It has been an incredibly busy week here! As you might imagine, the imminent arrival of Buachaille means we have a lot to do, and I am hard at work creating a small collection of designs to accompany the yarn’s release (only a few weeks to go!) Then my friend and colleague, Jen, came to stay with us for a few days – together Jen and I are currently developing several rather exciting projects . . . one is a book which will appear next Spring, and another is a new volume of Cross-Country Knitting. Above is a sneak peak at the latter’s content, of which more very soon.
Jen and I got lots of work done, laughed a lot, and had time for a hearty post-photoshoot dinner at the Bridge of Orchy hotel. It was lovely to see her.
Meanwhile, In the Loop 4 was happening down the road in Glasgow (one year I will make it to this event, which always features a fantastic line-up of speakers and some important research). This year, the conference was hosted by my friends at the Knitting in the Round project (who you’ll remember I’ve mentioned before). I was really honoured when they asked me to provide some samples for the fashion show which closed the conference!
Jade Halbert selected three of my designs, and I styled them with the original garments I’d used when photographing Yokes. I genuinely love styling – visualising a look is often the starting point of the design process for me – and I really appreciated the thoughtful way that Jade styled the models to suit the work of each designer in the show.
The lovely model wearing Buchanan even had her hair in braids!
I loved the soft and subtle palette of the beautiful garments shown by Jade Starmore , and was blown away by their styling with these stunning leather skirts (also the work of Jade)
The show featured well-established names of Scottish knitwear design such as ERIBÉ
. . . and Di Gilpin
. . . alongside the work of emerging contemporary designers like Laura Muir
It was lovely to see the work of some of my friends and comrades in hand-knit design, like Gudrun Johnston . . .
I also came away feeling inspired by the work of designers I’d never previously encountered. This cashmere dress by Stephanie Laird was truly gorgeous.
And I loved the fresh take on colourwork in Hilary Grant’s bold machine-knit accessories
Thankyou, Lynn, Marina, Jade, and the whole team at Knitting in the Round and In the Loop 4 for inviting me to be part of this fantastic event! Thanks too to Tom, who took the great catwalk photos in this post.
Here is another yoke — this one’s name is self-explanatory — Foxglove.
One of the things I’ve really enjoyed about my first year of rural living has been the wildflowers that grow around my home. Just a few yards from my front door are a wide variety of environments from heathland, bog and lochside to deciduous woodland and roadside hedgerows. Walking through this landscape every day, I have found it fascinating to observe the wildflowers emerging, coming into bloom, taking over the landscape, and falling away to seed. Back in the spring, I began keeping a record of the wildflowers I spotted on my daily walks (mostly within a 4 mile radius of my home) by recording a photograph on Instagram. (If you are interested, you can find that series of pictures under the hashtag #todayswildflower). I found that the simple act of taking a photograph of a plant, and later looking it up in my reference guides meant that, by the end of the summer, I had learned a reasonable amount about local wildflower habitats, the time of their flowering, their relationship to other plant varieties and so on. I discovered some wonderful plants I’d never seen or noticed before – grass of Parnassus, scarlet pimpernell, butterwort. I also learned to look anew at flowers I thought I knew reasonably well – such as foxgloves.
I love their pink spires, their sheeny blooms, their downy leaves, their beautiful variegated interiors, the surprising deep beetroot purple of their stems. I knew I wanted to knit the foxgloves up into a yoke, and really enjoyed developing my chart for this design.
Foxglove is the only design in the collection to use three colours in one row. (I have a neat trick for this, borrowed from Elizabeth Zimmermann, which the pattern describes in full).
This yoke is in the Shetland style. It is knit in the round and steeked; the garment has some shaping after the arms are joined, and the yoke pattern itself is relatively shallow, and placed high up on the neck. That said, in my experience the necklines of many Shetland yokes have a tendency to ride rather too high – this one shouldn’t, and is intended to sit quite neatly at the throat.
As you can see, by the time I’d actually managed to knit my sample, summer was turning into autumn, and it was no longer foxglove season.
