Saturday, August 20, 2005

On Judging Designs and Who to Blame

Lisa and I started our own e-mail conversation about some of the issues she raised in her series of posts about not liking the designs in a book or magazine. We thought you might enjoy hearing our back-and-forth, and, of course, chiming in with your own thoughts. So here goes:

Lisa begins:

Who do I not blame when I don't like the designs in a book or a magazine? The designer(s).

Very few people come to handknitting and think, "I want to design things for the whole world to knit, and become rich and famous in the process." They're like you or me: they knit what they want to knit, and after awhile they start making up the instructions because they want to knit something they haven't found a pattern for.

After enough people praise their original creation, they may start thinking, "Hey! Maybe other people would like to know how to make one of these. Maybe someone would even . . . pay me to show them how to do it."

You can't blame them for thinking that way; who wouldn't want to get paid for doing something they enjoy doing? And if an editor or design director buys their design, hooray for the designer!

But even after she's sold a bunch of designs, the designer is usually still motivated by whatever interested her in the first place: could be the way cables cross, could be how a bias fabric can drape a shoulder line, could be how she can make herself a mohair sweater that's not too warm to wear at home in Arkansas. Maybe magazine editors keep buying her work--congratulations: artistic satisfaction, and income, too. But probably she still submits plenty of designs that don't get published, too.

Almost no designer thinks to themselves, "Wait! If I design something everyone loves, a magazine will be sure to buy it, because everyone will want to knit one!" First of all, I don't think anyone except Gap, Inc. aspires to clothing everyone. Second of all, no design looks good on everyone, and designers and editors know it. Third of all, no design appeals to everyone, and any design that comes remotely close--J. Crew Rollneck Raglan, as interpreted by Yankee Knitter Designs, circa 1987, for instance--is so simple and basic and straightforward that, once it's been done, no one needs another pattern like it for another 20 years.

About 10 years ago, Knitter's Magazine did a feature on Classic Elite Yarns, and they interviewed Kristin Nicholas, who was then the director of marketing and product development there. She talked about designs for their line: "We know, for example, that if we do a plain stockinette sweater with a cable in the center, it'll be our best selling pattern. . . . We want to keep the design classic, updated, yet not too far out." (Remember Reykjavik, Classic Elite Pattern #479?) This illustrates a special category: the in-house designer for a yarn company incorporates some of the editor's function at a magazine, in that she has the responsibility to make sure that a season's patterns are sufficiently diverse and representative. But it also illustrates the way "the marketplace" clamors simultaneously for novelty and for familiarity, for innovation and for repetition.

For the editors and design directors, it's all about sales and target market and what will photograph well and which advertiser's yarn to use. For the designer, I truly believe that it's almost entirely about "Wouldn't it look cool if we tried it this way? Or wouldn't it?"

You wouldn't tell a novelist to stop writing books that were only about middle-aged people; you'd either alternate reading that author's books with reading other people's, or you'd just not read that author at all. If someone suggested making rules about what kind of characters a novel has to have, you'd think that was ridiculous--or an unconstitutional curtailment of the author's artistic freedom. You don't walk into an Italian restaurant and complain that there's no souvlaki on the menu (you probably wouldn't even complain if there's no fettucine Alfredo on the menu, though you might be more surprised). So why do so many people seem to think that a knitwear designer has a responsibility to produce designs that everyone likes, everyone can knit, and everyone looks good wearing

Carol responds:

Hmm. I am perplexed by Lisa’s analysis a bit, maybe because I think a designer's role can take either of two forms: Is the designer's role to create patterns that others can make and will want to make and will look good wearing? Or is the designer's role to create garments that satisfy her inner urge to create or are faithful to her artistic vision?

If you think the designer’s job is to create patterns for magazine/book readers to make and wear – which, admittedly, is a practical or utilitarian way to look at it – then you probably will be irked by a designer who creates items no one wants to make, or no one will look good wearing. A good many knitters will think, I'm shelling out $7 for a magazine, and the stuff is all made for stick figures or is so way-out I'd never wear it. Or you will think "God, I'm so tired when I get home from work, I don't feel like thinking and I just want to follow a pattern and end up with a sweater that looks halfway decent on me, and I can't find anything I want to make. Or if I make it, I have to modify it, so I might as well design my own." Or maybe you are just baffled by it all: you don't know enough about kinds of sleeves to know which look good on you, and you are too clueless to realize that a 48-inch waist probably doesn't need a peplum. Knitting these designs, which is what the editors seem to want you to do since they provide those handy-dandy patterns, becomes an exercise in frustration and wasting money.

On the other hand -- if you take the second view, you are looking at any designer's creation as inspirational, a piece of fiber art to be admired without any concern about making it yourself, or whether it would look good on you. You might, if you are a young hip-ster, think "Wow! What a cool sweater. I could wear that to the next rave in the empty warehouse!" or, more likely, you could think "That makes me think about knitting the sweater I’m working on with a neckline like that" or "I wonder what would happen if I made that sweater without the cables in a different color". The knitting magazine isn't so much a recipe for creating a garment as it is a look at other people's ideas, and a jolt to your own creativity. I know very few readers of knitting magazines who completely fall into this category, although most knitters take inspiration in some form or another from their magazines (but they want to be able to make SOMETHING for themselves from the magazines, not use them solely for inspiration).

