Brilliant women

Hello! I’m back again after a fantastic (and productive) couple of weeks research. I’ve had an amazing time in Sweden and Shetland, but what has really stood out to me about this past fortnight is the number of brilliant women whose company and conversation I’ve enjoyed. It has been a very long time since I’ve been this sociable, and I’ve returned home feeling really inspired and energised by all of the brilliant women with whom I’ve been able to spend time. So a big thanks to:

kirstensstudio
Kerstin Olsson.

It was an incredible privilege to meet Kerstin, who is a truly lovely and incredibly talented individual. I was barely able to contain my excitement during a visit to her studio, in which I got to see her original swatches, personal collection of Bohus material, and the superb works of watercolour and textile art she’s produced over the past decades. In all respects, Kerstin and her work are massively inspiring. The following day Kerstin took me to the Röhsska Museum, where we had tremendous fun exploring their important collection of Bohus knitting. I learnt so much from Kerstin that day, and together we also discovered a swatch, which meant that we were able to identify a “mystery” design, that’s remained previously unidentified among the Bohus garments in Meg Swansen‘s collection.

graranden

(Meg’s mystery Bohus sweater is Grå Randen, a pre-1947 design by Anna-Lisa Mannheimer Lunn)

In my former academic life, as well as my present independent one, I’ve spent many happy days in many different archives. But I count this day with Kerstin in the Röhsska Museum as the highlight of my research career. For when does one have an opportunity to explore an archive with the very person whose work one is researching? And the fact that person is someone whose warmth and generosity means I feel I can count her as a friend makes it even more special. It was a once-in-a-lifetime day. Thankyou so much, Kerstin.

vinterfiske
(Carl Gustaf Bernahardson, Vinterfiske, Bohusläns Museum)

At the Bohusläns Museum I was made to feel immediately at home by Anna-Lena Segestam Macfie and Ann-Marie Brockman. Before I arrived in Sweden, Anna-Lena’s help was invaluable in making connections and tracking things down. While I was in Bohuslän she kindly took time to introduce me to the Museum’s wonderful collections – among which I discovered not only incredible textiles but the work of my new favourite folk artist, Carl Gustaf Bernhardson. With Anna-Lena and Ann-Marie I also visited nearby Gustafsberg, where I was in eighteenth-century heaven, and “took” the water from an historic well.

gustafsberg
(Gustafsberg)

It was the first time I’d visited this part of Sweden, and I found Bohuslän to be an exceptionally beautiful and interesting place – reminscent in some respects of Shetland. I am already making plans for a longer visit.

jennysyokes
(Jenny’s yokes)

In Shetland I spent a lovely few days working in the very convivial atmosphere of the Museum store. Jenny Murray not only helped me with my work, hunting down a very elusive jumper that I was interested in seeing, but kindly brought in her personal collection of yokes to show me. And thanks too to Laurie Goodlad, who lent me a costume, so I could join her and Jenny at their lunchtime swim at Clickimin.

ellainarchives
(Ella in the archives)

Ella Gordon came along to the museum store to join me in my labours as a yoke detective. Ella is a skilled machine knitter as well as a hand-knitter, and not only does her matchless knowledge of Jamieson & Smith shade cards mean that she can usefully identify particular yarn colours in their many different incarnations over the past few decades, but she is able to “read” the garment construction of machined / hand-knitted Shetland yokes in a way that I cannot. I am so grateful for her help.

crofthooseswatch
(a crofthoose swatch from Ella’s machine)

Ella also introduced me to machine knitting, which for me was very exciting and very interesting, and perhaps more like hand-knitting than I’d imagined. Together, we are producing a hybrid Shetland yoke (with Ella machining the body and me hand-knitting the yoke) and you’ll be able to read more about this process and its history in my book.

sandraandella

Sandra Manson (pictured here with Ella in my all-time favourite yarn shop and general wool haven) is someone whose wit and warmth I often miss when I’ve not seen her for a while. Do keep your eye out for the genius designs that Sandra’s recently produced for the Campaign For Wool’s Wool Ride this October.

shettimes
(from the Shetland Times)

