Great Tapestry of Scotland 124-160

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Panel 140: Cumbernauld

Well, this is my final post on the Great Tapestry of Scotland! I have really enjoyed revisiting my photographs, and thinking more about the tapestry, and your comments have also provided much food for thought. These photographs are, of course only snippets, and you’ll find much more thorough information in the two books I mentioned in my first post about the project. But honestly, no books or photographs can reproduce the experience of seeing this incredible thing for yourself and, if you ever have the opportunity, I really recommend you do so!

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Detail of Panel 140: Cumbernauld

I can’t say I have a favourite panel, though I do love Fairisle (126) the Isbister Sisters (115) and the Hutton panel (74) but as I went through my photos this morning, I found myself thinking about how much I loved the Cumbernauld panel (140) and how it seemed to sum up for me what this project is all about.

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Detail of Panel 140: Cumbernauld

Like many panels, this one celebrates the texture of ordinary people’s lives, and the ordinary spaces in which they live them. Andrew Crummy’s design – with the new town’s familiar roads and architecture – is incredibly witty and creative, and just like his Pictish or his Georgian panels, the style of the design has shifted in an inventive fashion here to suit the moment it represents. Cumbernauld’s local reputation is not unambiguous, but in this panel the urban environment appears beautiful and utopian simply because it is an everyday space of homes, and folk, and families. My favourite scene from Gregory’s Girl is referenced in the top left, and perhaps one of the reasons I like this panel so much is that so much of what it represents seems familiar to me from my own childhood and youth. Finally, the stitching on the panel is absolutely exquisite, and because of this the whole piece absolutely sings. Last Sunday, I spent some time admiring this panel, and I then read the information board which told me that just two Cumbernauld women had worked on the stitching, Elizabeth Boulton and Helen Conley. Conley and Boulton had depicted themselves as children in their signature at the bottom right of the panel, in a scene that seemed to be taken from an old photograph of the pair. I was suddenly struck by the sheer power of the Great Tapestry project – that these two childhood friends were quite literally making history, and with their needles stitching themselves into the story of their home, their town, their nation. What a wonderful thing to do.

So, some final highlights.

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Panel 125: The General Strike stitched by June McEwan, Karen Philpot and Gil Tulloch in Pitlochry

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Panel 126: Fair Isle Love this panel inordinately.

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Panel 129: The Great Depression The lone figure of Chris Guthrie defines the 1930s

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Panel 130: Tenement Life I loved everything about this wonderfully vibrant celebration of Scotland’s tenement communities

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Panel 132: The Clydebank Blitz I found this panel deeply affecting

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Panel 134: D-Day, 1944 Bill Millin defiantly pipes through the Normandy landings

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Panel 143: Linwood and the Hillman Imp I was particularly pleased to see a yoked jumper, appropriately appearing here in its early 1960s heyday!

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Panel 148: The rise of the SNP It amused me that Irn Bru and Tunnocks Tea Cakes appeared in this panel as 1970s nationalist icons.

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Panel 149: Scotland at the Movies. Whisky Galore! “No son of mine will be eating human flesh.”

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Panel 152: Gaelic Resurgent stitched by Christine Haynes and Pauline Elwell

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Panel 154: Dolly the Sheep Tom’s favourite panel, for its inventive depiction of science in stitch.

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Panel 155: The Scottish Parliament reconvenes, 1999. Incredibly beautiful stitching on this panel

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Panels 156 and 157: Parliament of the Ancestors, Parliament for the Future An appropriately vast and varied tapestry of Scottish identities, from Joanna Baillie to Oor Wullie.

Thanks for bearing with me through this photographic tour! And if you’d like to see all of my posts about the Great Scottish Tapestry together, you can do so here.

Great Tapestry of Scotland 93-123

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Panel 94: Hill and Adamson The silver herrings and striped petticoats of the Newhaven fisherwoman.

