Designer Corner: At Play with Crochet
The Beatles aren’t the only ones getting by with a little help from their friends. Brenda K. B. Anderson owes her blossoming career as a crochet designer partly to friends—and her cat. Her monthly Yarnation group loved her early projects, including a crocheted cupcake hat. Crochet Me readers raved about her Crazy Cat Hat, inspired by the wild expression Brenda’s tabby makes before dashing off madly through the house for no discernible reason.
Bolstered by this encouragement, Brenda came up with a plan: she’d submit 100 designs to magazines. If none were accepted, she’d stop and concentrate on making items for family members and friends. To her surprise, she didn’t even come close to having to send 100: five patterns in her first group of submissions were accepted for Interweave Crochet Accessories (2010). “It seemed so unreal,” Brenda recalls. “I couldn’t sleep that night because I was so excited—a little kid on Christmas eve.” Since then, she’s had a slew of acceptances by Accessories, Interweave Crochet, and Crochet Today.
Brenda rediscovered crochet around fifteen years ago when she found a box of yarn while moving. “I picked it up to see if I could remember how to do it,” she said. “I’d forgotten the pattern abbreviations, so I figured it out on my own.” She first learned to crochet before she learned to read. She recalls doing crochet races with her older sister, making chains across the room and back. Around first or second grade, her mom taught her how to read a pattern. Brenda laughs, remembering an ugly acrylic sailor suit that she crocheted for her Cabbage Patch doll.
Beginning in middle school, Brenda and her sister sewed their own clothes, having learned the basics from their mother and grandmother. Looking back, she says, “I’m sure people thought we dressed funny. We’d find things to make in magazines, like gold lamé skirts, which, as thirteen-year-olds, we thought were very cool.”
At the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities, Brenda put knitting and crochet on hold to study clothing design. She took art classes and volunteered at the costume shop in the theater department. After graduation, she accepted a job in the Costumes and Creatures department at VEE Corporation, which creates costumes for shows such as Sesame Street Live and mascots for NBA teams and corporations. Using the client’s sketch, Brenda creates a 3-D version that looks good from all angles. She starts with a paper mock-up and moves to materials such as foam to create the costume’s structure.
Once the form is created, she dyes fake fur, zippers, yarn, and netting, matching Pantone numbers or existing fabric swatches. She experiments with techniques such as tie-dyeing, painting, and airbrushing. “The dye process is one-half science and one-half art,” Brenda explains. “You can control a lot, but sometimes unexpected things happen. Intuition is just as important as a recipe or formula.” She also documents the process with photos and text, so a replica of the costume can be created at a later date. “It isn’t good enough to make a creature look about the same—it has to look exactly the same,” she notes.
Brenda credits her day job with teaching her to create cute creatures through shape and proportion. “Squat creatures with curvy little bellies, large heads, and big, wide-set eyes get a different reaction than long, thin, angular creatures with tiny, close-together eyes,” she says. She advises crocheters who love amigurumi that eyes are key to personality, noting that you can easily change facial expressions by simply moving the eyes around or adding eyelids.
Because she works full time, Brenda crochets in the evenings and on weekends, preferring quick, inexpensive projects such as accessories, children’s wear, and toys. She works on projects one at a time in her small 1940s home near downtown St. Paul, Minnesota, close to a public park with a small lake, Japanese-style gardens, and amusement-park-style rides. Her “studio” consists of a couch she typically shares with her husband and her tabby, Mr. Kittypants.
“Many projects pop into my head while [I’m] doing other things,” she says. She carries little moleskin notebooks with her everywhere so she can make quick sketches and notes. “I’m not much of a swatcher for small projects,” she confesses. “I know I might have to rip it all out, but I’ll just go for it.”
The construction aspect of crochet appeals most to Brenda, especially its contrast to sewing with seams and darts. With sewing, she cuts out flat pieces and assembles them to make 3-D shapes, but with crochet she experiments with increases, decreases, and short rows. The Daisy and Minnie jumper dresses (Interweave Crochet, Spring 2011) arose because she was obsessed with avoiding seams. “I wondered how I could create straps and a yoke all in one,” Brenda says. “I just wanted to weave in the ends and be done.”
She loves problem solving, such as when her friend Laura wanted lacy mittens even though she lives in Minnesota, where the average low temperature in January is in the single digits. “That wasn’t practical,” Brenda says, “so I tried to figure out a way to make them warm and lacy.” The result is Laura’s Lacy Mitts from Interweave Crochet Accessories (2010). Comfort is also key. She often single crochets in the back loops to give her accessories stretch. “I hate when the wrist of a mitten is too big and you can feel the cold air and snow. I like them to be snug and fitting, but not so tight they cut off your circulation.”
Brenda lists Sydney’s Sideways Socks (Interweave Crochet Accessories 2010) as her most satisfying design in terms of technique. “It bothered me that for crocheted socks you needed to know the size of the person, unlike a knit sock. I thought there had to be a way to make it just as easy.”
Although she loves wool, she chooses yarns based on the recipient. “When making a baby gift, I think, Molly won’t handwash this. She’ll probably throw it into the dryer, too. So, obviously a nice alpaca is not a good choice.” She works often with acrylic, worsted-weight yarn for the creatures, using hooks in sizes G–I. For socks, she uses thin yarns, so the socks fit inside shoes. “I do like how thin yarns look. For the creatures, I use a smaller hook so they will be stiff.” But, she says, “I pretty much love all yarns. I am no fiber snob—I will crochet with any yarn that serves my purpose.”
When not crocheting, Brenda is teaching herself to play the ukulele, a “cute” instrument she picked up on a whim. She also belly dances and designs her own costumes. She loves taking spontaneous car trips. “I like to pack up the car with a cooler, a tent, and a few travel books and maps.” She typically travels to the Southwest, camping along the way. She enjoys stopping at local yarn shops for “mystery yarn” and making small projects such as hats or fingerless mitts. “I’ll put on my delicate, lacy Escanaba scarf and remember Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and the bearded biker who told crazy stories about Mexico until two in the morning.”
She pauses thoughtfully. “The process is just as much fun as the final destination.” She’s speaking about her car trips, but she could easily be describing her crochet journey. With more than two dozen designs published or forthcoming and dreams of writing a book, Brenda’s journey as a designer has been both interesting and innovative. Crocheters everywhere are lucky to be along for the ride.
Michelle Mach loves talking to artists and designers about their work. When not writing or editing, she reads mysteries, bakes amazing brownies, and makes jewelry. She is currently exploring the wonders of bead crochet. Visit Michelle at www.michellemach.com.
Brenda’s Designs Can Be Found in Multiple Issues