In this year of many changes we have also added a new member to our creative team. Sarah Solomon joined us earlier this year as the new Director of Knitwear Design.
Sarah Solomon is a knitwear designer, writer and teacher based in New York City. She started knitting as an adult, fueled by a passion to knit sweaters. She fell in love with the physical practice of knitting, as well the idea of being able to create fabric one stitch at a time with the fiber of your choice, literally building garments from the ground up.
With a background in woven construction and dressmaking, Sarah brings a love of details and fine finishing to her hand knitting designs and enjoys creating and teaching techniques that are simple to master but yield beautiful, long-lasting results. Her interests range from all aspects of traditional hand knitting to re-imagining ready-to-wear and machine-knit details for hand knitters. Sarah’s patterns and articles have appeared in Interweave Knits, Knitscene, knit.wear, Pom Pom Quarterly, and Vogue Knitting, and in collections by yarn companies large and small. In addition to her design work, Sarah has worked on the editorial team of Vogue Knitting Magazine and teaches knitting at shops and events around the country. In her design work, she enjoys creating garments and accessories from exceptional yarns that are knittable, wearable, and designed to last. Sarah is also an avid sewer and spinner and loves handwork in many forms.
We sat down with Sarah to learn a little bit about her background and her approach to knitting and design.
Q: How did you get started with knitting?
A: I actually didn’t start knitting until I was an adult. I had been sewing and designing woven clothes since my teens and had considered going to design school, but my love of books won out and I went to a liberal arts college instead and I didn’t do any designing during that time. After college when I was working in New York City, that interest in design sparked again and I wanted to pursue some formal training in woven construction, so I started taking night classes in Pattern Drafting and Draping at the Fashion Institute. It was a wonderful, all-consuming, experience but is was also utterly exhausting; countless hours bending over the drafting table and sitting at the sewing machine left me with terrible back pain. I still wanted to be able to create clothing but I needed an outlet that was less harsh on my body. The wise man who is now my husband suggested that I try knitting. So I took a class and quite literally overnight, I became completely absorbed with it. I bought a stitch dictionary and would look at it every night before bed; I would dream about stitches. I suddenly had a single-minded desire to be able to create my own knitting patterns and it got me started making things up almost from the very start.
Q: What inspired you to start designing?
A: When I was still quite a new knitter I discovered a book on the Twisted Stitch knitting of Bavaria and around that same time a friend of mine was describing the need she had for something to keep her ears warm while biking to work. I decided to make her a headband adapting stitches from traditional Bavarian knee socks. I made it, it was pretty, AND she wore it to work every day in winter. This sums up my perfect design experience because I love the problem-solving aspect of design and I'm happiest when working on something that fulfills a real need. As design is now my full-time work I sometimes have to play a little trick in my mind to perceive a design as "necessary" but working with Harrisville yarns makes that connection very clear for me––I feel that my job is to showcase the work of the mill and illustrate all of the wonderful possibilities the yarn has. But there's almost always an eye to the practical–– a thought to when an item will be worn, or how it will function in someone's wardrobe, as well as the kind of knitting experience it will provide. That's what separates designing for hand knits from other types of clothing design. You need to consider the experience of making equally with the experience of wearing. And this is really why hand knits are so special to us; they represent the time and effort it took to make them as much as the final garment.
Q: In what form does inspiration for a new pattern first come to you? Is it a daydream that you find yourself doodling, a memory of childhood wallpaper, a vintage magazine, an organic pattern found in nature, etc.?
A: I am amazingly non-visual for someone who works in a visual medium. I more often get a feeling about where something will be worn, in what weather, for what purpose, and the sort of feeling I want to have (or want the wearer to have) when they wear it. Often landscape plays a big part in that and I love traveling to new places as the land and weather always generate a lot of new ideas for me. I don't actually know how those notions eventually become a garment. It's rather a mystery, even to me. The rest of the design process is very methodical and mostly about problem-solving and making a thousand decisions about how to execute the initial idea, but getting the seed of that idea and letting it take shape as a garment is the mystical part. In general, I'm more of a words and sounds person than an image person, so I also very often draw inspiration from a song or a character in a novel, thinking about moods or situations and getting a sense of the garments that would suit those conditions. But most of all, it's the yarn in my hands that sparks the inspiration of the design. I describe myself as a yarn-first designer so most of the time I'm really just spending a little time with a yarn, putting it through its paces and listening to what it wants to be. Once that idea is planted, about what texture or fabric would look good in the yarn, that concept starts to swirl around with memories and stories and my mind sort of works backwards to connect this new idea with something old that's been rattling around my head for quite some time. So in the end, most ideas don't seem that new, they seem like they've been there all along.
