The Crazy Ideas that Plague Mari Chiba
Many longtime Interweave fans still remember their first glimpse of The Unofficial Harry Potter Knits, featuring an owl-adorned cardigan on the cover. Mari Chiba designed that sweater. Get to know her better here, through the eyes of her coworker Stefanie Goodwin-Ritter. Originally published in knitscene Fall 2015.
A typical interaction with Mari Chiba begins with “I have a vision!” or “I have a crazy idea!”—and quite often, these wacky ideas (or some version of them) become reality. I first met Mari at the Summer 2012 TNNA Trade Show in Columbus, Ohio, when she was working in the Lotus Yarns booth. It wasn’t long after that chance encounter that she became my colleague at Stitchcraft Marketing.
Over the years, I’ve gotten to know Mari better, despite the fact that we live in different parts of the country; an integral part of our day involves chatting over Skype to discuss issues related to work, designing, and yarn—and sometimes, completely random things that have nothing to do with the fiber-arts industry!
Unsurprisingly, Mari’s “crazy” ideas spill over into the world of designing. For proof of that, look no further than her “Two Hands” series, which puts an interesting spin on traditional colorwork motifs by splitting an image in half between two wearable pieces (mittens or gloves). When asked about her approach, Mari admits that she designs things she likes to knit and wear: “I go for clean lines, and I like pretty simple stitches.” The result is a body of work that features designs that are eye-catching, modern, and easy to wear.
Like so many fiber folks I know, Mari has an interesting backstory: her mother tried to teach her to knit when she was eight or nine years old, but it didn’t grab hold until many years later when she was serving in the Peace Corps in Armenia. Living in a small village, she needed something to entertain her during the long, cold winters, and re-learning how to knit suddenly became an appealing option! This second attempt was self-directed for the most part; while a few volunteers had helpful tips to share along the way, Mari mostly knit and re-knit the same things again and again to experiment with how adding a stitch here or decreasing one there would change the shape of the finished fabric.
It wasn’t too much of a leap to begin designing: Mari admits that she has never been a person to follow directions, and after a few frustrating attempts at following patterns with lackluster results, she began to make up her own designs for hats, cowls, and shawls, mostly by trial and error. By this point, she had moved to China to teach English, which is where she happened to meet the owner of Lotus Yarns. This serendipitous encounter proved to be mutually beneficial. Mari started writing patterns for the company in exchange for free yarn, opening a veritable Pandora’s box (albeit, one filled with yarn).
When Mari’s pattern appeared on the cover of The Unofficial Harry Potter Knits (Ginny’s Cardigan), the compulsion to design only grew stronger. “I dream of sweaters and they won’t stop bugging me until they come into life in yarn!” she jokes, but only a little—like most jokes, there is a grain of truth behind the punchline, and Mari has an incredible drive coupled with a truly artistic approach. “I get an idea, and I develop it into a design, but once it’s out there, it’s up to the world to interpret,” she says.
While Ravelry has made it possible for virtually anyone to share a design with the world, it takes quite a bit of determination and creativity to make working in the fiber-arts industry a job that can reliably pay the bills. Mari does a little bit of everything during a typical work week: in addition to self-publishing her own work and submitting to well-known publications such as knitscene and Interweave Knits, she teaches part-time at her local yarn shop and is also an account manager for Stitchcraft Marketing, a full-service agency providing marketing strategy, graphic design, and a host of other services tailored especially for the craft industry. “All of my jobs are fun, though sometimes stressful, and I feel pretty lucky that I was able to create my own niche,” she says. “Like so many of my generation, I was underemployed for a long time, working constantly to try to make ends meet. Thankfully, things have improved over the last year—but as much as I love designing, I just can’t imagine it would ever be a full-time thing for me.”
Mari and I often joke that we both need clones to accomplish everything on our to-do lists, not to mention everything we wish we could get done on any given day. However, with the pace at which Mari’s design career has started to take off, I predict that the grain of truth behind our shared joke might become less of a punchline in the not-so-distant future!
Stefanie Goodwin-Ritter has been knitting since 2003; she added crochet and handspinning to her repertoire along the way and blogs about her fibery exploits at www.handmadebystefanie.blogspot.com.