I recently had a chat with one of my favourite designers, Gudrun Johnston, and thought I’d bring this to you today. I just love Gudrun’s work. She has this knack of producing designs that are are always classic, timeless and wearable, often using stitch patterns (particularly those originating from Shetland) in really innovative and interesting ways. And if you’ve ever knit one of Gudrun’s designs, you’ll know that she always writes a clear and eminently knitterly pattern. She’s a great designer creating beautiful knitwear, and her Shetland Trader Book Two is for me one of the real stand-out collections of recent months. I wanted to talk to Gudrun about her work, and hear more about producing this stunning collection, and I thought you’d like to hear more about it too.
If you’d like to get a real flavour of Shetland Trader Book Two (and its beautiful Unst location) Gudrun’s photographer, Kathy Cadigan, shot this lovely video, which makes a great accompaniment to the interview.
1. Can you tell us a little bit about your knitting background, Gudrun? Did you learn to knit as a child? And when did knitting turn into a business for you?
Despite being born in Shetland and having a mother who was designing knitwear during my early years, I actually didn’t learn to knit until I was around age 9 and it didn’t happen in Shetland!
I was living on a different island off the west coast of Scotland (the Isle of Rum, to be precise) and was attending a teeny primary school. At one point my brother and I were the only pupils. Like I said, teeny. The schoolteacher introduced me to knitting, though all I remember is creating a rather unattractive pastel-green ribbed vest.
I didn’t pick it up again until around 11 years ago. I was more than rusty, but I found all the basics were still there. I was quickly obsessed with creating knitted items and dove head first into exploring the possibilities. In terms of it becoming an actual business… that more gradually crept up on me.
Like other indie designers I owe a lot to the launch of Ravelry. It was perfect timing for me in that I was just getting started writing and publishing my own patterns and here was this easy platform from which I could connect with knitters all over the world! It really snowballed from there with all sorts of great connections being made with people in the industry.
2. I often find that absence from a well-known and well-loved place can shape oneʼs sense of it as much as constant presence. Has this been your experience regarding your relationship with Shetland? And if so, does this occasional distance / absence have any influence on your designs?
My relationship with Shetland has had a huge influence on my designs. Although I very much identify with being from Shetland now, that wasn’t the case for most of my childhood. I was born there (and my great grand parents were from Shetland) but after 13 years of living there my parents relocated to mainland Scotland when I was around 4.
We made occasional visits to Shetland over the years but it wasn’t until my parents retired back there about 12 years ago that I have been a more frequent visitor. This coincided with my interest in knitting. So as I was getting reacquainted with the Shetland landscape and people I was also learning about the rich knitting traditions.
Now I get to visit Shetland more frequently and always look forward to the time I spend there. Every visit opens up a new opportunity to connect and dig deeper, to learn new things about the wool industry and history, see new designers work and get inspired, quite often by the landscape. I feel like I’m from Shetland now in a way I didn’t when I was a kid, I like to imagine that I’ll end up there more permanently at some point in the not too distant future.
3. Your mum, Patricia Johnston, worked in a similar field and I was lucky enough to be able to see one of her original designs in a recent exhibition in Lerwick. That exhibition really made me appreciate your mumʼs important position as one of a handful of Shetland women who, in the 1970s, took the knitwear industry into their own hands, and began to shape its direction in really innovative and creative ways. Your brand now shares its name with hers, and I wonder if you could say a little about how her precedent inspired (and continues to inspire) you?
I am so proud of what my mum accomplished with her business, and being able to carry on the Shetland Trader name is such an honor. I was incredibly moved to see her sweater in the exhibition and so glad to see her get recognition for her role in the Shetland knitwear industry. Despite not being a Shetlander (she’s English), or a knitter, she blended the traditional with the contemporary to create some incredibly unique garments.
As these were all made to order garments we don’t have many in our possession any longer. I have a few of her kids garments that were worn by my siblings and I. They’ve been passed on to our children. Believe it or not, they’re still going strong. I have a folder of photographs showing all of my mother’s designs. I often look through it for inspiration. I also more recently came across two sweaters that were purchased by a Shetlander at a local sale. These particular sweaters really speak to her eye for detail. Unusually, they blend Fair Isle with lace, and have beautiful bell sleeves and high turtlenecks. Very seventies, yet still current!
My mum had taste with her own unique flair. And a good work ethic that inspires me every day.
4. Shetland Trader book 2 is a wonderfully balanced collection, with different signature pieces featuring a variety of texture, colour and openwork; different yarn styles and weights and a wide range of techniques. I know from experience that creating this balance can be an awful lot of work! Can you say a little about how you went about planning the collection?
I would love to be able to say that all of those aspects were very carefully planned out, but that isn’t totally true! I knew that for this second collection I wanted Shetland yarns to feature heavily. That served as the foundation for many of the designs. I had already worked with several of the yarns available, but others were less familiar to me. I spent time swatching and gathering ideas.
My first collection had featured Shetland Lace patterns. Although I wanted to bring this into the new collection, I also wanted to explore the use of Fair Isle this time around. I had a lot of ideas for this collection, some came fully formed and definitely influenced other pieces in the collection and others never made it in. Sometimes narrowing down all the possibilities is the hardest part!
5. The collection is photographed in a beautiful Shetland location, Belmont House, in Unst. This extraordinary setting has a wonderful ease and tranquility, and the house and your designs somehow really speak to one another! Can you tell us a little about this location and how it inspired the collection?
I was just starting to put the collection together when I first visited Belmont House, a self-catering property in a marvelously remote location. I was with fellow designer (and friend) Mary Jane Mucklestone. We were considering Belmont for our Shetland trips and had organized to take a look around. The property – inside and out – blew us away. It was so beautiful. Some very dedicated and passionate people had meticulously restored it, with perfect attention to detail.
It wasn’t quite right for our trips, but I quickly realized how perfect it would be for photographing the new collection! Choosing yarn colours for the collection, I referenced the palette from Belmont House often as well as the general Shetland landscape. Having spent time inside the house meant it was easier for me to plan for the photoshoot too.
We stayed in the house over 3 days and had lots of time to find the best backdrops for each design. With it being summertime, we had plenty of light to play with, including the beautiful Shetland simmer dim. The quality of that evening light is remarkable. Aside from being there to shoot for the book, I had a contingent of my extended family there. We had a lot of fun!
6. Designers often work very differently, and Iʼm always interested to hear about the stages of their process. Can you talk us through the process of creating one of the designs in Shetland Trader book 2?
One of my favorites from the collection is the Belmont cardigan, so let me tell you about that!
Usually I begin a design with sketching and swatching and this was true for Belmont. I knew I wanted it to be a fitted and cropped style of cardigan, and I knew exactly the yarn I wanted to use (in this case Jamieson and Smith Shetland Heritage in a lovely fresh green). I had already decided on the lace pattern I wanted to use. It was a lace pattern that came about as the result of a knitting mistake made by a Shetland knitter. I had already used the same pattern in the Hermaness Hats (also part of this collection). So I spent time swatching and trying to figure out how I wanted the lace to sit on the fronts. I tend to knit fairly elaborate swatches to figure out any unusual shaping rather than doing lots of maths ahead of time. My brain works best that way. Once I settled on my idea, I figured out the numbers for the size I was making. I will usually just write the pattern out only in the size I’m making and do the grading afterwards.
In this case my notions of what the gauge was like in a swatch became quite different once the knitting was underway. Because the fronts are all in lace and the back in Stockinette Stitch, there was going to be a difference in gauge. I didn’t compensate enough for that and once I was past the hem and working on the body (it is knit seamlessly bottom up) it was apparent that there was far too much fabric on the back! I had to completely rip back and re-do some numbers Not too drastic, but an example to me of how knitted fabric can surprise you!
7. I think your work has an immediately recognisable aesthetic: thereʼs always a certain ease about it, and a way of making classic stitches feel unfussy, fresh and contemporary. Can you talk a little about the design styles and kinds of aesthetics that you draw on for inspiration?
I tend to wear fairly unfussy clothes. I don’t feel comfortable when there is too much going on in the fabric. No ribbons and frills for me! So I think when it comes to designing hand knits it’s natural for me to keep the lines clean and make the garment something that will appeal across the board. I am hugely influenced by the Shetland knitting traditions, the lace patterns in particular, and enjoy finding ways to use them in a contemporary context. You can find those clean lines in Shetland lace patterns as they are often very geometric and distinct. They can be elaborate and sometimes difficult to knit, but yet they retain a certain simplicity and timeless quality.
8. I find that it’s incredibly important to have a convivial and collaborative team of folk around me when working on a large project. Could you tell us about the different people involved in producing Shetland Trader Book 2?
I couldn’t agree with you more! It can be hard to work in isolation so much. When it comes to getting to work with other people it’s very refreshing.
Seeing as I knew that I would be in Shetland for the shoot it made sense to get some Shetland lassies involved in the modeling. I began by asking Ella Gordon, who you know well. I had met her several times and knew that she’d be a great model, especially as a wool lover and employee of Jamieson and Smith! I then figured it would be nice to have a second face for contrast and approached Ella’s friend Vivian (also a Shetlander). I had seen photos of her via Ella’s instagram feed. Thankfully, she was enthusiastic to join us too. This worked out really well as the two of them were very relaxed and comfortable during the shoot (and also just lovely to hang out with)!
Ella in Burrafith
The photographer, Kathy Cadigan, was also someone I already knew and liked. Conveniently enough, she had signed up to come on our first Shetland trip (which happened right before the shoot). I love Kathy’s aesthetic and energy and knew she would capture exactly what I was aiming for with this collection.
Ella and Vivian in Hermaness Hats
Mary Jane is not only a dear, dear friend of mine, but an experienced stylist. I was very pleased to have her there to keep tabs on all things style/clothing related!
On the technical side of things I had Carrie Hoge do all the graphic design. She had done such a lovely job on my first Shetland Trader collection. I feel very in tune with her whole design aesthetic.
