A chat with Tom of Holland


I am sure that many of you may be familiar with the work of my good friend and woolly comrade Tom van Deijnen, also known as Tom of Holland. Tom is perhaps best known for his expertise in, and celebration of, darning, which he puts into practice in his classes and workshops, as well as his wonderful Visible Mending Programme. But though Tom is best known as a darner, he can turn his hand to just about any fibre art: he spins, crochets, knits and sews and his approach to all of these activities is incredibly thoughtful and curious. Tom cares about, and cares for, made items, and his work always seems to be prompted by a deep understanding of the processes of making. This is a man who not only wants to lengthen the life of a favourite pair of shoes, but who, in order to do this, will teach himself the art of shoe repair from start to finish. Everything Tom does seems to add vitality and meaning to the textiles that surround him and I find his work inspiring on so many levels. He is a superlative technician, with the focus and patience to refine and hone a method until it best does the job for which it was intended; he is a talented designer with an eye for structure and balance as well as a feel for textile history and tradition; and he is also joyously creative and clearly loves making for its own sake. All of these elements are combined in his superb new design, the Tom of da Peat Hill cardigan, which he has just published. I just love everything Tom does, and thought it would be nice to bring you this wee chat I recently had with him about his work.

1. Tom, you have lived in the UK for many years, but are also “of Holland” . . . can you tell us a little bit about your background and where you grew up?

Yes that’s right. I was born and grew up in the south of The Netherlands. My grandparents kept cows and sheep, so I have had a woolly element in my life from very early on. I still remember the excitement of lambing time: my grandparents obviously were tied to the farm during this period, and visiting them then was always full with expectation: will new lambs be born tonight? Besides that, my mother is an amazingly good knitter. As a child I got her to knit me loads of jumpers. She allowed me to choose patterns and yarns myself, and I remember even as a kid I always wanted 100% wool when possible. Although I’ve always been very creative I wasn’t that interested in knitting at the time, although I was taught at primary school and also a bit by my mum.

(a sock, hand-knitted and expertly darned by Tom)

2. I know that your considerable skills with the needle are completely self-taught — which craft first piqued your interest? And how did that lead on to your developing other needle-skills?

My first love, as a child, was crochet. I’ve made numerous doilies for my both my grandmothers. Most of them very small, but I enjoyed doing them – all completely free-style, I don’t think I even realised there were such things as patterns. I also enjoyed a spot of embroidery and needlepoint. However, as a teenager I became more interested in painting and drawing, and I did little fibre-related stuff until after I moved to the UK. In fact, anything knitting-related I learnt here, so I don’t even know many Dutch knitting terms. This makes talking about knitting with my mum a bit difficult at times.


Tom’s Amazing Jumper – a showcase of many different darning techniques.

3. What was the first thing you ever darned? Can you tell us about the process and what you learned from it?

I have always done little bits of embroidery and other things like beading to hide stains on jumpers or whatever, but the first proper darn was my first pair of hand-knitted socks. After spending weeks trying to learn using double-pointed needles and understanding heelshaping, I was devastated when the first hole developed. But, with mushroom, darning needle, and some old needlecraft books in hand, I soon learnt how to embrace new holes, as they provided me with a new darning opportunity!

Damask darns on Tom’s amazing jumper

4. And how did the visible mending programme come about?

The Visible Mending Programme started because I found others were interested in fixing up clothes, but it’s sometimes difficult to get started. So after getting questions about mending from friends and the general public, I decided I could provide mending inspiration, skills and services by writing a blog, running workshops and taking commissions and thus, The Visible Mending Programme was born. I like mending to be visible, as it’s a talking point which helps me explain to people why I feel it’s important to try to extend the life of a garment as long as possible, rather than throwing it out and buying yet another cheap piece of clothing that will disintegrate after a few washes. I see a beautiful darn as a badge of honour, to be worn with pride.

(Tom explores different pattern ideas in his darns. The green darn in the centre is based on the Sanquhar or tweed “Prince of Wales” check.)

5. In a world dominated by disposable fashion, I find so many things to love about your visible mending programme, but one thing I find especially interesting about it is the way that it suggests that garments and objects, have time written into them — that things are not fixed or static but are always somehow in the process of becoming. I wondered if you could reflect on the way that mending adds, as it were, a certain temporal dimension to the mended object?

