Puffin Post


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.


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 . . .

Rhiannon . .

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.”


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!


“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.”


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 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.


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.”

(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. . .


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


“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).”


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 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!



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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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!


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.


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.

(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.

(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.

(“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.


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.

(lovely Odham’s endpapers)


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