This is Knit has its home in the Powerscourt Centre – a place that strongly reminded me of what the Corn Exchange in Manchester used to be like in the 1980s (ie, when it was a happy mecca of independent retailing, rather than just another anonymous mall). In the English North, such places tend to spring up in the ruins of Victorian industry, but the Powerscourt Centre began life as a Georgian townhouse, at its heyday during the years of Grattan’s Parliament. The architecture and stuccowork are still impressive — the Powerscourts clearly liked to spend the season entertaining in considerable style.
In the present era, when multinational capitalism has reduced the world of goods to a dull, mass-produced uniformity, I found it rather heartening that all but two of the numerous businesses in the Powerscourt Centre are independents. There are local fashion designers, florists, antique dealers, nice wee cafes like The Pepperpot, and a number of places to please anyone interested in craft and design.
This is Knit is top of the list, of course. One of the many nice things about the shop is how it supports other Irish yarny businesses. There you will find tempting skeins from the Dublin Dye Company . . .
. . . and Laura Hogan
. . .as well as the work of talented designers, such as crocheter Aoibhe Ni Shuilleabhain .
Round the corner from This is Knit is Article, where you can find Anouk Jansen’s cups, Bold and Noble’s prints, and Rob Ryan’s all-sorts-of-things, as well as throws and blankets from the lovely folk at Studio Donegal.
But my own personal find has to be A Rubenesque, on the ground floor of the Centre . . .
I have a mild addiction to trim and ribbons, evidenced in a large and ever-expanding stash (perhaps I shall show you the boxes one day). Here, I was in ribbon heaven.
I don’t know about you, but in me, haberdashery induces a ridiculous excitement that I really don’t feel in any other sort of store. . .
. . . perhaps this is because there are so few good haberdashers about. Anyway, A Rubenesque struck me as a very good one indeed. Not only is the range of trim and ribbons vast and well-selected, but the store also has a pop-up showcasing the work of local textile designers. . .
. . and it is one of just a few places where you can still buy traditional lace, hand-made by the talented lacemakers of Clones in County Monaghan.
Did I come away with something? Yes, of course I did.
Ahem. Time to excavate the ribbon stash again . . .
I have flu. But I also have this wee feller to cheer me up. He is lovingly fashioned from Shetland wool and looks great on my lapel. Thanks, Liz!
There has been much talk over the past few days about the general handsomeness, and nobility of the ovine. Here is a supreme example. Just look at that marvellous phizog! So calm, so gentle, so self-contained, so . . .sheepy! I spent a long time admiring this fine herdwick at woolfest the other day, and find it hard to articulate for you quite how much I like him. He is a bit like woolfest itself, then, which has sort of left me lost for words.
It was the best fest because it was spent in the company of friends.
Felix & Monkl
Inside la fest there were so many people to meet, and I was particularly excited to run into Amanda and Lily, who was also sporting her paper dolls (Lily is absolutely lovely). It occurred to me after I’d seen her that the sweater I was wearing was made from yarn I’d got at last year’s woolfest: I acquired my bowmont braf from the man at bowmont braf. I was able to talk to him about the character of the breed, the properties of the wool, and the qualities of the finished garment it might produce. We also talked about the economic realities of small-scale yarn production, and the future of projects and flocks like his. I went away thinking about those questions, and inspired by both sheep and wool, designed and knit up my paper dolls sweater. These conversations are what makes woolfest so amazing.
(Shetland markings. Designed by Sue Russo and available from the Shetland Sheep Society)
The material and sensory impact of the interior of Mitchell’s livestock centre is completely overwhelming. Faced with all that bounty, its quite hard to stop oneself running around, shouting and cooing, squeezing yarn, fundling sheep, and throwing oneself at fleeces like a crazy lady. . . But I found an oasis of calm among the stands of the coloured sheep breeders, to whom I was repeatedly drawn. The proximity of the sheep themselves certainly had something to do with it, but I also really enjoyed chatting to the representatives of the different breed societies, particularly Joy Trotter, who keeps the Rivendell flock of Shetlands. After talking to Joy, I had a sort of moment concerning the sheer range of shades in the fleece of British sheep, and spent much of the rest of the day reflecting on this, and being inspired by these colours: the creamy blue-greys of the north ronaldsays, the choclatey browns of the jacobs, the soft, almost powdery ginger of the manx loghtans, and the breathtaking non-technicolour dreamcoat range of shetlands. These colours were everywhere: on the backs of lovely beasties, in the deft hands of spinners, in plump finished skeins of yarn, in beautiful knitted and woven items.
