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).

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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.

fireicetouor

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!

Chris’ croft

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The Spring edition of 60 North is out! And its a great issue. Those of you who have my Colours of Shetland book may recall mention of my archeologist friend, Chris Dyer, whose knowledge and inspiration helped me to develop my ideas for my Scatness designs. Well, Chris recently started to raise his own Shetland sheep, and in a great feature he’s produced for the magazine, he talks about the challenges of preparing for and caring for his lovely Bressay flock. Chris is just one of those folk who should be crofting, and it made me so happy to read his piece – and his photographs make me want to be back in Shetland immediately! You might have already come across one of Chris’ fine ewes as the face of Shetland Wool Week. . .

shetlandewe

. . . and this edition of the magazine includes loads more knitterly inspiration too. There’s a Wool Week report from Tom of Holland, and another piece covering last year’s event from Edinburgh journalist, Susan Mansfield. This October’s Shetland Wool Week promises to be really exciting, and I’m very looking forward to seeing the full programme of events which I believe will be published shortly. I’ll be there as a punter this year, and am actually hoping to take a class or two.

So put the kettle on, make yourself a cup of tea, download your copy of 60 North, and enjoy! (Its free!)

spring60north

Layter – a celebration of sheep and wool

Layter_closeup

In case you haden’t noticed, today is the first of WOVEMBER! I thought I’d begin the month by showing you a garment that, like no other I can think of, truly celebrates the glorious variety of British sheep and wool. It was designed by my good friend and fellow WOVEMBERIST, Felicity Ford, AKA, Felix. This year, Felix was the patron of Shetland Wool Week, (and if you’ve not yet heard / seen her singing the “Shetland Wool Song” I suggest you pop over to YouTube right now!) Back in June 2009, Felix and I and several other woolly friends met up at Woolfest. It was a wonderful weekend for all of us, and I well recall how Felix, over a jolly pint or two at the Bitter End in Cockermouth, toasted the glory of British wool, and explained to us how she was going to create a garment celebrating the diversity of sheep, inspired by what she’d seen at the show. Layter was the result, and, over the past few years, this marvelous original garment has evolved several times. Its now available as two fabulously sheepy designs, for both adults and babies. I asked Felix to tell us more about the story of Layter.

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1. What does “Layter” mean?

“Layter” is a word from an old Cumbrian counting rhyme which shepherds used in the past for counting their sheep and it’s the number “seven”. The prototype of the design used wool from seven different breeds and since I found this wool in Cumbria at WOOLFEST, a title from that part of the world made sense. I love that when people ask me about “Layter” we end up talking about old shepherding traditions!

Blacker_Yarns

2. I have a very clear recollection of your infectious excitement at Woolfest in June 2009, upon perusing the marvelous breed-specific yarns that were available at the Blacker Yarns stand. Am I right in thinking that this was the moment the design was born? Can you tell us about this moment and the garment’s inspiration?

The Blacker Yarns stand blew my mind! There were two deep containers full of balls of yarn from different sheep breeds. As I read the names on the ball bands and squished the yarns, I felt there was loads to discover about each one. I pulled out ball after ball and kept finding more names… Jacob, Border-Leicester, Manx Loaghtan, North Ronaldsay, Shetland, Teeswater… it was like a poem! Additionally, I watched a shearing demonstration and was really impressed by how the shearer got the fleece off the sheep all in one piece. I realised I really wanted to knit something which looked like that, so yes – the design was born in the wonderful sheepy celebration that is WOOLFEST!

woolfest_shearing
(shearing at Woolfest)


3. You then began knitting, and I remember first seeing (and admiring) the first incarnation of Layter just a few weeks after Woolfest. I know how you loved this garment and wore it loads. In many ways this design seems to epitomise your concept of ‘the slow wardrobe’! Can you tell us about how the original Layter has stood up to wearing since you made it?