For me, I went through some kind of ‘continuity realisation’ when I took up spinning. Making at least some of my own clothes, made me realise that it takes time to make garments; and especially hand-knitting can take a long time. So when I started to darn more, I no longer thought that a garment was finished at the time when I worked in the last ends. Instead, darning keeps adding to the garment, so it’s not finished. It highlights there’s a story and a connection to that garment. I spent time, effort and skill in making it, and darning allows me to reflect on and trace the evolution of the making, and adding to it. Therefore, a garment isn’t finished until it is beyond repair. And even then it might be used as a cleaning rag or whatever. When I took up spinning, I started to understand a garment doesn’t start with casting on, or cutting the fabric pieces. There’s a whole process that happens beforehand, too. Fibre needs to be harvested and processed and spun up into yarn and perhaps woven into cloth, before I can start making the garment. In the olden days, all these things were done by hand, and the more I learn about textile history, the more I am in awe of the skills involved. At the same time, I’m also becoming more and more baffled that people have completely lost this connection, and don’t have the understanding of what’s involved in making clothes. Therefore, it is now possible to buy very cheap clothes on the Higt Street, and these get thrown out when there’s a small hole, or button missing. So this is something else I try to highlight with the Visible Mending Programme. I’d like to go back to an older mindset, where clothes and cloth were expensive, you only had a few, and you looked after them and repaired them until they were completely threadbare.

Visible mend #11

6. Many of your projects suggest an admirably deep understanding of the real nitty-gritty of textiles: the internal structure of stitches, and the way that they behave. Can you tell us about the ways that your technical understanding of knitting and darning speaks to and prompts your creativity?

I guess I’m a real technique geek. I love researching techniques, and the best way is to try them out yourself. So I cast on, or sew a toile, and see what happens. It doesn’t always work out, and then I like to find out why I didn’t get the result I wanted. I often find that old techniques that take a bit longer have advantages over the shortcuts that people seem to prefer nowadays. Sometimes I get completely inspired by the research, so that’s how I ended up making my Curiosity Cabinet of Knitting Stitches, which is a showcase of old and new knitting techniques, some well-known, others obscure. On other occasions I get totally jazzed up by construction techniques (for instance Barbara Walker and Elizabeth Zimmermann) and I want to try that out. There is so much to explore and learn!

Tom’s Curiosity Cabinet of Knitted Stitches: cast ons, bind offs, increases & decreases, selvedges.


Tom’s Curiosity Cabinet of Knitted Stitches: eyelets, chevrons, lace

7. For many reasons, stranded colourwork just does it for me: I have a feeling you feel the same. Can you put into words what it is that you love about stranded knitting?

I do love stranded colourwork. On a practical level, I find it appears to knit up quicker, as you can easily trace your progress through the repeats, and trying to finish ‘one more repeat before I go to bed’ also helps. On a more conceptual level, I’m intrigued and inspired by the many knitting traditions that make up the stranded knitting canon. There is so much interesting history involved: development of patterns, development of construction techniques, social implications of knitting as a way to make a living, the changes in gendered crafts. There is still so much to explore and learn that can feed into my own work.


Aleatoric Fairisle swatch #8

8. With Felicity Ford, you’ve been developing the Aleatoric Fairisle project – where dice-rolls determine the colours and stitch patterns you both knit up as swatches. Can you tell us more about the project and what it has taught you about colour and pattern so far?

The Aleatoric Fair Isle project (‘alea’ is the Latin for dice) was developed from our mutual interest in John Cage (a 20th Century American composer) and his use of dice rolls, the I Ching and other ways of chance to inform his compositions. He wrote a piece called Apartment House 1776, which uses snippets of music from that time. The end result is still recognisably based on the original music, yet at the same time completely fresh and modern. Felicity and I have used the same compositional principles in creating stranded colourwork that is still recognisably based on traditional Fair Isle, yet at the same time is fresh and modern. It has taught me a lot about colours in particular. Following certain rules we created, we select colours from 21 shades, using dice rolls. There are also rules on how to select the patterns (all are from Mary MacGregor’s book Traditional Fair Isle Patterns.) We started knitting exactly what the dice told us to do, but soon we both started to rebel and try to do things a bit differently. This is still true to John Cage, who also made a lot of subjective decisions whenever something didn’t seem right to his artistic sensibility. I’ve knitted eleven swatches now, and most of these need fixing in some way. Particularly our rule on how to come up with the shades for the contrast row (the row in the middle of the pattern.) Traditionally the contrast row was used to knit in some yarn of which you had very little for whatever reason: you may simply not have had enough, or it was very expensive to make, for instance, it was dyed with indigo. going through the Aleatoric process and feeling that rebellion makes you more aware of colour. It has made me more confident in choosing shades that work together, and also that you should add one colour which jars a bit with the others, to add some freshness and contrast. Lastly, the contrast colour should never break the pattern up.


