Knitting it softly with InDesign

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Kelly Vaughn is not your typical InDesign user. She uses the software program, normally associated with creating magazines, books and interactive texts, to create unique patterns for knitting projects and she’s generating interest in both the design and knitting communities. She recently spoke with Midlifexpress about her innovative work.

I first started experimenting with patterns in software about eight years ago. I was so intrigued by the possibilities. But it wasn’t until about three years ago that I started using software as my primary creation tool for patterns. I often start with sketching out concepts by hand and then move the design into the software after I’ve got the rough concept figured out.

My designs are all flat pieces (typically afghans, as opposed to clothing).

Since InDesign is a page layout tool, it lends itself well to designing flat designs. Previously, when I did all hand-drawn patterns, I would first have to create graph paper with the correct grid proportions and then color in each of the cells. But in InDesign, I can simply make a table with the cell dimensions that match my gauge and simply drag and drop colors into each of the table cells. I can very easily test out different color combinations and placement. Or I can easily create shapes that are with perfect dimensions and combine them in different arrangements to see how they fit together.

InDesign is great for geometric patterns because of its ability to do mathematical equations. It’s got a built-in calculator in the transform panel, so I can work out my colors, row counts, and measurements, all in the same program.

When I’m working in InDesign and I want to change measurements of stitch repeats, it’s really easy to resize things and get an accurate measurement of all the various shapes. InDesign also has a ruler tool (called the Measure Tool), so if I need to measure diagonally across multiple objects, I can just drag my mouse over the part I want to measure.

It also has a protractor (which is a hidden feature of the measure tool), so I can measure the angles of the geometric shapes I’ve created. I sketch out the initial design on paper, but InDesign is really the testing ground to see if the shapes and angles that I’ve envisioned are mathematically feasible with whatever pattern stitch I’m using.
eyedropper tool

Once I have the shape sizes and colors figured out, I can fill each shape with a stitch-like pattern. I’m a big fan of garter stitch, and I figured out a way to create a textural pattern that actually looks like garter stitch. So I can accurately represent the geometry and the visual texture and stitch count of the pattern. While I suppose it’s possible to do that when hand-drawing a pattern, it would take many hours. I am much more comfortable using the computer to work out technical details.

pink pattern

Sometimes I’ll knit the afghan first, and then afterward figure out how to create the pattern in InDesign. But other times (for more technical projects), I’ll design it in InDesign first, getting the angles correct, and then I’ll know how to knit it. Sometimes it takes a few tries to get the knitting to look like the concept I’ve drawn on the computer.

I had a design once where I had to rip out about 15 hours worth of knitting.

I had tried knitting this from the bottom up, using intarsia, and I had about 20 or 30 different strands of yarn hanging off the back of the knitting. There were increases and decreases at a bunch of points on every row, all the way across. Just to get the angles I wanted. I grew increasingly frustrated the bigger it got.

My afghan was a tangled mess and I hated working on it. And then I remembered that knitting was supposed to be a fun and relaxing experience. So I ripped it all out and figured out a way to create the same design just using one color at a time. I ended up rotating the design 90 degrees, and was able to make long strips and then graft them together once I had all the strips knitted. That was much more enjoyable and had the added benefit of being tangle-free.


Some patterns are so simple that I don’t bother putting them into InDesign until after I’ve knitted them.

indesign pattern

This garter stitch afghan, for example, I knitted first and later replicated in InDesign. In that case, the purpose of creating the pattern in InDesign was a technical challenge. I wanted to figure out a way to easily recreate this design without having to draw out hundreds of individual rectangles. I ended up using a table and merged selected cells. Later on, I figured out an even easier method using PatternMaker.

pattern graphpatternmeasurements

I have no idea what kind of financial benefit there is.

I have never sold a pattern, so I’ve never benefitted financially from them. But from a non-financial point-of-view, I have found it to be a great conversation starter. People I might otherwise never talk to have come up to me at conferences and introduced themselves because they saw my pattern presentations, or have read my blog articles about patterns. So I think that these patterns have been a great way to meet like-minded people and have some great discussions.

Each one of us has a lifetime of experiences unique to only us. So we’ll all be inspired by different things and can create our own fascinating patterns. From a creative/relational standpoint, the opportunities are endless.

I get great feedback about my patterns.

They’re so simple, nothing really that hasn’t been created a million times before. But I’m using InDesign as my primary pattern design tool in way so different from its normal function that it gets people’s attention.

A couple of years ago, I was able to meet the InDesign engineer who wrote the code for tables in InDesign. I showed him this graphic and thanked him for what he had developed. He seemed confused, so I told him, “It’s an InDesign table.” He was very surprised! That was pretty funny. So now, whenever I go to the conferences, I make a point to show my work to the development team. When they’re coding this amazing software, they can’t imagine all the crazy things designers will do with their tools. The developers really seem to appreciate seeing the work and hearing the stories about how people use the software they develop.

blue pattern
I occasionally use Illustrator for my patterns, but I typically use InDesign. For knitters who do color-charted patterns, a spread sheet program like Excel or Google can be used for creating graph paper and color charts. I’ve seen some other programs that are more specifically for knitting, though I’ve never used any of them. There is a interesting font that can be used for charted patterns.

Adobe has a touch app called Adobe Ideas. I don’t have an iPad, so I haven’t tried it yet. It’s  a drawing program that allows you to draw with different colors and opacity, and then save the file as a PDF which can be opened in Illustrator. That looks very promising because it’s sort of like a digital notepad. iPads are very portable and I think that program would be suitable for anyone who wants to draw. Since patterns are my favorite type of drawing, that’s how I would use it; it’s not a pattern-making software per say.