For technical editing I had Heather Zoppetti (who is also my wholesaler and a wonderful designer in her own right). For sample knitting I had a trusted and exceptional knitter, Nicole Dupuis to help me out.The printing was done by Puritan Press, who had also produced my first book. They are a small press in New Hampshire and wonderful to work with! They even made sure to have some early books ready for me to collect and bring to Wool Week last year!
Oh, and I shouldn’t forget my extended family, who made meals for us all!
All of these people made the book what it is, and I’m so incredibly grateful to have been able to work with them all!
9. Can you tell us about the textile and knitting tours youʼve recently been organising in Shetland? Will those be running again this year?
Various people had asked both Mary Jane and me if we would ever consider doing trips to Shetland. We eventually thought why not! Our first two trips ran last year, one in the summer and the other during wool week. We had groups of 12 on each trip. The accommodation was in Burrastow House, another beautiful location on the west side of Shetland. We had the place to ourselves and the group were served delicious meals by the charming Belgian owner, Pierre.
The trips are heavily fiber focused, but we also wanted people to truly experience the Shetland landscape and it’s inhabitants. There were fiber related classes, visits to Jamieson and Smith and Jamieson’s yarn companies, visits to a working croft where we watched hand clipping of Shetland sheep (with the option to have a go), visits with local designers, talk and tour of the Shetland Museum Textile exhibit, a boat trip to see some birds and seals, and of course down time for everyone to do some of their own exploring!
The two trips are fairly similar with the biggest differences being the time of year and the fact that the Wool Week trip means there are even more knitters in Shetland and even more fibery things happening!
I’m pleased to say that they both seem to have been successes! We received very positive feedback from the groups. There are even 5 of them returning for their own trip to Shetland for Wool Week this year.
So yes, we are running them again in 2015! We have already built up an email list of potential participants, so they have had the initial information and option to sign up early. We will be opening the remaining spots up to the general public soon. Information can be found on my website.
10. Finally, whatʼs next for the Shetland Trader?
The next big thing for The Shetland Trader (and my family) is that it will be based in Scotland as of this summer! This will mean closer proximity to Shetland (we will be living in Edinburgh) and hence lots more opportunities to visit and gather inspiration! It will also make it easier to run the trips, and potentially mean I can do them more often.
In terms of the design side of things I am hoping to start work on another collection that would see some of my mother’s designs written up with some of my touches thrown in. Of course there will also continue to be collaborations with other yarn companies too!
Thanks so much for this illuminating chat, Gudrun! I’m really looking forward to seeing more of you when you return to bonnie Scotland!
Today I want to share with you a conversation I recently had with Margret Linda Gunnlaugsdóttir and Ásdís Birgisdóttir – two of Iceland’s most important and influential designers of hand-knits. I knew of Ásdís and Linda’s work with the 1990s Icelandic magazine Lopi & Band, and was fascinated with their designs, which seemed really distinctive and innovative. I was particularly interested in Ásdís’s innovations with integrated yoke shaping (a design technique I was experimenting with at the time) and from Hélène‘s website I learned that, together with Linda, she’d recently revived the magazine. As designers working across several decades I felt that Ásdís and Linda’s perspective on hand-knitting in Iceland was sure to be incredibly interesting, so I got in touch with them while I was working on Yokes, with hope of including an interview in the book. What with one thing and another (largely my own very tight publication deadlines) we didn’t get a chance to include our conversation, but I’m really happy to be able to bring it to you here instead. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Ásdís and Linda’s work, might I suggest that you nip over to Lopi & Band (you can view the site in English, Danish or Icelandic) and then come right back here to read what they have to say.
KD: Hi Ásdis and Linda! Could you start by telling us when and how you both learned to knit?
Ásdis: I learned to knit at an early age, when I was about 4 years old, with my mother and grandmother. In Iceland children generally learn to knit in school from the age of 8 but my family (mother, grandmother and aunt) are professional textile enthusiasts, so knitting, sewing, spinning and weaving were always present in my childhood.
Linda: I learned knitting techniques in school when I was 8 years old because it was mandatory for girls to learn how to knit.
(four-year-old Ásdís, learning to knit with her mother)
KD: Were the women (and men) in your family members knitters or craftspeople? Do any of your family members knit now?
Ásdis: Yes my mothers family background is farmers and craftspeople. My mother’s mother and sister (born 1898 and 1903) were a deep influence on my childhood with their handcrafts – knitting, sewing, and weaving. My maternal great-grandfather was a farmer and weaver for the farming community in the north of Iceland and his daughters (my grandmother and aunt) worked the wool, had it spun in the local spinning mill and plant-dyed it for futher use). Today I knit as well as my sister and my daughter (who is 12 years old).
Linda: My mother was an art teacher in primary school. She knew how to knit but I only remember one sweater that she knitted when she was ill and had to stay in bed for some time. My two daughters both knit quite a lot. I taught my eldest granddaughter to knit when she was 5 years old and very quickly she was able to knit with fairly complicated techniques such as double stranded and cable patterns. Today she is 13 and has taught her mother to knit, who then has then gone on to teach her friends to knit as well.
KD: Can you tell me about your education and interest in textiles, and how you both came to work in the Icelandic textile industry?
Ásdis: I studied textile art and design at the College of Arts and Crafts in Reykjavík, with a further year of project design focusing on working with Icelandic wool. Since 1991 when I graduated I started working professionally with the medium of hand-knitting. But from when I was in high school, I had hand-knitted sweaters and clothing for myself and family members, so knitting came very naturally to me as a way to express myself. The years around 1990 were difficult for the Icelandic textile industry, the export of wools had greatly decreased due to less demand from the international market. Many factories producing machine woven and machine knitted fabrics as well as carpets went bankrupt, and the machinery was sold abroad or sometimes simply sold for scrap metal. So during the ’90´s it was considered very out of date and unfashionable to work with Icelandic wool as a medium, either as an artist or designer. But in spite of this (indeed, perhaps because of it, as a form of reaction) there was a growth in the local handcrafts industry. Many rural craftspeople and galleries began making items for the tourist and travel industry, and were thankfully supported by government funding. The Handcrafts Association gained more members during this period, and The Crafts and Design Centre was also founded.
So, then I started designing on a regular basis but began as a freelance designer only. At the same time I began working for the Handcrafts Association as general manager of both the Association and its shop. There I worked from 1994-2008, managing the association (which is primarily a voluntary and amateur organisation founded on the goal of preserving old traditional Icelandic handcrafts and techniques and lending them a modern context). After a period of 14 years I was offered the position of manager for the Icelandic Textile Centre where I stayed for 3 years, working on many projects involving textile art and design. During this time I was also president of the Icelandic Textile Guild. Therefore my main work during these years was a managerial and organisational role within the field of Icelandic textiles, generating connections and projects with other Nordic countries. On the side, I worked as a freelance designer, creating small exclusive projects for magazines, private individuals and exhibitions.
Linda: In primrary school we were supposed to knit specific things with specific colours. I didn’t enjoy that, so I always got a bad grade in textile classes. But when I was a teenager in high school, I drew a pattern on grid paper in a maths class and showed it to my textile teacher who allowed me to knit a baby sweater with my pattern, and I haven’t stopped since. I then went on to study textile art and design at the College of Arts and Crafts in Reykjavík. At first I only designed items for my family. A yarn store owner saw a sweater I made from the yarn she had imported and insisted on getting the pattern to publish in a magazine. The woman who started Lopi & Band saw that issue and contacted me and asked me to design/work for her magazine, which I then did for many years to come.
(Ásdis and Linda!)
KD: I think the period when you both worked together in the magazine Lopi & Band – saw some very interesting changes in Icelandic knitting and design. I wonder if you could reflect on how you fee hand-knitting and design shifted in Iceland during this period? And how it has once again changed today, enabling the revival of your wonderful magazine and designs?
Ásdis: There have been highs and lows in the interest for knitting in Iceland. The years from 1980 to 1990 were a general low despite a certain interest in local hand-knitting (as we explained above). The magazine Lopi & Band was in many ways a optimistic project started by a local lady who was interested in knitting. Initially, the magazine was not particularly successful, and went between a number of editors, until it was finally bought by a small printer. The owner of the company hired Linda who quite successfully edited the magazine with mainly her own and some other designs (mine included). We became friends in 1994 when I began designing for her on a regular basis. By that time, the magazine had become quite popular, with some editions even selling out and being reprinted. Despite the flood of fleece materials and synthetic sweaters on the market, there was a sudden revival in hand-knitting. The patterns we produced in Lopi & Band were diverse and colorful, with fresh approaches to traditional sweater design. Unfortunately in 1997 the owner of the printing press died, his company was liquidated, and at that time Lopi & Band ceased production as well.
The revival of hand-knitting in Iceland is due in a large way to the economic crash in early October 2008. One consequence of the feeling of national tension and hopelessness was that that many people turned to knitting. I believe it was a form of self-help and self-sufficiency – a return to something real, in reaction to the artificial nature of the predicament we were in. It was also a way of expressing a certain kind of nationalism, an attachment to things that are distinctively Icelandic. For example an affluent lawyer friend of mine that had not touched her needles since high school, was suddenly maniacally knitting all her Christmas presents in 2008! Many others looked inwards towards our culture and heritage, which has affected so many things in our society since. Today, people are much more active in exploring Iceland, hiking and traveling inside the country than before. Also, textile artists and designers, such as Farmer’s Market and 66North, are using our heritage as inspiration for fashion and design .
From that time there has been a huge revival in knitting. I believe it has panned out a bit now, but is certainly still more apparent than it was pre- 2008 and is hopefully here to stay.
From 2009 on, there has been an increase in the market of knitting patterns and books in Icelandic, many are translated but a large number are Icelandic designs. Unfortunately the quality is in general not very good, as there is no distinction made by publishers between those that are producing designs and have a background in textiles and those that are hobby-ists which in my opinion directly reflects on the quality of the design work. There are just a few designers working in the field of hand-knitting that have such training, but fortunately Istex employed (c. 2000 – 2012) a very good designer (Vedis Jonsdottir) that took responsibility for their knitting patterns and colour palettes so the range of available knitting patterns and shades was at least above average.
