Cockatoo Brae

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Yes, you did read that correctly – Cockatoo Brae. This remarkable phrase is, in fact, the name of a lane in Lerwick, Shetland, and it is also the name of the final yoke in my collection.

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This design emerged from an exciting collaboration with my friend Ella. In Shetland, machine and hand knitting go very much, as it were, hand in hand. In fact, at certain crucial points in its twentieth-century story, machine knitting might be said to have saved the Shetland hand-knitting industry from extinction. The two crafts (and they are both crafts) are importantly imbricated, and perhaps especially so where the yoke sweater is concerned.

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Hybrid yokes – where the body and sleeves are knitted by machine, and the yoke subsequently knitted on by hand – were one of the mainstays of the Shetland wool industry from the 1950s through the 1970s. I devote a chapter to this topic in my book, and you can read more about it there, but suffice it to say that, after my research I felt it was very important to include one such hybrid yoke design in my book. Cockatoo Brae is that yoke.

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On one of my recent visits to Shetland, I was very keen to learn more about machine knitting from Ella, who runs her own business centred around the wonderful machine-knitted items that she designs and makes.

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Ella’s Crofthoouse Cushions

At her studio in Cockatoo Brae, Ella introduced me to the process of creating machine-knitted fabric. Like many committed hand-knitters, I suppose I had certain lingering assumptions about what machine knitting involved (knitting by machine? surely this is the devil’s work?!) but these were quickly exploded. I discovered that the process was not only extremely skilled, but also – in the simple act of making stitches – much, much more like hand-knitting than I’d imagined. It is also quite physically demanding!

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(A swatch we knitted on Ella’s machine)

When I returned home after my visit I began designing a chart using an interesting variant of the ubiquitous tree and star motifs that appear on countless Shetland yokes. It is no coincidence that the shades I chose echoed those of the swatch we had created in Cockatoo Brae. Much of the inspiration for Ella’s design work comes from the 1970s: a decade during which Shetland knitters were producing thousands of yokes for a buoyant commercial market, but when the advent of North Sea Oil also changed the face of the Shetland knitting industry. The 1970s are an interesting moment of transition in Shetland, and Ella’s work interrogates and reflects this. I wanted the palette of our yoke to reflect it too.

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The bright green is Jamieson and Smith shade FC11 and the orange shade is 125. (This rich tomato-soup shade is one of my all-time favourite Jamieson and Smith colours – I absolutely love it!). For the main body of the sweater I chose FC58 – a wonderfully complex heathered brown that in fact has more individual colours blended in it than any other shade in the Jamieson and Smith palette. After Ella and I had settled on the chart and palette, I provided her with a pattern and she got to work creating the sweater’s machined components. (Ella will write in more detail about the process of knitting the body and sleeves on her machine, and you’ll be able to read about the process on her blog)

Some time later, I received this bundle in the post

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As machine-knit yarn is oiled, I decided to block the separate pieces quite vigorously first so I could see that the hand-knit and the machine-knit fabric were behaving the same way, and that I could be sure that my gauge would match up. After blocking the pieces, I seamed them up with matress stitch. Ella had left small sections of ‘waste’ knitting at the tops of the sleeve and body pieces that could be unravelled to create a set of live stitches. So I unravelled the waste, set sleeves and body on a circular needle, and cast on a nine stitch steek over the cardigan’s front opening to enable me to knit the yoke on in the round.
Here’s the yoke in progress.

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Here it is blocking

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and finally . . .
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Creating this yoke with Ella was a fascinating and really enjoyable process for me, and I felt I understood much more about the textile practices and history I’d been researching through the simple act of knitting this garment. Sometimes making really is learning.

If you’d like to create your own Cockatoo Brae in exactly the same way we did, I’ve included instructions for flat machine-knitting body and sleeves in the book. But don’t worry –if you’d prefer to hand-knit the design in its entirety – working the whole garment in the round and then steeking it open afterwards – those instructions are also included.

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We shot these photographs on a lovely autumn day around the lower slopes of Ben Lawers and Meal nan Tarmachan, where Tom was running a hill race. Tom ran very well, and I think the photographs he took after the race show the garment perfectly suited to its setting.

