Designer of February 2011 - Marnie MacLean

Marnie MacLean in MataHari

Another month, another great designer! This month I am especially excited, as the designer I interviewed is one I look up to, as her designs are gorgeous and inspired, plus she seems to have so much knowledge on knitwear construction. I was very priviliged to get to "pick her brain"!


I'm of course talking about Marnie MacLean, who has been knitting and crocheting since about the age of six. She has been designing knitting and crochet patterns since 2003 and has since been published in books, magazines, and online. She lives in Portland, Oregon in the United States, with her three rescued border collie mixes and her wonderfully supportive husband.


You can find her patterns, blog and many designing tutorials at her website:


WK (Worsted Knitt): Marnie, thanks so much for agreeing to the interview!
MML (Marnie MacLean): Thank you so much for taking the time to interview me.


WK: It's a pleasure! Let's get right on it. What got you into designing in the first place?
MML: I don’t think I ever made any conscious decision to design. Sometime in my mid-20s I started knitting more and crocheting less. After a lifetime of only ever knitting from stitch dictionaries, I found following knitting patterns for garments confusing so I simply experimented — using my modest knowledge of garment construction from sewing for myself — to create my own pieces.


I was encouraged to start writing down the instructions for my pieces and that began a long slow learning process into pattern writing standards, and grading. It’s been about 8 years now and I haven’t looked back.


WK: What are your favourite things to design?
MML: I love to designs the sorts of things I would want to wear, which is probably pretty common amongst designers. I think my style has changed subtly over the years as I’ve aged and my general lifestyle has changed but in general, I like pieces that are more form fitting and have some feminine detailing. I tend to prefer stockinette and lace and finer gauges, though I love cables and texture as well.


WK: Fitting and feminine really do describe most of your work! Now, what are your favourite materials to work with?
MML: I would gladly work primarily with wools like merino that have plenty of memory but are soft against the skin. Fitted garments aren’t well suited to plant fibers or smoother animal fibers like alpaca, that don’t have a lot (or any) spring to them.


On the other hand, for shawls, silk is an amazing material to work with. It blocks out beautifully and has an intense sheen and depth of color you would be hard pressed to match with wool.


In between these extremes is a wide range of blends that I enjoy using for pieces meant to be worn in warmer months or for garments that that need a little sheen for a more elegant appearance. In almost all cases, I prefer plied yarns that can take a little more abrasion and are less likely to pill or wear with regular use.


WK: I think it's great to be able to use a wide variety of yarns and not only stick to one brand or material, too.


Who or what would you say was your earliest inspiration that started you on your way to being the designer you are today?
MML: My mom is a knitter and I used to watch her produce lovely textured fabrics on itty bitty needles in gorgeous jewel-toned yarns, when I was a child. I didn’t start designing until well after I had moved across the country with the man who is now my husband, but I have no doubt that her passion for knitting influenced me greatly.


WK: How do you usually design – how would you describe your designing process?
MML: I used to design in a sort of intuitive way; casting on and playing with texture and shape, making things up as I went along. I would take copious notes and work the end result into a pattern if the garment was successful.


For a short while, I tried using knitting software to assist me in my designing but I found it far too limiting and grading patterns was time consuming and too prone to error.


Now that I publish somewhat regularly I needed to implement some workflows that gave me more consistency and more efficiency. I now plan my entire pattern out before I ever knit a stitch on the finished garment. This gives me a chance to work directly from the pattern my customers will be using, allowing me to catch errors along the way and fix them as I go. I cannot tell you how much this has improved the quality and accuracy of my patterns. I find it liberating because it gives me more time to knit and improve the pattern instead of rushing to make things work at the last moment.


WK: That's so interesting! I'd love to be able to do that, but I think my knowledge and understanding on how knit fabric really "works" is still too limited - I still do it the knit-and-take-notes way, and it does take time. To continue on the same theme, how do you conceptualize your designs?


MML: I generally have to submit my design ideas as a proposal, which is a great exercise even if my work is not accepted. This gives me a chance to think about the sort of fabric I want, the way it will fit and the garment’s scale on the wearer.


This step allows me to more successfully start the design process, as outlined in the previous question.


There are times I still make it up as I go along, but if I do so, it’s unlikely I will actually publish the design. Most of the time, even if I’m knitting just for me, I will work out all the numbers for my size and, using the template I have already created, all the other sizes are automatically updated in the process.


WK: That's truly wonderful and sounds very professional and effective too. I can see how it makes the designing process quicker - not having to invent the wheel every single time!


How does your “typical day” when designing look like?
MML: Well, my design work has to fit around my day job, my administrative role at Twist Collective and my personal life, which is why I’m not as prolific a designer as I might wish to be.


