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Interview with Susan B. Anderson

by Allegra Wermuth

I am so happy to bring you an interview that I did with the lovely and talented designer, Susan B. Anderson. I had the opportunity to meet Susan in Madison back in August and it was such a pleasure to spend time with her. (You can read about our visit on her blog). Susan is the author of Itty Bitty Hats, Itty Bitty Nursery and now, Itty BItty Toys. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her family and has a very active and popular blog where she talks about her knitting adventures.She is also the curator of the Spud and Chloë blog, Spud Says!

The first chapter of your book, Itty Bitty Toys, is full of great information and tips about the techniques and skills that you need to knit toys. It is very accessible information whether you are a beginning knitter or an experienced one. When did you learn how to knit and who taught you?

Autumn LeavesI taught myself to knit when I was 19-years-old. It was in the mid-1980's at a time when no one knitted. Knitting was not popular at all like it is today especially with younger adults and teenagers. I didn't know a single person who knitted. I grew up a crafty kids who was always making things and I always had an interest in learning to knit. Finally, after years of wanting to learn to knit, I bought a pamphlet and some white acrylic yarn at a fabric shop. I was so determined to learn, nothing was going to stop me. I was a lifeguard at a neighborhood pool and when I was off-duty I would sit and teach myself to knit. I actually knitted a white acrylic tank top during that summer. I remember the stitches being so tight on the needles that I could not get them to move without a big struggle. The whole thing was pretty painful but it did not stop me for a minute. I have never stopped knitting from that time on. I was so proud of that tank top, my first knitted piece. I actually gave the knitted white tank top to my sister. She graciously accepted it and then I never saw it again. I think that is so funny.

Accessibility is always one of my main goals when writing patterns or books. It can be a tricky line to balance on trying to make things simple enough for beginner knitters but to also include things for more experienced knitters as well. Sometimes the beginner or simple patterns are the most difficult to create because you have a more limited bag of tricks to pull from but you still want a sophisticated looking project in the end. It is challenging and fun at the same time. I want every level of knitter to feel included and looked after in all of my books and patterns. It is something I strive to achieve.

In addition to the “conventional” techniques used in this book, there are a lot of great new and innovative details used, like the pom-pom mane on the Giraffe, the origami-like seaming of the Penguin, the use of straws or pipe cleaners to help shape tails and limbs. How much time did you spend creating and testing these fun techniques?

That's the funny thing, I don't spend much extra time at all thinking of things like you described in the question. I am a practical person so I don't waste a lot of time on anything. I think of different construction ideas to try, then I do them and most of the time they work. I feel pretty lucky about that. I am able to get a picture in my head of something I want to make and usually on the first try I can make it work to my liking. I rarely have to re-knit or rip out my work, hardly ever. I have a knack of some sort for creating these small three-dimensional shapes, I guess.

As far as innovative techniques, I am always up for a challenge and I get a kick out it when something new I've tried works out! I am actually pretty proud of the Penguin in Itty-Bitty Toys. The body is one rectangle and the head and wings are made out of another rectangle. It is folded, stuffed and stitched together in a way that creates a recognizable and cute penguin. It could not be any simpler and makes a perfect beginner project. Even little kids can knit garter stitch rectangles. As far as the pom-poms go, I can usually find a good excuse to include pom-poms on projects at the drop of a hat. I love them and kids love them! What could possibly make a better mane than a bunch of poms? Pipe cleaners, or chenille stems if you are fancy, and drinking straws inside of I-cords makes for a simple solution for getting parts to stand up or bend in certain ways. The Pig in the book is sporting a curly-cue tail because I placed a pipe cleaner inside an I-cord before twisting the tail around my knitting needle. It worked so well that I used that concept a few more times in the book.
These little twists and turns and unexpected details are the types of ingredients I strive to include in my designs and pattern writing. I think it keeps the knitter interested and amazed at what they can create using fairly simple techniques. Toy knitting is fun and not so serious and that's how I like to keep things!

One of the many things I like about the book (and there are too many to list in this interview!) is how you offer both crocheted and knitting finishing techniques for some of the projects. That is incredibly thoughtful of you!