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I’d like to give a big shout-out to Tom today, who has really shared my Yoke vision, and whose considerable skills as a photographer are in evidence throughout. His images – which beautifully illustrate each garment in a separate, distinctive location suited to its style – are an essential element of the larger creative process behind this book. Thanks, Tom x.

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You’ll find more information about Cockatoo Brae here
And the book is available to pre-order here

yoke collection

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One of the many fun elements of researching my book has been seeking out yoked sweaters on eBay and in charity shops. I have learned a lot from these garments, which are often a hybrid of machine and hand-knitting, and thought I’d share a few of them with you today. I think I showed you the Shetland yoke jumper I’m wearing above on a previous occasion. It has a machine knitted body and a hand-knitted tree and star yoke with a characteristically back-buttoned placket; it fits me well, and I wear it frequently. I wanted to mention this jumper today because it is, in yoke terms, somewhat anomalous: the way the pattern repeats have been calculated means that the tree is centred both front and back. The back opening thus divides a tree in half:

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I imagine this will seem an insignificant matter to some of you – after all, the motifs are still balanced and centred – but when you’ve looked at many Shetland yokes, and many patterns for Shetland yokes, it immediately appears odd. My friend Ella* was quick to spot its curious tree placement, and in almost every other example I’ve seen over the past six months or so, the star is centred, not the tree. (If the garment is a jumper, the star is always at front centre, and if a cardigan, there’s an extra star to balance the pattern, so the front opening is always flanked by stars.) So this yoke is a curiosity of which I am particuarly fond – I think its anomalous nature only endears it more to me.

Here is a non-anomalous, fairly standard Shetland tree and star yoke, that I found on eBay:

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The body and sleeves have been machined, and the yoke, ribbing, and front bands have all been finished by hand. Its nicely finished – here you can see how, on the inside of the garment, the yoke has been steeked and cut; the yarn ends have been woven in; and have then felted down with wear.

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And here’s another Shetland tree and star – a jumper this time:

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Again, the star is centred, and the garment is a machine / hand-knitted hybrid. I am fond of this one, because it bears the lovely trademark of the Shetland Woollen Industries Association:

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Back in the 1920s, the SWIA was established to protect native Shetland wool, and to promote and protect the products that were made from it. The trade mark guaranteed that the goods were genuine Shetland wool products, grown and produced in the Shetland islands. Sadly, this trade mark is just one of a litany of many never-wholly successful attempts to protect the term “Shetland”, in reference to wool and textiles, from appropriation and misuse. (You can read more about this issue in this 1952 parliamentary motion and debate and in Sarah Dearlove’s chapter in Shetland Textiles: 800 BC to the Present)

Here I am, spotting a couple of naughty rabbits about to chow down on what’s left of my leeks.

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This jumper illustrates the evolution of the “Shetland” yoke (strictly speaking, its not made from “Shetland” wool, and neither is it made in Shetland) and despite the fact that its far too big for me I find it interesting because it demonstrates an important stage in yoke history as the garment became enabled for industrial mass production. These jumpers were – and are still – produced by Harley of Scotland, on, as I understand it, some pretty innovative knitting machinery that enables the speedy creation of completely seamless and circular yoked garments. The yoke design is pretty simple, and there’s certainly none of the wonderful individuality you find in so many hand-knit Shetland yokes, but I find the jumper intriguing precisely because the yoke is circular, fashioned in a Shetland style, and because hand-knitting has finally been taken out of the production equation.

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Harley still produce similar garments to order, as you can see here

Finally, here is a recent yoke find by which I was particularly excited:

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I purchased this beautiful Norweigan yoke on eBay, from an Edinburgh seller who remarkably turned out to be a reader of this blog (hello, Amy!). It is one of many iterations of Unn Søiland Dale’s “Eskimo” design (please note that my use of that word simply reproduces the given name of the sweater: I am in no way endorsing the term’s unpleasant and inaccurate ethnographic connotations). As the tree and star yoke is to Shetland, so Dale’s yoke is to Norway:

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NF.2012-0790 detail

(Images of Unn Søiland Dale’s Eskimogenser from Digitalt.Museum)

In its many forms, but always with with similar motifs and this characteristic colourway, Dale’s yoked sweater seems to have been in constant production in Norway since 1952, when it was first designed. This yoke is a true Norweigan icon (and is referenced as such in a recent pattern collection by Sandnes Garn)

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And just like its Shetland counterparts, this commercially-produced Norweigan yoke is also a hybrid of machine and hand knitting, with careful finishing.