Finally, I got to talk yokes with Shetland friends old and new: Misa Hay, Donna Smith, Louise Scollay, and Hazel Tindall. Thanks to Donna, Louise and Hazel for sharing thoughts, photographs and objects which have really helped to shape up my ideas, and to Misa for enthusiastic discussion of the pleasures of growing ones own tatties. As many of you may know, Hazel is about to release a wonderful and much-anticipated film to which I’m sure lots of you are looking forward. I am lucky enough to have a review copy in my hot little hands, and will tell you more about it another time!

hazel

Thanks so much to all of these brilliant women, in Sweden and in Shetland, for sharing their company, conversation, inspiration and expertise. Now I’m ready to sit down and write the final part of my book.

. . .to meet a yoke hero

wild_apple

I have been excited about this for weeks – and can’t quite believe that tomorrow I am going to Göteborg to meet with Kerstin Olsson. For those of you who don’t know, Olsson was one of the group of talented and accomplished women who designed for Bohus Stickning, and the Wild Apple (above) is perhaps her most familiar and admired yoke design – indeed, it is a design that to many, including myself, seems iconic of the Bohus aesthetic itself. The Wild Apple is the only piece of knitting that, from a photograph only, moved me to tears when I first encountered it a few years ago. I still find the design breathtaking and really inimitably beautiful and who would have thought that, seven years after seeing a picture of this incredible yoke, I would be going to Sweden to meet its designer in person! I will be spending several days there, and will also be traveling up the coast to visit the Bohuslans museum. Ye gods!

Thankyou all so much for your wonderful comments and messages in response to my last post. I have been really moved by many of your memories, and am so grateful those who have shared ideas, suggestions, and information. There is so much food for thought in what you say, and for those who have written to me, if I haven’t yet responded by email, I shall do so shortly when I return from Sweden.

I have been particularly interested to read your remarks about fit and sizing, and I certainly spent a long time musing on such matters myself before and during work on these designs. Though many may feel that a yoke is never for them, I have aimed to ensure that several different kinds of yoke, involving several different sorts of shaping, are represented in the collection. In the book you’ll find deep yokes, shallow yokes, colourful yokes, single colour yokes, boat necked yokes, scoop necked yokes, yokes shaped with short rows, yokes involving colourwork, cables or beads. . . . would you like a teaser?

frosty6

. . . that’s Mel pouring me a cup of tea at the lovely Courtyard Cafe in Fintry where we held today’s photoshoot for a couple of the designs.

See you soon!

What is a steek?

helenstoutbusta1950
(Helen Stout, knitting in the round, Busta, 1950. Courtesy Shetland Museum and Archives).

I have recently received a number of messages prefaced with this very question, and I thought that this rather basic introductory essay I wrote about knitting in the round, and steeking, might form a useful addition to my series of posts and tutorials about steeks for those who are curious. The essay is an edited version of a piece that was first published in the Rowan Magazine. Many thanks to the Shetland Museum and Archives for allowing me to reproduce details of garments in their collection.

————————
knittingmadonna Bertram of Minden, “Knitting Madonna”, (detail of Annunciation from the right wing of the Buxtehude Altar) 1400-1410.

There really is no “right” or “wrong” way to knit: different styles suit different individuals, and a wide variety of methods and techniques exist to match an equally wide variety of garments and fabric types. Yet knitting is a community with its own particular trends and followings, and like any other community, notions of “either / or” divide it. Do you knit English or Continental? Top-down, or bottom up? Do you work back-and-forth, or in-the-round? Such questions of technique — of the “best” stretchy cast-off method; of the “right” way to strand the yarn in colourwork — can transform a bunch of friendly knitters into fiercely opposing camps, each with its own passionate adherents. And there is perhaps no technical opposition more fundamental, or more divisive, than that which is perceived to exist between knitting back-and-forth and knitting in-the-round.

