This week I am taking a closer look at one of Ireland’s beautiful crochet designers Aoibhe Ní Shúilleabháin. Aoibhe very kindly took the time to answer some questions for the Notebook. Today is Part I which focuses on design. Aoibhe is a talented lady with over a decade under her belt as a published crochet designer, she has inspired a new generation to pick up a hook and try their hand at a modern take on an age-old craft. I’m delighted to be able to share with you an insight into the life of such a young, inspirational Irish designer. Read on and enjoy:
This is your 10th year as a crochet designer which is an amazing achievement. When did you decide that you wanted to be a crochet designer?
I actually think I had it decided for me if I’m honest.
I can barely remember a time before I had a hook in my hand and yarn about the place at home. My Mam was and is a very creative influence; I’m convinced being a military family, with Dad gone for long stretches, and a younger sister to care for, she probably saw anything that kept me occupied for longer than five minutes as a bonus.
But it wasn’t til the recession hit that I started to see this crochet malarkey as a possible career path. I guess I’m not alone in that. We have a steadily growing generation of creatives, artists and makers-of-things coming forward now because they all lost their “sensible” jobs during the first few years of the recession. For me, I was laid off as a graphic designer, and after a brief and extremely stressful period as a free-lance designer, I thought to hell with it, time to do something I actually love for a change.
I dabbled in submitting patterns to magazines as it seemed like the safest first step, but I found the payoff was not equal to the work, and the lack of control of the final edit, pattern name, the delay between writing the thing and seeing it on the shelves, and the fact that I had no access to anyone making the pattern to help them if they got stuck was not ideal, so I do that rarely nowadays.
But, it did give me a start, and when the concept of Tunisian-lace hit me one morning in bed, I was in a good position to work on it solo and see what I could make of it.
Ravelry was a huge deal for me starting out. Having a ready audience of crafting people all focussing on one website meant that someone with a good idea could make an impression, and as this was ten years ago or so, there were far fewer patterns on Rav to compete with. I guess after I saw the initial reception of my first few patterns, and the joy there was to be derived by offering my creativity up for others to enjoy, I set my course.
Can you describe your journey from the initial idea of designing professionally and how you made this a reality?
It was… nebulous.
I think I’ve come at this career in a very similar way to many, if not all, of my patterns. I kind of fall into things and splash around til I get the hang of it. I hate big changes, they worry me, so any new things I encounter need to be approached at a diagonal like I’m trying to trick myself.
I fell into crochet design by way of a published pattern in the second ever issue of Inside Crochet, and it sort of grew from there. It took a few years, though, for me to hit on the idea of using Tunisian Crochet, coupled with basic knitted lace techniques to create something wholly new. That, literally, was a eureka moment.
I’m not overstating it when I say that my head is a strange place.
I literally revel in the sound of deadlines whooshing over my head and become unaccountably truculent when required to work to any schedule but my own. I guess it all comes down to the fact that my creative impulses come and go in waves, and can’t be controlled, really. It’s not an ideal way to work, and I have the utmost respect and admiration for any knit or crochet designer who can treat their career like a proper, 9 to 5 job with a predictable process, and a sensible framework. But I’m as likely to wake up in the morning with a desperate need to bake sourdough bread all day, or whittle twigs into hair sticks, or spin flax, or make a wrap-around skirt from an old duvet cover, as I am to feel motivated to crochet into the small hours of the next day.
These things are all equally fulfilling to me, the only difference is that the crochet pays the bills, so that’s what I call my “career”.
I think that your work has an immediately recognisable aesthetic and your designs are instantly recognisable. Can you tell us a little about your development of your design style?
I came up with the idea of Tunisian lace shortly after a friend who is a magnificent lace-knitter sat me down to explain exactly HOW lace knitting worked. I think I had admired her latest completed shawl and had lamented how difficult it must have been to make, so she was definitely setting me straight on that score.
As someone who was far more familiar with the hook than needles, my mind started trying to find a way to understand what she was saying in terms of crochet rather than knitting.
It all jumbled in my head for a while, and when the spin cycle was complete, I realised that traditional tunisian had un-tapped potential as a way to make lace.
As to my design style, honestly, I didn’t try to control that, I had no plan, and I don’t intend to develop one. That’s simply not how my process works.
But working in thick layers of crochet does limit what you can do, and working within those limits is where I’m happiest working. In art school, I was once told that accepting the imposition of limits on what you are allowed to do creatively on any given project paradoxically inspires more creativity, not less. You start to negotiate with the space you’re given, start to think sideways, and backwards, and you begin to view the tools at your disposal as more flexible than their accepted use.
