Behind the Scenes at Universal Yarn: An Interview with Rachel Brockman

Title card-Behind the Scenes: Interview with Rachel Brockman

A full-time job designing for a yarn company seems like a dream job for many crafters. All that yarn! All those possibilities! But does the reality fit the dream? I talked to Rachel Brockman, Creative Lead at Universal Yarn, to learn more about what goes on behind the scenes.

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What does “Creative Lead” actually mean?

Smiling woman with glasses in front of a computer
Rachel at her desk

It means I oversee all of the creative aspects of working for a yarn company: from developing new yarns to designing patterns to support them.

We have about 70 different yarns, we release at least one new free pattern almost every week, and we have multiple pay-only collections each year. I provide art direction for everything pattern related – from start to finish, and beyond. We provide ongoing pattern support for our patterns.

But my job is so much more than that. I am heavily involved with our marketing efforts. I create ads, make labels for the yarn, and coordinate yarn support programs for independent designers. I work with local yarn stores to curate and coordinate trunk shows and present our work to the public on a regular basis. I also quality check our yarns upon arrival from our mill, and more. I’m fortunate to work with the talented Aubrey Busek, who shares in several aspects of my job, including yarn development, design, and pattern support. 

What does a typical day or week look like for you?

knitted swatches pinned on board
Swatching board

It’s difficult to describe a typical workday because my tasks vary so much from day to day. Usually, the first thing I do each day is check and answer emails. It usually eats up a good chunk of my day because of the follow-up tasks involved.

My favorite days are the ones I get to spend on pattern and product development, which is indeed the glamorous part of my job! There is nothing quite as satisfying as making swatches, developing patterns, and planning for a new collection. I adore color, so creating color stories for our new and existing yarns brings me so much joy.

How did you end up here?

Woman wearing long-sleeved orange pullover
Rachel wearing her Iyokan sweater

I landed in this field accidentally. I studied art and art history in college, and ended up following a path towards social work and art therapy. After graduating from college, I immersed myself fully into social work in the field of aging, My husband had a great opportunity with his job, so we both traveled around the country, and I continued on my path towards social work and art therapy.

Throughout all of this I was knitting. When we moved out of our home state, knitting filled up some of the isolation of being in a new place without the comfort of familiar faces. I toyed around with design a bit, and when I had the confidence to submit a proposal to a magazine, it was accepted!

The experience of creating something of my own and seeing it printed in a magazine felt like a great achievement. I instantly had the thirst to continue designing. Although I have been rejected many times, I was never deterred from trying.

When I saw the opportunity for an in-house designer based right where I was living, I figured I’d apply. To my shock, I landed the job here at Universal Yarn as a designer, and my career path completely changed. In the beginning, I worked under Amy Gunderson, to whom I owe so much. She has been an amazing teacher to me. After she left the company about two years ago, I stepped in to fill her shoes.  

Do you do your own knitting/crocheting or do you have sample makers?

stacks of folded sweaters on shelves
Sample shelf full of designs to be released

I do very little of the sample knitting. Because we create so many patterns, it would be impossible to stitch them ourselves. We have sample knitters locally and through our mill in Turkey. I couldn’t do my work without them!

I also design on a freelance basis. For nearly all of my freelance work, I do the sample knitting myself. I love that process because I have the freedom to tweak things as I go. That’s a little more difficult to do when you write patterns in advance and send them off to sample knitters. 

How do you come up with themes or ideas for collections? Does the yarn come first? Do you get to help select yarn color to be sold as well as designs?

yarn color cards
Pantone color references and palette

The yarn comes first. We have two seasons we plan for: fall and spring. As we’re planning those seasons, we select specific yarns for pattern collections.

Aubrey and I brainstorm and look through current trends using official WGSN trend forecasting to generate inspiration and create a moodboard. The moodboards consist of a color story as well as the types of items for the collection. For example, one of our fall collections this year focuses on our Deluxe Worsted yarn. I created this collection to have modern, sophisticated garments focusing on texture and cables, and using undyed or neutral shades of the yarn.

Since I lead the direction for each collection, I technically have control in terms of color choices, but I always invite the input and suggestions of my colleagues, and of any independent designers we work with. I think the creative process should be as collaborative as possible. Variety is much more interesting. I think our patterns would fall flat if they were created solely by my own creative vision.

What do you love about your job? What do you find most challenging?

page of color samples and edge of a piece of knitting
Swatching a color story

I am so passionate about everything related to yarn and pattern development – from actual design to pattern grading, writing, and tech editing. I also find great joy in creatively collaborating with my colleagues. Our team has so much to offer, and as cliché as it sounds, teamwork really does make the dream work!

The most challenging part is simply juggling the vast amount of tasks my job encompasses. Choosing what to prioritize can be very difficult, and I don’t always make the right decisions. It can feel very overwhelming at times, and I’m pretty hard on myself about it. My manager and the owner of the company, Yonca Ozbelli, is very supportive, and our team is so collaborative. We always lend each other a helping hand when needed.

Name some things about working for a yarn company that most people would be surprised about.

large cardboard boxes stacked on warehouse shelving
Warehouse full of yarn

Most people think that I spend a lot of my time knitting, which couldn’t be further from the truth. As I’ve mentioned, there are so many other things my job entails that it can be pretty hard to find the time for knitting samples. Another misconception is that we’re a pretty large company. In fact, our team is very small – small, but mighty. Our entire team, warehouse, shipping, customer service/sales, and creative, consists of just 12 people. 

On the flip side, most people think I have easy access to loads of yarn. And that is absolutely true! It’s so great to be able to hop out to the warehouse and grab what I need. It’s a constant source of inspiration to have it all around. Our warehouse is quite literally jam-packed with yarn. It really is a fun job. I feel so lucky to do what I love every day.

Universal Yarn sign on building
Universal Yarn Headquarters

Please check out our website and your local yarn store to see all of our yarn and pattern offerings. I’m always so excited to work with customers to pick patterns and colors, answer questions, and share what we’re all about. I put so much love into this work and am proud to share it!

A note from Edie: Thanks to Rachel for taking the time to answer my questions. I love working with Rachel, Yonca, and the Universal Yarn team. Check out some of the recent items I’ve designed for them.

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