This month I’m introducing you to Karen Whooley, a crochet instructor, author, and designer.
These monthly features of other creative businesses are a way for all of us to get to know these wonderful businesses; it has been a long-time interest of mine to explore how other creative people make their way as professionals.
Introducing Karen Whooley
Karen, Welcome to Jill Wolcott Knits! You and I know each other from the Craftsy Instructor Summit in January 2016 and we are both part of Tara Swiger’s Starship. But there is never enough time to really find out about the paths we take, so let’s hear about yours.
Photo: My grandparents with me on the day of my wedding.
Q: Karen, I think there are always people who play an important role in creating what we are and how we do it. Who do you give that honor to?
A: I will be honest with you, the reason I am the designer and business owner I am today is because of my Nonna (Italian for grandmother).
In the 19 years of being a designer, I have never been one to follow others way or plan of doing anything. I can take inspiration from their success, but I learned early on that I cannot compare myself or do things because others are doing them that way. If I do – I get myself all worked up and second guess myself. I have learned that what works for someone else rarely works for me. So I have done what I can, whatever moves me, and I have always done it my way.
So to explain this further, I think I do need to explain about the woman I learned to crochet from.
My Nonna Meri was born in 1903 in San Francisco. Her father (and mother too) was an immigrant and he owned a business in the city. When the earthquake of 1906 hit, my great grandfather lost everything. He had no other choice than to return to Italy with his wife and three children.
So my Nonna from the age of 3, grew up in a small town in Tuscany just outside of Lucca where her father returned to start a whole new business. Nonna Meri did what most women of affluent families did, learn to keep house from her mother and grandmother, which included all of the handcrafts. Crochet was just one of the skills she learned. As a young woman in Italy, she crocheted for the home, she crocheted for the church (altar cloths), she crocheted lace for dresses and other clothing. She also sewed dresses for local women and even the theatre. So even back in the late 1910s and early 20s she was a female entrepreneur.
She met my grandfather while he was working for my great grandfather when they were 7. That is a whole other story that influenced my business too! She married my grandfather when she was 24. He had already talked to my great grandfather for his blessing, then wrote to her from California to ask her to marry him. She got on the boat and came back to San Francisco to her older brother’s home until she married my grandfather in 1929.
To make a very long story short, my grandfather used to flip houses with a friend in Oakland, CA before the Great Depression. When the depression hit my grandparents did what they could to make ends meet. No job was beneath them especially with two young daughters. My grandfather finally found a job toward the end of the Depression at a company in Oakland building fire trucks. He worked there until he retired in 1968 – the year after I was born. Because of this life, my Nonna always taught us that no job was to little or too great. Now I know that what she meant was that we do what we have to do to survive.
When Nonna taught me to crochet, I learned all of my stitches using a red, plastic size G crochet hook and the “lovely” acrylic yarns of the 1970s (I was 7 years old) and in one afternoon I learned all of my stitches. The next time I saw her – and for the next several years – all I did was learn Italian Lace – just like she did at her grandmother’s knee.
For a long time after I did not do lace as I knew it then (small steel hooks and Size 10 or smaller cotton thread) because I got so tired of it. If you look at my Ravelry designer page – you will see the influence of Italian lace throughout what I do, even when I thought I really wasn’t doing lace. Now as an experienced designer, I am going back to my roots. I am going through my stash of items from both sides of my family that are crocheted. (I’m 100% Italian with crocheters and knitters on both sides.) I am going back through the patterns from Italy that were gifted to me by my Nonna and becoming inspired to bring that gorgeousness back to the world, but making it more modern and fun. Nonna is in more ways than one my biggest inspiration.
Photo: Me and my Nonna when I was little.
What a wonderful story Karen. My grandmother influenced me too, but she was a sewer and fashion-lover. I always think of her describing fabrics. Her face would light up and off she’d go.
Q: So what makes you keep doing this? Most people learn something like crochet and don’t become designers of it!
A: When she taught me to crochet, Nonna told me that she had given me a skill and that I needed to do something with it.
My mom always tells me that meant to keep doing it and do good with it – like making items for our family and for charity (both of which I do all of the time!) But the fact that I created a business out of what she taught me, when I myself was a stay-at-home mom of two small children, at a time when money was tight, even though my husband had a really good job? That was even more of my Nonna’s influence than she even knew she was giving me. I have a passion for crochet because of what she taught me. That helped it to grow into something that not only inspires me, but I has put a fire into my own heart to inspire others as well.
I do not think that from the moment Nonna put a hook in my hand, I have ever stopped crocheting. I was teased as a child, begged in college to make snowflakes to decorate our dorm floor, and in my early adult years I made stuff for friends and family all of the time.