In the comments on yesterday’s post, Heather linked to an interesting take on the “when is a tapestry not a tapestry” question from a tapestry weaver who strongly objects to the misappropriation of the term in reference to non-woven textiles. I am often struck by how textiles, more than other disciplines, seems prone to practices of woeful mis-naming, and the piece raises many moot points, particularly in relation to the gender associations of the terms “tapestry” and “embroidery.” I suppose this is what I was hinting towards yesterday in suggesting that the term “tapestry” has, in the popular imagination, a public, narrative dimension, that the word “embroidery” does not. It is certainly very sad that this is so, and the linguistic perceptions and politics of these terms in contemporary discourse seem to me quite difficult to unravel. But whether or not the nomenclature of the “Great Tapestry” has a masculine ring, one could certainly never criticise this project for its masculine bias. Women formed the majority of the talented stitchers, and not only are women represented everywhere in the tapestry, but individual panels are used to proudly celebrate the ordinary work of Scottish women in a way that is all too rarely seen in public contexts. A few weeks ago I climbed the Wallace Monument with my dad (who is a Wallace on his mother’s side, and is known by everyone as “Wal”). Half way up the tower we discovered the “hall of heroes” – a sterile space filled with the equally sterile busts of dead white men. While this room commemorates the achievements of Scotland’s philosophical, scientific, military, and literary blokes, there is not a single woman in sight. I scoured the information panels, and finally found Jane Carlyle, who received the briefest of mentions in relation to her husband. Jane and I were the only women in the room, and I wonder if she would have felt as irritated as I did. A wee girl, with a burgeoning interest in Scottish history, might find little in that room with which to identify, while her brother might be reinforced in his tacit belief that only men do important things. One of the many functions of the Great Tapestry of Scotland, it seems to me, is as an educational resource and thank goodness that the project exuberantly and thoughtfully celebrates the important work of Scotland’s women authors, political activists, washerwomen, fisher-lassies, and knitters, and places that work in a public context, alongside more familiar “masculine” achievements.

On with some highlights.

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Panel 96: A Caithness School I am alawys drawn to the neeps. By the 1850s, through pioneering rural education practices, Caithness (and Berwickshire) literacy rates were the highest in Great Britain.

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Panel 99: James Clerk Maxwell One of many occasions where I was struck by the wit and inventiveness of Andrew Crummy’s wonderful designs. The colourful waves of Maxwell’s beard capture his work on magnetism and electricity.

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Panel 103: Shinty and Curling I was bowled over by the beauty and precision of the stitching on this panel, created by Susie Finlayson and Linda Jobson. Look at the tartan! The knitted hose! The herringbone woven jacket! The way the wrong side of the fabric is represented!

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Panel 104: Scots in North America I love the figure of John Muir here – the very embodiment of the ideal of the national park.

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Panels 105 and 107: The Paisley pattern and Mill Working I found both of these panels incredibly beautiful and moving: the way the faces of the mill workers had been integrated into the famous Paisley pattern, the way the colours of the embroidery precisely echoed those of the Indian subcontinent in panel 92; the sense of energy and movement in the stitching and design . . . and, of course, the fact I was viewing these panels in a mill, in Paisley.

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Panel 109: Workshop of the Empire I love the way that industry, labour, and the human figure are represented in this panel.

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Panel 111: Kier Hardie who campaigned for women’s suffrage as well as worker’s rights.

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Panel 113: The Discovery sails from Dundee One of the many things I loved about this panel was that the trades involved with the expedition were depicted and celebrated: flesher, tailor, cordiner, weaver, dyer, hammerman, bonnet maker, baker, glover.

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Panel 115: The Isbister sisters Shetland knitters! Hurrah! One of my favourite panels.

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Panel 123: Women get the vote. This panel was stitched by the Edinburgh members of Soroptimist International

Great Tapestry of Scotland 60 – 92

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There have been some interesting questions in the comments on my previous posts about the Great Scottish Tapestry. Elaine and Deborah asked what materials had been used in the creation of the tapestry – well, the stitchers used Peter Grieg linen and Appletons crewel wool throughout. Terry asked why it was called a tapestry at all, given that strictly speaking it isn’t, which is an interesting question. I couldn’t find a direct answer to this, but speaking personally, my sense of it is that for the majority of folk who are not involved in craft, design, or the fibre arts, the word tapestry immediately suggests the Bayeux Tapestry, which is not woven either, but is similarly embroidered, from similar materials, in a similarly collaborative fashion. Perhaps its the public, narrative connotations of the word “tapestry”, derived from its associations with Bayeux, that have lead the project to be so described? Those who have been directly involved might like to add their thoughts in the comments below. And yes, I am aware of the Prestonpans and Diaspora projects, and am very much looking forward to seeing them both.

