In Our Tools, Ourselves, we get to know fiber artisans of all walks, ages, styles and skill levels, by way of their tools. For more on the series, read the introduction.
All-around talented lady and founder of the wildly popular Grainline Studio — a sewing blog that grew into a bustling pattern business — Jen Beeman is one of my heroes. She sews, she knits, she blogs, she Instagrams, she runs an amazing business, and I just love her spirit and her style. (Did you know that before she releases a new pattern, she personally sews one garment in every size?) She holds degrees in both photography and fashion design, and is one of a dying breed of professionally trained pattern drafters, which you can listen to an interview about at Marketplace. And I’m super thrilled she’s agreed to give us a peek at her space and talk about her habits and her tools. Thanks, Jen!
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Do you knit, crochet, weave, spin, dye, sew … ?
I’m both a knitter and a sewer. I always joke that I learned how to knit about a year or so too early. Back in college, I had a friend who worked at the photo checkout window with me who knit, and seeing her make these sweaters left and right made me want to learn. So when a friend and I decided to drive to NYC in the fall of 2001 to check out a few other art schools (we were thinking about transferring) I figured it would be the perfect time to teach myself. At that point I don’t even think the website Knitty was a thing, and I definitely couldn’t find any good books at the bookstore. I bought a really poorly designed and super basic knitting pamphlet at the local Champaign IL craft store, some metal needles, and what I’m sure was either Red Heart or Lion Brand yarn and took that on the road. By the end of the trip I had learned to knit!
I went about learning to sew in a bit of a more orderly fashion. My mom always sewed and made a lot of our clothes when we were younger and I used to love helping pick out the fabrics and patterns with her. When I was 12 she finally taught me to sew, and eventually signed me up for a sewing class with a friend.
In high school I stopped, but after getting a photography BFA I decided that I should go back to school to become a patternmaker, so I did. I then worked as a patternmaker until recently when I realized I couldn’t handle my work load between a job and my pattern business, so I began working on Grainline Studio full time.
I’ve tried crocheting, weaving, spinning, and dyeing but none of them really stuck with me. I’m absolutely unable to hold any sort of tension while crocheting despite help from my master crocheter mom. My hand just turns into one cramped up little claw. It’s horrible because I really dream of making a chunky black and white wool zigzag afghan. Mom, if you’re reading this, hint hint ;)
Tell us about your tool preferences and peccadilloes.
I think I might be kind of weird about tools — I really have so few of them and they’re all pretty basic, in both knitting and sewing.
For knitting I mostly prefer wooden needles. I’ve always felt like they’re easier for my usually painful hands to deal with. I used to only use straight needles — I think because I already owned them — but recently I’ve been getting more into the circular needle. I think it’s easier on my wrists to have the weight of the sweater sitting in my lap rather than stuck out on the end of a straight needle. Besides needles, I have the same knitting kit I’ve had for about ten years. While I’d love to upgrade to some fancy tools, I can’t ever seem to justify spending money on a version of something I already own that works perfectly well. I’m now thinking about purchasing a swift and some blocking tools, though, so I’ll be adding to my tool collection soon.
In sewing, the same is true. When drafting patterns by hand I have a pretty basic tool set, things like steel rulers, an awl, pattern notcher, steel weights, Japanese punch and a really nice Japanese mechanical pencil that rotates the lead slightly while you draw so you’re never stuck with that one sharp edge. Mechanical pencil nerds will know what I’m talking about. I use 90lb kraft paper for my personal patterns and manila for any production patterns. I also have recently started using Optitex which is a CAD pattern-drafting software, in order to streamline my process, which is really helpful in getting patterns out more quickly without the kind errors that require going back to the literal drawing board while your pattern is in progress.
All of my sewing machines (sewing, serger and coverstitch/chainstitch) are Bernina home machines. While I love professional industrial machines, I feel that it’s important that I’m working on the same equipment that the people buying my patterns will most likely have. I don’t really have many special feet. The only feet I ever use are my 1⁄4″ foot, my invisible zipper foot, the buttonhole foot, and the button foot. That’s it really. Oh, and the walking foot when quilting!