The first incarnation of Layter was knit at quite a loose gauge, which makes it drapey, and quite long and robe like! The fabric has relaxed with time, and the whole garment feels very feminine to me. I love wearing it with a dress, and that I can really hug it around myself in the cold! I am genuinely impressed with how well the yarn has worn; it hasn’t pilled or shed, and the stitches remain well-defined. The fibres have softened after four years of wear, and the whole garment has developed a very slight and pleasing bloom. The sideways construction means it can stretch a little bit if I wear it every day for a couple of weeks, producing a mildly limp appearance, but when this happens, I simply bung it in my washing machine on a Wool cycle and give it a good block! Layter does indeed epitomise my concept of ‘The Slow Wardrobe'; it is a 100% WOOL garment that I cherish and will wear for years to come; the yarn it is made of is durable and well spun; and the whole process of making it has made me more aware of different breeds of sheep and the unique properties of their wool! However perhaps most importantly, it sparks conversations about wool and sheep everywhere it goes. Because it is quite big and has those crazy sleeves, it does attract attention, and every time I wear it, people ask questions, and seem enchanted by the notion that the stripes are all from different sheep breeds. Folk immediately connect it with what they have seen on Countryfile, or start telling me about their own connections with sheep, and men always seem to ask me if there is any Herdwick in it! The Slow Wardrobe is about making my own clothes, but it’s also about how we talk and think about fashion, and I love the conversations I get to have with strangers when I wear original Layter.

old_Layter


4 After many of us badgering you for a pattern, you later (heh) re-designed and re-developed Layter for publication. How did the second incarnation of the design differ from the first? And what did you learn from the process of redesigning and re-knitting?

I was thinking about a garment that other people might really like to wear which could be paired with tailored trousers or a fitted shirt. To achieve a more flattering, figure-hugging garment, I re-knit Layter using exactly the same maths as in the original version, but at a much tighter gauge. The waist and hips are defined more dramatically and the rows of tight-knit garter stitch are very neat. The effect of this tidier, firmer fabric is a more formal garment, and something which is more like a jacket. In redesigning Layter I also abandoned the big puffy sleeves because I always felt they gave original Layter a slightly religious appearance which I find amusing, but which I wasn’t sure other knitters would enjoy!

Layter_OnePiece
(Layters together)


5 How many British sheep breeds and fleece shades are represented in the new Layter? What was your process of selection? And did you have thoughts of including more?

The new Layter contains wool from several different sheep breeds – some of which are represented in multiple shades! The full list contains Southdown, Corriedale, Ryeland, Shetland, Jacob, Manx Loaghtan, North Ronaldsay, Hebridean and Pure Black Welsh Mountain DK knitting yarn… nine discrete breeds in total. Carrying on the theme of the old Cumbrian counting words, I called that version “Covera” which means nine. I would like to do a further version which incorporates Herdwick, Rough Fell, Swaledale, Romney, Wensleydale and Cotswold, because this would create more textural contrast and if I made a version with fifteen sheep breeds in it, the corresponding word from the counting rhyme is “Bumfit” which I think is brilliant. Who doesn’t want a garment that fits nicely around the bum? !

My process of selection involved lining up a lot of balls of Blacker Yarn, arranging them from dark through to light, and swatching to see which textures would work best together. The yarns used in the latest version are all fairly matt and hardwearing, and I got mildly obsessed with different shades of white while knitting it. The Corriedale almost looks bleached, while the Southdown is more ivory, and the Bluefaced Leicester is the softest of the bunch, and somehow mildly translucent! I played a bit with how to use these different whites through the sleeves and at the sides of the body.

Layter_aeroplane

6. Tell us about how the garment is constructed. Was it fun to design?

Layter is knit vertically in 2 pieces from front to back over the shoulders. To finish, it is grafted together at the sides and centre back. Finally, a neckband is added, providing some shaping. I felt that constructing a garment sideways would allow me to make a vertically-striped garment for showing off my sheepy rainbow of Blacker Yarns, and decided on an open garment rather than a sweater because this would most closely resemble a fleece just taken off a sheep. I knit it in two halves so that I could maximise the yardage from all of my balls of Blacker Yarns by simply dividing them all in half and knitting one half of the garmemt at a time. Working this out was all fun, but the best part was actually getting on with making it. Those stripes go fast, and there is a feeling of being involved the knitterly equivalent of cheese tasting as you register the qualities of one sort of wool and anticipate the next! I fell in love with Manx ; it is matt, gingery, warm and soft, and reminds me of biscuits. I also love the feathery texture of Black Welsh Mountain and the sturdy, dense hand of Southdown…

LAYTER-COLOURS-INFOGRAPHIC copy
7. Layter has been an evolving project for four years now, and the latest stage in its evolution is Blayter (Baby-Layter) – an incredibly cute scaled-down version for infants and toddlers. Can you tell us about how this design developed out of your previous work on Layter?