But we managed to take these photographs among some Rose Bay Willowherb which were going to seed, and which seemed to provide an appropriate local wildflower backdrop
The yarn I’ve used is, of course, Jamieson and Smith jumperweight – the perfect yarn for a Shetland-style yoke.
I have another yoke in this collection which was also inspired by a Scottish wildflower. More about that one tomorrow.
Good morning! I’m extremely happy to announce that Yokes is now available for pre-order
. . . and while I’m at it, I thought I’d show you another design. This yoke is called Buchanan.
One of the many aspects of wearing yokes that I thought about while researching this book was the widespread practice, in the 1960s and ’70s particularly, of selecting a yoke to match your skirt or kilt. This was particularly common in Scotland of course, but it seems also to have been the case in Canada, and elsewhere. To this day, there is a particular shade in the Jamieson and Smith Jumper Weight palette that is known as “kilt green”, and you can still purchase yoke jumpers that match Blackwatch and other common tartans from some Shetland retailers. I confess I was prompted to reflect on this practice when I spotted the Morningside Maisie buses zipping around Edinburgh some years ago
Children’s author and illustrator, Aileen Paterson chose to draw her mischievious cat Maisie in this familiar and rather nostalgic outfit of yoked gansey and kilt, and its intriguing that, around the same time, Mairi Hedderwick chose a very similar outfit in which to dress her equally popular Scottish character, Katie Morag.
So I knew I wanted to use the colours of a kilt to design a matching yoke, but the question was, which tartan?
Just a couple of miles from my house are the South and Eastern shores of Loch Lomond, and these bonnie banks and braes are my favourite local places for a stroll. This beautiful stretch of land was granted to Absalom Buchanan in 1225, and so I chose the rich palette of the “ancient” Buchanan tartan as the starting point for this design.
I then got in touch with the lovely ladies at Scottesque, and asked them to make me a “midi-kilt”. (You can select your own tartan, and your kilt will be made to measure for an extremely reasonable sum). Rather than the familiar heavy pleated garment, the Scottesque midi kilt is composed of several fabric pieces, cut on the bias. I think it makes for a very feminine, flattering and striking skirt.
I then discovered that several shades of Rowan kid classic provided a near-perfect match for the Buchanan tartan. This pleased me greatly as its a yarn of which I’m very fond – light and warm, and really hard wearing, with a lovely halo and handle. From that palette, I produced a chart.
This is not the way I generally work when designing, as I usually have some kind of precise visual image in mind. But limiting my imagination in one way (colour) seemed to really give it free rein in another . . . I happily played around with shades and motifs until I’d created a yoke design with which I was very happy. The end result has a curiously 1920s/30s modernist feel to me, and, when I look at it, I am put in mind of the bows of cruise liners and their art deco interiors.
Buchanan can be worn as a neat Spring tee, or can be popped on over layers as the weather cools.
We shot these photographs at the top of one of my favourite local landmarks – the Dumpling, and I have to say I love the way this whole outfit looks against the spectacular highland landscape.
Bruce had fun that day too.
I’ll continue telling you about the remaining designs in the collection over the coming days, and the pre-order link for the book is here.
I have recently received a number of messages prefaced with this very question, and I thought that this rather basic introductory essay I wrote about knitting in the round, and steeking, might form a useful addition to my series of posts and tutorials about steeks for those who are curious. The essay is an edited version of a piece that was first published in the Rowan Magazine. Many thanks to the Shetland Museum and Archives for allowing me to reproduce details of garments in their collection.
There really is no “right” or “wrong” way to knit: different styles suit different individuals, and a wide variety of methods and techniques exist to match an equally wide variety of garments and fabric types. Yet knitting is a community with its own particular trends and followings, and like any other community, notions of “either / or” divide it. Do you knit English or Continental? Top-down, or bottom up? Do you work back-and-forth, or in-the-round? Such questions of technique — of the “best” stretchy cast-off method; of the “right” way to strand the yarn in colourwork — can transform a bunch of friendly knitters into fiercely opposing camps, each with its own passionate adherents. And there is perhaps no technical opposition more fundamental, or more divisive, than that which is perceived to exist between knitting back-and-forth and knitting in-the-round.
