Photos courtesy of Rohn Strong.
It’s hard to keep up with Rohn Strong. On any given day, you might find him designing a crochet pattern, practicing needle punching, filming an online class, writing a book, or teaching a class in person. He has made crochet, knitting, needle punch, quilting, and sewing all a part of his career as a designer and teacher, and he’s not stopping there.
Strong has been designing since 2010. In that time, he’s seen the fiber industry grow and change, and his career has changed right along with it.
Learning to crochet
Strong grew up in a small town in Michigan, and he was always eager to create. When he was eight years old, he purchased a Leisure Arts book called I Can’t Believe I’m Crocheting, which he used to teach himself to crochet.
While many of his family members were supportive of his enthusiasm for creating, not everyone was on board. “I remember very vividly that my father was incredibly angry at the fact that I had bought that book,” Strong says.
“I remember my mother and father having an argument outside of my door, and my dad said, ‘Why would you let him buy that?’ and my mom, who has always been the most amazing support in my life said, ‘He wants to make stuff. Let him do it.’ She fostered this amazing creativity.”
Strong also found support and inspiration outside his family. When he was in eighth grade, he started watching The Carol Duvall Show on HGTV—one of his most influential early inspirations–and took a Home Economics class in school. His Home Ec teacher taught him how to sew and cook. He taught himself to knit when he was about 18, and from then on he’s continued to add new skills all the time.
Becoming a designer
Strong moved from Michigan to Raleigh, North Carolina, in 2010 to be with his current partner, Harrison. Moving wasn’t easy for him; he was overwhelmed by the large city and being away from his family. He also struggled with mental health issues. His says his OCD controlled everything during this period. He couldn’t get a job, and it was difficult for him to even leave the house. He became agoraphobic and didn’t actually leave his house for six months.
He needed money, but his mental health was getting in the way. His solution: start designing. “I thought, This would be a great way to make money. But I didn’t make any money at all, because I didn’t know what I was doing,” Strong says. It was something he could do from home, though, and at the time that felt like a necessity so he was determined to make it work.
He designed his very first crochet pattern in 2010, Crochet Chain Stitch Scarf, but didn’t publish it. Strong continued designing and eventually overcame some of his health issues. In January of 2014 he designed Tunisian Reader’s Wrap, a wrap that would become a game-changer for his career.
“I don’t think a lot of designers can trace back to their breakthrough moment—one garment. But I can. That one garment changed my entire life.”
The wrap uses a technique he invented called Tunisian Fair Isle, which mimics Fair Isle knitting using Tunisian crochet. He developed a way to lock floats in Tunisian crochet, which no one had ever done before.
Crochet designer Rebecca Velasquez saw the design online and sent it to Ellen Gormley, who at the time was the editor of Crochet magazine, an imprint of Annie’s. Gormley sent it to her friend, Laura Scott, who coincidentally lived only 15 minutes away from Strong. At the time, Scott was a producer for Annie’s online classes. (She’s currently Director of New Business Development at the company.)
Scott asked Strong to pitch the technique to Annie’s as a class, and despite the fact that he’d never pitched anything before in his life, he went for it.
“I did what I always do. I just went in with a lot of confidence.”
Annie’s loved it, and they offered him a contract to do an online class called Learn Tunisian Crochet Colorwork.
Strong filmed a couple of online classes with Annie’s in that first year, and he also wrote his first booklet of patterns called New Methods for Crochet Socks. Because of his work with Annie’s and various other freelancing, including designing a monthly pattern for Inside Crochet magazine, Strong started making a full-time livable income as a maker in 2014.
A changing industry
Strong says getting work has recently become more of a challenge due to changes he’s seeing in the knitting and crochet industry. Earlier this year, for example, Strong lost 25% of his income when Coats & Clark was purchased by Canadian company Yarnspirations and didn’t keep any of the contracted employees. “I don’t think people know how hard it has hit designers. Where we are today is a place where I don’t know how long designers will be a paid part of the community.”
“I think over the last couple of years, there’s been a massive shift to try to sell independently published patterns to a market that has come to expect free patterns,” Strong says. He sees a shift that’s encouraged designers to create ad-driven blogs to make money instead.
“I feel like it’s cultivating a customer base that expects free and in turn, it’s just shifting focus,” says Strong.
Strong notes that the shift is perhaps more strongly felt in the crochet community than in knitting and feels there was an advantage to positioning his business for paid patterns from the start. “The reason I did that is because I believe it helps foster growth of new designers. When we focus on free patterns and we focus on ads, we focus on a single paycheck,” he says. “We’re thinking about how much we’re going to make next month or what our blog views are. I’m more interested in focusing on our community as a whole.”
Many new designers come to Strong with concerns about earning full-time income in the knitting and crochet industry. “My heart breaks because you really can’t. It’s going to be very difficult,” he says. He believes that without all the royalties and commissions from his past work he wouldn’t be able to survive as a full-time designer today.
Though he’s earning money now, Strong isn’t so sure about the future. “I look at what’s happening and a part of me is very excited because I see such growth and opportunity for growth, but another part of me, it does frighten me. Where the heck do we go? How do we keep this up?”
Strong recognizes that many of the opportunities he has are because of his privilege as a white man. When someone suggested that Strong play up the fact that he’s a novelty in the fiber arts industry because he’s male, it frustrated him.
“There are times when I think, let me check my privilege. I realize that I’m given opportunities because I’m a man, and I need to back away from them and say, ‘No, give them to a woman of color.’ As a white man I’m afforded more opportunities because of my privilege, opportunities that women of color deserve but aren’t given that chance. It’s my responsibility, in recognizing my privilege, to take a step back and open that space for women of color who deserve it.”
Strong survives by not being too hard on himself. “One thing I’ve learned this year is if I give myself the grace to not be upset about something, then I’m not going to be upset, I have to not get frustrated. The way I deal with it is a lot of coffee and a lot of forgiveness if I mess something up.” As he watches the industry change, he tries to appreciate where his career is right now. “I love being creative, I love trying new things, and I love getting out there and doing what I want to do.”
Rohn Strong’s next book is not yet titled, but it will be a punch needle book published in fall 2020. He will film season 11 of Knit and Crochet Now in February 2020 and season 10 of Annie’s Creative Studio online classes.
Ashley Little is a craft writer and editor living in Asheville, North Carolina. She has given up on reducing her yarn stash and refuses to feel guilty about it. You can see more of her work at thefeistyredhead.com.