I’m not alone among knitters in finding myself increasingly drawn to finding out more about where our beloved wool comes from. However, the journey from fleece to needles is more often more complicated and less romantic than we’d like to believe. For reasons of environmental, fair trade, humanitarian and animal welfare concern it’s an issue we should, as consumers of this magical natural resource, concern ourselves with. Among those making a stand against inequalities and opacity in the wool trade is Rachel Atkinson. The story of how the first skeins of her ‘Daughter of a Shepherd’ yarn came to be at this year’s Edinburgh Yarn Fest is well worth following here. As you unwind the skein (and if you can get hold of an actual skein to unwind, then do) you follow a story of the changing fortunes of wool and those who produce it.
Having seen Rachel’s lovely swatches using textured stitches in Edinburgh, I knew I wanted to design something simple, using textured stitches that showed off the rustic, dark chocolate coloured Hebridean wool. I fiddled about with various ideas that turned out to be far too complicated. Then I sat down, breathed in the rich, sheepy scent of the skein and had a think.
Although, by a couple of marriages (my own and my mother-in-law’s) I am part of a family that farms sheep, for various reasons it wasn’t until last year’s lambing season that I finally got to help bring a lamb into the world.
Last year was the first year that the farm had its new, updated maternity ‘ewe-nit’ in action. Far easier to work in, it also boasts CCTV so that one can observe the sheep from the comfort of the farmhouse via an iPad. When we were down for the weekend, right at the end of the season, two or three girls were still hanging on. One at least, I was promised, looked like she might deliver that night. So while the rest of the family watched television, I was glued to the iPad, using the latest technology to monitor signs known to shepherds for years- were they restless? Were they gazing upwards?
Suddenly, I thought one of them was. My father in law confirmed it and I was hurrying into wellies and out into the night. When we arrived the lambing shed became a cube of strip-lighting in the centre of the pitch-dark farmyard. The swift, well-practised eyes and hands of a man who had been birthing lambs for the majority of his life were quickly satisfied that yes, the first of two lambs was on its way and yes, being pretty straightforward (the head was pointing the right way and presenting first) it was okay for me to be the one to deliver it.
As instructed, I checked once more for where the head was, felt for tiny hooves, gripped, pulled and suddenly- a little scrap of life, spluttering its first breath, knees knocking together as it staggered and sat down, being licked from slickness to fluff by an apparently unperturbed mother. Then we waited.
It’s the silence of that waiting I remember. During the birthing of that first lamb there hadn’t been more than a few words exchanged and while we waited for the second there wasn’t any need for more. It was so very peaceful, there with the cold seeping in through the ends of sleeves and collars, the smell of sheep and straw and the softest of animal rustlings. And even though our breath rising up in clouds was lit by neon tubes and we were watched by CCTV cameras linked by Wifi, it felt timeless.
How many hundreds or thousands of shepherds, in so many different places around the world, for how many thousands of years had stood, just like us, in the dark and chill of the night, waiting to see this same little miracle repeat itself? The little miracle that is part of a bigger picture of the fortunes of the flock- will the lamb be healthy? Will it strengthen the flock or fetch a good price? Will it benefit from a good year for weather and grazing or will expensive additional feed have to be bought in? What happens in the lambing shed one year affects the year to come in so many ways and what happens in the wider world affects the fortunes of those in the lambing shed too, but in that silence it was simple. We waited.
The second lamb was a slightly more complicated delivery and I was therefore assigned to holding the mother’s head, passing the antiseptic spray, keeping the first lamb out of the way. Before I knew it we were back in the house getting warm and dry and the present snapped back into focus. However, there was something profound about that night that stayed with me and I wanted to capture something of it in the design I came up with for my Daughter of a Shepherd skein, whose very scent took me back the lambing shed.
And so…a warm, but lightweight hat and mitts in a wide, barred rib that ensures a close, practical fit. The pattern of vertical and horizontal lines is reminiscent to me of the hurdles in the lambing shed and around the farmyard, of the lines of hedgerows around fields and of the furrows of ploughed land. The farming landscape, like farming itself, might be based on the organic and natural but it is also marked out by straight lines. The taming and ordering of nature.
