To view Lisa Richardson’s latest designs for Rowan click here
“I’m pretty good with a sledge hammer... and I quickly realised there was no point messing round with coats of Nitromors, that only an electric planer would do.” Lisa Richardson, she of the zephyr light, open-work, crochet sweaters in Kidsilk Haze and lace shrugs in the supremely delicate blend of wool and softest silk that is Fine Art yarn, is sitting opposite me, sipping a carrot juice, and quickly putting paid to any preconceptions I had about the artistically ethereal life of a top Rowan designer.
Lisa, this year celebrating ten years working with Rowan, has spent most weekends for about the same period of time, coming to grips (in every sense of the word) with an old weaver’s cottage in the Yorkshire Dales. She’s knocked down walls, got far too intimate with horse hair plaster, learnt the precise twist and pull that locks together Push Fit plumbing joints (she hopes – the plumber is yet to visit and turn on the water!), and realised just how many coats of white gloss it takes to masque the thick brown paint Victorians were wont to use on their wood work.
And it gets worse. If she’s not knocking down walls then she is looking for the deepest, stickiest puddle of mud she can find, preferably over-strung with barbed wire and under-laid with slimey stones and sharp rocks, and launching herself straight into it. No….really! She’s a not-so-secret ‘Mudder’ and the carrot juice and temporary sugar embargo are just part of keeping her body fit enough to face the challenges she sets it. Lisa does, for a pastime, what many would prefer not to encounter in their nightmares.
Last year she went cross-country skiing in Norway, spent Christmas camping in a snowy Glencoe, ran a 5 k race dressed as a turkey on Boxing Day and would have seen in the New Year in a bothy in the Welsh Mountains had the weather not turned just a bit too treacherous. She points out she was armed with a bottle of champagne so it was not to be an entirely Spartan experience. This year she is competing in the British Military Fitness Major Event in Leeds: “The UK’s most friendly obstacle race! Leopard-crawl through a muddy ditch, launch yourself into a darkened trench filled with ice...roll, duck, jump and weave your way through Edmund’s Electric obstacle, see if you can escape from the bog….” You get the idea. She got a new mountain bike for Christmas, is learning how to do front crawl without gasping and has just completed a Leader in Running qualification so she can encourage others to get active.
So… a knitwear designer?
“People do laugh sometimes when I tell them what I do. People in the business may think things have moved on but there is still quite a stereotype around people who knit. I really want to challenge that.” I assure her she is doing quite well.
“I think I learnt how to take risks from my Dad - he put up aerials and, at six, I was often up on the roof helping him. My Mum is the complete opposite but, although she doesn’t acknowledge it herself - because she can’t paint a portrait - she is very artistic and has a great eye for colour and knowing what will look good.
So maybe there’s an explanation for why Lisa refuses to fit into any boxes. She has never wanted to specialise – at school she signed up for five “A” levels, from religious studies to maths and art, but couldn’t take exams in all because there simply wasn’t enough time. Post-school there was a period as a gym instructor then she bought a six-month, round-the-world-ticket and took off, visiting Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand and Thailand. When she got back she signed up for a City and Guilds course in Advanced Tailoring and applied for a job with Rowan as an admin assistant.
“I’m good at travelling, it really suits me, and I haven’t given up yet. I don’t think of myself as a settled person but I’m so happy doing what I do at the moment that I’ve got no plans to take off any time soon.
“I started at Rowan doing home ware, not knitwear at all, but working there you are surrounded by yarns, and people making amazing things with them, and I was soon finishing off and doing bits of embroidery to help out. Then I got asked to crochet a cardigan and it just went from there. I don’t think there’s a job at The Mill I haven’t done; I think I am probably quietly pushy.
“Anyone can have a go at designing. It’s probably best to start with an existing design and alter the pattern just a little bit but, once you know how things go together, you can quickly work out which parts have to stay the same and where you can make alterations – increase the length here, change the sleeve cap there. And inspiration comes from everywhere; I never really switch off. Anyone I spend time with has to get used to being dragged into a shop to see precisely how something is tied at the back, or stopping halfway up a mountain because there’s a perfect scene unfolding. I went to an Islamic Art exhibition in London the other week and their geometric designs work perfectly with knitwear so that will come in useful sometime.
The currently being ‘so happy’ may have something to do with the fact that her job at Rowan has such a broad remit. “People may think designers spend their life drawing pretty pictures but nothing could be further from the truth.” She starts to list what a typical day looks like as we nibble on a pre-dinner naan, and she is still going when we get to the post-prandial coffee.
“It can work several ways but often we are given an overall look for a season and then the designers chose yarns, textures and colour ways, produce a series of sketches and, with the yarn, tension and exact measurements, they go off to the pattern writers. It’s my job to manage the writers and checkers, who are all freelancers, to make sure they properly interpret the designers’ ideas and everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet.” Lisa has developed the uncanny knack of reading a pattern and seeing it immediately in 3-D. And, like Bill Gates with a spread sheet, she can scan through pages of instructions and go straight to any mistake. Just as well because it is Lisa, officially entitled ‘Designer and Pattern Editor’, who has overall responsibility for making sure anything that goes out under the Rowan name is perfect.
“Once the designs are knitted up, the in-house design team makes a decision about which garments will go in the magazine then the picture shoot has to be organised. That involves interviewing and hiring models; finding locations with the right feel and booking them; briefing photographers and make-up artists; buying the clothes and accessories for the shoot; raiding the cache of shoes just behind my desk or the stock of jewellery and racks of garments we’ve collected in the Yarn Store at The Mill.
“I’ll turn up at the shoot with tears (note: not the crying kind, the bits of inspiration torn from magazines or print-outs from the internet) that capture a mood, a position or a great bit of lighting. I usually work with the same photographer and make-up artist so I know they can deliver.
“Another part of my job is keeping in contact with Rowan customers and answering any queries they may have about the patterns. I’m always knitting swatches to experiment with new yarns and stitches. And, of course, I work on designs.
She hasn’t even begun to mention the incidental jobs. When I joined her at her latest choice of location - The Ragged School Museum in London’s East End (it backs onto the Regent’s Canal, and was once home to the largest of Barnardo’s free schools for the poor) she was bending over a Victorian desk looking pretty professional with an iron.
There’s one job, though, she clearly avoids - tidying her desk. Nominated several years running for having ‘The Messiest Desk in The Mill’, this year she finally won the award outright and is totally unrepentant. It’s just another of those contrasts that she embodies – snuggly warm softness with sharp tailoring, a traditional sweater put with something surprising, a tip of a desk but a gimlet eye for pattern details – it all fits perfectly.
So, looking ahead, where do you want to be five years from now? There’s a smile and an instant response: “I know I’ll still be enjoying the work. But perhaps in a house with hot water and central heating.” Amen to that.