Most of the paying work I do in InDesign is very technical.

But I’m also rather passionate about Stroke Styles, and many of my creative activity involves creating stroke styles and then blogging about them. But in reality, stroke styles are just another way of creating repeating patterns. I really enjoy the challenge of figuring out how to simply replicate a real-life object using basic shapes and mathematical repeats.

piano pattern

I also really enjoy using InDesign to achieve unusual effects. Much of my work involves InDesign conditional text, and as a result, I spend hours every day looking at text like this:

But if you zoom in it looks like this:
blah text
I figured out a way to use conditional text to make chevron patterns. So sometimes the creative inspiration happens as a result of getting into a different mental state when I’m buried in the tedium of technical work.
orange pattern

For years now, we’ve had access to an abundance of affordable mass-made goods, often produced in far-off countries.

Over the last few years, I’ve seen an increasing appreciation for high-quality, handmade, and especially local goods. And what’s more local than making your own? I think Etsy has been tremendously beneficial in giving craftspeople a simple way to get their crafts in front of buyers around the world. And social media has allowed us to easily share interesting crafts with an immense number of people.

I think we’re much more of a global society now. When I was growing up, if I wanted to purchase something unusual (something that wasn’t available at the mall, or Wal-Mart), I would drive to speciality shops, and make many phone calls, all in an effort to find a company somewhere that could send me a catalogue of items that may or may not contain what I was looking for.

But now, a quick Google search will show me interesting crafts and items from around the world. So as a culture, we’re getting very used to seeing such things as handmade paper beads from Africa, knitted hats from Peru, handmade Alpaca teddy bears, and Cowichan sweaters.

The internet has brought worldwide creative inspiration to the masses. While there’s still nothing like traveling to a foreign place and experiencing the culture and landscape first-hand, there is a lot to be said for being able to search images on the web and be inspired by designs found around the world.

When we create something by hand, as craftspeople, we can confidently say that there is only one like it in the world. That’s pretty special. People really appreciate handmade items. When I give a knitted gift that has taken me four months to create, that truly expresses my love. And I think that people understand that more as a culture now.

We’re all really busy with work and family; and we’re on the go more than ever. I don’t sit and knit for 8 hours a day (though I sometimes wish I could). The time I spend knitting is precious, valuable time that I could have spent doing other seemingly important computer-driven activities that gobble up the hours of the day.

I have to often restrain myself from letting the computer take over my life. I love twitter, but tweets are fleeting. A well-made afghan can last for decades.

As a culture, I think many folks are over saturated with computers, and are longing for something more tactile.

It’s immensely satisfying to learn about the history of a particular craft, and then to create new works inspired by those craftspeople who have gone before us. We are their legacy. And in turn, we can help develop a new generation of craftspeople who will carry on the craft after we are gone. I seriously doubt that anyone will ever read my twitter feed and marvel at the poignant tweets or the time it must have taken me to type 140 characters. But a knitted afghan is a guarded and treasured family heirloom.

I find inspiration everywhere, especially  outside of my own home.

We tend to get very comfortable in our personal spaces. When we leave those places and go somewhere new, that’s when the inspiration really hits. I am particularly inspired by the geometry in the world around me, from flags, to the architectural patterns, to fish scales, and palms trees near my house. To the dimples on a golf ball, flower petals, floor tiles, ocean waves, hotel carpeting, woodgrain… it goes on forever.

I really enjoy visiting cities with old buildings. Hundred of years ago, building materials were different, and probably cheaper, and so the old buildings are often filled with exquisite stained glass, marble tiles, giant wooden beams, hand-hewn siding… and all sorts of interesting and often extravagant architectural details. Those are the type of things you don’t typically see in modern sleek buildings. There is so much detail in those old buildings if we just stop and look around.

My designs tend to be very geometric, and that ties in nicely to being inspired from architecture and industrial design. Buildings have to be strong, so you’ll see an abundance of squares, rectangles, triangles, and other strong, sturdy shapes. Those are the shapes I enjoy creating in a knitted form. In my knitted afghans, the shapes are bold and angular, but the fabric is soft and cozy. It’s sort of a paradox.

Several of the afghans I’ve knitted were based on windows at the Lincoln Memorial.
lincoln memorial
This has been a fun pattern because the shapes are so simple to knit. It consists of just three shapes. It really would make a good pattern for someone just learning to knit, because it gives them practice increasing, decreasing, grafting, and practicing consistent tension.

The boldness of the shapes tends to be the focus of the design, so even if the tension isn’t perfect, it still makes a lovely gift. I like this design even more because it was inspired by such a famous building. The Lincoln Memorial is so important to Americans and American history, and I like having a design that captures this really small, obscure detail of the architecture. It’s almost like a secret that most people don’t ever see, because they experience the main features of the monument: climbing the stairs, reading the inscription on the wall, and contemplating the statue of Lincoln. I would love to learn more about the Lincoln Memorial and understand what the purpose was of these obscure little windows.

In part 2 of this interview Kelly talks about how she started in the publishing industry and the link between history and fashion.

Kellys Blog

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About the author

Sue Bell is an entertainment writer and author of Backpacked: A mostly true story, Beat Street and When Dreamworks came to Stanley.

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  1. Knitting it softly with InDesign: Part 2 |

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