HERMOSA BEACH, CALIFORNIA, USA
Stephannie Tallent is a knitwear designer living in Hermosa Beach, California, USA. She lives with her husband (a high school physics teacher, lover of heavy metal, and sewer of metal t-shirt pillows), a sweet dog named Rigel, and two extremely loving cats named Cali and Meggie. In her previous life she worked in Army Intelligence and she currently balances her design work with a career as a veterinarian. I stopped by her house in Hermosa and we chatted about knitting, designing, and her inspirations and processes.
You’ve worked in Military Intelligence and as a veterinarian – are you still a veterinarian?
I’m still a veterinarian. I work as a relief, or locum tenens, veterinarian — I fill in at clinics as needed rather than working at one clinic regularly. I primarily see cats and dogs.
That is so cool. Was there a clear point when you knew your direction would be toward the fiber arts?
I’ve knit on and off since junior high; it wasn’t until probably 2008ish that I decided I actually wanted to start designing.
How do you do both full time?
Juggling. I work as an independent contractor as a veterinarian so my schedule can vary quite a bit. Days when I don’t have vet work booked I devote to designing & knitting.
What was the first thing that you ever knit?
One of the first things that I ever knit was a sweater with a big cable down the front; I think it was from Vogue Knitting. It actually came out not too hideous, but (in ignorance) I threw it in the washing machine and then in the dryer and felted it. I managed to get the knitting done, but not the aftercare.
Oh, no! Do you remember what yarn you used or what color it was?
Some sort of wool. It was blue. And it was much smaller afterwards. It was very sad and got thrown away.
Maybe it could have been a cat sweater! What’s your typical designing day like?
Usually I try to do any sort of computer related things in the morning: either ancillary sorts of thing like blogging, or checking Ravelry, or responding to posts or questions, any sort of pattern layout, charting – things like that I tend to like to do in the morning. I’m definitely a morning person. I also still tech edit a little bit and I like to get that done first thing in the morning when I’m fresher. In the afternoons, when I’ve gotten everything done that I need to get done, I’d rather knit or swatch. Of course I’ll knit into the evening, depending on deadlines.
When you are creating something new, which part of the process do you like best? Is it the knitting, the initial idea of it, or the charting?
It varies. It depends on the individual design. Is it something that is a call for submissions, or is it part of a collection, or something I’m working on myself as a standalone pattern? I honestly like all aspects of the design process, from choosing yarn and colors, to charting and brainstorming, to figuring out any changes I need to do for grading in my standard Excel worksheet, to actually writing and laying out the pattern. I joke that I’ve had to learn more than I ever thought I would about Excel, Indesign, and Illustrator (and web design, but that’s a whole ‘nother thing).
Is there a part of it you like the least?
[emphatically] Photography. That’s super easy to say that. I really don’t like the whole photography aspect of it, which is really a shame because it’s such an important part. But for me, I tend to do my own modeling which means I have to get my husband to do the photography. And I have to get dressed up; normally I like to be in running shorts and a t-shirt or something. Then I have to do makeup (a lot more than normal), and I have to do my hair, and I’m not that girly of a girl! Makeup and hair only get done for special occasions or when I have to look more groomed, like for TNNA or a conference (i.e. when I’m not just working from home!). When I work as a vet, usually I pin my hair up and I’m in scrubs; I wear just enough makeup to look groomed. I think it harkens back to when I was in the military and you have to look neat and professional – your hair is usually up and you’re in your BDUs (uniform), but you’re not trying to look glamorous. I’ll have gotten everything else done regarding the pattern and photography is what delays things. All the other parts, I really like. I like putting things in layout, and of course I like the knitting.
You work a lot with cables. Do you find it’s more fun to chart cables than to actually work them? Or do you really like cable knitting?
I love cable knitting. It’s not always restful knitting. Of course it can be because a lot of cabled stitch patterns have a lot of rest rows in between the row where the cable is actually worked. But a lot of the designs I do, something is going on at least every other row. I have this twisted stitch pattern for socks that I’m working on and those things have stuff going on every single row. I really love cables, but I get that they’re not the most restful of things – but when you’re actually working them is when they come to life.
I always find that when you come up with one and you’re putting it in the charts, you think “ooh, that going to be pretty!”
The first inch or two you can’t really see what you’re going to have. And if it’s a longer repeat it takes at least one whole repeat, and usually two before you really get a good feel – and so that’s kind of exciting. And then you enter the stage where you just want to get it done and you know it’s going to be gorgeous.
You’re an incredibly prolific designer – is there an important habit that keeps you organized? (At this point in the interview one of the cats decided to bat around the recorder for a bit.) Uh-oh, probably a flashing blue light is not great for cats. Do you have a habit that helps keep you organized and get it all done in a timely manner?
I try to have goal dates of when something is going to be coming out.
Even for self-published things?
