Today, I’m delighted to introduce Melanie Berg as the next participant in our European Yarn Community conversations. Melanie is a German designer whose work will, I’m sure, be already very much admired by many of you. Melanie is best known for her shawls, but she also creates gorgeous modern garments, and everything she makes is always somehow very recognisably her. I think of Melanie’s work as distinctive for the way that it combines breathtaking beauty with a very particular kind of aesthetic restraint. There’s no fuss in what she does, and it always makes me say “wow.” I was really honoured when I learned a few months ago that Melanie was designing a shawl with our Àrd-Thìr yarn, and, when I saw the end result, I was completely, utterly bowled over . . . I may even have had a few tears in my eyes (it’s a good thing when a design has that effect!) Combining a deep lace border with a shallow garter-stitch body that’s peppered with tiny falling stars, Catch my Fall is both robust and delicate: a piece that’s warm and enveloping as befits an autumn/winter shawl, but diaphanous and elegant at the same time. It’s a design that has made me look at Àrd-Thìr in a completely new way! Thank you so much Melanie, for creating this wonderful shawl and thanks too for joining me in conversation.
Hello Melanie! Like me, you had a very different career before you ended up designing patterns for hand-knitting. Could you tell us a little about your professional background and how it plays a role in your current work?
Hello Kate, and thank you so much for having me here on your blog! You’re right, I’m originally from IT. I learnt how to operate big UN*X machines and worked as a system administrator for several years. Obviously, I spent most of my time in front of the computer, and this is in fact not very different from working as a knitwear designer. I don’t knit all day – although many people think so. It’s mainly figuring out patterns, writing them down, taking photos, working on layout, email conversations, project planning and things like that. So parts of my old job definitely help me nowadays – both in the actual computer work, but also in the manner of working in an organized and structured way. Did you ever notice how many knitwear designers originally come from IT? And from architecture. I don’t find this surprising at all.
I’m really interested in your design process, particularly with your unusually constructed and beautifully textured shawls. Do you draw and sketch your designs beforehand? Do you swatch different shapes as well as textures? What role do your test knitters and editors play?
I swatch a lot – both, to see if the yarn I want to use works with the stitch pattern I have in mind (that’s the first step), and then secondly, to figure out how to bring the shawl shape and the stitch pattern together. How many increases are needed, and how can I combine them with the number of pattern repeats in the best way?
Sketching is part of that process, but my main work happens with the charting software on my computer. I usually write a small part of the pattern ahead, and then I’ll knit that part to see if everything works out before I write the next part – and so on. That way, once the knitting is done, the pattern writing is more or less done, too. Next, I take photos and do the layout, and after that, my tech editors check the pattern. Once they give their OK, my test knitters start their projects. They have a few weeks time and usually they spot little things in the pattern the tech editors didn’t notice – such as an incorrectly-named color. I’m immensely grateful to have both, my tech editors as well as my test knitters, because it’s their thoughtfulness and attention that gives a pattern the final polish.
As designers we are certainly all indebted to our colleagues and collaborators! One of most refreshing things about the European Yarn Community is how it engenders so many different opportunities for fruitful creative collaborations. Could you describe an inspiring collaboration you’ve been involved with?
I’ve had many extremely positive collaborations with makers and creative minds all over the world, so it’s very hard for me to pick just one single one of them. One of the longest relationships I’m having goes back several years already, when both the folks at Rosy Green Wool and I were relatively new in the yarn industry. We’re both from Germany, so maybe that’s how we found each other. There have been many projects we’ve done together since then, and we’ve become good friends. Last December, we’ve organized a big fundraiser for the Against Malaria Foundation, bringing several makers from the knitting community together in a joint effort to fight Malaria and to support people who are in real danger of infection. I think it’s projects like this one that bring the community forward, because in the end, it’s not only about knitting – it’s always about the people behind the knitting needles.
I know that you’ve been very active in supporting Plan Deutschland / Plan International and other charities with proportions of your pattern sales. Can you tell us more about the work that Plan does?
