Sachiyo Ishii talks about her path into designing knitted toys, and her approach to pattern design.
One of the themes for JUMP is the intersection of craft and play, from a panel discussing textiles, craft and game design to a new game about pattern-making, partly inspired by William Morris. For another take on crafts and play, we asked Sachiyo Ishii to write about her work designing knitted toys.
It was about 15 years ago that I came across Debbie Bliss’s knitted toy book. It literally changed my life.
I was born and raised in Japan, and moved to the UK in 2003. It was here that I took up knitting in my early 30s, after my second son was born. I was just getting into doll making, and I needed to make outfits for the dolls, so I learned basic knitting skills from a mother whose son belonged to the same toddler group as mine. I also wanted to make jumpers for my boys. I thought it was trendy and ‘yummy mummy’ as some called it, and I was excited by the idea of dressing my children in my handmade outfits.
However, I discovered knitting was not for the faint hearted. The outfits I knitted for dolls often turned out too big or too small. Kids’ garments required patience with so many stitches and rows, and the yarns could be costly. The jumpers didn’t please my boys much, either. I almost gave up knitting altogether.
Then I discovered knitted toys.
Crochet amigurumi had started gaining popularity in Japan but I had never seen knitted toys until then. Debbie’s toys were stylish and had subtle face features which appealed to me. The yarn colours and textures were perfect, and I fell in love with her toys head over heels. I knitted all the projects in her book. I knitted more from magazines and books. And then I started toying the idea of creating something of my own.
I started some projects based on designs already published by others, changing the scale and amending parts to achieve a shape that appealed to me. I disliked circular knitting, so I discarded the idea of working with four needles. I also pledged not to make gussets, which I found made the projects complicated and the finish messy. (On some occasions I even managed to stitch them wrong side up). I decided that I wasn’t clever enough to make many different parts and construct them to shape into a 3-D object. Knitted pieces are stretchy so that you can shape toys by stuffing them. I made the knitting process as simple as possible.
It was unconventional knitting with no rules, but we are allowed to work however we like, aren’t we? My goal was to create the shapes that pleased me. I wanted to create something of my own, something unique and personal. When I started my knitting skills and knowledge were limited, but I could learn on the job.
Creating was also a way to escape from the problems I was going through at the time. My husband seemed to be suffering from depression. He didn’t talk about it. In fact, he stopped talking all together. He would leave for work in the morning without a word and return home late at night without a word. If he did speak on the weekends, he would bellow at us. Our sons locked themselves in their rooms and I cried in the car. I had no idea what was going through his head and wanted to understand him, but we couldn’t even carry on a normal conversation. I had to keep my mind occupied and knitting was a good way to forget my immediate worries.
My first design was a tiny dog. I made a white one, then a black one, and soon, they were breeding rapidly. It was delightful to see them on my worktable, staring at me with those little eyes. Each one seemed to have its own personality. They were my companions who gave me comfort. As I branched out and made a variety of projects I found a small joy in being surrounded by my creations.
It must have been the toughest time in my life. Looking back, I have no idea how we coped with it. I kept my head down, living a day at a time. I knitted away, creating different animals and dolls. My knitting accumulated and I started taking the toys to school Christmas fairs. Watching people’s reactions, receiving positive feedback, and managing to sell toys of my own designs gave me a confidence boost and encouragement. When I shared photos on social media, people even asked where they could get the patterns. Do people want to get the patterns, the patterns that I made up? It was a wonderful surprise for me to receive requests like these. I found that a lot of people have a desire to create by themselves rather than receiving a finished product. Just like I wanted to make toys, many others wanted to spend time creating with their own hands.
I needed to share the joy but I didn’t know how to proceed. The patterns I’d made were just notes for my personal use. It seemed like a daunting task to publish them. I knew little about the industry and I didn’t know about the existence of professional pattern checkers who check your patterns and assist you with editing. But I decided to have a go at getting my designs public. I joined a knitting community, created an account, and started selling my original patterns. You need to step up your game sometimes.
It was a blessing that I was no perfectionist, and surely, my patterns were far from perfect. I received queries from my customers and after many years of selling patterns, I still do. But making mistakes should not stop you from having fun or achieving what you pursue, should it? My knitting is all trial and error. Challenge is fun and rewarding.
I visited my parents’ house a few years ago when my mother passed away. Mother thought my knitting was elementary with no proper training but she loved my knitted toys and was proud of my books. She had her teddies all dressed in her own hand-knitted jumpers. The yarn came from my old jumpers that I used to wear as a child. I still remember her knitting those jumpers. I miss her tremendously, but the memory makes me smile. I inherited all her knitting needles and crochet hooks. I used to think her life was rather boring, living in the countryside with little to do, but I now know that happiness is found within yourself. It may be the only place for it to be found.
Sachiyo Ishii is a designer and craft writer. She took up doll making and knitting in her thirties after her second son was born, and has been involved in a variety of crafts ever since. She knits and crochets, dry felts and wet felts. She makes Waldorf dolls and toys, hand dyes wool and spins yarn. She also does Japanese paper craft and doll making.