In 1994 Sue McCain ’88 found herself two years into exactly the job for which her master’s degree had trained her. She was a preservation planner for the Massachusetts Historic Preservation Office in Boston, and she was desperate to get out.
“The first step took the most guts,” McCain said. “I had to turn my back on my education despite the student loans I was going to be paying for the next 10 years.”
Making it harder still was that she knew only that she wanted to move to Vermont, not what work she would thrive on there.
McCain quit the historic preservation job. But it would take her seven years to get to Vermont and another two to launch the work of her dreams. Along the way odd temporary jobs paid the bills while she struggled on her own and with a therapist to identify what she wanted to do and how she wanted to live.
“I kept coming back to how much I love to knit,” McCain remembered.
A friend had shown McCain how to knit during a Calvin semester in Paris. But it wasn’t until graduate school that she began, with the help of her mother, an experienced knitter, her first project — a raglan sweater that she altered to include stripes. “I got the stripes across the chest to continue across the sleeve. To this day I can’t think how I figured that out. Knitting has always come easily to me and been totally pleasurable.”
But knitting as a career?
“I didn’t have a sense of what it was going to look like,” McCain remembered. “Often I despaired of ever getting to do work I loved. But then little things would happen that would make me think that maybe God was paying attention and was moving me in that direction.”
One definite stroke of grace was the call McCain got from a yarn company, asking if she’d like to come in for an interview. She had made one tentative, inquiring call to the company, but six months had passed with no reply. To the interview McCain brought sweaters she had designed and knit; she was hired on the spot.
As design coordinator at Classic Elite Yarns, McCain learned how to write patterns that translated a design into instructions another knitter could replicate. She learned how to package and market knitting patterns, too, and she made contacts in the field. After a year both her expertise and her spirit were ready to make the move — to Vermont and a pattern company of her own.
In October of 2003, Vermont Fiber Designs — a company offering sweater patterns to hand knitters — was born. A year later McCain has published 40 of her designs as patterns. Wholesaled through a national distributor, the patterns are available in over 50 yarn shops in 20 states, and that number is growing.
Thirty-eight million women in the U.S. now know how to knit and/or crochet — one-third of the female population — and the largest percentage of new knitters and crocheters are under the age of 35. “I think there’s definitely a future to this,” McCain said.
Looking ahead, McCain sees lots of possibilities: publishing patterns for other designers and importing handmade clothing from women’s cooperatives in developing countries, to name two.
“The fun, though, is that I don’t have to know where it’s going to go,” McCain added. “All I have to do is to pay attention to what God puts in my path and trust he knows what he’s doing.”
To see McCain’s designs and a list of the yarn shops that carry her patterns, visit her Web site: www.vermontfiberdesigns.com.
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