Today I’m visiting with Bonnie Sennott from Amherst, Massachusetts about her work as an artist, knitter and designer. This wraps up our second week of Designer Conversations, with two more interviews slated for next week. Enjoy! –Jared
Hello Bonnie, and welcome! So glad to chat with you this morning.
Hi Jared. Thanks for having me.
You have a fine arts degree and work in several media other than wool. Can you tell us about your other art forms?
I’d love to! I’ve been drawing ever since I was a child and usually have several sketchbooks in progress at any given time. In one (called “Lost & Found”), I draw small found objects like seeds, buttons, or leaves. Clouds and hills are also favorite subjects. I’ve done lots of collages, too, as well as paintings. A few years ago, I became hooked on embroidery—a medium I hadn’t touched since high school—after taking a class with Rebecca Ringquist at Squam Art Workshops. Now I do quite a lot of abstract embroidery and stitch at least a little every day.
Did you go to art school? Grow up in a creative family? Or are you self taught in your various creative pursuits?
I received my M.F.A. from the University of Chicago. As a knitter, I’m mostly self-taught, though I’ve taken classes on particular subjects here and there, such as finishing techniques, sock knitting, and crochet.
Yes, I did grow up in a creative family. Though my mother doesn’t knit, she sewed a lot when I was growing up, making clothes for herself and for me and my sisters. She’s an amazing problem solver, which is a big part of creativity. All of my three sisters have multiple creative pursuits: weaving, knitting, crochet, dyeing, spinning, felting, collage, jewelry making, punch needle embroidery, and rug hooking. I’m probably forgetting something! Though my brother, the youngest, isn’t involved in any fiber arts, he’s creative too—mainly woodworking, also photography.
How did you specifically come into knitting and designing garments?
I taught myself to knit in my twenties using The Sweater Workshop by Jacqueline Fee. You learn all the techniques you’ll need for a sweater by making this funny-looking sampler knit in the round. Then you can plan out your own raglan, based on your gauge and the measurements you want. It was a great way to learn to knit—very empowering—but that was years before I actually learned how to follow knitting patterns.
I got into knitwear design with accessories at first (no grading involved!), then later sweaters. Mostly I’ve learned by reading books by people like Shirley Paden, Barbara Walker, Maggie Righetti, Deborah Newton, Sally Melville, Ann Budd … as well as studying individual patterns by many other designers.
Did you start by making original designs for yourself before self-publishing your work? Or did you jump right in?
In the beginning, they were either for myself or gifts for others. One of my first published designs, a lace scarf, was originally a gift for my brother-in-law’s mother. I liked it well enough to publish the pattern. Things sort of snowballed from there.
How do you balance your time amongst the arts and how does one form influence the others?
Balance can be elusive, don’t you think?
Yes, I guess that was a bit of a trick question!
Oh, I think it’s a great question! Finding balance is a challenge everybody faces. Sometimes I achieve it and other times not so much. I think the key is to have reasonable expectations.
Some days I put my artwork on the back burner to focus on finishing up a new pattern. Other times, I need to back away from the knitting needles and spend more time on my embroidery or drawing projects—or else I start to feel “out of alignment” as an artist.
Knitting generally requires a lot of patience—not to mention ripping back and starting over. So I’d say it’s influenced my artwork by helping me to be less self-critical and more easygoing—to enjoy the process more and accept the ups and downs.
Those are pretty great lessons for any creative, and I agree, knitting helps teach them – whether we like it or not.
That’s so true. I was about to say, wouldn’t it be fantastic if we never had to rip back and could envision perfectly right from the start how all the parts of a design will work together? But on second thought, I wouldn’t want the creative process to be too easy—that would be boring. And I would miss that 4 AM insomnia where my mind keeps trying to solve a particular problem!
You live in a beautiful part of the world (the Pioneer Valley in Massachusetts) that’s inspired artists for centuries. How is that landscape important in your work?
I feel very lucky to live here! I’m surrounded by distant mountains and hills and there are so many woods, hiking trails, conservation areas, streams, and rivers. It’s really a nature lover’s paradise.
These seem like natural inspiration points for your new design in Wool People 8, the Sawmill River hats. Can you talk a little more about the process for how this design came about?
When I was swatching for Sawmill River, I really liked the look of the large cable motif. It reminded me of streams of water. But I felt something was missing, so I added similar but much smaller cables on each side. And then I felt everything clicked—the design had a visual and conceptual unity.
One thing I love about your work is how subtly original your stitch patterns and motif combinations are. At first glance, they don’t scream that they are unique, but as you look closer, you realize they aren’t often things we have seen before. Can you explain the importance of a stitch pattern in your design work, or describe the way you develop your own?
I have a fairly robust collection of stitch dictionaries, and whenever I look at them I can’t stop adding more Post-It notes. I love to swatch without any aim in mind—just for the sheer fun of seeing how a stitch pattern knits up and what kind of yarn it seems best suited to.
One thing I’ve come to learn is that stitch dictionaries are only a starting point.
Absolutely—I couldn’t agree more.
Often, modifications are needed to get the effect I want or to make two stitch patterns work well together. By altering a motif to make it wider or longer or shorter, or by adding some contrasting stitches or yarn overs, I can take it from just OK to just perfect.
Bonnie, this has been great. Thank you for joining me today and I wish you all the best in your continued creative endeavors!
I’ve really enjoyed chatting with you, Jared. It’s an honor to be part of Wool People 8.
Curious to read more about this design or get your hands on the pattern? Visit Sawmill River’s pattern page for details.
This has been the Part 3 of a 6-part Designer Conversations series with selected creatives from our new Wool People 8 collection. Stay tuned here for more; two interviews will be posted each week!