Aleatoric Fairisle swatch #3

9. And how has the Aleatoric Fairisle Project informed the design choices you made with your wonderful Tom of da Peat Hill cardigan?

One of the Aleatoric Fair Isle swatches intrigued me. This swatch had the patterns placed vertically, and I was very curious to see how they would work horizontally. I tried it out in the Foula wool and I liked the way it came out. I think the Foula wool colours naturally harmonise well together, but from doing all the Aleatoric swatches I learnt a lot about finding a harmonious balance. Particularly the black needs to be used in moderation, as it’s such a strong colour and tends to dominate and throw off the design if used too much.

10. Why did you choose Foula Wool to knit this garment?

I would almost say that the wool chose me! For a while I wanted a warm outerwear cardigan, and the Foula wool is perfect for that. It’s knits up quick, and after washing it it blooms quite a bit, so it makes a very integrated fabric.


11. I think the colours, patterns and repeats of your cardigan are really beautifully balanced. The planning process of the design must have been considerable. Can you tell us a little bit about it?

I got my hands on some wool from Magnus, and the limited palette of seven shades actually made design choices easier, as there’s not too much to distract you. I already had the starting point from the Aleatoric Fair Isle swatch, and then when I knitted this up in the Foula wool, I found it quite easy to correct things, because there are only seven colours to play with. And in true Aleatoric style, I left a bit to luck and worked them out as I went along!


12. I find that knitting actually knitting a design can change the direction of my ideas about it, sometimes in quite subtle ways. Did anything change for you while making this cardigan?

Each time I make something, I start reflecting on the item whilst working on it. I often try out something new and see what I think about it. This often relates to techniques I’ve chosen. For this cardigan, I had a number of ideas on how to work out the buttonband and collar, and I kept changing my mind until I actually got to the point I had to do it. I settled for a moss stitch buttonband with i-cord loops for the toggles. Also, I had two options for the toggles, and the final choice could only be made at the end and I chose the opposite from what was my favourite up until then. Also the way I dealt with the knotted steek has changed throughout the knitting of it. In June Hemmons Hyatt’s The ‘Principles of Knitting’ she suggests that you could cut the strands really short and leave a small fringe on the inside. I tried this on one armhole, but I much prefer the second, and more time-consuming method, of skimming in the ends at the back of the fabric.


13. I know you have tried many steeking methods, but are a great fan of the knotted steek. Can you explain what this is and why you like it?

I believe in having different techniques at my disposal, so I can chose the one that’s most suited for the job. As the Foula wool is a chunky double-knit weight, I felt that the more usual way of cutting the steek and folding the seams in and tacking them down would be too thick. Likewise your own method of the steek sandwich. If I had used this on the Foula wool, I would have very thick buttonbands. So I looked elsewhere. The knotted steek was the solution for me. I first used it for the Aleatoric Fair Isle swatches, as it can be really quick, as long as you don’t mind the fringe. Once you have knitted the steek and you’re going to cast off the tube you’ve knitted, then you make sure not to cast off the steek stitches. Instead, you let the steek stitches drop down all the way. You end up with a big massive ladder. Then you cut the strands, leaving equal lengths on each edge. The next step is to knot together the pairs of strands that are used in each row, using an overhand knot. In other words, each row will end in a knot. You can then easily pick up your stitches for the buttonband and not have to worry about accidentally manipulating the edge too much. As only pairs of strands get knotted, the edge has the same flexibility as the body of the fabric. Once the buttonband is finished (or the sleeve, of course,) you take a sharp-pointed sewing needle (a crewel needle works well) and skim in the ends at the back of the fabric. This makes for a very flat finish, no bulk whatsoever.

