Indie interview: Toby Roxane Barna of Toby Roxane Designs

So! As part of the Indie Gift-Along, I got to interview a couple indie designers. First up: Toby Roxane Barna.

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I really dig Toby’s style. Her patterns have this really great mix of texture and classic lace, but not quiet at all — there’s lots of bold color (Stripes! So many stripes! I love stripes!) and graphic appeal that I really enjoy.

Not to mention the yarn — When I was going through her designs, I kept noticing the knockout yarn from indie dyers featured all over her work, and how well it relates to the designs. I love a designer who knows when to crank the volume all the way up on an texture or lace pattern, and when to keep the pattern quiet so the yarn can take the spotlight.

So: To the interview, where we nerd out about designing and Neil Gaiman, and I accidentally momentarily break her with a question about yarn.


Your chandelier tattoo is amazing! (I know that’s not really a question. I’m excitable and I’ve had too much coffee and blackwork tattoos are my favorite.)

Aw, thanks! [Nov. 20] was its seventh birthday. I may bake it a cake.

Any excuse for cake.

Look at this color scheme. LOOK AT IT.
Look at these colors. Look at all that texture. I kind of maybe sort of have been furtively yarn-shopping online today so I can make exactly these mitts in exactly this colorway. Yes, I have enough mitts already. I need more hands.

You named a pattern collection “Everwear.” Are you a Neil Gaiman fan? Did Neverwhere influence the patterns in the collection? (If not – How did the London Underground influence those designs? Was it a mood thing? Did you take visual cues from the stations you named your patterns after?)

I am a Neil Gaiman fan! I LOVED Neverwhere. I read it for the first time when I was about 13 and I’ve reread it several times since then. I also love the BBC miniseries—I have it on DVD. It’s one of those so-bad-it’s-good type things, but I secretly love it in a non-ironic way. The title of Everwear is a pun on Neverwhere.

Anyway, Neverwhere did inspire the names of some of the patterns in the collections … Knightsbridge, Earl’s Court, and Blackfriars, for example. I spent some time in London in 2011–I took a class in knitwear design at the London College of Fashion. I got off at the Shepherd’s Bush station for that class, and I stayed in South Kensington.

Some of the names have nothing to do with Neverwhere or my own personal experience—St. John’s Wood, for example. It’s fun to imagine a forest in the middle of London. I wonder if some of the inspiration for Neverwhere came from making up stories about the names of stations.

You’re an artist; you mentioned on your blog that your dad’s an artist; clearly, this isn’t just a thing you do, it’s a thing you are. You’ve also got multiple fields of experience and study – knitting, writing, did I see dyeing on your blog?, and so on. Do those inform each other? What does writing teach you about knitting, for example?

It’s interesting, actually—knitting and writing involve such different parts of my brain that I have a hard time switching from one to the other. It takes a long time for me to transition between them. Maybe it’s because knitting is so visual and writing is so cerebral, but it’s like two different languages. I have to switch from thinking in pictures to thinking in words. That’s why I’ve had such a hard time keeping up with my blog. I really want to write more, but that means I have to switch brain channels.

Making the jump to full-time knit designer must’ve been thrilling, but also at least a little terrifying. When did you know for sure it was the right thing to do?

Haha, I’m not sure I ever had a moment when I knew for sure it was the right thing to do. I try not to think about it too much. Like you said, it was a little terrifying. It’s still a little terrifying.

I always knew I wasn’t destined for a “typical” job. I worked in an office one summer during college and it was the worst summer of my life. I was always exhausted and I cried all the time. I was just miserable. So every choice I’ve made since then has been in service of keeping me out of an office building.

I did once have an internship in the Flatiron building in New York, with MacMillan Publishing. That wasn’t so bad—there were lots and lots of windows, and my job was to read unsolicited manuscripts that got sent in.

Designers are often inspired by specific places. Are you? What are some of your places?

London, like I mentioned, definitely inspired a lot of my work, but I haven’t been back there since 2011. I just moved to the Hudson River Valley this past spring and I’m really loving it. It’s really beautiful here, especially in the fall.

Your patterns use lots of incredible yarn from indie dyers. How do you choose the yarn for your designs?

I’m all about indie dyers—I think so many of them are doing such amazing work. I’m a die-hard festival-goer, which is where you can see some of the most exciting yarns, in my opinion. Although I’ve met some of my favorite dyers at TNNA trade shows, like Brenda of Phydeaux and Sarah of Fiberstory (look for some upcoming collaborations!).