(Yes, that cake and those chocolates are fashioned from coloured Shetland. Delicious!)
It is fair to say that I am on a shetland roll right now, and that you will no doubt see and hear more of this in the coming months. If you are interested in quality natural-shade British shetland, I would warmly recommend getting it from Garthenor Organics. Chris King is such a thoughtful man who knows his wool, and this knowledge really tells in the finished skein. More of his yarn later, meanwhile, here is a picture of the only dyed stuff I took home:
I met the lovely folk from Artisan Threads last year when I was writing a piece in which they featured for Yarn Forward. Their sense of colour, and the feel they have for the process of natural dyeing is just fantastic. They have such a marvellous Autumnal palate, and I shall be doing something with their lovely muted shades this Autumn.
After the fest, we retired to the Bitter End in Cockermouth for some much-needed refreshment and de-briefing. Really, I can think of no better way to spend a Saturday evening than surrounded by yarn, in a good food-and-ale serving pub, in the company of friends, discussing the political economy of British wool. I will say it again: great women, great knitters. The excitements of the day were more than matched by a night full of stimulating conversation. When the menu came round, we all put our money where our mouth was, and chose lamb. I had such an amazing time and am still reeling and thinking — both about woolfest itself, and the conversations it provoked. I sort of feel like I spent the whole weekend following the narrative thread of John Dyer’s seminal 1757 Georgic The Fleece which traces the economic, political, material, and indeed intellectual journey of wool from the sheep’s back to the human’s. Perhaps I shall bore you with John Dyer — and the vexed question of how to produce poetry about “the care of sheep in tupping time” — on another occasion. But that’s me all fested out for now.
**Bee-bag competition winner will be announced shortly!**
When I was back in Lancashire, I did some screen printing with my sister and Mr Steve — the brain and hands behind a number of great community arts projects in Rochdale. Neither Helen or I had tried screen printing techniques before, and the usual insane excitement that accompanies any craft activity we undertake was rather tempered by the feeling of being total novices. But no-one is allowed to feel inept in Mr Steve’s workshop, and, encouraged by him, we kept things simple, and tried out a couple of ideas.
One of Helen’s friends is about to get married in Liverpool, where they were both at University. Her idea was to translate the Liverpool city skyline, (as draughted by her architect friend Alistair) into screen-printed bags to accompany the hen night celebrations. In the photo at the top of this post, you can see Helen tracing her design onto acetate. The images below illustrate the printing fun that then unfolded. After exposing the screen, she tested out the design on paper, before picking out several iconic buildings in blocks of hand-mixed colour, which were then transferred to fabric. In the third picture you can see a hint of blue Mersey, and the red sandstone of the Anglican cathedral. And that’s Mr Steve there in the last pic.
Helen also transferred her design on to some cotton we cut out to shape, clothkits stylee, to make into skirts for each of us. These will be amazing . . . when we get round to sewing them up! (I will do so soon and where’s yours, Hels?!)
It was fascinating seeing the skyline come to life as each colour was successively printed. In comparison to Helen’s cityscape, my monotone design was rather plain and straightforward. I found an image of a bee, picked out some lines from a seventeenth-century book of emblems, scaled them up and traced them onto acetate in black ink. Mr Steve suggested we gave the screen a shorter exposure to allow for the fine lines of the bees wings and, um, leg hair. Then I took some calico bags and got to work with the ink and squeegees. Look! I made bees!
Having only printed with blocks before, I was amazed at how precisely this process transfers fine lines first to screen and then to finished fabric. Here is my final design. I love it!