(Tom will be explaining more about the knotted steek technique shortly in a tutorial on his blog. )


14. Finally, I know you are, like me, a great fan of wearing wool. Can you tell us about some of your favourite items from your all-wool wardrobe?

I have many pairs of hand-knitted socks, most of which have darns in them now. I am rather fond of a black scarf which I jazzed up with some Swiss darning to add small blocks of colour, and love my woollen trousers thatI made last year for Wovember. My Sanquhar gloves are great in keeping my hands warm for chilly days cycling, but the Tom of da Peat Hill cardigan definitely takes current pride of place in my woolly wardrobe!

Thankyou, Tom!

You can find out more about Tom’s work, and his current teaching schedule here. And the Tom of da Peat Hill cardigan is now available from Ravelry.

mitten graveyard

Welcome to the mitten graveyard – where bad mittens meet their end.

A place of misplaced thumbs . . .

. . . cuffs of varying dimensions . . .

. . . endless ends

. . . and the same pattern repeated usque ad nauseam

Sometimes things get very nasty, and scissors are involved.

There are currently five mittens in the graveyard – but this morning one finally made it through to the happy land where all good mittens run wild and free. Or summat.

I think I have reached the end of this particular figurative road. Time to move away from the mittens. . .


Needled reviews: The F-Word. Tuesdays, 9pm, Channel 4
Richard Sennett, The Craftsman (Allen Lane, 2008)

Don’t get me wrong, I do not like The F-Word, but it is worth watching it occasionally for a few cheap laughs. You know the bit I mean: when Gordon tells you how to make his pea and lettuce soup in just one minute, all in words of just one syllable. Riotous! We are somehow meant to see Gordon’s failure to use any adjectives at all as the signature of his virility, “full of balls, energy, and really great food,” as the Channel-4 tag-line puts it. (Full of balls? Sure is. . .) And the gender stereotypes peddled in Gordon’s brisk how-tos are just as strange and crass as those associated with Nigella. Man does not describe. Oh no. Describing words redundant, and unmanly. Man only know how to use imperative. Imperative style of cooking instructions works best with short, firm words. More difficult with two syllables. Very hard to make the word “mushrooms” sound manly. “Mushrooms” does not sound like manly decree. Man quickly mutters “mushrooms” then gets on with real business of shouting Real Man Words. “WHISK! TOSS! STIR!” etc. If Nigella’s mellifluous, adjectival style is supposed to be read in direct relation to her cleavage, then the F-Word’s use of the imperative might be seen as the culinary equivalent of a wanking circle, with wee Gordon in the centre, braying out commands (Shaft! Girth! Beat! Etc)


But I bring the F-word to your attention because of a particular moment in Tuesday’s show. The redoubtable Janet Street Porter appeared on set, fresh from her carefully stage-managed experience of rearing and slaughtering two veal calves. The viewer had already been treated to the money-shot of the poor beasts’ deaths, and what we clearly needed now was Janet to preach at us about our lamentable food-buying habits. We must never buy cheap meat again. No we mustn’t. Instead, we should feast only on luxury meat products humanely reared by media luminaries. While dispensing her new-found farming wisdom, Janet was dressed in a formless top, machine-knit in a vibrant shade of puce. It was a truly hideous garment (sorry, Janet).

“I suppose you knit that yourself?” said Gordon, inferring that Janet’s experience of slaughtering “her boys” had turned her all rustic, or something.
“No I fooking didn’t, Gordon,” retorted Janet, “this is a designer item.”


Now, I know that I’m more sensitive than your average jane to anti-knitting slurs, but this was about so much more than knitting. Janet enthused about how raising the calves, and watching the process of their lives and deaths, had completely transformed her perception of meat. She now knew what was involved with what she put on her plate. And everyone should think about how the meat they eat is raised and killed. Apart from the patronising attitude, and the unavoidable questions Janet did not address about cost, class, and the ethics of raising a niche luxury product like veal, this is sort of fair enough. Yes, Janet. We should all think about process, and production. But, the problem is, that she hadn’t really engaged with process at all. She had merely played a game to camera: a game with a neatly plotted narrative arc, with contrived hooks and encounters, with a particular rhetorical language (that of reluctant maternity—quite bizarre) and with moments of typically ‘direct’ and ‘irreverant’ Street-Porter-like entertainment. “’Oh no, it’s pooing again’, moans Janet,” to quote The F-Word website. Janet had engaged about as much with the slow processes and difficult realities of farming as she had with the making of her sweater, and her quick retort about the obvious superiority of ‘designer’ to ‘hand-made’ spoke volumes.

