A Conversation with Leila Raabe
Posted by Jonathan on
... JF: Good morning, Leila! So good to have you on the "public" side of the blog today, rather than helping me proof my writing behind the scenes at BT! LR: Thanks, Jared! I'm guessing this is what it might feel like when you find yourself on the lens side of the camera. And I'd like to take this opportunity to publicly apologize for any typos that have slipped past me. ;) JF: Bough is a really sweet hat and cowl set – I started my own Bough hat immediately after you submitted the pattern because I wanted one for myself! I love the mix of traditional motifs with modern shapes and styling – would you say that this mixing of new and old is a steady feature in your work? LR: It really is. I can (and will, often) just sit and pore over old knitting books and stitch dictionaries for hours. It's cliché, but they're my go-to source of inspiration and I return to them again and again. There's something to be said for stitch patterns that stand the test of time and can be seen in designs from ten years ago, twenty, and even further back. JF: I completely agree. LR: Japanese stitch dictionaries and pattern books are also particularly fascinating, in large part because my favorite authors (Yoko Hatta, Toshiyuki Shimada, Michiyo, to name a few) seem to have as much of an obsession with the classic motifs as I do. And they're masters at turning stitch patterns we've all seen over and over into something completely new. ... ... JF: The Arbor Vitae (Tree of Life) motif is one of my favorite traditional cable motifs – I know you love it too. Was this stitch the "seed" that grew into the rest of the design? Or did you start from a different inspiration point? LR: It was! I've come across different variations of it and have been wanting to include it in a design for years. I also wanted to change up the repetitive structure of the traditional motif a little bit -- making the progression slightly less stamp-like over the course of the knitter's project -- and eventually, many swatches later, ended up with a shapely little tree. I tend to start with one primary element or idea, and then have a lot of experimentation to figure out how to best support that element. The tricky part is balancing it all without going overboard with too many random details. I'm learning that restraint can make the difference between an okay design and a really strong one. ... ... JF: It's so true. Bringing an editing eye to your own work is essential. I think when we are creating knitwear by hand, because it takes a significant amount of time and effort, it is easy to try to pack too many ideas or details into a single design. LR: Taking a balanced set of motifs from one type of project (a hat) to its complement (a scarf) is an interesting exercise, too. Proportion and scale against the shape and dimensions of the finished piece is an important thing to keep in mind. I cheered when I read your blog post about striving for harmony in the details of your Bray pullover -- music to my ears. We could probably talk about this for weeks. ... ... JF: Because I work with you every day, I get the pleasure of witnessing the evolution of your design work in real time. I know you'll often create prototypes, or multiple versions of something as you work towards a completed idea. Can you talk a little bit about this process? Do you feel that there is a sort of "searching" aspect that you require to bring out your best work? LR: Whenever I complete a project I think about all the million different things I'd change about it, if I were to knit it again. Bough started with a hat I made for a gift last year – that one featured the Tree of Life along with a few gansey patterns and small, squiggly cables. Still obsessed with the Tree pattern, I then cast on for a cowl, ditching the gansey and squiggles in favor of simpler seed-stitch columns and framing. I never finished that one, because I started another hat, which eventually became the final version of Bough. After completing the hat I decided to revisit the cowl to see how I could make the trees and cables work in a long, circular loop. JF: It feels kinda like stumbling down a pathway in the dark, eh? You know you are headed in the right direction, but aren't sure how many steps it will take to arrive. And once there, it also leaves you wondering "Could I take this further? Should I take it further?" LR: If I showed you the number of Illustrator files of different chart "mock-ups" I have for this hat, you would probably laugh. JF: It would be a laugh of solidarity, for sure! LR: And there are probably twice as many for the cowl. I'm grateful that we have tools like these at our disposal to help with the design process; otherwise, I'd have a bigger pile of unfinished prototypes than I already have, and meeting deadlines would be much more challenging. JF: Yes, technology is so incredibly helpful for design. Do you work primarily in Illustrator when developing knitwear? Do you use any other programs? LR: I have a strong preference for charts over written instructions in a knitting pattern, so Illustrator (which, as you already know, is my default program for creating charts) is always open during development of a design. I've also found spreadsheets useful, though I like to keep things on the simpler side—a lot of what I do builds off of pretty basic shapes and construction methods that don't require a lot of number-crunching. I focus mainly on playing around with stitch patterns and motifs, and what I hope are pleasing combinations. I will sometimes use Photoshop to cobble images of my swatches together to help get a visual for how something would look over a larger area of fabric. ... ... JF: This has been fun - thank you, Leila! LR: Thanks so much for sharing your space with me, and for including my design in this volume of Wool People! I hope knitters find their projects enjoyable to make and wear.