We decided to jump in with so many others in 2011, and try our hand at marketing our own knitting magazine with the revival of Lopi & Band. The magazine has been very well received but unfortunately the market is rather small so we can not rely on it as a main source of income. But we do at least have an outlet for our passion for knitting design and have a measure of creative freedom and control over what designs we produce.
(Hringana – a design by Linda)
KD: My particular interest is yoked sweaters, and I’m fascinated in how they have been regarded, designed and marketed in Iceland, and how perceptions of them have changed. How do you think Icelandic perceptions of yoked sweaters have shifted over time?
Ásdis: The Icelandic traditional yoked sweater was designed for the market in the 1950´s. During that time my aforementioned grandmother was working for Íslensk Ull, a wholesale company that was working on promoting Icelandic Woollens. She was one of the individuals that developed and designed hand-knitted items for the commercial market, both for tourists in Iceland, and for Icelanders themselves.
The traditional yoked sweater gained immediate popularity as it has the very direct reference to Nordic patterns and designs as well as being extremely easy to make. When the final stitch is cast off you basically have a finished item. Quite early on, the yoke became a symbol of Icelandic woollen work and was quickly internationally know as such. Over the past few decades, countless catwalk collections have made reference to the Icelandic yoke sweater, either directly or indirectly.
The yoke sweater became one of the most important sales items in the Icelandic Handcrafts Centre from the time it opened in the 1960´s until it closed in 1997. Then, in the late ’90s, following the crash of the woollen market, it became very unfashionable amongst the general public in Iceland. But in recent years it has certainly become much more popular, partly because of some young designers, that have featured it in their collections, with their own modern twist. From the traditional rather bulky Lopapeysa (3 ply Lopi or Alafoss Lopi) yoke sweaters are now made of 2 or 1 ply Lett Lopi or Lopi Light and have become very fashionable among Icelanders of all ages.
In its early years of development in the 1950s, the yokes were mainly designed in natural colors and those shades still remain the most popular. But during the early 2000´s yokes began to appear in many different shades that had been dyed specifically for the Icelandic market and yokes are always popular with tourists in a range of pinks and light blues.
So the yoked sweater remains the most popular ‘Icelandic’ design, and we’ve certainly come across this in our design practice. We are often asked if we will design more of the “traditional” sort of yoke, but we find that the market has plenty of those and we prefer to show the consumer that it is also possible to make sweaters of traditional wool, with traditional colours, but in a variety of patterns and forms.
(Dagrenning – a design by Linda)
KD: Could you tell me more about how you feel the unique Icelandic landscape, with its equally unique history of wool and textiles, inspires you and your work?
Ásdis: The nature and the history of textiles in Iceland do inspire our work to a great extent. The ever-changing weather and the extreme versatility of the landscape offer endless means of inspiration. The exceptional colors of the Icelandic landscape are perhaps the most inspirational of all! Icelandic textile history, and particularly weaving and embroidery patterns, have inspired designs for both of us. Local techniques such as Icelandic intarsia knitting – which is knitted back and forth in garter stitch – has been an inspiration in one of my favorite designs.
Icelandic costume history, especially from the middle ages, has inspired me with both techniques and shaping. A exhibition I did played on designs and coloring from that period, the shaping nodded to medieval clothing while the wool was plant dyed either before or after the garment had been knitted up. My design Valkyrja draws on this inspiration.
Linda: When I quit as editor of the magazine Lopi & Band in 1997 I was part of a group that participated in a research project on Icelandic clothing from the period 1750-1850. The costumes we researched are part of the collection of the National museum of Iceland. During that period I made 4 costumes, replicating national costumes from the era. Through this I became interested in the life people lead so long ago. I then studied folklore at the University of Iceland and graduated with a BA degree. Of course the research and my studies appear in my designs to a degree.
(Peysufatapeysa – a design by Linda )
One of the replicas I made was of an old costume called Peysuföt (peysa = sweater, föt = clothing). Traditionally the sweater part of the costume was knitted on 1.5 mm needles and then felted! The sweater I made was a modernized replica of this original, but on 5mm needles. Since then I have used various inspirations such as turf walls and traditional embroidery patterns.
(Turf sweaters – designed by Linda )
Our most famous painter, Kjarval (1885-1972) has also inspired my designs.
(Linda’s Kjarval-inspired sweaters, including Fornar Slóðir )
. . . and I very much enjoy experimenting with shapes and patterns other than those of the traditional yoke.
(Hum – a design by Linda)
KD: What I find most interesting about your design work is how incredibly innovative it is, with beautiful, and sometimes unexpected uses of texture and shaping. I particularly admire your yoke designs – such as Fletta – in which the shaping does not interrupt the pattern, but remains continuous and integral to it. These continuous yokes are one of the real signatures of your work and to my mind are one of the most significant developments in yoke design over the past few decades. Can you tell me more about your development of these beautiful integrated patterns and how they came about?
Ásdis: When I started designing shortly after finishing the College of Arts and Crafts, my background in the handcrafts tradition ispired me to continue working with the yoke concept that had been so characteristic of the Icelandic woollen sweater. I wanted to do yoke patterns that had a different concept – the continuous pattern but not bands of pattern intercepted with single colored rows. The single colored rows have the function of incorporating the decreases in the yoke necessary for the shaping. I wanted to go the more difficult way … incorporating the decreases into the design for the pattern to flow from beginning to end. This means of course a greater challenge in the design with intricate math and drawing for the pattern to be continuous. The Fletta was one of my first designs and probably the most successful so far. I looked to the traditional Icelandic woodcarvings with their flow of latticework for inspiration.
With Fletta (a braid or “intertwining“) a lattice of pattern is on a background of the base colors of the sweater. With another design – Myrarfletta (bog braid) – the lattice itself becomes the multicolored surface for the play of colours (depicting the bright yellow and green mosses in the Icelandic interior growing around the small streams in the desert).
KD: I wonder if you could tell me about one of your favourite yoke designs, and why you feel it is special / important?
Ásdis: Fletta is my favorite design. I think it is one of the best results I had with the lattice work design, simple yet intricate and very eye catching. It offers a variety of possibilities with color combinations which makes it a very fluid design. I have had it made up to suit individuals coloring (often earthy natural colors), also in graphic color combinations and even bright colorful combinations. All seem to work and provide very different effects.
Linda: My favourite yoke design is the one I made from the Kjarval painting Fornar slóðir because it was challenging to capture the mood of the painting and transfer it to a pattern. And also because no one has done it before as far as I know.
KD: Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, Ásdis and Linda!
You can find out more about Lopi & Band here.
(Stallar – a design by Ásdis)
(Hélène, Hiking and Knitting between Fire and Ice, against the spectacular backdrop of Eyjafjallajökull.)
When I visited Iceland I had the very great pleasure of finally meeting Hélène Magnusson, whose research and designs I have admired for many years. I visited Hélène in her lovely home in Reykjavik, where we drank tea, ate some delicious smoked lamb, and talked about things cultural, culinary, and woolly for several hours. We had such a good time chatting, I thought it might be fun to continue the conversation here . . .
1. I know you are French . . . can you tell us a little more about your background? Where did you grow up?
I have both the Icelandic and French nationality but was brought up in France. There I studied law and worked as a barrister for some years in Paris until I moved to Iceland. Law was interesting but I was never passionate about it, if not simply bored! Knitting however has always been something truly enjoyable. I was 7 when I learned to knit from my mother, as well as from books and I have been knitting ever since, whenever and where ever, making my own or following recipes, changing them, or not. It certainly made the law courses pass quicker!
2. And how and when did you come to relocate to Iceland?
Iceland has been on my mind from a pretty young age. My paternal grand-father from Normandy, a very tall man, with high cheeks, grey eyes and a little nose, kept telling me that we were descendants of the Vikings. I dreamt of Iceland with “Icelandic fisherman”, a book by Pierre Loti (I lived in a street that had the name of the author at age 3 to 5, and it has always been a favorite book at home). Because of my father’s job, we were moving constantly from one harbor to the other, and I felt a bit rootless. When I went hiking in Iceland for the first time in 1995 on a holiday, I immediately and finally felt home. The rest was easy: I came back to Paris, resigned from the bar, quit my job and 3 months later, I was installed in Iceland where I later met my husband, started studying mountaineering and textiles, worked as a cook during the winter and a mountain guide during the summer, had three daughters, bought a house, took my driving licence, … I enjoy a lot going on holiday to Normandy in the family house but Iceland is my home and where I want to die (at a very old age!)!
3. The landscape of Iceland is unique and truly magical. Even having only spent a few days there, I already want to come back and explore further. Is there a favorite place you like to be in Iceland? Can you tell us a little about it?
I love everything about Iceland. I love its roughness and emptiness, I love its harshness, how life is fighting so hard to survive. There are many beautiful places I have traveled to around the world but none has ever moved me as deeply than Iceland. Still after all this time, the landscape makes me extremely emotional.
I also love the fact that it is an island and that sea is all around, and you can still see it and smell it from the mountains, even from the top of Hvannadalshnjúkur, the highest peak in Iceland.
Nowadays we often know rather little where a product really comes from – we talked a bit together about the misleading ways yarn can be labeled, and all the unsaid information and hypocrisy that can go behind something that is described on the label as 100% wool, from a specific country. So yes, having worked with sheep, knowing how they are brought up, how they behave, how the wool is behaving and evolving on the living animal, how farmers are considering the wool and the sheep, what process it follows before it comes into perfectly wound skeins in the knitters hands, all this has certainly influenced my designs, trying to find the best use for the wool and to take advantages of its intrinsic qualities or defects. And then working with sheep and wool was certainly an excellent preparation for me to begin producing my own yarn! Of course I had not the slightest idea that this would be the case at the time!
