I’m so delighted to have Alan Dart in our Designer Spotlight today. Years ago when I first started back to knitting, I found his wonderful patterns in Simply Knitting Magazine and would buy the publication just for his design. Alan lives in Cumbria, which is the English Lake District. I know you’ll enjoy learning more about him today! (All patterns link to Alan’s website, all yarn links to The Loopy Ewe.)
Loopy: Hi Alan! How fun to have you here today, especially since I’ve been such a long time fan of your work. Tell us, how long have you been a knitter and who taught you to knit?
Alan: Hi Loopy! Thank you so much for including me in your Designer Spotlight. I was taught by my mother, and first started on her old knitting machine at 4 years old, progressing to hand knitting when I was 6, so I have been knitting in some manner for nearly 65 years.
Loopy: That is an early start! And a lot of years of experience. What is your favorite item to knit?
Alan: I like to knit toys because I can put a lot of shaping into them, as I find it very boring to knit without something interesting happening every few rows. I don’t think I could bear to go back to knitting sweaters that have so many rows without a single bit of shaping.
Loopy: There certainly are a lot of things going on in your patterns, which make them interesting to knit. I can see how sweater knitting must seem a bit boring by comparison! What is the most challenging thing you have knit to date?
Alan: I suppose the licensed character toys were the most challenging and I designed over 100 of these in the 1990’s. My job was to make sure the knitted toy looked exactly like the cartoon or storybook character, otherwise it wouldn’t have been approved by the licensing company, so it was quite tricky because the characters had obviously not been created with the view that they would later be interpreted into knitting. Luckily I never had to alter any of the toys I sent in. All of these patterns are now unavailable because the licenses that allowed them to be sold were for a fixed period, so when used originals are offered for sale on eBay they tend to fetch quite a high price.
Loopy: What a testimony to your talent that your licensed characters were never rejected! Those licensing companies expect perfection to protect the image and trademark. I’m sure it was a fun challenge for you to get everything perfect. I think I still have the Wallace and Grommit tucked away for safe-keeping. When did you start designing, and what spurred that interest? (You can find more information on Alan’s licensed – out of print – patterns here.)
Alan: Ever since I was a child I have been interested in making things, and I studied fashion at art college, because at the time that was the only course available that involved handicraft. When I left college I started my career by designing and making one-off sweaters to order on a knitting machine, and someone who worked on a magazine saw one and asked me to design something for their publication. Because hand knitting is more popular and accessible than machine knitting, I designed hand knitted sweaters for that and several other magazines, and this developed into writing and designing all manner of craft features for magazines and several partworks too. Eventually my work narrowed down to designing fabric and knitted toys, and I was under contract to Woman’s Weekly as their resident toy designer for 18 years. After that I went on to work for Simply Knitting magazine and had a design in every issue for 11 years, before making the decision to stop working for magazines and to concentrate on designing exclusively for my website www.alandart.co.uk, where I sell PDF files of toy knitting patterns for people to download and print out themselves.
Loopy: I have fun just looking through all of the creatures in your catalog of designs. There is truly something for everyone in there, all full of personality. Do you have a favorite pattern that you’ve designed?
Alan: I suppose I would have to say the Jultomtar (Swedish Yuletide Gnomes) pattern, which was the first design I did for Simply Knitting, as this has proven to be my most popular pattern ever, and barely a day goes by without someone buying a copy, no matter what time of the year. I love Sweden, especially at Christmastime, so I’m pleased this design has become so popular.
Loopy: I have one of those! Such a great pattern, and gnomes seem to be more popular than ever now, decked out for all the different seasons. What is your favorite part of designing? And your not so favorite part?
Alan: My favourite bit is writing the pattern, closely followed by making-up the toy and finishing it off, which is usually most people’s least favourite part! I do find the knitting a bit tedious, especially if I need to knit a few rows with no shaping, because I know in my mind what the toy is going to look like and am eager to get on with assembling it.
Loopy: You must have a good mental image of what it should look like as you contemplate the pattern. What is your design process like?
Alan: I don’t write my patterns by experimenting – knitting, unravelling, re-knitting and writing the instructions as I go along. My patterns are all written mathematically, and what I do first is to draw the toy full size on a layout pad then use a tape measure to take lots of 3D measurements at crucial points. Following the knitted tension square gauge, I then convert the measurements into stitches or rows by calculator, adding a one-stitch seam turning where necessary, and use the numbers to write the pattern. Since I increase and decrease within rows to achieve the correct shaping I sometimes alter the stitch numbers very slightly so this can be done evenly within a row. Luckily I am able to imagine things in 3D, so a mixture of that and years of experience enable me to know where to shape, and it’s a method I have developed myself. It’s only after I have written the main components of the pattern that I start to knit., and fortunately I hardly ever need to alter the instructions. I then assemble the toy, and if additional pieces that aren’t structural, such as a jacket or a skirt, are needed I wait until this point and measure the stuffed toy to get measurements for these and write those pattern instructions before knitting them and adding to the toy.
Loopy: I find your design process so interesting. In all of our Designer Spotlight interviews, I don’t think I have come across anyone else who writes the pattern first! And the fact that you rarely have to go back and change anything confirms my theory – you do have great visualization skills! Do you do this business full time or part time? And is that hard?
Alan: This is my full-time job, and I don’t find it hard at all. The only other job I have apart from designing is keeping an eye on my website and answering all the emails I receive each day, as I like to reply to people as quickly as possible.
Loopy: I can attest to that! The couple of times I have emailed you for permission to share a pattern photo in our blog, you have responded immediately. That’s so appreciated. Does anyone else in your family knit?
Alan: My mother and aunt knitted, and apparently my paternal grandmother did too (always on much larger needles than stated because she thought that would get a quicker result!)
Loopy: That’s funny! 🙂 Are there other hobbies you enjoy?
Alan: My main hobby is gardening, and I do this whenever I can possibly find a spare moment. I’m always thinking about plants and where I can squeeze in another one, as I have an image of every part of the garden in my head, and I often set myself a goal with my knitting so when I reach that point I reward myself with some time in the garden.
Loopy: That sounds like a good way to motivate yourself! I think my father-in-law must have been related to you. He also liked to make use of every square inch of their gardens and yard for “just one more plant”! What would be your favorite way to spend a day off?
Alan: Either gardening or visiting a lovely garden – especially if it has a plant sales area and a splendid cafe!
Loopy: Ok – last set of questions: Morning or night person? Coffee or tea? English or Continental? Solids or multicolors?
Alan: I’m definitely a morning person and don’t enjoy the evening. I have coffee in the morning, herbal tea with lunch, Early Grey or almond tea in the afternoon, and herbal tea in the evening. English knitting, and I don’t like circular knitting due to the ‘step’ it creates (especially when knitting stripes), although lots of people seem to prefer this because it eliminates seaming, which I enjoy doing as it adds structure to my toys. I use a lot of colours in my toys, but most parts are knitting in one colour, unless I include stripes or, very occasionally, a bit of two-colour fair isle.
Loopy: I like your coffee and tea schedule. And now I need to try Almond Tea – that sounds delicious. Thank you again for your time today!
You can find Alan’s patterns for sale on his website. They are so reasonably priced – most of them are under $5.00, and you can also try a free Alan Dart Pattern by downloading his Chick & Egg! I hope you have as much fun checking them out as I did. Which one is your favorite? I really want to make that adorable Jack O’Lantern first!
P. S. Camp Loopy announcements will come at the end of next week. I think Alan has patterns that fit almost every one of our previous Camp Loopy themes, as well as this new 2021 theme!