I enjoyed the whole process, and particularly the actual printing. Heady with ink fumes and the thrill of making a thing, I whooshed my squeegee about, shouting some nonsense about Franklin, Blake and the printing press above the noise of the vacuum table. I got carried away, made quite a few bags, and thus have one to give away here. Would you like a me-designed, hand-printed bee-bag into which I shall place some other bee-themed goodies? If so, just leave a comment on this post before the end of the month (June 30th). I shall then select the winner at random, and post this worker bee off to its new home.
Yesterday Mel and I had the pleasure of taking a dyeing workshop with Lilith of Old Maiden Aunt Yarns. Lilith’s studio is in West Kilbride, also known as Craft Town Scotland, because of its fantastic local initiative to house and support talented craftspeople in the town’s once-empty shops. Lilith’s studio is one of several great crafty locales in West Kilbride that we discovered yesterday (of which more later).
Lilith’s studio is an incredibly inspirational space. Everywhere you look you see her beautiful yarn
. . . and beautiful things to make with her yarn.
I was very excited. Lilith encouraged us to experiment with the dyes.
Several techniques were attempted, and some mess was made (by me). We then got down to business hand-painting and immersion dyeing a number of mini-skeins. We tested many different colour combinations and yarns composed of a wide range of fibres (merino, alpaca, cashmere, bamboo, silk). While I conservatively stuck to one method, trying (and, it has to be said, largely failing) to get a feel for what different colours might do when mixed together, Mel tried many different techniques and also impressively dyed up some roving (which seemed quite a scary process). We then settled on our yarn / colour combination, and dyed up our finished product. This was thrilling: it felt so irrevocable! Lilith is just fantastic — encouraging, engaging — and I would really recommend her workshop as a great introduction to different practices and processes of dyeing.
I returned to Edinburgh high on dyeing, and very happy indeed with my lovely bag full of damp yarn. The mini-skeins dried out quickly, and I spent much of yesterday evening petting and gazing at them in foolish admiration. Want to see?
Lilith suggested that we come up with names for the colourways we’d invented. I was quite interested in this process, since I completely share Heather’s view of certain yarn-companies’ choice of colourway-names. I am repelled by anything saccharine or prissy, and some of that Jane-Austen associated nonsense almost makes me angry. So I enlisted Tom’s help, and we spent an amusing hour or two naming the colourways of my tester skeins. Tom’s best contributions were “squid”, “council trousers” and “David Icke’s shell suit.” For those of you unfamiliar with his idiosyncratic frame of colour reference (that’s most of you, then) council trousers are bright orange, and you can experience the terrifying wonder of Icke’s shell suit here.
Moving swiftly on, here are my maxi-skeins — three-hundred grams of merino-alpaca 4 ply — which I left overnight to dry. They are a kettle dyed, semi-solid, never to be repeated shade of blue, and I absolutely love them! I have something in mind to do with them, but their colourway is as yet un-named. Do you think I should ask Tom?
While I feel I learned a lot yesterday, and am actually rather pleased with my (completely unpredictable) end results, I know I would need an awful lot more practice to cut any mustard at the colour business that Lilith is so good at. I must also admit that I think dyeing could never be my metier — it seemed to bear some similarities to brewing (or indeed cooking), and I fear my constitutional messiness would act as an impediment to success . . . But I had a wonderful time at Lilith’s and look! I dyed yarn!
When thinking about process, there is nothing more instructive than unpicking someone else’s stitches.
I found a beautiful hand-embroidered cloth on ebay. I have plans for it. The plans involve deconstructing and transforming it into something else. I began by undoing the slip stitches of its heavy, worn cord edging.
Then I started to unpick the tiny stitches which attach the embroidered front to the cloth’s very fine silk back. The silk is faded but luminous, alive with copper and green.
The secrets written in the cloth began to reveal themselves. Neatly folded hems. Pale green silk thread that moved through the cloth like clockwork. An outer layer of heavy cotton satteen. An inner layer of lining satteen, fresh and bright because unseen for decades. Embroidery worked through both layers. Each thread end carefully woven and hidden. The back of the work faultless in its steady execution.
. . .and just as mesmerising as the front.