If I gave you a blank sheet of paper and told you to make art, you’d be lost. But if I told you, you could make art only with things you found in your garden, suddenly, the creative gates open. It’s an exciting way to work, and I guess that’s why I have a recognisable style.
That, and the fact that I’m terrible at combining various colours, so I resolve to work in solid blocks of hand-dyed yarn. To me, that’s an example of accepting a personal flaw, and working around it.
Where do you draw your inspiration from?
It’s funny because, several years ago, I was asked this question, and I was completely stumped. How do I answer a question, when I have NO idea where I get my ideas from? Gah!
But in the intervening years, it has come to my attention that I see the world as a series of shapes that either fit together nicely or don’t. For my shawls, I use a level of mathematical intuition (as in, I don’t work to perfection when it comes to my maths, I work til it feels right) to ensure whatever texture I work up will lie flat. After that, it’s a question of what I can remove, and what I can add in as compensation to make a pleasing pattern.
Often, I will imagine a shape in my head, almost like it’s computer code, and will then start negotiating with it til I think it might function in the real world. Then I jot down what I have, experiment with it, and decide where to go from there. I basically pick my patterns out of The Matrix.
Which other designers do you most admire and inspire you?
I love Doris Chan. I love the confidence with which she makes crazy shapes fold together at the last second to make clothing that fits. The number of times I’ve had crochet students come to me with a Doris Chan pattern that looks more like a bag-pipe cover, in a panic saying “This is meant to be a dress!”. I advise them to trust the pattern. Next class, it’s all starting to make sense. I love that.
It’s like a crochet pattern version of a magic eye poster; crochet long enough and it all falls into place!
I’ve also got a lot of admiration for our very own Carol Feller, even if she IS a knitter! 😉
I admire not only her output, and how much she’s done to modernise Aran knitting, but also her support of other designers, her willingness to give sound advice when asked, her work ethic and how good an example she is for those coming up behind her in clothing design. It’s many’s a time I’ve said “I wish I was as inspiring as Carol.” It’s a good mantra!
What are your favourite yarns to work with and how do you choose them?
Anything with silk in it is a favourite of mine, purely for blocking reasons. And because, as previously mentioned, I’m a disaster at combining colours in a pleasing manner (there’s a reason most of my clothes are black, folks). I love to work with hand-dyed yarns because I trust the dyers to know what they’re doing, and I have yet to be anything but thrilled with the outcome.
On that score, I love pretty much every single thing Ellie & Ada do (I used her yarn for Anaconda), and Coolree (Bel), and Hedgehog Fibres (Pax and Nova), and I’m dying to get working with some Townhouse Yarns laceweight, too.
My only criteria are that the yarn must be lace weight or a very light fingering weight and the skein must be made up of tints of the same colour, not dramatic blocks or sudden colour changes. Those yarns are gorgeous, to be sure, but they don’t work well in my style, sadly.
On a Decade of the Design Business
One of the great things about running a craft business is that you are constantly learning with having to turn your hand to business, marketing, customer care among other things. What has been the toughest part of running a craft business for you and how did you overcome that?
I find almost all if it a joy, I really do. And I think if you’re going to pull yourself along as the sole employee in a creative business you simply have to wake up each morning happy to get working on some aspect or another of your career. You have to genuinely love answering people’s questions, addressing their complaints, making people happy as you go.
If you’re all foot-dragging, that’s gonna come through in your work, and the people will look elsewhere for their creative sunshine. It has to be the thing you’d still do if you became independently wealthy tomorrow.
That said… I can’t stand official forms. I find them completely impossible to fill out. So, when it came to filling out tax forms, registering my business, doing all the government things necessary to keep the wolf from your door, that was a real struggle for me.
I know it’s necessary, but by god, I wish it wasn’t.
They most definitely do not make those websites navigable to the creative mind, which is a real pity, because, I have no doubt in my mind that our government would see an industrial boom if they make the process of paying income tax and all the rest easy for sole traders.
Overcoming that is an on-going battle. I have enough set aside now that I have been able to hire a local accountant, so the form-filling is now in the capable hands of someone who does that for a living, which is a huge weight off my shoulders.
With running a business by yourself it can sometimes be hard to stay motivated. How do you manage to keep the momentum going?
Is it OK to say that I don’t?
Like, honestly. I don’t think it’s possible to “turn on” your motivation. Some weeks, I do loads, I mill through possible shawl patterns, I wake up at three am, sneak my legs out from under the sleeping dog and go sketch out a shape I just dreamt up, and some weeks, it’s all I can do to remember to put socks on.
I think, in a creative job, you have to surf a lot. Go with what your head needs you to do, and don’t beat yourself up if you just.. can’t…do the thing today. Wallow if you need to, you know? You’ll get to the important stuff again when the wave picks up.