The problem comes, I think, because most magazines are neither fish nor fowl. They are providing patterns, which assumes the point is for SOMEONE to make the garment, and they are commercially driven by yarn manufacturers who want to sell yarn for people to make garments from. They are purchased by many knitters who want to follow a pattern, and who lack the desire or knowledge to design or modify patterns on their own. At the same time, they strive to provide inspiration and creativity and information for more adventurous knitters to riff off of (or they ought to; some magazines do this better than others). But is the designer really following her muse when her garment gets switched to a completely different type and style of yarn, simply because the yarn company buys a lot of ad space? No. And is the reader getting garments that are likely to make her look good, that she will feel good in and enjoy wearing, when the designer is following her quite-possibly-obscure artistic vsion? No. (No one looks good in a sweater so full of lavender fun fur that it makes you look like a guy on the beach with a mauve-colored hairy back. Drop shoulders may be preferable to use when you want to do crazy intarsia stuff on the sweater body, but they tend not to look flattering on most women.)

Ironically, I have often complained about the demise of wearability in these magazines: that creating a garment that is wearable has become almost shameful -- as if designing something that someone will look good in, or feel good in, or is flattering, is crass, or bourgeois, or pedestrian or artless. I think it is the greatest challenge of a designer to create a pattern that preserves the artistic sensibility while accommodating wearability. So in my mind, yes, the designer does bear some of the blame for the frustration the reader may feel (or at least, one type of reader may feel) with her knitting magazines.

Lisa responds to Carol:

Sure, there are two kinds of designs, the functional and the inspirational (and plenty of hybrids), and way too many clueless designers who don't know the difference (or which they're producing). But I think my point is, the designers don't control what gets into your hands: the editors (technical and otherwise) do. People will praise an up-and-upcoming designer and publish her and offer her a book contract based on the things of hers they saw—even when they are a little outlandish and in limited size ranges, etc.--but no one gives classes on how to design for larger people, no one certifies or authorizes someone as qualified to size a garment, and no editor who's bought a proposal will say, "Gee, I thought there'd be more things in here for real people to wear, and I'm not going to pay you unless you produce some." In other words, nothing in the system enables--let alone requires--someone who's made one cute thing to become someone who can produce instructions for many people to make similar things that will be cute on them.

"Wearability" is a whole topic of its own, as far as I'm concerned: do we mean, "fits a standard range of sizes"? "Flatters more body types than one, or if only one, then a common one"? "Won't get you stared at in the supermarket"? "Doesn't prevent you from typing/walking/eating"? For me, fringe bits hanging all over a cardigan make it unwearable; I worry that for the core Knitter's reader, fringe bits all over are what takes the design from "something I could have bought" to "something that makes me feel unique and fashion-conscious." Lots of times, Rowan looks unwearable to me when it arrives--and then people here cast on and it turns out to be o.k. as long as you're not in the forest wearing warpaint or whatever.

And Carol replies to that:

I still think some of the responsibility rests within the designer. Look at the book "Vintage Knits" - sizes 32, 34 and 36. Ought not the designer know that this is an extremely limited size range by any standard? Is the designer being lazy by deciding not to size the garment up any more? Does someone have to tell say "Gee, Ms. Designer, do you think that there's a bunch of women out there who might like your designs but whose busts measure larger than 36 inches around?"

If small sizing is deliberate (because the designer thinks someone of a larger size won't look good in her designs) then we're getting into a separate issue, of poundism.

Scroll through You knit what? -- can any designer in their right mind think that someone, somewhere (anyone, anywhere) is going to wear some of that crap? and oughtn't a designer want someone, somewhere to make their garments? Otherwise, what is the point to being a designer of patterns for others, as opposed to a designer who makes one-off garments and sells them? and if you call yourself a professional designer, shouldn't you take on some of the responsibility to learn things like, say, how to size a garment up and down? (by trial and error if by no other way).

I agree that wearability is a relative concept. Perhaps I could quote the Supreme Court justice who, when asked to define pornography as opposed to erotic art, said he couldn't, "but I know it when I see it." Or maybe it's best defined negatively, or by reference to "most people." A few people might wear X, but most wouldn't. If you are a model and either so gorgeous no one looks at your clothes, or so beautifully proportioned that you can pretty much wear anything and look good in it, then wearability is irrelevant. You can wear anything you want. Period. But for the rest of us, it's not that simple. I think the fascinating, nonsnarky element of You knit what? is it helps you define what is wearable. Dolman bat sleeves -- not very. Tufts of fur all over the garment -- not very, but to some extent a matter of taste. Mohawk hat -- not at all.

And now we would like to hear what you think.


Elizabeth said...

Great discussion Ladies. I think a lot of it is the need that magazines have to fill issues, season after season, year in, year out. Yes, every basic sweater a person could want has already been designed. Yet, a youngish, newish knitter will not make that sweater from a 1975 photo. She needs to see it on a 2005 model, with current hair and make-up to imagine herself in it. So, there's the constantly re-releasing the tried'n'true standards that Kristen Nicholas mentioned.

