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Profile No. 1: Shirley Paden

Updated: Jul 3, 2023

“We make cloth, step by step and stitch by stitch”

In a world where knitting is still too often viewed as unsophisticated or homely, the work of Shirley Paden is anything but homespun. Based in New York, USA, she is a hand knit designer, author, blogger, crochet designer, publisher, technical editor and, for the past 28 years, the owner of the eponymous Shirley Paden Custom Knits garment label.

She has taught, lectured and written articles on various aspects of hand knitting and crochet. At the same time her classic and sophisticated designs have featured in leading international publications such as Vogue Knitting, Interweave Knits and Interweave Crochet.

The beginning: a profound love of learning

“As an adult you come to things very differently because everything you have ever learned in life comes with you.”

Shirley was taught to knit aged 8 by her grandmother whose teaching gave her an instinctive feel for the craft. It enabled her to freestyle while knitting and, when necessary, to rip out rows and correct her own mistakes. This hands-on approach is something she continues to be thankful for, and now passes onto her own students. Her interest in fashion design stems back to high school when the mother of a friend a seamstress for a major designer — began teaching her what she regards as the fine details of garment making.

This love of women’s fashion and a fascination for what she calls “antique cloth-making” sowed the seeds for a lengthy career in knitwear design which endures to this day. She continued knitting while in college, seeing it as a creative diversion, but for 20 years it was consigned to the back seat while she focussed on her career working at a globally renowned computer firm.

The knitting spark was reignited when a work colleague asked Shirley for help with binding off a baby blanket and despite having not lifted a needle for two decades, the knowledge soon came flooding back. This lightbulb moment compelled her to visit a yarn shop she’d bypassed every day on the way to work, and it soon became her second home. She bought yarn, needles and a book. However, although equipped with the knowledge passed on by her grandmother — how to freehand while knitting, rip back work to fix mistakes and understanding how stitches are formed — she realised she couldn’t read a pattern. So, newly fascinated by a craft that had lain dormant for so long, she began to learn as much as she could; from books, magazines, and from the LYS, knitting 30 sweaters in her first year. Like a mountain that lay ahead, Shirley focussed on learning as her new challenge; beginning the long creative journey in design and teaching for which she is best known today.

A change of direction & the birth of the Custom Knits line

“I wanted very fine clothing that would actually fit. So everything became custom at that point.”

The major shift in direction came when life threw Shirley a curveball. While in hospital recovering from major surgery, the computer company was sold and she found herself unemployed. This prompted her to take a leap of faith and, “following her own bliss,” she decided to become a knitwear designer.

Her original vision was to develop a ready-to-wear knitwear collection. However on the night of the launch, seeing differently-sized women try on the garments, she soon realised that set dimensions, for example in armhole length, simply didn’t work for all body shapes. She saw this as a wake-up call — one that made her become more precise. Drawing on the knowledge of dressmaking learned from her friend’s mum back in high school, she began translating what she had learned from sewing, into knitting. This attention to detail set her on a creative path that began with the Shirley Paden Custom Knits garment line.

At the time hand knitting in the US was on a downward curve and operated within a much smaller, localised community than the diverse, global industry it is today. Given BIPOC in Fiber’s remit and recent events such as the Black Lives Matter protests we asked Shirley how it felt to be a black woman starting a business in a majority white industry. It’s not always easy to approach conversations around race and ethnicity — even between persons of colour — but Shirley’s response was honest. As someone who came out of a corporate background where in many instances she was the only person of colour, her focus has never been on skin colour. It’s always been on excellence; both then and now. “I’ve never thought, ‘I’m a black woman’ — I’m black — I don’t miss that every day and nor can anyone else. It’s always been about the work and the goal. And the goal has always been excellence.”

Over the years she has developed a precision-based design process. One that is based on the premise that no matter how wonderful a sketch may look, as a piece of clothing, fit is essential because at the end of the day it needs to be worn. After that initial launch, everyone came in for a fitting and although she hadn’t envisioned a target customer her original vision for relaxed clothing was no longer what she wanted. Something had to change. So drawing on her knowledge of women’s tailoring at a time when oversized was popular, she decided to create more structured designs; to do more than just oversized, unstructured sweaters that could be knitted on big needles. Just as the name suggests, each piece was custom-made based on a person’s individual measurements, and clients could change details like necklines to their personal preference.

Process , ethos & teaching

“Everything we do is mathematical, whether you’re measuring something for food or you’re trying on a dress, or you’re buying a new pair of shoes….it’s always numbers and they come together, and they’re friends.”

Shirley isn’t an organic designer who picks up yarn and needles then waits for inspiration to strike. Though it may sound counterintuitive, her creativity is grounded in numbers and figures. After creating a profile, sketch and swatch for each design, the next stage of her process is rooted in pages of numbers because ‘seeing it’ mathematically enables her to imagine how the design in an initial sketch comes together in three-dimensional space. At every stage precision is key; remember, the most important thing is for the garment to fit. Shirley teaches using that same process, and acknowledges her approach doesn’t suit everyone, even advising students not to take more than two of her classes if she feels her methods may hamper their creativity.

