EXCLUSIVE: Leaky interviews “Harry Potter: Knitting Magic” author Tanis Gray

Jan 17, 2020

Posted by: Amanda Kirk

Books, Costumes, Exclusives, Fun – Crafts, Interviews, News, Products

The first official Harry Potter knitting book, Harry Potter: Knitting Magic will be released on January 28.  You can pre-order it here, and enter to win a copy, plus yarn for the Umbridge Cat Scarf, here.  Thanks to publisher Insight Editions, Leaky was able to chat with author Tanis Gray about Weasley jumpers, Dumbledore’s famous love of knitting patterns, how knitting symbolises love and care in both the magic and Muggle worlds, and much more.  We got the story behind each pattern selected for the book, and info on where you can find this talented knitting designer and teacher next.

First, how did you get this gig?  It’s a dream job for a Harry Potter fan.  I’m going to guess it’s your impressive resume, from teaching on Knitting Daily TV to designing over 500 patterns.  There are unofficial Harry Potter knitting books but this is the first official one.  Did you approach someone with this idea?

27540010_10214339615779236_5139679835361472977_nThe publisher approached me.  They came after me because of my film background and my books.  I was very familiar with the editing process, and doing these compilation books.  Add my adoration of Harry Potter and everything that they were hoping for in an editor was something that I had, so they asked me and I was very delighted to say yes.  There are so many knitters—I don’t think the non-knitters really know how many of us there are, and how many people love Harry Potter.  I had always thought, why isn’t there an official knitting pattern book and, God, I’d love to see that and somehow be involved.  Every year my husband and I talk about our goals for the next year, and every year I’ve said I hope somebody does that book and I am lucky enough to have a project in it.  And it was funny because I got this email from the publisher and it just seemed too good to be true—everything that I loved and wanted and hoped for.  I actually trashed the email because I thought, this is a scam, and then I kept thinking about it and oh, I should just reply…

We’re so glad you did!  How much creative control did you have over the project?  Could you make of it exactly what you wanted or were there strict parameters.

There were parameters.  Harry Potter: Knitting Magic is based on the movies, not the written books, so, you know how in the movie they don’t talk about S.P.E.W., not everything makes it into the movie due to time constraints.  The knitting book is based on the movies so we can’t even go near that, likewise if somebody had submitted a design that was maybe the wrong colour or some details were not quite accurate.  They’d go through me first, and then I’d give them to my editor, and then she’d give them to her boss, and then they’d go to Warner Bros.  So, everything went through multiple stages to make sure they were accurate and fun to knit.  Nobody wants to knit something boring so there were a couple factors to every project that was selected.

There is tremendous variety.  Looking at some of the ways that you chose to knit the projects, many things are knitted in the round to avoid seaming, and I think you even used Magic Loop for the Cornish Pixie.

HPMK_Cornish PixieNot everybody loves the finishing.  When possible I like to minimise the finishing.  Not all the designs in the book are mine.  It’s kind of a compilation.  I was in charge of deciding what was going to be in, and that was a factor, to have not anything extraordinarily complicated but, on the other side of that, having something for all skill levels.  So, if it was something easy to knit in the round for a beginner, hopefully they could work their way through the book and be able to knit everything they wanted as their skill increased.

I notice that you have the skill levels marked with a little lightning bolt—that’s adorable.  How did you solicit contributions for the book?  Did you approach people that you know or put out an open call?

I approached people that I had either worked with before or I was familiar with their work.  In some cases, I had asked a few people who were not into the Harry Potter world, which is fine, they didn’t have the same affinity and absolute adoration as I do and they would pass, but for the most part it was people that I knew would produce something that would be great for this book, who could meet the deadline, whose work would come in looking great and finished.  There was definitely some Instagram-stalking; I am always looking online to try to find new people and new ideas and it just really came together.  Almost everyone that I asked for is part of it.

I know this is hard—it’s like choosing your favourite child—but do you have a favourite project in the book?

They all mean so much, it is just like a different child.  Certain designers I have a friendship with in addition to being an admirer of their work.  I think it just kind of depends what you’re feeling that day.  Right now I am knitting a Hedwig.  My two-year-old daughter asked me for a Hedwig so it is a hot pink Hedwig, which feels kind of blasphemous but it is what she wanted.