When I was on tour for Itty-Bitty Nursery (my second book), I was surprised to find out how many knitters did not enjoy the fact that I had included some very basic crochet in tiny amounts in that book. I am talking about things like the chain stitch, slip stitch and single crochet. That's it. I have had some "conversations" on my blog about this topic, too. I am not an expert at crochet by any means but I do enjoy using it on occasion as a trim or to join things together. I didn't realize the strong feelings that some knitters have about crochet.

In Itty-Bitty Toys I only used the most simple crochet, like a slip stitch for example, on maybe two projects. When I did use a tiny bit of crochet, I offered a knitted alternative due to the concerns over the minimal crochet used in my last book. My main goal is to keep everyone knitting and happy so it was easy for me to offer the non-crochet option. I was going to leave it out entirely but then I thought that in a couple of patterns I would still include the crochet option because it really was my first choice for getting the project done in a certain way.

I aim to be all-inclusive in everything I make so there is something for everyone in this book whether you crochet or not!

Looking through the book, I don’t think there is one project that doesn’t yell “Knit me! Knit me!” I really love all of them. And I don’t necessarily mean that I would be knitting all of these just for my toddler! I wouldn’t mind having a few of these projects for myself. There seems to be a project in here for everyone to enjoy.

Well, there are a couple of surprising reactions and happenings going on with Itty-Bitty Toys that I am finding delightful. One is that adults react in a happy, positive way to the toys even more so than the kids! People are telling me how they are knitting the toys and bringing them to work to sit on their desks. It makes the work place a little happier, I guess. Adults at my book tour events just go crazy oohing and aahing and laughing over the toys and I love that! That's exactly how I feel about handmade toys. It is fun to knit them for kids but I enjoy them just as much for myself.

The second thing that was slightly unexpected or maybe that I wasn't thinking about so much, is that parents are sitting with their kids and enjoying Itty-Bitty Toys together. The kids are looking through the book and placing toy orders to the knitters in their lives. I have an enormous library of knitting books and none of my kids have ever looked through a single book. I am amazed at the stories I am hearing about kids carrying Itty-Bitty Toys around with them and tagging the pages and making lists for toys they would like. This makes me happier than just about anything else about the book. I've always wanted to write a children's book and now in a round about way I have kind of done that. It's a pretty wonderful thing and I hope it gets a younger generation interested in knitting toys for themselves.

Do you have a personal favorite from the book?

Autumn LeavesI love the Felted Bouncy Ball. I wanted to call this project Felted Super Ball but Super Ball is trademarked so we used bouncy ball instead. I felt like this was an invention of sorts. I found this super ball at my house and I knitted a wool pouch around the ball. I threw the pouch with the ball into the hot wash cycle in my washing machine not knowing what would happen. It worked! The felt formed closely around the ball and the super ball still bounced really well, only softer. I was so excited about this project! It isn't the most glamorous looking project but it is probably the coolest in my eyes.

The construction of the ducks was fun to work out, too. When I made these ducks at the same time I was asked to design some chickens for Blue Sky Alpacas. I used a similar construction for both that I feel is somewhat innovative. You knit a bottom piece and then pick up around the edges to create the body. Then after some carefully placed decreases for shaping and a little kitchener stitch across the back, you knit the head and tail. It is all in one piece, which is always good! I just love how you can watch this project come to life as you knit it up. The ducks can be made as individual toys or placed on wheels to create a pull-toy. This is a really fun set, a knitted version of a long-standing pull-toy theme.

Why do you think that knitted toys are so popular for both the knitter and for the recipient?

When I am touring sometimes I give a talk to various groups. This is one of the main topics I discuss, the reasons to knit toys. Here is my list of reasons toy-knitting is so incredibly popular right now and probably always will be:

