Interview series 6 – Kate Atherley

Interview series 6 – Kate Atherley

In 2017 we ran a survey of Stitchmastery users and one response particularly caught our imagination – someone told us they would like to hear from other Stitchmastery users and how they make use of the software. We’re delighted to bring you a series of interviews with designers, tech editors, magazine editors and teachers – we hope you enjoy reading them!

Interviewee – KATE ATHERLEY

1) Could you give us a potted history of your knitting, designing, tech editing and teaching background? How did these all come together?

“The story is that I have always been a knitter – my granny taught me how to knit. In high school I didn’t do any knitting but I did a lot of sewing and used to make lots of my own clothes. For reasons that are silly I completely dropped it and studied mathematics at uni. I did an undergraduate degree in pure mathematics which is the least practical thing I can think of and I worked in the technology industry for a number of years. As soon as I finished uni though, I had time on my hands and I happened to be living close to the largest yarn shop in Canada at the time. My course was very intensive and I didn’t have a lot of time on my hands, but afterwards I started looking for things to do. I wandered in on a Sunday and thought “oh! I know how to knit…” and never really looked back. I picked it back up with a scarf and went from there. I remembered that the family-lore was that my Gran was a big sock-knitter so I thought I should try socks. This particular shop has a big wall of what I call “engineered” sock wool – so Regia, Opal, Lang – and they are all perfect balls, lined up on the wall, feet and feet of them, all so tempting, wild and random! So I started buying those sock yarns and never looked back.

At first I was just knitting at home, sort of a secret knitter. I remember once I was given tickets for a baseball game and I found it mind-crushingly boring. I was trying to assimilate the Canadian lifestyle and thought I should learn a bit about the culture, but unlike cricket there’s no cream tea! I had my knitting with me but was hiding it away in case people thought I was strange! But eventually I started knitting on my commute and one day I rushed into work for a conference call and just left my knitting on my desk. A colleague came into my office later and said “Ooh! You’re a knitter!” and at first I tried to hide it away, but he said “my girlfriend’s a knitter” – and the fateful phrase – “she’s thinking of opening a yarn shop!” So he introduced us by email and we got together for coffee, and – have you ever in life found yourself saying something that you didn’t know you wanted to say? I said “ooh I’d love to teach!” – and I have no idea where those words came from! So I started teaching classes at this new yarn shop and quite literally that kicked the whole thing off. I started teaching classes, designing with the yarns in the shop – it was when I first met Noro yarns and indie-dyed yarns and really fell in love. This was in around 2001.

Then I got connected with a yarn company in Toronto and started designing for them – at first they asked me to translate some Italian and German patterns to the North American standards, which at the time I had no idea what I was taking on as it involved grading, editing, taking traditional European patterns which essentially say “Here’s a jumper in one size. Have fun!” Later I met Amy from Knitty as she went to one of the same knit-nights in another shop in Toronto. I started tech editing for socks as I’ve always been a sock knitter, but as I started knitting more things I started editing more things. And slowly I grew the whole lot – tech editing, writing books, teaching classes, designing.

I think the thing that makes me who I am – which sounds terribly pompous – is that I do all those things. I think I’m a better designer and editor because I teach classes. I think the most powerful class was one that I taught for seven or eight years, which was the Project Class. Really it was just a guided workshop in that people would come working on whatever they were working on, and I would just have to be the floating expert and help them with whatever they were working on. So I wasn’t directing the class. Occasionally I would take the opportunity to give a lecture about something, but mostly it was the knitters just asking me specific questions about the project. Through this, I got very familiar with what patterns did, said and asked, and very familiar with what knitters did and wanted, and what were stumbling blocks for them. I love teaching and would never want to give it up, because I think it’s an important way of staying in touch with the realities of knitting and knitters. And that feeds what I do as a technical editor, because I can say to someone “I think that you need to expand this because that’s a question that comes up a lot”. I can say “I think we need to give more detail here”, or “this might be a point of confusion”.

The three pieces go together – there are designers out there who do much more creative, beautiful, gorgeous, designerly work than me, but my work is not competing with them. I see myself as someone who is designing things to help people get ready for those designs – not that they are hard – but designs that help them build the skills and confidence to be ready to take on these other projects. My designs are motivated by learning – I hope they are not boring teaching projects, but I hope that they teach skills and help people build a better understanding of what knitting is. I just released a sock pattern about the princess sole, which specifically addresses why people are interested in that. The pattern can be worked and worn either way round – purl side in or out – and in the pattern I talk about reinforcements and how they can go either way. That’s the sort of thing that I do. It’s not the coolest or sexiest sock pattern you’ll ever see but I hope it teaches things and it’s a good solid everyday design. I want to help people get better at what they do, I see my role as being to help the knitter to be successful.”

