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.

Icelandic_sheep
(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!

shoeinserts
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!

hamarosavesti
(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.

Skautbuningur
(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!

Halldora_love_story
(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.

shaws

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).

north

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!

harpa_reykjavik_01
(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!

Puffin Post

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

barbaraandbramble

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

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

RHI
Rhiannon . .

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

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

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

erin2

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

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

Deb

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

rainbowlorikeet

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

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

Kate
Kate

maureen
Maureen

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

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

Prize_medium2

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

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

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

This is the yarn that she created. . .

handspun

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

zaz

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

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

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

mary

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

Thankyou, Puffin knitters, for all this inspiration!

kitkin

kitkin3

I thought you might like to see the shorter version of the Catkin sweater that Mel has just knitted — Kitkin! Like the original Catkin, Kitkin is knitted in baa ram ewe’s Titus, in a lovely charcoal grey shade.

kitkin2

To make this cropped version, Mel simply cast on the number of bust stitches for the second size, worked the twisted rib for a couple of inches, and then knitted in pattern without shaping until the sweater measured 12.5 inches in total.

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The rest of Mel’s sweater — upper bodice, sleeves and so on — was completed exactly as-per pattern.

kitkin

I think this version of the sweater is really neat, and rather smart, particularly on Mel. Some folk much prefer cropped sweaters to tunic-length ones, and the Catkin pattern is very easily adapted to suit your taste.

Mel is an amazing knitter, and while we are on the subject of her amazing knitting, I urge you to pop over to her Ravelry pages to see her Ash. I honestly think that Mel is the only person I know who would knit an entire dress as a sort of elaborate muslin for a second near-identical garment . . . I think it looks amazing and I am really looking forward to seeing the dress’s second incarnation which will be knitted for a very special occasion later in the year.

images of knitting #1

I have a small (but ever growing) collection of prints and postcard in which knitters, and the activity of knitting, are represented. Some of these are really very interesting, and I thought I’d occasionally share them with you here.

postcardfront

This card, which was posted with an Austrian stamp in 1916, depicts a ‘continental’ knitter working on a long stocking, whilst literally being haunted by thoughts of war. It is undoubtedly a sentimental image: like equivalent representations of industrious female knitters in Britain and America during the First World War, the needles seem to be there to enable this woman to be ‘doing something useful’ for the war effort, producing functional objects that also serve as testimony of her affection. The woman’s face is the very image of serene meditation — her surroundings are quietly and comfortably domestic; but the ghost of the war hangs over her pleasant home in the shape of the uniformed figure by the window. Is this half-present soldier conjured up by the act of knitting itself, as the repetitive action of the needles frees the knitter’s mind to wander among her thoughts and memories? Is knitting, therefore, a soothing activity that allows this woman to be comforted in her solitude by the idea that she is creating something equally comforting for her absent beloved? Or is the transparent figure an actual ghost — the soldier who has returned after death to haunt his faithful partner? If so, then knitting is an activity that transforms the woman into a tragic figure: an image of steadfast affection and domestic industry, steadily turning out socks for a man already dead.

I find this image interesting because it is troubling and because it disturbs those gung-ho ‘knit your bit’ stereotypes that are generally associated with the 1914-18 war effort. The way that the solider’s ghostly presence brings the war into the woman’s domestic environment is deeply suggestive, and the whole image is, in its own way, as unhinged as the narrator of Philadelphia Robertson’s poem, A Woman’s Prayer (1916), who knits on the edge of sanity:

“I am so placid as I sit
In train or tram and knit and knit;

Within the house I give due heed
To every duty, each one’s need,

Sometimes the newsboys hurry by,
And then my needles seem to fly

And when the house has grown quite still
I lean out on my window sill —

And pray to God to see to it
That I keep sane enough to knit”

I’ve scanned the reverse of the postcard, just in case any of you can decipher it.

postcardback

Amazing Boreal cardigans

One of the most rewarding aspects of this very rewarding job is seeing folk happily wearing the stuff that you’ve designed. I particularly enjoy seeing knitters’ inventive modifications of my work, and recently came across three versions of my Boreal sweater that are so wonderful that I just had to show you.

Here are friends Shannon, Maggy, and Carol looking completely amazing in their Boreal cardigans. Each size of the Boreal design is totally symmetrical down a central axis . . .

. . . this symmetry makes it really easy to convert into a cardigan. You just add a few stitches to the centre of the body charts, work them in a striped or checkerboard steek sequence, cut the front up the middle when you’re done, and then add button band edgings. Shannon, Carol and Maggy also modified the design by knitting it in the opposite direction to the way it is written — top down.

