An interview with Sharon Hernes Silverman (above), author of the newly published Tunisian Crochet for Baby
RNF: How did you get into crocheting? How did you get into writing? How did you get in writing about crocheting?
SHS: I’ve enjoyed arts and crafts ever since I can remember. I made mosaics, did paint-by-number, and embroidered as a child. My mom taught me to knit when I was 4 or 5, but I wasn’t very good at it. She showed me how to crochet a year or two later, and that came very naturally to me. For anyone unfamiliar with those crafts, knitting uses two pointy needles, and crocheting uses a gently rounded hook. (My most embarrassing crafting moment as a little girl was finishing an embroidered pillowcase only to find I had sewed it to the leg of my pants!)
After college I worked in publishing, then as a technical writer. When I visited the Wharton Esherick Museum one weekend—an amazing place that was the home and studio of a woodworker known as the “dean of American craftsmen”—I contacted the editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer “Weekend” section to see if he would consider an article. No, but try again if the Museum could be included as part of a larger theme. Months later, that opportunity came up. Unfortunately, the editor was still not interested, but he asked me, “What other ideas do you have?” Uh oh! I really didn’t have any, but that didn’t stop me. “How about a survey of area wineries?” That was my first assignment, as the cover story for “Weekend” on August 19, 1988. After getting a few more assignments, I quit my job in Du Pont’s technical advertising department and began my freelance career.
In the years that followed I wrote a cave guidebook, three books for Childswork/Childsplay, and many newspaper and magazine articles. One of those articles, about the Daniel Boone Homestead in Pennsylvania, caught the eye of an editor at Stackpole Books, who asked me to do a guidebook about the site. I enjoyed working for Stackpole; after the Boone book, we did several other guides together: The State Museum of Pennsylvania; Pennsylvania Snacks:
Your Guide to Food Factory Tours; and Brandywine Valley: The Informed Traveler’s Guide.
The editor wanted me to write another travel book, but my children were little and the schedule did not work for me, so I had to decline. After a moment of hesitation, the editor said, “We just started a craft line. Can you do anything?” My response was, “Why, yes, I crochet!” That started a whole new avenue of writing for me. I have since authored seven crochet titles (for Stackpole Books and Leisure Arts), with three more in the pipeline, and I also have a private line of patterns.
RNF: What lessons can one learn from crocheting for life? Is it relaxing? Does it teach discipline?
SHS: Crocheting, like any craft, can teach patience. It’s important to read through a pattern before starting a project. The other essential task is to crochet a swatch (small sample). I have yet to meet a crocheter who enjoys doing this—we want to get started on the real thing!—and I have yet to meet a crocheter who hasn’t ruined a project because of failure to swatch. The swatch lets you see whether the number of stitches you make per inch, and the number of rows per inch,
match the number the designer expects. That’s called gauge. For something like a scarf, gauge is no big deal. If your finished scarf is a half-inch wider than the sample, so what? For a sweater, however, if the specified gauge is 16 stitches/4 inches, and you make 20 stitches/4 inches, your garment will be way too small! (When you get to the number of stitches specified in the pattern, you will not have covered as much area as you should.) Welcome to the world of “frogging” (rip it, rip it). Discipline comes in training yourself to finish one project before going on to the next one; in taking the time to finish garments with professional-looking seams; and in clearing out old yarn before buying more (senior centers love donations of clean, unused yarn).
Some people find crocheting very therapeutic. It gives you something constructive to do with your hands, and can have a hypnotic effect. People with various physical, mental, and emotional issues can feel soothed and comforted by the act of crocheting, and the knowledge that they are making something useful. For me, having an outlet for creativity is very rewarding. It’s a good feeling to know I have come up with a design that nobody has thought of before. I also enjoy the challenge of figuring out how to do something new. I’ve taken a couple of classes on Craftsy, and I frequently turn to YouTube or to my library of crochet books when I need help.
