We have long admired Carol Feller’s skill at blending traditional and modern knitting ideas—her designs are unfailingly interesting, wearable, and full of surprise. We read her thoughts recently on the never-ending push and pull of work and home in Cork, Ireland. We’re delighted to share her piece here.
—Ann and Kay
Joys and hardships—that’s the mix that fills my life as an independent knitwear designer.
Most of the time I don’t think too much about the fact that I’m self employed and work primarily alone. It just sort of sneaked up on me as a necessity over the years so that I could combine children with work. I wasn’t happy sitting fully into either camp, so working for myself is the only really way to easily combine them for me.
When I had my first son, I was living in Florida working full time as a structural engineer. It was 19 years ago and I was young. I was completely unprepared for the body slam that is parenting, especially with my own family support back in Ireland. The American system of maternity care is, well quite frankly, non existent. And as I was the first engineer in the company to be pregnant, they didn’t know what to do with me. There was no maternity pay, and the best I could hope for was they they would “hold” my job for twelve weeks.
By six weeks, I knew there was no way I was up for both full-time work and mothering. My first was a demanding baby, I was clueless and I was a physical and emotional wreck. I actually lost so much weight I was asked if I was anorexic!
When he was a toddler, we moved back to Ireland, and I started to figure out the juggling game. I began by getting a childminder in the house and worked on some freelance engineering work for my father. It felt good to get my brain moving again—I adore my kids, but I like to have both!
After my next son was born, I accidentally fell into the online natural parenting business. It grew very fast, and I loved the process of growing a business. What I didn’t love was the management end of it: accounts, stock keeping, and the stress of new competitors entering a very small market. I learned so much from that business: the nature of online business, basic pricing and stock management, promotion and accounting. But most important, I learned what I loved and what I hated. None of this was conscious learning, but under the surface, these lessons influenced future choices.
I sold that business before my youngest was born, intending on trying full-time motherhood again. Well, as you can see, eleven years later, it didn’t stick that time around either!
The Accidental Designer
I did not intend to become a knitwear designer—it sneaked up on me slowly through obsession. I started as a new knitter rediscovering an old love, then it moved on to experimenting. Then I started pushing it out into the world to see what the feedback would be.
The lessons I learned in my first business eventually all came into play, but I do need to regularly reaffirm my own commitment, and be reminded to follow my own path rather than the “right” one. When you spend a lot of time with more business-minded people, it can muddle your brain. I run a business that serves me. I have no need or desire to grow it to an enormous scale, but I want it to keep evolving and moving in new directions so that its stays fun and challenging.
Obviously I don’t want my income from the business to drop off, but I don’t need massive growth or expansion either. I know that growing often doesn’t end up creating more income. If I grow the physical sales, that means that I can’t do it myself, and I’ll have to hire someone to help with packing. If I expand the number of patterns I produce, then I need more knitters to knit them. There’s the potential for the quality to drop and I’d feel like a pattern factory. If I teach more, I’ll miss my family life and would have to design less. So every potential growth means sacrificing something else.
It really is true, though, that in business you can’t stand still. It’s fun to try new things, but only if you’re aware that they come with a sacrifice. Is the change is worth it? Will it lead you in the direction you want to go? My husband is especially helpful for talking these things through, even though it’s frustrating. He will not take any business decision at face value. He forces me to back up why I’m doing it and where it will lead. It doesn’t have to be a monetary gain, but I have to articulate what I want to gain from the move. It does make it hard work!
So that’s my convoluted path to being an independent designer. As an independent, I juggle all the jobs with help along the way; designer, teacher, video maker, pattern writer, knitter, accountant, wholesaler and social media person. Over the course of every week I touch on every one of these jobs and operate multiple “to-do” lists to keep all the balls in the air. Sometimes it’s fun, other times are challenging, but it’s always exhausting!
The support I get from Nadia helping on social media, Joe doing photography and pattern layout, my oldest Caelen doing website redesign, tech editors, knitters, house cleaners and helpful parents meant that it all holds together and keeps moving along in the right direction!