A lot of the time the yarn comes first and the design follows. That can make it really tricky to request yarn support—”Hi, I love your yarn! I don’t know what I’m going to make with it yet, but if you send me some, I’ll probably have a design for it sometime in the next few months.”

I often sleep with yarn on my nightstand so it can “tell” me what it wants to be while I’m sleeping. My family teases me about it, but it works.

Say you’re stranded on a desert island in a very improbable shipwreck that leaves you with tons of knitting needles and an infinite source of one particular yarn. What yarn would it be?

I’ve been sitting here staring at that question, writing and deleting answers for a very long time now. I give up. I can’t possibly choose!!

Are you an audiobook listener, and if so, what’re you listening to lately? Any goofy weaknesses? (I have an embarrassing number of How To Train Your Dragon audiobooks, because David Tennant.)

I ADORE audiobooks! Right now I’m listening to Black Moon by Kenneth Calhoun, which takes place in the semi-near future, and everyone in the world except for like, three people, suddenly become completely unable to sleep. Everyone is in a hallucinogenic stupor and the infrastructure falls apart. It’s interesting, and sort of creepy. Luckily, I’ve never suffered from insomnia in my life—the opposite, in fact. I have to set an alarm even on weekends (“weekends”—days of the week mean nothing to the self-employed) or else I’ll sleep all day long.

Back to audiobooks, though—I’m embarrassingly fond of trashy mysteries and thrillers. I love Laura Lippman in particular. My favorite of hers is And When She Was Good. I also really like her short story collection, Hardly Knew Her.


Thanks, Toby! Readers — I can call you that, right? It feels oddly quaint. I like it — You can check out more of Toby’s designs on Ravelry. I also get a kick out of her Instagram.

Thanksknitting (is a terrible pun I’m sure has been made before)

So the Indie Gift-Along is still in full swing after that kickoff sale ended a bit ago. While checking out the Pinterest board of participating hat patterns, I ended up getting hooked by a couple of hat patterns, Rekaviður and Fuego, and I’ve already knit one of each.

First button stitch on my Rekaviður by @bristolivy! #giftalong2014

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Looking at that photo, I notice how many of my in-progress knitting photos are taken on the tables of cafés and bars. I took that photo in November, and here’s an awfully similar one from today, with coffee instead of a pint glass and my finished Rekaviður photobombing in the bottom right corner:

Sneaking in some rainy-day knitting on my lunch break.

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I knit most of Fuego in a day, sort of — by “sort of,” I mean I knit the brim and hat in a day, but only after spending two evenings in a row trying to cast on the right number of stitches, overshooting, ripping back, recounting, casting on more, getting fed up and starting over, and finally falling asleep on my boyfriend in front of Spongebob Squarepants cartoons with my knitting on my chest. Once I got past the hardest part — coming up with the same stitch count twice in a row — it went super fast.

I still need photos of the hats, but somehow between work and travel and hustling, a one-day holiday always manages to eat a week’s worth of spare time. I could’ve done it the day before the holiday, I guess, but this year that was the day my birthday landed on — and I had very solid and serious plans involving bourbon, live oysters, lobster poutine and not working at all at anything.

Anyway! As part of the Gift-Along, I got to interview a couple of other participating indie designers — Toby Roxane Barna and Carolyn Kern. I’ll be posting those interviews over the next couple of days, so keep a lookout.

Indie Gift-A-Long: Incoming!

When it comes to knitting I’m not exactly a joiner. I used to go to local stitch and bitch groups, and even hosted one for awhile, but these days the idea of spending limited downtime surrounded by boisterous knitters makes me go a little limp. It’s not that I don’t like knitters; knitters are great, and the Bay Area hosts knitting groups that are packed to the gills with fun, creative, friendly people. I don’t even really knit blockbuster patterns, except for one Koolhaas and a barely-started owls.

I eventually figured out my favorite knitting happens with me curled in a ball on the couch with a finger of bourbon and some Netflix, surrounded by pencils and sketches, and I roll with it. These days I’m often joined by my boyfriend and the sounds of video games, which I mostly ignore in favor of an audiobook. The best are Saturdays in winter when I have the place to myself, and I can sit and knit and watch the mist through the bay window and drink whole pots of tea and knit through whole series of shows. I like my own company.

So it’s been a surprise to me how much fun I’ve had gearing up for the Indie Gift-A-Long on Ravelry. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a two-month holiday knit- and crochet-along of patterns by indie designers, with prizes! And a sale! Like, a huge sale. Participating patterns — and there are over 3,800 of them — will be on sale starting Nov. 13 (oh my god that’s TOMORROW) through the 21st. I’m participating as a designer, throwing my measly four patterns into the ring. It took a little hustling to get a fourth pattern out of test knits and published by the sign-up, but I really wanted to be a part of it.

