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Adventures in Business with Designer, Instructor and Author Karen Whooley

Today I'm happy to share the adventures of Starship Captain Karen Whooley. Karen is a nationally recognized crochet and knit designer, author and instructor from the Pacific Northwest.  She wears many other hats, too, including Wife of 25 years, Mom of two teens, Bon Jovi Fan, NFL Football Fanatic, Gym Rat and Italian Cook. You can find Karen on her website, Twitter, and Instagram.

People have this fantasy of what it's like to be a full-time maker. But what's a normal day for you really like?

For me every day is a little different really.  And only because being a full time maker allows me to set my own hours around my family and other commitments like church life, and teaching.  I am the mom of an 18 year old HS senior and a 16 year old HS junior, so they are pretty self sufficient now. And it helps a lot that my husband works from home full time too so we can tag team if needed for the kids.

But most of the time this is my day:
5AM-5:30AM: Get up (I am asthmatic so I have to get up and do all the stuff I need to do, medication wise, first)
6AM-7:30AM: At the gym working out
8AM-9AM: Breakfast and dressing for the day
9AM-10AM: I am at my desk checking email and social media
10AM-12PM: Work (This could be writing blog posts or patterns, research, meetings or actually knitting or crocheting up a sample or swatch.)
12-12:30PM: Lunch break
12:30-1:30 PM: More email and social media
1:30-4PM: More work, usually crochet/knit or swatching, but many times still writing up patterns or book reviews, too.
4-4:30PM: Last check on email.
4:30-7:00PM: spend time with family and make dinner.
7-10PM: If no evening activities at church or school, I am watching TV with family, usually working on a personal project at the same time. Unless I am under a tight deadline, then I am working. By 9-9:30PM though I am usually reading a bit in bed. I have to be in bed sleeping by 10PM so I can start all over the next day!

There are so many ways to make a living as a maker – how are you doing it? What have you combined and how has that changed through the years?

When I learned to crochet in 1974 (I was 7 years old) my 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 becoming a designer and author wasn't quite what she meant!  But that IS what I did with it! In 1998 I started as a crochet designer when I sold my very first pattern to a magazine.  In 2000 I started teaching classes locally at a fabric and craft store and by 2004 I was teaching on the national circuit.  In 2007 I learned to knit and started designing knit patterns in 2010.

Karen with her Nonna, who taught her to crochet when she was a child.
Karen with her Nonna, who taught her to crochet when she was a child.

In 1998 when I started, my kids were 2 years old and 6 months old. I had to work from nap time to nap time during the day.  I would produce about 5-6 patterns a year for magazines, and I started my own pattern line from rejected patterns.  Now I produce countless patterns a year (for example in 2013, I completed 4 books, 2 of which had 96 patterns total each), both for myself and for other publishers.  I have 24 paid stitchers who help me get all the models made every year. At the beginning, I would teach only night time classes so my husband, who worked out of the home at that time, could be with the kids. That was my get-out-of-the-house-and-be-with-adults time!  As they got older I started to travel to events to teach. I started with just once a year when my husband could take vacation in the summer, to now going as many as 5-6 times a year.  I also started teaching online through Craftsy and can reach far more people now, which is amazing in and of itself.  I will still teach local classes from time to time, but they are more of a special appearance now.

What new thing are you exploring now?

Right now, my focus is to get back to my roots again.  My dream when I started was to be my own business as a designer / author / instructor. Designing for magazines and other publishers was to get me the experience, but now I really want to be more me, with a few books and designs done elsewhere.  So I am exploring making more maps (goal setting) that put me on track every quarter to get what I need to do accomplished.  I am also exploring how to “Wrangle My Time” with Tara and creating my marketing plan.  All of this is focusing on getting back to my roots and finding what actually works for me.

One of Karen's books, filled with 96 patterns!
One of Karen's books, filled with 96 patterns!

What's your definition of success in your business?

Success to me in my own business is to create patterns, books and classes that *I* love that also meet the needs, wants and desires of my customers and clients.  It is not losing sight of what my goals for my business are, and to promote the crafts I love in a way that makes others love them, too!

