An interview with: Lori Versaci of VersaciKNITS

As mentioned previously, Lori Versaci came out with a gorgeous six piece sweater collection, Sisterhood, featuring The Fibre Co. yarns. We have had the pleasure of hanging out with Lori on numerous occasions, and I am always inspired by her stories and philosophy on knitting. I thought it would be really wonderful to interview her about the collection and her approach to design, and as always, she did not disappoint. I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did! - Kate

Kate: Hi Lori! Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions for me. Your latest six piece collection, Sisterhood features a nice variety of garments and gauges, all with practical ease and wearability in mind. You and I discuss sweater construction a lot when we're together, but for those who may not know much about your approach, can you describe a little bit about how the garments are worked, and why you chose to knit them this way? (For example, the sleeves on Barnard and Bryn Mawr are worked separately and then set-in, but Moore is worked in one piece from the top down.)

Lori: For me, one of the most interesting things about designing hand knitwear is that it is not just about aesthetics and wearability, it is also about offering knitters an interesting and positive knitting experience. When I set out to design a collection, like I did with Sisterhood, I like to offer a variety of pieces, sizes, constructions, techniques, knitting levels. I want every knitter to have at least one garment that they want to knit and I want the knitter who decides that she wants to knit a number of the garments to have enough range to hold her interest and learn something new.

Then there is the question of seamed vs. seamless! I like to offer both but I prefer to knit on straight needles (ok, everyone can laugh now!), so my personal preference is to knit pieces. I am also of the school that believe seams provide more integrity to a garment and if you are going to take the time to knit your own sweater, you want it to be around for years to come. 

This is not to say that there aren't times when in-the-round, top-down garments aren't the best choice. For me, the construction is often determined by the design. For example, Moore, didn't need extra seams to get in the way of its elegant simplicity. It was the perfect design for all-in-on piece knitting. But I did work the back opening with I-cord edging to give the sweater a bit of added support.

On the other hand, Spelman really needs to have a side seam! Fisherman Rib has a lot of give, making the tunic extremely comfortable to wear, but without the side seam I was afraid that the garment would grow and grow. We didn't want to end up with a midi-dresses instead of a tunic!

And then there is Wellesley, an extremely simple, but unusual T-construction. I wanted to create a garment that you could wrap up in, like a shawl, but could be worn like a sweater. This very easy-to-knit, 3 rectangular piece design has minimal structure and is just wonderful to curl up in!

Kate: You introduced the pieces as "a collection of six wearable knits celebrating women of all ages, shapes and sizes" and named the designs after six women's colleges across the United States. You also are donating 100% of ebook sales for the month of September to Planned Parenthood. Can you talk a little bit more about this choice and where the six names come from and your personal connection to them? What made you think of donating to Planned Parenthood, as the organization itself isn't directly related to women's colleges?

Lori: You will notice that the collection is dedicated to my mother. She was my first and most enduring role model; the person most responsible for my sense of style and a Wellesley graduate. The seed for the collection's theme was planted when I decided to name one of the designs in honor of her alma mater and it grew from there. 

Sisterhood, for me, became a celebration of women. Not only their shapes and sizes, but a tribute to those who forged our path — from women's suffrage to the 2016 election (our first female nominee for the President of the United States is a Wellesley grad). So I thought about women's rights, the importance of education, access to healthcare, protection against violence, and equal pay for equal work. Symbolically, I decided to launch the collection on the anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment and name the designs for extraordinary women's colleges. But I wanted to do more, so I set out to find a way that I could give back.

Having worked worked in healthcare for 25 years, I am passionate about women's access to quality, affordable healthcare. Growing up in the 1970s and 80s, Planned Parenthood was one of the only places young women could go for health screenings and family planning services at an affordable cost. Today, Planned Parenthood organizations, in addition to their advocacy, outreach and educational services, provide hands-on, gynecologic, health screening and family planning services to over 2.5 million women a year. For many of these women, it is the only access to these services in their underserved communities. And, one-in-five women access a Planned Parenthood affiliated facility in their lifetime. With their funding in jeopardy, I decided that I would donate all of the proceeds from the sale of the collection through September to this organization that I laud.

