Today I have the very great pleasure of introducing one of my favourite designers. Rosemary (Romi) Hill is someone whose work I have admired for a very long time, and towards whom I feel one of those interesting affinities that are the happy consequence of working online in the digital age. Romi’s medium is lace, and she creates designs that inspire and impress me for their perfect balance as well as their breathtaking beauty. I follow Romi on Instagram, and love the atmospheric photographs she posts of the High Desert in Nevada, where she lives. An outdoor type like her, I have long been intrigued by the fact that there seem to be so many similarities between my West Highland landscape and her High Desert one. One landscape is wet, the other dry: in some ways our home landscapes are polar opposites, and yet, the more Romi and I looked at each others photographs, the more connections we perceived between the colours, textures, shadows, and tricks of light that frequently inspired us. Perhaps, in our different ways, Romi and I just both feel very close to the landscapes we inhabit, and also relate to them on a daily basis with a designer’s eye.
When I asked Romi to be involved with The Book of Haps, I was thrilled that she said yes, and was secretly hoping that Nevada would somehow find its way into her her contribution. Her wonderful design far exceeded my expectations! Inspired by the rocks and lichen of her Nevada home, but created from an American-grown Shetland yarn in a contemporary three-part construction that echoes the structure familiar Shetland haps, Romi’s Happenstance design embodies, in so many ways, the important criss-crossing connections that draw the hand-knitting world together today. I absolutely love it.
I recently enjoyed talking to Romi about her creative process, and thought you’d be interested to hear our conversation.
KD: I’m interested in your background in jewellery making and design. Could you tell us a little more about this and how it led onto your work as a designer of shawls and knitwear?
RH: I took such a circuitous route to where I am today! My undergraduate degree is in music (French horn performance). I did do some jewelry design previously after taking metalworking classes while I was completing my MA in Broadcast and Electronic Communications (where I also studied recording engineering, graphic design for print and video, etc). I’ve always loved working with metal, but it was never a full time career, and I think it was always secondary to my love for textiles. I grew up in a crocheting family (I was the black sheep, wanting to learn to knit instead!), and I learned to crochet, bead and sew at a very early age. My mother taught me to knit after I begged her incessantly. She made all of our clothes (including her business suits), and I spent hours and hours with her in her sewing room, watching her and learning to sew and taylor. At the time, I wanted ready-made clothes because I had no idea how lucky I was! But I soaked up all sorts of information: what fabrics were suitable for which applications, how to flatter different body shapes, and how to alter patterns, among other things. Meanwhile, I was knitting my way through school and into college where I had a job in a recording studio. There was a lot of time to knit, and I used to frequent the sales bins at the local yarn store (student budget!), snatching up whatever wools or other natural fibers that might be made into a sweater. I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I would make up patterns for the sale yarn (without even swatching – eek!) and somehow they actually turned out wearable! Looking back, I think this is where the seeds for my future career in knitwear design were actually sewn – ha! But I went through a few different careers first (including graphic design and illustration), after deciding not to pursue a career in the music world.
KD: In one way, everything you create is jewellery – from shawls to the pins to fasten them – since they are all forms of decorative adornment. I wondered if you saw other relationships between your work in different media – how do these different forms of design and making inform each other?
RH: I have actually been thinking quite a bit about this question, believe it or not! I’ve come to the conclusion that the true root of everything I do is my quest for a certain aesthetic. In everything I create, I am working to produce something beautiful to my eye, that – in essence – sings to me with the perfect meld of color and form. I’ve worked in metal, beads, paint, pen and ink, fabric and yarn, to name a few. But that being said, I also have a strong aesthetic preference in music and prose, and yes – I think they’re all inter-related but just expressed in different ways.
KD: Your design is called Happenstance – could you tell us more about the significance of this name?
