Confessions of a Backward Designer

You must believe me when I tell you that this is a cream-colored, organic cotton peasant blouse.  While your eyes (and your fingers if you were to touch it) will tell you that what we have here is aubergine superwash wool (Cascade Heritage, to be exact), what I am telling you is that it really is going to be something totally different one day.  The yarn from which this design will actually be made is so new that it isn't even for sale yet.  That yarn, right now, is somewhere between Peru, and Ohio, and Portland.  And it doesn't matter where that yarn is, because it's not coming to my house.  But I still have to figure out how to make a sweater out of it.  And then tell someone whom I have never met and will never see how to do the same, and without errors.

It's time for me to come out of my cedar-lined closet and confess:  I am a Backward Designer.  By that I don't mean Backward, as in, societally maladjusted (I am, but that's a different post), I mean Backward in that I have not yet learned one particularly vital skill.

I'm told by people whose job it is to know these things that the process goes like this:  Yarn Company, or Magazine, or Editor presents the project to the Designer.  The project can be the brainchild of someone who works for any of the above, or of the Designer, or whomever.  Somehow it is agreed upon that the Designer should make something, what the something will be, and what yarn will be used.  The Designer is off to the races.  She makes drawings, swatches and calculations.  She works out the pattern instructions, and then the magic formula is transferred to a saintly and talented human, referred to as Test Knitter.  This person is vastly underpaid to create the imagined garment in far too short a time, to fit a model no one has ever seen, with frequently not quite enough yarn.  Then the Test Knitter tells the Designer about all the errors she found in the pattern so they can be fixed, and the Tech Editors and their publishing pals take it from there.

This system has many benefits, I understand.  For one, the Designer is free to design far many more patterns than she could ever actually knit.  Her wrists, elbows and nerves are spared, in order to free her frail mind.  For another, without the burden of actual creation upon her, the logistics of how much yarn and where on the globe it might be found become largely irrelevant.  And of course, the Test Knitter's fresh eyes, perspective and tendons provide meaningful objectivity to the process.

It's a really swell system.  Too bad I suck at it. 

At least so far in my career, I have not mastered the skills needed to create a design more complex than a potholder without actually making it myself.  There.  I said it.  As of this moment in time, I have to knit every stinking thing I dream up, or its pattern will be way wrong in some very bad way.  Abominable math skills notwithstanding, my knitting just refuses to be born on paper.  It is totally inorganic and miserable for me to sit at a desk and grind numbers into graph paper.  That's the opposite of knitting, and everything I love about it, and I have serious doubts about my career lasting longer than my wrists if I don't find a way to make it work.

What I have to do is this:  Accept with glee the assignment, find a substitute yarn that I can both afford and procure in time to meet my deadline, and make a stealth sample myself.  That's right, I secretly knit samples on my own.  I have tried working on only making the key parts of the project: say, the armhole shaping and neckline.  Then when/if I have time, I go back and work the rest of the garment to figure out the rest.  I have more sweaters with weird seams and picked-up knitting than you can imagine.  For me to get it right, I just have to make the darned sweater, and write down what I did as I go.  Luckily, I am a really quick knitter, but I know I'm on borrowed time until this strategy backfires.

Can you imagine asking a Chef to create a new dish without giving him any ingredients other than a pencil?  That is the world I'm living in.  I don't know how other designers handle this problem, but I sure would like to. 

The good news is that even though the parties for whom I design do not allow me to share about what I am creating for them here, there are no such restrictions on showing you my stealth versions.  They are works in progress, after all, and may not bear any actual resemblance to the finished items.  So I hereby air my dirty laundry:  Here is the stealth peasant blouse, in progress.  

Because it's mine and I can do anything I want, it might eventually turn it into something totally different than the garment I'm contracted to make.  For example, the required element is a short sleeve, but nothing says my stealth version can't be a long-sleeve if I'm inclined... I will share progress on this until it starts to look like the thing I'm supposed to be doing, and then it will disappear in favor of some new project/whim.  Thanks for letting me get that off my chest.