You might expect such a woolly-looking yarn to be scratchy or heavy, but I was delighted at how soft and bouncy it was when knitted up, even before blocking worked its magic. In this design it works in all the best ways a practical, outdoorsy hat and gloves in wool should- warm but breathable, rugged but light and comfortable. You’d need to slip the mitts off if you found yourself delivering lambs, but the hat should stay firmly in place and help stave off the chill of the shed.
Lambing Shed is available on Ravelry now. If you aren’t fortunate enough to own a skein of Daughter of a Shepherd yarn, I urge you to seek out some genuine, beautiful, straight from the sheep, DK yarn that is local to you and celebrate its simple beauty.
Oh, the joys of knitting for beloved children! If only I had that joy with my two kiddos. Sadly, while fate has seen fit to bless me with two great little potential knitwear models, the flipside of my fortune is that said models will model (under duress and with bribes) but mostly refuse to wear anything Mama made. As a result, no matter how tempted I may be by lovely patterns, I’ve stopped wasting money, time and love on knitting them stuff.
So how did this Owlet come about then? Well, truth be told, it didn’t actually require any money (apart from purchasing the pattern), didn’t take a lot of time (being bulky yarn) and well, when it comes to love, between the amount I have for my children and the amount I have for knitting I didn’t really have any problems mustering some up.
The free yarn was in the form of a shirt box full of Rowan Cork, which I believe is now discontinued. There was a quite a lot of it- purple in colour, some in balls from a long-frogged project and some unused. My colleague had been helping her mum clear out cupboards, come across it and thought of me. Like her mum, my colleague is a knitter, but this just wasn’t her sort of thing. If I’m honest, it wouldn’t normally be my sort of thing, but a gift of good quality yarn in exactly the colour your daughter likes is not to be sniffed at.
Since I’m very fond of my own Owls sweater- I must make another version, in better yarn, sometime- I thought immediately of an Owlet for my girl. She approved of the idea, being an owl fan, and liked the idea of modifying it into a tunic length so she could wear it with her favourite leggings.
I admit I winged it a bit on the needle size and gauge front, using the largest decent circ I had (a 6mm) and just crashing on with the main event rather than doing a swatch. I thought I could always frog and have another go if the gauge was way out, but it came out fine. Obviously, if you’re ever knitting a pattern of mine and don’t swatch and it comes out wrong because you haven’t swatched for gauge I will absolutely tell you off, because you have to do as I say (ALWAYS SWATCH) and not as I do!!
Cork is one of those ‘cable plied’ yarns. As I mentioned, it’s not the sort of thing I’d ever choose, as the cable plied thing makes it very un-woolly somehow, despite being 95% merino. The finish on the knitted fabric is very smooth and somehow very commercial looking. Not unpleasant, but not the style I’d choose. This is probably why my daughter really likes it- this doesn’t look like something I have made. A hand knit for someone who doesn’t like hand knits. I’ve Ravelled it here. So far she’s wearing it (fairly) regularly.
This blog post is a little later being published than I intended, thanks to a certain little lady taking her own sweet time to arrive. Happily, a week ago we welcomed my gorgeous little niece into the world and I feel like I can show you the knits I made for her in my role as the knitting auntie.
Knitting for babies is really about knitting for their mothers and in this case I was given more than a few gentle nudges regarding possible colour themes (“not rainbow stripes please”) and style. I also had the advantage of knowing that she was going to be a she. Even so, choosing yarn for baby knits is a tricky one- obviously you want the best and you want it to be super soft, but then you know that giving the gift of a tricky handwash to a busy new mum is not really giving a gift at all! In the end I decided on Debbie Bliss Baby Cashmerino for the two garments I made. I find Debbie Bliss on the expensive side for what you get, but in this case it ticked the boxes of being machine washable, beautifully soft and exactly the soft, but not sickly, pastel colours I wanted.
