Highland Fling!

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Today I just want to say a massive CONGRATULATIONS to Tom and his pal Ivor, who yesterday completed The Highland Fling: a 53-mile “ultra” race along the first half of the West Highland Way. The race starts in Milngavie, and passes through Drymen and Balmaha, before traversing the East shore of Loch Lomond, moving up through Crianlarich, and finishing at the By The Way hostel in Tyndrum (a familiar landmark to anyone who knows the West Highlands). It took me three and a half days to walk that distance . . . they were hoping to cover it in less than eleven hours.

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Tom and Ivor have been training for this epic undertaking for months now, running long stretches of the Way every weekend, in all weathers. It was Tom’s first “ultra” run, and also the first time that he has been involved with a race where I could literally walk out of the front door to cheer him on, which in itself was quite exciting. There was a small supporting crowd outside our house at the crack of dawn, complete with a fiddler who played strathspeys and hornpipes as the runners went by.

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The weather was kind and the going was good. Taking it slowly, and consuming large quantities of gels, energy drinks and malt loaf as they went, they did really well. Tom completed the race in 9 hours 45 minutes, and Ivor in 10 hours 30 minutes, both of which are terrific times. And after a few beers, a fish supper, and a good night’s sleep, they are both in remarkably good shape.

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Congratulations, Tom and Ivor!

Chris’ croft

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The Spring edition of 60 North is out! And its a great issue. Those of you who have my Colours of Shetland book may recall mention of my archeologist friend, Chris Dyer, whose knowledge and inspiration helped me to develop my ideas for my Scatness designs. Well, Chris recently started to raise his own Shetland sheep, and in a great feature he’s produced for the magazine, he talks about the challenges of preparing for and caring for his lovely Bressay flock. Chris is just one of those folk who should be crofting, and it made me so happy to read his piece – and his photographs make me want to be back in Shetland immediately! You might have already come across one of Chris’ fine ewes as the face of Shetland Wool Week. . .

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. . . and this edition of the magazine includes loads more knitterly inspiration too. There’s a Wool Week report from Tom of Holland, and another piece covering last year’s event from Edinburgh journalist, Susan Mansfield. This October’s Shetland Wool Week promises to be really exciting, and I’m very looking forward to seeing the full programme of events which I believe will be published shortly. I’ll be there as a punter this year, and am actually hoping to take a class or two.

So put the kettle on, make yourself a cup of tea, download your copy of 60 North, and enjoy! (Its free!)

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Tenebrae

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I have more posts to come from Iceland, but today I wanted to briefly mention one of those interesting cross-connections which are one of the many reasons I enjoy writing this blog. During a trip to Shetland in September, 2012, I took this photograph of a boat moored near Norwick beach in Unst. I later included the photo in this blog post, where it was seen by Oxfordshire artist, Jim Kelso. Jim then contacted me to ask if he might produce a painting based on my photograph; I happily agreed, and his painting, Tenebrae, is below.

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Tenebrae recently sold, and by way of thanks, Jim has now made a donation in my name to Chest Heart, and Stroke, Scotland. You may remember that it was this charity that funded the home-support of a dedicated stroke nurse for me after I left hospital. The work they do in the community is really important, but often overlooked, and I am always happy to support them in whatever way I can.

Congratulations on your painting, Jim!

Ístex

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This is Álafoss — foss being Icelandic for waterfall. Álafoss is situated on the river Varmá in the small town of Mosfellsbær, a short bus ride from Reykjavik. In 1896, an enterprising farmer imported some machinery, and harnessed the power of Álafoss to operate it. From that day to this, Icelandic wool has always been processed in Mosfellsbær.

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Ístex is an abbreviated form of Íslenskur Textiliðnaður (Icelandic Textile Industry). Ístex was formed in 1995 when the old Álafoss company was threatened, like so many other yarn-producing businesses at that time, with bankruptcy. The business was bought out by five employees, together with a group of sheep farmers, and the company now thrives under this associative structure (during our visit, we ran into one of the company directors, who still plays a very hands-on role in the mill’s daily operations). Ístex employs 50 people and is responsible for the purchasing and processing of 80% of Iceland’s annual wool clip directly from the nation’s farmers. I was very struck by the similarities with Shetland: my friends at Jamieson and Smith purchase around the same percentage of Shetland’s annual clip, and like Ístex, they also ensure that crofters are able to get a return on their wool whatever its quality. Both companies use the lower grades for products such as carpeting and insulation, so that nothing is wasted, while the finer grades are retained to be processed into hand-knitting yarns. Ístex sort and scour their wool in Blönduós, and all other processes are carried out vertically at Mosfellsbær – which is now the only yarn-producing mill in Iceland.

Under the guidance of Hulda Hákonardóttir, we were able to see many different stages of yarn production.