I'm constantly shocked on the Knittyboard forum how the politics of clothes have changed since I was younger. (I'm 43 now.) The young post-feminist hotties want the world to notice their surgically augmented bosoms. They want clothes that serve 'em up for male perusal. They don't have a problem with fashion trends that would look good on a seedy street corner after midnight. I'm often shocked and reminded of the generational divide when the younger women all praise something as "cute" or otherwise desirable and I'm thinking, "What the hell is this?" There's no accounting for taste.

Vogue Knitting tends to try to follow fashion trends more closely than some others. I consider this a folly, because hand-knitting seems too time-consuming to be glued to trends. As for Knitters, I don't know what they're looking for. I don't get the fringe, fur, and other goofy stuff either. Periodically, mainstream fashion goes through stretches where "Tacky" is in. And not even with the clever irony that shows the world you secretly know it's tacky. Nothing to do but ride it out and wait for "Good Taste" to roll around again!

I think that once a knitter reaches a certain skill level, she/he really isn't the target audience for most of what gets published. I've always loved getting knitting magazines, although I haven't made anything from one since 1991. Like you said, I use them as inspiration. There are long stretches of time when the ads are more inspirational than the the featured designs. I'm just as happy getting yarn catalogs. I don't need patterns: just oodles of pictures. So, if Marilyn actually did start her knitting magazine for the rest of us, I'm not sure how big her readership would be. The rest of us might be a pretty small fraction of the knitters, sad to say.

Keep up the discussion!

p.s. Rcvd. Selvedge yesterday. Thanks! Pretty cool stuff.

obscure said...

Learned to knit at 6, completed my first real sweater by 12.
By the time I was in my 20's and had a family, I had realized that most anything any of us would wear were very basic shapes, which could be easily adjusted in many ways. I recall buying one pattern book in 1982 with some Tahki and then none until last winter, when my desire to knit and learn everything I could to refine my skills led my to look at books and magazines again--just to see what's out there. I'll still knit basic shapes, I'm sure, but will continue to learn new-to-me techniques (cast ons, decs, incs, bind offs, etc.) for my own pleasure as I doubt many folks can see the difference between the good old Aran I designed for myself 15 years ago and one I may knit next year.

As Elizabeth mentions, a younger person may want a classic sweater, but not in a 70's photo. And we've seen changes in fit--remember for tight and short those faux Scandinavian ski sweaters in the 1948 Nomis books were? And the wider necklines and longer ribbings of circa 1980 (not to mention shoulder pads)? So even a classic cardigan will look a bit different from decade to decade--no problem adapting for us older hands.

I'm alternately delighted to see a resurgance in interest in knitting and the resulting availability of a wider range of yarns, and horrified by some of the "designs" and crummier yarns. So I have fun checking in at YOU KNIT WHAT? as well as quietly improving my own knitting of classic styles.

As someone mentioned yesterday(?) on Marilyn's blog, with the internet, we're all just exposed to so much more, awful with sublime. (Remember when it was only McCall's Needlework & Crafts we feared?).

I wonder what we'll be seeing in a few (I hope) years when shrugs and Fun Fur are but a distant memory and some of the new knitters have moved beyond scarves?

Thanks for getting this discussion going!

Kathy Merrick said...

I think we are all partly to blame. I don't see myself as a "designer", but I have sold some things here and there.
I know that the editor's vision is imparted rather nebulously to the would-be designers, and seems to be cribbed together at the end, under deadline pressure.
People who submit designs to magazines aren't always privy to the we-got-big-ad-bucks-from-yarncompanyx-and need-to-feature-their-stuff discussions.
I put a biggish portion of blame on yarn companies these days.
They seem so ill-equipped to dealing with the newest vogue for knitting, and have nearly all marched down the aisle of fat fluffy, keep em in the line for two seasons yarns.
Remember when there were beautiful high-quality smooth reliable yarns that came, season after season, in many colors?
How many stupid limited color palette chunky yarns does ROWAN need? (granted that they're under big business pressures they didn't used to be under)
I always loved that at Tomato Factory we could say, "sorry, we don't carry novelty yarns or synthetic fibers".
But can you say that today?
I don't think you can afford to.
Where do we go from here?

Lisa M. said...

Without getting into the whole novelty yarns argument, I do have to say that I feel like I wouldn't want to try to afford not to carry them: beginners like them, and I remember being a beginner (at the age of 8), and I don't want to be the person saying, "Here's your garter-stitch scarf in a nice healthy tweed. When it's 6' long, come back, and we'll let you do something fun. What, you're bored? Guess you just don't like knitting."

On the other hand, all those crazy yarns are wicked tough to design for. Yarn companies know it, too: they've got tons of inventory, and they've been begging the mills to step up production, and what happens if the scarf craze ends? (Because it will. And they know it. It's just a matter of guessing when.) So their only hope is to find a way to use the novelties in other projects--namely, sweaters.

Anonymous said...

Yeah I was so disappointed to see that the people who designed/wrote/published "Vintage Knits" didn't consider me worthy to wear their designs. ($#$%#@!!)