You’ll have to post a picture of that on Instagram when it’s done so we can all see the hot pink Hedwig!  (You can download the Hedwig pattern here.)

HPKM_Hedwig Image_FrontIt doesn’t have any stuffing in it right now, it looks a little sad, but I don’t knit a lot of toys, so that’s a fun experience.  I’m learning, too.  Colourwork is my absolute favourite technique so there’s a lot of great colourwork in this book.  The Wizarding Transportation Scarf is one of my favourites because it’s got the Knight Bus and brooms and the 9 ¾ to represent the Hogwarts Express.  That one I think speaks to a lot of people—if you see it and you’re a Harry Potter fan, you know what all of that is so it’s almost like a secret knitters’ code.

It really will speak to anyone on the street.  I know that when I wear my Gryffindor house scarf, I’ll hear people shouting at me across the street, “Go Gryffindor!”

The Luna Lovegood SpectraSpec Gloves are really cool, too.  Some things are just clever and I thought those were extraordinarily clever.

I also like the Duelling Club Mittens.  What was your inspiration for the motif?

Yeah, those were fun.  There’s that beautiful floor that they duel on in the film (Chamber of Secrets) that’s got the lunar phases and I’ve always thought that floor was really cool.  I’ve always been interested in the moon’s phases and celestial stuff.  This seemed a great way to have knitting with beads be in the book because I wanted all sorts of techniques, and it’s a little something different—usually a bead is emphasising a design, usually in lace, and in this one the bead was building the design, and they’re stretchy so they fit a lot of different sized arms. It’s a fun knit and it’s sparkly, too—I like sparkly things.

That’s such a deft touch, making a small pattern with a beaded design.  There’s such great variety in this book.  How did you choose the animals that were going to be used?  Did you leave that up to the individual contributors or did you say, “I want Hedwig, I want a Cornish Pixie,” etc.?

HPKM_Hogwarts House Scarves_Image 1I left that up to the two toy designers.  They’re so good at what they do.  I think it’s different than regular knitting, you have to be able to think three-dimensionally in a way that’s a lot different from something like a sweater.  I just said creatures, and left it up to them.  They submitted a lot more than what was chosen but those I thought were the three best and Fluffy is just funny.  A lot of people are dog people and it’s great to have this funny little three-headed stuffy that’s cute but vaguely menacing.  Hedwig is such an integral part of the story, and the Cornish Pixies reminded me of my daughter because she is going through the terrible twos.  They’re recognisable and they’re fun and they’re so Harry Potter.

I think the Cornish Pixie is especially inspired.  I wouldn’t have expected a knitting pattern for that and the way that you can stitch the facial expressions to make your wicked little Pixie, that’s priceless.

Those eyebrows!

Insight Editions gave us early access to the Hedwig pattern so that we could offer it to our readers and that has been popular.  Some readers have said they are going to knit it and we have asked them if they follow through to send us photos and we will publish a pictorial of Hedwigs made by Leaky readers.

The pressure’s on to finish mine then.

What can you tell me about the Wizarding World Sweater?

It’s cool because it’s almost like a story in a sweater with colourwork.  I think that’s why it’s my favourite technique, you can almost create this whole story just with yarn and needles.  It has immediately recognisable motifs: The Sorting Hat and a Snitch, the Triwizard Cup is on there, even Mrs. Norris is on there.  It’s a fun way to introduce yourself to that technique if you might have been a little worried to try it.  You can even swap out other motifs if you want to.

If you hadn’t said that it was Mrs. Norris, I would have assumed it was Crookshanks.

Or McGonagall!

I thought Crookshanks because the sample is knit in the same marmalade colour as his fur.  Interesting that the designer chose to make it Mrs. Norris, who is not the best-loved cat in the series.

I like that there’s that interpretation, too, that there are quite a few cats, and you can have a cat as a pet, so maybe it’s just kind of a mascot for all the Hogwarts cats.

You have a mix of clothing items with sweaters and cowls and gloves and scarves, etc.  How did you plan the types of projects and the organisation of the book?  Did you wait to see what came in from the designers and just pick your favourites and organise them or did you come up with a scheme in advance of how you wanted to organise the book?