Icelandic shoe inserts, whose unique history and designs are explored by Hélène in Icelandic Knitting: Using Rose Patterns
5. Icelandic knitted shoe inserts are a wonderful example of how decorative textiles played a crucial role in the everyday lives of ordinary people. What first drew you to these remarkable objects?
In the sheep farm where I worked I was first given a little pair of shoes with tiny inserts inside. Later while studying textiles, I was asked to make a presentation about design in a particular research exercise, and I chose to work with knitting. I knew I wanted to explore something really typically Icelandic and remembered the inserts in the little shoes. I then asked the National Museum to open for me their shoe-inserts cabinet, and I fell in love with them – – so colorful, joyful, beautiful and also so graphic. I also think there is a modern aesthetic in the shoe inserts that immediately drew me to them. But they were worn to barely be seen, hidden under the foot. I want to think it made people feel good to be wearing something pretty even if the wearers were the only ones to know. It came as a surprise to me to find out how little opinion old people had on the shoe-inserts – souvenirs of harsh centuries of poverty and dependency – and how very little young people knew about them, if anything at all.
Icelandic soft shoes and shoe inserts from Icelandic Handknits
6. Your first book – Icelandic Knitting: Using Rose Patterns – is a tour-de-force of scholarly research combined with truly original knitwear designs. Can you tell us about the process of producing it?
In the research I carried out, I first presented the inserts not as utilitarian objects but as a collection of motifs that I classified by colors and patterns. This really impressed Guðmundur Oddur Magnússon (Goddur), the head graphic designer professor and he is the one who encouraged me to write my graduation essay about them. (He was actually the only academic who was interested in this aspect of my work — the Fashion department didn’t see the inserts with a very sympathetic eye). With his encouragement, I continued to explore further research on the subject. Having previously studied law was tremendously helpful when trying to locate scarce information on shoe-inserts somewhere in a pile of hand-written ramblings about how life was in the Old Days! But if I had to do it all over again – or if I had the time to return to student life – I’d much rather study textile history than law: I’m a bit envious of your skills! I then got a grant from the Student Innovation Fund to make new designs based on the inserts. My graduation fashion collection (despite the reluctance mentioned above) was inspired by the shoe-inserts. I kind of got completely obsessed with the shoe-inserts!
(Hammer Rose Vest from Icelandic Knitting: Using Rose Patterns)
What was crucial to me during the whole process was to show Iceland’s past and its traditions a lot of respect. First I wanted to record the traditions like they were and like they had evolved, so they wouldn’t get lost, but then I also wanted people to continue knitting after them, otherwise, they would simply die out! To this end, in the second part of the book, I designed garments and accessories all based on the inserts, using the techniques, working from the shape of the inserts or the shape of the motifs, keeping the colors like they were, playing with concepts, or the old sayings and stories that surrounded the inserts.
(Hélène wearing the Skautbuningur cardigan from Icelandic Handknits)
7 .My favourite design in your important second book – Icelandic Handknits: 25 Heirloom Techniques and Projects – is probably the Skautbuningur cardigan. To me this design encompasses many of the signature elements of your work: it combines a thoughtful interpretation of traditional costume, with the construction of the modern Icelandic yoked sweater; involves a really nifty technical trick for finishing the front bands and facings and is also a wonderfully wearable garment. Do you have a favourite design in this book?
Thank you Kate! That is always a tough question! There are designs I liked at the time but feel I could improve today, then there are designs that I enjoyed designing because there was an interesting construction or a solution to find or a concept to work around but that are not necessarily outstanding as such and finally there are the designs that I would like to knit for myself and wear! I actually do wear quite many of my handknits: I have the chance that Icelandic wool ages really well so even worn they are still presentable at tradeshows!
Klukka skirt from Icelandic Handknits
8. I love knitted undergarments and dresses and your Klukka- inspired design is another beautiful pattern in Icelandic Handknits. Could you tell us more about Icelandic Klukka and how they were made?
The klukka was a knitted slip, made of wool of course, worn by women under their clothes to keep warm. The body was often knitted with ribbing with and the skirt had an easy undulating lace pattern with stripes of colors enhancing the undulations. They could be handknitted but by the end of the 19th century/beginning of 20th century, many homes, where all the clothing was made, had knitting machines (like the one we saw in the fisherman’s house at the open Air Museum in Árbær). Klukka were, however often finished by hands with a little picot edge, which was crocheted or knitted.
9. And I understand that beautiful Icelandic lace dresses are the subject of your next book?
Yes, it was too bad you just missed by a couple of days the exhibition at the National Museum about the book process that I held for Design March!
While during researches on Icelandic knitting, I had come across a one article about an Icelandic woman who had been knitting lace dresses inspired by the traditional Klukka but much more intricate. It was always on the back of my mind to find out more about her and many years later, I decided to investigate and looked for the woman: she appeared to still be alive and accepted to meet me for an interview. After a couple of meetings, I thought that she and her work were so remarkable that I decided to write a whole book about her! It would be a terrible shame if her knowledge and expertise simply disappeared… She made one-of-a-kind dresses, but I include in the book patterns of some of her dresses and coats in multiple sizes. I’ve been working on it for a few years now. The most challenging part appeared to be the wool: the yarn she was using didn’t exist anymore and was much finer than the Einband from Istex, which is the only mill and the only Icelandic lace weight available (it’s close to fingering actually). Of course, I found some suitable yarns to knit the dresses, such as Shetland Supreme Lace 2 ply from Jamieson and Smith that you know well, but, without wanting to sound too dogmatic, I feel I OUGHT to use Icelandic wool as well!
(Hélène’s Halldora design, from Icelandic Handknits, knitted with Love Story Artisanal 1 ply)
10. In conjunction with your research into Icelandic lace, I know you have been developing some very special laceweight yarn. Can you tell us more about your yarn experiments?
Yes, since there was no suitable Icelandic yarn for the dresses, I decided to make my own! I started making trials in a mini-mill in Belgium (there is no such thing as a mini-mill in Iceland so I sent selected wool abroad) and this is how Love Story Artisanal 1 ply was born. It is a beautiful fine lace-weight yarn made of high quality Icelandic wool, and very soft for an Icelandic yarn. Although it’s made by a machine, it is closer however to a handspun yarn. Because in a minimill you can work with small quantities at a time, I’m able to offer for sale many different shades of the natural Icelandic sheep colors as well as some plant-dyed colors. This artisanal production was very well received, and disappears very quickly. I find that I’m regularly out of stock and at the moment, I only have brown, black and white available… I can’t even imagine the complicated issues that would be involved with publishing a book recommending a yarn and not being able to keep up with the demand… So I’m heading for a bigger production for Love Story Artisanal 1 ply and that is easier to say than to do! Again I have turned to mills abroad since Ístex doesn’t have the capacity to make a finer lace. First there were many administrative obstacles to go through, one being that, despite all the campaigns for wool, unwashed wool is actually considered as an animal by-product by the EEC and goes by the same rules that meat carcass for shipping and handling… Then, it was not easy to find a mill that would be able to spin the Icelandic wool: it’s a very difficult wool to spin because of the mix of long and short hairs and a little challenging to make it into a fine regular lace. I sent wool here and there and was finally lucky to find a mill in Italy that had the confidence to make it: for the first trial, we made a one-ply but then decided to ply it so it would be more regular. . .
. . .and this is how my other yarn – called Grýla – was born: it’s a 2-ply yarn (Tvíband in Icelandic), made of 100% pure Icelandic wool, and is very sturdy and hardwearing (perfect for fine mittens for example!). It comes in 9 shades (that was the fun part for me choosing colors!) To go with it, I also made a Grýla Artisanal 2-ply in natural sheep colors: it’s spun at the mini-mill in Belgium with Icelandic lambswool and is really very soft. Grýla however is about the same weight as Ístex’s Einband so it is not terribly suitable for the lace dresses themselves (in fact that’s why it got the name of Grýla) but on its own terms it is a really lovely yarn! I knit my Icelandic Spring Shawl with it and it came out beautifully – I’ve also been working on a wee Grýla pattern collection that I will release in a few months.
. . . and now, I’m working on Love Story 2 ply, a yarn made of 100% Icelandic lambswool that will be absolutely perfect for the lace dresses! The lambswool being finer, it will be easier to make a finer yarn, also it’s much softer! I select high quality lambswool directly at Ístex washing station in Blönduós which is where the vast majority of farmers send their wool. I wanted first to buy it directly from the farmers but, though Ístex has been extremely cooperative and supportive of this project of mine, I still ran into many obstacles. As we speak, the wool is on its way to the mill in Italy: both white lambswool but also natural sheep colors, grey, brown and black. I can’t wait to see the end result but it will take a little while so we’ll all have to be patient!
11. You have a wonderful personal sense of style, Hélène, and I know that fashion was one of your previous scholarly interests. How (if at all) does contemporary fashion influence your current work?
Thank you Kate! I had two of my daughters while studying Textile design at the Iceland Academy of the Arts. While I was away on maternity leave for two years in a row (there’s only 16 months between them), the school undertook lots of changes and the Textile section was changed into a Fashion and Textile design section where the focus is on making a fashion line collection. So for this last year at school everything was new for me – it was a bit difficult with two babies a great learning experience for conveying ideas and make a coherent collection. During this last year at school, I also took all the basics courses in patterning, sewing, etc… I can’t say however I’m very much into following fashion at all! It all goes in a circle anyway… Still I’m probably influenced by my surroundings without noticing it!
(Hélène in a stunning flowerpot coat of her own design)
12. With your tours, you are now introducing knitters all over the world to the landscape and culture of Iceland, as well as its textile history. Can you tell us about some of the locales and traditions you will be exploring on your tours in 2014?