The standard arguments of the two camps go as follows:

The back-and-forth faction insists:

1. I like a sleek well-fitted garment. Knitting back and forth allows a garment to be carefully shaped using the best tailoring techniques.
2. The torso is composed of curves and lumps of differing proportions. Tailored pieces create the best lines to accommodate these complicated shapes.
3. In the beginning was the sewing needle. Early humans fitted the first garments to the body by stitching pieces of animal skin together with seams. It must be right.
4. The pattern writers of knitting’s ‘golden age’ created beautiful vintage garments designed to be knit in pieces, back and forth. They knew what they were on about.
5. Flat knitting follows industry standards of garment construction and pattern design. Fashion knows best.


Against which the in-the-round faction counters:

1. I hate sewing seams and finishing. Knitting in the round involves little or no finishing.
2. The torso is basically a tube, supplied with two smaller, narrower tubes. Therefore all sweaters should be knit in tubular fashion.
3. The beginnings of knitting were circular. Medieval paintings depicted the Virgin Mary knitting in the round. It must be right.
4. Folk knitters all over the world have knitted socks and ganseys in the round for centuries. They knew what they were on about.
5. Elizabeth Zimmermann once designed a seamless yoked sweater which was violated by editors ‘translating’ it into back-and-forth instructions. EZ knew best.

While these two positions may seem intractably opposed, in fact, there are elements of truth in both. Though back-and-forth knitting has certainly dominated the standard lexicon of commercial knitting patterns since the 1920s, instructions for many items (socks, gloves, hats) have habitually been written to be knit in the round. And while the knitters of Estonia and Shetland, Norway and the Faroe Islands have produced in-the-round garments for centuries, these women were also talented seamstresses who used sophisticated tailoring techniques to add shape, structure and decoration to their knitted ganseys and jackets. Today, despite the strong antipathy that one method or another can arouse among some knitters, there is more interplay than ever between methods associated with knitting back-and-forth and knitting in-the-round. Commercial patterns are increasingly written to accommodate many different techniques of flat and circular knitting, while knowledge of aspects of both methods — of the speed and ease of knitting in-the-round or of the structure and clean finish of knitting back-and-forth — lends knitters the freedom to modify the construction of garments in ways that best suit them. One such technique — which enables an in-the-round jumper to be easily transformed into a flat cardigan–is the practice that is known as steeking. Because steeking involves taking scissors to one’s creations, it strikes fear into the heart of many knitters. But this technique, common to all Northern knitting traditions, is much simpler to work than many knitters imagine.

yowesonrock
(my Rams and Yowes design is “steeked”)


The etymology of the “steek”

The word ‘steek’ has its root in the general Middle English verb ‘steken’ meaning to shut or fasten. By the Eighteenth Century, ‘steek’ was a term common to Shetland, Scots and Northern English dialects and, while it might be used in reference to a closed gate, door, or mouth, it was most often associated with needlework or knitting. In Scots, the verb, ‘to steek’ meant to sew, darn, or knit:

“Wull ee steek this slittin oxter afore it geets ony woare?”
Will you stitch this fraying underarm before it gets any worse?

Or, when used as a noun, the word ‘steek’ simply meant ‘stitch’.
“For want of a steek a shoe may be tint”
For want of a stitch, a shoe may be lost

While in some parts of Scotland and Shetland the word “steeking” still primarily means to stitch or close, in contemporary knitting parlance, the word has mutated and morphed to signify the opposite: that is, for most knitters, steeking now means to cut open, rather than to fasten shut. Thus, in pattern books that have been produced over the past thirty years or so, one finds the word “steek” being used in reference to what, in sewing, is commonly called a seam allowance (a few stitches that are worked additionally to the main pattern). Put simply, then, for today’s knitters, a “steek” is a bridge of extra stitches, connecting two separate pieces of knitted fabric, enabling them to be worked swiftly in the round. Preparing, reinforcing, and then cutting open this seam allowance (the practice now commonly known as “steeking”) transforms the tube back into flat pieces.

Why use steeks?

Steeks can be inserted into any kind of knitted fabric, but their most common application is perhaps in knitting a cardigan using the Fair Isle method of stranded colourwork. This is because carrying and purling two shades of yarn can prove tricky: many knitters find that the purl stitches create significant differences in their tension, or are much slower and more cumbersome to work. But if a steek is cast on in the places where the knitting would have to be divided to be worked back and forth — namely, at the cardigan’s centre front opening, and sleeves — the knitter can work the entire garment in the round, without purling, all the way from hem to shoulders. When the steeks are cut open, the extra cast-on stitches act just like seam allowances around which the knitter can pick up stitches to create button bands and sleeves.