Which was weird for me because: not a joiner. If it were just a parade of ads and hype, I’d be rolling my eyes like crazy with the same skepticism that got me kicked out of volunteering as a summer camp counselor as a teen. (Yes, you can get kicked out of volunteering! They transferred me to office work for the city instead. I stamped a lot of checks, did a lot of data entry and ate a lot of sandwiches with the vastly entertaining middle-aged employees, and got laughed at like crazy when I showed up one day in thrift-store pants with a white stripe down the side like local police wore.) But I’m really enjoying the prospect of getting to talk to other knitters and designers during the whole shindig, and as a chronically late giver of handmade gifts, I can totally see the appeal of having cheerleaders help you get through gift-giving knitting. (Even though all my holiday knitting this winter will be entirely for one person: me.)

I’ll be interviewing a couple other participating designers (both way more established than I am — this ought to be interesting) and posting more about it as the gift-a-long goes on.

Don’t forget: The big sale starts tomorrow!

New pattern: Flatirons

Hello, Flatirons! I love garter stitch shawls but have a tough time knitting the same row over and over again, so I came up with an all-garter shawl that suits my less-than-perfect attention span. I have a love affair with fine details that give knits a really polished look, so the shawl also has a pinstriped trim and striped i-cord edging.

Getting photos was fun: I dragged it out to the sweltering desert while on vacation and put it on a Joshua Tree. It’s a long way from the Boulder Flatirons in Colorado, the pattern’s namesake and inspiration, but you do what you can with the scenery at hand.

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The pattern is modular and written for any gauge — use any yarn you like! The sample is knit in two yarns from one of my favorite dyers, Gypsy Wools, out in Boulder. They’re two different sock yarns (an all-wool yarn and a silk/wool blend), both in the same colorway! The two yarns side by side really highlight how much different materials affect the finished yarn: the silk blend is lighter with a slight sheen to it and slightly less saturated colors, while the all-wool one has darker and subtler tones. The effect is really striking and it’s one I’m definitely going to play with again.

Go check it out!

New pattern: Temescal hat

I love making hats. They don’t take much yarn, they’re great for using up scraps, I can knock one out in a day — and they’re as wearable as you can get. In winter, I keep a pile of them in a bowl and pick one out without looking as I head out the door. (I don’t really have to worry about matching my outfit, since I always seem to knit and dress in the same three or four colors.) I think in my whole knitting career, I’ve probably made about five scarves, three and a half pairs of mittens, maybe twenty pairs of mitts, two thirds of a glove, and dozens and dozens and dozens of hats.

Yup. Love.

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Lately I’ve been making even more than usual, for a damn good reason: they’ve been samples for a pattern I’m re-releasing today as Temescal, the first in a series of hats inspired by Oakland neighborhoods. I made four different versions of the hat and shot photos all over town, from way out by the cranes of West Oakland, to a vivid mural outside a pop-up poutine restaurant 40 blocks north.

One version of the hat is really special, both for the stunning yarn and the way it fits my local theme: it’s made with a gradient set of mini skeins by Pigeonroof Studios, an indie dyer based in Emeryville, just north of Oakland.

temescal-rear

(Go check them out. Seriously. Everything’s incredible. The colors, the saturation, the … oh, just go look. It’s my favorite local yarn, hands down.)

It can be hard knitting multiple samples of the same pattern, but I never got bored of knitting this hat. It’s knit on relatively big needles (seriously, I had to break out the size 13’s for the largest gauge, which I almost never use these days) and the stitch pattern has what I call a “popcorn” quality: easy enough I can do it on autopilot, interesting enough to stay hooked, and completely addictive. Each one had a different pattern, from all one color to a variety of stripes. Once I was done with one, I would start thinking right away about making the next.

(It wasn’t just me, either. Some of my test knitters bound off, just to immediately cast on for second — and even third! — versions of the hat. When I heard that, I cackled. That right there means victory to me.)

Anyway. It’s here, and I’m stoked. Check the pattern out on Ravelry or heck, buy it now!

Heath Ceramics

While I knit my secret project, let’s talk about something completely unrelated to knitting and very cool: Heath Ceramics.

Founded in 1948 and happily churning out gorgeous tile and tableware in that subtle but occasionally playful midcentury style I love, Heath Ceramics is a recent favorite of mine. Their stuff is pretty.