Yes. I have a spreadsheet where I have everything listed – what patterns I want to get done in the next year or so, what patterns are being planned beyond that, and so on. I don’t have all the details of those planned out, but it includes column headers on project, yarn company, whether I have the yarn, pattern written?, sent to TE?, etc for me to track things. I refer to it at least once a week just to make sure I’m on track or to update it as needed. I’m not quite as organized this year as I was last year with the Wild West Collection, but I have a general idea of when I want things to come out.
What do you think is the hardest part about being a designer?
I think, maybe getting noticed. And building up your fan base – there’s so many designers now so it’s kind of hard to stand out from the crowd.
What advice would you give to an aspiring fiber arts designer?
Learn as much as possible, about all aspects of the business. I think you need to decide pretty quickly what kind of patterns you want to do and what type of audience you’re gearing them towards. I guess, too, you have to decide are you in it as a business or are you in it just as a hobby? That will really dictate how you go at it. And of course it all depends on what else is going on in your life and how much time you can apply to designing.
Is there anything you wish you would have known when you started? Or something you wish you would’ve done differently?
There are patterns I think are a little over-designed, some of my earlier ones. I look at them and go “eh,” but people still like some of those. It’s probably easy to say with over 100 patterns out there will be some that aren’t your favorites. And there’s others that I really still love even if they’re really early patterns.
How has your work evolved since you began and how do you see it developing in the future?
I think I’ve been able to get more precise. I want to be able to continue doing that. It’s kind of a balance to find something that’s interesting for me as a designer to design, that’s also interesting for people to knit, but isn’t too over the top. I want things to still be accessible.
What design are you the most proud of and why?
I can give you some of my favorites: my little Ravens in Snow fingerless mittens – I love those still. The peacock mitts and cowl – people really like those – and they’re just so pretty – though not very practical. On my (tremendously long) list of things to do, is to maybe do a pillow or bag pattern with that [the peacock motif] because that would be an easier use than the cowl. The Alongshore shawl that I just published – that one I really really like and the yarn company has that sample for the time being and that’s one of the samples that I really want back to wear myself. I love my Tricho shawl and my Jackalope stole. Cactus Wren is a little lace camisole; that I get to wear a lot here in California.
A lot of designers lend out their samples or when they feel their done with it, will give them away – is there any one that you would never give away, that will just be yours forever?
Probably those that I listed. I’d like to reshoot photography on some of my earlier patterns, but I gave them away. I don’t really want to put the time into reknitting them and it’s not like I can ask for them back, because I’m sure they’re not in any shape to be photographed, if they’ve been used and worn. And that’s assuming the people still have them!
That’s a hard lesson to learn.
I also use the samples for trunk shows or when I do TNNA or classes. The samples do have a purpose even if it’s not for me personally wearing them.
How would you describe your design style?
I like to think of it as updated versions of classic techniques.
How do you develop your designs? What is your process?
Regarding the design process: If I’m working on cables or twisted stitches, I usually start from the stitch pattern. I get really enthralled by stitch patterns and the different possibilities. If I’m working colorwork, I’ll often go from the inspiration (like ravens, for Ravens in Snow; or ringtail cats (which aren’t really cats; they’re related to raccoons), for Ringtail; or Organ Pipe cactus for Organ Pipe) to developing the motifs. For lace, it can go either way. I use a lot of stitch dictionaries, but I like to tweak what I find to make it match what I’m trying to do.
This is a very typical California beach town that you live in – how do you feel that this environment or the culture of your town influences your design?
The first book that I did was based on Spanish Revival architecture. California has something called the Mills Act, with which, if you have a historical style of house, and your city opts in, you can get tax breaks if you use the money towards maintaining the house in a historically-appropriate manner. Hermosa Beach hasn’t opted in; Redondo Beach and Long Beach have, so you see a lot more of the old seaside Spanish Revival bungalows and that sort of thing there. My fingerless mitts Surf’s Up were inspired by surfing and surfboards. I like to get names and a lot of inspiration for color and stitch patterns from California native plants (our yard is a California native plant garden, focusing on plants or cultivars of plants that were native to our region). I guess most of my designs are more architecture- and nature- based than other cultural things.
If a knitter came to visit you, where would you take them? Are there yarn stores, knit nights, or place you find inspiration around here?
Twist is a really good yarn store over in Manhattan Beach – I would say that is definitely worth a stop. [Interviewer’s note: I took Stephannie’s suggestion and visited Twist, and oh, my, bob, it was amazing! They’re getting their own post!] I’m really really bad about going to my local S&B, but they meet on Thursday and they’re a really great group of people. I just have the problem that I can mess up a garter stitch swatch if I’m knitting in public. I take that back; I can knit in public if it’s just me. If I’m trying to carry on a conversation and be socially interactive with other people, I’m not so good at working on stuff at the same time.
