Friday, April 1, 2011

An Interview with...Jen Hagan

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 Jen here.

Where do you find inspiration?
Inspiration for knitting designs can come from all over the place and sometimes when you least expect it, like when simply trying to relax and enjoy a movie with my husband at home on the couch. I keep a little sketchbook handy for times like these. Sometimes I’ll see a garment in a movie and a whole other idea will come from it. It can be inspired by a detail in the garment or just the mood of the film. I have purposely put on movies from the 30’s and 40’s while knitting or crocheting for this reason. Some of my designs are inspired by garments I want and can’t find or that I haven’t seen already made. Other times, I am most inspired by stitch patterns and the yarn itself. I love perusing stitch dictionaries. So many options! One way that I tone down the choices is by only using stitch patterns that work well together, not throwing them in willy nilly. I also try to pay attention to fashion. I’ll periodically plow through a stack of fashion magazines, taking this detail or that and asking myself how I can apply it to knitting design. 

What is your favourite knitting technique?
Cables have always been one of my favorite knitting techniques. They take so many forms that I could honestly only design with cables and never run out of ideas, but I wouldn’t really want to limit myself and couldn’t. I enjoy experimenting with almost all types of knitting and crochet and want to keep adding to my skills, so I’ll try anything!
How did you determine your size range?
I like to include sizes for very small women on up to larger sizes for women who have fewer options. They are the ones least represented by the ready-to-wear industry and are sometimes making custom garments for themselves just like I am. Everything in between is naturally included, and as long as I’m grading the pattern or multiple sizes, why not? I like to include at least ten sizes in every pattern, but that can be limited by stitch pattern. The smaller the stitch repeat, the more this is possible. I’m having fun right now experimenting with structure more than with stitch pattern, however. I am studying top-down sweater construction and all the many forms it can take. This all makes it even more possible to include a wide size range.
Do you look at other designers' work or are you afraid that you will be influenced by their designs?
I don’t really worry about being influenced by others’ designs, but rather am highly inspired by looking at others’ work. Sometimes I will buy someone else’s pattern to learn from them, but I am too strong-minded to be swayed into copying someone’s design and believe whole-heartedly in being true to myself and my vision. Besides, I have so many ideas already, with more coming on a steady basis, that there's no need to look elsewhere.

How do you feel about the so called controversy of "dumbing down" patterns for knitters?
Coming from an educational background, I feel that I am in a position to teach something with my patterns. I try to include all the steps needed to work my designs, but that is with the goal of keeping instructions clear. I also want anyone who uses the pattern to have at least a fighting chance of completing the project. This only applies to my own published patterns,  because freelance patterns often come out much shortened and sometimes changed in the process. I don’t have much control over that. I completely understand the argument, however, about how we pattern writers these days hold the knitter’s hand too much and train them to expect this instead of leading them to do more thinking and planning of the project on their own. I own and love all of the Elizabeth Zimmerman and Barbara G. Walker books and those such as Knitting in the Old Way by Priscilla Gibson-Roberts and Deborah Robson. I wish I could be that brave and simply give the knitter the bones of the project and say, “Go! I’ve given you a starting point, so now you take it from there.” I keep the image in my mind of the knitter who has already put in a brain-grinding day at work and just wants to relax in the evening or during the weekend with a project that already has all the difficulties figured out for him or her. Then he or she can just relax and trust the pattern and enjoy the craft. I think it’s my job to create that pattern and I keep trying to learn how to do this better all the time. Feedback from knitters, whether through e-mail or in classes I teach, can help greatly with this, especially when it’s given respectfully and in a positive manner.
How many sample/test knitters do you have working for you or do you do it all yourself?
When my wholesale pattern business was at its peak, I had about six sample knitters working with me and as many testing. These days I am making most of the samples myself and only paying for testing and editing. Like so many other businesses, I have had to trim the budget lately.
Did you do a formal business plan?
I have always had an informal business plan which changes all the time. I would never recommend that anyone do a business like I have done this one. I’m going to be honest, because it may help someone. It doesn’t really do anyone any good to perpetuate myths. I only knew starting out that I love this craft, but not enough to want to be a production maker. My husband and I could see that, for us, creating patterns was far better than making product. I set about learning to write knitting patterns by creating designs based on what I liked and then painfully learning how to write the instructions. I used to teach writing—how hard could this be? Very hard, that’s what. It’s very hard to do it right. But, I am a good researcher and self-learner so I know how to find the necessary information to get the job done. As soon as I realized that I needed to become a professional, I joined the Association of Knitwear Designers (AKD) and was encouraged to submit designs for publication. Truly, being self-published has its limits. You learn more by collaboration. While I was still trying to figure all this out, I was approached by a few people with requests to expand. I didn’t know that I could say no. I thought I had to say yes to everything or risk the parade passing me by. Some of these decisions were made before I was ready, which can force you to grow, and that happened for me. Some of these decisions can get you in over your head, which also happened for me. For about three years, I was just peddling as fast as I could and trying to keep up. Last year, because of the economy and because of some personal decisions, things slowed down a bit. I’m actually sort of glad—it gives me a chance to rethink and learn better how to do my job.
Do you have a mentor?
As an AKD member, I had a mentor in Jackie Erickson-Schweizer (HeartStrings FiberArts) and she was a terrific help to me. I also made many friends of fellow designers through AKD and in other lists and forums. I have a nice group of people with whom I can discuss issues encountered in this business. We bounce off one another and that helps tremendously. I am very fortunate to have a small network of generous, big-hearted folks to call on.
Do you have a business model that you have emulated?