But don’t steeks unravel?

Knitted fabric certainly likes to unravel, but it does so horizontally. Steek stitches are cut on the vertical, making them far less likely to do so. As anyone who has pulled back their knitting will know, wool is also a very ‘sticky’ fibre which likes to retain its shape. If one is knitting with a pure-wool or majority-wool yarn then it is very easy to work a steek simply because the stitches ‘want’ to hold their shape rather than to unravel. That said, because the cut edges of the steek are generally used to pick up a sleeve or edging afterwards, it is useful to reinforce them before cutting to help them deal with any strain they might take afterwards. Steeks can be prepared, reinforced and finished in a wide variety of ways. Taking a look at the interiors of a range of historic and contemporary cardigans that have been knitted in the round, before being “steeked” open, illustrates just how different steeks can be.

three
(Shetland Museum and Archives)

This image shows the front button bands of a 1920s cardigan knit in several natural shades of Shetland wool. The band has been worked in corrugated rib; buttonholes have been cut vertically into the band; and machine stitching has been used to attach a reinforcing grosgrain ribbon to the inside. . .

4
(Shetland Museum and Archives)

. . . here you see the grosgrain button-band reinforcement from the inside, and, to its left, the raw edges of a steek, which has been cut open, and folded back to the inside of the garment, away from the bands. The steek has not been reinforced, or stitched down: because the natural Shetland wool is very ‘sticky’ and has a tendency to felt, the knitter has trusted to the natural action of wear, and, over time, the steek edges have slightly felted together and adhered to the inside of the cardigan. Leaving steek edges ‘raw’ and allowing for felting in this way is a common feature of many Shetland hand-knitted garments, such as yoked cardigans that are still produced and sold today.

5
6
(Shetland Museum and Archives)

Here, a steek has been cut to create the cardigan front opening, and the raw edges have been trimmed back, bound over, and secured to the inside with blue blanket stitch.

7
8
(personal collection)

Here we also see the front and interior of a button band, illustrating a different and rather more laborious method of securing raw steek edges to the inside of a cardigan. The knitter has either created a wound steek (by winding both strands of working yarn round her needle several times) or a dropped steek (in which the steek bridge is knitted and unravelled). Both methods create a giant ladder of strands, and, when the knitting is complete, the knitter cuts this ladder in two, creating a series of ends, which are then individually woven in to the back of the work. A button band has then been picked up from the edge of the wound steek, and worked in moss stitch. The careful finishing of the steek has made the edges of this 1930s garment extremely neat and durable. (For more on this method, see Tom of Holland’s excellent tutorial on the “knotted steek” )

ursula

ursulainside

My own designs use similar techniques of steeking and reinforcing as these earlier garments. Above is a detail of my Ursula design. As you can see, a crocheted steek has been worked, a button band has been picked up along the steek edge, and a ribbon reinforcement has then been hand-sewn to the inside. Rather than leaving the steek edges raw, the crochet reinforcement has been carefully removed, and the steek edges lightly hand-stitched down to the inside.

blaithin

blaithininside

Meanwhile, in my Bláithín , design, a ‘sandwich’ edging is worked to cover and enclose a crocheted steek, securing the cut edges, and rendering them completely invisible.

As we can see from these examples, there are a wide variety of ways to cut and finish a steek. And, because shaping can easily be worked around a seam allowance, steeking is a technique that can be used to knit just about any garment or object. Steeks easily lend themselves to the creation of tea-cosies and blankets, dog jackets and tank tops. Once you are able to cut up knitted fabric without fear, you really can make just about anything.