I organise the knitting tours with Icelandic Mountain Guides-Iceland Rovers, a tour operator that I had already worked with as a mountain guide until I had my daughters (I had the 3 of them in just 4 years so there was no time then for guiding!). I design the tours and Mountain Guides see to all the practicalities (such as booking etc). My interest in Icelandic knitting heritage and my strong desire to share it and keep it alive, together with my experience as a mountain guide provides the impetus for these tours: they are designed to give an insight into Icelandic Culture and Knitting Traditions. Knitting is still today intrinsic to Icelandic culture, so discovering Iceland through the knitting will give you an immediate and really interesting insight into Icelandic Culture. The tours mix knitting with beautiful natural surroundings: we visit local museums and meet local people, knitters, spinners, dyers, designers, farmers. Each tour has its own way of exploring Icelandic knitting heritage, whether it´s by hiking, trekking or by short walks on a discovery adventure. The tours are also timed to coincide with the natural rhythms of the farming year, and explore several different themes associated with Icelandic culture and knitting.
For example, the Hiking and Knitting with the Elves tour in late June takes for its theme Icelandic lace and is takes place among the fjords of East Iceland where the queen of the Elves herself resides. Elven women were told to pass down from the Elven world to the by stepping onto their lace shawl that they laid down over a swamp. The interesting and distinctive characteristics of Icelandic lace often derive from the subtle colors, tones and shades that we can also see in the landscapes that we are crossing during the tour. June is also the season of flowering in Iceland, a perfect tine to collect plants for dying the delicate lace yarns. The tour includes a plant-dying workshop, we meet with an amazing local lace knitter and discover different types of lace made for example from handyed reindeer skin (reindeer live solely in east Iceland).
By contrast, The Enchanting North tour in July takes us through North Iceland to the fjord of Skagafjörður, the Textile Museum and the beautiful region of Mývatn. The hikes for this tour are pretty easy and accessible to the vast majority of participants and the tour gives a good overview of Icelandic landscape and knitting traditions. Additionally, we explore in some depth the Mittens traditions of Skagafjörður, which are distinctively and beautifully embroidered with and Old Icelandic cross-stitch.
After this, in August, one of my popular tours – Hiking and knitting between Fire and Ice – goes through the Fimmvörðuháls mountain pass, still hot after an eruption, at the foot of the now famous Eyjafjallajökull. This is probably the most challenging tour for the legs and feet and the theme of the tour is Icelandic footwear, especially the tradition of Icelandic shoe-inserts and Icelandic intarsia. Then in September the Spinning and knitting the Icelandic wool tour takes place. This is the time when sheep are gathered from the mountains (where they graze freely all summer), and sorted between farmers during round-ups. The tour take us through the whole process of working with Icelandic wool: rounding up and sorting the sheep, shearing, cleaning, combing, spinning, plant dying and finally knitting with the yarn that we create spun. We also visit the Istex mill factory and local spinners and dyers. Finally, in late October there is the last tour of the year: Knitting in the Magical Icelandic Night: the sheep are in the farm and the shearing season is beginning, we are knitting in cozyness of a turf farm guesthouse. It’s the beginning of winter and through this experience we get to understand how Icelandic wool kept the nation warm for centuries. At this time of the year, the sun hardly rises above the horizon, and the light is completely amazing. A bath in a hot spring, northern lights and colorful mittens are also on the program.
I also have a few custom tours made especially for groups of knitters or travel agencies and I’m already working on the program for 2015!
13. In one way or another, you have been working with textiles and design in Iceland for almost fifteen years. Can you tell us something about the cultural shifts and changes you have observed in this field during this time?
I can clearly see a return to the roots and the prejudice against the past fade with the new generations. We talked a bit about it when you were here, regarding especially the turf houses, and you wrote an insightful post about it.
First there was the setting of Iceland Academy of the Arts and the construction of a Design and Architecture section. Although it may be still a bit early to tell, a definitive Icelandic design flair has emerged, bright and colorful and most of all full of energy.
The financial crisis is also a turning point to me. You can pretty much talk in terms of “before the crisis” and “after the crisis” to define an architecture design style. The before crisis being much show-off, a bit pretentious, expensive and big, often out of scale!
14. You seem to me to be a natural designer and craftswoman: someone who simply has to be making something. If you had unlimited time (and resources) what would you most like to design and make?
Yes I pretty much feel I’m losing my time when I don’t make something with my hands! If I had enough time, first, it would not have taken me WEEKS to answer your interview questions! I would certainly spent more time on other crafts and show my daughters much more than I do now – I would also long be done with the Icelandic costume I’m making for myself at the Handicraft Association of Iceland! I would definitively publish more designs: I have patterns that have been ready to be published for 6 months or more and never seem to see the light. Would I produce more designs? Certainly, it’s not the ideas that are missing! – BUT in a way the limitation is also a garde-fou and forces you to make choices, to eliminate, to refine and keep only the essential. Still, a few hours more per day would do me only good!
Thank you so much for taking the time to tell us about your work and life, Hélène!
I am sure that many of you may be familiar with the work of my good friend and woolly comrade Tom van Deijnen, also known as Tom of Holland. Tom is perhaps best known for his expertise in, and celebration of, darning, which he puts into practice in his classes and workshops, as well as his wonderful Visible Mending Programme. But though Tom is best known as a darner, he can turn his hand to just about any fibre art: he spins, crochets, knits and sews and his approach to all of these activities is incredibly thoughtful and curious. Tom cares about, and cares for, made items, and his work always seems to be prompted by a deep understanding of the processes of making. This is a man who not only wants to lengthen the life of a favourite pair of shoes, but who, in order to do this, will teach himself the art of shoe repair from start to finish. Everything Tom does seems to add vitality and meaning to the textiles that surround him and I find his work inspiring on so many levels. He is a superlative technician, with the focus and patience to refine and hone a method until it best does the job for which it was intended; he is a talented designer with an eye for structure and balance as well as a feel for textile history and tradition; and he is also joyously creative and clearly loves making for its own sake. All of these elements are combined in his superb new design, the Tom of da Peat Hill cardigan, which he has just published. I just love everything Tom does, and thought it would be nice to bring you this wee chat I recently had with him about his work.
1. Tom, you have lived in the UK for many years, but are also “of Holland” . . . can you tell us a little bit about your background and where you grew up?
Yes that’s right. I was born and grew up in the south of The Netherlands. My grandparents kept cows and sheep, so I have had a woolly element in my life from very early on. I still remember the excitement of lambing time: my grandparents obviously were tied to the farm during this period, and visiting them then was always full with expectation: will new lambs be born tonight? Besides that, my mother is an amazingly good knitter. As a child I got her to knit me loads of jumpers. She allowed me to choose patterns and yarns myself, and I remember even as a kid I always wanted 100% wool when possible. Although I’ve always been very creative I wasn’t that interested in knitting at the time, although I was taught at primary school and also a bit by my mum.
2. I know that your considerable skills with the needle are completely self-taught — which craft first piqued your interest? And how did that lead on to your developing other needle-skills?
My first love, as a child, was crochet. I’ve made numerous doilies for my both my grandmothers. Most of them very small, but I enjoyed doing them – all completely free-style, I don’t think I even realised there were such things as patterns. I also enjoyed a spot of embroidery and needlepoint. However, as a teenager I became more interested in painting and drawing, and I did little fibre-related stuff until after I moved to the UK. In fact, anything knitting-related I learnt here, so I don’t even know many Dutch knitting terms. This makes talking about knitting with my mum a bit difficult at times.
Tom’s Amazing Jumper – a showcase of many different darning techniques.
3. What was the first thing you ever darned? Can you tell us about the process and what you learned from it?
I have always done little bits of embroidery and other things like beading to hide stains on jumpers or whatever, but the first proper darn was my first pair of hand-knitted socks. After spending weeks trying to learn using double-pointed needles and understanding heelshaping, I was devastated when the first hole developed. But, with mushroom, darning needle, and some old needlecraft books in hand, I soon learnt how to embrace new holes, as they provided me with a new darning opportunity!
4. And how did the visible mending programme come about?
The Visible Mending Programme started because I found others were interested in fixing up clothes, but it’s sometimes difficult to get started. So after getting questions about mending from friends and the general public, I decided I could provide mending inspiration, skills and services by writing a blog, running workshops and taking commissions and thus, The Visible Mending Programme was born. I like mending to be visible, as it’s a talking point which helps me explain to people why I feel it’s important to try to extend the life of a garment as long as possible, rather than throwing it out and buying yet another cheap piece of clothing that will disintegrate after a few washes. I see a beautiful darn as a badge of honour, to be worn with pride.
5. In a world dominated by disposable fashion, I find so many things to love about your visible mending programme, but one thing I find especially interesting about it is the way that it suggests that garments and objects, have time written into them — that things are not fixed or static but are always somehow in the process of becoming. I wondered if you could reflect on the way that mending adds, as it were, a certain temporal dimension to the mended object?
For me, I went through some kind of ‘continuity realisation’ when I took up spinning. Making at least some of my own clothes, made me realise that it takes time to make garments; and especially hand-knitting can take a long time. So when I started to darn more, I no longer thought that a garment was finished at the time when I worked in the last ends. Instead, darning keeps adding to the garment, so it’s not finished. It highlights there’s a story and a connection to that garment. I spent time, effort and skill in making it, and darning allows me to reflect on and trace the evolution of the making, and adding to it. Therefore, a garment isn’t finished until it is beyond repair. And even then it might be used as a cleaning rag or whatever. When I took up spinning, I started to understand a garment doesn’t start with casting on, or cutting the fabric pieces. There’s a whole process that happens beforehand, too. Fibre needs to be harvested and processed and spun up into yarn and perhaps woven into cloth, before I can start making the garment. In the olden days, all these things were done by hand, and the more I learn about textile history, the more I am in awe of the skills involved. At the same time, I’m also becoming more and more baffled that people have completely lost this connection, and don’t have the understanding of what’s involved in making clothes. Therefore, it is now possible to buy very cheap clothes on the Higt Street, and these get thrown out when there’s a small hole, or button missing. So this is something else I try to highlight with the Visible Mending Programme. I’d like to go back to an older mindset, where clothes and cloth were expensive, you only had a few, and you looked after them and repaired them until they were completely threadbare.