Again, this is much easier to do than one might think: its simply a matter of turning the charts upside down (each size has its own separate set of charts), and working in the opposite direction, reversing the shaping instructions. I really like the neat side pockets that Carol and Maggy have added to their cardigans.

But what I love most of all about Shannon, Maggy and Carol’s modified Boreals is that they are theirs. Each seems to have selected a palette that perfectly suits their colouring; each cardigan looks totally different, but each completely suits its respective wearer. To see knitters happy in beautiful sweaters makes me happy — particularly when they have been produced and modified from my design.

Shannon, Carol, and Maggy kept careful notes about the modifications they made, which you can see on ravelry (follow the links to see their individual project pages).

Thanks so much, Shannon, Carol and Maggy for allowing me to share these photos!

generosity

I have had more than one occasion to thank my lucky stars for knitters and blog readers over the past year. It still amazes me how incredibly generous and supportive you are with your thoughts, your comments and your correspondence. Sometimes something you say or do really moves me, and reminds me just how lucky I am to be a part of a community of such thoughtful and talented folk. Today is one of those occasions. I received an exciting looking parcel from Ireland – and this is what I found inside.

It was knitted by ten women whom I have never met.

“Dear Kate . . .

. . .We thought that since you have returned to hill walking and have acquired your lovely new van that you may like a little blanket for your legs to warm you up on your return from the summit. . . .

. . . We think the Irish and the Scottish are kindred spirits where bad weather is concerned . . .

. . . the weather decided to turn, and blocking this bad boy was a bit of a nightmare!

. . . if you’re ever in Ireland and looking for company, you know who to call . . .

. . . best of luck with your continued recovery . . .

Karen, Helen, Helen, Roseanne, Siobhan, Clare, Eimear, Diane, Kiko, and Isobel”


Really, I think it might be the most beautiful blanket I have ever seen. I am completely blown away by it.

Does it not make you want to start knitting cables immediately?

Thankyou, lovely, generous ladies.

We will certainly be bringing your wonderful blanket with us when we visit Ireland later this Summer.

retrovintage

Needled reviews:
Lise-Lotte Lystrup, Vintage Knitwear for Modern Knitters (Thames & Hudson, 2008)
Kari Cornell and Jean Lampe, Retro Knits: Cool Vintage Patterns for Men, Women and Children from the 1900s through the 1970s (Voyageur Press, 2008)

Most knitters will have noticed the recent ubiquity of all things “vintage” in the world of wool. There are numerous groups devoted to the subject on Ravelry, a lively trade in so-called “vintage” patterns, and a recent flurry of books. Jane Waller has just launched a reworked and rebranded edition of her popular 1972 title A Stitch in Time (not yet seen here) and two other books also appeared in 2008: Vintage Knitwear for Modern Knitters and Retro Knits: Cool Vintage Patterns for Men, Women and Children from the 1900s through the 1970s.

These books got me thinking about the way that terms like “vintage” and “retro” are applied to knitting. Being something of a stickler for historical specificity, I tend to approach such terms with caution, as they have always seemed to me to be rather misleading and lazy catch-all categories for “stuff from the past.” But a quick trawl through relevant websites and Ravelry forums revealed something quite interesting about the current usage of such terms. While “vintage” seems to be most often applied to garments from knitting’s “golden age” in the 1930s and 40s, “retro” is most commonly used in reference to anything vaguely kooky from the 60s or 70s, such as this popcorn-adorned hoodie, which any space cowgirl would surely be proud to wear.

popcorns
(Fleisher, 1965; Cornell and Lampe, 2008)

These knitterly usages of “vintage” and “retro” are interesting, because they are broadly historically accurate—in terms of the two words’ etymology at least. According to the OED, “vintage”, in the sense of “classic” design, came into common usage during the 1930s, whereas the use of “retro” as an adjective first gained widespread cultural currency in the late 60s and early 1970s. But while there’s this incidental confluence between the origins of the words and the garment styles they suggest to many knitters, other usages of “vintage” and “retro” are a bit more, um, woolly — for example, when applied to particular styles, techniques, or methods of pattern writing in the world of knitwear design and marketing.

