Photos [Top Left to Bottom Righ]t: Dora in Shrug Hug; Eleganza Raglan; Fiji Cardi; Floating Tee; Kristy Cardi; Anouk Bolero; Little Red Fingerless Gloves
Do you crochet and knit – one or the other or both?
I am strictly a crocheter. I love both crafts, but have very little experience with knitting, and I'm so busy with my crochet designing, I don't have time to learn! Maybe some day.
How did you learn crochet?
I taught myself from a magazine, back in the "Age of Aquarius." I was living in a tiny little houseboat in Amsterdam, and everyone was getting crafty, so I picked it up. No one in my family did crochet. My family were refugees from Europe during WW II, and I don't think needle crafts were popular with people of their background. After learning when I was about 20, I didn't do any crochet for many years. I was busy pursuing a career as a professional singer.
How did you become a designer?
I was "discovered" by Jean Leinhauser, one of the grand dames of the industry. She passed away last year and I miss her so much! I was at my very first CGOA conference, sitting in a classroom before class began. Jean, who I had not met before, walked in and noticed the crochet summer top I was wearing, and asked if it was my own design. I said yes, and then she asked me if I was interested in making money with designing -- I said "How?" She said "I'm a publisher, we can buy your designs." What an amazing encounter! That same weekend, she and her partner Rita Weiss bought 5 designs that I had made for myself, just as a hobby.
How long have you been designing?
That was in 2003, and I've been designing ever since. I had started to crochet again in around 2002. My singing career was lessening (age is not a plus in the music business!), so I had more time, and I was having a great time designing for myself. I never thought about a career in designing until I met Jean on that fateful day.
Do you design full time?
No, I teach singing at a college two days a week. I work at Wagner College in Staten Island, which has one of the best music theater departments in the country. I give one on one voice lessons to 16 students, and I have a few private students I teach at home too. The rest of the time I am designing or writing about crochet. I write for my online magazine, Crochet Insider (crochetinsider.com) and for the great online retailer, Jimmy Beans Wool, on their blog, where I uphold the crochet hook proudly, and for various magazines too.
Describe your typical day.
Well, on the days when I'm not teaching singing, I spend the first hour or so answering emails and visiting social networking sites, especially ravelry, which I love. I have my own Crochet Insider group there, and some very dedicated fans who I talk to and try to help with projects.
I offer online classes at Crochet Insider (http://crochetinsider.com/article/crochet-insider-classes-designing-and-creative-crocheters) and so I often have email questions from students to answer, or homework to look at. Then I go to a yoga class at my gym, because yoga keeps me healthy and reasonably sane. Then I start in on whatever design work I have. Some days I crochet for 8 hours or more, deep into the night! When I have completed whatever designs are due, I spend time swatching and sketching so that I'll have plenty of ideas when the next call for designs comes along.
I also spend time a lot of time working on books, or trying to develop new book concepts. Authoring books is an important part of my crochet career, and something I really enjoy. I have more control over the designs in my books, and I really love the idea of a big project like a book, with many different elements that have to come together. It's similar to what I've done in the music business, when I produced my own programs. In my books, I'm very interested in helping educate the crochet community, while also, hopefully, inspiring people to make ever more artful crochet.
What is your favorite type of design to create?
I am mostly known for garment design, but I actually love to make hats and bags as well. I've always enjoyed fashion, and I certainly had to know how to dress for performing. My dad was a salesman for a small clothing manufacturer and was always beautifully dressed, so I picked up some of that. Living in Manhattan also makes one quite clothes conscious. Since I live a modest lifestyle, I often shop at a nearby upscale thrift store, where I pick up clothing with designer labels at crazy reduced prices. That way I can indulge my love of fashion without spending a fortune. But I mostly wear jeans!
Where do you get your inspiration?
Fashion magazines! It's rather common to disparage contemporary high fashion and skinny models, but I think there is incredible creative energy in the fashion industry. I learn a lot studying the ideas I see in fashion photos, about garment construction, fabric and drape, contrasting surfaces, how to use design elements to divide up the torso in interesting and flattering ways, proportions - well, on and on. I'm never at a loss for inspiration, because there is so much to understand about designing, and how to do it in the medium of crochet, which has formidable challenges of its own.
In my designing, I try to aim for as much sophistication and "chic" as I think the crochet audience can handle. Of course, it has to be something you can write as a pattern, and that will not take 20 pages to convey! I also consider that people want to make things they can actually wear, either to work or going out.
I'm also interested in increasing my own knowledge of crochet and designing, so I often try to find something new that I haven't done before. For example, I have not designed much with motifs, although I love them, and that's why I'm challenging myself to do more of it. I want to really explore different ways of connecting motifs.
What is your favorite yarn to use?
I love sport and fingering weight yarns, because they really look best for crochet garments that aren't outerwear. I love lace weight too, but not too thrilled when I have to make a whole garment with it. I enjoy natural fibers like merino, alpaca, cotton, silk and linen. I have always hand-washed a lot of my clothes, so I don't mind that aspect of working with natural fibers. I've never owned a washer/dryer, nor a dishwasher for that matter!
