John Seelmeyer

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June 18, 2012
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Reno-area designers knit together a pattern of success


In the world of knitwear designers the niche of folks who create the patterns sold to home knitters Diane Soucy is a rock star.

Fans seek her out at national knitting events, her distributor shipped 100,000 copies of patterns to about 1,000 retail locations last year, and her Knitting Pure & Simple is seeing solid growth in online downloads of knitting patterns.

While the Truckee knitwear designer is the biggest name among designers in the region, the Reno-Tahoe area is home to a surprising number of people who are making a living, or a least part of a living, by creating patterns for other knitters to follow.

And the growth of Jimmy Beans Wool, a Reno company that's a dominant force in the online distribution of yarn, needles, patterns and kits for knitters, appears to be spurring growth of more small knitwear design firms in the region.

In some instances, the link between Jimmy Beans and the design profession is very direct.

A book published a few weeks ago by Jimmy Beans co-founder Laura Zander, "Knit Red," features several designs by Reno-Tahoe designers. The designs, all in red, are accompanied by heart-health information.

One of the designers featured in the book, Kristen Ashbaugh, a 31-year-old who has been knitting since she was 8, produces one knitwear design a month as the house designer for Jimmy Beans. The pattern is distributed in the company's free newsletter. In her spare time, Ashbaugh also creates designs for publication in knitting magazines.

Ashbaugh wants to use the experience with Jimmy Beans as a platform to build her reputation among knitters, who often develop a strong loyalty to an individual designer.

"For me, this is a great opportunity to get my work out there," she says. "This is what I want to do when I grow up."

Jeanne Giles, whose Battle Born Knits in Reno specializes in patterns for accessories such as shawls, scarves and hats, is finding a niche within the already tight niche of knitwear designers.

"I'm an obsessive sock knitter," Giles laughs.

She sells patterns for loungers made of worsted-weight yarn and complicated-looking bubble socks and socks whose surface looks like the scales of a fish.

Many of her patterns reflect her training and early interest as a watercolorist, an artistic path she followed before she became a serious knitter eight years ago.

So far, Battle Born Knits patterns are little more than a nice part-time income for Giles, but she works hard to build the relationships that will create a loyal following.

She personally answers all the e-mails that come to her company's site from knitters. She helps them work through their problems, sometimes setting a phone call to do some coaching.

"If I kept track of my hours, I probably wouldn't do it," she says. "It's more about education than making money."

Soucy's career serves as an inspiration.

She was working in a variety store in Truckee that sold yarn when she began developing simple patterns for knitters.

Soucy began self-publishing the designs in the late 1990s and was scratching out a living between her own sales and whatever deals she could strike with knitting magazines.

A distribution deal with Bryson Distributing, an Oregon company that caters to independent retail yarn shops, provided a major break for Soucy.

Today, the pattern cards sell for $5.50 at retailers across the United States and Canada. Downloads from knittingpureandsimple.com are $7, and Soucy maintains the price difference in an effort to encourage knitters to visit retailers.

She's found success with her trademark technique: Garments that are knitted as a single piece. Unlike other patterns that call for knitters to sew individual pieces together, Soucy's creations are knitted from the top down as a whole.

The first pattern to use that pattern, a sweatshirt-styled sweater, still is selling. A pattern for a poncho for little girls once was selling 1,000 copies a week through Soucy's distributor.

Creating 10 or 12 patterns a year for well over a decade, Soucy's catalog today contains patterns for dozens of garments, accessories and specialized items such as Christmas decor. (Members of Soucy's family, including grandchildren, serve as models for many of the photographs that accompany the patterns.)

Her work isn't fashion forward. Instead, she looks at the clothing that people are wearing at the mall or on television and fits her work snugly into prevailing fashion.

"I really like Diane Soucy's patterns," says one of more than 600 knitters who praise her work on Ravelry.com, a site for knitting hobbyists. "They're really easy to follow and they're accurate!"

The process of creating an accurate pattern for knitters to follow is the same for a successful veteran or a knitter making her first stab at the process.

Ashbaugh, for instance, knits a garment doing it, then re-doing it to get it right. Along the way, she is taking notes that will translate into instructions.

"That's the easy part," she says.

More challenging? All the math.

Ashbaugh explains that the number of knitted stitches needed to create a garment depends on the type of yarn, the gauge of the needles and the weave of the final product. Is it loosely woven? Tight?

Then there's the matter of changing the proportions of a garment to meet the demands of different sizes.

"Everything has to change as you go along," she says. "It's a lot of math."

Once the design, pattern and instructions are complete, designers send the work out to a test-knitter, sometimes several of them, to work up the product in real life. The test-knitters note any problems in the instructions or the final product.

Even a veteran knitter and designer such as Soucy isn't perfect all the time.

"I have lots of discarded sweaters in the house," she says.


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Northern Nevada Business Weekly Updated Jun 18, 2012 12:00AM Published Jun 18, 2012 12:00AM Copyright 2012 Northern Nevada Business Weekly. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.