Designing and Tech Editing with Sue McCain: An Interview

Knitting designer Sue McCain expertly bridges the gap between designing sweaters with inclusive sizing and editing for other designers. She has two pattern lines: Vermont Fiber Designs and the Basix line. Over the past 16 years she has edited over 60 books, more than 30 magazine issues, a couple hundred multi-pattern collections, and “who knows how many individual patterns”.

Sue and I first met when Sue was the primary tech editor on a knitting book and I served as a second tech editor. This was back in the knitting pattern book boom in the mid-2000’s. Over the years, I’ve been impressed with her expertise in both fit and in pattern writing. We sat down together (virtually) and I picked her brain about designing and tech editing. The questions are mine, the answers are Sue’s.

Q: Sue, you are both a designer and a technical editor. Tell us a little bit about how you got started.

Woman wearing pink lacy short-sleeved sweater

I was working with a career coach and half a dozen find-your-dream-job books to try to figure out what I really wanted to do so I could stop working at jobs that I hated. I kept coming back to wanting to design knitting patterns, which is such a niche that I don’t think he had any real idea how to help me. He suggested that I set up an informational interview with a yarn company, so I called Classic Elite Yarns and ended up getting a job there as a customer service rep. After 9/11, I decided to move to Vermont. I still had close ties to Classic Elite, and I did a bit of designing and sample knitting for them.

I started my own line of knitting patterns in 2003 and sold them for a while through a sales rep that I knew from Classic Elite, before Bryson Distributing picked up the line and put them in yarn shops nationwide.

The technical editor I had hired to edit my patterns told me that I would be good at tech editing, and she referred me to two of her clients who were looking for additional help. I contacted both of them and began tech editing immediately.

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Q: Your designs are classic styles that work for many ages and bodies. What’s your design process?

woman wearing green cabled cardigan

Sometimes I’ll see something on TV or in a movie, or pass someone on the street wearing a sweater that has a design element that speaks to me. I’ll stop and sketch it while it’s fresh in my mind, then file it away for later development. Sometimes I do something with it right away, but usually the sketch just sits in my collection until I rediscover it while looking for new design ideas.

I’m often inspired by a stitch pattern that I’ve come across in one of the nearly three dozen stitch dictionaries that I’ve got. I’ll swatch it up in a yarn that I think is a good match for it, block it, then build a sweater design around it.

My Vermont Fiber Designs patterns are pretty much whatever I feel like designing in the moment. They include both bottom-up and top-down patterns, and they might be worked in plain knitting, lace, cables, mosaic, and other stitch patterns. I have a definite fondness for cables.

My Basix pattern line is all top-down, set-in-sleeve patterns, and they’re all worked in stockinette stitch. Basix grew out of my tech editing work with Wendy Bernard, who has published 3 stitch pattern books (Up, Down, all Around Stitch Dictionary, The Knitting All Around Stitch Dictionary, and Japanese Stitches Unraveled) and 3 books entitled Custom Knits (Custom Knits, Custom Knits 2, Custom Knits Accessories). The first book in her series was my initial introduction to working from the top down, and it inspired me to begin my own line of simple top-down patterns, the Basix line.

Q: You’ve been including a wide range of sizes for years, way before “inclusive sizing” became a thing. What have you learned about designing for all these different types of bodies?

woman wearing red open-front cardigan

It’s very difficult to design a sweater pattern that will fit every individual body. For instance, I’m narrow in the shoulders and waist for my bust size, and broad in the hips, so I have to tweak patterns to better fit my body. Another knitter might be narrow in the hips but have a larger bustline. It’s helpful to know where your fit issues are, and how to accommodate them. That said, in order to have a solid beginning point for my patterns, I grade them based on nationally recognized standard body measurements.

Q: Another big part of your workday is technical editing. Many knitters and crocheters don’t even know the term “tech editor”. As a tech editor, what do you do?

complex graph for knitted cabled butterfly
Hexa Butterfly chart from Norah Gaughan’s Knitted Cable Sourcebook (used with permission)

My goal as a tech editor is to make sure that the pattern as presented will result in a finished piece that looks like the one shown in the pictures. The unedited patterns that I get from the designer can range from nothing more than stitch counts on an outline on graph paper to a professionally-written pattern that needs little work.

I review the pattern to make sure that it is correct as written, that the stitch counts result in the measurements they’re calling for. I make sure that all of the stitch pattern repeats work out with the stitch counts given. I check that all of the shaping elements end where they should, and that the instructions are clear and understandable.