So is it just me, or does so much of this currently popular moralising about process (particularly as it concerns food) have an incredibly hollow ring? It is just far too easy for Gordon, Janet and their like to preach to the middle classes about the importance of the means of producing edible luxuries, before nipping out to snap up, promote, or sell other commodities with little thought about the process of their making—or the livelihoods of their makers, for that matter.

But one place where such discussions of process are neither hollow or easy is in Richard Sennett’s excellent new book, The Craftsman. If you haven’t read it yet, you definitely should. In a series of radical, lyrical essays, this venerable sociologist makes the case for a reassessment of the idea of work itself. The making of things for use or beauty are never, he argues, a matter of individual brilliance, the romantic imagination, or isolated talent. Rather, for him, excellence lies somewhere between the eye and hand, in material practices and processes, and the slow engagement with them over time. Sennett’s notion of craft is something equally applicable to the design of a mobile-phone or a line of linux code, as much as a Stradivari violin , or a particular recipe for Poulet a la d’Albufera. For him, all these ‘crafts’ involve the same struggle with tools and processes, the same issues of encountering and solving problems, of developing and refining skill and focus, of learning how repetition itself can be creative, and of coming to know the singular pleasure of doing something well for its own sake. It is a book of tremendous breadth and sweep but which is also rich in details. In fact, for me, Sennett’s singularity, both as a writer and a public intellectual, is found in such details: in the bumper that really bothers him in the parking garage of a post-modern building; in his discussion of the symbolic values of bricks; in his thoughtful self-awareness of being an outsider as he watches a group of healthcare professionals transfixed by the image of a troublesome large intestine. And any man who can begin a sentence with the words “consider, for instance, an irregular tomato” and from that opening build an argument about the how an idea of virtue inheres in thing-ness, is OK by me.

Epinglier (pin making) Diderot, Encyclopedie (1762)

Lurking around the back of Sennett’s thesis is a familiar argument about the de-humanising effects of the modern and post-modern division of labour. He is quite explicit about his fondness for the all-encompassing curiosity of the mid-eighteenth century, or the undifferentiated artisanal labour of the medieval workshop. Not for him Adam Smith’s efficiently produced pins. This practical resistance to the division of labour—and the division of knowledge too, perhaps—is something he clearly applies to his own intellectual craft-work. He writes about the way children treat the spaces and equipment of playgrounds just as articulately as he does about Martin Heidegger.

Sennett’s thoughts about process have multiple and resonant contexts for me. For example, his remarks about being-in-the-thing came to my mind very strongly, when I read Mandy’s account of the pleasure of the rhythm of knitting her swallowtail shawl:

“We might think, as did Adam Smith describing industrial labour, of routine as mindless, that a person doing something over and over goes missing mentally; we might equate routine and boredom. For people who develop sophisticated hand skills, it’s nothing like this. Doing something over and over is stimulating when organised as looking ahead. The substance of the routine may change, metapmorhose, improve, but the emptional payoff is one’s experience of doing it again. There’s nothing strange about this experience. We all know it; it is rhythm. Built into the contractions of the human heart, the skilled crafsman has extended rhythm to the hand and eye.” (p. 175)

. . .and his section on mess chimes very strongly with Felix’s and Kirsty‘s Messy Tuesdays posts:

“To arrive at that goal [that of being fit-for-purpose] the work process has to do something distasteful to the tidy mind, which is to dwell temporarily in mess—wrong moves, false starts, dead ends. Indeed, the probing craftsman does more than encounter mess; he or she creates it as a means of understanding working procedures.” (p.161)

And what Sennett has to say about the importance of modesty, and the awareness of one’s own inadequacies, while engaging with material processes is very moot too. Perhaps this is something for Janet and Gordon to bear in mind.

*You can hear Richard Sennett talking with Laurie Taylor and Grayson Perry about craftsmanship, and process in this episode of Thinking Allowed.


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