"It comes out of my question-answering reflex": Q&A with Naomi Parkhurst

Naomi Parkhurst – better known on Ravelry as gannet – is one of the hardworking volunteers behind the Gift-A-Long. She's also known for her fascinating project of encoding words in stitch patterns (the patterns are free for designers to use, but you can support her via Patreon). We've been chatting on Twitter and elsewhere for some time, but I still don't know her well, so it was fun to fill in my knowledge of her with an interview. 

Find Naomi on Twitter and Google+, as well as on her blog.

1.  First, the ignorant question: tell me about your life outside of design. Family? Work? Whats the shape of your days?

I'm trained as a reference librarian, which I love and hope to get back to, but when my husband and I decided it would make the most sense to homeschool our son, something had to give, and that was my extremely part-time job as a substitute librarian. 

So I teach my son some things and he absorbs other things from pure curiosity, and I make sure he does his share of the household chores. And while he's playing video games or making crafts, or reading, I do my design work. It's not a terribly well-regulated schedule, though the school and other tasks mostly happen in the middle of the day.

2. How did you get into design? And specifically into your fascinating word-encoding project?

This is going to be partly in conversation with the answer you gave me to one of my questions, I think. And also long! When I was a small child, I learned all sorts of traditional crafts from my kith and kin, and one of the things I learned was that while it was good to be able to follow patterns, it was important to be able to improvise. But I don't think I thought of it as designing.

I went through fits and starts of knitting as a child and teen, but the thing that really got me going was the Internet, and also then having a baby. It's a lot easier to knit with a baby on your lap than to use a sewing machine. I shared pictures of some of what I did on LiveJournal, and then people wanted instructions. The instructions I wrote then were awful. People in my knitting group that I found because of Ravelry also wanted instructions for the things I made. I started to learn how to write better patterns after joining Ravelry, though it wasn't until I started getting tech editing and pattern testing that I started feeling comfortable calling myself a designer. 

I was still working at the library when encoding ideas as knitting came to me. I was contemplating the Dewey Decimal call number system, and how it could be used as a secret code. That reminded me of how some people describe knitting instructions as being like code. And then something made me ask myself how I could turn library call numbers into knitting, if both of them were code. After a lot of experimentation, I started having some good ideas about that.  

That led to realizing that call numbers, while awesome, weren't going to be practical for a lot of things, but there are lots of ways to turn letters into numbers, and well, here I am, turning letters into numbers, and numbers into knitting charts! 

3. What motivates you? 

Curiosity. Answering questions for other people. Solving problems. Avoiding falling into depression if I don't use my brain enough. Being responsible to other people in the right sort of group project. Routines, but not schedules: I have to blog every Monday, or I fall out of the habit of blogging, but just marking a date in a calendar that's a deadline for a pattern doesn't work for me.

4. Do you struggle with time management like I do? How do you manage to keep productive and not beat yourself up? 

Yes, absolutely. Sometimes I get on a roll and can work steadily on things that need doing; other times I fall into a slump and spend too much time playing iPad games and reading Twitter. I don't have a really good solution to this yet, though it has gotten better as I've gotten older. I have three things that do seem to help me:

A. Remembering that if I get mad at myself for not getting as much done in a day as I would have liked, it actually makes it twice as hard to do the work the next day.

B. Keeping a long-term to-do list with no deadlines, and then keeping a daily to-do list that's rarely longer than three small tasks. If I cross one of the tasks off the daily list, I add another. Sometimes I finish one thing. Yesterday I finished five. It's all good.

C. Posting that short list in a private forum that I share with a few friends. They don't say anything about what I do and don't finish. It's just there, and for some reason I find that helpful. (The lack of judgement is key.) 

5. My patterns always seem to get held up by photography. Do you have any particular stumbling blocks in the design process? What are the best and worst parts?  

Photography is one of my stumbling blocks too. I also sometimes have trouble just sitting down and writing out a pattern. And sometimes I have so many ideas that I get stuck and don't know what to do next. On the other hand, I love figuring out how to make complex stitch patterns flow and tile nicely. I enjoy the knitting, and then using the finished objects. I like geometry. And I like figuring things out for myself, and seeing what people make of my designs. 