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. . . and beautiful hand-knitting on the yoke.

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Amy, your sweater has gone to a good home and I feel honoured to have it among my yoke collection!

All of these yokes involve some machine knitting, and all of them have been in some way instructive when thinking about the construction and creation of my own hybrid machine and hand-knit yoke, which is now nearing completion.

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Ella machined the body, I blocked and seamed the body and sleeve pieces; picked up stitches for the yoke and, over the weekend, knitted my yoke on. It has been a really interesting process, and is the very last bit of knitting there is for my book. All of the patterns, including this one, are now complete – we are almost there!

So, I suppose I’d better get on and finish those front bands. . . .

*Ella has also been documenting her knitwear collection! Pop over here to see more yokes.

Fred Perry Knitting Patterns

Fredperry

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.

A grand day


(combed tops and yarn in the sample room. Wool heaven.)

Yesterday I had a grand day out. Martin and Janet Curtis kindly invited me to the opening of the new showroom at Haworth Scouring, the world’s largest commission scouring company, and an important hub of the British wool industry. The opening showcased many different elements of the industry — from processing right through to retail and distribution — and I was there to demonstrate hand-knitting and design. My sister, Helen, lives nearby, and it was great to bring her along as a spare pair of knitterly hands. Here she is working on a BMC, with some of the beautiful throws from the Real Shetland Company and my Rams and Yowes blanket behind her.

She couldn’t resist trying out one of the Real Shetland throws.

And here she is having a gander at Knit Real Shetland. (Note the obligatory Manu cardigan!)


The showroom had been fitted with a luxurious Shetland carpet, and there were other superb examples of British wool carpeting on display.


. . . as well as woven textiles . . .


(These samples are from Abraham Moon, another great Yorkshire company)

. . .knitting yarns . . .


(Jamieson & Smith’s amazing Shetland Heritage yarn, of which more another time).

. . . finished garments . . .

. . . and other innovative British wool products, such as these Shetland duvets, and a fabulous Vi-Spring Shetland mattress, of which I completely failed to take a photograph.

But my favourite thing, out of the many wonderful woolly things on display in the new showroom, was a piece by artist Angela Wright.

Angela’s wool installations take coned yarn (supplied by Martin Curtis), which is reworked and rewound into gigantic woolly hanks. These huge hanks, when arranged, suspended, and carefully laid down by Angela, have a profoundly transformative effect on the spaces in which they appear. I only had my macro lens with me yesterday, so was unable to take a picture capturing the full effect of Angela’s piece on the showroom space, but you get a good sense of her work from this earlier piece in Bradford Cathedral.


(“189 Miles” Wool Installation ver. 2, Bradford Cathedral, 2010. Photograph ©David Carr-Smith / Angela Wright)

I think it is quite rare to find textile art that manages to combine the spectacular with the contemplative, but Angela’s work is both. These installations are grand and public in scale, but there’s a quiet intimacy about them too, which arises from the woolly materials Angela is using, and (very clearly, I think) her own distinctive personal ‘feel’ for space and substance. Sited in Bradford, the historic home of the British wool industry, the installation seems celebratory and commemorative, both veil and shroud, a portal connecting past to future. There is a tremendous weight to Angela’s pieces — the wool threads hang, drape, and flow with a heaviness that is deeply emotional. Angela told me how some folk were moved to tears upon encountering the piece in Bradford Cathedral — I can well believe it.


(Wool Modern exhibition, Sydney, Australia, Apr/ May 2012, ©Angela Wright)

I recommend you go and have a look at these photographs which document the process of Angela’s wool installations from Yorkshire sheep to finished piece. Pretty amazing.

Here is Angela, discussing her installation with Sophie, Countess of Wessex, who came to open the showroom yesterday and who, like her brother in law, is firmly committed to the Campaign for Wool.

. . .Martin Curtis presented her with a very special woolly gift. . .

. . . a beautiful hand-knitted lace stole, created as part of the Shetland fine lace project.

It was a day in which, from start to finish, the best of British wool was celebrated. Helen and I felt honoured to have been a part of it and enjoyed ourselves immensely. Thankyou, Janet, and Martin, for a truly grand day!

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