Talking to her it’s obvious how much she still enjoys teaching and though her classes can be quite intense, she invites students to join her in letting go of any egos or preconceptions so they can ‘have fun learning together.’ She teaches over eighteen different classes covering a wide range of subjects including lace, colour work, cable knitting and a crochet masterclass, but there are still some techniques she doesn’t particularly like or even use in her work — think of double knitting and steeking. But, regardless of how she personally feels about a technique, Shirley’s focus is always on her students, and if she thinks they will benefit from learning these techniques, she’ll continue offering those classes. Many of her students stay in touch even after they’ve taken one of her classes, becoming more like friends who go on to knit for and/or work with her. She always takes onboard that they may have a different way of approaching a technique and, rather than seeing this as a challenge to her knowledge, is happy to engage in conversation about how things might be done differently, seeing these other perspectives as part of her long and continuous journey of learning.

Although she’s created accessories and designs for both children and menswear, her deep knowledge of women’s fashion and garment construction means that designing women’s garments remains her first love. And of course a lot of careful thought goes into every stage. Drawing garments directly onto charts allows her to see how different elements of the design will work; from how the sleeves are shaped and how they come together to the placement of colour work. She can check how various sizes look with the stitch pattern laid on top and how it moves across the body. It all has to work with both profile and gauge, and it all happens on one of her infamous worksheets. Once done, like an architect, she can roll up these huge ‘blueprints’ knowing the design will work, the pattern can be handed over, and the process of knitting won’t be interrupted.

Knitwear Design Workshop: a groundbreaking textbook for hand knit design

“I thought it was time to tell my story."

Shirley Paden’s design process, honed over many years, became the basis of her first book Knitwear Design Workshop which was first published in 2010. Before its publication she’d never thought of writing a reference book. However, she felt she had a story to tell and wanted to share it, along with some technical work arounds she’d picked up along the way. The book was designed to empower knitters to create their own designs. She wanted it to prevent them from spending long hours making a garment, only to be disappointed with the end result — and especially with the fit. Anyone who’s seen a copy knows that as a reference book, it’s a substantial piece of work, covering every step of Shirley’s design process. From planning the design, fabric selection and creating a silhouette, to finishing details such as blocking, pick up and knit and various types of buttonholes. The book details them all and so much more. What’s fascinating is that even at 344 pages, the book could easily have been much longer, and this is testament to her thorough exploration of everything she does. Equally as interesting is that the decision to remove sections in order to reduce the book’s length was made through consulting with her students and her editor, Ann Budd. Working on the project with people who had different perspectives meant refining it through a series of what she calls “back and forth conversations.” It’s an important part of the process which both ensures her work reaches as broad an audience as possible and, once again, signposts the spirit of collaboration which she embraces so easily. It also helped make the book the bestseller it is today.

The birth of the Design Along: collaboration and learning continued

“We’ve got something now. How do we expand it?”

Something that grew organically out of Knitwear Design Workshop are Design Alongs or DALs. Run along the lines of a Knit Along (KAL) and lasting over a number of months, knitters from around the world gather in an online creative space in order to ‘come and play.’

The DALs centre around a design or a particular stitch pattern and are an opportunity for budding designers to follow the path of Shirley’s process for themselves; starting, of course, with the design profile. Throughout the creative journey she is on-hand as director and technical editor, checking measurements and calculations to ensure the final design is a perfect fit.

This creative mentoring of up to 35 people over several months and across various time zones adds a lot of extra pressure to an already full workload. But the collective excitement of seeing knitters create and learn along with others and the final reveal of the finished items is something she describes as energising. To date there have been five DALs — each with a different theme — and there are plans for a sixth, this time with more competitive flavour. As always, the focus is on finding ways of working which bring out the excellence in everyone who is taking part.

New book + app: Shirley’s future plans for learning, collaboration and excellence

"At the beginning I thought 'If I just sit knitting, how far am I going to go with this?'"

As a designer Shirley Paden is always moving forward. Over her long career she’s developed a process that’s as meticulous as it is creative and it means that while people knit her designs — from her patterns or from those legendary worksheets — her hands are literally free to do other things.

In addition to her designs for both knit and crochet, she’s written magazine articles and up to January of this year travelled worldwide not only teaching, but also talking about her work. Her online class for serves as a companion to Knitwear Design Workshop and she still enjoys communicating directly with the students who contact her with questions about the course. A new phone app Handknit Garment Design is due for release later this year and will serve as a digital companion to Knitwear Design Workshop, meaning Shirley won’t have to be up at all hours of the night answering emails; knitters will simply be able to pick up their phone or tablet when they need help.

Her next book project Knitwear Workshop Designs: Duets & Inspirations plays with the concept of Knitwear Design Workshop; combining the teaching and learning that have been so integral to her design career with her love of fashion, and the relationships she has built with her students. It’s a collaborative collection which has been in the pipeline since 2016 and sees past students of Knitwear Design Workshop contributing a design with her as mentor. The clever twist is that each of the students takes design inspiration from a stitch pattern used in one of Shirley’s published designs. This idea of taking inspiration from the past and contemporizing it with input from a new creative source is at the heart of each ‘duet’; design student and mentor making beautiful music together. While she serves as inspiration to each of the seventeen designers, Shirley turns to her own knitting icons to inspire each of her five design contributions. The book’s launch is due to coincide with the release of the app which will also do stitch and row calculations.

Shirley Paden and her work continue to be enormously influential and a source of empowerment within our industry. She remains aware of current developments in the industry, and is always looking for ways to perfect and share her process. Her mission — teaching knitters to achieve excellence — continues to grow, and her passion for creating wearable art is stronger than ever.

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