If there are multiple sizes in the pattern, it’s up to me to point out any potential fit issues with the additional sizes. For instance, do the shoulders get too wide or do the sleeves get too long as the sizes get larger? I often have to come up with the amount of yarn needed for each size, based on the yarn used in the sample size.

Sometimes it’s up to me to grade the pattern. This means that I’m sent a pattern with only one size and I have to write it for another 3 to 12 sizes. I have to determine what all of the measurements will be for each size based on the designer’s desired ease, and then I make judgement calls on how to fit the stitch pattern(s) into those measurements using the given stitch and row gauges.

I may be required to create charts (my favorite thing to do) or schematics to go along with the pattern. I created all of the charts for Norah Gaughan’s Knitted Cable Sourcebook and Twisted Stitch Sourcebook, and I had SO much fun doing it.

(An interruption here from Edie: I’ve heard Sue and other tech editors say that preparing charts is their “reward” for tech editing. If that’s all they had to do, they’d be in seventh heaven!)

Q: How does your tech edit work inform your designing, and vice versa?

woman wearing coral v-neck sleeveless sweater

Since I first began tech editing, I’ve edited a few thousand patterns. I have learned SO many new cast-ons, bind-offs, increases, decreases, and other techniques. I’ve learned new ways of shaping a sweater, both top-down and bottom-up, and new ways of working short rows (the German method is my favorite). Working with so many designers over the years, I’ve seen every imaginable way of writing a pattern, and that has led me to change how I present my own patterns.

Because my patterns have had a broad size range from the very beginning (from XXS to 5-7X-Large), I have years of experience grading for larger sizes.

It’s been a natural fit for me to extend the size range on some of my clients’ patterns as well. Several of them are extending the range on older patterns as well as new ones so more knitters will be able to access their patterns.

Q: Share some tips that you, as a tech editor, wish designers knew.

Woman wearing V-neck raglan pullover with front cable detail

It’s really helpful to refer to standard body measurements tables (like the ones put out by ASTM); you can often find these books at large university libraries and you can order the tables online.

In a lot of patterns where the designer adds an inch in length from one size to the next so that the largest size may be as much as 10″ longer than the smallest size. This can mean that what is a standard length sweater for the size small ends up being a tunic length sweater by the time you get to the size 6X. To ensure that the length is appropriate for each size in the range, first determine what you want the total length to be for each size, then subtract your desired armhole depth from the total length to get the length from bottom edge to underarm. This length will not necessarily increase from smallest to largest size, since the armhole will take up more of the total length as the sizes get larger.

The same is true for sleeves. When grading a drop-shoulder sweater, for instance, the sleeve lengths often need to get smaller as the sizes get larger. You don’t want to end up with orangutan sleeves.

When designing a set-in-sleeve sweater, make sure that the cross-back measurement of the sweater is graded to properly fit each size. I see a lot of patterns with cross-back measurements that are too wide, which results in the shoulders of the sweater hanging off the wearer’s shoulders, when they should fit more closely.

When designing a raglan sweater, if you lay the piece flat to measure the length from bottom edge to top of shoulder (at the edge of the neck), you end up measuring across half of the top of the sleeve. You must include half of the top of the sleeve width in your total yoke depth in order to ensure that the sweater fits properly. For raglans, as the sizes get larger, you may have to work the shaping at different rates for the front and back than for the sleeves, in order to end all your shaping without very large upper sleeve measurements.

Q: You do have a life outside work! What else do you want us to know about you?

Rory the Poodle says hi

My red-headed Standard Poodle named Rory is my office assistant. He provides me with laughs, exercise, and emotional support whenever I need it. He and I love to go for walks in the state park that is outside my front door. Because he’s a Poodle, and therefore brilliant, he does my taxes for me.

I live in the middle of horse country, and my favorite activity is getting out horseback riding on the thousands of acres of dedicated trails that are within minutes of my home. I’m blessed to be able to ride a friend’s lovely Morgan horse, Bullet, who happily does not live up to his name. He and I enjoy 2-hour long trail rides through the woods and across neighboring farms. It really is a dream come true for me.

Q: Where can we find Sue McCain online?

Sue looking very professional

Vermont Fiber Designs

Basix Knitting

Ravelry store

Payhip store

LoveCrafts store

Etsy store

Subscribe to Sue’s mailing list

If you’d like to learn more about pattern writing for knitting and crocheting, about technical editing, and about designing for varying sizes, check out these resources from Edie:

Knit & Crochet Design Resources

Working with a Tech Editor

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