How do you store or organize your tools? Or do you?
Like my tools, my knitting storage is also pretty basic. I keep my needles in an old animal cracker tin I got at a neighbor’s yard sale growing up, and my tools are kept in a small leather pouch I made.
How do you store or organize your works-in-progress?
My project bag is, embarrassingly, a clear plastic drawstring top bag that a fabric purchase from Drygoods Design in Seattle arrived in, and I keep my finished sweater pieces in the dust bag from a pair of shoes while I’m working on the rest of the pieces. Oddly they’re both the perfect size for what I need. All of this sits on a bookshelf next to our couch. I’m really not very fancy. I always have dreams of getting one of those beautiful baskets with the expanding tops that people love, but in reality I know that it will just turn into an expensive cat bed.
Are there any particularly prized possessions amongst your tools?
Not really any in my tools since they’re all just basic things I bought myself. I do like them a lot, though — we’ve done a quite a bit of knitting together! I splurged on some Brooklyn Tweed Shelter to knit the Stonecutter by Michele Wang and I’m really glad I did that. It’s been a super fun knit so far.
Do you lend your tools?
I don’t typically lend my tools because I don’t really have extras of anything to lend or anyone to lend it to!
I do give away a lot of stuff I don’t need or use anymore, though. I just gave my assistant, Kendra, a basics book on knitting and a bunch of yarn I wasn’t using, and she’s already made slippers, a scarf and is now on to a hat. It’s great when you can give someone something to get them into a new hobby, plus giving them something rather than lending it doesn’t come with the stress of the “Am I keeping this too long? Do they need this back soon?” questions that I always get when borrowing something.
What is your favorite place to knit/sew/crochet/whatever?
My favorite place to knit is after work on the couch hanging out with my boyfriend and cat. It’s a great way to just relax after a day of work, though often my cat thinks I’m just dangling yarn there for her enjoyment.
I also like to knit on road trips because it gives me something to do while stuck in the car. During the warmer months (and the cooler with a blanket) I like knitting out on the back porch with a cup of tea.
As for sewing, I sew at my studio during the day, so that never comes home with me. I was a little worried about this at first but I really like leaving my job at work (because sewing is my job) and coming home to work on my hobby, knitting, or just doing nothing at all. It’s wonderful! Since moving to my studio I’ve finished a sweater and I’m about to block and seam my second, it’s been super productive on both the knitting and sewing fronts!
What effect do the seasons have on you?
I sew year round, since it’s my job, but I find that I do mostly want to knit in fall and winter. This summer I went against my natural tendencies and did a fair amount on road trips, which was nice. I like the idea of knitting something over the summer so that it’s ready for fall, but in reality I’m not keen on wool in the humid Chicago heat.
Do you have a dark secret, guilty pleasure or odd quirk, where your fiber pursuits are concerned?
I think I have a few quirks. I almost always prefer knitting sweaters with seams rather than in the round, which I think has to do with the fact that I sew and also that knitting pieces is lighter on the wrists than knitting an entire sweater at once. I hate knitting with cotton — it makes my hands hurt because there isn’t much give. Oh, and since I taught myself to knit from that weird old pamphlet I mentioned up above, a lot of the time when people see me knitting they think I knit really oddly, which I’m sure I do but it works, so I’m fine with it. I also don’t use a row counter, instead I make lists all over my pattern of what part I’m working on and tally off the rows. I’ve tried the clicking counters and ones on my phone and I just find I can never remember to click them off like I can with a pen and paper.
As far as dark secrets I think I’m in the clear. I do have a knitting machine under the bed though…
What are you working on right now?
Right now I’m about to block my Stonecutter and after that’s done I need to knit a new winter hat. There are about 4000 sweaters I want to knit, and I swear, every time Fringe pops up in my blog reader I add at least one more to that list.
As for business, just working on new patterns and posts and, fingers crossed, the first pattern collaboration, which I think people will totally be into!
PREVIOUSLY in Our Tools, Ourselves: Jared Flood (Brooklyn Tweed)
Photos © Jen Beeman