I am conscious that there are more modifications that could be made – more short rows; a side to side approach, eliminating the back seam – all modifications best understood through knitting practice rather than in the abstract! I felt a smaller version of the pattern would make it easier to test out these different ideas for this garment…a baby version was an obvious idea once I realised I wanted to continue tinkering with the construction, and playing around with colours organised into vertical stripes!

03_Blayter-ideas


8 Does Blayter use the same construction method as the adult garment?

The basic method of construction is exactly the same as for the adult Layter, but there are proportionately far fewer short rows because I didn’t want to create a lot of extra fabric to swathe a baby in. The neckband is also more gently shaped, and the sleeves are long enough to either come right down over the hands or to be rolled up out of the way. The gauge is quite tight, and again it is conceived of as a little jacket rather than a next-to-skin garment. The name – as you have probably gathered – is a conflation of “Baby” and “Blayter”, although I did think about calling it Yann, because I only used the wool of one sheep while designing it!

J&S_supreme

9. What wool did you choose and why?

I chose to work with Shetland Supreme Jumper Weight from Jamieson & Smith because I enjoyed the soft hand of wool from the Shetland sheep breed when I was knitting Layter, and thought it would be gentle enough for a baby to wear. I also love the range of colours represented within the Shetland breed, and the Shetland Supreme palette offers the possibility to be quite subtle moving between greys, fawns, whites, creams… I started a high contrast version of Blayter which looked a bit like a mint humbug, but in the end was seduced by the subtle transitions possible between Shaela, Katmollet, Mooskit and Gaulmogot! Shetland Supreme has a lovely light hand, and even knit at quite a tight gauge, retains a soft halo and bounciness… it’s lovely for a baby jacket. I also wanted to find a way of fitting the sheepy ethos behind the original Layter to the aims of Shetland Wool Week, which – like WOOLFEST – is such a fantastic celebration of sheep and wool! What better way than by designing Blayter in a way that celebrates some of the lovely shades of wool found amongst Shetland sheep?

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10. What challenges did you find adapting the pattern for differently proportioned bodies?

There’s lots of conflicting information about sizing from different sources, and this made certain aspects of the design process a bit tricksome. To assist with these challenges, I enlisted the help of our amazing friend Liz, who as well as being a brilliant tech-knitter, is an experienced knitter of baby things, and has produced many tiny and gorgeous items for her two lucky nieces. Liz was a total star and test-knitted a beautiful version of the pattern in berry shades of Jamieson & Smith 2 ply. She also discussed baby sizes and proportions with me, and made great suggestions for the details we included on the sizing chart, because in her experience, babies range wildly in terms of size/age. I learnt loads from her during the process of adapting Layter to fit a baby.


11. Finally, what is your favourite sheep breed and why?

Ooh it’s a tricky one, that! Hard to pick just one as they are all so amazing, and all for such different reasons, but I have an enduring fondness for small, wild sheep like Shetlands, Manx Loaghtans, North Ronaldsays, Borerays… I am afraid I am terribly romantic about all these breeds. When I was in Shetland, Ollie showed everyone a hairy grey fleece which he described as “scadder” meaning that it’s very rough. I love that fleece, though, because it is what the Shetland sheep would grow if left to its own devices in order to survive in the wild. It has a thick mane down the middle which I imagine would give a ram a very proud aspect out on the hills! To me, scadder looks like land… like rocks, stones, earth, peat… On the other hand, who can argue with the lovely ginger-biscuit fleece of the Manx Loaghtan which is wild too, but surprisingly soft? Perhaps in the end though I have to say the Boreray is my favourite sheep, purely because it’s the most endangered breed, and the one we all need to love the most if we want to keep it going!

Thanks so much, Felix!

If you’d like to celebrate WOVEMBER by knitting your own Layter, you’ll find the adult pattern here and the baby pattern here.

And be sure to follow the WOVEMBER blog this month, for sheepy stories, inspiring interviews, woolly giveaways and more!

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Shepherd hoody

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You may remember that, last year, I mentioned how thrilled I was to be invited, along with Kirsten Kapur, to design a sweater for Susan Gibbs and Emily Chamelin’s project The Shepherd and The Shearer. Well, the sheep have been shorn, the yarn has been spun, the patterns have been written, and a lovely booklet and a sweater’s worth of yarn is about to wing its way to 200 subscribers. I’ll explain the process, and my part in it.