I think you can tell by my previous answers that I am making this up as I go. However, these days I am paying more attention. When I see someone who’s successful in what I want to do, I note what they’re doing. I might take a small piece of what they do and adapt it for my business. Mainly, though, I keep brainstorming about ways to do things differently than anyone else.
What impact has the Internet had on your business?
I don’t think there’s a designer/pattern writer who can’t say their business has been affected by the Internet. On the one hand, it has given us access to such a wealth of talent. I am amazed every day by what knitters and designers envision and create. On the other hand, I think it makes everyone a “designer.” Some people are writing patterns without having put in the time and hard work of learning how to do it well. There is a difference. These days, anyone can write a pattern and put it up for sale online. The buyer really has no way of knowing if they are getting a well-written pattern or one that has just been thrown together, sometimes without having been tested, let alone edited. Granted, there isn’t a huge investment in trying out a pattern. What you really want, though, is to have that pattern be so good that the knitter comes back for more. I would never put a pattern up for sale until someone else works through it. Even though I know how to write, I make crazy mistakes.
Do you use a Tech Editor?
Always. I work with two tech editors. Any pattern of mine up for sale has been professionally edited. Sometimes they have been edited numerous times. These days I usually ask one of my editors to check a pattern before I send it to the tester. Then after the pattern is tested, we do another check before publishing.

How do you maintain your life/work balance?

That’s a tough one. I went through a complete rethinking of this issue during the middle of last year. I had a tough business experience during the first half of 2010 and had to take a month off the reassess just what this was doing to my life as a whole. I had just spent something like four years with my head down totally working my a** off, barely taking any time off at all and I still wasn’t making a living. It took something really almost devastating to my business to make me see that I had to return to a more balanced life. My mantra has become, “Work smarter, not harder.” I had to let go of some very stubborn personal notions about quality and commitment and realize that I was not only cheating myself but cheating my husband and the rest of my family. I had to realize that I could slow down and still do a good job.My office is in my home, so it’s very hard not to work all the time. I have had to make some new rules, like turning off the computer at 5 P.M. and most weekends not even turning it on to begin with. I have even started allowing myself to do personal knitting and crocheting some weekends and some days none at all. In the past few months I have done more knitting for my family, especially my grandkids. I have to let myself be okay with projects for work taking longer. Quality of life is more important.
How do you deal with criticism?
When I first started my business I didn’t take this very well, I must admit. I had to get my confidence built stronger before I learned to see criticism for what it is—just one person’s opinion. I have since learned to look at it more objectively. I have to take every bit of feedback and ask myself which is worthy of attention. Unfortunately, most criticism comes from this knitter or that knitter who is very frustrated, either from getting into a project over his or her skill level or from not reading the pattern thoroughly enough before getting in a snit about it. I honestly wish every knitter would read and research the question more before firing off an e-mail to any of us pattern writers. Then after trying to find the answer on their own, I wish the disgruntled would at least frame the question politely and in a respectful format. I wish you could see some of the e-mails I get. Some of them look like the person is drunk and fell on the keyboard. Don’t misunderstand—I don’t get tons of these, but it only takes one to ruin your moment. I no longer let them ruin even a whole day. Another type of criticism I see is through comments left on Ravelry, whether in the notes on his or her project page or in forums. People, listen. We can see these. Imagine that you are in the room with me. In fact, imagine that we are sitting around a table knitting together. Would you choose your words differently? Enough said.
How long did it take for you to be able to support yourself?
I’m still trying to get there. I have already cashed out my IRA from my teaching years and if it weren’t for my husband believing in me and paying far too many of the bills around here I would not be doing what I do. It remains to be seen how long I will be able to keep doing it fulltime.

What advice would you give someone who wants to pursue a career in knitting?
Don’t quit your “real” job. Expect change and lots of it. This business does not pay well and it changes all the time. Be steadfastly true to yourself, carve out your own niche, and become the best you can at that. If you really love what you do, be willing to adapt and never, ever give up.”

1 comment:

  1. WOW, that was a very good interview. The questions were thoughtful and well integrated and the responses were complete and honest. I learned a lot, and I should know most everything there is to know about Jen Hagan. I hope others will gain as much as I did from the interview.