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Interview with Knitwear Desinger Deborah Newton

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Deborah Newton

Deborah Newton.

I have always had a great deal of respect for Deborah Newton. When I first got this job here at About.com, her Designing Knitwear book was probably the first book on knitwear design that I bought. I still read it all the time as a reminder of the right way to do things (and I think some of my passion for swatching must have come from it!).

In addition to that excellent book, Newton is also the author of several knitwear pattern books and the stunning Finishing School, which reminds us that finishing should not be rushed through or taken lightly if we want successful garments.

Newton was gracious enough to take the time to talk with me about her beginning in knitting, a new project in the works and, of course, swatching.

About: First off, how and when did you learn to knit?

Deborah Newton: When I was a kid my mother had a knitting box -- like a hat box -- in a closet. I used to pull it out and play with the balls of yarn: one of my earliest memories. The box was tall and cardboardy, painted with flowers and had a silky cord handle -- very pretty. It was filled with all colors of plastic needles which seemed so beautiful to me. I played with the needles, too. In that box was also an old '50s style ski sweater -- red with green and ivory patterns -- and I used to wear it with the sleeves rolled up. This was all before I learned to knit!

Sometime later I asked my mother to teach me to knit. For MANY YEARS, until I was in college actually, I only knitted garter stitch squares. I made all kinds of doll clothes by sewing them together in different ways.

About: When did you decide you wanted to be a knitwear designer?

DN: When I went to college I encountered the Barbara Walker Treasury of Knitting patterns. I learned to purl and follow patterns from that book to make swatches. I also fell in love with Elizabeth Zimmermann's Knitter's Almanac and started subscribing to her amazing WOOLGATHERING newsletters. These were huge inspirational sources for me.

I wanted to make sweaters! I love pattern stitches! So I started designing my own right from the beginning.

About: Your book Designing Knitwear is a classic that’s still in print all these years later. Why did you want to write that book?

DN: I had a strong reason to write that book: I wanted to write the book that was not there when I began designing!

When I was starting out in the mid 1980's, there were no sources that explored all the aspects of the craft. I had gathered bits and pieces of information from a variety of books, but I wanted a volume that showed an overview of knitwear design techniques. The book presented my process and I encouraged others to borrow my process until they developed their own. We are all different and have our own paths and interests, but I wanted to present the book as a starting point, including the issues that seemed important to me as a beginning designer.

About: Have you given any thought to revising it based on what you’ve learned in the intervening years?

DN: I would love to do a revised version of Designing Knitwear and maybe I will. I think my last book Finishing School did fill in some of the spaces and includes some interesting design-related material that supplements Designing Knitwear in a nice way. They are good companion books!

About: What would be your number one piece of advice to someone wanting to get started in knitwear design?

DN: I always tell knitters to follow what seems right to them -- to go where their own interests lie. Explore your strengths, the kinds of designs that appeal to you. And then, on the other hand, also try things that seem uncomfortable to you -- that is where you learn!

Try not to have any prejudices: I have designed all kinds of pieces, from garments to accessories, on to home decorator pieces, and even dog sweaters. Every time you try something new, you learn something new! Try all kinds of yarns to see how they work and what they are best for -- don't be a snob about fiber. I try to be as open and fearless as possible. There is always something new to learn that makes you a better designer.

Today designing takes many forms, and the venues for display and sales range from magazines -- where I cut my teeth -- to individual websites to social media platforms. If you are a good designer your work will be noticed. Aim for a little something extra in each piece you design so that you set yourself apart from the crowd!

About: How would you describe your style?

DN: I often humorously describe my professional style as "reliable." I always deliver, and I never miss a deadline. Editors and clients REALLY APPRECIATE this. It is something you have to learn to be a successful professional. I am never happier than when I am meeting the needs of an editor or client. I like to be given an idea and run with it -- and then do it again and again.

I like to think my personal style is "Quirky Classic." I love working with classic ideas and giving them a twist. I hate to repeat myself so I always try to do something new with each new design.

About: What are your favorite projects to knit?

DN: Well, finishing is my favorite thing as I express in my recent book Finishing School! I love bringing a project to closure, and attending to all the details, making the final decisions.

My next favorite things to knit are accessories -- and I don't get a chance to do enough of these. I love unusual hats, and bags and detailed socks and stockings!

About: Do you have a favorite of your books or a favorite project from one of your books?

DN: How do you chose a favorite child? I think Finishing School is a very personal book so that pleases me -- it is close to who I am as a designer today. I still love Designing Knitwear, and I feel it has stood the test of time and has a lot to offer. The pattern books I have done with LEISURE ARTS were all so much fun to do -- my favorite of those is the soon to be released and is called Heirloom Baby Knits -- so much fun to design for babies!

About: I have always been a fan of swatching, but the swatches in Finishing School are truly inspirational. For those who haven’t read the book, why do you think swatching is such an important step in knitting?

DN: I always say that the swatch never lies: it tells the story of the sweater that is to come. It helps me as a designer to envision a project ahead of time. And also it is also a small homage to an idea -- and the swatch lives on after the sweater is long gone!

About: Tell me about your upcoming book!

DN: I am soon to embark on a large new project -- another reference book -- with a personal slant like Finishing School. So keep your eyes open! I am ready to sign a contract and I will begin the book this coming June, for release date of January 2014. I think -- and hope! -- it will be another very helpful book for both knitters and designers to use as a reference.

About: I told my fans on Facebook I was interviewing you, and one reader asked about bobbles. Yours always look so good; what’s your secret?

DN: There are so many different kinds of bobbles and knot-like protrusions that you can choose to add texture to your knitting. It is good to take the time to explore all the variations in Barbara Walker's first and second Treasury of Knitting patterns, and other knitting pattern sources. When you have tired several bobbles you can choose which one suits your project. It is like having a vocabulary of bobbles!

I always suggest to knitters that they knit bobbles TIGHTLY, even using smaller dpns to do that. Choose a bobble that lies close to the main fabric, especially if your yarn is not very elastic.

About: Anything else you want to talk about?

DN: The editors of Vogue Knitting have kindly asked me to do a regular column in the magazine about my favorite topic -- finishing! So I will be exploring the various topics that I spoke about in my book Finishing School with a little extra detail.

I will be appearing at VK LIVE in Chicago in the fall, and at STITCHES EAST in Hartford, CT, this year. I always look forward to meeting new and old knitting and designing friends.

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