Kate: When we were discussing the release of the collection, you mentioned wanting to swatch the stitch patterns/gauge in other Fibre Co. yarns in order to provide some alternate options for knitters. Why did you think this was important? Were there any alternate suggestions that came of the process that surprised you?

Lori: One of the most wonderful things about The Fibre Co. yarns is that there is so much variety! So part of my challenge was to design garments that would "work" knit in a variety of yarns. So,what happens when you knit Barnard, not in the Cumbria it is shown in, but in Terra or Canopy Worsted? You can get gauge with each, but the drape will be a little different, the the texture will vary, the knitting experience itself with change. So why not try different yarns?

In fact, I have knit 3 of the designs in alternate yarns for my own wear! I had enough Organik in my stash to knit myself Barnard (my alma mater) from stash yarn. It is a perfect color and drape for me.

Lori Versaci in Barnard in The Fibre Co. Organik

And now I am knitting Scripps in Cumbria Fingering, which is somewhat stiffer than the original, which I hope will hide a bit more of my middle! But I still hope to see someone knit SCRIPPS very short. I had imagined it begin worn by a 20 or 30 something with the front just short of the belly button.

But the greatest surprise so far has been knitting Moore in Meadow. Talk about a difference! The original is knit in Road to China Light, which is a gorgeous, relatively dense yarn with extremely rich coloring. My Moore is light and wispy with lovely heather tones.

Kate: Is there a garment in the collection that looks absolutely nothing like your original concept/sketches/swatches? What about the end result surprised you? Is there a design that came out exactly like you imagined it from the beginning with no changes?

Lori: Such an interesting question! This is one of the few collections which I actually drew out all of the designs before I started knitting. And, unlike when I am working completely alone, I had the wonderful collaboration of Daphne Marinopoulos, the owner of The Fibre Co., who made a number of wonderful suggestions for tweaking the designs right up front. So there were no big surprises. But I will say is that I made a lot of changes.  

Scripps started with big patch pockets, but in the end I didn't add them for fear that they would add unwanted bulk. I tried little caps around the armhole of Wellesley, but… ended up taking them off. But the most dramatic change was to Bryn Mawr.

I periodically cut a piece to add or subtract a few inches. It is very hard for me to know exactly the proportion of a piece before it is finished. So in the case of Bryn Mawr, when the pieces were finished I realized that the garment would be more interesting (particularly in the smaller size that I as knitting for the sample) 2" shorter. So I pulled out my scissor and clip, clip, clip! It is always scary to do but to date, I have never been sorry. Interestingly, the first thing that two of my test knitters asked was if they could add 2" to the length of Bryn Mawr. Of course they can… it is their garment!! And for each of them, I think it was a good choice. 

Kate: Yes! It is so wonderful when people realize they can make changes and modifications to a design to suit their personal preference or body type. It is so refreshing to hear that you support that as well. 

We've been discussing gauge a lot here in the office lately, and I have been having some side conversations with friends about the design process itself and the role ripping (or "frogging") has in design. What do you view as the most important part of the process when coming up with a new garment?

Lori: OMG, I frog constantly! My husband can't believe that I do such a thing. I will work on something for 2 or 3 days, and I mean full days, and then decide it has to come out! It is just part of the process. But swatching is without question the most important part of the design process, at least for me.

Each of us know very little about a yarn before we work with it. Just for starters, I want to know if I am going to enjoy knitting with a particular yarn. After all, I will be spending hours and hours with it! But I also want to know how the yarn behaves.

•   How much drape or stiffness does it have?
•   How does it react to be knit tightly or loosely?
•   How easy is it to manipulate?
•   What kind of stitch definition does it create?
•   How does it change when it is washed?
•   How well does it hold its shape?  

And these aren't things that only a designer needs to know about a yarn. These are questions that each knitter has when substituting yarn.

The importance of "the swatch" isn't only to determine if we get gauge. It is also to see if the fabric we create is the one we want to end up with. So I say, why wouldn't you want to swatch a lot! You can go out and buy one skein of a number of different yarns (what knitter doesn't like buying yarn) and then work with each to see which ones you like and are right for the project you have in mind.

Kate: Thanks so much, Lori, for taking the time to chat with me!

To view the full Sisterhood collection on Ravelry, click here
To view the full line of Fibre Co. yarns, click here.
To view a list of N. American stockists who carry The Fibre Co. yarns, click here.