It was then that my fascination with the little mysteries of this cloth changed into a something else. I felt a sense of privilege and respect — in unpicking the stitches I was re-living the work of their making, admiring the skill of a talented needlewoman. But my act was also one of trespass: me and my snipping embroidery scissors were destroying a once-whole thing. And as I, blithe, curious, surgeon-like, began to examine the cloth’s insides, I uncovered the truth of its age: the satteen was of a certain kind, and a little older than I’d imagined. I was an historical vandal, cutting through the threads of time.
In cutting someone else’s threads, as in wearing someone else’s clothes, there is the frisson of encounter. We don’t know and will never know the person who made or wore the thing, but they are speaking to us nonethless, in the movement of their hand through the stitches, or in the the shape of their body left in the garment. There is something deeply uncanny in the silence of cloth and clothes: the trace of an unknown and never-to-be-known physical presence. (One does not buy second hand shoes, because one shies away from the ghost of the foot inside.) As I unpicked the stitches, then, a simple encounter between me and the cloth changed into a more complex one between me and its maker. Because I was un-making a made thing my act seemed an intimate one, but it was an empty intimacy, an intimacy with no content. The embroidered cloth was both speaking and not speaking: of a someone living in those stitches and of the silence of the grave.
Wallace Stevens’ brilliant poem, The Emperor of Ice Cream, (1922) has much to say about the dumb intimacy of embroidery — and of death. Stevens describes the covering of a woman’s corpse with a cloth she embroidered when alive.
Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam
(lines 9 – 15)
Here the corpse is, like the cloth she embroidered, an everyday material object. She reminds us of death’s easy finality. Yet she also suggests the mute compassion of the world of things. We feel the weight of her hands on the lost knobs of the well-worn dresser; her fingers quick movement through the stitches of the cloth that decorates her dead countenance. She does not speak, all we can know is her corpse and her cloth. And it is in the relationship between these two material objects that the essence of the poem (perhaps another object in itself) lies. Gaudy embroidered fantails will never cover death, but each small act of making is an end in itself, capturing the (perhaps pointless) vitality of the human. Now get back in the kitchen (says Stevens) and enjoy your ice-cream.
Having unpicked my thoughts I will get on with the uncanny work of unpicking.
I am busy. I do not find long working days particularly good for either body or soul. During periods of insane activity, one must always find a little time to spend in the restorative presence of friends, and it was great to meet up with Felix the other day. We spent a lovely, crafty few hours in York, highlights of which included a cake shaped like a cauliflower, and these amazing tea-cup buttons that Felix found in Duttons (of course).
After this, and my earlier button pilgrimage with Ysolda, I thought it might be a good idea to produce a map, linking together my favourite York crafty locations. You can click each map-marker to see my notes on each location, or click on ‘larger map’ to zoom in and see the full thing in much more detail.
Each marker takes you to one of eleven craft hotspots. In no particular order, they are:
1. Duttons (for Buttons)
2. Betty’s (tea. baked goods. confectionery.)
3. Viking Loom (embroidery, quilting, beading)
4. Sheepish (best place for yarn)
5. The Japanese Shop
6. York Beer and Wine (and cheese and cider) shop
7. Priestley’s Vintage Clothing
8. Quilter’s Guild Museum
9. York Castle Museum
10. York Brewery
11. Monk Bar Chocolatiers
This list is entirely personal, and a bit idiosyncratic. For example, I like ‘Sheepish’ for Yarn, and the ‘Viking Loom’ for embroidery supplies, and I prefer both to ‘Craft Basics’ on Gillygate. On my list you will find beer and cheese, wool and cakes, the finest local produce and ingredients, and (perhaps incongruously) some lovely stuff from Japan. There are also two brilliant museums: the York Castle Museum (chock full of fabulous textiles and intriguing domestic objects), and the museum and archive of the UK Quilter’s Guild (now happily housed in their new home in St Anthony’s Hall). Check their websites for opening times and listings of current exhibitions.
One of the best things about York is how compact and pedestrian-friendly it is. All of the craft hot spots on my list are within or near the city centre, and all are in in easy walking distance from each other. Walking around York is aided by two of the city’s unique geographic / architectural features: its rivers and its walls. The city is bisected by the rivers Foss and Ouse, the latter of which is lined by a lovely Georgian path known (then and now) as the “New Walk“. As well as being a genuine pleasure in itself, a quick walk along the “New Walk” takes you to the haven of refreshment that is the York Beer and Wine shop. A York organisation has produced this great guided tour of the New Walk, which I strongly recommend reading. (I used to live in the first location on this tour many moons ago when I was a student. Ahem.)