Want to learn how to work a crocheted steek, or steek “sandwich”? Find the rest of my steeking tutorials here! .

fruition

westhighlandevening

This is the view from the top of our lane yesterday evening. The large hulking hill to the right is Ben Lomond, with the Arrochar “Alps”, including the Cobbler, to the left. The weather continues to be amazing. Everything is coming to fruition. My tomatoes are ripening.

tomatoes

I am impressed with my peppers, also grown from seed. . .

peppers

. . .and I am cutting courgettes and sweet peas every day. The sweet peas grow more luminous and psychedelic. Each day I cut a bloom that seems more wildly neon than the day before.

sweetpea

I planted several different cultivars, but am totally useless at keeping tabs on what’s what, so I’m afraid I have no idea of their names…

Meanwhile, inside, things are coming to fruition too as I now have seven completed YOKE designs. Numbers eight and nine are on the needles, which just leaves number ten for the collection to be complete. I’ve been steadily charting and grading and writing patterns, and Mel and I have been knitting away since April. It is extremely satisfying seeing the collection really coming together now, and to look at the group of distinctive garments hanging in my studio, all of which sort of feel like me. Another exciting phase of the project is about to begin, as I am soon to start working on, and writing about, some different regional styles and practices of YOKE knitting since the 1940s. I’ll say more about this aspect of the book shortly, but for now I’d better finish knitting this sleeve. . . Hope you all have a lovely weekend!

Less is more

bulletproofyoke

I think that one of the most fascinating aspects of designing is the fact that you are coming up with something which has no prior existence. Designing is essentially experimenting, and a large part of the process involves working without knowing quite how something will turn out. Though knitting has a certain amount of predictability to it, one can never fully anticipate just how things are going to appear. . . . this means one makes mistakes, and some of these are more interesting and / or amusing than others. Some of my errors arise from trying an, ahem, “unusual” construction (one day I will show you the unwearable steeked-sleeve-shrug which was originally intended for inclusion in Colours of Shetland); sometimes I am surprised by the way things end up looking (such as when I knit a hat that really looked like a giant boob), but more often than not I think that my mistakes arise from pushing too hard at an idea. This is the case with my current situation, in which I thought it was an interesting and challenging notion to knit a yoke with four colours in one round for thirty-six rounds. On a small swatch the four-colours-in-one-round seemed completely feasible, and the chart I’d devised was really very pleasing – what could possibly go wrong? Well, ten rounds in I realised that the fabric, being about half an inch thick, would not only dramatically reduce the interior capacity of the yoke, but sit incredibly oddly on the upper torso, and generate a heat to warm the wearer to furnace-like temperatures. The fabric certainly looked attractive, but the yoke was so dense that it would have repelled wind, water, and quite probably bullets. Not good! This sort of thing has happened before, and I generally find that my fault lies in over-complication, or over-excitement, or a combination of the two. In any case, I’m now ripping back, re-charting and reverting to the sensible Fair Isle maxim of two shades in one round. Lets see how the chuffer turns out this time.

I’m now over half-way through the design work for my forthcoming YOKES book and have to say that I’m enjoying myself immensely. I promise to tell you more about the project shortly!

treasure

box1

Last weekend I had another successful bid at the Glasgow Auction (which is rapidly becoming my new obsession). The item that had caught my eye was this – a wonderful 1950s walnut sewing cabinet. I am very keen on these cabinets, and have been on the look-out for a nice mid-century one for a while. Now I have one!

box2

The cabinet is in excellent condition and will serve me very well as a by-my-knitting-chair-hold-all for my current projects and notions. An additional bonus was that it came complete with its original contents . . .

box3

. . .which I excavated this afternoon. I found . . .

Straight knitting needles . . .

twinco

. . . patterns . . .

patterns

. . . needle gauge and row counter . . .

gaugeandcounter

. . . equipment for mending and darning “specially prepared for fine silk hose.”

nosew
finesilkhose

. . . collar reinforcements and suspenders . . .

collar

. . . needle cases “frae bonnie Scotland” . . .

fraebonniescotland

. . . and needles for all purposes . . .

needles
floramacdonald

. . . buttons . . .

buttons

. . . .other types of fastening . . .

byappointment

. . . several special threads for stringing necklaces . . .

nylusta

. . . and all types of sewing cotton.

bobbins1
bobbins2

The cabinet also contained a nurse’s dictionary from 1935 and this photograph from Largs. . .

largs1949

. . . which I have included here on the very slim possibility that someone may be able to identify it.

