Knitting up a successful business wasn't something Jil Eaton '71 envisioned as a studio art major at Colby.
Though her artistic tendenciesmusic, singing, and graphic designmade a career in the arts likely, knitting was something she did after attending Harvard Graduate School of Design, running Small Pond Studios (her graphic design business and holding company), or working with various arts agencies. But as an artist, Eaton wasn't satisfied with simply following a pattern for the items she made for herself or her son Alexander.
"I could never go downtown without someone asking me 'Where did you get that?'" said the Portland, Maine, designer, who received her first knitting lessons at age 4 from her mother.
In 1990 Eaton created a hat pattern that sold in knitting stores, then several more individual patterns, and her MinnowKnits business was born. In 1996 her first book, Minnowknits, appeared.
Bright colors, luxurious yarns that knit up quickly, and unusual accents distinguish Eaton's designs. Although Eaton concentrated first on children's items, she began designing for adults in 2000 with the release of Big Fish, Little Fish. Since then Eaton has published designs for adults and children and a collection of knitted formal wear.
Though Eaton says her designs "just come to me," there is nothing simple about bringing them to publication. Eaton first sketches her idea, then sends it to Carla Scott, executive editor at the magazine Vogue Knitting. Scott figures out all the stitch counts and writes directions. A knitter makes a model and sends it to Eaton, who adjusts the design based on what she sees, then sends the pattern back to Scott for technical modifications and sizing. A pattern checker makes sure all the math adds up. Sometimes the pattern gets knitted again to double-check the work. Only then is the pattern ready to be published.
Altogether Eaton has six books out with many more in the pipeline. Coming soon are Puppyknits, 12 Quickknit Fashions for Your Best Friend, and Sew Baby, sewing patterns for children's clothes. Eaton also has a children's story in the works called Yarn Soup, about a girl whose African friend and neighbor teaches her to knit, and a series of children's craft books that will include learn-to-knit kits.
Eaton's timing couldn't be better. National trade groups have counted millions of new knitters since 9/11, which Eaton attributes to our collective need for calm. "Knitting is a wonderful thing," she said. "People wanted to go back to doing cozy things that make you feel good."
So who are these knitters? According to Eaton, "It's not just for grandma anymore. It's college kids, teenseveryone who used to knit is going back to it."
Running a business, designing new patterns, teaching knitting, and speaking at conferences doesn't leave a whole lot of time for Eaton's own knitting these days. But that's okay, she says. She'd rather be creating patterns to entice people to pick up their own needles. "More knitters in the world is a very good thing," she said.
Julia Hanauer Milne