The standard arguments of the two camps go as follows:
The back-and-forth faction insists:
1. I like a sleek well-fitted garment. Knitting back and forth allows a garment to be carefully shaped using the best tailoring techniques.
2. The torso is composed of curves and lumps of differing proportions. Tailored pieces create the best lines to accommodate these complicated shapes.
3. In the beginning was the sewing needle. Early humans fitted the first garments to the body by stitching pieces of animal skin together with seams. It must be right.
4. The pattern writers of knitting’s ‘golden age’ created beautiful vintage garments designed to be knit in pieces, back and forth. They knew what they were on about.
5. Flat knitting follows industry standards of garment construction and pattern design. Fashion knows best.
Against which the in-the-round faction counters:
1. I hate sewing seams and finishing. Knitting in the round involves little or no finishing.
2. The torso is basically a tube, supplied with two smaller, narrower tubes. Therefore all sweaters should be knit in tubular fashion.
3. The beginnings of knitting were circular. Medieval paintings depicted the Virgin Mary knitting in the round. It must be right.
4. Folk knitters all over the world have knitted socks and ganseys in the round for centuries. They knew what they were on about.
5. Elizabeth Zimmermann once designed a seamless yoked sweater which was violated by editors ‘translating’ it into back-and-forth instructions. EZ knew best.
While these two positions may seem intractably opposed, in fact, there are elements of truth in both. Though back-and-forth knitting has certainly dominated the standard lexicon of commercial knitting patterns since the 1920s, instructions for many items (socks, gloves, hats) have habitually been written to be knit in the round. And while the knitters of Estonia and Shetland, Norway and the Faroe Islands have produced in-the-round garments for centuries, these women were also talented seamstresses who used sophisticated tailoring techniques to add shape, structure and decoration to their knitted ganseys and jackets. Today, despite the strong antipathy that one method or another can arouse among some knitters, there is more interplay than ever between methods associated with knitting back-and-forth and knitting in-the-round. Commercial patterns are increasingly written to accommodate many different techniques of flat and circular knitting, while knowledge of aspects of both methods — of the speed and ease of knitting in-the-round or of the structure and clean finish of knitting back-and-forth — lends knitters the freedom to modify the construction of garments in ways that best suit them. One such technique — which enables an in-the-round jumper to be easily transformed into a flat cardigan–is the practice that is known as steeking. Because steeking involves taking scissors to one’s creations, it strikes fear into the heart of many knitters. But this technique, common to all Northern knitting traditions, is much simpler to work than many knitters imagine.
The etymology of the “steek”
The word ‘steek’ has its root in the general Middle English verb ‘steken’ meaning to shut or fasten. By the Eighteenth Century, ‘steek’ was a term common to Shetland, Scots and Northern English dialects and, while it might be used in reference to a closed gate, door, or mouth, it was most often associated with needlework or knitting. In Scots, the verb, ‘to steek’ meant to sew, darn, or knit:
“Wull ee steek this slittin oxter afore it geets ony woare?”
Will you stitch this fraying underarm before it gets any worse?
Or, when used as a noun, the word ‘steek’ simply meant ‘stitch’.
“For want of a steek a shoe may be tint”
For want of a stitch, a shoe may be lost
While in some parts of Scotland and Shetland the word “steeking” still primarily means to stitch or close, in contemporary knitting parlance, the word has mutated and morphed to signify the opposite: that is, for most knitters, steeking now means to cut open, rather than to fasten shut. Thus, in pattern books that have been produced over the past thirty years or so, one finds the word “steek” being used in reference to what, in sewing, is commonly called a seam allowance (a few stitches that are worked additionally to the main pattern). Put simply, then, for today’s knitters, a “steek” is a bridge of extra stitches, connecting two separate pieces of knitted fabric, enabling them to be worked swiftly in the round. Preparing, reinforcing, and then cutting open this seam allowance (the practice now commonly known as “steeking”) transforms the tube back into flat pieces.
Why use steeks?
