This month I’m talking to Sue McCain, the designer behind Vermont Fiber Designs, Sue’s original knitwear line and Basix, which focuses exclusively on patterns that are top-down set-in-sleeve sweaters are worked in Stockinette stitch.
These monthly features of other creative businesses are a way for all of us to get to know these wonderful makers; it has been a long-time interest of mine to explore how other creative people make their way as professionals.
I’ve known Sue McCain as a design colleague for years. She and I have similarly inquiring minds so I always look forward to her asking questions on the tech editor list or elsewhere. This is the first time I’ve talked to her in-depth about her businesses.
Welcome Sue McCain!
Q: I’m always curious about who has been instrumental in each creative person’s finding their path. Who do you credit with help or mentoring?
A: For most of my working life, I worked at a series of temporary administrative jobs that gave me no sense of joy or satisfaction whatsoever; I was bored and miserable. My only enjoyment at work was when I could knit on my lunch hour.
Determined to find work that I could get excited about, I started talking to a career coach and reading career development books. The one thing that sparked my interest was the idea of designing knitting patterns. But who does that, right? I didn’t think at the time that I could create a life out of designing, but I certainly felt that it was worth pursuing the idea of working in the yarn industry.
On the advice of my coach, I contacted a few local yarn companies for an informational interview. One of them was Classic Elite Yarns, who was hiring at the time – and they hired me in customer service. While I worked for them, I got very involved in the development of their pattern collections, and I learned a ton about the ins and outs of pattern writing and grading. I also met Dee Neer (who became my first technical editor) and Jan Chappelle (a sales rep for Classic Elite Yarns who later became my first pattern distributor).
After moving from Massachusetts to Vermont, I did some freelance designing for Classic Elite Yarns and eventually started my own pattern line – Vermont Fiber Designs. While getting my patterns up and running, Dee, my tech editor, recommended that I contact two of her clients who were looking for additional technical editing help, and just like that I became a knitting technical editor, which I still do to this day.
Through tech editing, I’ve been privileged to work with some great publishers, magazines, and yarn companies, and with amazing and inspiring designers, including Norah Gaughan, Veronik Avery, Amy Herzog, and Wendy Bernard, all of whom have taught me a lot about designing.
I was so taken with Wendy’s top-down sweater patterns from her Custom Knits series that I decided to launch my Basix pattern line. While my Vermont Fiber Designs patterns allow me to work on whatever appeals to me in the moment in terms of shape, function, and stitch pattern, my Basix patterns (which are always seamless top-down set-in-sleeve sweaters, worked only in Stockinette stitch except for the trim) require me to channel my creativity within the top-down structure of the sweater, which I find fascinating.
We do have the best job, don’t we! The designing part is always so engaging, but even the technical parts keep me on my toes.
Q: What engages you and keeps your process fresh?
A: After 15 years of designing, I’m still completely engaged with knitting and pattern development. I love browsing through knitting stitch dictionaries (I’ve got somewhere around 40!) to see what calls to me. I love swatching and waiting to see what a particular stitch pattern will look like in the yarn I’ve chosen. And I love to figure out how to make it work for sizes ranging from XXS to 6X.
From the first pattern I published on my own, I decided that I would include a large size range, far beyond what I saw anyone else publishing. As a tall (and formerly plus-size) knitter, it didn’t make any sense to me to offer only 3 or 4 sizes. Some knitters are able to perform all of the calculations that are needed to convert a size large pattern to fit their size 3X body, but most can’t. I wanted to offer classic sweater patterns that any size knitter could knit.
That is an impressive number of sizes! I love seeing how each designer creates their own signature viewpoint using the same stitch patterns and techniques.
Q: Where do you do you do what you do?
A: When I first started my business, I lived right along the edge of Vermont’s Green Mountain National Forest. Vermont is a gorgeous place, and there was a lot that I enjoyed about living there, but after 10 years of cold and snow, I decided it was time to head for a warmer climate.
I now live in the Sandhills region of North Carolina, right in the heart of horse country. Since horses rank right up there with knitting for me, it’s a great place to live. I regularly take time to horseback ride through the thousands of acres of horse farms and trails just outside my door. Being out in the woods in God’s creation (whether on foot or on horseback) feeds my soul and helps me to relax and breathe, so that I come back refreshed and ready to create again.
My faithful Standard Poodle, Rory, keeps me company every day. He makes me laugh with his silliness, and reminds me to take breaks during the day. Sometimes his cousins, Sophie and Grace, spend the day with us, patrolling the front windows to make sure no killer squirrels sneak up on us.
That is a gorgeous place! Nice to know you are safe from squirrels. We have no such security so enjoy watching them on their daily appointed rounds.
Q: What is coming up for Vermont Fiber Designs or Basix?
A: I’ve got 9 designs in one stage or another of production. One is nearly ready to be blocked, two are on the needles, and another two are waiting to be knit up. The others are swatched and ready for me to order yarn and write up the patterns for sample knitting.
Every time I browse through a stitch pattern book or get a new yarn to swatch with, I get ideas for new designs. Some fall into place easily, some need a bit of massaging before they turn into something worth producing, and others get saved for another yarn or different stitch pattern. Plus, I’ve always got a few design concepts swimming around in my head that have yet to make themselves clear enough to be put on paper. Every day it’s something different, which is just what I need to keep me engaged and content.
I find that a very reasonable number. The process is always changeable enough that it is good to have things at different development stages. It is never boring!