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An Interview with Karen Ballard

Karen Ballard in World Wat II Knitting Hat

Like her many and varied crafts skills and needlework-related interests, Karen has also earned enough college credits for the equivalent of a Bachelor's degree in computer science, with minors in management, mathematics, and sociology; and she is a generous and regular promoter of others’ art. A talented maker in her own right, Karen has many accomplishments to share about herself as well!

I met Karen at A Chain Link Crochet Conference a few years ago, and it has been my pleasure to visit with her for this interview.

GBK: Before retiring in June 2005, you had a long & interesting career in computing. Would you care to elaborate especially on how your crochet/artistic activities fit in or helped you cope with the job?
Ballard: I worked for the Federal Government in statistician, payroll officer, programmer, and software designer/manager/consultant positions for thirty-four years. Along the way, I developed a reputation as a superb writer of dry computer documentation. My responsibilities were extremely stressful and I would unwind with crochet, beading, and other tactile arts.  BTW, writing crochet patterns is very analogous to computer programming---precise instructions written in code with various types of repetition.

GBK: Karen, you are such a cheerleader/advocate for all things artistic, be it crochet, beads or historic needlework. What inspires your designs? 
Ballard: I’m not sure if I am an advocate “ALL” things artistic, perhaps only visual arts; although I do provide moral support for family and friends involved in musical and theater arts.  I admire all creativity and derive inspiration from just about everything: shapes, patterns, nature, arts, textures, colors, stories/mythologies, and others’ designs.

GBK: You love researching & collecting historic needlework. 
Ballard: Yes, I love research, but I don’t collect needlework per se.  Instead, my expertise is in historic needlework tools, books, and ephemera; which leads to some expertise in the needlework itself.  I have gathered a few needlework examples, but I actually collect needlework tools, including those made out of needlework (such as sewing/knitting/mending aprons, thread holders, needlework bags, and pincushions, etc.)

GBK: What is your most prized possession?
Ballard: Wow, that is a hard question to answer…perhaps the hanky I have with the edging crocheted by my Great Aunt Laurene who taught me my first crochet stitches when I was only 7 years old; perhaps my Navajo weaving batten worn smooth with age, except for the grooves along the edge from many years spent in a loom. It still gives me chills when I run my hand over them! My lithographed 1880s dressmakers’ “machine;” my sewing bag embroidered with sewing tools; my WWI French pennant thanking the US for coming to their aid; 

WWI French Pennant
my WWII embroidered “Victory” knitting bag,

Victory Knitting Bag
or my 1854  book by Mrs. Ann S. Stephens, The Ladies’ Complete Guide to Crochet, Fancy Knitting and Needlework (published by Garrett, Dick & Fitzgerald of NY). It describibes Mary Queen of Scot’s devotion to the needle. I have been collecting since around 1970 and have many “treasures,” thus making it impossible to choose! 

Ladies Complete Guide to Crochet, Fancy Knitting & Needlework

GBK: You and I have both followed the development of the Center for Knit & Crochet in Minneapolis? Are you still involved?

Ballard: I barely knit; however, I am an expert on the history of the WWI and WWII knitting campaigns. In 2015  I wrote articles on WWI  and WWII knitting propaganda for their blog and  I also compiled a list of crochet terms for them.

GBK: Do touch base with other designers? 

Ballard: There are so many fabulous designers I have met on Facebook!  I love seeing their beautiful designs and touting them to others!

GBK: How long have you been designing? What got you interested in crochet? 
Ballard: Yikes! That’s a long story too!  My mother was a graphic artist, but encouraged all arts.  I gravitated to the tactile ones.  When my Great Aunt Laurene taught me chain and slip stitch, I didn’t know the stitch names; but I played with crochet on-and-off for 13 years without patterns. Essentially, I’ve been designing since early childhood.  Finally, I taught myself to read patterns; but always looked for ways to improve them.  I didn’t consider myself a real designer until I won a first prize in the 2013 CGOA Design Contest for my NC Necklace.

