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Interview: Mona Lykaina

November26

Today’s interview is with designer Mona Lykaina, originally from the Western Isles of Scotland and now living in Germany. Her blog in Gaelic can be found here.

Mona modeling Calanas

Mona modeling Calanas

Who taught you to knit/How did you learn to knit?
I learned to knit as a very young child from my grandmother and other people in my family. I knit quite a lot during my primary school years, including sweaters for myself. However, a lot of what I do in knitting today has been self-taught since I picked it up again a few years ago.

How did you get started designing?
In a way, designing has always been an essential part of knitting for me. When I was a child, no one around me used patterns. I remember my grandmother measuring me and doing mysterious calculations on the margin of an old newspaper, and then she would tell me how many stitches to cast on. When I came back to knitting in 2009, and more specifically to Ravelry, I was surprised at the ubiquity of patterns, and at the scarcity of more systematic information. My reason for picking up knitting again was to knit sweaters for myself, and I had very specific ideas about them, I knew what I wanted them to look like. So, I did not want patterns, I wanted to understand how a sweater is constructed. I did knit a few ones from patterns, but I was always trying to understand the concepts behind them. And as soon as I felt confident about that, I started to knit more and more from my own sketches and calculations. So, it was a logical transition. And then people started to ask me about my designs, and I made several attempts at writing patterns. I was rather naive at first, and it did not really work well. However, I also started to teach workshops about sweater construction, how to measure yourself, etc at local fibre events, so I got a lot more input and feedback about the whole topic. Then I made another, more serious attempt at pattern publishing earlier this year, in February, and this time it seems to be going better.

What inspires your designs?
All my designs are garments that I want to wear. I have always been interested in fashion and textiles, but in a rather geeky way and often stubbornly out of tune with fast-moving trends. It was one of the persistent frustrations of my teenage years that I was always imagining myself in clothes that would look really cool on me, and then I could never find such things in shops. In a way I am still like that, but now I know that when something does not exist in local high street shops, it may exist somewhere on the internet, or I can knit or sew it. I think I just subconsciously inhale visual ideas of clothes all the time and mix and mess them around in my head, so that it is difficult to tell where exactly I got certain ideas from. Sometimes they are little everyday things. For example, sometimes a garment in a shop window catches my eye from afar, and I immediately get an idea for a knit design, then I walk closer and the item turns out to very different from what I saw at first sight, but it does not matter because I have my design idea in my head. I’ve also been known to stare at random strangers because their sweater has an interesting detail.

Which comes first – the yarn or the inspiration?
Usually the inspiration. I have a sketchbook full of sweater ideas, and I’d need nine lives to knit them all. Many fellow knitters are surprised that I am quite averse to yarn stashing. I prefer to buy yarn for specific projects, and it can sometimes take me a long time to decide on the perfect yarn for a design. I want to support small yarn businesses, traditional sheep breeders, fair trade companies, so the yarns I use tend to be expensive, and I need to calculate how much I need for a specific design before I can commit to buying it.

On the other hand, I’ve started to spin and use a lot of my handspun yarn for sweater projects, too. There it is usually the other way round, I start with the yarn and just figure out what it wants to become.

What characteristics do you try to incorporate in your designs?
I don’t think I deliberately try to incorporate anything. My designs usually evolve from a vague idea of a certain shape or style, then I add the details. I like clean lines and functional elements, but I also enjoy playing around with texture. I prefer certain constructions and shaping methods that I know will result in a good fit, like set-in sleeves or a yoke/raglan hybrid, and front and back darts for waist shaping. My garment patterns always include lots of modification advice, because I would like to help every knitter achieve that perfect fit that I’m aiming for in my projects.

What is your favourite type of item to design?
Definitely sweaters and tops.

You use a lot of complex cables in your designs, what is the story behind this?
Well, I suppose I just like them. They have a long history in some parts of Europe, and a lot of people think of them as “traditional”, but they are essentially timeless. The funny thing is that I’ve never thought of them as complex, just pretty. A bit tedious to knit, sometimes, but as I’m so focused on the look of the finished object I don’t mind that. I remember I was knitting the heel of my Gyvatė sock on a longer train trip, and it took me about 2 hours. That was a bit of a nuisance but I did not think much of it. Later I gave this pattern to a dozen friends for testing, and almost everybody gave up or changed the heel to a simpler version.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about how to make the instructions for these cable patterns clear and accessible. I usually knit from wonky hand-drawn charts myself, and I find it easy to memorize a pattern after a few repeats. When you cable on the wrong side, you just have to think about how it is supposed to look on the right side. But many people have told me this is challenging for them, so I’ve put a lot of effort into providing clear charts and instructions, and I’m still working on that.

Do you have an aspirational knit – a complicated/challenging design that you want to knit “some day” when you feel ready?
I have several ideas for sweaters with interesting allover stranded colourwork, but I am really slow at knitting that because I don’t have a good two-handed technique. So I keep postponing those sweaters.

What is coming next? What’s in your release queue?
Hopefully I’ll publish two more garment patterns this year (or early next year): Bean-Sìdhe is a silk top with a gauge of 8 stitches per inch, so probably no one wants to knit that 😉 But I do think there is a lack of patterns for this type of garment, even if you can’t really wear it in public. The other one, Cascadian is a cardigan that I am very much in love with at the moment. The original is made with a handspun yarn, and it was my first time using beads.

A bit further down the line are several sexy summer tops, as well as a small series of sweaters inspired by medieval women (I’ll give you their names: Alienor, Melkorka and Merofled… now you can guess what that might mean ;))

Your desert island yarn? (if you could only knit with one yarn from now on which would it be?)
Shetland wool. (Not for sexy summer tops, though ;))

Which is your most under-appreciated design?
My accessories patterns feel very under-appreciated 😉 Well, I suppose I’ll just have to accept the fact that people see me as a sweater designer.

What’s the one piece of advice you’d like to share with other knitters?
If you want to knit sweaters that fit, please have yourself measured thoroughly. It makes all the difference! The best way to do this is to get together with a good friend and measure each other.

Any knitting/designing New Year’s resolutions?
I don’t really do those :) My big plan is that I want to write a book about sweater construction and how to knit sweaters that fit, in German. I have a fairly extensive script from all the classes I’ve been teaching on the topic, and I get a lot of positive feedback about that. I am just very undisciplined when it comes to working systematically on a larger project.

If you could have dinner with one knitting designer (living or dead) who would it be and why?
That’s a tough one. I think what I would really like to do is to invite two dozen German designers to dinner and encourage us all to learn a bit of networking from our North American colleagues. We need something like Twist Collective in German, we need something like the Indie GAL, we need more fibre events with high quality classes and workshops from local people. Some of the larger events have started to invite English-speaking “star” designers and I think that sends the wrong message to the German knitting community. It excludes a lot of people who are not confident in the English language, and I also think it is more important to support local teachers and designers and develop this part of our community. We have a lot of knowledgeable people here.

View all of Mona’s patterns here. All photos copyright Mona Lykaina. All images used by permission.

You can find Mona on the following social media sites:

What is the Gift-A-Long? The GAL is a big knitting and crochet designer promotion with prizes and more than 5,000 people participating in a giant KAL/CAL. Come join the GAL group on Ravelry!

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