As I continue through my photographs of the tapestry, I find myself vaguely frustrated that there are things that I missed, or failed to record with a photograph, particularly in the eighteenth-century sections. . . but I suppose the tapestry’s richness, its inexhaustive nature, is one of the most wonderful things about it. Plus, I fully intend to spend time with it again when it comes to New Lanark in October. Regarding panel 64, which you can see at the top of this post, one of my academic interests many moons ago was the development of what we now know as sign language out of the “natural” philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment. I was particularly pleased to see a panel recording the pioneering work of Thomas Braidwood, who established the first school for signing in Edinburgh in 1760.

So here are some more tapestry highlights . . from my favourite period in Scottish history.

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Panel 65: James Small and the invention of the swing plough. Love the neeps and kale. “The swing plough changed cultivation radically and by doing that it changed the world”

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Panel 67: Edinburgh’s New Town. Auld Reekie’s familiar Enlightenment geography

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Panel 70: Adam Smith Delighted to see Smith’s invisible hand . . . made visible!

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Panel 73: Weaving and Spinning Loved this panel, stitched by Frances Gardner and Jacqueline Walters. The details of the lace shawl particularly killed me.

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Panel 74: James Hutton’s theory of the earth the birth of modern geology.

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Panel 75: Smoked fish I love how the figure of the fisher lass merges in with the landscape in this panel – that’s her striped skirt you can see in the photo. Finnan Haddies, Arbroath Smokies . . . nom.

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Panel 77: Scotland and the drive for Empire I liked how this panel carefully represented the Atlantic Triangle as a commercial, profit-driven enterprise, with hideous human costs.

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Panel 78: New Lanark Loved the Falls of Clyde, the silent monitor (I have one on my desk) and the way the figures of the dancing children echo their depiction in contemporary prints of the period. (In the eighteenth-century panels, I often noticed Crummy’s designs directly referencing contemporary prints and paintings.)

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Panel 87: The Growth of Glasgow A truly wonderful panel, stitched by the Glasgow Society of Women Artists

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Panel 90: Kirkpatrick Macmillan celebrating the modern bicycle’s 1839 wooden prototype

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Panel 92: The Scots in India this richly coloured and beautifully detailed panel, stitched by Edinburgh’s Wardie Church stitchers, is truly a work of art.

Great Tapestry of Scotland 24-59

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Some more details of the Great Tapestry of Scotland for you this morning. You’ll find the first post in the series here.

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Panel 25: Duns Scotus. The feet of Duns Scotus, the medieval philosopher for whom we have to thank for the concept of Haecceity

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Panel 26: Somerled, first Lord of the Isles A beautiful panel, stitched in Lochaber.

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Panel 27: Haakon at Kyleankin. Signature of the South Skye stitchers who created this panel, which depicts twelfth century Norweigan / Scottish conflicts. The Orkney and Shetland islands remained in Norweigan / Danish hands until 1469.

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Panel 29: William Wallace and Andrew Moray. English soldiers drown in the river beneath Stirling bridge.

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Panel 30: Bannockburn The stitching on this panel, created by Caroline M Buchanan and Margaret Martin, is incredible.

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Panel 32: The Black Death Many affecting details on this panel, as the land is emptied of people.

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Panel 36: Rosslyn Chapel The famous piping angel of Rosslyn Chapel

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Panel 39: Waulking Love the strong arms and blithe faces of the women singing as they waulk the cloth.

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Panel 44: Mary Queen of Scots dreaming and stitching through her captivity.

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Panel 45: The Border Reivers One of the tapestry’s many pleasing representations of Scottish sheep.

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Panel 47: King James Bible The stitching of James IV’s jacket is incredibly beautiful, so minute, so precise – a perfect representation, in all respects, of seventeenth-century crewel work.

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Panel 51: Droving One of many panels where Crummy’s drawings and the work of the stitchers inventively combine the human figure and the landscape. The figure of the drover emerges from and merges with the rolling hills and green fields.

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Panel 54: The massacre at Glencoe. The stitching here absolutely kills me. The way the weave of the plaid, and the folds of the cloth have been rendered is amazing.

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Panel 59: The Kilt Celebrating the invention of the ‘wee’ kilt in 1723. The wearing of kilts and tartans was shortly thereafter prohibited by the British government under the dress act of 1746.

More details tomorrow . . .

