Today I’m talking shop with New York City-based designer Melissa Wehrle as we continue our Designer Conversations series with creatives from the Wool People 8 collection. Read on for more! –Jared
Hi Melissa—thanks for popping by today for a quick chat. It’s great to have you.
Hi Jared! It’s a pleasure to be here.
You came to knitting with a background in fashion, and now you have a foot in both worlds, designing sweaters for commercial manufacture as well as for handknitting. Can you tell us how the design experience is different? What do you like about each industry?
Well, on the commercial side, designing is a lot less hands-on and moves a lot quicker than in the hand knitting world. We begin for each market by gathering together inspiration, yarns, and information about trends. Once our themes are set, we begin sketching. Once we get down enough bodies on paper, we meet as a team to narrow down the designs that work best for our customer. Once the designs are organized, we sketch them up in Illustrator, put together detailed tech packs (includes measurements and how each piece is made) and send everything over to a factory in China. It usually takes about 3-6 weeks to receive our prototype samples back here in New York. If the design happens to be for a large order, we can expect sample turnaround to be about one week. The samples are then organized in the showroom and shown to our store buyers during market week. There are 10 markets per year and we show anywhere from 50-100 new styles each market.
Wow, that’s some crazy output! Definitely a different pace and style from our handknitting industry, eh?
Yes! The amount of sweaters we can bring to market each month is staggering. I certainly appreciate the slow aspect of the hand knitting world! Even though it’s nice to be able to produce every good idea that pops into my head without having to prioritize due to time constraints, it’s hard to feel passionate about what you’re producing sometimes. Hand knitting gives me the time and space to reconnect with making. I don’t have to worry about how long it will take to knit, how much the yarn costs or if adding a particular stitch will make the cost soar. (Deadlines, however, are a different story!)
That touches on something I think about a lot—how handknitting (and home sewing, by the same token) is such a dramatic departure from the “fast fashion” of our consumer culture. I think once you slow down and start making garments with care, you really start to see some of the benefits of creating your own wardrobe pieces. And also, being more invested and passionate about them as a result.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot as well. I embarked on a little experiment in which I was not allowed to purchase new clothing for one year. (The irony isn’t lost on me, since people buying clothing is what allows me to keep my job and pay the bills!) If I wanted a new piece of clothing, it was up to me to knit or sew it. Taking the time to make my own garments for an entire year really forced me to sit down and analyze my style and plan my projects carefully. Having a solid plan has not only kept me on track, but has provided me with some great original pieces that I feel proud to wear. Now that I’m coming to the end of the year, I feel it’s been a great success. Not once have I said, “I have nothing to wear.” Feeling more connected to what I wear everyday has made a huge difference in my world.
How do you decide which ideas to develop for handknitters and which to channel toward your fashion work?
I have a loose set of requirements that help me sort designs into each place. For fashion, it’s a little easier since, sad to say, it’s a throw away culture in the Junior world. The design has to be cost effective, work with our limited range of affordable yarns, and be on trend for our customer. Longevity is not a concern. For handknits, I ask myself two questions: will the styling hold up over multiple years and is it interesting to knit?
Yes! That’s one of my favorite parts about designing for handknitting too—you are designing an experience that an individual will have, and you must think about how intuitive and enjoyable that process can or should be for the knitter.
Tell us a little bit about your process for designing Eaves for Wool People 8. At first glance it looks like a basic striped pullover with a really comfortable silhouette, but it has some clever details that I just love.
Typically, I begin each design with a simple silhouette which acts as my canvas. I then look for interesting details, textures, or colors to bring it to life which will make the piece interesting for me (and hopefully others) to knit. When I was designing Eaves, I was particularly interested in shoulder details and thin stripes. I experimented with a few shoulder yoke treatments, the first being some sort of crazy textured nonsense that would not have been very flattering at all to wear! Once that was out of my system, I let the stripes and short rows do all the talking for a simple, but much more pleasing effect. In this case, the short rows do double duty. In addition to adding an interesting design element, they also help shape the curve of the front armhole.
The design is also a mixed-gauge garment—you use both Shelter and Loft to create the piece. Can you explain more about that to our readers, since this is a wonderful detail that isn’t conveyed as easily in photo as it is when you feel the garment in hand?
The mixed yarns were a part of Eaves from the very beginning. I love the fact that Shelter and Loft come in the same color range which open up a world of possibilities! I kept my enthusiasm to a minimum here using Shelter only for the ribbed trims. I love the look of thick ribbing in contrast with the lighter gauge body, which is understated and unexpected.
It adds a nice weight and finish to the trims, which I think is a very classy detail.
Your 2013 book Metropolitan Knits was a whole collection of garments inspired by New York City. May I ask what’s inspiring you now?
Right now, I’m in a bit of a learning cycle while I refill the creative well. Whenever I feel a little tired creatively, learning about something new helps me get going again. Mainly, I’ve been sewing a lot and studying Couture techniques that I never learned in school. I find them so interesting! While putting together Metropolitan Knits was a great experience, putting my entire heart and soul into the project resulted in a bit of burn out.
I think most working creatives have all been there at some point or another!
Taking up sewing again was a nice change. I’ve also been supplementing my fiber education. I’ve recently taken up spinning, brought on by the purchase of my first fleece at Rhinebeck this year. Learning about the preparation of fiber and how different yarns are made is fascinating! Even though I’m not putting out the same amount of designs I have in the past, I’m sure this little educational break will lead me to something new and exciting!
It sounds like you’re definitely keeping yourself on your toes—I look forward to seeing how your new explorations will inform your design work. Thanks so much for coming on the blog today, Melissa – it’s been great!
Thanks so much for having me Jared!
Curious to read more about this design or get your hands on the pattern? Visit Eaves’ 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!