(SpillyJane’s Isidora Mittens.)
Playing with pattern and colour are probably what I like most about designing. Over the past few months, I’ve found myself thinking about this a lot, and considering the different ways that pattern is put to use in the colourwork of the designers I admire. At the top of my list has to be SpillyJane – as someone who adorns mittens with pints of beer and sausages it would be hard for me not to like her – but there is so much more to her work than the witty motifs she weaves into her socks and mittens. Her aesthetic influences range from Pewabic Pottery to Flannery O’ Connor, and looking at her designs you can immediately see a creative intelligence at work. In her colourwork there is a grace, an energy, and a precision that I find both impressive and inspiring. I was really pleased that she agreed to this virtual conversation.
(Mystery and Manners Mittens.)
KD:Where is your favourite place to sit and knit?
SJ:Any place where I can hole myself up with a nice cup of tea, really. If I have to select a room at home I’d have to go with my yarn-stuffed studio up under the century-old eaves. On warm Spring and Summer days I love to sit on my porch and work in the sun, surrounded by greenery.
KD:When and how did knitting turn into designing for you?
SJ:As soon as I realized that doing so would afford me the chance to play with colour and pattern. I’ve always been, erm, obsessed with both to the point of distraction. Also, there were things (mittens and socks) that I wanted to knit that didn’t exist yet — it was up to me to make them up, so I did.
(Sea Mineral Mittens.)
KD:What was your first stranded knitting project? Did you enjoy colourwork right from the start?
SJ:It was a Latvian mitten from Lizbeth Upitis’ fantastic book in wonderfully folky colours. Of course, I had no idea what I was doing — I didn’t know how to hold the yarn with both hands, the three-colour portions of the thing were a right mess and my stitches were way too tight. I never did knit the mate to that one — I treated it as a kind of learning experience and just tried to move on. The next mittens I knit were my Sea Mineral mittens, the first pair that I designed.
KD: I think Wurst is my favourite of all your mitten patterns — elegant chic and cured meat in one design! Really, you can’t go wrong. Which of your designs is your favourite? Why?
SJ: I am so, so happy that Wurst is your favourite! I’ve always had a thing (as odd as it may seem,) for strings of sausages. That pattern is based on a stencil I had made years ago. I’ve always found hanging strings of sausage links wonderfully festive and earthy, especially at a busy market — I’ve always wanted to see them on fabrics or wallcoverings.
. . . My favourite of my mitten patterns is Decadence. Firstly, I’m in love with rich, deep colours — gold and plum being two of my favourites. As for the design, it initially appears decorative but subtly deviant poppy pods and absinthe spoons become apparent upon closer inspection. The palm is restrained and architectural, which invokes antique brass furnace gratings that might appear in a dark-panelled room where one might indulge in the aforementioned activities. It’s warm, cozy and vaguely seedy all at the same time.
KD:On your blog, you describe design as a process of translation. Could you say a little more about this?
SJ:With a lot of my work I feel like I’m just continuing the conversation that’s been initiated by my inspiration, but in a “different language,” so to speak. I’ll feel drawn to a song or an object or a building or whatever to the point where I feel the need to respond — to celebrate it, to announce my love for the thing at hand. So I’m very literally translating (carrying that thing over) into the realm of knitting. I hope people see my work and feel the need to respond to my pieces in turn — to keep the conversation going, as it were.
(Polska mittens, and the Polish stoneware that inspired them.)
KD:What do you enjoy least about designing?
SJ: I get too many ideas all at once and I only have one pair of hands!
KD:I like it when happenstance plays a part in the way an idea for a pattern comes together. What was the most unexpected thing that has inspired one of your designs?
SJ:I have always loved the Guardian Building in downtown Detroit, visible across the river from where I live in Windsor. It is a beautiful red brick Art Deco masterpiece highlighted by bands of coloured tilework. When I started designing, it was delightful happenstance that my favourite building had bands of repeating tilework patterns that lend themselves perfectly to translation into colourwork stitches.
(Guardian Building and Mittens)
KD:Is improvisation involved in your design process? do your patterns evolve as you knit them?
SJ:I don’t improvise so much whilst knitting, but I do a little while drawing up the charts. I am constantly adding bits here and there, filling in empty spots or adding elements to make the design easier to knit, more aesthetically pleasing, or more balanced. I’ll look at the hard copy chart and move things around or flip things.
KD:What often impresses me about your designs is the way that you can make complex visual ideas fit within the parameters of a mitten or sock. Your Flamingos are a case in point — combining vim with a sort of disciplined restraint. But do you ever find that your design ideas outstrip the basic possibilities of knitting?
SJ: Sometimes I do. In such cases I modify the idea as much as I can, but if I can’t do so to my satisfaction I’ll throw it out before I compromise the design. The pattern can only work one stitch at a time, and adding too much detail can ruin the simple, folky beauty of the knitted pattern. At the same time, the design elements have to be recognizable. A flamingo has to look like a flamingo; if I can’t break it down to be used on a wee ten stitch grid and have it still be recognizable as a flamingo, I’ll move on to something else.
KD:Is there anything you would never put on a mitten?
SJ:Anything is game, as far as I’m concerned, but some things work better than others in a mitteny context. Some things just naturally lend themselves to being reproduced in miniature or in bands or in rows. It has to work within the parameters set by the mitten. I like these restrictions, they hem in the creativity while allowing me to stretch it to its limits. Contradictory yes, but I swear that this allows me more opportunity, not less.
(Swedish Fish mittens)
KD: Which designer / artist would you most like to invite round to your place for a pint and/ or sausage?
SJ:Florine Stettheimer. I just became familiar with her this past summer. She was an American artist active in the teens, twenties and thirties. I am still learning about her. Her work is dreamy, airy and beautiful and I can’t understand why she isn’t more popular.
Florine Stettheimer, Picnic at Bedford Hills (1918), Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
KD:Do you enjoy any other crafts? crochet? stitching? quilting?
SJ: I enjoy spinning; I love my handmade spindles and find the whirling hypnotic and relaxing. I have dabbled with embroidery over the years, and enjoyed a brief flirtation with Elizabethan stumpwork.
Many thanks to SpillyJane!