6. Many of your projects suggest an admirably deep understanding of the real nitty-gritty of textiles: the internal structure of stitches, and the way that they behave. Can you tell us about the ways that your technical understanding of knitting and darning speaks to and prompts your creativity?
I guess I’m a real technique geek. I love researching techniques, and the best way is to try them out yourself. So I cast on, or sew a toile, and see what happens. It doesn’t always work out, and then I like to find out why I didn’t get the result I wanted. I often find that old techniques that take a bit longer have advantages over the shortcuts that people seem to prefer nowadays. Sometimes I get completely inspired by the research, so that’s how I ended up making my Curiosity Cabinet of Knitting Stitches, which is a showcase of old and new knitting techniques, some well-known, others obscure. On other occasions I get totally jazzed up by construction techniques (for instance Barbara Walker and Elizabeth Zimmermann) and I want to try that out. There is so much to explore and learn!
Tom’s Curiosity Cabinet of Knitted Stitches: eyelets, chevrons, lace
7. For many reasons, stranded colourwork just does it for me: I have a feeling you feel the same. Can you put into words what it is that you love about stranded knitting?
I do love stranded colourwork. On a practical level, I find it appears to knit up quicker, as you can easily trace your progress through the repeats, and trying to finish ‘one more repeat before I go to bed’ also helps. On a more conceptual level, I’m intrigued and inspired by the many knitting traditions that make up the stranded knitting canon. There is so much interesting history involved: development of patterns, development of construction techniques, social implications of knitting as a way to make a living, the changes in gendered crafts. There is still so much to explore and learn that can feed into my own work.
Aleatoric Fairisle swatch #8
8. With Felicity Ford, you’ve been developing the Aleatoric Fairisle project – where dice-rolls determine the colours and stitch patterns you both knit up as swatches. Can you tell us more about the project and what it has taught you about colour and pattern so far?
The Aleatoric Fair Isle project (‘alea’ is the Latin for dice) was developed from our mutual interest in John Cage (a 20th Century American composer) and his use of dice rolls, the I Ching and other ways of chance to inform his compositions. He wrote a piece called Apartment House 1776, which uses snippets of music from that time. The end result is still recognisably based on the original music, yet at the same time completely fresh and modern. Felicity and I have used the same compositional principles in creating stranded colourwork that is still recognisably based on traditional Fair Isle, yet at the same time is fresh and modern. It has taught me a lot about colours in particular. Following certain rules we created, we select colours from 21 shades, using dice rolls. There are also rules on how to select the patterns (all are from Mary MacGregor’s book Traditional Fair Isle Patterns.) We started knitting exactly what the dice told us to do, but soon we both started to rebel and try to do things a bit differently. This is still true to John Cage, who also made a lot of subjective decisions whenever something didn’t seem right to his artistic sensibility. I’ve knitted eleven swatches now, and most of these need fixing in some way. Particularly our rule on how to come up with the shades for the contrast row (the row in the middle of the pattern.) Traditionally the contrast row was used to knit in some yarn of which you had very little for whatever reason: you may simply not have had enough, or it was very expensive to make, for instance, it was dyed with indigo. going through the Aleatoric process and feeling that rebellion makes you more aware of colour. It has made me more confident in choosing shades that work together, and also that you should add one colour which jars a bit with the others, to add some freshness and contrast. Lastly, the contrast colour should never break the pattern up.
Aleatoric Fairisle swatch #3
9. And how has the Aleatoric Fairisle Project informed the design choices you made with your wonderful Tom of da Peat Hill cardigan?
One of the Aleatoric Fair Isle swatches intrigued me. This swatch had the patterns placed vertically, and I was very curious to see how they would work horizontally. I tried it out in the Foula wool and I liked the way it came out. I think the Foula wool colours naturally harmonise well together, but from doing all the Aleatoric swatches I learnt a lot about finding a harmonious balance. Particularly the black needs to be used in moderation, as it’s such a strong colour and tends to dominate and throw off the design if used too much.
I would almost say that the wool chose me! For a while I wanted a warm outerwear cardigan, and the Foula wool is perfect for that. It’s knits up quick, and after washing it it blooms quite a bit, so it makes a very integrated fabric.
11. I think the colours, patterns and repeats of your cardigan are really beautifully balanced. The planning process of the design must have been considerable. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
I got my hands on some wool from Magnus, and the limited palette of seven shades actually made design choices easier, as there’s not too much to distract you. I already had the starting point from the Aleatoric Fair Isle swatch, and then when I knitted this up in the Foula wool, I found it quite easy to correct things, because there are only seven colours to play with. And in true Aleatoric style, I left a bit to luck and worked them out as I went along!
Each time I make something, I start reflecting on the item whilst working on it. I often try out something new and see what I think about it. This often relates to techniques I’ve chosen. For this cardigan, I had a number of ideas on how to work out the buttonband and collar, and I kept changing my mind until I actually got to the point I had to do it. I settled for a moss stitch buttonband with i-cord loops for the toggles. Also, I had two options for the toggles, and the final choice could only be made at the end and I chose the opposite from what was my favourite up until then. Also the way I dealt with the knotted steek has changed throughout the knitting of it. In June Hemmons Hyatt’s The ‘Principles of Knitting’ she suggests that you could cut the strands really short and leave a small fringe on the inside. I tried this on one armhole, but I much prefer the second, and more time-consuming method, of skimming in the ends at the back of the fabric.
I believe in having different techniques at my disposal, so I can chose the one that’s most suited for the job. As the Foula wool is a chunky double-knit weight, I felt that the more usual way of cutting the steek and folding the seams in and tacking them down would be too thick. Likewise your own method of the steek sandwich. If I had used this on the Foula wool, I would have very thick buttonbands. So I looked elsewhere. The knotted steek was the solution for me. I first used it for the Aleatoric Fair Isle swatches, as it can be really quick, as long as you don’t mind the fringe. Once you have knitted the steek and you’re going to cast off the tube you’ve knitted, then you make sure not to cast off the steek stitches. Instead, you let the steek stitches drop down all the way. You end up with a big massive ladder. Then you cut the strands, leaving equal lengths on each edge. The next step is to knot together the pairs of strands that are used in each row, using an overhand knot. In other words, each row will end in a knot. You can then easily pick up your stitches for the buttonband and not have to worry about accidentally manipulating the edge too much. As only pairs of strands get knotted, the edge has the same flexibility as the body of the fabric. Once the buttonband is finished (or the sleeve, of course,) you take a sharp-pointed sewing needle (a crewel needle works well) and skim in the ends at the back of the fabric. This makes for a very flat finish, no bulk whatsoever.
(Tom will be explaining more about the knotted steek technique shortly in a tutorial on his blog. )
I have many pairs of hand-knitted socks, most of which have darns in them now. I am rather fond of a black scarf which I jazzed up with some Swiss darning to add small blocks of colour, and love my woollen trousers thatI made last year for Wovember. My Sanquhar gloves are great in keeping my hands warm for chilly days cycling, but the Tom of da Peat Hill cardigan definitely takes current pride of place in my woolly wardrobe!
You can find out more about Tom’s work, and his current teaching schedule here. And the Tom of da Peat Hill cardigan is now available from Ravelry.
In case you haden’t noticed, today is the first of WOVEMBER! I thought I’d begin the month by showing you a garment that, like no other I can think of, truly celebrates the glorious variety of British sheep and wool. It was designed by my good friend and fellow WOVEMBERIST, Felicity Ford, AKA, Felix. This year, Felix was the patron of Shetland Wool Week, (and if you’ve not yet heard / seen her singing the “Shetland Wool Song” I suggest you pop over to YouTube right now!) Back in June 2009, Felix and I and several other woolly friends met up at Woolfest. It was a wonderful weekend for all of us, and I well recall how Felix, over a jolly pint or two at the Bitter End in Cockermouth, toasted the glory of British wool, and explained to us how she was going to create a garment celebrating the diversity of sheep, inspired by what she’d seen at the show. Layter was the result, and, over the past few years, this marvelous original garment has evolved several times. Its now available as two fabulously sheepy designs, for both adults and babies. I asked Felix to tell us more about the story of Layter.
1. What does “Layter” mean?
“Layter” is a word from an old Cumbrian counting rhyme which shepherds used in the past for counting their sheep and it’s the number “seven”. The prototype of the design used wool from seven different breeds and since I found this wool in Cumbria at WOOLFEST, a title from that part of the world made sense. I love that when people ask me about “Layter” we end up talking about old shepherding traditions!
2. I have a very clear recollection of your infectious excitement at Woolfest in June 2009, upon perusing the marvelous breed-specific yarns that were available at the Blacker Yarns stand. Am I right in thinking that this was the moment the design was born? Can you tell us about this moment and the garment’s inspiration?
The Blacker Yarns stand blew my mind! There were two deep containers full of balls of yarn from different sheep breeds. As I read the names on the ball bands and squished the yarns, I felt there was loads to discover about each one. I pulled out ball after ball and kept finding more names… Jacob, Border-Leicester, Manx Loaghtan, North Ronaldsay, Shetland, Teeswater… it was like a poem! Additionally, I watched a shearing demonstration and was really impressed by how the shearer got the fleece off the sheep all in one piece. I realised I really wanted to knit something which looked like that, so yes – the design was born in the wonderful sheepy celebration that is WOOLFEST!
3. You then began knitting, and I remember first seeing (and admiring) the first incarnation of Layter just a few weeks after Woolfest. I know how you loved this garment and wore it loads. In many ways this design seems to epitomise your concept of ‘the slow wardrobe’! Can you tell us about how the original Layter has stood up to wearing since you made it?