I found out about them from my boyfriend, who occasionally “adopts” the Heath pieces used at his work when they chip and have to be retired. I have one of their cups at my work, and bring it with me when I go to local cafes for coffee. (I am, uh, a little granola like that.) It’s not uncommon for a barista to pick it up and then stop, heft it a little, then turn it over to look for a maker mark and ask “That’s nice, is it Heath?” The first time it happened, I felt like I’d been accepted into some kind of extremely tasteful secret society.

One of the great things about living in the Bay Area is that we’re spoiled completely rotten with beautiful, locally made things. The original factory where they still make their dishware is only about a mile from the place I sometimes stay in Sausalito. If you ever can, go on the studio tour, where you can walk through and see work in all stages from research to finished product.

To a certain kind of person ‐ a me kind of person ‐ it is, to be succinct, a fucking marvel: tables of glazing test pieces in bright and layered colors; mismatched, decades-old tile set into walls; vats and walls covered in decades of clay buildup; and, best of all, shelves and shelves and shelves of creamy-smooth plates and cups and dishes with the texture of a brand new egg.

On that studio tour, the boyfriend and I also got a sneak peak at a wall clock that I learned months later was a collaboration with another design favorite of mine, House Industries. How cool is that?!

On that same trip, I fell in love with a little sugar bowl in the overstock section that was missing its lid. (Yes, they have an overstock section! Heath ain’t cheap, but if you can still love pieces with slight freckles or imperfections, you can get them for a pretty decent price break.) The sugar bowl fit perfectly in my cupped hand ‐ granted, I have giant hands ‐ and it was all I could do not to rub the smooth-but-not-slick linen finish on my face.

So if you get a chance, swing by the studio. If you can’t, there’s a virtual tour you can check out. And if you want a trendy food experience that’s way more actual San Francisco than clam chowder in a bread bowl (seriously, nobody does that but tourists), order a flat white at one of the city’s zillions of cafes and bring your own cup.

No, the barista won’t look at you funny. Promise.

Hey, it’s scenic, it works

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There’s this shawl I’m working on that’s named after mountains in Colorado, but on my last trip out there I didn’t have time to take photos of it. This weekend I managed photos but since I was nowhere near Colorado, I had to use the majestic scenery I had at hand.

Fortunately, Joshua Tree has plenty.

I’ll be picking shreds of yucca fiber from my shawl for awhile, I think, but I’m happy with the photos I got. It went OK; I should’ve gotten up even earlier than 6:30 a.m., since it was full morning by the time I got into the park around 7 and already unbearably hot when I left an hour or so later. The Mojave in summer, even the tail end of summer, is no joke.

It also would’ve been nice to have remembered a tripod. Or to have slept enough not to have panda-like rings around my eyes. Ah, well. I managed. I set up my camera on a rock and propped the lens up with a stick, and when it got too hot to stay in the sun, took some shots from a spot wedged in between the lumpy stacks of boulders that jut out of the ground throughout the park and provide the only shade.

I knitted a lot this weekend, which I always do regardless of season. People noticed more than usual  due to the hundred-degree weather and the bright colors I was working with, and some people recognized me as “the knitter” from years past at the same event.

(The event is a music thing – Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven, playing in Pioneertown. It’s been happening for ten years running, and I’ve gone to — and knit at, I think — all ten.)

I’d meant to check out yarn stores when I was down there, but instead I brought home this:

Buddy

That’s Buddy. Guess I’d better get used to finding little ginger and white hairs in my knitting.

The laziest possible project bag

Over the years, I’ve tried every kind of project bag for carting around my knitting: special totes with special pockets; cute, sturdy little bags from Etsy; ones I’ve sewn myself; cheap drawstring bento bags from the dollar store in Japantown; things that double as purses and don’t look anything like a knitting bag until the moment you fish a ball of yarn out of them. I’ve got a million little sketches for project bags with reinforced sides that won’t let needles poke through, and a million Pinterest pins for tutorials on perfect little bags.

But what I actually use these days for holding knitting projects is way less fancy. It’s pretty much a hobo bindle without the stick.

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See? A bindle without a stick.

