Pen, ink, and smooth paper

Having reached a temporary place of accomplishment with the electronic layout files for book, I am turning my attention, with great relief, to the question of illustrations. Usually the illustrations are completed long before this stage in book production. In taxing circumstances, we have to keep inventing and reinventing both ourselves and our working processes.

(I have no idea where the previous glitches that have been affecting work for nearly a year have been coming from, so I have no idea when or whether they will show up again. I am only looking at right now, and I do have a PDF with the correct page breaks, so we can begin proofing the text and indexing. I can, for the moment, move to a different critical task.)

I clear a small table (a board resting on cardboard file boxes), turn on a one-dollar lamp that has been more useful than I ever imagined it would be, collect my working papers and vellum (an extremely smooth paper on which I’ll draw the final schematic images), and line up my pens.


Of course, I could do this set of drawings on the computer, using Illustrator. I know how. In fact, I sketched in this rough placeholder for the raglan silhouette using 100% technology and no handwork. It was easy and fast to do.


However, it was not to measured proportions (it could have been) and there is something about working with hand-drawn images that I like and that seems more compatible with the handmade approach to textiles we are presenting in the book. Plus I am moderately fed up with computers.

There was another, less important, factor in my choice of media: I worked on the measured-proportions part of this project while I was on vacation, so a pencil and graph paper were available and my computer with its heavy-duty graphics programs was not.

Here’s a simple measured-proportions reference sketch for the saddle-shoulder body. I had to remember to sketch both the low-shoulder line (where the body stops) and the line marking where the saddle shoulder forms part of the body. I’m working on 4/inch graph paper, with one square per inch.


These sweaters represent concepts, not specific designs. They will teach design principles and practical application, so I select
generic measurements for all the parts. I do make sure all the pieces
go together. I develop my reference sketches by following the instructions and the sample measurements on the book’s worksheets, which have been tech-edited several times. Generating the drawings from the instructions builds another cross-check of their accuracy into the flow.

Here’s the matching sleeve, with its saddle-shoulder extension.


The extension will be knitted to match the width of the shoulder on the sweater, so I don’t worry on my sketch about exactly how long it is. I mark the center of the sleeve all the way down, because some of the images I generate from this information will just show the front of the sweater and some will show the pieces.

Back home, I scan in and assemble full reference images for each drawing. Here’s the round-yoke sweater—it was the hardest in this set to get right:


The drawings for this book (Ethnic Knitting Exploration: Lithuania, Iceland, and Ireland) are more complicated than those for the first in this series by Donna Druchunas (Ethnic Knitting Discovery: Denmark, The Netherlands, Norway, and the Andes), which were all drop-shoulder garments. The sweater shapes in this second all involve different structures within the shoulder area, which in two cases change the angle at which the sleeves intersect with the body.

(Link for Ethnic Knitting Exploration goes to, where, no surprise, there are no comments yet. The book is listed in all the appropriate channels. Pressure, anyone?)

After drafting out each element, I combine the parts in Photoshop.

I’m working at the same scale for all of the drawings, and I will use the same pens to draw all of the finished illustrations. Ideally, each drawing will be reproduced at the same percentage of its original size, which should keep the line weights consistent throughout the book. I’m needing to fudge that a little bit for this book because I’m short on time; in some cases, I’ll be using the same drawing at slightly different percentages for different purposes. I do keep the ideal in mind, though. Most of these drawings will be reproduced at 50% of their actual size. I always work larger-than-final, as do most people who prepare illustrations by hand. Sixty-five percent is about ideal. The math is easier for 50% (easy is good right now) and that ratio works with my graph paper.

I try out one set of pens for the first drawing, scan it, and put it into the book to see what it’s like. This first attempt is shown at the top of the next photo:


It’s too heavy. The line weight coordinates with the subhead type (the bold), but it is out of balance with the page design as a whole. We can adjust the line weight a bit in Photoshop later, but it’s easier to make the drawings closer-to-right in the first place. So I shift to a different set of pens and make the second test drawing, shown below the first. The line weight falls between the weight of the type in the subhead and that in the text, leaning slightly toward the text. That’s where I want it.

So far the images are showing up in what look like gray boxes because the scanner is sensitive enough to pick up even the slight shadows of the ripples in the paper. We’ll clean up the images before we go to press, so all that shows is a nice, crisp outline. Right now that doesn’t matter.

First I have a bunch more drawings to do, and some of them are much more complicated than these. I start with simple images that let me work out the technical kinks (like which pens to use and what size to work at), and then move to the more intricate ones. I think I have around thirty to do, although I haven’t counted.

I’m going to repeat a version of the image at the top of the post and make a couple of additional points about my working methods.


  1. Because the vellum is translucent, I can place it over my reference sketches. At the left are two of my heavy-line test drawings on vellum.
  2. This is one of the printed reference drawings, made on the computer from hand-drawn elements.
  3. Here’s a drawing I’m working on. I can see through the vellum quite nicely. There’s a plain sheet of paper over the right half of the drawing so my hand doesn’t smear any of the lines I’ve already made.

I’m using permanent-ink pens of the sort that were developed to replace the old Rapidographs and other technical pens. They don’t do as good a job—the lines I draw are not as dense or consistent as they would be if I were using "real" technical pens—but the old pens require significant maintenance, especially when they are used infrequently. So I compromise.

It’s peaceful work. And the computer lets me fix any slight pen glitches electronically, so it’s relatively low-stress.

Right now, those are very, very welcome attributes for a task.


I don’t have the right gear to ride my bike to the library this morning, but in Colorado we are almost always very grateful for rain.



4 thoughts on “Pen, ink, and smooth paper”

  1. Glad to hear I’m not the only person with a boxful of Rapidograph pens that have seen better days!

    If you haven’t seen it already, I highly recommend Stephen Heller’s piece for Design Observer about press-on type ( — of which I still have a rather large collection — it makes me realize just how far we’ve come in thirty years in the printing business….

  2. Oh, cool! Prestype! I still have my collection, too. It’s probably lost its stickiness, but yeah, it’s here. In an oversized folder, because the sheets were oversized. My sets were heavy on Bookman and rules and dingbats.

    I hope I didn’t have any Avant Garde; the first 4/c (four-color) magazine I edited had recently been given a redesign by a graphic artist who decided the text should be set in Avant Garde. It was impossible to proofread: every i, I, and l looked identical. We were on a hurried deadline and I had the typesetter put the text in a legible face. I almost lost my job over it, and I needed the job but was willing to leave if I had to proof a whole magazine in Avant Garde at 9 on 11, or whatever it was.

    Press-on type was fun. There’s a great comment on that article, though, by reader Bob Aufuldish about how it is “perfect for that slightly (or completely) out of control feeling.”

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