A conversation with Hélène Magnusson

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(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.

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(Icelandic sheep)

4. You have worked with Icelandic sheep, and I wonder how this hands-on experience has influenced your approach to design, textiles and yarn production?

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!

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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.

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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!

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(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.

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(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!

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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!

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(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. . .

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(Grýla)

. . .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.

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Icelandic Spring Shawl

. . . 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!

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(Love Story yarn!)


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!

Flmowerpot
(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.

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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).

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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.

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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!

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(Beautiful turf house at Glaumbaer)

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!

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(Harpa in Reykjavik. The antithesis of vernacular architecture?)


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!

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(Hélène and her daughters at the sheep round-up)

Thank you so much for taking the time to tell us about your work and life, Hélène!

Peerie Flooers kits

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A happy Beltane to you! It being the time of buds and flowers and new growth, I have today released kits of what is probably my most Spring-like design. Yes, Peerie Flooers is a woolly hat, but this is Scotland and a hat always comes in useful, whatever the season.

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I think the linchpin of this hat is shade FC 11. . .

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This marvelous, quintessentially Spring-like green is one of two shades to have been recently re-released back into the Jamieson & Smith Jumper Weight palette. It is the colour of fresh leaves and new grass, and as soon as I saw it I knew it was the perfect shade to set off Peerie Flooers.
There are six other wonderful Jamieson and Smith shades in the hat, including 91 (egg-yolk yellow) and FC15 (a perfect forget-me-not blue).

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. . .and the kit is all packaged up in my brand new tote bags, featuring hand-drawn illustrations of my designs by my comrade-in-wool, Felicity Ford, aka Felix.

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This lovely sample of Peerie Flooers has been knitted by my Shetland buddy, Ella Gordon, who is also expertly modelling it here.

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Peerie Flooers
: the colours of Spring brought to you today by myself, Felix, Ella, and shade FC11.
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The kit is now up in the shop, and if you are interested in the tote bags alone, I’ve also made these available for sale.

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Shepherd Hoody – re-released

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Just to let you know that, as the rights in this design have now reverted back to me, I have re-released the pattern for the Shepherd Hoody.

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There are a few minor changes to the pattern: I’ve anglicised the spelling, and, following feedback, I’ve also adjusted the sleeve shaping to allow a little more ease around the arm in all sizes. There’s also an exciting new addition to the pattern booklet, as Felix has produced a truly superb schematic illustration for me.

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I think she’s really outdone herself with this one – I find the detail on this drawing just beautiful, and the textures and shading are both accurate and pleasing. Thanks, Felix!

The eight-page pattern booklet for the Shepherd Hoody is now available digitally via Ravelry or in print via MagCloud. If you have previously purchased the pattern from Juniper Moon and would like an updated copy with the new amendments, please contact me with your Ravelry username at info@katedaviesdesigns.com and I’ll sort you out.

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A chat with Tom of Holland

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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.

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(a sock, hand-knitted and expertly darned by Tom)


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.

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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!

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Damask darns on Tom’s amazing jumper


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.

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(Tom explores different pattern ideas in his darns. The green darn in the centre is based on the Sanquhar or tweed “Prince of Wales” check.)


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.

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Visible mend #11


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!

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Tom’s Curiosity Cabinet of Knitted Stitches: cast ons, bind offs, increases & decreases, selvedges.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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10. Why did you choose Foula Wool to knit this garment?

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.

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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!

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12. I find that knitting actually knitting a design can change the direction of my ideas about it, sometimes in quite subtle ways. Did anything change for you while making this cardigan?

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.

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13. I know you have tried many steeking methods, but are a great fan of the knotted steek. Can you explain what this is and why you like it?

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. )

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14. Finally, I know you are, like me, a great fan of wearing wool. Can you tell us about some of your favourite items from your all-wool wardrobe?

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!

Thankyou, Tom!

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.

Interview with Jen Arnall-Culliford

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(Jen Arnall-Culliford in her Puffin Apple hat design)

As part of our Cross-Country collaboration, Jen and I thought it would be interesting to interview each other about our different approaches to producing our different designs. (You can read Jen’s interview with me over on her blog today.) Jen is a sharp, focused and highly professional tech editor. In this capacity, she has worked with me on many projects, including Colours of Shetland. But she’s also an accomplished designer, though for some bizarre reason she doesn’t really think of herself as such. This is something that I think needs to change, because Jen designs beautiful, well-thought out patterns, and has, I think, a genuine feel for the structure and behaviour of textured stitches. She has a real knack of bringing a classic design to life with a well-thought out, well-placed motif, such as that which you can see on her Puffin Apple hat above, or the Bruton Hoody (below) that she designed for Cross-Country Knitting. Jen, you are a talented designer, and must keep on designing! (Anyway, you can’t stop now as there are already plans afoot for Cross-Country Knitting Volume Two! ho ho.)

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(Bruton Hoody)

I should also mention that, as well as being available via Ravelry as an ebook, Cross Country Knitting, Volume One is now also available as a beautifully-produced 20 page booklet, which you can order in print from Magcloud.

So here’s Jen’s interview.