1. A well-crafted handknit toy is magical. If you haven't held a handknit toy in your hands you really need to. There is a quality to handmade toys that is incredibly special. My intention is to make modern heirloom toys that will last for generations to come. People are realizing the value to handknit toys for babies, children and adults. It is like nothing else.
2. Knitting toys makes for instant gratification projects! Some of the projects in Itty-bitty toys can be knitted in a matter of few hours. Small projects equal small time commitment, which everyone needs and loves at some point.
3. Small size allows for use of single skeins and left over yarn from other projects. Toys can be a money saver project because odds are you may already have enough yarn in your stash to complete a project or two or even three without having to purchase anything!
4. You can pack a lot of technique into a small project. It's not so intimidating when you are learning new skills when you can quickly and easily finish the project. Many of the toys will be skill builders at times or maybe will have you use skills you already know in new ways. It is a fun adventure and can be quite addicting!
5. Toys are appealing to kids and adults. It's the perfect gift knitting option.
6. Fit is not an issue. You don't have to worry about someone's body size or length when knitting a toy for a gift. Every size arms or hands can hold a toy. No worries, only fun is allowed when toy knitting.
7. Gauge is always important in knitting but if you are a little off your toy will just be a little bigger or smaller than the sample. If you are okay with that fact then it isn't a problem. I have been seeing knitters substituting different yarns to achieve different size toys. It's fun not to have to worry so much.
8. Toys make for fun knitting! It's a light-hearted project topic and your knitting can take a not so serious turn!

There are many more reasons for the popularity of toy knitting but this is a good start. Plain and simple, toy knitting is pure fun and joyous knitting. Plus, the finished projects make people smile!

You have graciously offered Petite Purls to use one of your designs from the book in our Winter Issue, the sweet Lamb. What fun things can our knitters look forward to when making the lamb?

The lamb is a great toy that is a quick and fun knit and uses all kinds of techniques. The lamb starts at the back end with a base that is knitted back and forth. Stitches are picked up and simply knitted to make the body. Drinking straws are used to make the legs stand and support the lamb. I love the over-sized feet as they give a cartoonish quality to the toy. The head is simple and perhaps my favorite part is the curly hair done with a twisted loop stitch. It adds character and whimsy to the lamb. This is a great little project. Plus knitters love a good lamb anytime!

Some of my most favorite projects from this book are the Mama Duck and Ducklings, the Princess and the Pea, the Matryoshka Dolls and the Egg to Bluebird and a Little Nest, too. I love pull toys and my daughter is a huge fan of ducks. The Mama Duck and Ducklings is definitely on my list of things to knit. The Princess and the Pea is a great stashbusting project and I love the idea of modernizing the Classic Toy. I am very fond of Matryoshka Dolls of all kinds and to see a knitted set of them is fantastic. What can you tell us about these three projects?

Autumn LeavesThe Princess and the Pea set has been a long time dream of mine to design. I have always loved this fairy tale and I was presented the perfect venue with this toy book to make my dream come true. The set includes 11 mattresses, the princess in a nightgown, a knitted pea pod and a blanket to place over the sleeping princess. It is a fun story book toy but is also a fun stacking toy for little ones. I love the way the set turned out. The princess is knitted in one piece from the toes to the top of the head. The arms are simply little tubes that are easily stitched on. Love, love, love everything about it. The other fun thing is that you could only knit one mattress and the doll for a fun and simpler set for a child.

I love the Russian Nesting Dolls or Matryoshka dolls as well. I had seen lots of fabric and crocheted versions of these dolls but had never seen an actual functioning set in knitted form. That was my goal, to make them stack and fit inside each other just like an authentic nesting set does. It came out really well and works! On tour I have enjoyed seeing really young kids and toddlers delight in finding the tiniest doll in the middle. Their smiles when they discover the fingertip sized doll in the middle is incredible!

Who doesn't like a good pull-toy? Mama ducks always have a trail of ducklings behind them. I love this set and I actually made the wheels on my kitchen counter. You can do it, too! I am not a woodworker of any sort. You can purchase the pieces to make the wheels at any big box craft store. It is fun to take on a crafting adventure like this. I also provided an option for making duck feet if you are not up to the wooden wheel construction.

The Egg to Bluebird and a Little Nest, too is one of the projects in your “Reversibles” chapter. What are the reversible toys and are they easily accessible even to a new knitter?

I have been long obsessed with flip toys mainly the idea behind the Little Red Riding Hood doll that flips to the grandma and then the wolf. I have recently learned of a historical presence for the topsy turvy dolls as well. I certainly didn't invent the concept of the reversible or flip toy but I tried to put a new and fresh knitterly spin on it. Anyway, I have seen tons of flip dolls and animals in all kinds of forms but they are always made in fabrics. I had never seen knitted version of this concept. With this in mind, I set out to make a slick knitted version of a topsy turvy toy.

