ReahJanise Kauffman is a prolific, inventive, skilled knitter who also develops and sells her knitting patterns online. She’s the kind of knitter I’d like to be if I ever got serious and grew up. Knitting, and knitting WELL are great skills to have. But making your own patterns is taking knitting to a whole other level as far as I’m concerned (remember, I don’t do numbers, and you do need math skills to make patterns).
ReahJanise and I volunteer with Project Knitwell in the DC area, teaching knitting to hospital patients, and others facing stressful situations.
When I asked ReahJanise why she volunteers, she said, “You just can’t beat giving someone a creative skill that is so creative, calming, and fun.”
Recently, ReahJanise put down her needles and talked to Making It! about how knitting became such a big part of her life.
Turner: ReahJanise, you’ve had an important career in the environmental space–working with Worldwatch Institute as Director of International Publications, and then co-founding the Earth Policy Institute. Was it a priority for you, personally, to have time and the space to develop your knitting craft while you were working? Can you talk a little about how you were able to carve out time for knitting while also working?
ReahJanise: Knitting became a priority as a mediative activity after a stressful work day. It also allowed me to do something I love to do—make beautiful gifts for family and friends. It seems extra special to give someone a gift you created—and even better when they like it! Before retirement, having time to knit was scarce, but so important to find.
Turner: How and when did you learn to knit? What advice would you give to someone who wants to knit but doesn’t know how to start?
ReahJanise: I learned to knit in the second grade. It was such fun I tried to teach the class during show-and-tell to cast on. I’d borrowed needles from everyone I could in the neighborhood, so that I’d have enough to pass around. Not sure that anyone learned anything that day about knitting, but not for lack of trying! In fifth grade I knit my first sweater: yellow with cables and a wide turtleneck. Over the years knitting faded out and into my life, but about 20 years ago it sparked anew and the fire has continued to burn brightly.
Advice for anyone wanting to learn to knit: seek out a knitting store or a skilled friend—and don’t give up if the first attempt doesn’t click. A friend in California tried three knitting teachers and was ready to give up. Urged to try one more time, she found the perfect teacher and has been happily knitting ever since. A teacher can not only get you started correctly, but help with those initial learning frustrations.
“Really, handknitting is a dreamy activity, built into many people’s thumbs and fingers
by genes already there, itching to display their skills and achievement possibilities.”
Turner: What do you like best about knitting? How does it make you feel? Do you have a special place where you go to knit–or does knitting go everywhere with you? Do you prefer to knit at particular times of day?
ReahJanise: Hoo boy. Perhaps like most knitters, I love looking at and feeling yarn. Yum. Yum. Yum. It’s like attention deficit, “Ooh, look at that! Wow, what color! Oh, that feels delicious.” But mostly knitting is a comfort and a joy. It never ceases to amaze me what comes off my needles. It’s so wonderful trying new stitches, learning new techniques, branching into other yarns…
And yes, knitting pretty much travels with me wherever I roam: long car rides, flights, Metro, outside on the balcony, inside listening to an audio book or watching television. Evening is the main time I knit after a day of activity. I generally have several projects on needles, of which one is usually more complicated than the others.
“Knitting is a boon for those of us who are easily bored, I take my knitting everywhere
to take the edge off moments that would otherwise drive me stark raving mad.”
Turner: Tell me more about the process of designing sweaters… You started by designing your own–why? Do you find it more enjoyable (maybe challenging?) to knit your own designs, or to knit someone else’s designs? Can you talk about one of your favorite patterns?
ReahJanise: Challenges are how we grow, so one day I challenged myself to design a sweater from scratch. Could I do this? Would I like it? Would it fit? I looked through books of stitch patterns, worked up swatches (small knitted samples), measured, and plunged in. The result was a green cardigan with cables and some eyelets using Shepherd’s Wool worsted weight yarn.
