Moonflower, that uses the same construction method as that green shawl (Ashby). Going back to what I was saying about starting with a stitch pattern, I knew I wanted to use specific stitch patterns for the border, and that they would have to be knitted sideways in order to flow horizontally across the bottom of the shawl, and not vertically. How would that be possible? By knitting the border first, sideways. From there it was a matter of figuring out how to shape the side points of the border strip so it didn't start with a strange-looking flat edge, and also how to shape the center point so that one half of the border turns at a perpendicular angle for the second half. The main section of the shawl is picked up along the inside edge of that “L” shaped border, and decreased away to the center top edge.

Altogether it still has the appearance of a triangle with three unbroken sides. It’s by far one of my favorite constructions because it allows you to use multiple directions of knitting for what looks like a single, straightforward piece of knitting.

Moonflower, in Owl, color Tyto

My other favorites are sideways knitted triangles—they begin at one side point, increase out on one side to create the maximum width at the center point, then decrease from there to form the second half of the shawl. The unshaped side forms the long top edge of the triangle.

This is how Reishi is constructed, and it uses the same stitch pattern as the border in Moonflower.

There are so many ways you can work with stitch patterns that have a strong linear element to them in sideways knitting. The result is often so visually different than in a typical setting of vertically oriented, from bottom cast-on edge to top.

Swatches: Moonflower in Owl (left) and Reishi in Lark (right)

PA: Borage and Datura use the same design element, a twisted-stitch motif surrounded with an eyelet frame. Tell me about that—about how you came up with different ways to use it, first as an all over design, second as a border. Does this happen often in your design process? You find an element and then find that you want to use it in different ways or applications?

LR: Finding a “secret” motif in a larger stitch pattern is almost like a video game to me. I started out with Borage (traditional lace shawls were what initially drew me to knitting shawls in the first place, and this one is an homage to those Sharon Miller, Toshiyuki Shimada, Nancy Bush patterns that captivated my fledgling shawl knitter’s heart).

While knitting Borage my eye kept being drawn to that twisted-stitch star motif, and I wondered what it would look like as the central motif, rather than as an accent within a larger pattern, nestled in an otherwise simple garter-stitch background. Emphasizing different parts of the same stitch patterns is a really fun source of exploration—I loved how the eyelets in Datura’s border strip create more of an “x” pattern than the tree shapes of the full, overall patterning in Borage.

Trying to see things in a new way is just in general good practice, I think.

Borage in Piper (left) and Datura in Phoebe (right)

PA: Related to this is the shawl you’re doing in different yarns and needle sizes. Was this fun to think about—which design would lend itself best to different scales?

LR: Hawthorn was born of the idea that I wanted to design something that was 1) reversible, and 2) less about a specific yardage, and more about using up as much of the yarn you have for the project as possible. The original idea was to work it in Puffin, since big Puffin stitches make me really happy—but then I started thinking about how neat it would be to write the pattern in all of the yarns to showcase what a difference “resolution” makes, visually, in the various yarn weights.

Hawthorn’s pattern specs for each of the weights all result in approximately the same finished dimensions. So, for me, anyway, it’s also a nice reference of what a shawl’s equivalent of laceweight Piper is to worsted weight Owl or chunky-weight Puffin, and having a comparison of yardage and needle size to achieve the same result is just fascinating information to chew on.

Hawthorn in Puffin (left), swatches for all gauges (right)

PA: Do you have a favorite?

LR: My favorite construction method is bottom-up decreasing, beginning with a sideways border, so I would say Moonflower is my favorite. It’s all about refining aspects and little details of the piece so that it all comes together in a polished and put-together way, and that type of construction requires all kinds of careful, intentional choices to be made—while, somehow, still being so fundamentally simple.

PA: Any that you would do differently?

LR: All of them. I would refine my patterns over and again until my last breath if I could. There’s always something I want to change.

PA: Any idea that you didn’t include?

LR: I did want to include a shawl specifically to talk about combining multiple stitch patterns so that they flow from one into the next, from top to border, harmoniously; a triangle lends itself to playing with that aspect of design, specifically. Especially when you also want to work the patterns cleanly within the shape of the triangle itself (the closest example would be the leaves in Lemon Balm). Most of the patterns in the book feature either allover motifs or a pattern inserted within an otherwise simple canvas. But we ran out of room (To The Point is hefty enough as it is), so maybe next time.

PA: Tell me about the palette.

LR: It’s funny, the book’s palette is not something I would choose for myself these days, even though I agonized over the momentous task of whittling down the color options at my fingertips.

It is, however, the palette I see when I think about the world of dreams, especially dreams I had as a little girl. The names of the patterns are all referenced to botanicals used in dreamwork—there was an underlying abstract notion of “dreams” throughout this entire project. Just calling back to what it was like to be a child and all the awe and wonder about the world that we’re at liberty to feel without guilt, as kids—no sinking feeling that some responsibility or another is going untendedare I think what made these designs so satisfying to bring together under a single concept like that. I’ve got dreams to remember.

Many, many thanks to both Pam and Leila for this glimpse into what went into this gorgeous collection, which you can now pre-order! If you want more, you can also take a look at our test knitters's projects on Ravelry, and see our Quince Quarterly level 2 subscribers receiving theirs in the mail on Instagram.

Thanks for reading!

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