I used ‘Duck Egg’ to make a Baby Tealeaves cardigan. I’ve had the grown-up version of this Melissa LaBarre cardigan on my knit-for-myself list for ages and have made two versions of Tiny Tealeaves for M over the years, so I knew I liked the slight a-line shaping and the pretty ruching of the yoke. I added (firmly attached) vintage buttons as I knew that nostalgic and timeless would appeal to my sister, where perhaps the full, lacy matinee set wouldn’t quite be the thing.
I was onto slightly less well-known territory with the Lilac sweater I made next. Wee Envelope is by Ysolda Teague and is constructed in one of those ways that probably isn’t that obvious to the recipient but is rather pleasing to the knitter. Basically, you knit from one cuff up the sleeve, across the yoke and down the other sleeve, before picking up the body perpendicular to the stitches of the yoke and knitting down. There’s a bit more to it than that, as the yoke knitting involves constructing the envelope neckline that gives the sweater its name, but it would be an achievable and educational knit for someone just becoming an intermediate knitter. Envelope necks can be invaluable when dressing tiny people, so I’m hoping this will be a practical as well as pretty item.
Back in the summer, my mum-to-be sister sent me an ‘I’m not telling you what to knit, but if you’re knitting a blanket for the baby, could it be this one, in these colours?’ email. I did explain to her that she would probably get a bajillion blankets given to her, but she still said she wanted this one and promised that even if she got loads, this would be the one she’d use. A combination of knowing it was for my darling niece and being a bit fascinated to try mosaic knitting, I said I’d see what I could do.
A free pattern from Purl Bee, The Mosaic Baby Blanket, like most slip-stitch patterns, is pretty yarn hungry. After hunting around for right weight, right colours among my usual suspects for yarn choices, I was a little bit terrified by the prices I was coming up with. Thank heavens for Twitter, and more specifically my friend Joeli. As well as having inestimable talent as a patient and efficient tech editor, Joeli also does a great line in practical and super cute knitting patterns for kids. If anyone was going to be able to recommend an affordable, good quality and nice-feeling yarn for kid knits, it was her. True to form, she’d done the homework and could ping back a couple of solid recommendations for me.
I ended up ordering Berrocco Vintage in Sakura and Buttercream. I don’t think it’s one that’s easily available in the UK generally, but I ordered mine through Love Knitting, which now has a service where it ships certain yarn lines direct from the States. It doesn’t cost any more to have it sent using the service and although it took a little longer than usual to arrive, we’re talking a couple of days, nothing painful. The yarn is 52% acrylic, 40% wool and 8% nylon, so there’s a lot less natural fibre than I usually work with. However, it still feels soft and hardwearing and it definitely doesn’t squeak. In addition, as the pattern produces quite a robust blanket that could definitely take being spread on the floor for changing/playing, it might be an asset to have the acrylic content for strength and the ability to take a lot of washing.
On the subject of that pattern- I kind of loved/hated knitting it! I was fascinated by the process of the mosaic knitting, to the extent that I’ve ended up ordering Barbara Walker’s book about it, with a view to future designs. I loved the texture and the strong two-tone effect, which should be good as babies tend to like high contrast images and patterns. However, it is sloooooow going in terms of gaining inches, especially on a blanket where there’s no shaping or variation to break up the monotony.
As I had a little of the Berrocco left, I decided to whizz up one of my stand-by favourites for babies (more on these in a later blog, I think)- Justine Turner’s Aviatrix bonnet. I think they’re ridiculously cute, I agree with other mothers I’ve given them to in saying that they’re practical and they’re also another pleasingly neat pattern as a knitter, with the short rows forming the segments to curve around the head.
I broke with all my superstitious tradition by handing over my bundle of knits a few weeks before the big event, but just to prove my jitters about counting chicks before they’re hatched are wrong, all went well. I had a lovely afternoon of cuddles with the girl herself over the weekend and suffice to say, we all feel very blessed by her arrival.
At the start of the summer I was determined that I would spend my increased knitting time to develop my own pattern ideas and get a whole load of samples done. The best laid plans, eh? I did get some of my own projects done, but I also spent quite a lot of time making things from other people’s patterns and having lots of pleasure doing that, as well as learning valuable lessons in technique and writing style.