Where did you start, Jen, when planning this design?
When we hatched the Cross-Country Knitting plan, I had pretty much hung up my designer hat, and decided to concentrate on editing. I am constantly faced with the temptation of casting on the projects that I edit, and I’m lucky enough to edit many of my favourite designers, so I was generally feeling as if I didn’t have much to add to the vast number of stunning patterns that are already out there. And then something like this came along, and tempted me out of “retirement”. The opportunity of publishing an eBook with you was too much to resist, you temptress! There are also situations where I want an item, and I just can’t find the right pattern out there. I design for pragmatic reasons, rather than because I have a constant supply of inspiration just welling up within me. In many ways, I see myself as a reluctant designer, with enormously encouraging friends within the industry.
Anyway, when I do decide to design, different designs take me in different ways! This time I knew that I wanted to design something for Jim. I knew that it couldn’t be too fussy, but I wanted some knitting interest as well.
Inspiration came from a number of places…
* Jim wears lots of zipped cardigans and hoodies.
* I had a vague memory of a T-shirt he once loved that had a trio of stripes down the left side.
* Maria Erlbacher’s Twisted-Stitch Knitting is one of my favourite stitch pattern collections.
* Editing Nick Atkinson patterns for The Knitter had shown me some clever ways of knitting strips within a piece without having to break off yarns.
*Over a period of days, these different strands came together in my head to create a hoody with interesting construction and a twisted stitch panel on one side.

How did you go about choosing yarn for the design? How much did you swatch?

Ever since I used Excelana 4ply for my Snawheid, I have wanted to use Excelana (from Susan Crawford and John Arbon Textiles) for a garment. It was SO pleasurable to knit with. I’ve had some in my stash for ages, and cracked open a ball for swatching. I tried both the DK and the 4ply weights in good-sized swatches (this is unusual for me – I’m usually a lax-swatcher who will get away with a micro-swatch whenever possible – naughty Jen!). The yarn is perfect for texture work. It’s a lovely balance of great stitch definition, springy woolliness and softness. The Persian Grey shade was also spot on for Jim’s clothes palette, but not too dark to hide the cable panel. The hoody would also be gorgeous in the Cornflower Blue shade, or Ruby Red perhaps!

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(Jen’s Snawheid, knit in Excelana)

Is knitting your design an essential part of the process for you?

Again, it very much depends on the design. Some designs evolve during the knitting (Puffin Apple with its many rips and reknits stands out here!), and others are so well-formed in my head that I can start with writing the pattern straight away. I’m lucky enough to work very closely with Kim Hobley, who does a lot of sample knitting for me. She often helps me to create a design in a reasonable timescale that would otherwise have been impossible. For Bruton, I was working on a smaller-scale version (which is currently in hibernation). I needed to knit the technique so that I could explain the construction clearly in the written instructions, but in this case Kim knitted the full-size sample. We see each other regularly, so she can let me know quickly if anything isn’t going to plan, and I can check on progress too. As a technical editor I’m very used to imagining through the steps of a project and ensuring that the instructions are clear, without actually knitting it myself. I’m also happy to make calculations from the swatch and write up the whole thing from that point.
In the end I have chosen the DK weight for Bruton, as I knew I would be more likely to knit a man’s hoody in DK rather than 4ply, and the swatch has a satisfying weight and drape to it.

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(Jen’s swatches for the Bruton Hoody)

What are your aims when you write up the pattern?

I go with the same principle I used when I wrote up my Chemistry PhD thesis! Someone should be able to easily follow my instructions and get the exact same results. They shouldn’t be left wondering whether I did it one way or another. I aim for as consistent a pattern writing style as possible, with a balance between including lots of detail, but not over-complicating things. You can’t account for everyone’s pattern preferences, but I aim for a set of instructions where the information is presented as logically as possible. You and I have fairly similar pattern writing styles, so we were able to make a few minor changes on each side and ended up with something which works for both of us. I lost the cast off/bind off battle (it wasn’t really a battle!), but in return I was able to capitalise your abbreviations. Compromise being an essential part of teamwork.
(Kate says: ho ho, next time everything will be lowercase)

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(Jen’s thesis!)

Were there any challenges that were specific to designing a man’s garment?

Getting the balance of designing something that Jim would wear, but that knitters would not be bored to tears by was tricky! I’m happy with the finished garment, and Jim has been wearing it non-stop for the last 12 months, so I’m guessing he is happy with the outcome as well. I’ve been holding myself back from stealing it for my wardrobe too!

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(Jim is happy in his hoody)

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(Jen is happy in Jim’s hoody)

Thankyou, Jen!

Machrihanish

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I was very excited to have the opportunity to design the Machrihanish vest for Cross-Country Knitting, Volume One, and always enjoy knitting for Tom, who is its recipient and model. Tom often bemoans the general lack of shaping, and poor fit of men’s garments, so I like to knit him things that are well-fitting.

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Men’s knitted vest patterns rarely include shaping, but one of the things I knew I wanted to do with this design was to taper it to the waist. Shaping of any kind can be tricky when designing with Fairisle patterns, but the trick here is simply to work the ribbing and the first few inches of colourwork on a small needle, before going up a needle size for the upper torso. When blocked, this straightforward manoeuvre creates a difference between waist and chest of 3.5-4 ins, which means the vest fits neatly to the body, without excess fabric.