The process was frustrating, satisfying, and such fun that I moved to fingering weight working more lace and smaller cables. It’s been years since I knit a sweater by another designer, because it’s just so thrilling to work up my own, although I still love, love, love looking at patterns and seeing what others are doing. There are so many stunning designs available.
My grandmother, who passed over 25 years ago, mostly knit socks and never used a pattern. They were stockinette and ribbed. That memory inspired me to try knitting socks. Once I turned my first heel, I was hooked. It was magic!
I have no idea how many socks have followed, but they are my go-to when traveling or in between bigger projects. Oh, and they are done pretty much out of my head, with some paging through stitch patterns to find interesting ones that work with the math.
There are too many favorite stitch patterns to pick a favorite. Cables are great fun, such as in this sweater I knit for my husband.
Lace* is great fun to knit, too, such as in this “Climbing Mountains Lace Pullover.”
[*Lace knitting is a style of knitting characterized by stable “holes” in the fabric arranged with consideration of aesthetic value. Lace is sometimes considered the pinnacle of knitting, because of its complexity and because woven fabrics cannot easily be made to have holes.—Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lace_knitting]
Oh, don’t let me forget intarsia*. There are endless possibilities that just pour off the needles, like this recently knit baby sweater.
[*Intarsia is a knitting technique used to create patterns with multiple colors…(where) fields of different colors and materials appear to be inlaid in one another, fit together like a jigsaw puzzle; Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intarsia_(knitting)]
Turner: What are you working on now–knitting and pattern making?
ReahJanise: I’ve just started knitting a white cotton lace cardigan for summer and a scarf. Pretty soon I will likely start socks, too.
Uh, I have so many patterns in process. Once I complete a sweater for someone, I’m already moving on to the next one. I know I need to focus on making them available for others and writing patterns takes time. Pattern writing is an exact science because another knitter has to replicate what you’ve done, and it needs to fit different sizes. Too often I’ve heard other knitters complain about poorly written patterns. I certainly don’t want to be part of that demographic!
Turner: From where do you get inspiration?
ReahJanise: Inspiration comes in so many ways. Sometimes it’s an image that flashes in my brain, such as a floppy cardigan I knit with yarn my husband, Hadan, spun. He’d had fun with colors. As soon as I saw the skeins, I knew what to make with it, and how to make it. The rest–the pattern–was just capturing the details.
Each pattern design begins with a leap of faith. One time I saw a friend fussing with her shawl and knitting. I thought, “Hmm, what if she could have warm shoulders with something shawl-like? And so the “Diamond Lace Capelet” was born.”
“Guys Night Out” was designed for my godson who wanted a sweater he could wear to work—with no massive cable work (sigh, I love cables), with a V-neck, limited color range, and a slim fit.
After I decide on the yarn and the stitch pattern(s), I knit a swatch, wash and block, and measure. The washing, blocking and measuring are VERY important. VERY important. If all looks good, then I figure out the math and write the instructions.
My early patterns were… well … experimental, and early. I now get the patterns ready and send them to a tech editor to make sure I haven’t messed up the math or something even more important.
I use a software program for stitch patterns and, for sweaters I often work with Ann Budd’s classic The Knitter’s Handy Book of Sweater Patterns, which is very helpful.
“When you are knitting socks and sweaters and scarves, you aren’t just knitting.
You are assigning a value to human effort. You are holding back time.
You are preserving the simple unchanging act of handwork.”
— Stephanie Pearl-McPhee
ReahJanise’s Ravelry store: https://www.ravelry.com/designers/reah-janise-kauffman
ReahJanise’s Summer Leaves shawl pattern benefitting Project Knitwell is here: https://www.ravelry.com/patterns/library/summer-leaves-7
Note: ReahJanise’s Summer Leaves pattern is free with a coupon when you purchase 2 skeins of Solitude Yarn dyed especially for Project Knitwell. The Solitude Yarns are available here: https://solitudewool.com/products/dorset-hike-project-knitwell-colors?variant=12576794443856
All profits from the sale of Solitude Yarns’ Project Knitwell colorways go to Project Knitwell.