Great Tapestry of Scotland 1-23

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On Sunday I finally got to see the Great Tapestry of Scotland. I was completely blown away by the vision of Alistair Moffat (who produced the tapestry’s historical content and context), Andrew Crummy (the superb artist who designed these 160 panels) and perhaps especially by the skill and beauty of the work of the thousand Scottish women and men who stitched it. It was displayed in the singularly fitting surroundings of the Anchor Mill in Paisley. The atmosphere in this wonderful space was electric. There were people of all ages there, and everyone was completely transfixed by the tapestry, and were clearly enjoying it tremendously. I heard several exclamations of delight at particular details, as well as folk sharing personal recollections in front of individual panels. Some of the panels moved me to tears, others made me laugh out loud and viewing this terrific work was a truly incredible experience.

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The Great Tapestry of Scotland has a monunmental name, and it is certainly a monumental thing – but importantly, it is not in the least pompous or in any way up itself. Rather than telling the story of a nation through a top-down celebratory narrative of kings and queens and battles, it tells that story from the bottom up, in pleasingly piecemeal fashion, allowing many different identities, and many regional and linguistic differences to be included and represented. Scotland here is the sum of many different parts, and historical change is an uneven, and often deeply conflicted process. And this is a history where the folk who worked to build a bridge might be celebrated in the same terms as the engineer who designed it; where a can of Irn Bru and the King James bible might both share status as national icons. The tapestry’s 160 panels are alive with the colours of the landscape, with cultural invention, with the power of the imagination, with the emotive movement of time, with joy, wit, terror and sadness. That the panels sing so is testament both to Andrew Crummy’s wonderful designs as well as the skill and creativity of the stitchers, and I was deeply moved by the beauty and energy of the embroidery. The story of the people who stitched it is stitched up in this incredible thing, and that is certainly part of what makes it so terrific. So I think it was the tapestry’s sheer sense of shared endeavour that killed me most: that this was the best kind of collective history, created collectively. Craft and design have, I think, a unique power to bring people together in the expression and sharing of their creativity and cultural identity. In all honesty, this tapestry is the best example I’ve ever seen of how this might be so.

This blog serves several functions, one of which is as my own diary. I have thought quite hard about how to represent the tapestry to you, and to myself as well, so that, in the future, I can remember what I felt when I first saw it. I decided that the best way was, over several posts, to show you some of the details that really struck me. If you are interested in finding out more about the Great Tapestry of Scotland, two super books have been published about it. The first, a paperback by Susan Mansfield and Alistair Moffat, tells the story of the tapestry’s creation, together with the stories of the thousand Scottish women and men who were involved in its creation. The second book is a handsome (yet very reasonably priced volume) which carefully illustrates each of the tapestry’s individual panels, alongside more detailed and thorough historical information. I heartily recommend both books. And if you’d just like to look at each of the tapestry’s panels, you’ll find a wee slideshow here.

So here are some of the details I enjoyed from panels 1 through 23

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Panels 3a and 3b The formation of Scotland / The collision. “Geology formed Scotland and the land and the sea formed the character of the people”

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Panel 4 Scotland emerges from the ice. Love the figures of the fisherfolk, the detail of the currach, the graded colours of the stitching.

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Panel 5: The wildwood Hare and Red Squirrel.

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Panel 7: The First Farmers Wonderful textures on this panel.

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Panel 8: Brochs, Crannogs and Cairns. Scotland’s early vernacular architecture.

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Panel 9: Pytheas the Greek visits Calanais. I was particularly struck by the way the Isle of Lewis stitchers had carefully rendered the colours and textures of the banded gneiss and lichen of the Calanais stones.

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Panel 10: The coming of the legions. I love how the curls of Julius Agricola tell the story.

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Panel 11: Ninian at Whithorn. Beautiful stitching, the work of a single Dumfries needlewoman, Shirley McKeand.

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Panel 15: Dunnichen. Love the bold way that Andrew Crummy and the stitchers have here rendered the details of the famous Pictish stone.

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Panel 17: Dumbarton Rock One of many examples of how the geology represented in the tapestry afforded the stitchers an opportunity to really show off their skills. Astounding.

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Panel 20: Macbeth. Each of the tapestry’s panels includes the ‘signature’ of the stitchers who created it at the bottom right. This one, a small sampler of every stitch and every colour used in the panel was particularly striking. The panel was stitched by Sandra and Glennie Leith, Ingrid McGown, Paddy McGruer and Rhea Scott.

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Panel 22: The Flowers of the Borders. Anyone familiar with the architecture of the great Border abbeys will find the subtle pinks and greys of these stitched columns immediately evocative.