I have about zillion bandanas, thanks to years of camping trips. They’re like a smaller, lighter version of the bath towel in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” as far as I’m concerned:

  • I’ve used them for tying up my hair, of course.
  • They’re a great impromptu snot rag. (Those don’t get reused for other purposes before getting washed. Mostly.)
  • Pull a bandana up over your mouth and nose, bandit-style, for a pretty effective dust mask.
  • Soak a bandana in some of your drinking water and tie it around your neck, and it’ll keep you cool.
  • Dry off a bicycle seat in rainy weather with one.
  • Soak two bandanas for you and your friend to drape over your heads like miniature swamp coolers as you fry in midsummer wine country heat in a car with broken air conditioning.
  • Tie a bandana onto the roll cage of a pickup truck to use as a handle when you ride in the bed.
  • Fold small items inside one if you don’t want them lost in your luggage.
  • Use a bandana to mop up sweat, to dry off tears, to wrap around a sore wrist when you don’t have a wrist brace.

Or keep your knitting in one: Lay it flat, set your knitting in the center, tie the opposite corners in half knots, and go. It’s more secure than you think, since knots stay put in your average bandana’s slightly rough cotton.

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Outlaw pride! My favorite, incidentally, is their Sage Copper Canyon.

This particular bandana was a gift from my friend Normal of Outlaw Soaps, from a screenprinting test run she did on bandanas for Outlaw’s subscription boxes. The logo is based on a tattoo we share — it’s sort of funny to see my little Joshua Tree on business swag.

I’m not saying it’s a perfect system. I lost a few stitch markers at first when I left them loose in the bottom of a project bundle. (Now I fold them into a second bandana and tuck it inside, or focus on the stitch pattern so I can skip markers entirely.) And I bet I look a bit more like a spaz when I take out my knitting on the subway with my strange little bindle. It certainly doesn’t have the polish of a matchy-matchy craft bag that screams “I am a crafter and I know what I’m doing” to passers-by.

But I like it. It’s impossible to lose anything in a flat sheet of fabric: Untie the corners, and I can see my whole project and all its related yarn.

And there’s another thing, I guess. As I get older, I get less invested in whether I have the “right” gear. Shopping bothers me these days: I get a little freaked out sometimes at the idea of trading money for more stuff, when I already have too much stuff and can think of bigger things to put the money toward. I’m gradually getting more interested in what I already have that might serve me in new and useful ways.

And as much as I can appreciate things like color-coordinated accessory bags, I kind of like the idea of a project bag that can double as a tourniquet when it’s not carrying a shawl.

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New pattern: Columella fingerless mitts

Introducing a new pattern: Columella!

Columella fingerless mitts

These top-down mitts work up fast in worsted-weight yarn, and the zillions of cables make for a plush, stretchy fabric with lots and lots of texture. Columella is everything I like in a mitt: super dense, super stretchy, subtle without being bland, fast to work up and neatly tailored. The thumb flows neatly into the cables, and it narrows at the wrist for a comfortable fit.

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X-ray of a Charonia shell showing the columella

The natural world is a huge influence on me, and you can see its tracks all over my sketchbooks. When I’m drawing patterns in my head as I fall asleep at night, I think of cliffs, hills and cracked desert playa. My cell phone has hundreds of photos of close-ups of natural details like bark whorls, feathers, or the neat mesh of a predator’s teeth. (The nearby California Academy of Science’s skulls exhibit alone takes up about a gig of space on my iPhone.) In keeping with that, the name I settled on for the pattern release comes from columella, the solid core of a gastropod shell that the hollow chamber of the shell gradually spirals around.

I’m reaching way into my past with this pattern: I started the first prototype in 2007. (It’s one of my very first Ravelry projects!) Since then, it’s endured multiple apartment moves, software migrations, red-pen markup and who knows how many name changes and rewrites, and become a great example of how much my pattern-writing skills have changed since I started. The one part of the written instructions that remained from the first draft when I picked up the pattern again? Gone, and rightfully so, after it managed to confuse and throw off nearly half of my test knitters. Thanks to them, those instructions are now easy to follow and crystal clear.

Columella fingerless mitts

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Check it out on Ravelry!

Summer knitting

Don’t get me wrong, Ukiah is gorgeous, but damned if it didn’t get hot when I was there for the weekend. The heat started to pick up around nine in the morning, hit 100º by noon and didn’t let up until deep into evening. During the day, you see why California is called the Golden State: nothing but pure blue sky and the rolling, straw-colored, sometimes oak-studded hills that cover the central and northern parts of the state for hundreds of miles.

Fortunately, I found a secret to knitting in that kind of heat: shade and lace-weight wool. The feather-light fabric doesn’t suffocate you, and tiny needles make for tiny movements that don’t get you all sweaty, while you distract yourself with pristine scenery like this:

After a recent trip to unusually sweatsock-damp and stormy Boulder, Colorado, and frying in the dry wine-country heat, it’s pretty great to be back in cloudy-cool Oakland and San Francisco.