That all said, I do have a regular schedule of classes I teach, so I never really get to wallow too deeply in my own creative morass. But if I was to name any one thing as a good motivator, it’s learning to work around your lack of motivation. You know those days when you just wanna stay in your pyjamas and watch Star Trek all day? DO that, but crochet part of a project that doesn’t need you to work out a spreadsheet full of shaping maths or colour work while you do it. Maybe your head just needs a break that day.
Use your lack of motivation in a positive way, and you’ll get out of it faster and feel better for it, I promise.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I sleep late. One of the joys of being my own boss. Rosie the dog (who sleeps at the end of the bed) usually gets sick of waiting for me to wake up around nine, half nine. She’ll come up to me, poke me in the shoulder with her paw and stare til I get up and feed her.
Then, it’s coffee, Netflix and what I call zombie crochet. I do the more boring bits early in the day because I tend to get into my creative flow later in the evening. So, any class samples I need to finish, any long stretches of repetitive tunisian, that stuff gets done around noon.
The afternoon is usually spend walking the dog, feeding the dog, talking to the dog, then after lunch, the crochet experiments begin.
If I’m lucky, one of my ideas will pan out and will evolve into my next pattern. If not, the random crochet piece is consigned to a box where I may come back to it later.
After dinner, Rosie, Dave and I usually settle down on the couch and watch a movie, or some TV while I continue to work on the more interesting end of my design work, then we all head to bed around midnight, or 1am. I read for a bit, something completely unrelated to my work (at the moment, I’m rather enjoying a historical account of the life of Isabella of France, but I’m as likely to be caught reading any number of a selection of classic sci-fi, or anything by Jane Austen or the Brontés). I fall asleep with my book in hand usually, and wake up to start the process all over again!
What do you think helped you most to build your business?
Not knowing how tough it would be!
OK, that’s only really half serious, but I do think it has merit.
The emotional support of my family and my partner were absolutely key, too. No-one, I’m convinced, can create anything of merit in a vacuum. At least, I can’t. I know from experience the value of a genuine word of praise, so when I teach, I try to ensure I point out something good in each of my student’s work. It makes so huge a difference to someone’s ability to do something they haven’t tried before. And for me, every pattern is new, so knowing I have their backing is vital.
On the purely practical side too, living in a socialist country where I have never had to worry about the cost of my diabetes care is definitely on the top of the list. Not having to work in order to meet my more complex health needs is something I will always be grateful for. I can’t over-state that. The accident of the country of my birth has much to do with my sustained ability to harness my creativity and to do this job.
So, thank you, Ireland!
What does running a creative business mean to you?
As both a diabetic and someone who suffers occasionally from mild bouts of depression, I find it’s incredibly important for me to be able to say “stop, I need to look after myself” on any given hour of any given day.
Having a career that allows me to do that is why I have had the happiest and healthiest decade of my life so far.
I find that knitting and crochet are all the treatment I need to help improve and maintain a healthy outlook on life, but having the power to take time to breathe and centre myself if I need to is really why I keep doing this as a job.
Is there anything that you know now that you wish you had known 10 years ago when you first started designing?
That it’s important to have a solid support network and to tune out anyone whose advice is unsolicited, self-congratulatory or continuously negative. That sounds like I have a cross to bare, I know. I don’t, at all, but there have been times when I was close to quitting because people told me it couldn’t be done.
It’s heartbreaking to be told the one thing that keeps you happy and simultaneously maintains your bank account isn’t “worth it”, so my advice, if I’m qualified to give any to strangers, is to be sure that the people whose opinions you rely on are on your side. That way, if they tell you they think something is a bad direction to go in, you can be sure they have your best interests at heart.
I’m very lucky to have a partner and a dog both of whom appreciate my creative drive and are there with a kind word and a helpful ear when I need it, and I can say with all honesty that I would not be working as a crochet designer today if it wasn’t for their combined pep talks, emotional support, snuggles and help with the rent during low-sale months. Admittedly, the dog isn’t so good with the rent help, though, but she does what she can regardless.
I hope you enjoyed part I of Aoibhe’s interview. There is more from Aoibhe on Wednesday, so don’t forget to pop on back for part two as we take a look at Aoibhe’s other interests and her beautiful new design Selkie. It is currently on pre-order sale at the moment with a portion of the sale going to the Irish Seal Sanctuary and if you would like to nab 25% off the digital copy of Aoibhe’s Legendary Shawls Collection than all you have to do is subscribe and head on over to the VIC area to pick up your code. If you would like to find out more about Aoibhe, you can find her on Ravelry, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and of course Patreon.
Grow, Craft, Love
*Disclaimer: All photography is under the copyright of Aoibhe Ní/J.Matkin. Photography cannot be used without expressed permission.