Francoise of Aroha Knits Creates Her Own Niche

Today, I kick off my new series featuring "People Who Inspire Me." I am so excited for you to meet my first guest, writing in her own words!

Francoise of Aroha Knits had more than a few obstacles in her way when she decided to launch her knitwear business--but she did it anyway. Read the inspiring story of this expat American designer living in Japan whose business has grown to encompass the globe. I'm going to let Francoise take it from here.

Francoise of Aroha Knits lives in Japan but inspires knitters all over the world with her designs and Design Challenges.

Francoise of Aroha Knits lives in Japan but inspires knitters all over the world with her designs and Design Challenges.

Kia Ora! My name is Francoise, but please feel free to call me Frenchie. I'm the face behind Aroha Knits, where I help creatives and fiber lovers tap into their creativity and imagination, so they can transform their yarn into a piece of fiber art. 

I do this in several ways. I create knitwear designs with an emphasis on providing an enjoyable user experience. I want the knitter to focus on creating their next piece of fiber art and feeling confident about doing so instead of trying to decipher the pattern and feeling scared about trying new techniques.

I also lead workshops on knitwear construction and design through my 5 Shawls, 5 Days and Initiate Knit Design challenges. These serve as stepping stones to my signature e-course, SWATCH Studio, which really goes deep into knitwear design and starting a career in this field.

And lastly, I aim to maintain not only a strong social media presence, but also one that is impactful and influential, with a focus on community and collaboration.

I started designing not long after I learned how to knit. I picked up the knitting needles for the first time in January 2014 while I was in a period of stasis. Due to some personal issues, I had recently left my job as an English teacher in Japan and temporarily moved back to the US to live with my family.

Growing up, I loved to create with my hands. I liked to scrapbook, sew my own clothes, draw comics, make clay figures—I had to try everything at least once. However, I never felt like anything “clicked.” I loved doing arts and crafts but I never felt like I was good enough to really make something amazing.

When High School and College came along, I focused 100% on my studies. I graduated Summa Cum Laude--with a double major in International Relations and French--in three years. I spent one of those years studying abroad in Japan and France, and got a decent paying job right out of school teaching English in Japan, with plans to go to law school in order to study International Law.

A street in Japan.

This isn't to brag about my accomplishments (though I am very proud of them), but to show how laser focused I was on academia, and how I thought I had everything planned out. 

Then life threw me a curve ball—knitting! 

While I was in the US, I worked part-time at a French bakery, but I got very bored in my down-time. I knew I needed a hobby. My mother taught me the basics of knitting--cast-on, knit, purl, bind-off--and I knit up my first cowl that evening. From there, it just took off. I was obsessed. For one reason or another, knitting was the craft that I had been searching for that just “clicked.”

I devoured all the information I could about it, and the moment I got home from my part-time job, I would go into my room and knit. Watching how the stitches would come together and transform into something new, letting my mind wander and being transported to another place, creating something special with my own two was an enthralling and addictive experience.

One of Frenchie's early projects.

Only a few months later, I got the ridiculous notion that I wanted to create my own patterns. As I was still a beginner, there were designs that I felt like I wasn't ready for yet but I knew that I wanted to learn how to make eventually (like all those beautiful Melanie Berg shawls). Ultimately, I dabbled in very simple designs: simple stitches on simple constructions. It was enough for me to feel empowered and encouraged to take the next step, learn a new technique, and create something wonderful.

By the time I returned to Japan to move in with my husband, I had published a few designs onto Ravelry, just for fun. However, I knew I wasn't going to let this newly discovered designing thing go. And I suppose that was a good thing because upon returning, I couldn't work. One, we lived in a village in the mountains, and two, I legally couldn't. 

So despite having no community of local knitters, yarn shops, or even friends, and no knowledge of how to run a business, I decided to see where these few years of living in the middle of nowhere would take me. It was not easy—in addition to having no local community, I also had no online community.

So despite having no community of local knitters, yarn shops, or even friends, and no knowledge of how to run a business, I decided to see where these few years of living in the middle of nowhere would take me.

That first winter, I experienced depression that even knitting and designing had a tough time pulling me out of. However, I was determined to make things work. So I hunkered down and learned how to build a following on Instagram; how to create a magnetic brand and business; and how to improve my knitwear design work. In one word, 2015 could be summed up as “bloom.” My work started to get noticed. I started to make better sales each month. Indie yarn dyers reached out to work with me. I got published in magazines. My IG [Instagram] tribe started to really grow and take off.

2016 presented a really interesting shift for me. As we are nearing the end of the year and welcoming in a new one, I can sum up this year so far with the word “expansion.” I created my signature e-course: SWATCH Studio. I launched my viral 5 Shawls, 5 Days Challenge, along with my first e-book, Forming Shawls and Their Charts.

I traveled to TNNA [The National Needlearts Association trade show] in Washington DC, and met with many other creatives and entrepreneurs in the fiber industry. I've started to grow my brand in terms of influence and impact—people know who I am and consider me a proficient designer. And just a of couple months ago, we moved from the tiny village of Ubuyama to the bustling and vibrant city of Osaka.

Francoise and her husband.

Francoise and her husband.

This growth certainly hasn't been without its struggles: the magazine rejections; some unsuccessful pattern sales; the stress of creating my e-course; the self-doubt and worry of whether people would even want to sign up for the 5 Shawls, 5 Days Challenge; the struggle of not having a local community for support and friendship. (I must say, though, that I have been very fortunate to have a husband who has been 100% supportive of me and my dreams, this entire time.) I think these setbacks have fueled me to push myself to make sure I will make this crazy dream I have, to be a full-fledged knitwear designer and entrepreneur, work out—in whatever form that may take.

I have no idea what 2017 is going to bring. I will be entering my third year of knitting and my second year of business, which will bring a new set of challenges, but lots of new growth as well. I have new e-courses in development, plenty of new knitwear designs and collaborations, and plans to publish my first pattern collection. I've learned not to be afraid of what the future and the unknown hold, but to actually look forward to them, and get excited about the potential magic that lies ahead.


Thank you so much, Francoise!

If you would like to learn more about Frenchie's design challenges and courses or just read more of her lovely writing, I encourage you to check out her website. She also has an active and thriving tribe on Instagram (which is where I found her--from a post one of her students put up featuring a shawl they had designed in her course!)

Personally, I can't wait to carve out some time to take at least one or maybe all of her design courses. Sure, I'm already a designer, but I'm also still learning all the time. My just-published Just Plain Mittens pattern was the most thoroughly-tested and intensive design I have written yet (surprisingly, for something so simple), and as per usual, I learned a great deal about pattern-writing from the process. That's the beauty of knitting (and designing)--there is always more to learn!

How about you? Would you love to take the plunge into designing, but have been wondering where to start? Let Frenchie guide you during her next challenge!

Learn how to design beautiful hats like this during the Initiate Design Challenge!

Do you or someone you know have an inspiring story of overcoming obstacles as you press towards your goal? It doesn't matter if you've reached it yet--if you are actively pursuing something, I would love to meet you and introduce you to my readers. Please check out the guidelines for guest posting on my Contact page. (I also love to hear stories of healing from loss and grief.)

I can't wait to hear from you!