My latest finished object was my Scollay cardigan. I made a late entry to the Knit British Scollay-along and, although I didn’t get to do as much socialising as I’d have liked, enjoyed the camaraderie of the other KAL-ers on the Knit British and Brit Yarns Ravelry forums. Better still, I now have a warm, sloppy-yet-elegant (I think!) cardigan that’s fast becoming a wardrobe essential.
Also? It’s YELLOW! I know, I have no idea why there seems to be a considerable portion of the knitting population slightly obsessed with yellow cardigans and finding the perfect yellow yarn to make them, but what can I say? I’m one of them. My dream yarn for this cardigan would have been Triskelion Yarns Idris or Gwyn- the lovely Caerthan sent me some gorgeous little samples recently and I was sorely tempted. Budget considerations meant that this time I had to resist but I’m pretty certain there will be a next time (maybe in the gorgeous rich reds I know he does- did I mention I also have a bit of a red yarn/cardigan thing too?)
But I digress. My Scollay was made in the rather more purse-friendly but nonetheless very pleasing West Yorkshire Spinners Aire Valley DK in Butterscotch. Washable wool in a rich ochre-y yellow, this was a good choice. I think the consumer offering from WYS has gone from strength to strength in the last year or so, with some really great colour options being introduced. I’m currently trying to pretend their new ‘Illustrious’ range doesn’t exist because: Must. Not. Buy. More. Yarn. (apart from a little slip up at Baa Ram Ewe today. Oops.) Anyway, it’s knitted up nicely and having been wet-blocked, seems to wash well too.
The finishing touch was these shell buttons from the ever-lovely Textile Garden. The bluebell colour combined with the yellow pleases me greatly, partly because I love a good ‘opposite sides of the colour wheel’ combo and partly because it reminds me so much of Cornwall, where a lot of this cardigan was knitted. What the more eagle-eyed among you may spot from the first photo is that I sewed the buttons on completely wonky, pulling the cardigan out of shape. Shows how tired I was that night! I’ve since corrected it and it looks a whole lot better!
So, what next? Well, there are some patterns that need writing up, and after a summer of larger scale, mainly mono-coloured knitting of other people’s patterns I’ve a yearning for some accessories. In stranded colourwork. To my own design. Watch this space…
Well, school’s been back in for one week and already this seems as long ago as it does far away:
As always inevitably happens, the re-entry into school life signals a massive cut to my creative time and, more significantly it feels this year, my creative energy. This could be because I feel as if this summer in particular I did so much thinking and learning. During other summer holidays I’ve had much more on in terms of commissions for the Winter and Christmas magazine editions but this time it’s been more a case of focussing on and developing ideas for the longer term.
However, for all that I may grumble about the avalanche of work that a new term brings, I don’t think I’ll ever get to September without having a new term/new year/new start feeling of excitement and anticipation. Autumn is my favourite time of year in terms of weather, colours and clothes. I’m one of those people who relishes the cosy-ing in feeling of preparation as the gloom gathers earlier in the evening and the first spark of frostiness in the morning tells you that darker, colder days are coming. And of course, it’s also the start of knit season. Although I never discernibly stop knitting this is the time I can think about also wearing more of the things I make.
To that end I had hoped I would be showing you a completed Scollay cardigan this week. Just before the end of the holidays, I realised that there was just a chance I would get it finished in time to wear to school this first week. In excitement, I ordered these lovely bluebell-coloured shell buttons from the ever-wonderful Textile Garden. I had reckoned without a ceiling related classroom disaster that made the pre-school prep a lot more time consuming and exhausting. I am therefore so near (sleeves and body completed) and yet so far (button bands still to go). I’m still fairly confident of meeting the KAL deadline, but it may be a much slower finish than start.
