Friday, September 3, 2010

An Interview with...Catherine Lowe

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 Catherine here

Where do you find inspiration?

To echo most of the previous interviewees: everywhere. But different sources inspire differently, so while color and pattern may be omnipresent, it is most often a small detail that grabs my attention: something as unexpected as the way a child’s cloak hangs from his shoulders in a 16th century fresco; or the relationship between a necklace and a neckline depicted by a 17th century marble bust; or the way light playing on the texture of an ancient brick wall gives it a silk-like quality. These discrete images get filed away and resurface entirely unbidden. The disciplines of architecture, Renaissance art, and the decorative arts are the most yielding and persistent sources.

What is your favourite knitting technique?

Until recently, the single focus of my knitting was garment construction, which inspired in me a concerted effort to translate elements of haute couture dressmaking into hand-knitting techniques. The aim was to enable knitters to expand their repertory with techniques that would change both the look of their finished garments and the way they think about current knitting practice. Now that I have had the privilege of developing Catherine Lowe Couture Yarns, I have extended that focus to the knitted fabric itself. These yarns are unlike traditional hand-knitting yarns in ways that make it possible to combine and manipulate them to create knitted fabrics that behave and sometimes even look like wovens. Creating these fabrics relies significantly on careful swatching, but I use a singular method of blocking to imbue them with specific characteristics uniquely suited to individual designs. This blocking technique, when used with the yarns, has provided an entirely new and exciting dimension for both my designing and my knitting.

How did you determine your size range?

Notations in my pattern directions reflect the actual finished measurements of the garment, rather than indicating a size for which the garment was intended. Each design is accompanied by a short description that identifies the fitting standard by which the sizing parameters were set: close-fitting, relaxed, classic, oversize, etc. However, this can be used as a suggestion rather than a proscription insofar as it provides the information necessary for the knitter to know how the garment will fit with different amounts of ease. She or he can then choose to follow the pattern suggestion for fit or select a size based on individual preferences. With regard to actual garment sizing, I have a set of five slopers, developed from industry standards and modified by practical experience, to which I add the ease required by the fit of the particular design. The five slopers differ by 4” each, providing a range of 16”. Petite and large sizes each require a very different set of proportions with which I am not familiar enough to feel as comfortable grading those sizes as I am with the range I have chosen. I don’t regularly include those sizes in my patterns, but in individual instances I have happily helped a customer adapt a design for either a smaller or larger size.
That said, over fifteen years of experience teaching a Design & Fit Workshop—during which each participant tries on a number of different garments and is then measured for a custom sloper—has given me a great deal of information about fit and sizing, much of it disheartening. Three knitters can have almost identical measurements, yet the garment that looks best on one of them may neither fit nor flatter the other two. On the other hand, a garment may fit all three of them perfectly by objective standards, yet truly flatter only one of them, appear passable on the second, and look rather awful on the third. What makes the difference is how specific design elements of the garment suit the physical characteristics of the individual. When thinking about a design, it is of paramount importance to me that the design be inherently flattering, so I am careful to avoid incorporating elements that are likely to be problematic. For the same reason, within the five-size range of a single design, I will often work the same design elements, and even entire garment pieces, quite differently for different sizes in order to ensure the best and most flattering look and fit possible. Even though I design for what some may consider a limited size range, I treat each individual size of a single design as though it were a separate design when that is necessary to achieve the look and fit I want.

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

I stay current by looking through fashion and knitting publications, but I don’t dwell in their pages. Knowing the context in which one is working is essential; having a distinct design idiom and remaining constant to that idiom is critical. I would suggest that “influence” can be understood in two dissimilar ways that encompass both sides of a very tricky distinction between trend and imitation. So, while following a trend may be an appropriate and acceptable decision on the part of a designer who wants to sell patterns, imitating another’s work without acknowledgment is neither appropriate nor acceptable.

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

I am entirely unaware of the controversy. My own approach to pattern writing is anomalous and derives from the frustration I experienced regularly as a knitter trying to follow pattern directions. The frustration became especially acute whenever I encountered the dreaded “work left front as for right reversing shaping” and is in large measure what sent me off on my own design adventure. As a consequence, my pattern directions read unlike those written in a traditional format. Their underlying premise is that the burden of interpreting the directions and identifying the techniques to be used should not be placed on the knitter, but is the sole responsibility of the directions themselves. They are therefore detailed and explanatory. This practice extends to the construction and finishing of the garment as well, where I use techniques that are not common currency and require detailed step-by-step explanations. The result is a lengthy pattern that is also a mini-workshop in the couture techniques used in the design.

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

My very idiosyncratic design process and my focus on construction techniques mean that I must necessarily produce the first iteration of any new design. Once the pattern is written, I have a few knitters I trust implicitly for comments and suggestions. Having my own yarns has meant that old designs need to be translated into the new yarns and new samples fabricated; a dear friend and brilliant knitter has been helping me with this seemingly endless task.

What impact has the Internet had on your business?

I was once referred to as “knitting’s best-kept secret.” The Internet has since made it possible to expand my audience beyond workshop attendees and subscribers to the original journal version of The Ravell’d Sleeve. Perhaps even more important, though, it offered a business model that made delivery of my very lengthy and technically explicit patterns both efficient and economical and triggered my decision last summer to take the entire business online.

How do you maintain your life/work balance?

Those closest to me argue regularly that I don’t. Add to that the fact that once I decided to become serious about knitwear design, my leisure activity became my profession and I’ve yet to discover a satisfying successor...

How do you deal with criticism?

Constructive and well-intentioned criticism is always welcome. Whenever possible, I respond with the hope of engaging a conversation.

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

Much will depend upon how that career is configured: owning a yarn store or a yarn company; designing for print and editorial or distributing patterns independently; developing an eponymous line of yarns and designing for those yarns exclusively; teaching; authoring; etc. Investigate all the possibilities and focus on the ones that seem most congenial and best suited to one’s skills and personality. Seek advice from those admired and respected; if possible and appropriate, offer to apprentice. Above all, know that in the future there will likely be much less time for knitting and much more time spent at tasks never envisioned and for which one can never be fully prepared.


  1. Thank you for your wonderful interview with Catherine. She is articulate and thoughtful about her knitting in a way that other designers/knitters are not and it is inspirational.
    I have been able to take a workshop with her and it was the best I have ever taken.

  2. Great interview. Glad I found it. Thank you.