Too Many (Woolly) Hats?  Professional development for knitwear designers

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This post has been on my mind for a while, but thanks to the pilot course now feels like the right time. Notions like this are partly why I created it.

It’s not unusual – whether or not you’re in a well-resourced industry – to be confronted with the prospect of teaching yourself, if not learning under your own direction. It happens frequently in creative or artistic sectors, or those with innovation and enterprise. Your imaginative qualities are encouraged and it’s natural to follow the threads and see where they lead. Sometimes you end up following them far off the beaten track.

When that happens, it precedes a decision: How should I learn more about this topic? Other questions might include:

  • Does it connect with any of my existing skills?
  • Do I need formal training? If so, where can I take a course, and for how much?
  • Has anyone else done this, and how have they made it work?

Questions like this whirled around my head when I decided to design knitwear. I knew, based on my family background, that I would need to study. This was also a given because I was a research assistant. I’d seen first hand the difference between the knowledge and research shared within institutions, between institutions, and that shared with the public. Taking a course is more than access to information; it’s access to a culture, and you’ll be stretched in directions you never imagined.

What I didn’t foresee was that studying allowed me to wear a hat that I couldn’t have worn if I’d been entirely self-taught. I don’t mean in terms of accreditation – although that does open doors, no doubt. It’s a hat that allows me to have many different perspectives on education and learning. The same restriction applies to people who always take courses and make little effort to teach themselves. There are as many ways to learn as there are places to find knowledge.

Knitwear design and self-tuition

My plan fell apart slightly when I found that there were very few resources for knitwear designers – and I’m not just talking about design skills! Part of the reason why be(com)ing a handknit designer is so challenging is that you need support with the business side AND the skills-building side. There are courses on knitwear design, but most of them are in higher education. Some are dovetailed with other branches of fashion and textiles, which dilutes the knitwear content.

This means that many of us knit designers are more self-reliant than is perhaps good for us. I’m not detracting from the merited pride, strength and confidence that comes with being entirely self-taught. However, I would say that self-taught rarely means the person was completely alone. Even without formal tuition, human nature is what it is: you cannot help learning from other people. At some point, you learn without books and the internet.

Nobody’s said they’ve missed them, but in case anyone has, here’s another of my Venn diagrams:

This is a model I used when retraining, and I still refer to it when deciding whether to acquire a new skill. Here are a few examples of how I’ve used and continue to use it.


At the beginning, I made sure I wasn’t alone. I took my conversion course so that I’d have accreditation AND a foundation that would be understood by people who’d never know my life story. Having tutors, mentors, peers and colleagues in industry was invaluable. This initial investment meant that I felt comfortable and confident about taking on further learning by myself. I knew specialist terms, had people to ask if needed, and could find tools and resources quickly. I was definitely in a CPD phase.


A DIY phase came after I’d learnt all I could about pattern grading. I knew there was no book or course for handknits because I’d looked hard and asked practitioners. The knowledge was out there, but not consolidated into an accessible form. After being burned by DFY, I realised that it was worth doing this – and that if I did it well, I could share my findings with other knitters. I knew that if garments were my thing, grading would be an inescapable part of the design process.


One escapable part of the design process I happily outsource is layouts and graphic design. I have the software to do so, but hardly use it. I do plenty of writing, but I don’t have to format it in a specialised way or prepare it for print. If I did, I’d probably learn how to lay out my own patterns – but it’s not worth my time, at least not right now. It’s one less thing to think about, and I know enough about graphic design to communicate well with an editor or designer. The amount I pay for their expertise is worth more than my time learning a fraction of it. In other words: They can have my money!

Final thoughts

If you want to design but can’t find a course, write or talk to designers whose work you admire. Ask them how they learnt about X rather than posing general questions; it’s easier to give focused answers to specific queries. I studied design, but used resources well beyond the curriculum, never mind the recommended ones. Some of the best books I used as a student or own are here and here.

I also found that resources and people from other visual arts were extremely helpful. I can’t see myself learning graphic design, but I enjoy it enough to read about it and talk to deisgners. The same goes for photography and photographers. Understanding how they made their compositions successful inspired me even more. Yet again, context is everything.

No matter how you further your design career, don’t do it alone. Too many of us have had to take that route. It’s why I decided to create my pilot course, and it’s also why The Fiber Business Collective and The Design Circle exist. Investment is inevitable – but you have to decide how much that will cost you in minutes and dollars. You can’t get away with only one!

Too Many (Woolly) Hats? Professional development for knitwear designers

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Natalie in Stitches

I design size inclusive knitting patterns for clothes makers who want their garments to fit well. Clothes should serve you, not the other way around. You alter clothes to fit you, not alter yourself to fit the clothes. I also teach people how to sew, how to design knitwear, and am currently creating a comprehensive, year-long knitwear design course, covering everything from illustration to pattern grading. If you're enjoying my content, you can get more by following me on Instagram or Pinterest @natalieinstitches, or signing up to my newsletter. Thank you for reading!

2 thoughts on “Too Many (Woolly) Hats? Professional development for knitwear designers

  • November 9, 2022 at 8:29 pm

    As I reflect on this article, I realize that work and family demands often force us to do things “on our own” once we’ve acquired the basic qualifications. For me it meant a very enjoyable career later in life based on self taught skills in sewing/design BUT I always knew there were gaps in my knowledge base. Now, that the work demands are no longer in place I can focus on filling in the blanks, so to speak. For those at the beginning of their careers, choosing when to go it alone and when and how to seek help are essential. Natalie, you’ve given some excellent guidance on how to do just that.

    • November 9, 2022 at 8:43 pm

      💕 thank you, Brenda. That means a lot coming from you and your wealth of experience. I hadn’t mentioned family commitments at all, but they create additional pressure on time and money – and grace and patience are so important, I think. You really look forward to the precious few moments you do have. It’s a dream and an escape. ✨


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