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Panel 23: the medieval wool trade. One of many panels illustrating the importance of textiles and their production to Scotland’s culture and economy.

More to come . . .

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. . .

Gryla
(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.

springshawl
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!

coeur
(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!

Glaumbaer-Turf_house_for_you
(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!

A brief history of British socks

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Things are very busy around here! For those of you interested in Peerie Flooers kits, I’ll be updating the shop this Friday, May 9th, at around 9pm GMT. Meanwhile, here’s another article I’ve had time to excavate from my archives — a survey of the history of socks and stockings in the UK, which was originally published in The Knitter a few years ago. The distinction between what I’ve referred to here as “luxury” and “utilitarian” socks, and the historic gendering of that distinction among sock / stocking knitters, still really interests me.

——–
A Brief History of British Socks

Socks have always been needed to protect the feet from the vagaries of the British weather. To stave off the wind and rain, our Celtic ancestors customarily wrapped and bound their feet and legs with woven woollen cloth. Later, Roman invaders found that Northern climes were tough on their Mediterranean feet, and found themselves ditching their sandals in favour of the footwear of the sensible ancient Britons. One of the 1st century correspondence tablets discovered at Vindolanda in Northumbria notoriously includes the instruction to “send more socks,” and among the site’s most important discoveries are a child-sized pair of woollen bootees. These ancient socks are formed like a rudimentary envelope, with a separate sewn-on sole and upper to accommodate the curves of a tiny foot.

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(Child’s woollen sock, found at Vindolanda)

Throughout the Medieval and Tudor periods, socks evolved with the changing vagaries of men’s fashion. As breeches decreased in length, so stockings grew longer, eventually extending from foot to waist in an all-in-one garment that resembled a pair of tights. Though Britain’s working people were certainly knitting their own homespun socks and stockings by this time, the hosiery of men of upper rank was still generally made of woven cloth with a back seam and bias cut. But by the 15th Century, the men of France and Italy led the way with their fine hand-knit silk stockings. Men found that the stretchy fabric had two benefits: ease of movement and an ability to show off a shapely leg. Aristocratic Britons were soon following their European neighbours, and knitted silk stockings became the rage among the British fashionable elite.

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CI44.8.13ab
(Late eighteenth-century stockings. Met Museum CI44.8.13ab)

By the 16th Century, hosiery, like other forms of clothing, was regulated by strict sumptuary laws. In 1566, surveillance techniques were employed by the City of London to ensure that the wrong kind of socks were not being worn anywhere in the capital. The London sock police comprised four “sad and discreet” persons, who were positioned twice a day at the gates of the city, checking the legs of those entering and leaving for erroneous hose.

Woodcockstocking
stocking frame knitter

In 1589, a sock revolution began in the home of William Lee of Calverton, Nottinghamshire. A somewhat shadowy figure, Lee has become the stuff of knitting myth and legend through his development of the stocking frame. One story has it that he invented out of spite: having discovered that his sweetheart preferred her knitting to his addresses, he created a machine that would deprive her of her favourite occupation. But another version of the story suggests that Lee devised the stocking frame for his beloved wife, who had been forced to knit feverishly to supplement the family income. Either way, the origin of the stocking frame in a supposed battle of the sexes points to a division between male and female that was intriguingly written out in the later history of Lee’s machine: while framework knitting, much like weaving, became a respected masculine occupation, hand knitters were thought of as unskilled, remained un-incorporated, and were primarily women.

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Women of the Bluestocking circle, depicted as The Nine Living Muses of Great Britain in a print by Richard Samuel, 1779.

But British women changed the history of socks in different ways. Originally, “bluestockings” were simply common-or-garden socks; the ‘blue’ referring to the greyish hue of the worsted yarn from which they were spun and knitted. Rather than the costly white silk that was favoured by her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots famously wore stockings of blue worsted at her execution. But by the middle of the eighteenth century, “bluestockings” had assumed an entirely new significance. British women were widely admired for their learning and literary abilities, and a salon culture flourished. In 1756, botanist, Benjamin Stillingfleet, turned down an invitation from woman-of-letters, Elizabeth Vesey because he didn’t possess the formal attire usually worn at a polite assembly. Vesey replied, “don’t mind dress! Come in your blue stockings,” and from then on, “bluestockings” became a shorthand not just for the informal spirit of such gatherings, but for Vesey’s group of learned friends, and female intellectuals more generally. By the close of the century, bluestocking had also become a term available for satire and abuse, as demonstrated by Rowlandson’s famous print of 1815.