My editor and I decided early on how many projects we wanted, about 28-ish, more than 25, less than 30, because of page count, and we knew we wanted some costume replicas in there, things like the Weasley Sweater and Beauxbatons Capelet, and we wanted a few toys, and then we had x amount for garments and x amount for accessories.  That number fluctuated a little bit but we went in with a framework just so we could hit the notes that we wanted and make sure that there weren’t a million hats or that it wasn’t all sweaters, because not everybody’s there yet in their skill level.  We wanted a balance of garments and skill levels so that everybody feels there is something in there that they could knit.

What prompted you to represent the Mirror of Erised as a cowl?  The Gothic style frame certainly lends itself to cabling.  How did you decide to put that on a cowl instead of, say, the front of a sweater or along a scarf?

I love cowls.  I wear one almost every day, and my kids do as well.  They’re harder to slip off your neck than a scarf.  When you look in the Mirror, you are wrapped up in what you desire, and a cowl is similar, it kind of keeps you cosy and holds you close.  So I was trying to mirror—ha, I didn’t intend to say that—that feeling of cosy warmth and having what you desire and having this fuzzy thing on your neck.

I can see why you chose to portray Nagini in the form of a lariat, but where did you get the inspiration?  Where you thinking you wanted a lariat or you wanted to do something with Nagini but you didn’t want to make a stuffed snake or a snake patten on a garment?

I was just thinking about more creatures and she’s an important part of the books, too, she’s a Horcrux.  Having her be a snake scarf or something seemed sort of juvenile and not hitting the right note of this creepy, slithering beast.  My son was studying ancient Egypt in school and we had gone to the Egyptian exhibit at the National Geographic Museum where they have this snake upper arm cuff bracelet and I was thinking that would be a really cool necklace.  It’s a very simple project and you can lengthen it or shorten it and it almost makes you double-take.  Is that a snake or a necklace or is it both?  It’s subtle, like the Luna gloves, I like that subtle cleverness, something that makes you think, is that what I am looking at?

Was the capelet from Beauxbatons the designer’s choice or did you ask for some things from other schools?

HPKM_Beauxbatons CapeletI had asked her specifically for that.  Some people I was very specific because I know their knitting style and I thought of fitting pieces.  For that particular cape, it is an iconic piece from the films and it really lends itself well to knitting even though it is a kind of shiny, satiny material in the films.  A major part of this project was finding the things that would translate well to knitwear when they aren’t necessarily knit in the films.  The Weasley sweaters, that’s knitwear, that’s pretty cut and dried to turn into a knitting pattern, but we looked for other things that might not strike you as hey, I could knit that, that would look really cool.

It definitely works as a knitted item even though the original wasn’t knit.  Did you talk with costume designer Jany Temime or are her quotes in the book from other interviews that she has done?

I was using quotes from other research and books from Insight.  They’ve done a number of Vault books, the Character Vault, the Creatures Vault, etc., so I was pulling research from that, and talking with my editor about certain things because she has a lot of knowledge having worked on a lot of Potter books that I wouldn’t necessarily have access to.

What about your Chamber of Secrets Beanie?  I think it was very clever to use the snake motif on that extraordinary door that Harry unlocks with Parseltongue.  I don’t know that it would ever have crossed my mind to use it in a knitting pattern, so I was thrilled to see this beanie.  How did you get the inspiration for that?

I just thought it was a really interesting motif.  After I had agreed to work on this book, our homework as a family was to watch the Harry Potter movies in a really short period of time, and I would pause it every now and then and take notes or screenshots of what we were watching for reference.  I think it’s a pretty recognisable door, like the Hobbit door and the Secret Garden door, there are doors in film and literature that just kind of stick with you.  I remember reading about how it was made and it’s not actually CGI, they engineered it to be able to move.  I just kept thinking about this motif and how would it look good on something, and I thought a hat was great because it is like your mind is your vault so I thought it was a little bit of a play on having it on your head.

With the Buckbeak Pullover, it’s another stranded colourwork piece with the feathers, and again, it is that just something the designer came up with?  Do you know what her inspiration was for that?