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Susan’s original brief was one I found particularly exciting: to design a functional cabled sweater that would suit the robust properties of a good, natural woollen-spun yarn, that would wear well and look good over time. For my swatches and sample I used some local Scottish stuff that we imagined would be a really good match for how Emily and Susan envisioned their yarn turning out – New Lanark Aran (a yarn whose weight is equivalent to a US ‘worsted’) . I popped over to the mill to pick up yarn for my sample back in April, and decided that I wanted to make a simple, functional hoody – a garment which a shepherd might easily throw on before nipping outside to check her animals. I thought I’d use a simple modified drop-shoulder construction (a style that’s easy for shepherds of all body shapes and sizes to wear) and an allover cable pattern (both fun and straightforward to knit). I finally settled on a stitch that I have always found really pleasing.

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When knit, this alternating cable has a lovely rhythm to it. It is simple enough to make the knitting a pleasant distraction, but has enough action to remain interesting to work. This was the cable for the Shepherd hoody! I started to work on the design.

While I was knitting away in Edinburgh, over the pond in the US, Emily was shearing sheep.

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The fleeces used for the Shepherd and the Shearer were shorn by Emily from animals raised in fifty flocks on small farms across the Mid-Atlantic region. One thing I find particularly interesting about the yarn that’s resulted from the project is the variety of identifiable breeds and crosses that are blended in it, mixing the fleeces of ancient British breeds like Shetland, with relatively new US breeds, like the California Red Face.

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(I spy a goat-buddy)

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After shearing, the fleeces were prepped and skirted . . .

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. . .then sorted and baled

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From there, the bales were taken to MacAusland’s mill in Prince Edward Island.

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(Here is Emily, heroically joining the bales on their trip to the mill following an accident which severed tendons in her left hand. I’m very happy to say that after surgery and physio, she’s back to shearing again.)

MacAusland’s has been in business since 1870, and under a vertical operation where all processes are finished on-site, scours, cards, and spins raw wool into yarn on a 128 bobbin frame.

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With its firm springy hand, the yarn has indeed turned out to be very close to the New Lanark Aran I used for my sample.

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While the yarn was being processed and spun, the Shepherd hoody was being knitted. Here’s how it turned out.

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Now, I like all my samples, but I immediately developed a very special affection for this finished garment. Once I’d put it on, I seriously didn’t want to take it off. I think its equally suited to tramping about the fields in a brisk wind . . .

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. . . or cosying up by the fire on a chill winter’s evening.

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The hems, cuffs and hood are finished with moss stitch.

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. . . as is the pixie hood

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I’ve used buttons on the facings, but they are equally well suited to the insertion of a zipper, if preferred.

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The construction enables the hoody to be knit all in one piece, completely seamlessly, with minimal finishing. The pattern is sized from 30 to 57 inches, and I reckon it could easily be worn by a shepherd of either sex.

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In short, I absolutely love this garment, and it was really very difficult packing it up in a box and sending it off to the US.

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The pattern for the Shepherd hoody, together with that for the breathtakingly beautiful Shearer pullover, designed by Kirsten Kapur, is included in a booklet produced by Juniper Moon Farm telling the whole story of The Shepherd and the Shearer. This booklet, together with a plump package of yarn to make their choice of sweater, is about to be posted to the project’s 200 subscribers, without whom none of the processes I’ve described in this post would have happened.

From start to finish it has been a delight to be part of a collaborative project which truly celebrates sheep and wool, and which also makes transparent and legible the many different kinds of labour that go into raising and processing fibre. It is quite rare to receive a commission to design a garment to support that labour, and to showcase the unique properties of that fibre, rather than to speak to a trend, and I have to say that this is one reason I was so pleased to be invited to participate. The project has brought together the skills of many talented women and I am very proud to have been involved. I want to say a special thankyou to Lauria at Juniper Moon, who has been cheerfully brilliant at co-ordinating the project, and bringing everything smoothly together. I hope the subscribers enjoy their wonderful yarn, and the patterns that Kirsten and I have designed, and I understand that a limited further number of Shepherd and Shearer kits will also soon be available from the Juniper Moon Shop, so if you are interested in knitting yourself a Shepherd hoody or a Shearer pullover, do keep your eye on the site for updates.