As regards pattern-writing, “vintage” seems a sort of shorthand for “inaccurate” or “error ridden” — as such, its a term that could perhaps be equally descriptive of the editorial practices of current issues of Vogue Knitting as much as any 1950s design. I’ve also seen “vintage” weirdly applied to techniques such as steeks, or knitting in the round: practices whose history extends back several centuries, and which have been used by knitters more or less consistently ever since. For some designers, “vintage” style seems to have exclusive reference to Victorian lace, while for others, its a term that’s solidly linked to colourwork or applied embroidery. Sarah Dallas’s version of “vintage” is certainly not Kaffe Fassett’s; nor, I imagine, would this “vintage” knitting classic have much to say to Melanie Falick.

wildlife
(is this vintage? retro? or just plain astounding?)

The problem is, that “vintage” most often seems to be a shorthand for a designer’s particular style preferences, or (more troublingly) for what they deem “good taste” (whatever that is). And for those who market knitwear design to us, “vintage” is just one of those easy adjectival devices like “classic”, “timeless” or “heritage” that can be wheeled out in the service of selling more stuff. While “retro” seems to be most often used in (broad) reference to post-war design, “vintage” remains a real rag-bag of befuddled meaning. Do either of these books do anything at all to dispel the confusion? I’m not sure that they do.

The blurb of Lystrup’s book refers to vintage style both as historically situated (in the 30s, 40s, and 50s) and as entirely “timeless” — a little bewildering. The longer and much more careful introduction to Cornell’s and Lampe’s book also includes many miscellaneous usages of “vintage,” but does at least make clear what they mean by that term. Cornell and Lampe take a straightforward approach to all things “vintage” by arranging their patterns historically, producing a narrative of knitting fashion that is both engaging and accurate. Retro Knits is also handsomely illustrated with patterns and advertisements from every decade from the 1910s through the 1970s, and each of Lampe and Cornell’s selections of designs is prefaced by short, lively discussions of each era’s knitting styles. Lystrup’s patterns are reproduced without much context — fashionable, socio-economic, or otherwise — and the book as a book seemed to me to rather suffer from it’s lack of framework. Another shortcoming of Lystrup’s book is its styling. Now, this isn’t a matter of personal taste — its just that clothes look much better on real people than they do on dressmaker’s dummies. The styling of Lystrup’s book does little to make the patterns appealing to the reader/ knitter, and it is a real shame that the photography of her beautifully knitted garments does not show them at their best.

feather
(“Evening Jacket in a Feather Pattern,” 1933; Lystrup, 2008)

Reasonable photography of a re-designed 1930s garment like this really is crucial: so much of knitting is based on trust, and knitters simply do not trust patterns written before the 1970s to give reliable results. Cornell and Lampe make the work of trusting the designer even more tricky, as their book includes no photographs at all of their re-sized and re-worked patterns. And, in reference to Cornell and Lampe’s book I will strike a personal note: I was really disappointed in the way their patterns had been re-sized. A couple of garments which they describe as updating to be ‘more in line with contemporary body sizes’ start at a 38 inch bust. Now, to those of us of diminutive height and meagre chest, this is more than a little frustrating. I had a similar problem with this book of Jane Waller’s (good historical research; bad sizing; terrible photography) in which every neatly tailored item of 1940s knitwear had been transformed into an outsized garment designed to fit a woman of amazonian proportions.

odhams

Lampe and Cornell’s Retro Knits is probably worth having a look at if you enjoy pattern styling and advertisements, as well as for the useful potted history it provides of twentieth-century American knitting fashions. But would I knit anything from this book? Probably not. I wasn’t that inspired by any of Lystrup’s patterns either, and other than her careful sourcing of contemporary British yarns, and the good size range of her patterns, I unfortunately can’t find much else to recommend about this book.

But my pernickety irritation at all things described as “vintage,” and my frustration that “modern vintage” never actually seems to be built for me, has probably been compounded by the love I have recently discovered for actual “vintage” design. Thanks to Ysolda, a whole world of wonder that issued in the 1930s and 40s from the Odham’s Press has recently opened up, and I have been really enjoying the encyclopedias and “practical guides” of the loopy, dictatorial, committed knitter that was James Norbury as well as the less loopy, but no less committed Margaret Murray and Jane Koster. Their books are generous, inclusive and engaging. They are full of knitterly wisdom, interesting stitch patterns, helpful design prototypes and tips that still strike a contemporary note, as well as original garments that the knitter with a bit of experience might well adapt to their own requirements just as easily as anything in Lystrup’s, or Lampe and Cornell’s, books. Odham’s publications are being sold for peanuts on ABE and other second hand booksellers sites. Now they are books I can heartily recommend.

endpapers
(lovely Odham’s endpapers)

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