Friday, August 20, 2010

An Interview with...Chris Bylsma

Once a week I post interviews with interesting designers about their insights on their experience of working in the Knitting industry. I’ve noticed that every designer makes their living in a slightly different manner bringing their own unique presence to the Knitting world.

You can find Chris here and here

Where do you find inspiration?

Everything around me - the colors and textures in nature, shapes, styles - are sources of new ideas. Often they don't pop up immediately but emerge sometime later. So I simply try to observe and absorb with an open mind knowing that it's all food for my creative muse (hopefully). I've learned that inspiration, or creativity has its own schedule and a new design usually comes in pieces rather than all at once. It's when I let go and dig in the garden that I may resolve a cuff or detail rather than struggling with it. That's the fun and challenge - it's like finding key pieces in a jigsaw puzzle.

Necessity is also a great motivator. I have long arms and have trouble buying things off the rack or finding something in the rich colors I love. So most of my designs are pieces that I wear. My philosophy is that if I don't/won't wear it why would anyone else. So I try to design something that I will wear, is flattering and is classic enough to stand the test of time.

What is your favorite knitting technique?

I have many favorites - dropped stitches have been one of my ongoing obsessions, combined with cables (another obsession), and mixed fibers and gauges (another obsession). Frankly, I just like to play - I call it doodling with needles - to try different stitches, or combinations, an easier approach to something, or whatever. I'm not a sock knitter but I love sock and fingering yarns to combine with other yarns for interesting color or texture combinations. I love color too, obviously, but I don't have patience for Fair Isle or intarsia so I try to find other, simpler ways to mix colors and fibers such as my Crayon Box Jacket, Fusion Jacket, Symphony Jacket and several other designs. I guess I just like to stretch the boundaries and test the "what ifs".

How did you determine your size range?

I offer a range of women's sizes that I feel comfortable with personally. I am a size 8-10 myself so I determine the appropriate measurements and ease for me and then extrapolate from there for a few larger and smaller sizes, based on industry standard measurements, that are in keeping with the shaping and style of the design. Sometimes a design works well in several sizes but not always. I don't pretend to understand petite or larger sizes which may require different proportions or shaping and perhaps a completely different pattern. I like to remind knitters that a pattern is a suggestion, not law, and they can tweak the pattern to get just the correct size for them.

Do you look at other designers' work or are you afraid that you will be influenced by their designs?

Of course I look at other designers' work! And often think, "Why didn't I think of that?" I appreciate what they have done but I don't worry about being influenced. I often compare knitting to cooking - we can all start with the same ingredients and end up with something completely different from gourmet to ethnic to comfort food. And just try to get designers to stay in the lines and do something exactly alike!!

How do you feel about the so called controversy of "dumbing down" patterns for knitters?

If there is such a controversy I haven't been following it. If it means writing simply and concisely with the intent of knitters understanding the directions, I'm all for it! Knitting should not have to be difficult - it should just appear so to those who don't knit! If you are unwilling to make the pattern easily understood, then don't publish. I have seen how easy it is for knitters to add punctuation where it doesn't exist, or forget to read it where it does, or simply be unable to visualize what they are making. I try to be thorough in my patterns with a minimum of abbreviations. I still get emails and calls and I am more than happy to walk someone through to that "aha" moment. That's one reason I love to teach.

How many sample/test knitters do you have working for you or do you do it all yourself?

I knit all my own designs. Although I have tried using knitters I find the process works better when I can design/knit/write/revise all at the same time. Once it is written I will have others test a pattern, however. Besides, I'm in this business first and foremost because I love to knit so that is my treat to myself to actually sit down and knit after a day of computer and paper work. Contrary to what many may fantasize, I don't get up, have a cup of coffee and then knit all day!

Do you have a business model that you have emulated?

No. The amazing thing about this industry is that there are so many ways to carve out your own niche. I chose to self-publish patterns as a wholesaler and also teach. Others prefer to design for publications or yarn companies while others love to write books (or blog, Robin). It's great! There's room for all.

What impact has the Internet had on your business?

A lot, of course. When I started the business in 2002 the only source for patterns was yarn shops or print catalogues. Then online catalogues and store sites popped up, then online magazines, pdf downloads, online communities, social media, apps. Amazing! I now have patterns available as pdf downloads on as well as through shops and catalogues and love hearing from knitters around the world. I just taught workshops in Amsterdam and they had all heard of me and knew all about events and happenings in the states because of the reach of our social networking now.

How do you maintain your life/work balance?

Not very well, probably. During the summer months I try to step back and enjoy more time with my family and garden. However, during the Fall and Spring I am travelling almost every weekend for workshops somewhere in the country. Frankly I love meeting knitters everywhere in different communities and poking into wonderful yarn shops. My husband, Charlie, has become a pretty good cook (out of necessity). As I mentioned before, creativity and ideas come when you least expect them so I may end up scribbling something on a napkin at times when I'm supposed to be "off duty".

How do you deal with criticism?

It hurts. But like cooking, not everyone is going to like what you do. So I try to not let it wound me, learn what I can from it and move on. Period.

How long did it take for you to be able to support yourself?

Is this a trick question?!? Support my stash? Support my habit? Pay my bills? Right away. But I'm "retired" and not supporting a family.

Support the style of living I would like to become accustomed to? Still working on that. The personal jet may have to wait.....

What advice would you give someone who wants to pursue a career in knitting?

It may sound facetious but don’t quit your day job right away. Find the niche that speaks to you and establish a footing first because you love it, not because you expect to get rich. It's not just sitting around knitting all day. In fact, I knit a lot less now than before I started the business. Try out a few choices first. If you want to own a yarn shop, try working in one first. If you want to design, write a pattern in several sizes and have a friend knit from it. If you want to spin and dye your own yarn start selling at local stores or fairs. And don't be afraid to ask advice from the many wonderful people in the industry.


  1. Very nice and interesting! Thank you very much!

  2. Chris Bylsma is one of my favorite designers. Her patterns are so thorough and well done. Thanks for the informative interview.