Photos reproduced courtesy of Juniper Moon Farm

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A tale of Titus

As you know, the story of the yarns I use in my designs is very important to me. I am always interested to know as much as possible about a yarn’s provenance and background; like to use fibres that are locally grown and processed where possible; and am especially keen on yarns that showcase the unique qualities of different breeds of British sheep. One of my recent ‘wow’ discoveries is Titus, a wonderful new yarn that has been developed by my Yorkshire friends at baa ram ewe. I am sure many of you will have heard of Titus already, even if you haven’t knit with it, as each new batch seems to disappear from baa ram ewe’s shelves in Headingley and Harrogate almost as fast as it is spun up. Why is Titus so special? Well, this yarn blends the lustrous fibres of two beautiful British sheep breeds — Grey Wensleydale and Blue Faced Leicester — together with 30% UK Alpaca. These three different fibres are worsted-spun together to create a yarn that has a gorgeous sheeny-soft hand, but also tremendous strength. What I especially like about this yarn is that it feels incredibly luxurious but, because of the particular qualities of the fibres of which it is composed, is also clearly really tough and hard wearing. It has a really unique hand — smooth, yet because of the Wensleydale, slightly hairy — and you can tell as you knit it that the yarn simply does not want to bobble or pill. So far, Titus has been available in three natural shades, but five new colours are about to be produced, meaning that the yarn now also has a beautifully balanced palette. In short, I love Titus, and have just completed a couple of designs using it, which I’ll show you very shortly (huzzah!) First, though, I caught up with Verity Britton of baa ram ewe to hear more about Titus and the thinking behind it.

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How did the idea for Titus first come about?

Owning a wool shop and choosing among the hundreds of different yarns that are offered to us does make you think about what your dream yarn would be. We love the fuzziness of our local Wensleydale and the softness of the Bluefaced Leicester and Alpaca, and when the opportunity came to have a small batch spun, we jumped at the chance. It was amazing seeing our dreams become reality!


Can you tell us about the process of the yarn’s development? What was involved?

We knew what mix of fibres we wanted in our yarn, but we’d never made one before, so we took some advice from the the wonderful John Arbon of Fibre Harvest, who spun our first ever batch of Titus. We’re passionate about supporting British Wool and UK fibres and showcasing our local breeds here in Yorkshire, so it some ways it was an easy choice to make. We could say we had a firm idea of exactly how the yarn should be spun and what it would look like but in fact we put our trust in John who had far more experience at spinning wonderful yarns than we did. We were very nervous when we ordered our initial 12 kilos- would we like it? Would anyone else like it? But when the box arrived we breathed a huge sigh of relief. It was absolutely gorgeous and surpassed all of our expectations.


Who was Titus Salt and why is he associated with your yarn?

Sir Titus Salt was a Leeds born wool manufacturer who became tired of the smoke and pollution emanating from Yorkshire’s mills and factory chimneys and built a new mill on the outskirts of Shipley, followed by houses, bathhouses, an institute, hospital, almshouses and churches which became the village of Saltaire, now a World Heritage Site. But this wasn’t Sir Titus’ only achievement. In 1836, Titus came upon some bales of Alpaca in a warehouse in Liverpool and, after taking some samples away to experiment, came back and bought the consignment. Sir Titus became the creator of the lustrous and subsequently hugely fashionable alpaca cloth, which contributed massively to his success as a manufacturer. And that’s why we’ve added 30 per cent of the finest UK Alpaca to our yarn, which adds a little bit of magic to our wonderful wool, and strengthens that connection to our Yorkshire heritage even further.

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It is fair to say that Titus has been a roaring success, recently voted no.1 British yarn by the readers of Knit Now Magazine! Do you have any plans for new colourways and ranges?

We have been completely bowled over by the popularity of Titus and can’t thank knitters and customers enough for their support, especially for their patience when we sell out! It’s been so popular that we have now been able to introduce a brand new Titus colour range spun by the amazing Peter Longbottom of West Yorkshire Spinners. There are eight shades, all inspired by our Yorkshire surroundings, which blend beautifully together making them ideal for colourwork. It’s being dyed up as we speak and should be available in the next week or so- we’re so excited!

baa ram ewe is located in the historic hub of the UK textile industry. Is that heritage important to you? How?

