designing & publishing: part 1

(One of my favourite layouts from Yokes, pages 18-19)

I think that these are really interesting times in knitwear design and publishing. I’m someone whose interest in hand-knit design directly lead to my establishing myself as a (very) small publisher. Having previously written several academic books and articles, as well as various editorial features, bits of film and literary criticism, and other journalistic pieces, I had some idea of what might be involved in making a book. When I decided to produce Colours of Shetland, what really drew me to doing things myself was that I could hopefully make the kind of book that would be a very hard sell to a mainstream publisher, but which I knew I would love to create, and which I also felt that knitters would hopefully want to read. By creating my own books, I could write about archeology and knitting, puffins and jazz and lighthouses . . . and knitting. I could even write about Danish foreign policy and its representation in one of my favourite television series. . . and knitting. Creating your own books as a small publisher means that you retain control of all aspects of the process, from how things look on the page to the paper quality of the page itself.

(Colours of Shetland inside front cover)

In my former career, I had many frustrating experiences working with academic publishers where editorial control is largely out of one’s hands. I vividly recall, for example, spending around six months tracking down and, with some considerable effort, securing one-time, non-commercial reproduction rights to a particular eighteenth-century image which I needed to illustrate an article I was writing for a well-regarded academic publisher. At the proof stage, I was appalled to discover that the painting was so poorly reproduced and so small on the page that it was barely visible at all, let alone in the detail that would have been needed for the reader to make any sense of what I was saying in the accompanying text. My objections had no effect. But if you are doing things yourself, you can address such issues, and try to find a good balance between useful illustration, and cost (which is of course a major consideration).


For example, when I found this poster of Eskimo – George Schnéevoigt’s 1930 film – I knew I wanted to include the image in my Yokes book. As well as illustrating a key part of my discussion (the Greenlandic costumes worn in this film inspired Norweigan designer, Annichen Sibbern to create her famous Eskimo yoke), I felt the image held a general aesthetic consonance with my thinking, and I found it very inspiring to look at on my mood board while I was writing the chapter in which the film appeared. Yoke sweaters are a modern – and in some respects modernist – design phenomenon, both of which were suggested to me by the font and feel of this striking poster. Nic (my book production guru) loved the image too, but there were other matters to consider. The chapter had to work as an 8 page spread, with several other wonderful images of Greenlandic costume, (which the nice people at had permitted me to reproduce)


In the end, the layout Nic came up with completely thrilled my editorial eye. She had used the photograph of the Greenlandic girls in their nuilarmiut at full page to introduce the chapter, but had then flipped it, so that the figures were facing right, leading the reader into the text. Schnéevoigt’s movie poster, meanwhile, held an important prefatory role – slotting into the chapter’s opening paragraphs, reproduced at centre page at a size at which its details were easy to see, and with its colours picked up in the chapter’s title font and subheadings. This use of colour in the chapter’s subheadings makes the poster’s aesthetic effect echo throughout the chapter. Amazing job, Nic!

(Yokes, pages 8 and 9).

As you might imagine, the amount of work involved in creating and publishing one’s own books is pretty vast, and self-publishing by no means implies that you are doing everything yourself. I have been completely blessed in working with a superb team of people like Nic and Jen, whose expertise in print and production, as well as technical and copy editing mean I can create books properly professionally, to the high standard and quality that I want. I’ve found it absolutely essential to have a really good team of folk on board, all of whom can take responsibility for various aspects of the process, and who also work well together. As the publisher, the writer, and the designer, you have to be prepared to listen and take advice, to take firm decisions, and to take some risks too. You (or rather, your business) has to invest time, energy, and a large amount of money into each book. Yokes involved an awful lot of research, travel, designing, knitting, writing, and photography before we even got anywhere near the editing and production stage. Personally I really enjoy this all-encompassing absorption in a project – you have to really live the book – but I suspect that this isn’t for everyone, and probably neither is the level of risk involved. The major benefit of working with a larger publisher is that they are shouldering the financial burden and any associated risk involved in a book’s production, but when one is one’s own publisher, that risk is yours and yours alone. When I wrote this post and received so many responses along the lines of “yokes just aren’t for me” I confess I was a wee bit concerned. Was I making a book that was of no interest to anyone but me? Did anyone even want a book about yoked sweaters, their provenance and their recent history?

(Yokes, pages 4 and 5, with wonderful illustrations by Felicity Ford)

Happily some people were interested in such a book.

In the end I would say that the best thing about small publishing is the very basic pleasure that’s derived from making a thing of which one is proud. This pleasure-in-making is integral to every aspect of the process for me, from the initial idea, through the writing and the designing and the knitting, through to the editorial, layout, and production stage, to finally holding the book in my hand. And in some ways, the actual made-thing is only the very start of that productive process. From that point on, one has the additional pleasure of seeing folk engage meaningfully with the thing that you have made. Knitters knit your jumpers. Folk write and say they enjoyed reading a particular chapter, that they liked or disagreed with something that you said; that they loved a certain pattern, or that there was a design element in it they felt might be improved. All of these interactions are important – they are all about people actually engaging meaningfully with your made thing — and this can be very affirming.


(Lovely Karen from Oxford Yarn Store has made and adapted several patterns from Yokes. Every sweater she makes makes me happy!)

I said at the start of the post that these are interesting times in design and publishing. I suppose the thing that I find most interesting (and heartening) about them is that I’m not alone. So many designers and writers are now finding that small publishing is a viable route of pursuing their own creative direction, finding their own independent voice, and realising their own visions. We are often told that the world of print is struggling in the digital age, but it seems to me that in knitting, as perhaps in other areas of relatively “niche” interest, that a host of independently-minded folk are using small publishing to make really wonderful, successful books that also often combine print and digital production in innovative ways. My friend Felix crowdsourced funding for her amazing and completely distinctive tome in a way that was both incredibly professional and really, really inspiring. Designers like Gudrun, meanwhile, are publishing their own beautiful pattern collections, which, because they are the product of a single, undiluted creative vision – from the stitch patterns to the photographic locations – have something really striking and specific to say. I think that small, independent publishing has made the knitting world much richer, more varied and certainly much more interesting than it was a decade ago, when the majority of knitting books were put out by mainstream craft publishers or large yarn companies (whose priorities were sometimes rather narrowly trend-led).

I have been prompted to these musings by the sheer number of fascinating, beautiful, and important books produced by my fellow independent designers that have recently caught my eye. In tomorrow’s post I’ll review a few examples.