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Interview: Debbie Sullivan


The second interview today is with Debbie Sullivan of Sweet Paprika Designs.

Debbie modeling Diagonal Lace Shawl

Debbie modeling Diagonal Lace Shawl

Who taught you to knit/How did you learn to knit?
My grandmother taught me, when I was about 11 years old. She lived pretty far away at the time, and on one of her visits she showed me and my sisters how to knit. A little while later she sent us a box of yarn, patterns and needles in the mail, which was a great way to keep us inspired to do it on our own. She had started us on straights though, so I remember it took us a while to figure out what the circular needles and stitch holders were for…

How did you get started designing?
I’d been making up things to knit for myself, often using stitch patterns from the Barbara Walker treasuries, without ever thinking of it as “designing”. Then when my sister Elizabeth and I started our business (Sweet Paprika Designs) we were teaching classes, and starting to put together written patterns to teach from. My Diagonal Lace Shawl pattern was the first one I ever wrote, it’s super simple and I was using it for a beginner lace class. This was around 8 years ago when Ravelry and online self-publishing were just starting to take off, so it was pretty natural to try putting our patterns up online for the wider public as well.

What inspires your designs?
Usually I start with the idea to make a particular item (hat, socks, sweater, etc) and then start playing with shapes, colours and stitch patterns. I’ll do some sketching and swatching and try to make it all come together in a way that makes sense for that garment or item. I can be quite picky once I have an idea in my head and have been known to knit many, many swatches in order to figure out how to make it work.

Which comes first – the yarn or the inspiration?
Most often it’s the yarn. I spend a lot of my time dyeing yarn as part of our business, so I have lots of opportunity to dream up what I might want to knit with it! It’s also important to us to have a range of pattern support for our yarns, so when we add a new yarn we’re always excited to start designing with it and showing it off.

What characteristics do you try to incorporate in your designs?
The details of construction are pretty important to me in garments. Since I have a little bit of sewing/costume making experience I’ll often start with the shape of the piece (sometimes even drape it with fabric first to make sure it will work) and then figure out how to create those shapes in knitting. I also tend to include finicky finishing details and then worry that no one else will have the patience for them!

What is your favourite type of item to design?
I’ve really enjoyed working on both of my sock designs. Partly I think because the sizing/grading isn’t that complicated, and that’s my least favourite part of the process.

Tell me about “Bracquemond”, what is the story behind this design?
The Impressionists collection was put together for our first-ever sweater club. We needed three sweater designs that each used a different yarn, and for some reason I volunteered to use the fingering-weight for my design. I regretted that decision after I somehow lost one of the sleeves as it was in progress and had to re-knit a whole new one on a very short deadline! I am happy with the result though, it’s one of my favourite hand-knit sweaters to wear.

The other two sweaters in the collection are designed by my sister (Elizabeth Sullivan) and Jennifer Wood. We knew we wanted a theme to bring the three designs together, and it happened to rain on the day we had scheduled for the photoshoot so we happened to have a Renoir umbrella in several of the shots. That, together with the mood and styling of the other photos had us thinking about impressionist painters, so we ended up naming each of the designs after one of “les trois grandes dames” of impressionism. Marie Bracquemond was a late-nineteenth century French painter who was mentored by Monet and Degas.

Do you have an aspirational knit – a complicated/challenging design that you want to knit “some day” when you feel ready?
I’m quite a fearless knitter actually – I think it comes of having lots of practice fixing my own mistakes! I’ve never knit a really complex show-stopper lace shawl and I’d love to do that someday. But currently most of my knitting time takes place on public transit, which is not so great for reading charts… Lily Go’s Narnia shawl caught my eye recently, for when I have a bit more focused knitting time.

What is coming next? What’s in your release queue?
I have a crocheted hat and mitts set for babies that we’ve got really cute photos for but I’ve been procrastinating about writing up. Hopefully that will be published quite soon.

Your desert island yarn? (if you could only knit with one yarn from now on which would it be?)
I mainly knit with Sweet Paprika yarn, partly because we always need more samples, and partly I have easy access to it in whatever colour I want! I don’t think I could pick just one yarn though, as there are so many characteristics inherent in different yarn weights and fibre types that might be perfect for one project but terrible for another.

And now I’m imagining myself stranded on a desert island, trying to find the perfect design to use rope or vines or something that I’d actually have in that situation… Maybe a twine bag for gathering edible plants?

Which is your most under-appreciated design?
For some reason my Transposition scarf has never gotten very much attention from knitters, although I get compliments on the sample from non-knitters whenever I wear it.

What’s the one piece of advice you’d like to share with other knitters?
I often tell beginner knitters that once they can knit and purl they can do anything – everything else is just a variation on those two stitches. It’s also great to learn to read your knitting right off the bat if you can – if you understand what’s happening it makes fixing your mistakes much easier, not to mention having your own ideas about how to modify a pattern or create a design.

Any knitting/designing New Year’s resolutions?
I have a big bin full of bits and ends of yarn that I inherited from my grandmother and have been adding to for the past eight years or so, with the intention to someday knit it into a scrappy afghan. I’d love to finally get a start on that in the new year!

If you could have dinner with one knitting designer (living or dead) who would it be and why?
Hmm, I’m not sure – I don’t really have a design idol. I would love to meet Barbara Walker though, just to thank her for putting together those treasuries. I used to get them out of the library all the time starting when I was 11 or 12 years old, and they are still a source of inspiration for me.

View all of Debbie’s patterns here. Transposition photo copyright Kim-E Photo. All other photos copyright Veronica Schleihauf. All images used by permission.

You can find Debbie 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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