An Interview With: Jennifer Burke
In conjunction with the release of the Sweet Pea Socks for the April installment of the Year of Gifts, I thought it would be fun to interview the designer, Jennifer Burke. We have been friends with Jen for well over a decade, and are delighted to have her as one of our featured contributors this year. Read on for more about Jen’s knitting preferences and plans for the future. Enjoy!
Kate Gagnon Osborn (KGO): Hello! When I was walking the dogs the other day thinking of some questions to ask for this interview, I tried to calculate how long we’ve all known one another and lost count after 13 years. I do know we all met at Rosie’s in Philadelphia, and for the longest time, I remember you loving to make very complicated lace shawls. When did you start knitting, and why lace?
Jennifer Burke (JB): I learned the basics of casting on, knitting, and purling when I was about 7 or 8 from my mom. I kept at it for a few months, creating a very modified bind off (thank God there’s no evidence of this to be found), and let it all go until about 2003 when I saw a very cute hat in a store window and wondered why I couldn’t just make one myself.
It didn’t take too long for me to find a few LYSes (hey, Rosie’s crew!) and I quickly took to the cones of Jaggerspun. I was a student/barista and the yardage/dollar ratio was perfect for my budget! The use of eyelets in such strategic & beautiful ways intrigued me. As long as there’s a balance of increases and decreases, you can get creative with most yarn weights on whatever scale you like.
KGO: You’ve clearly moved on from exclusively knitting lace, but complicated stitch patterns are still your jam. How have your knitting habits and preferences changed over the years, and how have they stayed the same?
JB: I’ve really taken to cables and twists! When I first got back into knitting, I didn’t think I’d like them as much as I do now. You can twist them across sweater backs, sleeves, hat crowns, sock heels, shawl borders; so many directions you can take different textures. 1-2 row patterns like stockinette, garter, seed, etc. are still standbys for watching movies, reading/listening to books on a device, but I’m a process knitter through and through.
Another thing I didn’t anticipate was me not knitting as many shawls as I used to. Not that I don’t love them any less, but I’ve been hyper-focused on sweaters and socks. I am beginning to feel some more shawl & scarf projects ready to come out of my brain and onto my needles, though! I love the Perennial for lace. It’s light enough to showcase intricacies, but has enough body that someone new to lace won’t be intimidated using a lighter weight yarn.
What’s stayed the same is my love for classics. If you find a garment you like, it’s good to buy it in more than one color. I feel the same about garment/accessory construction. V-neck cardigan construction with raglan sleeves and a somewhat long torso (I’m about 5’8”) are my classic sweater go-to. I’ll design or look for this type of project before any others, and if I find a pattern I like, I’ll modify to my heart’s content.
KGO: Trends and habits have changed over the last decade but one of the aspects of knitting and crochet that brought us together was our love for “traditional” techniques. Has this changed for you over time? Why or why not?
JB: Jams > hits. There’s always new popular yarns, patterns, or techniques (hits), but everyone needs tried-and-true jams. It’s why we can think of yarns of different weights that are our go-to picks for certain projects. I have way more jams than hits in my catalog (I’m really taking this metaphor and running with it, aren’t I?).
I love trying techniques like colorwork, lace, and cables that have served knit & crochet groups for decades, centuries even. There’s a beauty to them that can’t be replicated, but they can be modernized with fresh color palettes and/or fiber options that one might not think of. Once you learn those skills, you can feature them in whatever garment or accessory you like.
KGO: Full disclosure. you designed this pattern years ago, and we’re delighted to be able to publish it now that we finally have a yarn that does it justice. This is also not the first pair of socks you designed for us – the McIntosh Boot Socks are still a favorite of mine. What do you like about knitting and designing socks and what makes a great sock pattern?
JB: (Ah, the McIntosh socks! I love Felted Tweed to this day.) Socks are great canvases for design because you get to design for knitting in the round and a little bit of flat knitting. You can take them top down or toe-up (I usually stick to the former), and some designers have made clever ways to join if you don’t like to knit in the round.
I like that there are different sections to a traditionally knit top down sock. Each component (cuff, leg, heel, gusset, foot, toe) can feature something different and I like figuring out how to transition between those sections. I treat each sock pattern like a puzzle, figuring out what I want to be in each piece and then how to put them all together. A good sock pattern has a good flow to it; it shouldn’t feel like the knitting is disjointed and choppy.
KGO: What’s next for Jennifer Burke and Burke House Crafts?
JB: What is next is definitely more designing. I was pretty sporadic and even at a standstill a few years ago. I was also a new mom, so math and dot grid paper was the last thing on my mind! I like being back in the groove of knitting & crochet as it means more representation (#Blackgirlsknittoo). Shirley Paden and Grace Anna Farrow were the only Black women I saw in the knitting world, so I’m glad that there are more of us that are visible. We’ve always been here, but now we’re seen and I hope that visibility only increases from here.
I’ve also been proud to help raise awareness of lupus. Working part-time at The Lupus Foundation of America, Philadelphia Tri-State Chapter is one thing that I know has direct impact through research, advocacy, support, and education. I also plan to virtually fundraise for our biggest event, the Lupus Loop, and I’ve got a few pattern releases planned for Lupus Awareness Month in May. I can’t instantly affect all large-scale policies, but I can help this specific community!
Thanks, Jen! <3