As I mentioned a bit ago, Pamela Wynne Butler published an ebook, Handsome: Man Sweaters for Every Body, a collection of patterns (Abram, Elliot, Jerry, Kale, Robert, Rushaan), designed with a wide range of body types and fit options. I wanted to hear more about Pam’s motivation behind the collection and how her approach and work has evolved in the years since the release of her insanely popular February Lady Sweater pattern, and she graciously offered to answer my questions. Our interview is below. Enjoy!
Jerry: L / Narrow shoulders. R / Broad shoulders.
Kate: Thanks so much for taking the time to answer some questions regarding Handsome: Man Sweaters for Every Body. This collection is really unique from other “menswear” collections in that you feature a wide variety of models in terms of body type, gender identity, and size. Why was it important for you publish a collection like this?
Pam: At first, the Handsome project was very personal. I was just designing sweaters for friends and loved ones who’d had difficulty finding menswear styles that fit their bodies, and those folks come in a variety of shapes and sizes and genders. Each of the six designs in the collection was designed with, created for, and named after one of those friends. And then I made a second sample of each design for another friend with a very different body type, to show the sweater on multiple shapes. So that variety was intentional, because I wanted to represent a range of different fit challenges and solutions.
But at my day job, I’m a gender studies professor, so of course I also believe that the personal is political and that representation matters! For the photoshoot, I managed to get all of those folks together for a weekend on a farm in Minnesota. And when I looked out at the whole beautiful crew of them, showing off their new sweaters and admiring everyone else’s, I recognized that I’d also created something pretty special in terms of the kinds of bodies and the forms of gender expression we usually see modeling clothing. I think that was a heady moment for all of us.
L / Crew-neck Robert with custom length and “X” shaping. R / Original Robert.
Kate: You discuss some of the additional features in the collection in the lookbook, such as short-row shaping at the belly, wide/narrow shoulder adjustments, and waist shaping. Why did you choose to include these as options, rather than just publish the designs as-is?
Pam: My goal with this collection was to make my designs as accessible as possible to as many people as possible. I want any adult human — of any size, any shape, any gender — to be able create their perfect menswear sweater with these patterns. I say in the introduction to Handsome that “clothing that both fits your body and affirms your gender is a luxury and a pleasure.” But I don’t want that to be a luxury only available to the few. I want to live in a world where that pleasure is universally accessible. We know it’s probably not going to happen in corporate fashion, but we have the power to make it happen through DIY fashioning. These custom options were one small way I could participate in building that world.
And of course, even though my personal goal was to outfit myself and my social circle of fellow gender weirdos, expanding access and options benefits everybody. Human bodies are so marvelously diverse! Every person’s shape is utterly unique. Why not create knitting patterns that can stretch and shape-shift to embrace that diversity?
Kate: Agreed! That is such a beautiful sentiment.
Changing gears a little but, I think it is pretty safe to say that your name became well known (and closely associated with) the February Lady Sweater when it was released over 9 years ago. Since then, you have published a wide variety of garments and accessories. How does your work now differ from that original pattern? Are there aspects that have stayed the same throughout?
Pam: Oh yeah, sometimes a knitter will recognize me in public and call me “The February Lady!”
I designed the February Lady Sweater just for myself, and then shared a tutorial with my friends on this new little website called Ravelry.com. I had never designed a sweater pattern before. And then, of course, it was the first pattern to go viral on Ravelry as the site blew up. It is not an example of great knitwear design! So part of me is embarrassed that it’s the work people know me by. But most of me is just grateful that so many people have enjoyed it and that it opened up this whole knitting community to me.
My later work was largely determined by what a given yarn company needed — what design would work best with a particular yarn and with a particular customer base or market in mind. That meant I got to experiment with a wide range of ideas, and a wild variety of yarns (including some challenging ones to design for, like variegated laceweight silk, and super-bulky alpaca), which was a really transformative learning experience.
These days, I get to design whatever I want, so I’m focused on work that is meaningful to me in some way, like Handsome. There are so many hardworking, skilled indie pattern designers out there creating fashion-forward “women’s” garments and accessories graded for a wide range of sizes. I don’t feel like I have much to contribute to that realm these days. But I’m inspired by design that challenges our ideas about gender, about sizing, about what bodies are. I guess that’s the throughline to my work since the February Lady Sweater. Even then, I was interested in the pattern being adaptable to lots of shapes and sizes — it’s just that the only tool I had for that I back then was the top-down seamless raglan!
Kate: When designing, how much does yarn choice play into your approach? Do you plan a garment and then choose a yarn that will work with your design idea, or do you pick a yarn you love and let it guide you into what it wants to be?
Pam: Ooh, I do a lot of both. But yarn choice is always crucial for me. We’re so lucky to have great resources for learning about yarn and fiber these days, like Clara Parkes’s Knitter’s Book of Yarn and Deb Robson’s Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook. Of course, some of us also had to learn those things the hard way, for instance by knitting a seamless dress in 2001 out of bulky cotton and then watching it stretch to three times its original length.
For the Handsome collection, I swatched every single American-grown yarn I could get my paws on, plus a few faves like The Fibre Co. Knightsbridge. During my first meeting with each of the folks I designed the sweaters for, I brought a massive pile of swatches for them to fondle, and had a wonderful time matching people and designs with yarn.
Both versions of Abram.
Kate: Wow. That cotton dress must have been quite the….experience. Hah! What is next for Pamela Wynne?
Pam: All this year, I’m focused on promoting and supporting Handsome, and hosting knitalongs where I’m making all six of the sweaters for myself.
After that, I’m letting the knitting world crash my day job! I’m finishing up an academic book on the political history of knitting in the U.S.
Kate: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us. And that book sounds amazing – I’m excited to hear more about it when it comes out!
For those of you interested in reading more about the knitalongs, make sure to check out Pam’s blog, where she is providing additional details, tips and tricks, and information on the garments and their construction. Additionally, you can follow along n the Ravelry group dedicated to the collection.
All images © Caro Sheridan except Pam in her February Lady Sweater and the Knitter’s Almanac book.