Dyeing . . .

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and blending.

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The Scotch feed at the top right of this photo . . .

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. . . processes the roving to tape condensers, where sliver is then processed into unspun forms, such as plötulopi, which will be familiar to many knitters.

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Other yarns, such as Álafoss lopi, Lett Lopi, and Einband, are then spun-up here . . .

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. . . before being hanked, coned, or balled. While many of the processes and some of the machines at Ístex were familiar to me from other mill visits, I have never before seen a yarn-baller in action. Cones were transformed into neat packs of yarn with fascinating efficiency.

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The end result. Yum.

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We learned a lot about Icelandic wool and its unique properties from Hulda, who also kindly showed us many of the different wool products that Ístex has developed over the past 19 years, from beautiful traditional blankets to contemporary neon yarns. And it has to be said that the tales you hear of Lopi being everywhere in Iceland are completely true: yarn really is available to buy in supermarkets, hardware stores, clothing shops, garages. You would certainly never be short of yarn for a project in Iceland. I was very struck by the number of people who said to us on our trip that “everyone is knitting”– a fact borne out by the fascinating statistic that Iceland has proportionately more Ravelry members than any other nation (1 in 10). Though we saw a handful of familiar imported yarns in one shop, its very clear that Iceland’s knitters are, by and large, knitting with Lopi: with the wonderful dual-coated light and airy fleeces that are grown by the nation’s resourceful and hardy sheep; that are shorn and sold by Iceland’s farmers; then sorted, scoured, dyed, and spun by Ístex in the mill at Mosfellsbær. I personally find this kind of readable continuity from sheep to sweater very inspiring.

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Thankyou for a very enjoyable tour of the Ístex mill, Hulda!

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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some Spring weather

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It is a lovely time of year, and, as the weather starts to change I am really appreciating our new situation. Our house is in the middle of the photo above – one of five properties on a small steading, situated at about 250m above sea level. In front of the steading, to the South, the land dips away to a small lochan. To the North, East and West, we are surrounded by hills and woods. After living in a city, when one steps outside, the space here sometimes feels immense to me, but because of our location, there is also the interesting sensation of being cradled in the landscape, a dip in the earth sheltered by a canopy of sky. Yesterday I took a walk around the loch with Bruce, and felt this very distinctly. The arc of this rainbow shifted round the landscape with me, curving over the steading and seeming to somehow illuminate it.

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On my daily walks I see the landscape slowly coming back to life. Birds sing in the early hours, daffodils have taken the place of the snowdrops, and last week I saw the first caterpillars and frogs of the year.

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Golden flowers are appearing on the gorse, the ultimate sign of a Scottish spring for me.

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The Spring weather has almost made up for the fact that I spent last week at home, with a poorly Bruce, rather than in Shetland, where I was, in fact, supposed to be.

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Worry not, friends of Bruce: he is doing fine. The cone is a wee bit tiresome for everyone, but his snout is healing, and we will be back at the vets this afternoon.

The Spring light has also given me a chance to photograph the steeked design I mentioned in my last post. It is a garment for a man, and will be released as part of a new collaboration with my good friend and colleague Jen Arnall-Culliford. I’m very much looking forward to telling you all about it next week! It is a time for new releases all round, in fact, as various things are due to arrive next Monday which I’ve been keeping under my hat for some months, but am very keen to show you. (Apologies for all of the mystery, but soon all will be revealed.)

Right, the sun has come out and it is time for another walk with Bruce. Enjoy your Monday, everyone!

Puffin Post

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One of the many things that makes me very happy as a designer is seeing different interpretations of a sweater I’ve created. I often learn a lot from the modifications knitters make to my patterns, and sometimes a simple change of shade can make a design look like a completely different garment. The Puffin sweater is one of my favourite patterns in Colours of Shetland, and it was designed with a very specific palette in mind: the puffin-y palette, which you can see above in Rebecca’s lovely sweater. But many knitters, through subtle or dramatic alterations in the design’s original shades, have created some wonderfully different Puffins. Here, with their permission, are a few examples I’d like to show you.

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Here’s Barbara in her Puffin, together with Bramble (who, like Barbara, enjoys visiting Shetland). At a first glance, Barbara’s sweater looks pretty much like my original, but she has actually swapped the garment’s main colour – Jamieson & Smith Jumper Weight shade 77 – for shade 81, which is a much quieter, softer black. I confess that shade 77 can be a real bear to knit with, as well as to photograph, and I love the slightly muted effect that shade 81 has lent to Barbara’s Puffin.

When designing the Puffin sweater, I spent an awful lot of time swatching to create the correct colour sequence for my chevrons, and was interested to hear that Rhiannon and Valerie did the same when making theirs . . .

RHI
Rhiannon . .