Steeks can be inserted into any kind of knitted fabric, but their most common application is perhaps in knitting a cardigan using the Fair Isle method of stranded colourwork. This is because carrying and purling two shades of yarn can prove tricky: many knitters find that the purl stitches create significant differences in their tension, or are much slower and more cumbersome to work. But if a steek is cast on in the places where the knitting would have to be divided to be worked back and forth — namely, at the cardigan’s centre front opening, and sleeves — the knitter can work the entire garment in the round, without purling, all the way from hem to shoulders. When the steeks are cut open, the extra cast-on stitches act just like seam allowances around which the knitter can pick up stitches to create button bands and sleeves.
But don’t steeks unravel?
Knitted fabric certainly likes to unravel, but it does so horizontally. Steek stitches are cut on the vertical, making them far less likely to do so. As anyone who has pulled back their knitting will know, wool is also a very ‘sticky’ fibre which likes to retain its shape. If one is knitting with a pure-wool or majority-wool yarn then it is very easy to work a steek simply because the stitches ‘want’ to hold their shape rather than to unravel. That said, because the cut edges of the steek are generally used to pick up a sleeve or edging afterwards, it is useful to reinforce them before cutting to help them deal with any strain they might take afterwards. Steeks can be prepared, reinforced and finished in a wide variety of ways. Taking a look at the interiors of a range of historic and contemporary cardigans that have been knitted in the round, before being “steeked” open, illustrates just how different steeks can be.
This image shows the front button bands of a 1920s cardigan knit in several natural shades of Shetland wool. The band has been worked in corrugated rib; buttonholes have been cut vertically into the band; and machine stitching has been used to attach a reinforcing grosgrain ribbon to the inside. . .
. . . here you see the grosgrain button-band reinforcement from the inside, and, to its left, the raw edges of a steek, which has been cut open, and folded back to the inside of the garment, away from the bands. The steek has not been reinforced, or stitched down: because the natural Shetland wool is very ‘sticky’ and has a tendency to felt, the knitter has trusted to the natural action of wear, and, over time, the steek edges have slightly felted together and adhered to the inside of the cardigan. Leaving steek edges ‘raw’ and allowing for felting in this way is a common feature of many Shetland hand-knitted garments, such as yoked cardigans that are still produced and sold today.
Here, a steek has been cut to create the cardigan front opening, and the raw edges have been trimmed back, bound over, and secured to the inside with blue blanket stitch.
Here we also see the front and interior of a button band, illustrating a different and rather more laborious method of securing raw steek edges to the inside of a cardigan. The knitter has either created a wound steek (by winding both strands of working yarn round her needle several times) or a dropped steek (in which the steek bridge is knitted and unravelled). Both methods create a giant ladder of strands, and, when the knitting is complete, the knitter cuts this ladder in two, creating a series of ends, which are then individually woven in to the back of the work. A button band has then been picked up from the edge of the wound steek, and worked in moss stitch. The careful finishing of the steek has made the edges of this 1930s garment extremely neat and durable. (For more on this method, see Tom of Holland’s excellent tutorial on the “knotted steek” )
My own designs use similar techniques of steeking and reinforcing as these earlier garments. Above is a detail of my Ursula design. As you can see, a crocheted steek has been worked, a button band has been picked up along the steek edge, and a ribbon reinforcement has then been hand-sewn to the inside. Rather than leaving the steek edges raw, the crochet reinforcement has been carefully removed, and the steek edges lightly hand-stitched down to the inside.
Meanwhile, in my Bláithín , design, a ‘sandwich’ edging is worked to cover and enclose a crocheted steek, securing the cut edges, and rendering them completely invisible.
As we can see from these examples, there are a wide variety of ways to cut and finish a steek. And, because shaping can easily be worked around a seam allowance, steeking is a technique that can be used to knit just about any garment or object. Steeks easily lend themselves to the creation of tea-cosies and blankets, dog jackets and tank tops. Once you are able to cut up knitted fabric without fear, you really can make just about anything.
Want to learn how to work a crocheted steek, or steek “sandwich”? Find the rest of my steeking tutorials here! .
Well, this is my final post on the Great Tapestry of Scotland! I have really enjoyed revisiting my photographs, and thinking more about the tapestry, and your comments have also provided much food for thought. These photographs are, of course only snippets, and you’ll find much more thorough information in the two books I mentioned in my first post about the project. But honestly, no books or photographs can reproduce the experience of seeing this incredible thing for yourself and, if you ever have the opportunity, I really recommend you do so!
