Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Shirley Paden's Design Class (or... It's All About the Numbers)

I took Shirley Paden's Knitwear Design class at  fibre space last Saturday. I had unknowingly followed her designs for years, i.e. I loved many of her designs before I knew who had designed them. So I jumped at the chance to take a design class from her. We were told before the class that we would learn how to construct two types of pullovers, a round neckline with a Classic Body silhouette, which does not have any body shaping; and a V neckline with a double tapered body silhouette, which is shaped along the natural curves of the body. To prepare for the class we were asked to select a sweater silhouette, sketch a garment, select a stitch pattern and yarn. Finally, we were to knit one or two 8”x8” swatches, which Shirley calls “meaningful swatches” that achieve a more accurate garment knitting gauge.

Shirley showed her VideoBio (Click on Press, then Video/TV) at the beginning of the class, which included photos of her work and explained what motivates her and how she designs. Then she asked us what we hoped to achieve in the class. Most of us were interested in learning how to make patterns fit. Though we had been told that we would walk through accurately measuring a swatch, taking body measurements, writing a pattern, calculating yarn amounts, and measuring a garment, I don’t think any of us expected that we would spend a day crunching numbers without knitting a stitch! But in retrospect, we should have.


We paired off to take each other’s measurements, then Shirley began teaching us the formulas, asking us to do the math to determine the number of stitches and rows for a garment, the formulas to calculate decreases and increases for body and neck shaping, and armholes, and for a long sleeve. Someone (not me!) commented that there were computer applications to determine these things, which Shirley ignored. We spent the morning with our calculators. Danielle, fibre space’s owner, brought in a tasty lunch for us from a local organic deli, cupcakes for desert, and coffee. Shirley autographed our books, then we got back to the number crunching.


My brain was fried from too many numbers and too little yarn by 3pm, at which point I stopped trying to follow the calculations and just watched the others. I reasoned that I could refer to Shirley's book, Knitwear Design Workshop, to figure out what I didn’t understand.

SP book II

I have to admit I got testy – had I paid good money just to take a math class? That long forgotten math-challenged fourth grader made her presence known! Shirley sensed this – she gave us a break from the numbers and told us a bit about her custom design business and shared some war stories.  She will design and knit a garment specifically for you for a fee; she always has several projects in the works; though she knits much of her work herself, she employs several knitters to help out, otherwise she'd never make money. Shirley also showed us an intensely detailed notebook dedicated to one design. No one asked why much of it was hand written, but it makes sense: if you are sketching something by hand, it’s handy to run the numbers by hand also. Perhaps she scans them into a computer system later. She resumed instruction by showing us the calculations for designing a set-in cap sleeve.

Looking at Shirley’s notebook was inspiring. I enjoyed looking at her handwritten notes, and sketches of stitch patterns. It was just the break needed for a visually-oriented person like me. She didn’t have completed garments with her (it wasn’t a trunk show after all!), which would also have kept me going over the course of the day. I suggested that she use photos of her known designs to illustrate teaching points.

Maybe because several of us were math challenged, thus slowing the pace a bit, we never got to apply the formulas to our sketches in class. Nor did we learn how to determine the amount of yarn a project requires - maybe Shirley tactfully skipped this part because it was obvious that most of us had not measured out our remaining yarn before hand as instructed. She did attempt to show us how to factor stitch patterns into a design, but I think she got too many deer-in-the-headlights looks to pursue this line of instruction! No worries – it’s in the book.

So, you’re probably wondering if I thought the class was worth taking. The answer is a resounding “yes.” And I would like to take several others.  First of all, I had not taken my measurements for years. In fact, I don’t know that I had ever taken detailed measurements such as shoulder width, armhole depth, raglan depth, neck width and depth, back and front torso length, wrist and knuckle, and a few others. Shame on me, but there it is. In addition to executing one’s own design, knowing the formulas is handy for those who want to alter patterns designed by others. I would never have thoroughly read through them in the book on my own (shame on me again…)  It would have been nice to have them before working on one of my current designs which includes an angled armhole. It turned fine, but having the formulas would have saved some time. Despite being pretty drained after class, I went home, ate dinner, rested a while, then plugged in the numbers for my design based on my measurements and desired silhouette, and cast on, working late into the night.

IMG_1302 (2)

Shirley gave us a hefty number of helpful handouts that I referred to in addition to the book.  The teaching charts you see in the photos were included in the handouts as well as detailed illustrations showing how to properly measure oneself.  The book is a very instructive how-to and reference tool: there are chapters dedicated to every aspect of garment design from necklines to armholes, neckbands, collars, and lapels, a range of silhouettes, choosing yarn,  finishing techniques and more. It focuses on detail more than most other knitting books I've seen, and is perfectly organized.  It was interesting to hear that Shirley eagerly collects stitch pattern books, style and knitting books, and subscribes to a number of publications dedicated to predicting fashion styles and colors of the upcoming seasons (what are those called?)


She confirmed that there is a lot that a designer must work out on her own, by trial and error. Like the character of specific types of yarn and how they might behave in a pattern, though she also covers a bit of this in the book. And of course a designer must find her own inspiration.

Shirley Paden teaches classes in her hometown New York City and has a full book promotion and traveling class schedule. You can find her class schedules, Video Bio, and portfolio on her site.  She recently completed a very successful Webinar. Those of you who can't take her class should keep an eye on her site and the  Ravelry group,  We Love Shirley Paden! for announcements of other Webinars.


  1. great post ava. i'm exhausted just reading your thoughts about the SP workshop. sounds like you walked away with lots to ponder and inspire you!


  2. Thanks, Arthella. I did walk away inspired and motivated!

  3. Glad you enjoyed the workshop. Seemed very intense but very inspirational. SP reminds me of my 4th grade teacher Mrs. Wilson very serious about her work! I hope to get on your level one day!

  4. Wow - what an exciting day. The design bug has never bitten me but I respect the talent. Especially Paden's. Thanks for sharing the day in pics.


  5. Thanks for sharing....sounds like it was quite a class! Amazing talent these designers have!!



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...