I had asked her to do something inspired by Buckbeak.  It was towards the end of us gathering our collection and seeing if there were any holes or any characters not represented.  Buckbeak is tricky because he is not necessarily a pretty creature and the mandate to use Buckbeak as inspiration was pretty vague.  She came back with that pullover design and I just thought it was a pretty great way to incorporate the feathers, and the character, and the colours of the character in a silhouette that is flattering to all body shapes.  It’s a beautiful tunic.  Sometimes it was me pointing them in the right direction and the designers coming back with a clever, beautiful, really inspired piece.  I was always impressed with what came back to me, stuff that wouldn’t necessarily cross my mind like, let’s turn Buckbeak into this gorgeous tunic.  She did a great job.  It’s one of my favourite projects, it’s just elegant and flattering for everybody.

Did the same sort of process happen with the Owl Post Pullover?  Did you ask for something cabled or owl-related because the hem message is quite unexpected and fun.

That was all the designer.  There’s a little Hedwig on the cuff as well.  It was so interesting and I love a secret message.  That was all her and I just thought it was very clever.

It is, that is definitely one of my favourites.  Hermione’s Time-Turner Sweater is another pattern I love.

HPKM_Hermione's Time-Turner SweaterThat is one of my absolute favourite patterns in the whole book.  It’s just a taste of colourwork, not the huge commitment of an all-over colourwork sweater, and it’s such a recognisable motif that will look good in every colour combo.  We used the pink colour of Hermione’s hoodie in Prisoner of Azkaban.  I definitely want to knit this; I think it’s stunning.

Certainly in any Harry Potter knitting collection you would want to include some house-related items but there’re zillions of patterns out there for the iconic house scarves and cardigans.  How did you decide what to include from the school uniforms and how to construct them?

We knew we had to have the scarves, despite there being a thousand and one scarf patterns out there.  We wanted to match the colours exactly and have them look exactly like they are in the films.  My editor had wanted some home decor items and that was probably the hardest thing to do since I don’t knit a lot of home dec.  She had wanted some cup cosies, so I knit those, and then washclothes—I find a lot of people learn how to read a chart or learn how to knit and purl on washcloths.   So I thought what can we do with washcloths?  We could do the house symbols, of course, but I just wasn’t really sure—and then it was one of those things where you wake up in the middle of the night, oh, obviously, we should do the Horcruxes.  For the blanket,  I knew we needed some lace,  and centre-out lace medallion blankets are so fun to knit.  This designer had created a blanket that I had knit years ago with lace letters and I had never seen anything like it.  I just thought that it was so smart and clever and interesting,  so I reached out to her and I said, I need you to do something inspired by the Order of the Phoenix—go!”  So, it came back and it’s just beautiful, and it’s that fiery orange colour.  So, the home dec stuff I was pleasantly surprised with because that was the piece of the puzzle I was the least certain about, but I think we came up with some great solutions.

It looks like it could be a shawl as much as a blanket.  It’s a unique design, with the lettering.  You take what could be done with Harry Potter so far above and beyond.  I’m deeply impressed with this book.  What can we look forward to from you in the near future?  What are you working on now?

I’m working on another book with Insight Editions that I can’t talk about but it is for an equally feverish fandom, so, I am very excited about that.  I also teach all over the world; I am booked for the next two years traveling around teaching and lecturing on knitting and designing, and involved in all these books and magazines.  I have a hard time sitting still so I think I found the perfect career, and I have two young children, so I am busy teaching them how to knit and keeping them out of trouble as well.

Speaking of children, the mobile with the Sorting Hat and house symbols looks to me like it could hang over a crib but I guess that’s not how it’s intended?

HPKM_Sorting Hat HangerWell, it could—it could be whatever you want.  We call it a decorative display or hanging display.  I’ve a lot of mobiles in my office and I think it’s fun how they move in the light and how they catch the breeze.  There’re no children’s garments in this book.  There are toys but nothing is marketed for children.  Maybe in the future we will do something for kids but we were pretty careful to not have anything for kids in this one.

When you say you were careful, you mean you made a conscious choice not to do that?

Yes.  All of the garments are adult-sized, and the accessories.  The sizing doesn’t go into children’s sizes for this particular book.

Is that because there was already so much for children or because you wanted something that adult fans could enjoy without feeling obliged to knit something for a child in order to justify making it?

