An Interview With Pamela Wynne

As I mentioned a bit ago, Pamela Wynne Butler published an ebook, Handsome: Man Sweaters for Every Body, a collection of patterns (AbramElliotJerryKaleRobertRushaan), designed with a wide range of body types and fit options. I wanted to hear more about Pam's motivation behind the collection and how her approach and work has evolved in the years since the release of her insanely popular February Lady Sweater pattern, and she graciously offered to answer my questions. Our interview is below. Enjoy!

JerryL / Narrow shoulders. R / Broad shoulders.

Kate: Thanks so much for taking the time to answer some questions regarding Handsome: Man Sweaters for Every Body. This collection is really unique from other "menswear" collections in that you feature a wide variety of models in terms of body type, gender identity, and size. Why was it important for you publish a collection like this?

Pam: At first, the Handsome project was very personal. I was just designing sweaters for friends and loved ones who'd had difficulty finding menswear styles that fit their bodies, and those folks come in a variety of shapes and sizes and genders. Each of the six designs in the collection was designed with, created for, and named after one of those friends. And then I made a second sample of each design for another friend with a very different body type, to show the sweater on multiple shapes. So that variety was intentional, because I wanted to represent a range of different fit challenges and solutions.

But at my day job, I'm a gender studies professor, so of course I also believe that the personal is political and that representation matters! For the photoshoot, I managed to get all of those folks together for a weekend on a farm in Minnesota. And when I looked out at the whole beautiful crew of them, showing off their new sweaters and admiring everyone else's, I recognized that I'd also created something pretty special in terms of the kinds of bodies and the forms of gender expression we usually see modeling clothing. I think that was a heady moment for all of us.

L / Crew-neck Robert with custom length and "X" shaping. R / Original Robert.

Kate: You discuss some of the additional features in the collection in the lookbook, such as short-row shaping at the belly, wide/narrow shoulder adjustments, and waist shaping. Why did you choose to include these as options, rather than just publish the designs as-is?

Pam: My goal with this collection was to make my designs as accessible as possible to as many people as possible. I want any adult human -- of any size, any shape, any gender -- to be able create their perfect menswear sweater with these patterns. I say in the introduction to Handsome that "clothing that both fits your body and affirms your gender is a luxury and a pleasure." But I don't want that to be a luxury only available to the few. I want to live in a world where that pleasure is universally accessible. We know it's probably not going to happen in corporate fashion, but we have the power to make it happen through DIY fashioning. These custom options were one small way I could participate in building that world.

And of course, even though my personal goal was to outfit myself and my social circle of fellow gender weirdos, expanding access and options benefits everybody. Human bodies are so marvelously diverse! Every person's shape is utterly unique. Why not create knitting patterns that can stretch and shape-shift to embrace that diversity?

L / Pam's February Lady. R / The February pattern from Elizabeth Zimmerman's Knitter's Almanac inspired the sweater.

Kate: Agreed! That is such a beautiful sentiment. 

Changing gears a little but, I think it is pretty safe to say that your name became well known (and closely associated with) the February Lady Sweater when it was released over 9 years ago. Since then, you have published a wide variety of garments and accessories. How does your work now differ from that original pattern? Are there aspects that have stayed the same throughout?

Pam: Oh yeah, sometimes a knitter will recognize me in public and call me "The February Lady!"

I designed the February Lady Sweater just for myself, and then shared a tutorial with my friends on this new little website called I had never designed a sweater pattern before. And then, of course, it was the first pattern to go viral on Ravelry as the site blew up. It is not an example of great knitwear design! So part of me is embarrassed that it's the work people know me by. But most of me is just grateful that so many people have enjoyed it and that it opened up this whole knitting community to me.

My later work was largely determined by what a given yarn company needed -- what design would work best with a particular yarn and with a particular customer base or market in mind. That meant I got to experiment with a wide range of ideas, and a wild variety of yarns (including some challenging ones to design for, like variegated laceweight silk, and super-bulky alpaca), which was a really transformative learning experience.

These days, I get to design whatever I want, so I'm focused on work that is meaningful to me in some way, like Handsome. There are so many hardworking, skilled indie pattern designers out there creating fashion-forward "women's" garments and accessories graded for a wide range of sizes. I don't feel like I have much to contribute to that realm these days. But I'm inspired by design that challenges our ideas about gender, about sizing, about what bodies are. I guess that's the throughline to my work since the February Lady Sweater. Even then, I was interested in the pattern being adaptable to lots of shapes and sizes -- it's just that the only tool I had for that I back then was the top-down seamless raglan!

Lovely details on Eliot. L / A-K's optional lined contrast pockets. R / The original Eliot, with front steeks.

Kate:  When designing, how much does yarn choice play into your approach? Do you plan a garment and then choose a yarn that will work with your design idea, or do you pick a yarn you love and let it guide you into what it wants to be?

Pam: Ooh, I do a lot of both. But yarn choice is always crucial for me. We're so lucky to have great resources for learning about yarn and fiber these days, like Clara Parkes's Knitter's Book of Yarn and Deb Robson's Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook. Of course, some of us also had to learn those things the hard way, for instance by knitting a seamless dress in 2001 out of bulky cotton and then watching it stretch to three times its original length.

For the Handsome collection, I swatched every single American-grown yarn I could get my paws on, plus a few faves like The Fibre Co. Knightsbridge. During my first meeting with each of the folks I designed the sweaters for, I brought a massive pile of swatches for them to fondle, and had a wonderful time matching people and designs with yarn.