RH: Well…first, I’m a terrible punster (Jen and I had a running hap pun, in fact!), so I knew the name needed to include the word “hap.” But the word “Happenstance” came to me rather quickly, all things considered. It’s origin is late 19th Century American, and to me, it sounds like the west where I live. Happenstance is a chance encounter or happening, from “happen” and “circumstance,” such as “our meeting was pure happenstance.” It struck me as perfectly fitting my situation in so many ways. It was happenstance that my family and I live where we do now, for instance. Chance led us to drive through this area when we took our boys to a swim meet in Carson City, Nevada (while we were living on the other side of the Sierras in California). It just so happened that we were in the right place at the right time to find our home, which is pretty much our dream home. There were hurdles, of course, but we were ready for a change and the opportunity presented itself. I love the high desert and mountains, and the ever-changing view of the sky and clouds. The Happenstance shawl is named for the great serendipity that has led me to where I am now.
KD: Happenstance also speaks to the customary tripartite structure of Shetland haps, with lace edging, colourful border, and garter stitch centre, but mixes this up with patterns and a construction method that’s completely fresh and contemporary. I wondered whether other historic textiles or structures ever inspire you creatively in a similar way?
RH: Absolutely! I find the structure and engineering of historic textiles fascinating, and I love using history as a jumping off point for my own designs. I have spent hours and hours researching and reading up on traditions from all over the world. Quite often, knitting traditions find their way into my designs, but I can never resist playing with them a little. For instance, several garments from my New Lace Knitting book are based on knitting traditions. The Talus Cardigan is based on a hap. The Salt Grass Pull is based on a traditional gansey – including underarm gussets and boxy shaping – but it is knit in all-over lace from the top down, with short row shaping for the neckline. (And I blocked it on a Wooly Board!) The Manzanita Tee is a traditional yoked sweater, but knit from the top down with some waist shaping. The Town Square Shawl is based loosely on Estonian pieces, and the Silver Birch Slouch hat is based on doilies.
KD: I’m interested in your process – my starting point is often a finished look. Where do you generally begin when creating a design?
RH: My design process varies all over the place! But to start, I generally present myself with a problem to solve. I go for a particular look and a level of expertise and concentration needed to complete the pattern. I need boundaries, because otherwise there are just too many possibilities. And I always keep in mind: hand knitting is fashion, but it’s also a hobby, so it should be enjoyable as well as producing a wearable garment. I focus on both the process and the goal, and start out by sketching up the rough design. Next, I work out the engineering and figure out stitch patterns. In my recent book, though, I turned my usual process on its head. I chose stitch patterns and played with them, producing a theme and variations.
For the Happenstance Shawl, I knew I wanted to base the design on the landscape here, so like yours, but so very different in climate. I wanted to tie the design in to the colors and natural environments that our surrounding areas seem to have in common. For this reason also, I chose American grown and spun Shetland yarn from Elemental Affects. Then I based the shawl on traditional construction, but with a modern twist: sort of a New World hap!
That all being said, sometimes the muse strikes and surprises me with a design I didn’t know was germinating. If I needed to sum it all up into a pithy statement: I love beautiful things, and I want to create them. The process is secondary to the goal.
KD: Can you put into words what it is you enjoy about working with lace?
RH: The geometry of it, hands down. I find the patterning absolutely fascinating. The thought that you can actually create so many patterns and textures using stitches never ceases to amaze and delight me. I often fall asleep with lace dancing through my head!
KD: To me, your work is immediately recognisable because of its organic flow and inherent balance (which often blows me away). I wondered how you would define your signature style as a designer?
RH: I am so honored to have you say that! And kind of speechless now….
You have actually hit squarely what I hope to produce. I have work to achieve an organic feeling in my designs through stitch patterns used, and through my use of increases and decreases. I don’t know that I personally can see a unifying thread in my designs, but others tell me they can recognize my work, and I love to hear that.
In the end, everything I do needs to sing to me, and I tweak my designs until they fall into place and satisfy my aesthetic. It’s so difficult to put that feeling into words!
Kate – thank you so much for the opportunity to work with you and Jen! It has been SUCH a huge pleasure and honor!
KD: Romi, we feel exactly the same! Thank you!
The pattern page for Romi’s Happenstance hap is now live on Ravelry, where you can see all of the haps in the book there as they appear each day.
You can pre-order the book here, and be sure to visit Jen’s tomorrow for the reveal of the next hap!
All of the beautiful photography in this post is ©Romi Hill