NC Necklace

I have tried numerous tactile art forms, including: wood carving, wood burning, soap carving, ceramics, glass fusing, glass lampworking, glass etching, knitting, spinning, weaving, embroidery, sewing, quilting, needle and bobbin lace, tatting, etc.  These trials resulted in my choosing beading and crocheting as the art forms I like best.

GBK: Is crochet design a full-time job for you?
Ballard: I supplement my retirement pension by designing and writing, but I only can remain focused when I am under a deadline.  Usually I have about a half-dozen projects going on simultaneously and I flit back and forth between them.  They all stay fresh and interesting that way; but it’s not a good way to get things done.  If I had to rely on designing for a living, I couldn’t operate this way!  And yes, I have many interests, I also love rock collecting and revel in opportunities to include gems, minerals, and fossils in my crochet, beading, and weaving creations. 

2015: Golden Sands Necklace

Sonoran Sunrise

Are you a current CGOA member? 
Ballard: Yes, as well as a member of my local Prince William (PW) County chapter of CGOA.

GBK: Has your membership been helpful or inspiring on your journey of passion?  
Ballard: I joined CGOA shortly after retiring and had more time to devote to my many hobbies.  At that time, I was granted CGOA Professional status due to my local teaching and designing experiences. When I saw that the Chain Link Newsletter needed a new editor, I enquired about the job.  Rather than becoming the editor, I expressed a willingness to write a column on crochet history instead.  Fortunately, Randy Cavaliere volunteered to mentor me. She wisely encouraged me to exploit my unique talents and knowledge, including my collections, knowledge of needlework history, and writing abilities, in combination with my artistic inclinations.  My dream of teaching on traveling tours wasn’t a very realistic goal because I realized, with Randy’s help, that I only liked teaching very small groups of people, not whole classes   In a nutshell, CGOA members have helped me find my niche!

GBK: What have you discovered about crochet that is unique to you or your life? 
Ballard: I love the versatility of crochet; it can be used to create clothing with flat pieces, sewn together like fabric, or made with the fitting crocheted right into the garment.  It can be made into lace or heavy fabrics, or even hard objects such as baskets, jewelry and 3-D sculpture.  There is filet, Irish, freeform, entrelac, afghan, cable, tapestry, bead, wire…crochet. It gives one the freedom to make just about anything one can conceive.  I remember seeing a book entitled something like “Crochet a Suspension Bridge”.  The title amused me…I wish I had bought it then and have been looking for it in recent years. (Email Karen if you know where to find this book) 

GBK: You have been involved with others, like the well-known Prudence Mapstone in doing some great freeform crochet pieces. What is it about freeform that appeals to you?   
Ballard: Well, I enjoy many types of crochet, but admit to having a special fondness for freeform.  After all, my prize-winning NC Necklace was done in freeform and I have enjoyed working with Prudence, 
Peter Max; part of "50 Years of Flower Power"

Cyra Lewis, and others to create freeform pieces.  Freeform crochet is the epitome of creative freedom.  Primarily, I do what I call “controlled-freeform” (I know it is an oxymoron; others call my creations “free-style”): no pattern, mixed stitches. But I usually work with my pre-designed plan for my creations, so not quite as free as the “true” freeform technique, but I have worked with Prudence on 3 collaborative freeform projects now, and she always welcomes my creations.

Heritage Heart

GBK: What are you plans for the near future?
Ballard:  I have been researching, writing, and crocheting for a book I am writing on crochet history which I hope to have completed in 5 years. I will continue  my CGOA Newsletter column; and I have an engagements to speak about wartime crochet to the PW Crochet Guild in April and about WWII knitting to a local knitting group in June. I will participate in National Crochet Month sponsored by CGOA as a part of the Crochetville Blog Tour in March.  I have started organizing a Tribute to theArts in Freeform Textiles collaborative project    And I want to complete an entry for the CGOA Design Contest as well as a submission for this year’s International Free Form Fiberarts Guild 2017  Challenge, Patterns in Nature My ambitious goal list just got an addition: Release Your Inner Beast
To learn more about Karen, visit her various sites on social media:

Karen has also contributed twice as a guest blogger here on my blog.


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