Both versions of Abram.

Kate: Wow. That cotton dress must have been quite the....experience. Hah! What is next for Pamela Wynne?

Pam: All this year, I'm focused on promoting and supporting Handsome, and hosting knitalongs where I'm making all six of the sweaters for myself.

After that, I'm letting the knitting world crash my day job! I'm finishing up an academic book on the political history of knitting in the U.S.

Rushaan: The next design in the knitalong!

Kate: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us. And that book sounds amazing - I'm excited to hear more about it when it comes out!

For those of you interested in reading more about the knitalongs, make sure to check out Pam's blog, where she is providing additional details, tips and tricks, and information on the garments and their construction. Additionally, you can follow along n the Ravelry group dedicated to the collection.

All images © Caro Sheridan except Pam in her February Lady Sweater and the Knitter's Almanac book.

An Interview With: Laura Chau

I asked Laura Chau if she would be willing to answer some questions for me in conjunction with the release of  four piece pattern collection, the Laura Chau Collection, and she said yes! Read her answers below for more insight into her thoughts on the big changes in the industry over the years, design process, and publishing preferences - and a chance to win! 

Kate: You work a lot independently, but also with publishers, whether they be yarn companies or magazines. Do you find the process to be very different (or one better than the other?) Or do the plusses/minuses of both balance each other out?

Laura: I love self-publishing - the creative control, making whatever I want (whether it works out or not!), my own layouts and photos, the ability to be flexible with deadlines. But self-publishing is a lot of work to do by yourself, and the amount of choices you need to make can be overwhelming. Startup costs can also be very high, in both time and money, and these days it’s harder and harder to be visible as an independent designer.

L / JERN by Laura Chau from Woolfolk. R / Sackville Shawl by Laura Chau (self published).

Third-party publishing is a great way to see another side of the industry, and to work with other people with awesome skills in photography, layout, and marketing. It can also be financially rewarding as the costs are more spread out. I’ve learned a lot working with different publishers - about the different ways people do things, pushing myself creatively and physically to meet external deadlines, and taking a more objective view of my work.

It took awhile (years) for me to be comfortable handing off my work to be scrutinized by someone else! But my confidence has also grown with experience, and I’m thrilled to have a mix of publishing opportunities available.

Kate: The Fibre Co. Road to China Light is both incredibly soft and has a lot of drape. Did you have to make any adjustments to your original design ideas in order to accommodate the qualities of the yarn?

Laura: I’ve worked with Road to China Light a few times before, and its kitten-softness can’t be beat! You really do need to be aware of its unique qualities when knitting - soaking and blocking your swatches will give you an idea of how much the fabric relaxes after knitting. Lace fabrics in particular can be quite surprising in how open they become after washing.

L / Rainy Lake. R / Hopewell Rocks.

Slipped stitches on Cathedral Grove help keep the fabric firm at the edges, and both sweaters are worked flat and seamed to help them keep their shape over time. After all, you want to be able to wear them for years! Working flat in pieces and alternating skeins also helps distribute the hand-dyed colours evenly for a tidy overall look.

Kate: I feel as if I have known your name as long as I have been in the industry - your first published design was back in '06! Besides the obvious ones (social media, Ravelry), what are some of the biggest changes you've seen over the past 10 years? 

Laura: It’s been awhile! I started designing during my undergraduate degree and just kept going after I graduated. Personal knitting blogs were huge, and self-publishing digital knitting patterns was a new and novel idea. In the beginning I had to email patterns individually to customers! Everything was so exciting then, with lots of new beautiful yarns and shops, digital magazines popping up, and people who had previously been the only knitter they knew finding their online community.

L /  Thermal from Knitty, Winter 2006. R / Amelia from Knitty, Winter 2008.

Things are so different nowadays. Ravelry’s given everyone an opportunity to get their work out there at all levels, and allowed customers and designers/companies to interact like never before. There’s a whole sub-industry of business-to-business services like editing, photography, and marketing, so you don’t have to self-publish alone if you don’t want to. As in other industries, customers are way more curious about where their materials come from and who has been involved, which is great.

But because there’s so much volume of designs, publications, and yarns, it can be hard to stand out from the crowd. Competition is fierce and everyone has to hustle. Knitters’ expectations from patterns is much higher, from photography to technical editing, but without much movement in the prices. Social media can make it seem like everyone else is more successful than you are!

The marketplace is crowded, but I do think there’s a growing recognition of the value of the work that independent designers and freelancers do, and that makes me hopeful that very small businesses like mine can survive and thrive in the future.

Kate: Of the four designs in the collection, which one is your favorite, and why?

Laura: I think the cowl, Mackenzie River, is my favourite! I’d had the idea of a diagonal travelling lace pattern in my head for a few years and finally got it out. The lace pattern is quite intuitive, and the plain rounds give you a chance to just relax and enjoy the knitting. Road to China Light is perfect for cowls, it’s so soft and warm. It’s also a great pattern for on-the-go knitting once the lace is set up.

Kate: What is next for Laura Chau?

Laura: I try to keep myself open to new and exciting opportunities as they come along. I love what I do and hope to design for a long time to come!

Thanks so much, Laura! 

As an extra bonus, for a chance to win a PDF of Mackenzie River PDF and three skeins of The Fibre Co. Road to China Light, leave a comment below answering the question: What do you think is the best change the industry has seen in the last 10 years? 

The contest will be open through Sunday, August 27th, midnight EST. A winner will be randomly chosen and announced on the blog Monday the 28th!