By Natasha Robarge

I’m sure every crochet designer has had their own path to unleashing their creativity. Mine was quite abrupt. I was born in Moscow, Russia, and like many kids learned my first crochet stitches from my grandmother. I never considered myself creative and neither did people who knew me. I was a great pattern follower and always learned something new, but it never occurred to me to make one myself.

After college I worked as an interpreter for the International Space Station Program, met my husband who worked for the same program, moved to Houston, was busy with a family, made a career, and rarely did any crochet. In fact, when I wore a sweater I made from a combined knitting and crochet pattern, my coworkers were shocked that I could do it. To my surprise, several coworkers asked me to teach them. This was the beginning of my teaching endeavor. My students learn a lot from me, but I also benefit a great deal from working with them. Having to explain every little detail and technique makes you really aware of the things you never paid attention to.

In 2008 I went back to Moscow for a year on business. I bought a crochet issue of Journal Mod (Fashion Magazine) and was stunned by a beautiful crocheted top on the cover, made in a style that is considered the modern version of Irish crochet. Having looked at the instructions and charts, I had to admit it would take me forever to figure out how to make this piece. In the same issue I saw a design with the name and a phone number of the designer: Olga Litvina. I gave her a call and she agreed to teach me. Please note, I was not even remotely thinking about designing, but just wanted to learn the technique. As fateful encounters go, this was the first step in my transformation.

Olga is a true designer: creative, professional, and enthusiastic. I’ll share with you some of the discoveries I made with her which took me, a good but non-adventurous crocheter, to a new level. Here are some of our dialogues.

Olga: Are you successful in making garments?

Natasha: Out of several sweaters I make I usually like and wear only one. But (I add in my defense) when I go to the store I try on a whole bunch of clothes before I find something that fits well.

Olga: This is unacceptable. You are making a custom garment just for yourself. It should fit just right. And you must know your body to make it so. Measure your body, study your body, be realistic about your body and observe what looks good on you. Standard patterns are made for standard bodies. And we are so not standard. Make an individual pattern chart for yourself or adjust an existing pattern as needed BEFORE you start crocheting.

Natasha: I often realize mid-sweater that I don’t like it. So I rip it out. I crochet very fast. So the ripping-out slows me down but doesn’t kill me.

Olga: Why would you rip out so easily? Look how you can take it from that point, be creative, come up with an idea how to use the fabric already made for a new design, something that you would really love.

Natasha: I bought the thread for my practice Irish crochet top. The color is sort of ugly but it is popular now. So I bought it. (Actually it turned out the “ugly” dark olive color looks good on me).

Olga: Know what colors look good on you. Try new ones, but do not follow the fashion blindly. The function of the garment is to make you look great, not the other way around. Overall, complex blended colors easily match different people, while pure colors may be tricky.

Natasha: I can’t wait to make a top in the Irish crochet technique. How do you do it? Do you really have to make so many pieces? Do you really have to hide so many ends? I really do not enjoy sewing pieces together and finishing in general.

Olga: Before we make the motifs, you need to learn how to make composite fabric where separate elements are joined together. The elements can be anything: cords, motifs, patches, etc. They can be joined in many different ways: by hook or needle, sewed together or connected by a mesh. Do not consider finishing a necessary evil. Finishing is an opportunity. It can transform individual elements into a beautiful piece of art. Sewing pieces together, adding a border or an edge, gathering or releasing crocheted fabric is where your creativity can be expressed in the most stunning ways.

Olga suggests that we practice on a small piece. I want to make a leaf. Olga sketches one right there. I make a long cord and Olga teaches me to join the cord with needle lace. I copy the sketch onto some heavy fabric with a piece of dry soap, baste the Romanian cord to the sketched leaf outline, right side down, and draw connecting lines. I follow the lines using different needle lace stitches (e.g. single and double buttonhole stitches) and crochet chains in different areas. The picture shows my completed leaf. You can use such elements as inserts or appliqué for your garments or accessories.