I can’t say I have a favourite panel, though I do love Fairisle (126) the Isbister Sisters (115) and the Hutton panel (74) but as I went through my photos this morning, I found myself thinking about how much I loved the Cumbernauld panel (140) and how it seemed to sum up for me what this project is all about.
Like many panels, this one celebrates the texture of ordinary people’s lives, and the ordinary spaces in which they live them. Andrew Crummy’s design – with the new town’s familiar roads and architecture – is incredibly witty and creative, and just like his Pictish or his Georgian panels, the style of the design has shifted in an inventive fashion here to suit the moment it represents. Cumbernauld’s local reputation is not unambiguous, but in this panel the urban environment appears beautiful and utopian simply because it is an everyday space of homes, and folk, and families. My favourite scene from Gregory’s Girl is referenced in the top left, and perhaps one of the reasons I like this panel so much is that so much of what it represents seems familiar to me from my own childhood and youth. Finally, the stitching on the panel is absolutely exquisite, and because of this the whole piece absolutely sings. Last Sunday, I spent some time admiring this panel, and I then read the information board which told me that just two Cumbernauld women had worked on the stitching, Elizabeth Boulton and Helen Conley. Conley and Boulton had depicted themselves as children in their signature at the bottom right of the panel, in a scene that seemed to be taken from an old photograph of the pair. I was suddenly struck by the sheer power of the Great Tapestry project – that these two childhood friends were quite literally making history, and with their needles stitching themselves into the story of their home, their town, their nation. What a wonderful thing to do.
So, some final highlights.
Thanks for bearing with me through this photographic tour! And if you’d like to see all of my posts about the Great Scottish Tapestry together, you can do so here.
I was very excited to have the opportunity to design the Machrihanish vest for Cross-Country Knitting, Volume One, and always enjoy knitting for Tom, who is its recipient and model. Tom often bemoans the general lack of shaping, and poor fit of men’s garments, so I like to knit him things that are well-fitting.
Men’s knitted vest patterns rarely include shaping, but one of the things I knew I wanted to do with this design was to taper it to the waist. Shaping of any kind can be tricky when designing with Fairisle patterns, but the trick here is simply to work the ribbing and the first few inches of colourwork on a small needle, before going up a needle size for the upper torso. When blocked, this straightforward manoeuvre creates a difference between waist and chest of 3.5-4 ins, which means the vest fits neatly to the body, without excess fabric.
Though this vest is, in many ways, a classic garment, I think the waist shaping also makes it feel sharper and more contemporary. But if your shape is more rectangular than triangular, you can easily leave out the waist shaping when working the pattern for a looser, more casual fit. Whatever your body shape, you should knit it with a little positive ease to allow the wearing of layers underneath.
Though I’ve followed standard sizing for men’s garments with this design, I’ve also tried to make the pattern straightforward and flexible enough to accommodate a variety of masculine body shapes. Because there is no ‘set’ place to divide for armholes, the main body of the pattern can be knit to whatever length is required to accommodate a shorter or longer torso. Equally, if the armhole depth is greater or less than that specified in the pattern, it can be increased or decreased as required. (A detailed sizing table and schematic is included in the pattern to help you achieve the fit that’s right for you). You also have the option of working the ribbing doubled around the armholes and hem for a firm and durable edge.
The yarn I used for this design was Jamieson and Smith Shetland Heritage.
This wonderful yarn was developed in consultation with the Shetland Museum and Archives, and is very close in handle, hue and character, to the yarns that were traditionally used to knit Fairisle garments in Shetland before the Second World War. It is a light fingering-weight – lighter than a standard 4 ply – and because it is worsted spun, feels much smoother than other “Shetland” yarns you may be used to. To give the garment its shaping, I worked the yarn at two different gauges of 8 and 9 sts to the inch, and at both gauges it gives a nice, light even fabric. Because of its unique characteristics, I would really recommend you use this yarn, but if substituting, please swatch carefully to ensure you achieve a fabric with which you are happy. You can find detailed information about shades and yardage here.