What's the next destination you're working towards?

Right now, I am working toward getting  a few more things off my plate and I am working on developing some systems to streamline what I do as far as designing, publishing, blogging, etc. so that I can finally sit down and develop the next self published book I have had in my head for more than 2 years now! Getting that book out into the world is my next step to regain my goal of being my own publisher again.

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Adventures in Business with Indie Dyer and Designer Karen Robinson

Today I'm happy to share the adventures of Starship Captain  Karen Robinson. Karen is a knitting designer (KarenDawn Designs) and yarn dyer (Round Table Yarns) with an advanced degree in medieval literature, so her pattern and yarn names are based on medieval texts. You can also find Karen's designs on Ravelry and her shop on Etsy.

People have this fantasy of what it's like to be a full-time maker. But what's a normal day for you really like?

I try to get up before my 3-year-old son so I can have time alone in the morning to drink coffee and check my email and Ravelry. The rest of the day depends a lot on whether or not we have any activities planned and if I have any editing projects. My “day job” is a freelance copy editor—I work with indie fiction authors and I’m also the copy editor for PLY Magazine —so the amount of work I have each day can vary quite a bit.

If it’s a stay home day, I get some yarn ready to dye by soaking it in a bucket. I dye very small dyelots (just a skein or two at a time), so I dye a little bit each day if I can. I make a list of what I need to do that day and get breakfast ready. Once we’ve eaten (it takes the 3 year old a long time to eat), the yarn has soaked enough, so I prepare the first round of dyeing and put the yarn in the dyepot. Then if I have an editing project, I may try to work a little on that or take care of some other tasks on the computer. But mostly this time in the morning revolves around my son, so I don’t do anything that takes too much concentration. Every hour or so, I swap out the yarn in the dyepot for another batch.

Then lunch and after that my son goes down for a nap. He’ll be four in August, and I know that he’s bound to give up nap time in the not-too-distant future (although we’ll change it to quiet time when he does), but that’s really when I get the bulk of my work done. As soon as I close his bedroom door, I’m on my computer, editing if I have that work or working on a pattern or making changes to my website or adding new yarn to my shop. He naps anywhere from 1-3 hours (I love those 3-hour nap days!), so I know I have a limited amount of time to work which is a great motivator for getting stuff done (although I do still occasionally get sucked into spending way too long on Ravelry).

Once my son is awake, it’s not too long before my husband gets home. Depending on how much I got done during nap time, I might have to work a little more after that or I might get to be mostly done with work on the computer that day. After my son goes to bed, my husband and I usually watch TV together and this is when I get the bulk of my knitting time.

Karen's Blanchefleur Shawl (www.ravelry.com/patterns/library/blanchefleur-shawl)
Karen's Blanchefleur Shawl (www.ravelry.com/patterns/library/blanchefleur-shawl)

There are so many ways to make a living as a maker – how are you doing it? What have you combined and how has that changed through the years?

The way I’ve been involved in the business side of the fiber world has changed over the years, but it’s finally evolved into something that I’m happy with. For a while, I wanted knitting to be completely a hobby and not something I would ever do for money or as a business. My mother-in-law is a quilter and when someone asks her how much she charges for a quilt, her response is “a million dollars.” Her explanation is that quilting is something she does for fun and that she doesn’t want to feel pressured by it, which is how she would feel if she were working on a commission. So she’s happy to make quilts as gifts for people she finds deserving, but she does it in her own time on her own schedule.

I had that attitude for a while, but then I had my son and I left academia and felt strange about not bringing in any money to the household. I was tired all the time (newborn!) and still wanted to knit, but I couldn’t concentrate on the types of projects I enjoyed doing (intricate cables or lace), so I started making super simple things like stockinette baby hats. But even though I had a baby, he didn’t need that many hats so I got the idea to try selling them. I did a couple of local craft fairs and also rented a space at an artisan shop to sell my knitting. Or attempt to sell my knitting (I also got a sewing machine during this time and sewed some things to sell as well—those things did a little better). I learned that many people didn’t understand how much work it was and I liked using “good” yarn, so the price points I had my items at seemed to be too high for what people were willing to pay but I didn’t want to give them away either, so I actually sold very little.

