Making it Work with Karie Westermann

Last week, Karie and I began a conversation about what it is like to be a freelancer in the Fibre Industry. It was inspired by Karie's series called 'Making It Work', a helpful collection of posts that cover topics such as how to submit designs to magazines and pattern layout tips. To keep the ball rolling, I invited Karie to answer some of her thoughts on freelancing full time and next we're taking the conversation to Twitter with an AMAZING bunch of fibre types. More on that later though. First, here's Karie:

pictures courtesy of Karie Bookish

pictures courtesy of Karie Bookish

You describe yourself as a freelancer within the industry and I’d like to know what that looks like to you. What different roles does that encompass?

I think it's important to establish upfront that most people working within the fibre industry tend to have a lot of roles. I work as a knitwear designer, I teach classes, I do technical and copy editing, and I translate knitting/crochet patterns. I also lend a hand in various editorial contexts from time to time. When I self-publish, I also deal with layout, styling and organising photo shoots, marketing and customer after-care. The creative control is great but it does add a lot of extra work!

I'd love you to tell us about your transition to professional full time freelancer. What did that transition look like and what things really helped you?

I think it may have looked pretty much overnight, but I worked part-time in the industry for nearly 5 years before making the jump. I worked for a yarn company part-time which helped me learn the ropes. In 2011 I released my first self-published pattern and gradually designing began taking over more and more of my working life. By early 2013 I was working around 70 hours a week and so I started looking into how I could make my working life make more sense. I spoke with other people in the industry, I looked at freelance websites, and I spent time looking at business advice. My decision came when the yarn company wanted me to step up into a new role when it would have collided with too many other commitments. I'm now three months down the line as fully self-employed. 

pictures courtesy of Karie Bookish

pictures courtesy of Karie Bookish

One thing I often find when working with those who are self-employed is that it can be hard to set goals, reflect critically, set boundaries and keep momentum when it’s just you. Many freelancers reach out and develop mentors, alliances and communities that help with some of these. If this something you have done too?

I am lucky to have a handful of mentors in my life ranging from knitting professionals to people working in marketing and human resources at a very high level. I've never sought creative guidance or looked for work from them - I think that is really important to underline - but they are great at asking difficult questions and pushing me out of my comfort zone. 

So, for anyone trying to make the same transition, I'd say: find some mentors (or let your mentors find you which is how it worked for me). Have somebody who you trust to challenge you and support you. Do not use them to find work - but have them guide your way, encourage you, and challenge you. 

pictures courtesy of Karie Bookish

pictures courtesy of Karie Bookish

How do you plan ahead? Do you have any tools or techniques for looking at your ideas, inspirations and commitments and making it come together? (Fairly sure we’re touching on time management here too)

I pretty much know what I've doing creatively until summer 2015. It's experience telling me how long things take and how much creative work I can take on. For my self-published work, I tend to think in collections which helps me organise my ideas. Pinterest works well for this and I also find that my ideas are so opaque that I don't have to worry too much about keeping my boards secret. I do plan meticulously for my own work but it's really important that I allow some flexibility into my working life. It's not a job with fixed hours and you do tend to work a lot when other people are off. 

As you’ve grown as a freelancer, what lessons have you learned or even, what lessons are you still learning!

Lesson #1: Know who you are as a creative. Spend time figuring out what makes your work yours. 

If you want to make it in this business, you need a direction. Nobody can give you your direction (although good mentors can guide you along your way). You have to define it for yourself. Some people try to be all things to all people. I've never seen that work for anyone. 

Lesson #2: It is a really, really small business. Everybody knows everybody. Word spreads quickly if you are a dream or a nightmare to work with. Collaborations are one of the cornerstones of this industry and teamwork is essential. It also helps if you develop a sense of humour about your own work and don't take your own 'vision' too seriously. Everybody likes someone who brings them cake and makes them laugh. Be nice, in other words.

Lesson #3: You have to juggle several jobs/clients in order to make a living. I see a lot of people wanting to break into the industry because they think it means sitting at home knitting all day long. Working in the fibre industry isn't super-glamorous. It's a grind at times and it's actual hard work – it takes years to create a platform and a customer base. And you don't get rich from working in this industry. 

pictures courtesy of Karie Bookish

pictures courtesy of Karie Bookish

How do you balance your creative needs as an artist and designer with making this work as a paying job?

Goodness. If I could answer that, I'd be made! For me, at least, it seems that the work I find most creatively fulfilling is also the work that pays the best. I think it also helps that I genuinely like most aspects of my work. Also: diversification. Don't put all your eggs into one basket. Recognise your strengths and think about how you can employ those strengths in different ways.

How do you manage to constantly generate new material, while still supporting previous work so that you can (hopefully) develop a steady income in between periods of busy work?

This is where working part-time in the industry comes in handy. You learn to recognise when various things happens and adjust accordingly. Trade shows happen at a certain time of year. Yarn companies launch new products at other specific times. Fibre events are also regular occurrences. Magazines have calls at certain times of the year. All this information is actually out there and all you have to do is schedule your work around those things. Other things are less predictable – tech editing for indie designers varies considerably, for instance. 

Again, I think diversification is important. 

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Enjoying this discussion? Then come join Karie, myself and a panel of industry experts to take the discussion further. On 9th September 2014 at 8.30pm BST, we will be logging on to Twitter using the hashtag #makeitwork. Each tweet should contain this hashtag so that page will (in theory) fill with interaction around the 3 core questions that we will be covering. 

I'll be posting a blog post of the panel and 3 questions that we selected from suggestions on Twitter later in the week. I can't wait to show you who to expect- it's really special when big names are happy to help others make it work as freelancers too. A big thank you too for Karie for getting the ball rolling on this. I'm thrilled to be part of it!