Spotlight: Karen Fletcher, Knitter and Programmer
Are the arts and the sciences mutually exclusive? Karen Fletcher doesn’t think so! As a computer programmer who knits (or as a knitter who programs), Karen sees strong parallels. In fact, she believes that her ability to write code makes her a better pattern designer.
When did you start knitting?
I started knitting when I was about 12. My mom taught me, and I made a little blue backpack with gold straps. I basically didn’t touch it again until I started college and saw a hat pattern that I really wanted to make. I found a local yarn store near the university. So I bought supplies and relearned how to cast on. Then a few weeks later, I started working there part time! Since then it’s been my biggest creative outlet and stress relief mechanism.
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OK, let’s get right down to it. Is there a knit/crochet rivalry? How do you feel about crocheters?
I definitely do not hate crocheters, haha! I’ve tried it myself, but only in super sterile conditions. When it’s completely silent, I say each step of making the stitch as I work it. Knitting and crocheting are so similar. At their cores, both are just sticks and string, but they have different strengths.
Are knitting patterns in any way like coding? (Are there any parallels?)
Knitting is absolutely like coding and software development! The same way a computer performs actions based on an algorithm, knitters perform actions based on a pattern. In this case, the knitter is the computer. The pattern is a precise set of steps that have to be performed in order to achieve the desired outcome: a scarf, a sweater, a hat. Bugs or typos in the pattern can cause the project to fail (though usually less dramatically than in code), and force knitters to find a creative hack.
The two core stitches of knitting, knits and purls, are like 1s and 0s that make up all computer programs at their core. I’ve read articles and watched TED talks by folks who have used knitting as a way to teach an introduction to coding. Knitting and software development are really similar, and there are great intersections of knitting with technology. Spies in WW2 knit secret codes into their garments. And the Apollo Guidance Computer had the software woven into the core rope memory. Women in factories put the software together by looping wires through a core and around a core to represent the 1’s and 0’s of computer programs.
What type of yarn or material do you like to work with?
I prefer to knit with a light weight, hand-dyed yarn (what’s known as “fingering weight” in the industry). I use slightly larger needles than recommended to get a nice drapey fabric that still has good structure. My favorite right now is a brand called La Bien Aimée from Paris. Their colors are so rich and so unique. The yarn base is fantastic quality for sweaters and big blanket scarves (my favorite thing to make).
What are some of your favorite creations?
Picking a favorite creation feels like picking a favorite child haha! A few years ago I made “Game of Thrones” themed hats for my friends, and needle felted the animal crest. I crocheted a monster from “Where the Wild Things Are” for a friend’s new baby (“Where the Wild Things Are Carol (Moishe) Amigurumi” by Allison Hoffman). I knit socks for the groomsmen and clutches for the bridesmaids at my wedding (“Hold Tight” pattern by Wool and the Gang). The one I reach for most often is a big blanket scarf I made with La Bien Aimée Merino Singles. The colors remind me of how the city of Paris looked and felt when I visited a few years ago (“Dotted Rays” pattern by Stephen West).
Do you think there is any place for technology (mobile apps, etc.) in knitting? Or maybe it’s best to allow this to be a “tech-free” sanctuary?
There’s definitely a place for technology in knitting! Ravelry is a huge website that not only collates patterns and yarn brands, but lets users connect with each other, share projects linked to patterns and yarn used along with any modification details. Plus get inspiration and advice! Ravelry notedly doesn’t have it’s own app, but many developers have created their own using Ravelry’s API. There are also a lot of apps for help with pattern making and keeping track of where a knitter is in a pattern, like row counters. Instagram is also a great place to see what’s trending in the fiber community, connect with designers, and show off your latest WIP (work in progress) or FO (finished object), or commiserate over a pile of UFOs (unfinished objects).
What are your favorite tips for organizing your creative supplies?
Keep it where you can see it! For a long time, I put all my yarn in ziploc bags inside Rubbermaid bins to stave off moths and other creatures that feast on yarn and precious handknits. But I couldn’t see any of my yarn. It was out of sight, out of mind, and didn’t bring me any joy at all. So recently I bought a glass-front cabinet to hold my sweaters and a selection of my stash. I packed it with cedar and lavender to ward off the moths. I added a wine bottle holder on top that’s the perfect size for holding skeins of yarn. Because I love seeing my stash in such prominence. It reminds me of what I have and what I’m excited to make!
How many projects do you have going at once? Or do you focus on one creative project at a time?
For the most part I’m a monogamous knitter, focusing on just one project from start to finish. Recently I’ve started branching out and trying different projects at the same time. So I’ll have a project that requires a lot of focus or learning a new technique. Or I’ll have one that’s just for zoning out and relaxation. Maybe one for car rides or taking to the movie theater. And one to work on while I walk my dog.
What plays in the background while you knit? Silence? Music, audiobooks, movies? What kind?
I love watching tv and movies while I knit. Brooklyn-99 is a perennial favorite. I devoured the Good Place. I also watch “hot teen drama” like Riverdale and The Runaways. I’ve also recently started knitting while I walk my pup, Wilson, and listen to a lot of podcasts. Some of my favorites are Wine and Crime, Do Go On, Art Curious, the Weekly Planet, the Film Reroll, and D&D Is For Nerds. I’m always looking for new pods to try!
What trends do you see in knitting today?
In knitting, what’s old is new again. Like with any fashion industry, things come around in cycles. Someone will come up with a new technique, or combine yarn with a pattern style that hasn’t been done before. There are rediscoveries of “ancient” techniques that are adopted for today, like fair-isle colorwork or Estonian lace. The Brioche technique is a big trend right now. You effectively knit each row twice, creating a delightfully dense and squishy fabric.
There’s also a great intersection of tech and knitting. Janelle Shane trained a neural network to analyze knitting patterns, then write a pattern in a project called “Sky Knit“. Then, knitters picked up those patterns and tried to follow them!
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people? Or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
I think creativity is learned, just like anything else. Practice is what makes it seem like it comes naturally. Knitting didn’t come naturally to me when I started as a kid. I struggled with it, and got frustrated, and gave up, and tried again. Trying again is the most important part. I didn’t touch knitting for years after I first learned. There really weren’t things that I wanted to make, so I focused my creativity on other things.
In college, knitting sparked my interest. I was lucky enough to have a gorgeous and encouraging yarn store nearby. The store fostered my love of knitting! It looks natural when I read and knit, or walk the dog and knit. But that’s because it’s a creative skill that I’ve practiced so much. My hands know what they’re doing without much active thought. But it took a lot of practice, of trial and error with yarn that wasn’t right for the pattern, of dropping stitches and cabling the wrong direction, of skipping whole sections of the pattern because it was outlined in red and I only had a black and white printer, before I got to this point.
What are you creating now?
Right now I’ve got a lot on the needles! There’s pair of Turkish Bed Socks for my aunt, a lace and garter stitch triangle scarf in two shades of red (Five Roses by Nadia Crétin-Léchenne)., a big squishy blanket scarf (Dotted Rays by Steven West) using yarn with colors that remind me of the Cherry Blossom Festival in DC I visited a few weeks ago, La Bien Aimee. And a slouchy cabled hat with angora from my mum’s stash (Lutz Jump by Monika Sirna). Just a little bit of everything!
Interview posted May 2019
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