The pattern is written to be knitted entirely in the round, with steeks worked at the armholes and neck.
I personally love the speed and ease of working completely in the round, but if you are a determined purler, you could easily work the upper torso separately, back and forth.
Tom is very happy with his vest.
. . .and I am very pleased with the design!
Now, about the name. We live in the West of Scotland, and Machrihanish is a village further West, on the picturesque Mull of Kintryre. Tom is a great admirer of the Fairisle knitwear Paul McCartney proudly sported after he moved to Scotland, but we felt that Mull of Kintyre might prove to be too much of an earworm to work as a pattern name . . . and Machrihanish is also one of our favourite locales from the UK shipping forecast. . . . so Machrihanish it is.
We shot these photographs opposite Dumgoyne, a short walk from our house. The light and skies have been very dramatic here of late, and did not let us down that day. There is just something about the bright colours and high-contrast of a Fairisle vest that work perfectly with a highland landscape. Living out here often prompts me to think about colour and pattern . . . and these photographs of Tom make me want to get another bloke’s Fairisle design on the needles immediately!
My Cross-Country comrade, Jen, has also been writing about her design for the Volume – the fabulous Bruton hoody – so if you’d like to read more about it just pop over to her blog. We have also set up a new website for the collaboration, where you can keep track of our Cross-Country design journey.
We designers had been commissioned to produce designs inspired by items in the collection . . . we worked on them over the Winter . . . and today, our patterns were released!
The piece I chose as the basis of my design was an incredible coverlet embroidered by the collection’s founder, Rachel Kay Shuttleworth. Miss Rachel designed the coverlet in honour of the memory of her seventeenth-century ancestor, Richard “the Roundhead” Shuttleworth, and embroidered it during the the last years of her life at Gawthorpe.
(If you are interested to read more about the history of the coverlet, and my inspiration, I have written about it here)
So this is what I came up with: meet the Richard the Roundhead Tam!
Rachel’s coverlet combined her own Arts and Crafts aesthetic with her ancestor’s Tudor heritage, and I have tried to speak to this in my design with structured motifs that echo those of her embroidery. The colour scheme is the same teal-on-white that Rachel chose, with a pop of Lancastrian rose-red for the brim lining and button. The brim combines a turned hem with picots and corrugated ribbing, and those of you who have made my Scatness Tunic will recognise the technique used to create the button:
They are very easy to make, and I will post a tutorial here over the next few days so that everyone can have a go.
From start to finish, this has been such a lovely design to produce. It was wonderful to visit Gawthorpe, to have access to its world-class collection of historic textiles, and to meet and work with the fabulously dedicated women who curate and care for it. The research involved in a project like this is meat and drink to me: it was fantastic to spend some time researching the history and context of Rachel Shuttleworth’s coverlet, and I particularly enjoyed finding out about Richard Shuttleworth’s role in the Civil War. Finally, as a Lancastrian myself, the design really does mean something to me, and I confess to feeling a modicum of local pride when I finally finished the knitting, and popped the red rose of Lancashire on the top of that tam.
The pattern for the Richard The Roundhead Tam is now available to download here!
I am sure you will hear more from the other designers about their patterns in the coming days, but I thought I would give them a quick mention too.
Debbie has designed a beautiful needle case inspired by one of Gawthorpe’s ticking samplers (a genre of sampler I find particularly appealing. Those stripes!).
Jane has designed a lovely hat and mitt set, inspired by historic swatches in the stitch and sample books held in Gawthorpe’s textile archives.
Gawthorpe’s collections are particularly rich in lace, and Claire Montgomerie drew on this for her exceptionally pretty capelet, whose crocheted motifs echo those of several lace fragments.
And Emma produced this wonderful cushion cover, inspired by what is surely one of the most moving items in Gawthorpe’s collection: a military quilt, stitched from uniform scraps by a convalescing solider.
All proceeds from the sales of these designs will go to Gawthorpe, to help care for this important historic collection for future generations to enjoy and be inspired by. You’ll find the whole collection available to peruse over here on Ravelry.