I generally design during that quiet time in the evening when my husband and I are watching a little TV and unwinding from a long day. I have my computer nearby with an Excel spreadsheet with all my calculations worked out and Illustrator up with any charts I’ve created. I knit my design fixing any errors in the charts or calculations as I go.


You can see my tutorials for using these programs, here


Once my garment is completed, I can write my pattern instructions and create my schematic. This work goes really quickly because I have been refining my numbers and charts as I worked the project.


WK: Where do you get your inspiration?
MML: Inspiration is all around. I get some ideas from things I see people wearing, or from books I have on vintage fashion. Publishers will send out trend or mood boards that can help shape one’s ideas and choices. There are even times that ideas come to me as I’m falling asleep or sitting in the car, zoning out while my husband drives.


Like almost anyone, there are times when I feel more inspired than other times. When I’m feeling at a loss for ideas, I will look at fashion magazine sites and see if anything inspires me. It’s never about recreating an existing idea, it’s always about trying to find a shape or color or texture that gets me thinking creatively about a new design.


WK: It's so good to hear that even established designers like yourself sometimes look at other garments for inspiration and not constantly have ten ideas on the top of their heads :) Now, where do you do your best design work?
MML: I do basically all my design work at home; good or bad.


WK: How do you nurture your creative spirit ?
MML: While I design things that I want to wear it’s really my customers who keep me going and pushing me to do more. There is nothing more rewarding than seeing someone knit my design and nothing more motivating than the chance to improve my patterns and make them fit better or easier to understand.


It means being able to take constructive criticism in the spirit it was intended but the result is (hopefully) getting better and happier feedback from customers. For me, this is the sole reason to write patterns instead of simply knitting for myself.


WK: What do you think is your "that one thing" that makes you a great designer?
MML: I don’t really think that way and I don’t even think it’s productive (at least for me) to do so. Just about anyone can design. If an idea really excites you, it will excite someone else. There are so many different types of knitters and tastes in style that invariably, an idea will be embraced by some and disliked by others.


I don’t worry about how my ideas are subjectively assessed because worrying about being “the best” at anything is only setting one’s self up to be disappointed if someone comes along and does it better. Instead, I just focus on designing garments I can be exited about and offering patterns that are as accurate and clear as possible.


I hope that others who are thinking about designing will not get themselves hung up on having to be the “best” at any one thing and instead endeavor to keep improving as they go.


WK: That's sound advice. Indeed, what (more) advice would you give to aspiring designers?
MML: To expand upon what I’ve said above, I think it’s important not to bog yourself down with unrealistic goals.


There are great designers who consistently innovate with their designs and stitch patterns but you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time you design. Some of the most popular designs out there are simply flattering and fun to knit. They generally have familiar silhouettes and straightforward construction but people gravitate towards them because they want to wear the piece.


Is your favorite garment to wear a cutting edge piece of haute couture or is it a comfortable and flattering sweater, shirtdress, or pair of jeans?


(WK: got your point - definitely not haute couture!)


MML: One might appreciate cutting edge fashion but the vast majority of us live more mundane lifestyles and simply want to look great while feeling comfortable.


Once you start designing, the next big hurdle is learning how to deal with feedback and customer support. The more popular your design, the more work your design will be, no matter how clearly and accurately the pattern is written. One should be prepared to hear unkind even abusive things on occasion. It happens to everyone. Take what is useful from the feedback and do your best not to let the negativity pull you down.


Ensure you have priced your pattern sufficiently enough that you don’t resent having to do support for it. A free pattern that only gets a couple questions a year is not going to put much strain on you, but if you never make a penny off your design and you are expected to answer questions weekly or even daily, you may feel that designing is not worth your time and effort.


Success at designing is about balancing the good and bad, the fun and the dreary. If you love coming up with ideas but hate writing the patterns, then find solutions that make writing easier and less painful. For me, that meant getting my numbers in order before I got the pleasure of knitting. My reward for doing the worst part is getting to do the fun part. Figure out which parts of the job you are strong at and which parts are challenging or even demoralizing for you. Once you’ve identified these aspects, you can work to make the whole process more rewarding and less stressful.


Pick up some of the excellent designing reference books out there, join the Designers group on Ravelry, and find out what solutions to your problems have worked for other designers.


My last suggestion is to avoid taking on too much or accepting opportunities simply because you are eager to be published. Even well established and successful designers begin to feel burned out when they’ve taken on too much and don’t feel they have the time to do things right or when they agree to take on a project that doesn’t fairly compensate them or that comes with a contract that is unfavorable to the designer. When in doubt, err on the side of caution.


WK: Wow, there were some great tips there! I especially like the insight that designing isn't always just fun from beginning to end (which I feel some aspiring designers assume it to be).


Thanks so much for your time, the great advice and generally for contributing so much to the knitting world!
MML: Thanks so much for this fun interview, Lumia. It was a pleasure.


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