Olga has a degree in garment construction and design. She worked in a leading Russian design house, but her real calling was crochet. In 1977 she organized a design studio focused specifically on crochet, a rarity at the time. Since then she has taught over four thousand students, sharing with them her love of the art of crochet, details and nuances you cannot find in general instructions, continuously upgrading her courses with the most up-to-date techniques and design styles. Olga has won various awards for her designs and published several books.

I’ve had several crochet and knitting teachers in my life and Olga is absolutely the best. She either wears an item in the style or technique relevant to the subject of the class, or she has a competed garment on a dress form. She points out details of the design and implementation, shares some critique, and discusses possible alterations. The depth of her knowledge combined with a very creative approach are amazing and unique.

Creating clothes with composite fabric is, in some respects, easier than traditional crochet. You start with a good individualized full scale chart or a commercial sewing pattern and then just fill it in. Here you see photos of my Spider Web top, still in progress, that I started to make when I came back home. I took most of the elements from Duplet magazine, where numerous patterns for motifs of every kind are published.

When I was about half way done with the top, I realized how much I was enjoying the creative process. I decided to design another project from start to finish: a small shawl to wear in the winter months. I like to toy with the idea of “making something out of nothing” so I bought Bernat Satin Sport yarn on sale at Michael’s for about $8. I wanted to use squares, and it took me several days to produce a square that I liked. The ruffled trim came along when I was unable to achieve a straight edge. “Fighting” the design never works. It’s best to “go with the flow” and make a pattern that is easy to implement.

I have a hobby room at home and I internally measure my success at a project by how many times (if at all) I want to go look at my creation. There are some that I come to see several times a day and some that I put in the bag and never look at again. The shawl definitely belonged to the first category. After taking some pictures, I decided it looked good enough that others might want to make it. I went online and did a search on crochet magazines and submissions. The option I liked most was Crochet! magazine. I could just e-mail the pictures and a brief description. I was really excited when I got a response from the editor, Carol Alexander, who liked my shawl and invited me to submit it for the next review cycle. She attached the review calendar and pattern writing guidelines.

Did I tell you that I’m very “programmable”? Just give me a calendar and guidelines and it becomes my personal goal to meet and exceed.The shawl was eventually accepted and it inspired me to create more submissions. The creative process of making a dream crochet item, the submission process, the anticipation and acceptance – all of it is very exciting and rewarding. If it wasn’t fun, why would I get up every day at about 5:30 am to crochet before I go to my full time job at 8:30, and teach on Saturdays? The rejections are not fun, of course, but working on a design is never time wasted. Every project teaches you something new. Since that time, crochet design has become a part of my life. Wherever I look I see how colors, shapes, impressions can be transformed into a crocheted piece. Ideas overflow. This is an incredible state of mind similar in a way to being in love. I wish for all readers to find their inner artist, not to fear experimentation, and to enjoy both the process and the results of your work.

I have never gone back to my Spiderweb top. Having used the elements from a magazine I was not sure if I could call this design mine and if the readers would accept “inexact” instructions. I don’t know if I was right or wrong in thinking so, and would be interested in readers’ feedback. Would you want to buy and follow a pattern that doesn’t tell you exactly where the next stitch goes, but rather provides diagrams and descriptions of the elements and the filling stitches?

I believe the crossover techniques used by Olga are the future of hand crafts. The popularity of Olga’s combination designs, Duplet’s articles on combining crochet with needle lace and ribbon embroidery, wide use of knitted and crochet fabric on the runway (just look at the pictures of Alberta Ferretti’s Spring 2011 collection from “http://www.style.com” – everything confirms that we are no longer living in isolated villages, specializing a particular technique. Globalization affects the craft world as it does so many other practices, and crafters are eager to push the boundaries of their craft with new techniques and ideas acquired from all parts of the globe.





The new Irish Crochet, Journal Mod

Olga in her studio







Spiderweb top, UFO

Natasha’s first published design (Crochet!)