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The contrast between formal silk, and ordinary blue worsted, points to a division that defines the modern history of British socks. Socks basically came in two categories: luxury, and utilitarian. In the 18th century, the luxury sock would have been made from imported silk, or the fine fibres of long-wool sheep, by a male frame knitter in London or one of the growing towns and cities of the Midlands. The utilitarian sock, meanwhile, would have been hand-knit by a poor woman in a rural village, from the much coarser wool of the sheep of Westmorland, Wales, or Scotland. While frame-knit silk stockings were costly accessories worn by those of middling and upper rank, hand-knit worsted socks were plain, hard-wearing items favoured by soldiers and working folk. Such utility socks sold from 5 to 7 pence a pair, and, despite technological advances, the market for them remained buoyant for most of the 18th Century. Thousands of pairs were exported and sold in the British colonies, which were at that time bound by the mother country’s restrictions on manufacturing. In rural areas famed for sheep and wool, whole villages—such as Dent in Westmorland, Sanquhar in the Scottish Borders or Bala in North Wales—might be kept employed hand-knitting socks for the Americas. In 1767, Benjamin Franklin’s enterprising maidservant, Ann Hardy, made a reasonable secondary income by selling to Philadelphians the worsted stockings that her friends would regularly send to her from Britain.

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knitting stick, used by early nineteenth-century knitter, Jane Brown.

Following the American Revolution and Napoleonic wars, the bottom fell out of the export market for British hand-knitted socks. Village knitters found themselves forced to change strategy, and devised alternate woollen products which appealed to a more exclusive buyer, such as the famous patterned gloves of Sanquhar. Meanwhile, the luxury sock market seemed to shift in the opposite direction as skilled framework knitters found their craft increasingly downgraded and cheapened by the effects of the industrial revolution. The original Luddites were, in fact, sock knitters: men who, empowered by the license their charter gave for collective action, destroyed the wide stocking frames and shoddy goods of the new mill owners. The actions of the Luddities were punished by transportation and, in some cases, death: giant mills spread their chimneys over the Midlands, and the skill of framework knitting was soon lost. By the twentieth century, fine stockings of silk, cotton and nylon were being churned out on wide frames in factories all over the country. But the hand-knitting of socks never really disappeared: utility socks continued to be produced commercially on a small scale in the Shetland Islands and Aberdeen, and elsewhere throughout Britain, women (and girls) continued to knit socks for themselves and their families as they had done for centuries.

frankmeadowsutcliffe
Frank Meadow Sutcliffe, Girl knitting a sock on Whitby Pier, c.1880. ©Frank Meadow Sutcliffe Gallery.

Today, in a world of cheap, mass-produced textiles, where we are often separated from the material origins and making of our clothing, a sock knitted by hand is a truly marvellous thing. Ann Budd has described knitted socks as “intimate luxuries” and, indeed that is what they have now become. Socks are ideal small canvases for the skills and preferences of knitters: made with beautiful hand-dyed, or colourful self-striping yarns; showcasing breathtaking stitch patterns; and featuring a level of detail and ornament to rival any sixteenth-century silk stocking. Contemporary sock designs range from the gorgeous to the whimsical, with beaded tops, lacey cuffs, intriguing heels, or incorporated hand-spun pet hair. Many new sock designs feature innovative shaping techniques, allowing knitted fabric to adapt to the curves of instep and ankle, in a way that recalls the bias cut of early stocking hose.

But, however luxurious the yarn, however complex the design, most of all, socks are made to be worn and walked in. The popularity of hand knitted socks has also meant that the age-old skill of darning has gained a new lease of life, as today’s knitters prolong the life of their favourite accessories by repairing worn-out heels and toes. And, as our Roman ancestors found, socks have always been uniquely connected to the British climate and landscape.

swaledaleseasocks
Felicity Ford’s “Swaledale Sea Socks”

Handling skeins of wool raised and spun in Cornwall and Kent reminded artist and knitter, Felicity Ford, of the sounds and textures of the beaches of Britain’s South coast. Inspired by the connection between yarn and landscape, she knitted up her “Swaledale Sea Socks” using natural and blue worsted yarn. “I like the imaginative link between the tactile qualities of wool (used to clothe the feet) and terrain, (upon which those clothed feet walk),” says Ford. “In a world where yarn is increasingly sourced from nameless, faraway places, this sense of locale and traceability – plus their evocative, tactile qualities – made my Swaledale sea socks seem intimately connected to the landscapes where I have since walked in them.” In Ford’s new bluestockings, the history of British socks seems to have come full circle.