The first incarnation of Layter was knit at quite a loose gauge, which makes it drapey, and quite long and robe like! The fabric has relaxed with time, and the whole garment feels very feminine to me. I love wearing it with a dress, and that I can really hug it around myself in the cold! I am genuinely impressed with how well the yarn has worn; it hasn’t pilled or shed, and the stitches remain well-defined. The fibres have softened after four years of wear, and the whole garment has developed a very slight and pleasing bloom. The sideways construction means it can stretch a little bit if I wear it every day for a couple of weeks, producing a mildly limp appearance, but when this happens, I simply bung it in my washing machine on a Wool cycle and give it a good block! Layter does indeed epitomise my concept of ‘The Slow Wardrobe'; it is a 100% WOOL garment that I cherish and will wear for years to come; the yarn it is made of is durable and well spun; and the whole process of making it has made me more aware of different breeds of sheep and the unique properties of their wool! However perhaps most importantly, it sparks conversations about wool and sheep everywhere it goes. Because it is quite big and has those crazy sleeves, it does attract attention, and every time I wear it, people ask questions, and seem enchanted by the notion that the stripes are all from different sheep breeds. Folk immediately connect it with what they have seen on Countryfile, or start telling me about their own connections with sheep, and men always seem to ask me if there is any Herdwick in it! The Slow Wardrobe is about making my own clothes, but it’s also about how we talk and think about fashion, and I love the conversations I get to have with strangers when I wear original Layter.
4 After many of us badgering you for a pattern, you later (heh) re-designed and re-developed Layter for publication. How did the second incarnation of the design differ from the first? And what did you learn from the process of redesigning and re-knitting?
I was thinking about a garment that other people might really like to wear which could be paired with tailored trousers or a fitted shirt. To achieve a more flattering, figure-hugging garment, I re-knit Layter using exactly the same maths as in the original version, but at a much tighter gauge. The waist and hips are defined more dramatically and the rows of tight-knit garter stitch are very neat. The effect of this tidier, firmer fabric is a more formal garment, and something which is more like a jacket. In redesigning Layter I also abandoned the big puffy sleeves because I always felt they gave original Layter a slightly religious appearance which I find amusing, but which I wasn’t sure other knitters would enjoy!
5 How many British sheep breeds and fleece shades are represented in the new Layter? What was your process of selection? And did you have thoughts of including more?
The new Layter contains wool from several different sheep breeds – some of which are represented in multiple shades! The full list contains Southdown, Corriedale, Ryeland, Shetland, Jacob, Manx Loaghtan, North Ronaldsay, Hebridean and Pure Black Welsh Mountain DK knitting yarn… nine discrete breeds in total. Carrying on the theme of the old Cumbrian counting words, I called that version “Covera” which means nine. I would like to do a further version which incorporates Herdwick, Rough Fell, Swaledale, Romney, Wensleydale and Cotswold, because this would create more textural contrast and if I made a version with fifteen sheep breeds in it, the corresponding word from the counting rhyme is “Bumfit” which I think is brilliant. Who doesn’t want a garment that fits nicely around the bum? !
My process of selection involved lining up a lot of balls of Blacker Yarn, arranging them from dark through to light, and swatching to see which textures would work best together. The yarns used in the latest version are all fairly matt and hardwearing, and I got mildly obsessed with different shades of white while knitting it. The Corriedale almost looks bleached, while the Southdown is more ivory, and the Bluefaced Leicester is the softest of the bunch, and somehow mildly translucent! I played a bit with how to use these different whites through the sleeves and at the sides of the body.
Layter is knit vertically in 2 pieces from front to back over the shoulders. To finish, it is grafted together at the sides and centre back. Finally, a neckband is added, providing some shaping. I felt that constructing a garment sideways would allow me to make a vertically-striped garment for showing off my sheepy rainbow of Blacker Yarns, and decided on an open garment rather than a sweater because this would most closely resemble a fleece just taken off a sheep. I knit it in two halves so that I could maximise the yardage from all of my balls of Blacker Yarns by simply dividing them all in half and knitting one half of the garmemt at a time. Working this out was all fun, but the best part was actually getting on with making it. Those stripes go fast, and there is a feeling of being involved the knitterly equivalent of cheese tasting as you register the qualities of one sort of wool and anticipate the next! I fell in love with Manx ; it is matt, gingery, warm and soft, and reminds me of biscuits. I also love the feathery texture of Black Welsh Mountain and the sturdy, dense hand of Southdown…
7. Layter has been an evolving project for four years now, and the latest stage in its evolution is Blayter (Baby-Layter) – an incredibly cute scaled-down version for infants and toddlers. Can you tell us about how this design developed out of your previous work on Layter?
I am conscious that there are more modifications that could be made – more short rows; a side to side approach, eliminating the back seam – all modifications best understood through knitting practice rather than in the abstract! I felt a smaller version of the pattern would make it easier to test out these different ideas for this garment…a baby version was an obvious idea once I realised I wanted to continue tinkering with the construction, and playing around with colours organised into vertical stripes!
8 Does Blayter use the same construction method as the adult garment?
The basic method of construction is exactly the same as for the adult Layter, but there are proportionately far fewer short rows because I didn’t want to create a lot of extra fabric to swathe a baby in. The neckband is also more gently shaped, and the sleeves are long enough to either come right down over the hands or to be rolled up out of the way. The gauge is quite tight, and again it is conceived of as a little jacket rather than a next-to-skin garment. The name – as you have probably gathered – is a conflation of “Baby” and “Blayter”, although I did think about calling it Yann, because I only used the wool of one sheep while designing it!
I chose to work with Shetland Supreme Jumper Weight from Jamieson & Smith because I enjoyed the soft hand of wool from the Shetland sheep breed when I was knitting Layter, and thought it would be gentle enough for a baby to wear. I also love the range of colours represented within the Shetland breed, and the Shetland Supreme palette offers the possibility to be quite subtle moving between greys, fawns, whites, creams… I started a high contrast version of Blayter which looked a bit like a mint humbug, but in the end was seduced by the subtle transitions possible between Shaela, Katmollet, Mooskit and Gaulmogot! Shetland Supreme has a lovely light hand, and even knit at quite a tight gauge, retains a soft halo and bounciness… it’s lovely for a baby jacket. I also wanted to find a way of fitting the sheepy ethos behind the original Layter to the aims of Shetland Wool Week, which – like WOOLFEST – is such a fantastic celebration of sheep and wool! What better way than by designing Blayter in a way that celebrates some of the lovely shades of wool found amongst Shetland sheep?
10. What challenges did you find adapting the pattern for differently proportioned bodies?
There’s lots of conflicting information about sizing from different sources, and this made certain aspects of the design process a bit tricksome. To assist with these challenges, I enlisted the help of our amazing friend Liz, who as well as being a brilliant tech-knitter, is an experienced knitter of baby things, and has produced many tiny and gorgeous items for her two lucky nieces. Liz was a total star and test-knitted a beautiful version of the pattern in berry shades of Jamieson & Smith 2 ply. She also discussed baby sizes and proportions with me, and made great suggestions for the details we included on the sizing chart, because in her experience, babies range wildly in terms of size/age. I learnt loads from her during the process of adapting Layter to fit a baby.
11. Finally, what is your favourite sheep breed and why?
Ooh it’s a tricky one, that! Hard to pick just one as they are all so amazing, and all for such different reasons, but I have an enduring fondness for small, wild sheep like Shetlands, Manx Loaghtans, North Ronaldsays, Borerays… I am afraid I am terribly romantic about all these breeds. When I was in Shetland, Ollie showed everyone a hairy grey fleece which he described as “scadder” meaning that it’s very rough. I love that fleece, though, because it is what the Shetland sheep would grow if left to its own devices in order to survive in the wild. It has a thick mane down the middle which I imagine would give a ram a very proud aspect out on the hills! To me, scadder looks like land… like rocks, stones, earth, peat… On the other hand, who can argue with the lovely ginger-biscuit fleece of the Manx Loaghtan which is wild too, but surprisingly soft? Perhaps in the end though I have to say the Boreray is my favourite sheep, purely because it’s the most endangered breed, and the one we all need to love the most if we want to keep it going!
Thanks so much, Felix!
And be sure to follow the WOVEMBER blog this month, for sheepy stories, inspiring interviews, woolly giveaways and more!
Just in case you hadn’t noticed, it is Shetland Wool Week! I’m very sad not to be there in person this year, but I’ve kept up the tradition I started three years ago of designing a hat in woolly celebration! In 2011, it was Sheep Heid (using Jamieson and Smith Shetland Supreme) ; in 2012 it was the Sixareen Kep (using Jamieson and Smith Shetland Heritage) and in 2013 it’s . . . well, you’ll have to wait till the end of the week to find out. I can tell you, though, that this year’s hat uses Foula Wool, a lovely DK (or sport) weight Shetland yarn produced in seven tasty natural shades. Foula Wool is grown by Magnus and Justyna Holburn on the island of Foula, and I was able to catch up with Magnus earlier this week to hear more about their fantastic woolly venture.
Where is Foula?
Foula (pronounced “foo-laa”) is the most isolated of the Shetland Islands which themselves are the most northerly outpost of the UK. Cut off from the main island group by a formidable sea crossing, Foula lies out to the west of Shetland, approximately 20 miles offshore. The striking silhouette is hard to miss but also equally hard to get to.
Can you tell me a little about Foula sheep? What makes them so different?
Once all sheep in Shetland would have been like the Foula sheep, they are the unmodernised strain of the native Shetland sheep breed. Raised in isolation on our remote island for generations without the external influence of crossbreeding or the flock book they are simply Shetland sheep as nature intended them to be. This strong natural heritage embodies the Foula sheep with their unmistakable character and appearance.
And do you feel that the distinctive landscape of Foula matches and suits the character of your sheep?
Absolutely so. Foula is a wild and rugged landscape with its own unique natural untamed charm and the sheep are as much a part of this as the dramatic scenery itself. In fact it would be fair to say that the Foula sheep actually are a part of the island landscape and without them the hills would look decidedly empty and forlorn. We are really hoping that some of this natural character will find its way into our yarn and onto the knitting needles of the people who choose to work with it.
Coloured sheep were once declining in Shetland (and elsewhere) generally. What is now being done to retain and encourage diversity of fleece colour? Is the situation improving?