One of the biggest reasons for opening baa ram ewe in Leeds and now Harrogate was to reaffirm Yorkshire’s historic link to wool and to celebrate that heritage. Industrial towns like Leeds, Bradford, Halifax and Huddersfield would not have flourished without the wool trade, and towns like Harrogate with the Yorkshire Dales on its doorstep mean sheep breeds like the Wensleydale and Swaledale are practically on your doorstep. We want to celebrate that woolly heritage and we love that so many of our customers want to see and buy yarn that is local to Yorkshire- it means we must be doing something right!

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I lived and worked in Yorkshire for many years, and love it for many reasons. What is special to you about Yorkshire and its landscape?

It’s hard to put your finger on it, but for me there is an understated natural warmth and beauty to both the Yorkshire landscape and the people that live here. Yorkshire has a really captivating mix of both industrial and rural heritage that is really unique, creating a quiet confidence that envelopes you and makes you proud, even if- like me- you weren’t born here. It’s a rich, varied and special place and if you haven’t been- come and visit soon!


What is your favourite Yorkshire expression or dialect word? (For the record, mine is probably GINNEL).

Oooh I like Ginnel too! Joint favourite though is one I got from my husband and is RADGED, as in ‘he were proper radged’, meaning very, very angry. To me, it’s almost an onomatopoeia. My mother in law says it all the time and it always makes me chuckle.

Finally, what’s next for baa ram ewe?

Oh Lord, who knows? We’ve just opened a second store in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, so we’re still recovering from that. We can’t wait for our new Titus colour range to hit the shelves any day now, and then we’ll be taking that to Woolfest in Cumbria and TNNA in the U.S in June, as well the new Yarndale show in Skipton this September. Oh, and then we’re organising the second Yorkshire Wool Week in October. So just another quiet year for us again then….

Thanks, Verity!

And finally, here’s a wee hint of what’s to come in my Titus designs :

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Shetland Wool Week in pictures: part 1

Sheep on the hill . . .

. . . and at the marts.

Some fine boys . . .

. . . and my secret favourite.


Oliver Henry, Shetland Woolmeister . . .

. . . judging fine wool on the hoof . . .

. . . and off.


straight from the sheep . . .

. . . to the wool store

. . ready for sorting and grading.

Sheep Carousel

It’s time to show you the second design I’ll be launching at Woolfest. . . I confess that this one has been quite hard to keep quiet about . . .

Dear tea-obsessed knitters, I present to you . . .

The Sheep Carousel Tea Cosy!

I suppose it was inevitable that at some point I would combine two of my favourite things – sheep and tea – into a single design.

The tea cosy is designed in the shape of a stripey merry-go-round upon which eight jolly Shetland sheep seem to be having quite a bit of fun.

Why not put the wool of your favourite sheep to good use warming your teapot?

In his History of Hand Knitting, Richard Rutt dates the appearance of the knitted tea cosy to 1867 with the first “batchelor” cosy (incorporating openings for spout and handle) being published in Weldons in 1893. I’ve long been intrigued by Rutt’s remarks about tea cosies – he seems simultaneously fascinated by, and dismissive of, them. Perhaps he had a large, secret cosy collection squirrelled away somewhere:

“Crinoline dolls, thatched cottages, beehives, brooding hens, pineapples, even television sets and electric toasters have been the models for knitted tea cosies that hover uncertainly between trivial novelty and serious pop art.”

Oi, Rutt! We’ll have less of the “trivial novelty” – – I’ll have you know that this particular cosy has a serious technical purpose, acting as a miniature sampler upon which one can practice many different knitterly techniques: stranding, steeking, vikkel braids, centred decreases, i-cord . . .

. . . and the design has, of course a second crucial function in keeping your pot toasty-warm while you are waiting for your TEA to brew.

The Sheep Carousel is pictured here with the lovely Mary Kilvert mug that Felix sent to me last year.

mmm . . . tea . . .

I will be launching the Sheep Carousel pattern at Woolfest in kit form which will enable you to knit it with my favourite sheepy wool - Jamieson & Smith Shetland Supreme. One kit contains enough wool for two projects, so you could easily make both of the moorit-on-white and white-on-moorit versions pictured here.

Each carousel kit comes complete with wool, printed pattern, a professionally printed project bag and, in honour of Cumbria (where Woolfest is held) a card depicting a noble Herdwick ram whom I met and photographed at Woolfest in 2009.

The Sheep Carousel now has its own ravelry page, and the digital version of the pattern will be released when I return from Woolfest on the 24th June.

I had a total blast with this design – I hope you have as much fun knitting it!

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