I think you could see it for both those reasons but, yeah, I wanted the knitting Harry Potter fan to be able to grab this book and, like you said, not feel obligated to think, “I have an eight-year-old and a two-year-old.  I must make all things for them.”  I don’t like the term ‘selfish knitting’ because I don’t think there is such a thing.  But I want people to pick up this book and think, “I want to knit everything” not “Oh, yeah, I can knit that for my daughter, my son, the neighbour down the street…”  No, I want them to pick it up and knit for themselves and not just see one or two things, because I have a lot of books where I might buy them for a couple projects but I want everything in here to appeal to the knitter, and I want them to rank them and not just have a handful of things.  I hope that everyone wants to knit everything.

That’s also why size inclusivity was so important for us on this book.  The sizing goes up to a 68 inch bust.  We go from XS to 6X.  I have heard so many knitters say, “I love that sweater but I can’t knit it, it doesn’t come in my size and I don’t know sweater math.”  That’s heartbreaking to hear; I don’t want someone not to be able to knit something because of the sizing.  So, we were delighted to offer extended sizing so everybody can knit everything they want.”

What were some of the other thoughtful touches that went on behind the scenes that one might not notice?

I’m a huge yarn snob—the better at knitting you get, the more of a snob you become—but there are some economical choices for yarn.  Not everything is going to be $40/hank.  Some of the projects we used less expensive yarn—like the sizing thing, that was really important to me.  Some of the photos are shot inside, some outside, and, like I said, there is all skill levels.  So, if you think, “Okay, I’m good enough to knit the washcloths.  I really want to knit that Timeturner Sweater but I’m not there…”  There are five or six projects in between those skill levels that you can work your way through.  I like that, that there is something for everybody.  There’s men’s stuff and women’s stuff and a lot of stuff is unisex.  I like that, too.  Fans come in all shapes and sizes and genders and I wanted that represented in the book.

There’re some exciting things you can make without being at a high skill level.  The Dark Mark Illusion Scarf is only two lightning bolts but it gives you that unique effect.  Did you ask for that or was it the designer’s idea?

She submitted it.  She’s really good at illusion knitting.  It’s another thing that’s just clever—you look at it and think, oh, I wish I had thought of that.  It’s an interesting technique that not a lot of people know about and I find that a lot of men seem to really like it, and little kids.  Often little kids are shorter so they are looking up and they see the motif so it’s like a secret that they’re in on.

Are there any other patterns that have an unusual origin story or are a specialty of the designer?

Everything in here is pretty special.  I like that for the Weasley sweater we did all the initials.

And it’s duplicate stitch so you don’t have to deal with intarsia if you don’t want to.

Oh, yeah, intarsia is just not my friend.  The Expecto Patronum! Mittens are another really special project.  They tell a story.  Knitting is a hobby for a lot of people and it should be enjoyable and fun—I knit a striped scarf and there’s a hidden dark mark in it—there’s an extra level to everything.  I really like the Deathly Hallows Lace-Knit Beaded Shawl for this reason.  It just looks like a lovely beaded shawl, you could knit it in white and wear it to a wedding but you’ve got the Deathly Hallows in there.  Everything had a couple meanings, which I just really liked.

The purple colour of the sample is gorgeous but you could knit it in any colour and it would work just as well.

That goes for all of the projects—you could knit a house scarf in black and white if you wanted to.  That’s what’s great about knitting, you can use whatever colours you want.

Those Expecto Patronum mitts—at first glance, you see the stag, the trees, the leaves around the wrist.  You sort of have to do a double-take to see that there are words hidden in there.

And when you hold them together, they make a whole picture.

Socks are de rigour because everyone loves socks.  How did you choose what socks to include?  For our giveaway of the book, we have asked entrants to tell us what would be on the socks that Dumbledore claimed to have seen in the Mirror of Erised.

I saw that!  I that was really smart.  What would be on there?  Socks are tricky.  Some people are hard-core sock knitters.  They only knit socks; it’s just their thing.  I knit socks occasionally, usually for my mother because she really likes hand-knit socks and wants me to knit them for her but I love the Golden Snitch Socks.  It’s really simple colourwork, easy to read the chart, and I feel like it’s just sneaky little golden Snitches hidden on your feet.  I didn’t necessarily want to knit these big long Quidditch robes because people wouldn’t really wear that.  I tried to have things be practical, that you would wear everyday not just as a costume piece, so having the checkerboard that they put up on the towers for Quidditch matches on socks works.  You could knit one in one house colour and the other in another house’s colours.  I like that idea, or making a whole set for your family.  We talked about Dobby socks and we couldn’t really come to a final conclusion about what Dobby socks looked like because in the movies it’s just a black sock from Harry, so do we go that route or do we go to where Dobby knits his own socks?  But they’re not really shown in the movie so we just decided to not go near the Dobby socks.  So this way the sock knitters have something that they like and if you want to learn socks they’re pretty easy patterns.