That whole situation (lasting about a year) was kind of a dark time in my knitting life. I look back at my Ravelry project page for that year and see how little I actually did. And everything I did do was super simple and unchallenging. That’s not the kind of knitter I had been before—if I saw a project I liked, I made it. If it used a technique I hadn’t tried before, I learned it. I didn’t shy away from something because it seemed difficult. So, quite frankly, after that year of selling knitted items, I was completely bored.

I realized I’m a process knitter. I greatly enjoy the actual act of knitting. And I do like using the items I make, but mostly I have stacks of shawls and hats even after giving away a lot of gifts. I had thought the answer to that was to sell those items, but I knew that wasn’t working. So what could I do instead? And how could I get my knitting mojo back and start really enjoying and exploring again?

I had taken a class a few years back at my then LYS about designing a scarf, and I liked that process quite a bit. I finished the scarf, got some test knitters on Ravelry, and posted the pattern for free (my Criseyde Scarf). Over the years since that experience, I had thought about doing more designing, but it was always something that was just in the back of my mind. Then I was trying to find a cowl pattern that matched the image in my head of what I wanted but was having trouble finding it. That’s when things clicked and I decided to try designing my own. I learned a lot by going through that process with the cowl (I have an entire finished cowl that I am completely unhappy with—I’ve kept it rather than frogging it as a reminder that if I’m knitting something and not liking how it’s turning out, I should stop and figure out what I don’t like rather than just thinking “I’m sure it’ll look fine once I finish it.”), which became my Lady Bertilak Cowl.

The act of figuring out how to construct something based on ideas in my head and then putting those into actual knitting is “the thing” that is making me feel completely happy and fulfilled in my knitting life. I have challenge, a lot of process, and a good reason for keeping the finished objects (samples!).

Around the beginning of this year, a friend had decided not to expand her fiber dyeing business into yarn dyeing so she gave me a bag of undyed yarn—with the idea that I could use it for swatches. (I do so many more swatches now as a designer than I ever did before!) But that undyed yarn was calling out for color, so on a whim, I got some acid dyes and started experimenting. And fell completely in love with the process of adding color to yarn. Thus Round Table Yarns was born, and I selected yarn bases that matched up to the patterns I’ve designed. And although I never want to be completely insular—so much beautiful yarn out there!—I am designing more in mind with making the connection between my patterns and yarn (and dyeing colors based upon what might work well with my patterns).

A basket full of Round Table Yarns in the Camelot base, which is a fingering weight MCN.
A basket full of Round Table Yarns in the Camelot base, which is a fingering weight MCN.

 

What new thing are you exploring now?

Different shapes for shawls—I love the triangular shawls but I don’t want to get locked into that construction all the time so I’m trying out some new ideas. Different yarn colors and dyeing techniques. Making self-striping sock yarn (so much work but the results are so much fun!). Knitting with breed-specific wools to see how their characteristics affect the results of the knitted item.

 

What's your definition of success in your business?

It took me a while to figure this out (and I figured it out thanks to a worksheet in one of Tara’s classes), but I realized that it’s pretty simple: I love seeing what other people make with my “stuff”—either one of my patterns or out of some of my yarn (or both!). So I feel successful when I check Ravelry and see someone has posted a picture of a project using my pattern. Although it feels good to sell a pattern, it feels amazing to have someone actually use that pattern. My dream is to be at a fiber festival (either as a vendor or attendee) and see someone wearing one of my designs (or something with my yarn). That experience would make me feel like I’m truly a success.

 

What's the next destination you're working towards?

I’ve been working on a pattern collection with five crescent-shaped shawls. The goal is to have it finished and ready for STITCHES Texas in September (where I’ll have a booth), and I’m on schedule (dare I say even a little ahead of schedule) for it. I’m working with the ladies of Stitch Definition for photography, tech editing, and layout/design, so I’m really looking forward to seeing how it all comes together. Along with that, I’m gearing up for several fiber festivals/events coming up in the fall.

Want to join Karen and other Starship Captains? The Starship is open now (it closes tomorrow!)