Interview with Jen Arnall-Culliford

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

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

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(Bruton Hoody)

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

So here’s Jen’s interview.

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

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

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

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(Jen’s Snawheid, knit in Excelana)

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

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

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(Jen’s swatches for the Bruton Hoody)

What are your aims when you write up the pattern?

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

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(Jen’s thesis!)

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

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

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(Jim is happy in his hoody)

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(Jen is happy in Jim’s hoody)

Thankyou, Jen!

Fred Perry Knitting Patterns

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If you are like me and have long admired the longevity, distinctive mod styling, and careful brand aesthetic of British retailer Fred Perry your heart may have skipped a wee beat when you read those words. Fred Perry Knitting Patterns? Really?

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Yes, really. The gorgeous golden cardigan on the left currently retails on Fred Perry’s website at £125, but the company is also offering knitters the amazing opportunity to really re-create this look themselves – why not download the pattern for free and whip one up today!

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There are eleven designs for men and women, including both garments and accessories. Every attention has been paid to the patterns’ careful vintage styling and ‘authentic’ mid-century graphic design and layout.

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But sadly, the same care and attention has not been paid to the content of the patterns themselves.

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The recommended yarn for these patterns is Rowan British wool Red Faced Leicester. Have you come across this yarn? Or heard of a Red Faced Leicester sheep? No, nor have I. In effect, Fred Perry is suggesting you knit this sweater with a yarn which does not exist, that grows on a non-existent sheep.

Red Faced sheep do exist:

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(California Red Faced sheep)

One must assume Fred Perry is unable to distinguish between these delightful creatures and others, equally delightful, but rather different.

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(British Blue Faced Leicester sheep)

Sadly, the problems don’t stop there. There’s no gauge or sizing information (!), nothing about yarn weight, quantities, shades, or other materials required, and the ‘language’ of these patterns would, I imagine, confuse any hand knitter either vintage or modern.

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. . . certainly this contemporary knitter could make neither head nor tail of the incomplete and oddly constructed Cabled beanie pattern, which you might imagine, would be one of the easiest designs to get to grips with. Could it be, then, that Fred Perry’s offer to “knit your own” garment from their Autumn / Winter 2013 knitwear collection is merely a sneaky marketing ruse? A way of spinning and bolstering the brand identity of mass-market knitwear through recourse to familiar ideas of the ‘vintage’ and ‘handcrafted’? Surely not!

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But, when you fail to knit yourself a lovely golden Aran cardigan from Fred’s badly-put-together pattern (which fails to include instructions for the sleeves) , you can easily return to the website to purchase one ready-made. As you can see, this cardigan was “originally designed for fishermen on the Scottish isle of Aran” [sic] as opposed to the Irish Aran islands . . . you know, Fred, where actual “Aran” knitwear comes from? Perhaps the error-ridden and confusing “knitting patterns” are merely the tip of an eroneous marketing iceberg? Oh Fred! How cruelly you shatter my mod dreams!

Discussing a British brand I like and admire in this context is all the more galling as I really think these patterns are a brilliant idea. Why not engender more collaboration and interplay between high street retailers and hand-knitters? Between ideas of making and consumption? Between the world of “knit” as it is currently taught on fashion and textile courses, and the world of “knitting” as now practiced all over the world by savvy and talented craftspeople? Having had a good look at the Fred Perry Knitting Patterns, it strikes me that their single biggest problem is that they have been produced by someone who might know an awful lot about designing for Shima knitting machines, but has no understanding of the evolving descriptive vocabulary of contemporary hand knitting. With just a little more effort Fred Perry might have produced something truly innovative here, rather than this epic – and slightly cynical – fail.

All of your thoughts are welcome.


Thanks to Karie (@kariebookish), Helen (@ripplecrafts) and Benjamin (@knityounexttues) for the enlivening twitter debate which prompted me to write this post.

Rowan and me

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Some time in 2005, I was walking through the Edinburgh branch of John Lewis when my eye was caught by the display of Rowan yarns and samples. The gorgeous colours of the yarns and the beautiful styling and photography of the pattern books and magazines really grabbed my attention. On the spot, I decided to start knitting again, and picked up several balls of Big Wool in, if I remember rightly, the ‘tomato’ shade. The first thing I turned out was a gigantic tomato-coloured moss-stitch wrap on 10mm needles, and since then I have not looked back. What I’m saying is that it was Rowan’s yarns, designs, and photography — their distinctive and immediately recognisable aesthetic — that inspired me to take up my needles. I am sure that many knitters (and designers) have a similar tale to tell.

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I have been writing features for the Rowan Magazine since 2009, and each one has been a pleasure to produce. Marie Wallin always provides suggestive and inspiring editorial briefs; the generous word length allows one to properly get one’s teeth into a topic; and it is genuinely thrilling to see one’s words and photographs laid out in such a well-produced and seriously beautiful magazine. Research for the fine lace feature I wrote for Magazine 50 (A/W, 2011) took me to Shetland — the first of many trips, and, for me, the beginning of another journey.

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Although I have worked with Rowan for almost four years, I have never met Marie or the rest of the team. Yesterday I finally had the opportunity to do so, and popped down to Yorkshire to visit Rowan’s Holmfirth HQ.

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I had a lovely day. It was both fascinating and inspiring to see behind the scenes, to gain an insight into the complexities of the design and production process from start to finish, and to catch a glimpse (and squoosh) of what knitters will be treated to in future seasons. It was also lovely to put faces to design-room names, and to have the opportunity to chat about future projects in person.

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As these photographs will suggest, it was one of those incredibly busy sorts of days when there wasn’t an opportunity to make use of my camera — but these tasty balls of Felted Tweed may give you some indication of various things-in-process. All I’ll say right now is watch this space!

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Thankyou, Marie, David, Kate and the rest of the Rowan team for a wonderful introduction to the mill!

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