Q & A with Wendy Bernard, author of Custom Knits: Unleash Your Inner Designer with Top-Down and Improvisational Techniques

You’ve been writing a knitting blog since 2005, but Custom Knits is your first book. How is writing a book different than blogging?

Knit and Tonic started out as a blog about life and kitting. I was home with a baby and I was bored, so I started to knit and to blog about it. Eventually, I was knitting a lot of my own designs on the fly, and the blogger-knitters started asking me for the patterns. And I would just plug along and create the patterns. Readers would ask me questions about them, and I would adapt the patterns based on their questions. With the blog there’s instant feedback.

With the book I was in my office and could only show a few people what I was working on. There was a lot of time pressure – I had to write patterns for twenty-five garments, plus variations, plus extra how-to text, and I knit everything myself. I was knitting a garment a week!

Why did you write Custom Knits?

I never thought of writing a knitting book until a literary agent who is a knitter and reads my blog contacted me. The funny thing is that a psychic once told me that I would write a book that would help millions of women. So, after I wrote Custom Knits, I realized the psychic was right! I have written a book and, hopefully, it will help knitters (most of whom are women).

What did you enjoy most about writing Custom Knits? What was most surprising about the process?

Just knowing I was creating a book was exciting in and of itself. The photo shoot was really surprising to me. I had seen these garments so many times, hanging on my mannequin and in the mirror when I was trying them on – I thought I knew them. But at the shoot, I got to see them anew through the eyes of our fabulous stylist, Mark Auria, and photographer, Kimball Hall. When Mark put the Updated Old Classic (the cover sweater) on a model in a bikini, I thought, this is so fantastic. My favorite shot is the one with the paparazzi and the model wearing the Essential Tank – the model is wearing a coat that Jeffrey Sebelia, who won Season 3 of Project Runway, made. And the guys in the photos are all so cute.

Where was the photo shoot? What was your role?

We shot over five days in different locations in Malibu, Los Angeles, Hollywood, and Pacific Palisades. After meeting me and reading my blog, Mark had a sense of my vision for the knits--something sexier and more carefree than what you usually see in the knitting world. So, I was just there to make sure that the garments hung right and that we got all the views and angles that we needed to show how they were made.

You designed most of the projects in Custom Knits using top-down raglan or set-in sleeve construction. How do you choose between these approaches when starting a project?

The raglan has diagonal lines at the shoulders and the set-in sleeve has the appearance of the traditional sweater that is knit in pieces and then sewn together. They’re such different looks that it is easy to make that decision. Generally, the set-in is what you use for a more formal, elegant sweater and the raglan is more casual. The set-in sleeve requires that you knit short rows and some people are intimidated by that. I’m hoping to post a video tutorial on my blog for short rows. They are so much easier than people think!

How did you choose the projects to include in Custom Knits?

I tried to make everything body-conscious and sexy but not overly revealing. I wanted the designs to feel young, but still suit many body types. I looked everywhere for inspiration. I flipped through magazines, surfed the web, sat on the street corner and looked at what people were wearing – I just absorbed it all. Once I had an idea, I would try to visualize how I could knit it in one piece and how I could manipulate the fabric so that it would look the way I wanted it to. Elizabeth Zimmerman and Barbara Walker are my greatest knitting inspiration, and probably have the most influence on how I design projects. As I wrote the patterns I categorized them and made sure there was a fair number of each type of sweater, so in the end that part of the process was very businesslike.

What do you think is the problem that most often frustrates knitters, and what is your advice for solving it?

Fit! Making sweaters that fit (and, therefore, are flattering) really is the premise of the book. And if you want something to fit, you have to try on as you go and adapt the pattern to accommodate your body. That’s why there is a whole section in Custom Knits on customizing. Knowing just a couple of techniques--like how to add shaping and bust darts--can make a big difference. I also give instructions for making a dress form out of duct tape to replicate your body shape. The dress from doesn’t eliminate the need to try on as you go, but it makes fitting garments even easier because you can check your progress often without having to take off your own clothes and it’s easy to see how your work looks from all sides.

You live in Southern California, which isn’t traditional knitting territory. How does the climate affect your work?

The climate here has probably led me to design some sexier pieces, because I don’t have to worry about covering up the neck and other body parts that get cold! When I’m working with wool and other warm fibers, I’m more focused on the process than on wearing the item that will come from it.

In addition to patterns, Custom Knits includes techniques for knitters to use to create their own patterns or alter existing patterns, which you refer to as “knitting on the fly.” Why do you think knitters are sometimes reluctant to knit on the fly?

They either lack confidence or they don’t want to risk having to rip back. But, through trial and error—and trying on as you go—you build confidence and skills. And ending up with something you like is really rewarding. Hopefully, Custom Knits will give knitters the confidence they need to give designing on the fly a try.