I wish yarn manufacturers would consider crochet more when they design yarns. Because of the density of crochet stitches, we need yarns that are spun in such a way as to be light and lofty. There are a lot of beautiful yarns I've tried that are very hard to use in crochet -- the garment gets too heavy, or the stitches are not clear.
When I pore over fashion magazines, I pay special attention to high end knitwear and I notice they are working with different yarns than what we are offered in the yarn shop. It allows them to get some very special effects with crochet that I would like to achieve. This is an ongoing dream of mine: yarns created especially for crochet!
Do you have a favorite stitch?
Not at all! The amazing variety of crochet stitches is what it's all about for me. My next book, The New Tunisian Crochet (http://www.amazon.com/The-New-Tunisian-Crochet-Contemporary/dp/1596685530/ref=pd_sxp_f_pt) due out in February of 2013, has over 30 different Tunisian stitches (and a bunch of patterns too). I've only begun to explore how to use all of them in designing. This is why I have no time to learn knitting - there's just SO MUCH to master in crochet!
It's like when people ask me, what's your favorite song, or favorite kind of music. I could never choose just one -- variety is the spice of life, at least for me.
What design are you most proud of?
I would have to say the sweaters in my most recent published book, Custom Crocheted Sweaters (http://www.amazon.com/dp/160059798X/?tag=googhydr-20&hvadid=24414728995&hvpos=1t1&hvexid=&hvnetw=g&hvrand=21433928091915319556&hvpone=&hvptwo=&hvqmt=b&ref=pd_sl_2wyqblsg74_b). It has 10 designs, and I think every one of them is very pretty and very wearable. In fact, I do wear them all!
I'd like to mention another design I'm proud of, my Little Red Fingerless Gloves, which are part of Jimmy Beans Stitch Red Campaign, which means that half of my profits on this pattern will go to research in women's heart disease. Here's a link to the pattern: http://www.jimmybeanswool.com/knitting/yarn/DoraOhrenstein/DoraOhrensteinPatterns.asp?showLarge=true&specPCVID=39761
What are you currently working on?
I just started designing for an LYS, for whom I'm making a motif shawl.
I'm hoping to have a new book to work on any day now -- several possibilities on that front. I'm waiting for yarn for several assignments from magazines, and in the meantime, I am swatching for the next VK Crochet issue, hoping to have a pattern in there.
Anything else you’d like to mention?
Yes! My ongoing interest in crochet history and traditions. For the past few years I've travelled to places I think might help me better understand how crochet evolved. I've been in Eastern Europe and Albania, where I saw marvelous "old world" crochet -- huge lace doilies, for example -- but did NOT find Bosnian crochet, which is supposed to have originated there. Two years ago I had an incredible trip to Central Asia -- Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. I was trying to learn more about slip stitch socks which I knew were made in Tajikistan. I thought maybe this was a missing link between knitting and crochet that people knew little about, as Tajikistan is a very remote place in the Himalayas. I did find evidence that slip stitch crochet has been done there since the 19th century, but couldn't go back further than that. I also went to the Ukraine and met the amazing designers there doing their exquisite version of Irish Crochet. Then last summer I went to Istanbul and found lots of crochet used especially in jewelry. But again, no one could provide evidence of crochet that predates the 19th century. This is a mystery that may not be solved, but it's very interesting to think about and explore.
For those who share my interest, there are some very good articles about crochet history, by several writers, at Crochet Insider.
What I did learn on these travels is that crochet (or any textile craft) is a fantastic way to make new friends. Even without sharing a common language. I taught the women in Tajikistan some of the crochet stitches I know by demonstrating, pointing, exclaiming and the like. You can see some of this in a short film I made about my travels there: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GnXvq8UAUOY.
How do you “get away from it all”?
By hopping on a plane and going somewhere far away! Of course, I can only do this once a year. Other than that, I'm pretty consumed with work almost all the time. That's why I need my yoga class - so I guess that's another get away.
Designing is a wonderful creative outlet, but the industry is structured in such a way that the number of hours is enormous compared to the compensation. Maybe some day, the value of designers work will be more truly recognized by the industry and one will be able to have this career without working insane hours. I don't mean to complain - I want people who aspire to designing to understand the reality. And maybe some people with power in the industry will be moved to think about this issue more seriously.
I like having two different careers - teaching singing and crochet designing. Sometimes I feel a bit split between the two, but mostly they balance each other very well. When teaching, I'm so involved with my students and after a whole day at school, where I teach 8 or 9 students back to back, I'm spent but also very fulfilled. When designing, it's just me and the yarn, and inspirational magazines, stitch dictionaries, scissors, calculator, sketch pad, balls and skeins all over the place. Then I have to clean it all up and put it away when I have a private student coming for a lesson (because I have a studio apartment!). With these two very different pursuits, I have the variety in my life that I crave, plus continual demands on my creativity and self-education.