felixsocks
(Felicity Ford’s “Swaledale Sea Socks”)

Further Reading:
Nancy Bush, Folk Socks (1994)
Richard Rutt, The History of Handknitting (1987)
E.P. Thompson, The Making of The English Working Class (1963)
Joan Thirsk, “The Fantastical Folly of Fashion: The English Stocking Knitting Industry, 1500-1700” (1973; reprinted 1984).

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.)

1Croplr
(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.

CCK interview2
(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)

CCK interview1
(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.

machrihanishside

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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illustrating knitting

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While I am ironing and packing up Tea Towels this morning, I thought you might be interested to read more about how they were created. I interviewed the amazing Felicity Ford about the process she goes through when producing illustrations of my designs.

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1. I know you have many artistic skillz in all kinds of fields, but had you ever drawn knitting before?

I often make rough sketches in my notebooks for potential garment ideas, but the first time I properly “drew” knitting was when working on the schematics for my own pattern, Layter. I drew a line drawing, scanned it, then started messing about with it on the computer. It wasn’t long before I realised the effect I was after would be much better achieved with an old fashioned set of pencils and paper. So Layter was the first proper drawing I did of knitting… though I can show you some earlier drawings if you’d like to see!

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blayter
(Above: sketching garment construction; below: pleasing hand-drawn diagrams illustrate the construction of Felicity Ford’s Layter and Blayter designs)


2. Does drawing knitted fabric present particular challenges for the artist?

Knitted fabric is 3D and highly structured; it’s not really flat at all when you start to examine it… there is what you see at the front, but also the whole architecture of that fabric, and the way it is comprised of different combinations of loops. Montse Stanley’s classic knitting book has some of the most beautiful drawings of knitted fabric that I can think of, but these are mostly very specific close-ups of different techniques. The challenge when drawing a knitted garment rather than a specific set of stitches, is knowing how much detail to go into. Representing every individual stitch is impractical and unnecessary, but I think specifics like the overall impression of a sleeve cuff or the way a cable travels should really be clear. A schematic has to be instructive, and so I am always thinking about the knitter who will refer to the drawing, and trying to make sure that everything I would want to see in that is there for them. Another challenge is to convey something of the presence and materiality of the end garment. In your designs, the materials are so important – you always explain the yarn you have used and the way it behaves when you release a new Kate Davies Design – and I think that this aspect is as essential to show as the shaping and patterning. I try to convey a little bit of that texture when I make the drawings, too, and this is achieved through varying degrees of pencil shading, which stands in for the halo that a nice woollen spun yarn produces, or the shadows created by a nice big chunky cable…

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(sketching a cable)


3. Can you describe your process when producing these illustrations?

I start by studying the set of photos you send across, and working out which parts of the garment I do not understand. How exactly is the neck shaped? What precisely is the slant in to the waist, how short or tall is the garment, how are the cables working? I usually make a big stack of sketches to work out these details before I am happy that I understand the shape properly, and that I have a strategy for dealing with all the details. I practice the difficult parts – colourwork; lace patterning; cables; – to make sure I have a way of representing them which I, as a knitter, would find useful to see. Then I confidently draw the schematic, trying as much as possible to only use a single, assertive line of black ink, with pencil to emphasise details.

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Progress on Firth o’ Forth illustration


4. Did the process of producing the illustration teach you anything about the design and construction of the garments? Did you look at my designs with fresh eyes?

YES! For me the most exciting thing is that any decent drawing should contain a good search… a search gives a drawing its energy, and there is always a lot of discovery in the process. Where exactly is the edge of the thing? What exactly is happening with that lace texture? What I most enjoyed about drawing your designs was uncovering the level of precision and care which you take with the details of each one. I loved uncovering the care and precision with which you attached the hood to the body in “Get off my cloud”, for instance, and the mischievous pixie-esque hood with its naughty little peak. I also enjoyed the signature i-cord which you use in so many designs, and whenever I was carefully trying to render this, I remembered reading that you liked to make very solid outlines in your drawings when you were a child, and – indeed – some of my drawings return to that idea because the best way to show off the bold, tidy edges is with thick outlines… I’m thinking of “Blaithin” in particular with its tidy, precise i-cord outlines.

