As Canadian as figgy duff, maple syrup, and nanaimo bars, Michelle Porter is a homegrown talent who remains true to her roots, successfully merging her East Coast heritage into the ever-changing world of design. With an intuitive flair for wearable fashion, and a practical approach to pared-down style, Michelle draws from her training and experience in all areas of the yarn industry. Currently, she resides north of Toronto and works as a knitwear designer for the Diamond Luxury Collection, as well as her own company, Fondle Patterns.
Michelle shares her design philosophy with us and a glimpse at whats ‘on the needles’ for Fall 2011.
MM: Hi Michelle, thanks for taking some time from your designing schedule to stop by and chat today. Can I offer you something warm to drink, maybe a cup of hot chocolate?
MP: Coffee please………. black, in the biggest cup you have, and if you don’t mind, I’ll have the rest of the pot!
MM: What initially sparked your choice of career in the yarn industry?
MP: As a child growing up in St. Stephen, New Brunswick, it was my grandmother who taught me the knitting basics. I was able to follow complicated Barbie doll patterns as soon as I could read. She also taught me how to make all the traditional cold weather accessories from memory. As she was knitting for my sister and I, there I was alongside her, knitting for my dolls. Now at ninety-three, I am knitting for her.
I didn’t choose a career in the yarn industry, it just sort of happened. Instead, I started out studying to be a medical lab technician, but after getting the worst strep throat of my life, and realizing I was way too sloppy for such precise work, I quit and went to art school, and later switched to visual merchandising. It was while I was working for a window display company in P.E.I. that I helped the owner start up a yarn store as a side business. This is where I taught my first knitting lessons and developed custom designs.
MM: Since then, you moved to Toronto and really went full circle, from working in a yarn store, to taking over the reins and making it your own. Having that daily interaction with customers and helping them in choosing the right pattern styles, did that further your interest in design?
MP: When you are running a yarn store, there is so much to consider in regards to buying stock and selling to customers. You can always pick the best quality yarn in the most attractive colours, but yarn can be knit into almost anything. The most important aspect is the pattern. Very few customers can knit without a pattern. Most folks walked into the yarn shop with something specific in mind. Imagine my despair when no such pattern existed. Sometimes you can show customers two dozen patterns, all for the same style of garment, but none of them are just right. Almost each and every time all they wanted was a basic, simple pattern, easy to follow and quick to knit. Often, I had to write one up on the spot.
Another issue that kept coming up, especially with my students, was the confusing pattern instructions, ambiguous wording, and inconsistent use of abbreviations. I wish we could all follow the same format when writing patterns. Customers also requested a full range of pattern sizes, mostly leaning towards larger sizes.
MM: As a Canadian designer, do you feel we have our own signature style?
MP: A signature Canadian style?? Well, the traditional items for sure, toques, mittens, socks, and sweater coats (2010 Winter Olympics come to mind). Most of us Canadian knitters have these patterns or recipes passed down from our grandmothers. Sometimes its hard to find a copy of any of these patterns available commercially, or even in print. Its often surprising when we designers re-interpret these items, only to find that they are still so popular! As far as my personal take on Canadian style- we have four seasons to dress for, so layering pieces are key, like cardigans, twinsets, wraps, and vests. Simply put, items that can be worn to work, not just on the weekend.
MM: So true…….and some of your latest designs for the Diamond Luxury Collection make use of bold cables as elements in shaping a garment. Is this something we might see more of in the future?
MP: I have always admired clever internal shaping. Good shaping is important to keep the garment ‘slimming’. It also helps to fuel the high fashion impression (handmade vs homemade). I love how cables can change the tension, the direction and thickness of a fabric. Darts are good too, but cables are more interesting. I haven’t exhausted my cabling as shaping yet, but am looking forward to more lace effects in my next collection.
MM: Which season are you designing for at the moment, and any hints at what we might be seeing?
MP: Right now…….I’m designing for Fall 2011. There will be lots of rich colours and equally rich fibres. I am exploring some simple lace and textured patterns for sweaters (huge fan of four row repeats). Also, I am trying out some alternative directional knitting, one piece sideways, top down, etc., and I really feel an accessory moment coming on. The slouch hat has paved the way for cloches and turban styles. Most of my ideas are still in the ‘swatch’ stage, but here’s a peek-
MM: All equally gorgeous! In the Diamond Luxury Collection, knitters have the creme de la creme of natural fibres to pick from. If you had to choose just one, is there a special yarn that you really love to work with?
MP: Mmh……My all-time favorite in the collection would be Baby Alpaca Sport because of its soft, seductive feel and huge colour choice. Still, near the top of my list is Merino Bamboo for its spongy texture and slight sheen. It gives good stitch definition, and a super even tension. There are not as many colour options, but those twelve shades are all fantastic!
MM: So, when you are on vacation, do you take your needles and yarn along, or prefer to turn off the switch?
MP: Vacation……….um, see for yourself…..
The worst thing I can remember happening was during a deep woods camping trip. I had just finished my project, but hadn’t packed another one! Now, I spend a full week planning projects beforehand.
MM: Where is your ideal spot for finding inspiration for new designs?
MP: My ‘ideal’ spot is not my reality spot. Ideal is a lounge chair on a tropical beach, with a margarita in my left hand, and my sketch pad in my right. There are baskets of beautiful yarns all around me….but in reality, most of my design ideas come to me in the early morning hours as I lay in bed. The details that I work out then surprise me, I guess its the absence of distractions, so a stream of thought can properly develop. Other than that, my home office is a good place to sit with a whole wall of yarn stuffed in hanging bins and the opposite wall as an inspiration wall filled with magazine clippings. I also get ideas while working in the garden. Flowers are fantastic when you look really close, with ruffled edges, folds and puckers. Inspiration can come really anywhere, so I keep a pocket sketch pad handy.
MM: As a knitting instructor and designer, what’s the one thing you want every new knitter to learn?
MP: PLEASE, please, learn to love the tension swatch! Always do your tension first, make it larger than the standard four inches, make several of them, each with different size needles. Wash and block your swatch. This is the single most important thing you can do to guarantee happiness with your finished project. Learn the stitch pattern while making the swatch too, if you don’t like it here, you surely will not like it on the whole garment!
(images courtesy of Michelle Porter)