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Valerie (and Hockley, who Bruce would like to meet)

Rhiannon began by swatching a dark-to-light gradient across the yoke, but when that didn’t work out, came up with a chevron sequence of several graded and contrasting monochrome shades, using Jumper Weight shade 27 for the main colour. Valerie is very fond of the undyed, sheepy shades of Jamieson and Smith Shetland Supreme. She settled on Shetland Black (shade 2005) for her main colour, with 7 different shades worked through the yoke. The way these these natural shades effortlessly speak to each other means that the effect is both simple and striking. I think Valerie’s and Rhiannon’s natural Shetland sweaters are absolutely stunning.

Erin has actually knit the puffin Sweater twice: first for her sister, and then for herself. Erin used a combination of Brown Sheep Nature Spun fingering and Knit Picks Palette to make her sweater (both of which have a large colour range) and like Valerie and Rhiannon she swatched several times before settling on this particular sequence for her chevrons. “I tested a few combinations,” says Erin, “mostly involving some orange and gold colors I had in the Nature Spun fingering . . . but everything looked a little too 70s shag carpet.”

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After rejecting the 1970s palette, Erin settled on this lovely combination of tan and teal in the yoke, both of which really pop out against the subtle stone shade she used to knit the body.

Deb’s “parrotty puffin” is one of my favourite iterations of this sweater – it is just so striking!

Deb

“The yarn was given to me by my sister,” says Deb. “She’d had it since the late 1980s, still in its original bag with the pattern she was planning to make – a typically 80s, oversized and brightly-coloured jumper. I’m not a big fan of fluffy yarns but accepted it because I really liked the highly saturated colours. It then sat in my stash for some time while I tried to work out what to do with it. When the Puffin Sweater was released, I knew straight away that it was the one! While I was working on it, it occurred to me that the colour scheme was very reminiscent of Rainbow Lorikeets – the friendly little parrots that visit the balcony of my flat every day. So, I’m very glad to have kept the birdie theme going.”

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As well as the bright lorikeet palette, I really like the way that Deb’s more closely-placed colour changes through the yoke lend the garter-stitch chevrons an incredibly graphic, luminous effect.

Both Kate and Maureen chose a paler palette for their Puffins:

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Kate

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Maureen

Kate found the chevron yoke to be reminiscent of waves, and chose the graduated blues of the yoke “to evoke the Shetland and Suffolk coastlines,” and to contrast with her favourite winter white (Kate has blogged about her sweater here). Maureen, meanwhile, loves to fill her wardrobe with colour, and was keen to knit herself a sweater to match the wonderful kilt she’d recently treated herself to from Scottesque. She devised a pretty pastel palette, which is perfectly complemented by the corrugated rib at the hem and cuffs. Both Maureen and Kate used slightly thinner Shetland yarns when knitting, and their sweaters have a lovely light and feminine feel.

Zaz’s hand-spun puffin sweater is truly a labour of love, and is the garment that prompted me to write this post.
Zaz won a prize in the 2012 Tour de Fleece, and requested this beautiful custom-dyed BFL and silk fibre from Mandacrafts.

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The fibre waited for the right project to come along, and when Zaz saw the puffin sweater she felt she had to make it, since the puffin (or Macareux moine) is the symbol of Bretagne where, says Zaz “everything I love is.”

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(puffins - macareux moines – perch atop the distinctive granite rocks of the Sept Isles)

Zaz – a beginner spinner – mixed and spun the custom-dyed fibres with natural shades of BFL to give several distinct shades. She wanted to create a light fingering 1-ply yarn with a slightly variegated effect, which to her recalled the granite landscape of the Sept-Isles in Bretagne. “All the yarns are ‘spotted’ because the pink granite is, and the light among the forests in Bretagne is too.” says Zaz, “I did not blend the colours at all, I just put them close together and spun.” Zaz spun with friends in her Ravelry group: “I was encouraged by showing off my progress,” she says, “I did not feel the different steps as being long but just all luminous and exciting.”

This is the yarn that she created. . .

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. . . which she then knit up into this beautiful sweater

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“Although this is a process project,” says Zaz, “I love it with a passion…I believe the best creations come when there is a basis for things (like a passion for a landscape, its history or a funny story).”

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I entirely agree with Zaz, and love the way that she has spun and knitted her own story and distinctive sense of place into her sweater.

But I have to conclude this puffin post with a photograph of Mary’s “puffling”, which she knitted for her grandaughter, Robyn, who loves all things red and Robin coloured.

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Mary knitted the puffling from assorted stash yarn, working a basic yoked cardigan, and adapting the puffin chevron yoke to be worked back and forth in a smaller size. Mary’s photograph of her lovely wee girl, in her puffling cardigan, in this gorgeous landscape, just makes my heart sing.

Thankyou, Puffin knitters, for all this inspiration!

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