Because Nonna didn’t speak much English and could not read an American pattern, I learned to create word-of-mouth and from pictures. So the need to make my own stuff up, from dressing my stuffed animals, to learning to read patterns on my own, to making that afghan or that sweater, was what kept me going as a crocheter. But the love of the craft and the need to make something with my hands is what drives me now as a designer.
My designs are what I like to call simple, elegant and adventurous.
I like to keep things simple. I am all about having as few ends to weave in as possible, simple construction and clear, understandable instructions.
What I learned from Nonna is elegance. With all that lace and tiny thread, how could it not be? But that doesn’t mean that you have to work tirelessly on something to get it just right! I love to take the yarns of today and use the techniques of yesterday to give that elegance a modern twist.
And adventure. I always want you to learn something from my patterns. Whether it is to learn to make socks, or just a specific technique in one of my classes, I want you to expand your horizons, have an “ah-ha” moment!
That is truly my passion. I cannot stop creating because I cannot stop sharing.
Photo: Karen Whooley’s original self-published crochet patterns, the Simply Series
Q: Is there a place that inspires or impacts you.
A: So when thinking about the where of my business and and design work, I have to talk about what I envisioned my business to be and where I am at now,
I sold my very first designs to Annie’s Attic in 1998. It was a set of 3 flower dishcloths. I submitted after I became friends with one of my all-time favorite designers, Terry Kimbrough over the internet. She saw my work and encouraged me. She had been a designer for a very long time and she and I had chatted at length about the industry (remember this is in the mid-1990s) and she told me then that self-publishing was the way to go. She could see the writing on the wall then. I had started self publishing back then when I had single designs I didn’t sell to magazines. Some people might remember my original business name, Crochet Legacy.
My dream was to start my own book company! Yes, back in 2002-2003 I actually published 3 leafle-style books of my own, which I called the Simply Series. They sold really, really well! I had them printed at a local printer and they were the same size as the leaflets you see in Michael’s and the other big-box stores. But then I got side tracked.
From 2004 though about 2013 I focused my efforts on designing for magazines, leaflet companies, and compilation books. In 2012, I did self publish another book, Crochet Rocks Socks, and that book was a bestseller on Amazon for a while. My dream of self publishing was back!
I also wanted to take an item off of my business bucket list. I wanted to have a full length book published. Something along the lines of a Margaret Hubert or a Melissa Leapman type of book. My best friend is an attorney and reads all of my contracts. She convinced me after reading over the contracts that I needed to do it myself. I would not only make more money per book, but I would have complete creative control over what it is that I am doing. Which was exactly what I needed to hear to get things started.
So finally, in April of 2016 I started working on my first book in five years, that I was doing for me. In September 2016, I announced that Occhi Blu Press – a name for my book imprint that goes back to my grandfather and my Italian roots – was born. On March 1, 2017 my book A Garden of Shawls went on pre-order.
As I am writing this post, I am not quite three-quarters of the way into the pre-order period, and the reception of the book is beyond my wildest expectations. I did a book with my own ideas, on my own terms and creative outlook, in my own time frame, and with my own budget. Amazingly – the public loves it so far. Because of what I am hearing now – I have the next book and maybe even a third in sketching phase right now!
Photo: “Ecliptic” and “Solar” are two shawls from Karen Whooley’s upcoming book A Garden of Shawls (now available for pre-order).
Q: So what is going on now? What should we know about Karen Whooley Designs?
A: I have lots going on. The biggest and most important thing happening is that on April 4th, 2017 A Garden of Shawls will be available officially! All of the big book companies will have it, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, iBooks, … just to name a few. You can also buy signed copies from me directly at https://www.karenwhooley.com/AGardenOfShawls or on Ravelry as a PDF as well.
I am releasing two single patterns a month. Every 2nd and 4th Tuesday of the month I release them! If you aren’t a part of my newsletter – you may want to join me just to get the discounts!
I am doing special collaborations with yarn companies as I have time and the project works with what I want my aesthetic to be. In the Fall I have a project that will be released with an indie yarn company. She raises angora rabbits and has the fiber milled with merino and silk to make a fantastic yarn that she dyes herself! We are cooking up a fun project – that I cannot say much more about at the moment.
I will still do a piece for a book or a magazine company from time to time too, so you may see me in them. But most of all I am following my inspiration, hoping that I can inspire you too!
Find and Follow Karen Whooley
And be sure to check out her book A Garden of Shawls – available everywhere April 4th, 2017.
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