By Sharon Hernes Silverman
My crochet career began with the somewhat startling question, “Can you do anything?” It was posed by an editor at Stackpole Books, the company that had published four of my travel guidebooks. I had just declined a project to write about a region I wasn’t familiar with—best for an insider to handle that—but the editor wanted to keep me working with Stackpole. He explained that the company had recently launched a “Basics” series of craft instruction books.
“Well,” I said, “I crochet…”
It was the work of but a moment for him to whisk me into the office of the vice-president to meet with her and the series editor. They explained that Basic Knitting was doing very well, and they were eager to publish books on related topics. The series included how-to titles for crafts as diverse as candle-making, stained glass, and flower-arranging, but all followed a formula. The first half introduced the tools of the trade and gave detailed instructions for basic skills. Part II contained ten or so projects, each designed to teach a new technique. Both sections were liberally supplemented by detailed photographs, several hundred in all.
Each book until that point had been put together by someone serving as project manager/editor, with one or two experts supplying the designs and demonstrating the techniques. I wanted to be more involved, providing the designs and doing the crocheting myself. A few weeks later, my proposal was accepted and I had a book contract for Basic Crocheting: All the Tools and Skills You Need to Get Started.
From Crafter to Designer
Basic Crocheting gave me the opportunity to right a wrong that is too often perpetrated against crocheters: poorly written patterns. Although I had been crocheting for decades, there were still times when I’d get twenty rows into a project only to realize, “Oh, that’s what she meant!” It often seemed like the designer was withholding the one piece of helpful information that could clear up any confusion. Tell me, does the hook go here or there? Does the turning chain count as a stitch or not? If you want to know how many stitches on a row, do you count all of them or just one type? And please, dear Designer, could you just show me a picture of what you mean?
My goal for Basic Crocheting was to provide appealing designs with clear, easy-to-follow instructions supplemented by illustrations and photos. It was as if everything I had done previously had led me to that point. Before going freelance I was a technical writer, so I had extensive experience preparing precise, step-by-step instructions. I taught adult evening school classes. I was already the author of nine books and several hundred newspaper and magazine articles, so I wasn’t worried about producing a manuscript for publication or meeting a deadline.
I had always thought of my travel guides as my surrogates; although I wasn’t on a trip with the readers, I wanted them to feel that I was looking over their shoulders making helpful suggestions. (No, not stalking them!) Similarly, Basic Crocheting would substitute for my presence. Written instructions and pictures would make it crystal clear what crocheters should do next. The book would anticipate the places where they might hesitate, and give them exactly the information they would need to proceed.
And the most important thing: I crochet! To ramp up my skills, I joined the Crochet Guild of America and took classes when the conference was in Valley Forge. I became a regular at my local yarn shop, purchased several stitch dictionaries, haunted the needlecraft section of my local library, took correspondence courses through CGOA, started a “design ideas” file, ordered a mannequin, and bought a lot of yarn to try out.
I contracted for a few patterns from a professional designer to get to the ten I needed for the book. Alan Wycheck was recommended by Stackpole editors to take the pictures. (We have just completed our fourth crochet title together.)
The biggest—and ultimately the most useful—challenge for me was designing a sweater. Whoa! I can’t do that! was my first thought. But as I created the simpler projects for the book, and continued to crochet sweaters and learn shaping techniques from other people’s patterns, a shred of Hmm, maybe I can do this crept in. I found a stitch pattern I liked, wavy chevrons, worked out the measurements for several sizes, then crocheted them all to test the pattern. The sweater design isn’t the most complex, but it is a perfectly wearable, nicely fitting sweater that even fairly new crocheters can complete successfully. A big confidence booster for me.
When I finished that project, I started to think of myself as a designer.
Preparing samples for photography presents extensive organizational challenges. The photographer can’t take pictures of the ribbing on Row 3 and then wait for you to crochet up to Row 17 to show armhole shaping! Instead, all of those “step-outs” have to be made ahead of time, labeled, and bagged. One project could have dozens of partially done pieces along with the completed sample. (For still photos, you can simply make an extra item and rip it out, stopping at the right spots to take the pictures; on television shows, they don’t let you work backwards.)