Someone seeing the socks from a distance might not realise they have anything to do with Harry Potter so it could be your little secret.

I lecture a lot about the history of knitting and it was just fascinating how they would pass information in the old wars, like in the American Revolution they would hide notes inside yarn balls and toss them to the soldiers.  There were motifs hidden in knits and purls.  I love the secrets of knitting, with these little inside jokes.  Nice checkerboard socks but you know that they’re your house colours and you know that you’re a Ravenclaw or whatever.

How long did this project take?

It took a little over a year.  Stuff takes awhile to get printed and shipped, it’s all done by freight.  I thrive on deadlines and we stuck to our deadline, everything was on schedule, which was nice.

Where are some upcoming engagements where our knitters could find you if they wanted to sign up for a class or hear a lecture?

It’s all on my website.  I was just teaching on a boat in Alaska.  I love being able to teach in all these interesting places because no matter where you go, knitters are the same.  We share this love, so matter what country you are in.   I used to teach at this women’s shelter in New York City, and a lot of the women didn’t speak English and it didn’t matter because we all spoke knitting.  It’s like this secret club that I am so thrilled to be part of.  So, they can find all that on my website.

Alaska, wow, did you get to do any sightseeing?

We had good weather.  When I was teaching and we’d see a glacier, I’d call a break and we’d go out on deck and look at the glacier.  There’re a lot of yarn shops there so every port we would stop in we’d go to the yarn shop and we’d meet other knitters and we’d be knitting all over the boat and people started to recognise our group, there were about 60 of us, so they’d come up and see what we were working on and our progress, and people always want to talk about who in their life knits—their mother, their grandmother.  I feel like everyone has a knitting story even if they are not a knitter.  Knitting really does bring people together.

It plays an important role within the world of Harry Potter, where knitting symbolises love and care.

Yes, it absolutely does.  And we do that too.  I love knitting stuff for other people and seeing them wear it.  I love that Dumbledore reads knitting patterns.  We don’t know if he knits but he likes the patterns.  There’s a lot of knitting in the books and the films.

Mrs. Weasley knits out of love; Hermione knits out of care and concern for the plight of House Elves.  Too bad you couldn’t make use of S.P.E.W. since it wasn’t in the films—actually, you didn’t need it.  There is so much extraordinary riffing on the Harry Potter theme in these patterns.

You really just need a good imagination.  I remember my mom saying, “I don’t recall that much knitting,” well, ok, you’re not looking at it with your knitting glasses on, and, even if there isn’t actual knitting, you can always translate something into knitting.

Is there anything else that you would like our readers to know about you or this book?

Well, you haven’t asked me what house I am in.  You can tell them I am a Ravenclaw.

Oh!  How could I have forgotten that?!  I was distracted by the amazing book!  Do you have a favourite Harry Potter character to knit for or knit about?

I love Luna.  I think there’s a little bit of Luna in all of us.  She’s been through a lot and she’s resilient and she’s clever and interesting and she just kind of rolls with it.  So, I try to be like Luna and just roll with it a little more.  And I wish I could have Mrs. Weasley’s self-knitting needles—if I could just magic my knitting, it would make my job easier to do.

But would it work for the mindfulness and stress-relief that knitting is supposed to give us?

I think it would give me stress relief to know that my deadlines are being met.

Ah, good point.  And speaking of deadlines, thank you for giving The Leaky Cauldron so much of your time.

Thank you.  This is an honour.  I love meeting with all the Potterheads who are knitters.  The book was a really difficult process but also a joyful one.

I think the joy comes through.

You can find Tanis Gray on Ravelry, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, and her website.

The Leaky Cauldron is not associated with J.K. Rowling, Warner Bros., or any of the individuals or companies associated with producing and publishing Harry Potter books and films.