Are you in Edinburgh this weekend? If so, can I encourage you to pop along to the pop-up fair which is being held by my friends at the Royal Edinburgh Repository and Self Aid Society on Saturday? I’ve mentioned the Society here many times, and as you know, it exists to provide financial support to its member-makers through the sale of their work. The member-makers are extremely talented, and at the fair you’ll find . . .
beautifully hand-stitched children’s garments
. . . a range of gifts and toys . . .
and a multitude of wonderful hand-knitted items in lace, cables and Fairisle
So if you are in Edinburgh on Saturday do head over to St Andrews & St Georges (on George Street) between 10.30 and 3.30, and say I sent you!
After some exciting developments on the relocation front, Tom and I went to view a house just outside Balfron yesterday. As we drove about the outskirts, I began to notice a few pompoms hanging from the trees and bushes outside people’s houses….then I spotted a whole jolly array of them along a hedge by the bowling green…
…in fact, the whole town was festooned with pompoms….
It was a such a beautiful, sunny day, and the jolly pompoms made the whole place seem quite magical. The house we saw was pretty magical too, it has to be said. Both of us were in no doubt at all that we could make our home there. The drawn-out complexities of the Scottish property system mean that we won’t know if this is a possibility or not for a wee while, but please do cross your fingers for us.
I found out later that the pompoms were part of FABFEST, 2013. Pompom contributions to the festival are actively encouraged, so I shall be getting my pompom makers out and whipping up a few to send tonight. And if you’d like to make a pompom or two to decorate Balfron, you’ll find more details and a postal address here.
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 . . .
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.