Plan Deutschland / Plan International is a charity organization which focusses on supporting young people in Africa, South America and Asia. You can become a sponsor of a child in these regions, ensuring he or she is supported to get a better education. Plan creates infrastructure in poorer world regions, giving people access to water, medical support and education. They also have special programs designed for girls, as they are often victims of violence and oppression. We have three of our own children, and that’s why we’re sponsoring three children for Plan. We hope our support helps these kids to gain better opportunities in their lives.
I’m someone who really enjoys the happy flukes of design—I rather like it when something I’m knitting doesn’t turn out at all as I expected. Does the design process ever surprise you?
It absolutely does – but I can’t quite say I always like that. Sometimes I do, yes, but I really enjoy it when things fall into place exactly as planned. Maybe that’s why I appreciate swatching so much. I didn’t always do that, but once I realized how much time it actually saves me (and how much troubles!), I’ve grown more and more fond of it. Also – knitting is in its most basic aspect the art of creating fabric, so I really want to gain as much information about the qualities of that fabric before I actually spend oodles of time knitting up an entire garment and then not liking it.
You have, it seems to me, a very precise and careful sense of colour. How would you describe your approach to selecting shades for a new design?
Thank you Kate, for complimenting on my sense of color! I like that you find it precise and thoughtful, because color picking is such a spontaneous act for me. I choose what I like!
I do have some principles, though, like combining strong and popping colors with more muted ones, or inverting color schemes – but it’s mainly gut decisions.
Wow! I love that your choices are spontaneous and instinctual. I think you must have an amazing internal sense of harmony and balance!
What’s your favourite European yarn?
That’s impossible to answer! And luckily, we don’t have to decide – I think it’s wonderful to have access to such a rich variety of yarns nowadays. Just compare today’s situation to the one twenty years ago: You had to buy what was on the shelves at your local yarn store, and what was on offer was often pretty limited. I like to make use of that variety and use different kinds of yarns for different projects. Sometimes a squishy, colorful superwash is the right yarn to use, and sometimes a rustic, natural undyed one.
What does being European mean to you?
For me, being European and a citizen of the EU means to overcome and celebrate our differences, to get together and to be, all in all, more than the sum of our single parts. All of us are small nations in a big world, and compared to other countries we are very small indeed. As neighbours, I think the need to work together is pretty obvious. I feel very lucky and blessed to be a EU citizen, but it’s not all plain sailing and there are certainly many EU related-issues that are not in good shape right now – I’m thinking of how we treat refugees, of maintaining common standards, of improving environmental protections, of financial regulatory frameworks, and many others.
I consciously draw on many European design traditions in my work and often find myself thinking about the important interconnections between (for example) Estonian, Finnish, and Shetland colourwork motifs. Do you think of your work as speaking to a particular European design aesthetic?
Hm, no, not so much. But I’ve never really focussed on traditional motifs nearly as much as you. I think it’s probably similar to my way of color picking – I just design what I like. This can sometimes be something modern, sometimes something more traditional, sometimes maybe a mix of both. I honestly don’t really think a lot about what other knitters would like – I base my design decisions on my personal taste.
What projects can we look forward to from you in the coming months?
In October, my second book, Colorwork Shawls, will be published! Just as with Shawls, my first book, I had a lot of fun writing it and I hope it will inspire knitters to be bolder when playing with colors and different colorwork techniques. In January, a yarn I created in collaboration with a German yarn company will come out – a very beautiful alpaca mix in a rich color palette which lends itself to all kinds of projects. And of course, I will keep self-publishing patterns.
How exciting to hear about your yarn and book – I look forward to seeing both. Thank you for joining us today, Melanie, and thanks so much for the beautiful pattern you’ve created in Àrd-Thìr – like so many of your designs, Catch my Fall is a shawl that really makes the yarn sing!
Thank you so much for having me, Kate. It’s such an honor for me to chat with you. Thank you for all you do to enable others!