I have a special fondness for ancient haberdashery, and find so many of these objects curious, evocative and moving. Many remind me quite powerfully of my Grandma, also, like the cabinet’s former owner, a knitter on straight needles and a reader of Woman’s Weekly. I still use my Grandma’s darning mushroom and needle gauge and I like how these small functional things carry the memory of her back to me through use. But what have these objects been doing since their owner died, or had no use for them? The item of latest provenance in the cabinet dates from the 1970s. Have these things been sitting in an attic for forty odd years? Will someone a century hence excavate our Addi Turbos, our Chibi darning needles, our scraps of Wollmeisse or Madelinetosh, and feel the same way that I do about the JP Coats bobbins and the mysterious NYLUSTA?

In other news:
*I am extremely happy to report that an appendix-less Tom is now actually on his way home from Dublin! Much relief and general excitement all round. Thankyou very much for your kind wishes.
*After several days swotting up on the Highway Code, I passed my driving-theory test this morning. This is the first essential step to being fully mobile as it means I can now put in for the practical driving test. I feel ready. I think.

A Hap for Harriet

hap3lo

I have a new pattern out today! This is A Hap for Harriet.

hap6lo

I recently heard that my friend, former colleague, and doctoral supervisor, Professor Harriet Guest, was about to retire, and I thought it might be nice to produce and name a design in her honour. Before I began, I had some discussion with Harriet’s husband, John, about colours. Through a cunning ruse, John discerned that “a muted, not too intense green, jadeish but a tiny bit duskier” would be one of Harriet’s preferences. I immediately thought of this:

bitterbug

This is a lovely Shetland 2 ply, dyed up in inimitable fashion by my friend Lilith, in her Bitterbug shade. It’s a heavy laceweight, with 800 yards to the 100g skein. It is worsted-spun, both soft and lofty, and blocks out beautifully to create a fabric that is amazingly light and warm. It was the perfect yarn for the hap or wrap I had in mind.

hap9lo

The hap features a garter stitch centre and a Shetland openwork edging which creates a series of sweeping points. The construction is very simple: it is knit from side to side, the edging and centre are worked simultaneously, and some shaping is added to create a long, shallow triangle.

hap4lo

The result is a simple, dramatic and extremely versatile wrap that can be worn in many different ways.

hap5lo
hap11lo
hap8lo

I designed this hap to make the most of a special skein of yarn: simply weigh your skein and follow the percentage instructions in the pattern (the pictured hap measures just over two metres in length). As well as information about how to adjust the hap’s dimensions, the pattern also includes two full sets of instructions: the first for knitters who like to knit from charts, and the second for those who prefer written instructions.

hap2lo

Today, at the University of York (where I studied, and later worked for many years) there is a colloquium celebrating Harriet’s important work and influence. The hap will be presented to Harriet today, and is my contribution to that celebration. Many moons ago, Harriet supervised both my Masters and Doctoral theses. She had a profound influence on my thinking and writing, and I know I am better at both because of the happy evenings I spent with her discussing matters Eighteenth Century and otherwise over a pint (or two) at the Minster Inn. When I later returned to York to work as a lecturer, Harriet and I established a Master’s degree in Women’s Writing at the Centre for Eighteenth Century Studies, and together we edited Charlotte Smith’s important 1790s novel Marchmont for Pickering and Chatto – a project of which I am still proud. A few days after my stroke in 2010, Harriet appeared in Edinburgh, arms full of vintage detective fiction, which we both enjoy. To me, Harriet has been inspirational teacher, supportive colleague and a true friend. It was often (somewhat dismissively) asked of eighteenth-century women intellectuals whether they could make a pudding as well as translate Epictetus, or write the History of England. Well, I can tell you that as well as changing the way the world thinks about Eighteenth Century literature and culture, Harriet can make a pudding, knit a cardigan, cultivate a garden, sing any tune you like from the Cole Porter song book, and make you laugh out loud.

harriet

Congratulations, Harriet. Hope to see you soon in Herefordshire.

hap1lo

If you’d like to knit your own hap, the pattern is available digitally via Ravelry or in print via MagCloud.

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