Maker Spotlight: Knit Bug Val

Valérie Miller of Knit Bug is a French Canadian knitwear designer who has been on my radar since I first stumbled across one of her knitting patterns many months ago. She creates exquisite and unique designs and captures them beautifully with her top-notch photography skills! I also admire Val for her generosity – many of  her beautiful patterns are free (such as the Fileuse and the Battersea, two of my favourites!) and she encourages knitters to donate what they would spend on the pattern to a homeless shelter or food bank instead.

Val’s quirkiness and love of fibre shine through in this interview – enjoy!

Tell us the story of how you first learned to knit.

I think my story is a common one. My paternal grandmother taught me how to cast on and work the knit stitch when I was 7 or 8 years old. In the time between our visits I would always manage forget how to do either skill, and she patiently went through the motions with me every few weeks. She kept her yarn and needles in an ottoman which I knew not to touch without her consent so I was always impatient for the family meal to be over so that I could pull out my needles and crooked scarf! I don’t remember ever finishing one, just starting many!

I must have lost interest for some time because I didn’t pick up the needles again until the year 2000 when I decided to knit a garter stitch scarf for my boyfriend. It was going well until the very end when I realized I still didn’t know how to cast off – I’d never finished any of those childhood scarves! I fudged it with some made-up decreases and it just looks so ridiculous. That’s why I’m so amazed when I see hats or mitts or even sweaters as people’s first-ever-projects. I mean, it pretty much took me 10 years to graduate from the garter stitch rectangle!

Northumberland Shawl by Valérie Miller

What are your favorite hobbies when you’re not knitting?

I love to process fiber for spinning. I think there are very few things as beautiful as a fine and crimpy freshly shorn sheep’s fleece and combing wool feels so meditative! I love to add subtle color with the help of a hackle or blending board. Even better is enjoying processing and spinning fiber in the company of friends. I’ve just come back from the Ontario Handspinners Seminar and I’m still floating! Basically, I’m painfully shy and introverted 362 days a year. The other 3 I’m goofing off at the Seminar 🙂

I have a 24” rigid-heddle loom on which I’ve woven scarves, shawls and a table runner. I’d love a linen stole so for late summer so I’ll probably start warping for that soon. I also like to sew and embroider small projects for some instant gratification.

Outside of crafts I love to swim. I even like the smell of chlorine. If I ever won the lottery my one extravagance would be to build my very own indoor swimming pool!

Are you a yarn hoarder?

Oh yes. Yarn and fleece both! I use a food vacuum sealer to keep it contained in my tiny home office, otherwise it would likely take over the house.

How do you balance your full-time job with knitwear design? What would be your advice for other knitwear designers who also hold down full-time jobs?

My work commute is bananas. I spend hours on a train or a bus every day, so when I’m working on a design I try to use the commuting time as effectively as possible – otherwise I’ll just snooze though it! I’ll write the pattern out line-by-line in Google Keep or Google Docs on my phone so that I can access it from my desktop computer later in the evening. I carry a binder-type planner with me, it’s stocked with plenty of graph paper for charting out stitch patterns. I get home rather late in the evening so if I need that time to work on designing I’ll often cook dinner the night before so that I’m not having to start from scratch when I get home. I also have to mention that I’ve been working with the same wonderful tech editor since early last year and that’s been a huge time-saver.

My top 3 pieces of advice to other knitwear designers feeling short for time would be :

  1. Get comfortable meal-planning in order to free up a few evenings a week.

  2. Pace yourself. Repetitive stress injury is worse than missing a deadline.

  3. When a creative idea strikes, write it down as soon as physically possible. I often think “oh, I’ll for sure remember this later”, but really the only thing I end up remembering is that I’d had a fun design idea that’s since flown away! It takes only a few seconds to open a text application and save that precious information.

Cadboro Mitts by Valérie Miller

What do you struggle with most as a knitwear designer?

Creating accurate and easy to read charts. Because I almost always design as I go, I tend to write everything out line by line. It isn’t efficient, and I find translating those instructions into charts to be challenging. Having my tech editor check over my charts brings me so much peace of mind!

I also struggle with translating my patterns into my mother tongue. French is my first language, I learned to read and write English in grade 4. And yet ask me to read or write a French knitting pattern and I’ll be pulling my hair out in minutes. I feel like maybe the abbreviations aren’t as intuitive? It’s a shame, because I’d like to offer all of my patterns in at least two languages right at the time of publication.