6. What did you expect to achieve when you first started designing? Are those goals still relevant? 

To answer this, I need to split the concept of designing into two parts: coming up with an idea for a finished object and writing a pattern for it. The former is going to happen for me regardless, and I don't have goals for that, aside from making things I like and satisfying my curiosity about how to make that happen. But pattern writing comes out of what I think of as my question-answering reflex. I don't think of that as a goal, either. People asked me how to make what I'd made, and so I started writing my patterns. That is still relevant, but I've added the desire to earn a fair wage on top of that. (This is, of course, more easily said than done.) 

7. Where do you see your designs in five yearstime?

Sometimes I wonder if I'll keep writing patterns for finished objects, or if perhaps I'd rather focus exclusively on stitch patterns. Then I'll come up with a shawl shape that interests me, and, well, I guess I'll keep doing both. I don't really have a strong sense of things beyond that; every time I think I've got my design plans settled, something comes along that shakes everything up. As an example, these hexagon lace ideas (https://gannetdesigns.com/2016/03/07/more-on-hex-lace/) are very much on my mind and I hope to do something larger with them. 

8. You’re one of the GAL volunteers every year. (Thank you!) What do you like best about the Giftalong? Do you ever maybe dread it, just a tiny bit?   

Well, I wasn't involved in major organizing in the first two years, though I did volunteer to help with the Pinterest boards and was somewhat involved in the conversation that led to the GAL's existence. I started taking a bigger role last year with organizing the collection of the information that lets me create the giant bundles of GAL patterns on Ravelry, and am doing that again this year. 

There's several things I really love about the Giftalong. I really like the sense of community among designers, that we're there to support each other and promote each other's work and not just our own. It's fun to watch participants having a good time with a giant event that encompasses both knitting and crochet. I like having Team Bundle and Team Pinterest working together to collect the patterns and organize them in different ways so that everyone participating in the gift-a-long can find what they need. Some of my librarian tendencies are satisfied by making the bundles: being able to organize information and then be able to search it for just the right answers. Finally, having a group project is less lonely. 

It does make it harder to do my own design work, especially in the week during which I'm organizing the bundles. And I tend to fret (unreasonably) about breaking Ravelry when I add the sale pattern bundle, which is generated from a list of about 5,000 patterns. But it's all worth it to me.

9. What GAL patterns have caught your eye this year? Are you making anything? 

Oh, there's so many things, it's hard to know where to start. But I'll certainly be making Boy Sweater, by Lisa Chemery, for a local agency that collects winter clothes for babies in need. Once that's done, I hope to knit Elwood, by Jenny Wiebe, for my son. Meow-Meow Hat, by Mjuk, catches my eye because it's just so adorable. A dreamlike lace pattern that I've loved since she published it earlier this year is Illumine, by Nim Teasdale.  

10. What havent you done yet (in craft, in business or in life) that you really, really want to?

In order of likelihood: Knit myself a sweater that fits. Go to England to see where the Parkhursts came from. Meet all my internet friends in person. (I do keep meeting more, but I doubt that I'll ever meet all of them.) 

11. One more question, looking at your GAL bundle! I see your beautiful, distinctive lace stitches all over in other people's bundles, but your own designs (other than Bread & Roses) don't use them. Are you exercising different parts of your design brain when conceptualising an entire project vs imagining a stitch, or do you not like lace that much for your own use, or...?  (I'm interested in how people's tastes vary sometimes between what they like to design, and what they like to knit – this seems related!)

I've been thinking a lot about this in the last few months. It turns out to be a little more complicated than you might expect! On the one hand, Bread & Roses was made by a sample knitter, and I have two more lace samples I need to write up which were knit by a second sample knitter. I do often have a sense with my lace that designing the stitch pattern is what I wanted to do, no matter how much I like it.

On the other hand, I'm working on a lace shawl sample myself; it includes lace I've designed, though not encoded lace. And I'm planning on knitting some encoded lace shawls myself when that one's done.

Part of it is that I do better when I have something complex and something with plain knitting going at the same time, so I'm likely to spend as much time knitting garter shawls as the stitch pattern designs for my Patreon and my lace shawls put together. The simple patterns also often feel more straightforward to write up than the complex ones, though I've learned this is just a illusion. Simple isn't always easy! But this means that I've finished writing more patterns that aren't lace. I've also been wanting to explore certain shapes before I put lace into them, and so those have been popping up on my design page first in the form of garter shawls. 

In other words, I hope there there will be more of a mixture in the next year, though there is something appealing about designing complex stitch patterns and then leaving the finished objects to other people.