Foula has always been an important genetic resource for anyone who is looking for coloured Shetland sheep. By and large the crofters on the island have tended to take it upon themselves to ensure that this diversity of natural fleece colour continues. The system is subject to individual preferences and the sustainability of each persons flock. What we are trying to introduce with Foula Wool is something that will help improve a sheep flock’s sustainability whilst also seeking out the natural balance of fleece colours by virtue of what the market is asking for. This in turn is going to depend on the knitters out there making their own choices to knit with these natural wool colours.
The case in point would be our current stock of black yarn. There is a tendency not to keep a lot of black sheep as they are seen as being genetically dominant. Crofters worry about ending up with too many black sheep, so we then actually end up with hardly any at all. Black yarn sells well, so we have now almost sold out of what we had spun. We then put the word out that we are looking for more black fleeces and people then start to keep back more black lambs. Which is exactly what has happened this year.
I know that pure white is actually the least common fleece colour for a Foula sheep, but are there certain fleece shades, or combinations of shades, that are particularly prized? Do you have a favorite natural shade?
My father had a personal preference for dark grey sheep as he felt that their numbers were getting low and he liked their fine wool. He started to keep back dark grey rams from the mothers with the best wool, some of these sheep were really fantastic and they looked almost blue. I grew up working with these animals so I do like to make sure that I have a few in my own flock. I am also very keen on the mioget yarn, which we spin from the white/fawn flekit fleeces. This blend of different coloured fibers ends up with a lovely warm honey like tone that I think is very appealing.
Foula Wool is a relatively new venture. Can you tell us a little about how you came to develop a yarn for hand-knitters?
It was a combination of a desire to help support our native island sheep and the traditional crofting culture that surrounds them along with finding a solution about what to do with all the wool from our own sheep flock. We decided to send off some samples to a spinning mill and then waited eagerly to see what we would get back, whatever it was it had to be better than just burning the fleeces. When we got those first hanks of Foula Wool back we were really thrilled, it was a much better yarn than we had dared hope for.
I think we knew very quickly that this was going to be a yarn for hand knitters. These were the people who would be able to appreciate all the care and effort that goes into creating something. We also knew the yarn would have to remain undyed as the natural colours were already there and they just simply looked great. We opted for a DK weight for our first production run as it seemed to be a gap in the Shetland Wool market. We thought it would be nice for folk to have something that knitted up quickly but still offered all the colour work options they had come to expect from a traditional Shetland knitting yarn. The feedback we started getting from people in the knitting world all helped to confirm that Foula Wool was going to be a yarn for hand knitters.
(Light Grey Foula Wool)
Developing a yarn directly from the sheep can be tricky for small producers. What did you find to be the most challenging aspect of the process?
The most challenging thing so far was the initial step to accept that it was going to be possible and that we would give it a go. You have to commit a lot of time and effort to something like this. Certainly running any business from such a remote location throws up challenges, not least when your going to have wait a whole year for your sheep to grow more wool if something doesn’t work out. However these are just problems that you will have to find solutions for, the same way you find solutions for any of life’s other problems. Making the decision that you want to go out and pin your wool colours to the mast that’s the hard part.
(Grey Foula Wool)
Are you or Justyna knitters yourself? Do you enjoy working with your wool?
We love working with the wool and Justyna is well-bitten by the knitting bug! I find it really rewarding to hear back from people who buy our yarn as it has started to make some sense out of the decision I made years ago when I inherited my own sheep from my father, that I would do my best to keep them going.
Finally, what’s your favourite hand-knitted garment?
The first thing ever knitted from our Foula Wool, a jumper that Justyna knitted for our eldest son, it doesn’t fit him anymore but his younger brother wears it now. I am always impressed by the natural qualities of pure wool, whether is on the back of a sheep or a little lad out helping his dad with the lambing, you just can’t beat it.
If there was ever anything that made me want to own my own small starter flock, it is Magnus’s lovely photographs of his sheep (all of which are reproduced courtesy of Foula Wool). In closing, I have to mention that it was in fact Magnus’s favourite Mioget shade that, when I first got my hands on some Foula Wool, immediately gave me the idea for my new hat design. More of that shortly. In the meantime, you can find out more about Foula Wool here, or meet Magnus for yourself at the Shetland Wool Week Maker’s Mart at Lerwick town hall on Saturday.
As you know, the story of the yarns I use in my designs is very important to me. I am always interested to know as much as possible about a yarn’s provenance and background; like to use fibres that are locally grown and processed where possible; and am especially keen on yarns that showcase the unique qualities of different breeds of British sheep. One of my recent ‘wow’ discoveries is Titus, a wonderful new yarn that has been developed by my Yorkshire friends at baa ram ewe. I am sure many of you will have heard of Titus already, even if you haven’t knit with it, as each new batch seems to disappear from baa ram ewe’s shelves in Headingley and Harrogate almost as fast as it is spun up. Why is Titus so special? Well, this yarn blends the lustrous fibres of two beautiful British sheep breeds — Grey Wensleydale and Blue Faced Leicester — together with 30% UK Alpaca. These three different fibres are worsted-spun together to create a yarn that has a gorgeous sheeny-soft hand, but also tremendous strength. What I especially like about this yarn is that it feels incredibly luxurious but, because of the particular qualities of the fibres of which it is composed, is also clearly really tough and hard wearing. It has a really unique hand — smooth, yet because of the Wensleydale, slightly hairy — and you can tell as you knit it that the yarn simply does not want to bobble or pill. So far, Titus has been available in three natural shades, but five new colours are about to be produced, meaning that the yarn now also has a beautifully balanced palette. In short, I love Titus, and have just completed a couple of designs using it, which I’ll show you very shortly (huzzah!) First, though, I caught up with Verity Britton of baa ram ewe to hear more about Titus and the thinking behind it.
How did the idea for Titus first come about?
Owning a wool shop and choosing among the hundreds of different yarns that are offered to us does make you think about what your dream yarn would be. We love the fuzziness of our local Wensleydale and the softness of the Bluefaced Leicester and Alpaca, and when the opportunity came to have a small batch spun, we jumped at the chance. It was amazing seeing our dreams become reality!
Can you tell us about the process of the yarn’s development? What was involved?
We knew what mix of fibres we wanted in our yarn, but we’d never made one before, so we took some advice from the the wonderful John Arbon of Fibre Harvest, who spun our first ever batch of Titus. We’re passionate about supporting British Wool and UK fibres and showcasing our local breeds here in Yorkshire, so it some ways it was an easy choice to make. We could say we had a firm idea of exactly how the yarn should be spun and what it would look like but in fact we put our trust in John who had far more experience at spinning wonderful yarns than we did. We were very nervous when we ordered our initial 12 kilos- would we like it? Would anyone else like it? But when the box arrived we breathed a huge sigh of relief. It was absolutely gorgeous and surpassed all of our expectations.
Who was Titus Salt and why is he associated with your yarn?
Sir Titus Salt was a Leeds born wool manufacturer who became tired of the smoke and pollution emanating from Yorkshire’s mills and factory chimneys and built a new mill on the outskirts of Shipley, followed by houses, bathhouses, an institute, hospital, almshouses and churches which became the village of Saltaire, now a World Heritage Site. But this wasn’t Sir Titus’ only achievement. In 1836, Titus came upon some bales of Alpaca in a warehouse in Liverpool and, after taking some samples away to experiment, came back and bought the consignment. Sir Titus became the creator of the lustrous and subsequently hugely fashionable alpaca cloth, which contributed massively to his success as a manufacturer. And that’s why we’ve added 30 per cent of the finest UK Alpaca to our yarn, which adds a little bit of magic to our wonderful wool, and strengthens that connection to our Yorkshire heritage even further.
It is fair to say that Titus has been a roaring success, recently voted no.1 British yarn by the readers of Knit Now Magazine! Do you have any plans for new colourways and ranges?
We have been completely bowled over by the popularity of Titus and can’t thank knitters and customers enough for their support, especially for their patience when we sell out! It’s been so popular that we have now been able to introduce a brand new Titus colour range spun by the amazing Peter Longbottom of West Yorkshire Spinners. There are eight shades, all inspired by our Yorkshire surroundings, which blend beautifully together making them ideal for colourwork. It’s being dyed up as we speak and should be available in the next week or so- we’re so excited!
baa ram ewe is located in the historic hub of the UK textile industry. Is that heritage important to you? How?
One of the biggest reasons for opening baa ram ewe in Leeds and now Harrogate was to reaffirm Yorkshire’s historic link to wool and to celebrate that heritage. Industrial towns like Leeds, Bradford, Halifax and Huddersfield would not have flourished without the wool trade, and towns like Harrogate with the Yorkshire Dales on its doorstep mean sheep breeds like the Wensleydale and Swaledale are practically on your doorstep. We want to celebrate that woolly heritage and we love that so many of our customers want to see and buy yarn that is local to Yorkshire- it means we must be doing something right!
I lived and worked in Yorkshire for many years, and love it for many reasons. What is special to you about Yorkshire and its landscape?
It’s hard to put your finger on it, but for me there is an understated natural warmth and beauty to both the Yorkshire landscape and the people that live here. Yorkshire has a really captivating mix of both industrial and rural heritage that is really unique, creating a quiet confidence that envelopes you and makes you proud, even if- like me- you weren’t born here. It’s a rich, varied and special place and if you haven’t been- come and visit soon!
What is your favourite Yorkshire expression or dialect word? (For the record, mine is probably GINNEL).
Oooh I like Ginnel too! Joint favourite though is one I got from my husband and is RADGED, as in ‘he were proper radged’, meaning very, very angry. To me, it’s almost an onomatopoeia. My mother in law says it all the time and it always makes me chuckle.
Finally, what’s next for baa ram ewe?
Oh Lord, who knows? We’ve just opened a second store in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, so we’re still recovering from that. We can’t wait for our new Titus colour range to hit the shelves any day now, and then we’ll be taking that to Woolfest in Cumbria and TNNA in the U.S in June, as well the new Yarndale show in Skipton this September. Oh, and then we’re organising the second Yorkshire Wool Week in October. So just another quiet year for us again then….