Throughout a very intense day of photography, the pieces are swapped in and out as the crochet demonstrator makes a stitch or shows a technique with the photographer perched on a stool above. For Basic Crocheting, my friend Terri McClure was the demonstrator. On subsequent books I was the crocheter in the pictures, which meant improving my usual raggedy fingernails. I bought acrylic nails, but unfortunately I forgot that Super Glue and I do not get along. After accidentally gluing one nail to the underside of my thumb, dissolving a substantial amount of skin with acetone in the attempt to remove it, and nearly poking my eye out when I tried to take out a contact lens with those fake nails on, I still wonder whether the beautiful nails in the pictures were worth it.
Hello to Hollywood!
At some point, I sent email to an HGTV craft show to see if they were interested in an episode on crocheted baskets. I had designed three: a beaded one, a black-and-yellow lidded container with a bumblebee on top, and an Easter basket. Months went by and I didn’t hear anything, so I forgot about it.
Then out of the blue I received email from a staffer at “Uncommon Threads” asking if I was interested in crocheting on the show for HGTV and the DIY network! I called the producer and she said she wanted me and my group to come out there. (Group? What group?) And instead of having all three baskets on one show, they would be divided among three episodes, so could I please design six more projects? Uh, sure, my group and I would be happy to.
When you call friends to see if they’d like a free trip to California to crochet on television, it’s wise to hold the phone far from your ear. Julianne Eisele and Naomi Ramos had their bags packed before our conversations were over. “Three on a Swatch” was off to Los Angeles.
The shows were filmed on a sound stage in Burbank. All of our “step-outs” were arranged on a cart. We were fitted with microphones and given a dressing room where we could put on makeup and agonize over our hair. We rehearsed, then met host Allison Whitlock—she loves to crochet and really understood our projects—for the actual filming of “The Need to Bead,” “Summer Place Setting,” and “Easter Crochet.” It was a great experience, and three years later, it’s gratifying to know that we’re still in reruns.
Basic Crocheting sold enough copies for Stackpole to consider a follow-up volume, Beyond Basic Crocheting. David Bienkowski, artist and excellent collaborator, took over as illustrator. Since I was no longer a complete unknown, yarn companies were willing to provide yarn support. I started teaching, became a design member of The National NeedleArts Association (TNNA), and was able to upgrade my CGOA membership status to “professional.”
One of the projects in Beyond Basic Crocheting is a Tunisian crochet scarf. The look of the finished stitches, and the fact that they were made using a crochet hook, blew my mind. I included one Tunisian project in the book and couldn’t wait to delve deeper into it. That led to the publication of Tunisian Crochet: The Look of Knitting with the Ease of Crocheting. My next book, Crochet Pillows with Tunisian and Traditional Techniques, is scheduled for publication in late December. The book includes twenty projects; ten of those are in Tunisian crochet.
Greetings from the “Chopped Liver” Department!
Like most busy designers, I’m usually thinking about the next project rather than resting on my laurels. But whenever I’m in danger of getting an inflated ego, something invariably puts me squarely in my place. I recently submitted a class proposal to a large urban shop. Along with the syllabus, I provided information about my hourly fee, and also requested partial reimbursement for travel expenses. The response: “Oh, we only do that for `big-ticket’ teachers.” Not the most tactful way to say it, perhaps, but I can’t argue the point!
So even though I’m not famous, I love my job and can’t believe I have added crochet design to the travel and public relations writing I do to earn a living. Yarn companies send me boxes of their gorgeous products to experiment with. I have become part of a wonderful, supportive community. There are many organizations who welcome crocheted donations for the population they serve, and I’m happy for the opportunity to help them out. I’m still not sure how I got here, but I like where I am!
About the Author: Sharon Hernes Silverman is a crochet designer, instructor, and author based in West Chester, Pennsylvania. She is a design member of TNNA and a professional member of CGOA. Sharon is the author of Basic Crocheting, Beyond Basic Crocheting, and Tunisian Crochet; Crochet Pillows with Tunisian and Traditional Techniques will be published in late 2010.
In addition to her books and her designs for yarn companies, Sharon has her own line of patterns available at www.SharonSilverman.com. Read her blog, including an expanded description of the fake nail disaster, at http://blog.SharonSilverman.com. Please join Sharon on Ravelry (“CrochetSharon”) and on Facebook (“Sharon Silverman Contemporary Crochet.”)