RNF: You've written so much. What are some of your favorite articles, books, topics?
SHS: Travel writing is my first love. I deeply enjoyed my stint as the country inn columnist for Maryland Magazine. It was a joy to visit Kauai and to write articles about “Falling in Love with the Garden Isle.” I was with the first group of people invited to the privately-owned Hawaiian island of Niihau, which resulted in a Denver Post article that won a Hawaii Visitors Bureau ravel writing award. I’ve had the opportunity to explore Toronto’s gardens, sip tea in a private London home, feed alligators on a swamp tour in Houma, Louisiana, go white-water rafting in British Columbia, and eat fresh pretzels, potato chips, and chocolate from one end of the Keystone State to the other. Not much to complain about there!
I’m also a huge fan of the Brandywine Valley, where I live. It is just 30 miles west of Philadelphia, where Pennsylvania and Delaware meet. The art, gardens, and culture concentrated in such a small area is unparalleled, in my opinion, and the back roads through horse country are stunning. Longwood Gardens, Winterthur (currently hosting a Downton Abbey exhibit), the Brandywine River Museum, and the Delaware Art Museum are just some of the spots worth seeing. Writing Brandywine Valley: The Informed Traveler’s Guide let me explore the area in depth, and then take other people on the journey. Meeting interesting people is another appealing aspect of my work. From a hex sign painter, to an award-winning pumpkin carver, to a woman who raises Icelandic horses, I have
come across some fascinating individuals.
RNF: What drives you in your writing? Is it curiosity? Is it therapeutic? Is it just a pleasant vocation?
SHS: I am definitely motivated by curiosity, and the desire to learn new things and share them with others. If I hadn’t gone into writing, I would probably be a teacher. (I did teach freelance writing and travel writing in adult evening school for several years.) I like to think of myself perched on the reader’s shoulder, learning what he or she is interested in and making recommendations through my words. This is especially important in my crochet titles. Detailed instructions and technique photos are included so that a crocheter never has to wonder, “Do I put
the hook here, or there? What should this row look like when it’s done?” There are plenty of crocheters who make wonderful designs, but are lousy at writing patterns. Sometimes I think I have an advantage precisely because I am NOT the world’s best crocheter. I don’t make any assumptions about what the reader knows, and I don’t skip over anything. My experience as a technical writer has come in handy, too. As someone who has been a word person her whole life, writing features and travel articles gives me the chance to have fun with language (along the lines of “Suit Yourself to a Tea,” about tea rooms in the Delaware Valley).
Once in a while a topic gets under my skin, and writing an essay can be cathartic. After a particularly bad series of customer service experiences, I wrote “The Customer is Always Wronged.” A lot of people identified with that piece! I shouldn’t omit the practical aspects of writing. It is my career, not a hobby, and I do work for the paycheck. I’m always looking for new ideas and places that might publish my articles or books. Now that travel information is so easily available on the web, writing a full-length travel book is not as financially viable as it once was; rather than bemoan that, I search for new ways to get my work read.
RNF: Is there any way that a non-crocheter (like myself) could read and take something away from your crocheting related books? And (assuming that the answer to that is not really) which of your articles and books would you recommend for someone interested in learning new things?
SHS: Anyone who is writes instructions might benefit from reviewing my approach to crochet, even if the terminology is unfamiliar. My patterns follow a consistent format. Materials, skill level, and sizing information are presented first. Abbreviations are listed in a table. Visuals supplement the text. I like to think of my instructions as looking at a destination, explaining what someone needs before leaving the starting point, and then laying out a road map for how we get there from here. That works whether you are writing a recipe or telling an astronaut how to work an air scrubber.
Beyond that, I don’t think there’s much else that non-crocheters (assuming they are not interested in changing that status) would get from my crochet books, except if they are looking for gifts for their friends and family members who crochet! Or, if someone is looking for a special gift, he or she might want to commission me to make that.