The concept of four out of five of the Reversibles is incredibly simple. The body or base is like knitting two little hats that are then stitched together with wrong sides together to create a reversible hat. Then all you do is add a head, tail and small arms and legs. That's it! If you can knit a hat, you can knit a reversible toy. It's as simple as that and any beginner could tackle this toy with ease.

The Egg and Bluebird concept is a little different but just as simple in construction. I love a little toy that can fit in the palm of your hand. This particular toy is already the favorite in the Reversible chapter. People are knitting the egg that flips into a tiny bird and the nest in just one evening. It hardly takes any yarn, too. This project takes the cake on the sweetness factor.

The whole thing about any of my projects is picking and choosing options to suit your own needs and style. I like lots of detail but if you leave it off, your version will be just as cute! I love that about knitting and knitters, there are always lots of options and opinions.

This book is the third installment of your “Itty Bitty” series. Can we expect to see more books in the series?

I hope there will be more Itty-Bitty books in the future. Right now I am working on a fourth book with my publisher that is not an Itty-Bitty book but it is just as fun. I have a fifth book in works that could potentially become another Itty-Bitty book but we'll have to see in the end. There is definitely more to come!

We here at Petite Purls are huge fans of the new Blue Sky Alpacas yarn and pattern line, Spud and Chloë. You hold the title of “curator” with them. What type of work do you do for Spud and Chloë?

Last June, 2009, I was given my dream job. I am the blog writer and designer behind the wheel for Spud says!, the official blog for Spud & Chloë. Spud & Chloë is a new line of yarns and patterns and products put out by the makers of the exquisite Blue Sky Alpacas line. Every week I post free patterns, knitalongs, video tutorials, new and fresh ideas, product previews, featured shops and a lot more fun and silliness all related to the fantastic Spud & Chloë line. I love everything about it. I hope you will all drop by and take advantage of the free patterns and other offerings over on Spud says! The company has given me the biggest gift by letting me make this blog and knitting adventure my baby. It is a true work of love and dedication on my part.

You are a very busy woman, both personally and professionally. You have four kids; you have all of your work for Spud and Chloë; you are now an author of three knitting books; you maintain a very active blog of your own. Can you take us on a journey of what your “typical” day would look like?

Autumn LeavesA day in my life is really nothing different than any working mother's day. I get up very, very early, sometimes like 3 or 4am to start working before anyone else is up (in the world, basically). Then in between running the kids around and making sure my house isn't falling down and all of the duties that entails, I work. My work just happens to be knitting and writing and I get to do that from home. It is busy and demanding but also flexible and always fun! I love what I do and I am forever grateful that it seems others are enjoying it, too.

You are an incredibly prolific designer. What advice can you give to budding designers?

My advice is always to just go for it! I was literally a complete unknown in Madison, Wisconsin, several years ago. On a whim I sent a couple of patterns and a sample hat to my current publisher. I wrote a quick letter and didn't even have a name of a person to address the letter to. Less than two weeks later I had a book deal for Itty-Bitty Hats! I didn't even start my blog until after Itty-Bitty Hats came out in 2006. I have the ability to be fearless in some ways when it comes to things like this (for other things I am a big chicken). After I sent off that initial letter I didn't spend one minute worrying about it. If I can do it then you can, too. I think a lot of people dream of things but only a small percentage actually take action on those dreams. My advice is to submit, keep a good attitude if rejected and keep on trying! Just do it!!!!

The other thing is that you can do so much on your own these days. You could set up your own online shop to get started, offer free patterns, start a blog. This is a great litmus test to see what works in your designing or not. One thing I am always surprised about is which project takes off and becomes the most popular. You never know what will strike a chord. It may just be what you are designing on your needles right now!

I want to thank you Susan for taking the time out of your busy schedule for this interview. I also want to thank Artisan Books for giving us permission to use images and the Lamb pattern in this issue.

Thanks for interviewing me, Petite Purls! I love your new online magazine!
Susan B. Anderson

Excerpted from ITTY-BITTY TOYS by Susan B. Anderson (Artisan Books).
Copyright 2009. Liz Banfield photographer.