My Inspiration: interview with Kate Gagnon Osborn

Kelbourne Woolens designer and yarn producer Kate Gagnon Osborn creates timeless sweaters and accessories

Model wearing knitted kate gagnon osborn baby jane hat

The knitwear designer Kate Gagnon Osborn enjoys creating cosy, practical knitwear using yarns developed by herself and Courtney Kelley for their Philadelphia-based company, Kelbourne Woolens. Kate gave us an insight into her design process.

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Who inspired you to take up knitting?
“As a child, I always loved art projects – drawing, paper crafts, anything involving glue and glitter. My paternal grandmother, my Grandmere, was an avid seamstress and taught me to sew at a young age. My maternal grandmother, my Nana, was a knitter and crocheter, and she taught me both when I was in elementary school.

“I don’t remember knitting much in junior high or high school, but picked it back up again when I was getting an art degree at Skidmore College. After a move to (freezing cold) Vermont, I started knitting again to pass the time (and futilely attempt to keep warm). We moved to Colorado a few years later, and then to Philadelphia where I began a master’s degree in textile design. I found myself knitting throughout the years, and after founding Kelbourne Woolens with Courtney Kelley in 2008, I haven’t looked back since.”

Kelbourne Woolens yarns in a pile
Kate work with Courtney Kelley to develop yarns for their company Kelbourne Woolens, which is based in Philadelphia

What fibres do you love to work with?
“There is a joke around the office that I would only knit with 2-ply, grey, minimally processed, heathered, DK weight, 100% wool yarn if I could, so I think it is pretty safe to say I love wool! The yarn referred to as ‘Kate’s Yarn’ during the course of its development is Scout, a DK weight 100% wool heather. It is a really lovely mix of soft and rustic, classic and modern, and is quintessentially ‘Kate’.”

Do you have a favourite artist, writer, poet or musician who inspires you?
“When visiting Donegal in 2015, we happened upon the home of Kathleen Meehan, an Irish knitter who sells handknit sweaters in the tourist industry. She wasn’t expecting us – we were there in December and were, by all accounts, the only tourists for miles – but she graciously welcomed us into her home, dug out her sweaters, showed us her piles of pattern books, and didn’t bat an eye when we sat on the floor of her home, petting her dogs and poring through her many, many garments.

“Kathleen is a knitter for knitting’s sake. Yes, she sells her garments, but her approach to knitting was so different from what we were used to in that she never really used a pattern, and didn’t really ‘get’ the idea of a yarn distributor (“I just go to the mill and buy whatever cones they have!”). She had such pride in her work and craft, and I cherish the sweater I bought from her that day, and wear it often.”

Which knitwear designer has most inspired you, and why?
“I don’t think I have seen a design by Julie Hover that I haven’t liked. She mixes classic styling with modern details in a really lovely way, and I love her use of seaming and shaping in order to create well-fit garments. Her pieces always seem to be both timeless and fashionable, which is a very difficult balance!”

Kate gagnon osborn buildng blocks mittens
Kate’s Building Blocks mittens pattern shows you how to make three pairs of cosy mittens

Tell us about the colours, landscapes or architecture that inspire your design work.
“Despite living in the Philadelphia area in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States for over 15 years, I am a New Englander by blood. We are a pragmatic, practical, and outdoorsy bunch, and my knitting – and by extension, my design – reflects this. I much prefer classic styling and technique over trendiness or whim, and a knit piece has to be, first and foremost, functional. I cannot abide by cardigans that do not close in the front, or hats that will not keep my ears warm.

“That said, every collection we design typically focuses on a single yarn, so we put together a mood and colour board depending on the season, styling, and fashion we’re seeing. This mood board guides the design process, and changes all the time!”

What is your favourite knitting book of all time?
“This is an easy one! Nordic Knitting by Susanne Pagoldh. It is sadly out of print, but I encourage anyone to buy a copy if they come across it. Part history book and part pattern book, it is a wonderful introduction to a wide variety of knitting techniques and history.”

Kate gagnon osborn rainier jumper
The Rainier jumper is one of Kate’s favourite designs and has several stand out features

Which design from your portfolio are you most proud of, or is most special to you?
“I absolutely love ‘Rainier’, a colourwork sweater I designed in Scout. It feels most like ‘me’ in terms of design and technique and has a lot of small details that I think make it stand out: tubular cast-on and bind-offs, short-row shaping, and integrated decreases worked into the design.”

Are there any techniques, traditions or styles of knitting you’d like to explore further?
“Despite loving colourwork and doing it quite often, I somehow have never designed anything using steeking or done it in practice, so that is on my ‘must do’ list. I also have knit the Bohus technique a bit, but I have two authentic Bohus kits from Sweden that Courtney brought back for me from a vacation last year – a hat and a sweater – and would love to knit those when I have time for some ‘selfish’ knitting.”

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Find Kate’s designs and yarns at www.kelbournewoolens.com.

Model wearing knitted kate gagnon osborn baby jane hat
Kate Gagnon Osborn’s classic Baby Jane design hat