The Romans built the original walls around the city they named Eboracum. These defensive walls have been rebuilt several times since over the centuries, and today you can walk almost the whole way round the city centre along well-maintained wall paths which, according to York City Council, are tramped on by around a million people a year. Several of my craft hotspots are near to the bars (or gates) which form the stopping-off and getting-on points for wall-walkers. These include Monk Bar Chocolatiers (located, unsurpsingly, by Monk Bar) and The Viking Loom (close to Bootham Bar).
As I said, this list is entirely personal, but if any of you Yorkshire folk feel I’ve missed a really vital craft hot spot, do tell me, and I can make additions (or amendments) to the map. Hope you enjoy it! Thankyou!
(tree of knowledge on the doorway of York Minster).
Those who’ve read it might remember that the plot of Jane Austen’s Persuasion turns on Mrs Smith: Anne Elliot’s former schoolmate who, widowed after an unfortunate marriage, has fallen on hard times. Mrs Smith’s difficulties are compounded by physical pain: Austen describes her as an “invalid,” who is clearly suffering from what today we’d call arthritis. When Anne visits her friend, she finds her living “in a noisy parlour, and a dark bedroom behind…in a very humble way, unable even to afford herself the comfort of a servant, and of course almost excluded from society.” That “of course” says so much about the position of a nineteenth-century woman like Mrs Smith: her situation means a particular kind of social exile is inevitable. The difficulties of penniless widowhood are compounded by disability, and while her polite education might have fitted her for marriage, it has excluded her from the kind of paid employment a woman of labouring rank might seek.
Anne is surprised to find Mrs Smith both cheery and resilient. After a period of observation, she attributes her friend’s attitude to an “elasticity of mind, that disposition to be comforted, that power of turning readily from evil to good, and of finding employment which carried her out of herself.” The employment that carries Mrs Smith “out of herself” is making, and being paid for the things that she has made. She is able to sell sewn and knitted items through an intermediary, a nurse who, Mrs Smith tells Anne, is “an invaluable acquaintance. As soon as I could use my hands she taught me to knit, which has been a great amusement; and she put me in the way of making these little thread-cases, pincushions and card-racks, which you always find me so busy about.”
Women like Mrs Smith abound in nineteenth-century fiction. Because they are of a certain class, they are excluded from the division of labour, and their only means of any sort of financial independence is through the sale of their own plain or fancy work: an acceptably feminine employment in which all women of virtue might apparently participate (for the grim fate of those whose domestic virtues are questionable, see Lily in Wharton’s House of Mirth). In nineteenth-century novels (and indeed, in nineteenth century reality) these women retain the respectability of their rank by not undertaking the grubby business of buying and selling themselves: remember for example, how important it is that Cranford’s Miss Matty is saved from the fate of the shop by the interposition of her long-absent brother. However dire her financial circumstances, then, a gentlewoman stays a gentlewoman by not being seen to sell stuff for money. Mrs Smith happily has the nurse to do the selling for her, and other women might preserve their anonymity though the mediating actions of charitable institutions like The Royal Edinburgh Repository and Self Aid Society, which still exists today.
Founded in 1882, the Royal Edinburgh Repository and Self-Aid Society was established “to assist those of limited means to achieve an independent livelihood by promoting the sale of their own handiwork.” Originally managed by two New-Town sisters, the Society sold on the work of its indigent members at bazaars whose “tea cosies and Shetland wool cravats,” were satirised by a young and waspish Robert Louis Stevenson. Since 1946, the society has operated from a well-placed shop on Castle Street. Though its general social context has (thankfully) radically changed — making and selling things for money is no longer a source of shame for a woman of any class — in spirit and reality, the society remains remarkably true to its original aims and ethos.