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Though this vest is, in many ways, a classic garment, I think the waist shaping also makes it feel sharper and more contemporary. But if your shape is more rectangular than triangular, you can easily leave out the waist shaping when working the pattern for a looser, more casual fit. Whatever your body shape, you should knit it with a little positive ease to allow the wearing of layers underneath.

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Though I’ve followed standard sizing for men’s garments with this design, I’ve also tried to make the pattern straightforward and flexible enough to accommodate a variety of masculine body shapes. Because there is no ‘set’ place to divide for armholes, the main body of the pattern can be knit to whatever length is required to accommodate a shorter or longer torso. Equally, if the armhole depth is greater or less than that specified in the pattern, it can be increased or decreased as required. (A detailed sizing table and schematic is included in the pattern to help you achieve the fit that’s right for you). You also have the option of working the ribbing doubled around the armholes and hem for a firm and durable edge.

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The yarn I used for this design was Jamieson and Smith Shetland Heritage.

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This wonderful yarn was developed in consultation with the Shetland Museum and Archives, and is very close in handle, hue and character, to the yarns that were traditionally used to knit Fairisle garments in Shetland before the Second World War. It is a light fingering-weight – lighter than a standard 4 ply – and because it is worsted spun, feels much smoother than other “Shetland” yarns you may be used to. To give the garment its shaping, I worked the yarn at two different gauges of 8 and 9 sts to the inch, and at both gauges it gives a nice, light even fabric. Because of its unique characteristics, I would really recommend you use this yarn, but if substituting, please swatch carefully to ensure you achieve a fabric with which you are happy. You can find detailed information about shades and yardage here.

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The pattern is written to be knitted entirely in the round, with steeks worked at the armholes and neck.

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I personally love the speed and ease of working completely in the round, but if you are a determined purler, you could easily work the upper torso separately, back and forth.

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Tom is very happy with his vest.

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. . .and I am very pleased with the design!

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Now, about the name. We live in the West of Scotland, and Machrihanish is a village further West, on the picturesque Mull of Kintryre. Tom is a great admirer of the Fairisle knitwear Paul McCartney proudly sported after he moved to Scotland, but we felt that Mull of Kintyre might prove to be too much of an earworm to work as a pattern name . . . and Machrihanish is also one of our favourite locales from the UK shipping forecast. . . . so Machrihanish it is.

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We shot these photographs opposite Dumgoyne, a short walk from our house. The light and skies have been very dramatic here of late, and did not let us down that day. There is just something about the bright colours and high-contrast of a Fairisle vest that work perfectly with a highland landscape. Living out here often prompts me to think about colour and pattern . . . and these photographs of Tom make me want to get another bloke’s Fairisle design on the needles immediately!

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My Cross-Country comrade, Jen, has also been writing about her design for the Volume – the fabulous Bruton hoody – so if you’d like to read more about it just pop over to her blog. We have also set up a new website for the collaboration, where you can keep track of our Cross-Country design journey.

Cross Country Knitting Volume 1 is now available!

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Cross-Country Knitting is here!

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I am very excited to announce the publication of Cross-Country Knitting, Volume One!

Cross-Country knitting is a collaborative venture between myself and my lovely designer-comrade, Jen Arnall-Culliford. Jen and I live at opposite ends of the UK: she’s down there, in Somerset, and I’m up here, in Scotland. Yet the internet has enabled us to work with one another, and, as well as forming a friendship, has forged a bond between us about many knitterly things. Jen and I often talk about our design ideas, and about our general approach to design. Interestingly, both our design ideas, and our approaches to them, are really very different: in many respects, we have distinct styles, but they are styles that work very well together. Given this, it occurred to us that it might be fun to test our collaborative acumen with a joint design challenge: what would two very different designers come up with when working to the same general brief? The first challenge we set ourselves was to create a man’s garment that was functional, wearable, and would appeal to contemporary masculine tastes. It was an especially enjoyable challenge for me as, though I’ve knitted many sweaters for Tom, I had never actually produced a man’s design before. Well, this pair of garments – totally different, but distinctly complementary – is what we came up with!

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Jen designed the Bruton Hoody . . .

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. . . and I designed the Machrihanish Vest.

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I’ll be back tomorrow to tell you all about Machrihanish, (which knitted up in lovely Jamieson & Smith Shetland Heritage is of course, the garment whose steeks I was finishing off the other week), but for now I just wanted to announce the launch of Cross-Country Knitting, and the release of the e-book of Volume One!

In Cross-Country Knitting, Volume One, you will find patterns for both the Bruton Hoody and the Machrihanish Vest, plus a feature article by Jim Arnall-Culliford (aka, the inimitable Veuf Tricot) on the perils of giving and receiving hand-knits, as well as a cut-out-and-keep Cross-Country Knitting gift tag to attach to your finished knits. The e-book is now available via Ravelry, and the print booklet will very shortly be available via MagCloud.

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