Definitely if they’re from someplace cold going to the beach or walking down to the pier – that’s definitely worth doing – regardless of whether you knit or not. Honestly, that’s good to do regardless of where you’re from! There’s lots of places that I would recommend in general that are fun to visit. Abalone Cove on the Palos Verdes Peninsula has some really neat tide pools if you go at low tide. If you’re into food we’re getting a lot of really good restaurants down here. One thing I find about living here is it’s really easy to feel very insulated – it is Los Angeles but it really has a totally different feel. It’s a lot more laid back. It’s 10-15 minutes off the freeway, which doesn’t sound like far, but it kind of is – so it’s kind of your own little area. The beaches are really nice so it’s not like you have to go any place else to go to a beautiful beach. If you’re into surfing or boogie boarding there’s some good spots. If you like to go bike-riding, running, or walking, you can go on the Strand, which is a concrete path that borders the beach (for the most part) from a few miles south by RAT (right after Torrance) beach and continues north about 20 miles to the Pacific Palisades area. If you’re into craft breweries we have 6-7 within just a few miles. There’s the Beermuda Triangle which is now 4 breweries within a square mile.
If you could go anywhere in the world on your own fiber arts tour, where would you go and why?
A lot of people are doing those really cool Iceland tours – that looks like it would be really a lot of fun. Amy Detjen has an Ireland tour that I’d love to go on.
Ravelry just hit their 5 million member mark – what do you think has led to the revival of the fiber arts?
There’s lots of articles you can read on that, with 9/11, a lot of people wanted to slow down, and hobbies like knitting fit into that. Fiber is so tactile, you can feel very connected to what you’re doing, and it’s pleasurable to handle. There’s also that connection to animals and nature that some folks also explore. I think the economic downturn in the late 2000s further cemented the desire to simplify and be more mindful. It’s nice to make something, to create, and I think people really respond to that. Even my husband has hobbies where he makes things, so it’s not just a female thing. Though I can’t get him to knit, I’ve tried! I would love to have him do my sample knitting for me (like second socks and mitts). I also would like to think some of it could be related to being more mindful about where your clothing is coming from; tieing in the slow food movement to other “slow” movements. I wish I had time to learn to sew; I would like to be able to sew my own clothes. That’s not going to happen anytime soon, unfortunately.
Do you feel that social media is essential to the creative community as it’s grown? How does it influence your work day to day?
I think it is. I have a Ravelry group. I respond to questions, do my test knitting there, get feedback, etc. I don’t use Twitter or Instagram as much, but I’m trying. It’s hard for me to slow and say “I’m going to take a picture” – sometimes I’d rather just do something. I’m not as social media savvy as I feel I should be. Though I’ve just started a podcast – I’m very excited about that.
What are some of your favorite materials you’ve worked with, including yarn, needles, notions?
I love wool. I like wool in all its different incarnations. I mean, who doesn’t love soft cashmere blends? I also like really crunchy wool that has a sense of terroir about it. I don’t really work much with novelty yarns, I like real wool. I don’t really do a lot with cotton, which is really kind of silly considering where I live. I do like silk. Dragonfly Fibers has a really neat silk, their Dance Rustic Silk, which is a really nice yarn to work with. I didn’t think at first I would like it and I ended up loving it. I love other animal fibers too – alpaca and angora especially.
What is the best piece of knitting advice you’ve ever been given?
It’s okay to frog. And the corollary to that is, if you think you’re going to frog go ahead and just suck it up and get it done with. You might as well do it now rather than put a couple more hours of work into something.
That is a good piece of advice. What is your favorite knitting word or term?
I don’t know if I have one. It’s really adorable, my husband will watch me work and sometimes he’ll just pop up and say “K2tog, SSK!” That’s from the times I’ve been tech-editing a chart and I needed to compare the line by line instructions to the chart. I’d enlist his help; I’d look at the chart and read it off and he’ll be double checking to make sure the written instructions match what I’m saying. It’s super cute.
Is there a local or global charity or cause that you are passionate about?
Locally, Stop Hermosa Beach Oil. Hermosa Beach is about one square mile, but like all these other beach towns it’s very densely populated. There’s an oil company that has some sort of oil rights to put in wells and it would be right by our green belt (hiking path), right in a residential area – there’s going to be houses probably within 20 feet of it. And everybody is really concerned. The company has apparently a hideous record of trying to dispose of things illegally, etc, and it’s not something I want in my town. And you hear about all these environmentally destructive things, but it always seems to be something far away from you, but now someone wants to do that here – and it’s scary. The South Bay area is so small, that whatever happens here in Hermosa can negatively affect the rest of the Santa Monica Bay. Local business, adjacent city councils, citizens of Hermosa and adjacent beach towns, and organizations like Heal the Bay have also voiced emphatic disagreement with the thought of drilling here. The election is March 3rd.
Internationally, I like Heifer International – I love that it helps empower people.
I’d like to thank Stephannie for opening her home and workspace to me and taking the time to share her life as a designer with the tour!