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Get off my Cloud

I had noticed your attention to detail before, but it became particularly apparent when I lined up all the designs together and started really examining each one. I love your photos very much – you often present your designs in a very rich context with links to landscape and place and materiality – but isolating the garments away from this rich context, stripping them back to construction, shape and texture, and rendering them in a reduced, monochrome palette definitely made me look at them all with fresh eyes. I was especially struck by the range of different neck shapings you have used throughout your oeuvre, and the different approaches to doing the ribbing at the edges of garments. It really became apparent that the shape of a neck or the way the edges are done can change the whole feeling of a garment.

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Deco

5. The primary purpose of schematic illustrations is to be . . . illustrative! That is, their function is to help knitters gain an accurate sense of a garment’s sizing, dimensions and construction.

Yes – it’s essential that the illustrations are functional and serve a useful purpose! I am fascinated by instruction diagrams and actually collect the wiring diagrams that come on the back of plugs, because I am so fascinated to see how different illustrators convey the same instructive information! Plug wiring diagrams assure you that you’re not going to blow up the fuse box as well as showing which wires should go where… With knitting I think there is a similar need to reassure the knitter that things are going right, or what to look out for in case things are going wrong!

plugwiring

6. Are certain kinds of garments trickier to reproduce in this regard?

I think about what might confuse me in making a garment and try to reassure the knitter about the facts of that garment. My common errors in reading a pattern are that I don’t do enough rows of this or that; or that I accidentally skip a bit; or that I start decreasing too early or too late. I therefore try to show clearly in the schematic the proportions of each stage, and also things like whether you do the neck band or the button band first on a cardigan, so that the knitter has a kind of compass to help them navigate potential pitfalls. I also want my drawings to look like the knitting the knitter will be knitting, so they are a little bit more organic and softer in line than plug diagrams! The hardest things by far to deal with when working on these schematics are the cables. The easiest mistake I think to make when knitting cables is to end up with the stitches travelling over when they should be travelling under or vice versa, and I spend a long time studying the photos and making diagrams for myself to refer to so that the cables are nicely mapped for the knitter. I find this tricky and time-consuming, as it is very detailed and finicky and involves staring at photos of your sweaters for long periods of time! That said, it is always very pleasing to finally understand how the cable works and when I was working on “Port O’ Leith”, I found that thinking about the winding, sculptural cables there really made me want to knit them!

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Port o’ Leith cables


7. Which was your favourite garment to illustrate and why?

I can’t just say one! Manu and Deco were really pleasurable to draw. I have knitted Deco and love the rhythm of the slip-stitched ziggurat that defines that design. It was a pure pleasure to think about how to reproduce that in the drawing, and I loved the challenge of getting those horizontal lines properly proportioned, and revisiting the clever, neat shape of it with my pencils and pens. Manu I have not yet knitted, but the soft yarn it is made from, the lovely puffy quality of the pleated neckline, and the rounded pockets were all details which I really enjoyed studying and emphasising in my drawing. I had always appreciated the simple elegance and wearability of Manu, but drawing it made me really appreciate the sophisticated choices you made with the yarn, the shape of the pockets, the perfectly proportioned and flattering puffy neckline, and the length (which took me a while to properly understand!)
manu

deco

8. And which proved the most vexing or tricky?

Firth o’ Forth with that lovely all-over lace texture was quite tricksome, as I really couldn’t work out how the sleeves worked, and was uncertain about how much detail to go into with the oyster pattern in my schematic. I made a lot of drawings for that one, to try and exactly show the construction, and to figure out how best to render the texture, but in the end it was also one of my mot favourite schematics, because it had been difficult to do, and because I enjoyed discovering the nature of the lace and the drape and handle of that lovely yarn you used. I felt triumphant when it was finished!

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Firth o’Forth illustration.

After Felix has completed an illustration, I often find myself seeing my designs totally anew, or thinking about them differently. I love her drawings, and am so happy to have been able to join with her the collaborative enterprise of our jolly tea towel! Felix currently finds herself at something of a crossroads, as her job at Reading University is coming to an end. Happily, she has a number of new exciting woolly, artistic, and sonic projects in the pipeline, and you can read / hear more about these here.


Kate Davies Designs Tea Towels are now available!

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