Finally – and I can’t be alone in this – I often struggle with self-doubt. I never really set out to be a designer but rather consider myself spinning knitter who writes down ideas once in a while. I’ve never been stellar in maths so while I can handle size grading for simple sweater shapes, I avoid anything that will be a challenge to size up or down. I have so much respect and admiration for designers who use interesting geometry in sweater design and then offer those patterns in a wide range of sizes. Norah Gaughan’s sweaters just blow my mind.

Do you have any favorite knitting techniques (i.e. cables, fair isle, brioche, etc.)? Are there any techniques that are on your bucket list to learn?

I knit to unwind, so I prefer the techniques I can work without having to look down at my knitting very often. Simple textures are my favourite. I love garter stitch and little nupps and knots. Gansey patterns consisting of knits and purls. I also love the flow of two-handed stranded knitting and I dream of taking the time to rewrite Fileuse to include some traditional fair-isle motifs.

What about fibres? Do you have preference for wool, alpaca, worsted, fingering … ?

I love fine wools and baby alpaca. We’re so lucky in southwestern Ontario because it’s incredibly easy to obtain locally grown and milled fibre. There are no less than a dozen alpaca farms in a 3-hour radius from my home, and my friend Grace in Campbellford shepherds beautiful Corriedale and Romney sheep that have won her top awards at the Royal Canadian Fair. I just love that there are fleeces in my closet that belonged to sheep I’ve met! It’s easy to see how my fibre stash has grown to its current size…

I haven’t had much luck getting comfortable with knitting cellulose fibres, inelasticity make my hands ache quite a bit . I tend to save those for the loom. My only true enemy is mohair. It feels prickly against my skin no matter how soft it feels in the skein. Even Kid Silk Haze feels a bit prickly against my neck. It’s such a bummer because I just love mohair’s halo! For grists, I love the versatility of sport and DK weights.

What do you enjoy doing the most while you knit?

I’ve recently carved out a little knitting nook in my home office and it brings me so much joy. I only really have the time to sit there on weekends, but that makes it even more special. I love to put on some music or a cozy mystery audiobook and if my knitting is pretty simple, I can read, too. I also really enjoy lighting a candle… so much so that I’ve looked into candle making a bit. Like I need another hobby!

Do you have any advice for knitwear designers trying to break into the field?

I’m so, so far from being a wise and experienced designer, so my tips will seem obvious to most. But for what it’s worth:

  • First impressions count and your photographs can have a great impact on how your pattern is received and recalled. So take your time with the photography. It’s always worth waiting for abundant natural light! If you have a DSLR, learn how to take advantage of all of its features and make sure you understand the relationship between aperture, shutter speed and iso.

  • Take the time to chart a written pattern, and to write out a charted pattern. A knitter’s preference for one format over the other can determine whether they will choose or skip your pattern.

  • There are groups on Ravelry filled with knitters willing to translate patterns into other languages. It’s such a simple way to widen an audience. I wish I’d known of this sooner.

  • Keep your samples when possible. Since I often knit for gifts, many of my design samples were knit for specific recipients. Great for them, but highly inconvenient if you’re asked to present a trunk show… I learned that one the hard way!

    Fileuse sweater pattern by Valérie Miller

What’s next? Any exciting upcoming projects, collaborations, etc. that you’d like to share with us?

A few weeks ago a yarn company contacted me through their publisher to request a pattern design for their next booklet. I’ve finished knitting the first sample and I love it… so it’s pretty much killing me to keep the photos to myself! Turns out I’m a show-off at heart because I don’t like Secret Knitting at all. I’m totally that person who blurts out a birthday surprise too early. So I should probably stop here, haha!

Thank you so much for sharing with us the insight into your day-to-day routine, advice to fellow knitwear designers and lovely photos, Val!

If you’re interested in viewing more of Val’s patterns, please check out her Ravelry page here. Bonus: Val is offering 25% off of all of her patterns for the month of July! Just use the code ‘woolyventures‘ when you purchase one of her patterns on Ravelry.

You can admire more of Val’s beautiful pictures on her Instagram account  @knitbugval.

All photos are courtesy of Valérie Miller.