2) Do you have any recurring sources of inspiration or unusual muses?
“Often my sources of inspiration are questions that people ask me! At the moment I am playing around with asymmetrical shawl shaping, I’m developing a class on shawl customisation, or design-with-a-lowercase-D. It’s not for designers but for knitters who like a design but would prefer it wider, or don’t like triangles – that kind of thing. I’ve been asked things like “why do the increases have to be here? What happens if I move them?” and “Why does it always have to have a garter stitch edging, why not stocking stitch?”. I’m working on a shawl prototype with a triangle with different rates of increase on either side of the spine, just to see what it looks like and how it wraps, and with a stocking stitch edge to look like an i-cord but give more stretch. I’m playing with all these things prompted from questions from classes. It’s a challenge.”


– HR – “and that’s quite fun, because you never know what you’re going to get asked in a class. Which rabbit hole will you end down next!”
– KA – “many of them make sense!”
– HR – “and I’m sure some of them don’t lend themselves to a helpful idea or easy answer –” 

– KA – “but some of those are interesting too, because for me it’s the unknown unknowns problem – people don’t necessarily know or understand what they are asking. A knitter was asking recently if there was a way to take a heavily patterned garment and for the designer to create a beginner version by just simplifying the pattern stitches. From a beginner perspective, that’s a perfectly reasonable question – “can you make a simpler version with maybe one cable instead of all over cables?” – but of course a new knitter has no understanding of the complexity of that, because the fabric is different and the way it behaves, and the tension is different. It’s probably one of the more massively complicated things you could do, to convert a heavily patterned garment to a plain garment. Although that’s not necessarily a design muse for me, it certainly becomes an educational muse and that ends up becoming a topic for a class or an article. The most “pre-contextual” questions – we all have those beginner questions when we just don’t have the experience to understand the full picture – those questions often become teaching prompts rather design prompts.”

3) When you have a design idea, do you always work to a set workflow (eg swatch-knit-chart / chart first then knit) or does your approach change with each design? Similarly, with tech editing, do you have a set workflow or does that vary from client to client?
“Hmm interesting! When I’m designing, I try to do a fair bit of the thinking and planning up front, because frankly it’s quicker. The knitting is slower so I try to plan as much as possible in advance. The first thing I tend to do is to go to a stitch dictionary first, and it all gets charted in Stitchmastery even if it’s charted in the book, because I want to be able to play with it and modify it, and be able to see multiple repeats placed together. I’m always playing with stitch patterns – “what if we put in an extra purl column there?”, “what if we change the repeat size?” – and so I do a lot of sketching in Stitchmastery. Any folder I have for a design has multiple versions of charts in the beginning stages. Of course you swatch and then knit and then change it all!

With technical editing for me, it begins and ends with Excel, I check everything there. I use formulas to reduce the amount of manual arithmetic needed! But I also use Stitchmastery to check things too – sometimes if a design doesn’t need a chart, I might still chart it up to see how the stitches are going to align, how the increases or decreases work with a lace design, and how the fabric will behave.”

4) What made you choose to use Stitchmastery? Is there a particular feature you use most regularly or couldn’t do without? And is there anything you wish Stitchmastery could do?
“It is honestly the best thing I’ve encountered. When we evaluated it for Knitty, the existing software hadn’t really been maintained and wasn’t particularly sophisticated. Up until I really got to know Stitchmastery, I was really happier charting in Excel as it gave me more flexibility. Stitchmastery is immensely powerful – when I realised it could check to see if I had the right number of increases and decreases, I fell off my chair! My life had been made! I don’t know if that’s my single favourite feature but I’ve got to say it’s up there. It’s not just about the sketch of seeing how the pattern stitch aligns, it’s a meaningful tool to help me check the chart, whether it’s my design or a tech editing client’s, saving me having to count everything. I’d say that’s my favourite sophisticated feature. As for anything I wish it did… I don’t know how you would make this happen, but I would love more control over the border lines when I’m copying things. There’s probably stuff I don’t know how to do yet – it’s so powerful. What’s stonkingly obvious to one person is not for the next.

I love love love that you can edit the key and stitch names and descriptions – that’s crucial!”

5) Please tell us about your latest publication or next exciting project!
“I have a couple of things cooking that I’m not quite ready to announce. Let’s just say that I’m continuing to work on the concept I have with the sock and mitten book, which is create your own thing, based on your own tension and yarn choices – not garments, Amy Herzog has that covered and it’s amazing – but looking at other accessories and things that you can custom-size.”

You can find out more about Kate’s work at http://kateatherley.com/ and find her on Instagram as @kateatherleyknits. Two of her recent books are pictured below – The Knitter’s Dictionary and The Beginners Guide to Writing Knitting Patterns.

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