Q: What do you enjoy about working with Harrisville Designs yarns?
A: Working with Harrisville Designs is a very good fit for me because I have wide-ranging interests in terms of design and different types of design requires different types of yarn. I have a great love of traditional knitting in all its forms and the Harrisville Highland and Shetland yarns with their finely-tuned blend of wools and their extraordinary palette are perfect for that type of knitting; for me knitting is partly a connection to our collective past and to those who made things before and I enjoy using yarns that keep that connection alive.
At the same time, I have some design interests that are intensely rooted in the present. I like to make wearable knits that fit into the contemporary lifestyle while still giving a nod to tradition. And I love detail, subtlety and things that are more than meets the eye so Daylights and Nightshades seem like they were made to my exact specifications. The elusive quality to the colors and the restraint exercised in getting them just right really speaks to me. The choice of fiber and the construction of the yarn are a dream for a designer to work with because it’s rare to find a yarn that presents so many textural and stylistic possibilities. To me these yarns are like a great poem or a piece of music, the enjoyment increases the more time you spend with it, the more you go over it, the more you learn about it.
I am also a big believer in provenance and in celebrating the incredible array of fibers available to us today. As a designer, I think the best work I can do is to find a real purpose for every type of wool. Harrisville’s Shear line highlights a specific breed of sheep and the people who raise them, and it presents a way to educate knitters about the rich variety of fibers we can work with. Craft education is very important to me, as it is to Harrisville Designs–– I first spent time here and got to know the place when I came to take workshops at the studio. I consider myself a textile lover even more than a knitter and Harrisville’s wide-ranging approach to all kinds of crafts is a big part of the appeal for me. There are classes ranging from weaving, knitting and crochet to spinning, felting, and sewing and their commitment to making quality materials for all kinds of artisans is part of the special kinship I feel for the place. I’ve always been interested in so many different things that I didn’t know if there was a place that could really encompass all of that. But it looks like I may have found it.
Q: When you begin to go deeper into a design what inspires your more intricate cabled or detailed pattern work?
A: Usually, if I want to use a certain texture, that is the starting point for the design. I think about what sort of garment or silhouette will display that texture well. I am also very structure-focused in my knitting, not that everything has to be firm or structured in how it feels but in the sense that the form, function and decoration should all relate to one another. If I can use a texture to amplify a certain function of the garment I really enjoy getting that to work. For example, dense cables make a garment warmer and sturdier so I love applying that texture to very warm hats or neckwear where the cable can not only adorn the piece but actually help hold its shape and make it more functional. In indoor garments, where we tend to appreciate more supple fabric, I might adjust the density of the cable or combine it with less dense textures for the sake of comfort and wearability. For an outdoor garment I might choose something intentionally more intricate which will add density, durability and warmth.
Q: What inspires you to come up with the names of your patterns?
A: I usually have an easy time with names for my self-published designs because they are very personal and relate to whatever the original inspiration of the design was, often a place or a song or a concept––some of my favorites have been Swave (a place), Cat Burglar (a purpose), Wild Almond (a song), Red Sky at Night (an old saying). When you are publishing with a magazine or a yarn company they generally change your very personal, highly-evocative name to something that suits the theme of their publication. This makes perfect sense and when I am working editorially and organizing collections with work from many designers, this often has to be done to make a cohesive theme, so I understand the motivation. But try as I may, with my own patterns, I can never forget the original name I gave it myself and I have a hard time knowing which pattern people are referring to when they refer to it by its "new" name. If you ask me about a pattern and are met with a wandering look in my eyes, that's what I'm thinking about...I'm just trying to remember which pattern that really means!