Noma Ndlovu of Bigger Than Life Knits designs knitting patterns, so you can make your own gorgeous creations with minimal fuss – securing customers from far afield as Australia and Russia.
Trend forecaster Li Edelkoort predicts that “The Age of the Amateur” will be around for the next decade and that the pandemic has (among other things) given the world more of an appreciation for handmade creations. And to be clear, it’s certainly not your grandma’s doilies we’re talking about.
While many of us may know knitters and crocheters (or may even have become crafty ourselves during the lockdown), it’s less common to know someone that can actually dream up a pattern from scratch. It seems that Noma’s unstoppable creativity naturally led her to make things up as she goes. “I've never been good at following a pattern and on the rare occasion when I tried, I’d modify it so much that it won’t look anything like the original pattern! I also like the idea of coming up with something that’s never been done before,” she explains.
When asked about her process of creating a pattern, it gets as complicated and technical as you might imagine. “I’m not so good at sketching, so I write a detailed description in my notebook of what I have in mind. Then I [make a swatch of the] stitch pattern, determine the gauge, and write detailed instructions for the size I’m working on. After finishing the sample, I write the pattern on my computer and grade it (creating specifications for different sizes) on an Excel spreadsheet. I then send it to the technical editor and when we’ve finalised the pattern, I send it out to testers. Depending on the project, testing can take three to eight weeks.”
While waiting, Noma will photograph her finished sample (modelled by her sister) and finalise the pattern’s layout. As soon as the testers are done and provide feedback, she integrates their feedback into the pattern. “The pattern goes for a final check with the tech editor and then I publish. Most of the sample production and testing is shared via Instagram and Facebook to generate interest in the design.”
This gorgeous Lemon Sorbet shawl is one of Noma’s creations. It’s made with just one skein of the local Miss La Motte hand-dyed yarn.
When the knitting bug bit
Noma started knitting when she was just five. Her aunt showed her the ropes and her mom and grandmother also contributed to her learning process. But it was in 2013 when she was expecting her daughter, Sandi (now 7), that she started taking knitting seriously.
“I wanted to make some special knits for her. After so many years of being a casual knitter I decided to take it seriously and took some time to learn more about pattern writing, reading charts and working on custom orders from family and friends.”
Currently, Noma designs knitting patterns full-time because she prefers being at home to look after her seven-month-old baby, Noni. “My two daughters take up most of my time during the day. From getting ready for school in the morning, playing with Noni, doing the school run and homework, most of my admin work is done at night when the girls are asleep. My husband helps a lot in the evening after work, so I get to do quite a bit of knitting then.”
Noma’s Bigger Than Life Knits patterns are available at quite a few online shops. And while most of her customers are from the USA, Canada, Europe, and even Australia and Russia, she says that she’s received amazing support from South African knitters.
“I get to meet different knitters on each platform. Most of the Ravelry knitters are more advanced in their knitting and the platform offers more interaction between the designer and the knitter. It’s wonderful to see the projects and the process knitters take to make their creations. I also have a Ravelry group, which I mainly use to conduct tests and for people to share their finished products. While on Etsy, I get people who are more interested in quicker, smaller projects and baby blankets. On LoveCrafts, the knitters are similar to Ravelry, but there isn’t much interaction between knitters and designers.
Stop, collaborate and listen
Many designers have very successful collaborations with yarn brands. Noma shares what she’s done so far. “I’ve received great support from yarn companies. Internationally, I have collaborated with LoveCrafts (LoveKnitting) and designed using their exclusive yarns (Debbie Bliss yarns and The Yarn Collective).
I’m also working on a project sponsored by Brooklyn Tweed, coming in January 2021. I have another collab with Kokon Yarns, the owner Michelle is a South African living in the Netherlands. Locally I have worked with a number of companies. I have designed for Nurturing Fibres, worked with Karen from Miss La Motte Yarns, Knotty Habits and some that I’ll be sharing soon.”
Advice for aspiring craft entrepreneurs
Noma’s background is in financial planning and financial literacy training, and she will be getting back to that career in a few months once her baby is a little older. “It takes a while to build up a career in knitting,” she says, and recommends starting out as a side hustle. “It is very difficult to earn a living as a designer and most designers diversify their income with teaching, kit sales, working with magazines and other publications and selling other knitting-related accessories.”
“Take your business seriously from day one. Don’t be afraid to market your business – most successful designers put themselves out there and talk about their work a lot. Get your pattern checked by a technical editor and tested by knitters before publishing. Nothing will put off customers more than a pattern with errors – building a strong customer base is important in this business.”
Author: Leanne Feris