Today you do not have to be a gentlewoman (or even a woman) to be a society member — but you do have to be of limited means, and be able to knit (or sew, or crochet) to a certain standard (everything sold by the Repository is ‘passed’ for quality by its executive committee). The member-makers are identified by number only, and all receive the full proceeds from any sale of their work. The Repository’s commercial politics seem quite complex to me. On the one hand, there is more than a whiff of the Victorian in maintaining the fiction of exchange relations between an anonymous maker and a charitable patron. Yet on the other, there is something incredibly contemporary and utopian in the Repository’s support of co-operative enterprise, its celebration of craft and making, and in ensuring that each maker receives the full amount from any sale.
Ysolda and I visited the Repository last weekend, after she had the genius idea of producing The Definitive Craft Tour of Edinburgh (of which much more later). We were completely blown away by it. The shop is known as “the treasure trove” — and this is indeed what it is. We found amazing Fairisle gloves, tams and sweaters: all luminous and intricate, the work of incredibly talented knitters. There are Shetland christening shawls, and wonderful aran sweaters; baby clothes and blokes cardigans; colourwork, cables and lace.
Today, it is often hard to buy hand-knitted items without worrying about the labour practices that produced them. While admirable organisations like Thistle and Broom ensure that craftswomen and men receive two-thirds of the profits of their labour, there are many other less scrupulous organisations in the UK and elsewhere who, in remunerating per finished item rather than time expended, are not only paying knitters poorly but illegally. While I personally feel that the Repository would be well within their rights to charge quite a bit more for the things that they sell, you still know that if you buy a handmade item here, that you are directly supporting the maker.
So I am now the proud owner of a pair of gloves made by member no. 66. They are beautiful. My only wish is that I might pass on my thanks to knitter 66 directly, but perhaps that anonymity which, a hundred years ago was there to protect the knitter from the taint of the shop counter, now has another function entirely: if I were knitter 66, I probably wouldn’t want to be bothered by the likes of me in full-blown rhapsodic knitting mode.
I am still musing on the fate of Austen’s Mrs Smith, and wondering how the modest financial independence she gained from making might have been rather differently inflected, or perhaps enhanced by the collective and co-operative structure which the Edinburgh Repository provided, and indeed still provides. I feel some research coming on. In the meantime, I urge everyone, whether in or near Edinburgh, or if planning a future visit, to make your way to 23A Castle Street, where you are sure to be inspired.
I’m glad the early mornings are becoming lighter, otherwise I (or rather, Tom) wouldn’t have been able to take these speedily snapped shots of my new sweater. Spring is definitely on its way . . .
Did I mention that, undoubted tweeness notwithstanding, I heart this sweater? I love the velvety braf yarn (particularly the semi-solid pale blue colourway I used for the corrugated rib). I love the ridiculous dancing doll figures (a modified version of a chart in the 1950 edition of my trusty Odham’s Encyclopedia of Knitting). I love the icord edging (O the wonder of producing that edge from those three knit stitches!). I love the light feel of the sweater (the yardage of bowmont braf is pretty amazing — even with the doubled-layers of the stranding and corrugated rib, this sweater weighs just 160 grams); I love the colourwork (wot fun it is) and, well, you probably know already that I love anything with a yoke. . .
In fact, the only shortcoming of this sweater (for me at least) is that there are a couple of places where my blue weaves show slightly through the cream fabric on the front. The legs of the dolls are 11 stitches apart — too far to carry the yarn — but if I knit the yoke again, I think I may manage to avoid this by alternating the spots where I place the weaves, rather than stacking them up (silly me). Still, I am really pleased with the general structure of the yoke, and with the effect of the colourwork overall.
The basic design of the yoke is a bit like the owl sweater, in that there are no decreases until 4 inches have been worked. But the back of the neck (which you can see here) is more structured and shaped than the owls, using a gazillion short rows, which I have hopefully calculated correctly. There is also some gentle waist shaping, but no bust darts. I am going to wear this lots this Spring! Now I just have to write up the pattern. . . .
Pattern: Paper Dolls (by me)
Yarn: Bowmont braf 4 ply in natural, indigo, and ‘ocean mist’
Needles: 3mm circ
Oh, and here’s some obligatory throwing of shapes. . . .
EDIT! Pattern is now available here