On the subject of deadlines…I’ve often stated that I don’t do knitting for babies that haven’t arrived yet. It’s a superstitious tic of mine, which I circumvent by knitting stuff that I will say is just ‘general’ baby stuff that ‘may or may not’ be for a particular baby who is on the way, until said babe is safely in arms. I’m stretching this to the extreme with my other current WIP, Purl Bee’s Mosaic Baby Blanket, which I’m only making because a very particular mother-to-be requested it, but humour me. Said mother-to-be goes on maternity leave today and is only weeks off her due date, so this blanket needs to grow more quickly. Ha! Mosaic knitting, even in the fairly fat Berocco Vintage yarn I’m using, doesn’t do growing quickly. Even so, I’m quite glad to have been introduced to the technique through this project as I’m rather intrigued by the possibilities. Unsurprisingly this is edging towards a ‘buying new knitting stuff’ situation, as I might just need Barbara Walker’s Mosaic Knitting to further my research…
I bet you all do it. Plan for weeks before your holiday exactly which projects to take, including some suitable car knitting. Debate about how many additional balls of wool you’ll need to take with you (and always take too many). Have a confidence crisis and pack a couple more bits just in case- the horror of running short while away! At the last minute, vaguely realise that it might be an idea to pack some clothes and sun cream as well. These were my summer holiday knits this year:
First up- socks. The yarn choice was fairly easy, as I’ve had this Eden Cottage Yarns 4ply (I can’t even recall what variety it is) in gorgeous, vibrant green for ages. At one point it was part of a failed attempt at the Lilybet socks from Knit Now Issue 8, another chapter in my history of unsuccessful sock knitting (I still like the design though. I may return to them). I was determined that in my new found sock enthusiasm, I was finally going to make something wearable as, apart from anything else, I love the colour. I dithered between various possibilities, but settled on Delbert. After completing my Mind the Gap Dave socks I realised that I prefer the fit and finish on heel flap socks to Afterthought heels and I like the way the pattern continues down the flap for Delbert. The meandering cables meant that quite a lot of concentration on the chart is required, so this was never going to be my car knitting (I’d have been as green as the yarn) and as a result I’ve made a reasonable start, but accepted that these will be picked up in between projects for the next little while.
I also picked up where I had left off a fair while ago with my Shepherd Hoody while away. I bought the yarn and pattern for this last summer at Kathy’s Knits. I started with enough enthusiasm to infect my aunt who proceeded to buy the pattern and some yarn, start and complete her own, while I got distracted by other things and had only completed up to the shoulders before putting the project into hibernation. A big clear out of my workroom unearthed it a couple of weeks ago and with winter playground duties looming I’ve a mind to get it finished. It wasn’t particularly helpful that I left the required 5mm needles at home- a fact I discovered when I went to begin the sleeves, mid-week. Luckily, I found a local yarn shop where, although my choice was limited to dpns, not circs, I got what was required. I’m not a big lover of dpns, but I’m actually getting on okay with them for these sleeves (dare I admit that they might sometimes be a better option than magic looping?) and have made some progress on the first one. Although the yarn and needles are at the larger end of the scale, the cabling means that progress is steady, rather than swift. However, I adore the rich cherry red of the New Lanark wool I’m using and it’s spurring me on to have this warm layer completed in time for the chillier days.
I’ll admit, though, that most of my knitting time was spent on my third project- my Scollay cardigan. I’ve finally got around to listening to the Knit British podcast and having had a yearning for a yellow cardigan gnawing away at me for ages, I was tempted in to becoming a late entrant into the Scollay-Along being run at the moment by Knit British and Brit Yarn on Ravelry. I knew I’d enjoy knitting this pattern after getting on so well with Karie’s Byatt shawl earlier this year (I’ve yet to blog/ravel about this, but I will soon). It proved perfect car knitting, with lots of reverse stocking stitch to while away the miles and lace edging that required minimal chart gazing. Like many, I find knitting sleeves at the end of a project a bit frustrating, so I decided to knit them two-at-a-time before I started the main body. I did the fiddly setting up part and the lace edge the night before we left and by the time we arrived at our holiday flat in Cornwall I had the sleeves pretty much done. I adore the egg-yolk yellow West Yorkshire Spinner Aire Valley DK (colourway is actually called Butterscotch and was purchased at Brit Yarn) I’m using- it matched the lichen-covered rooftops of the view from our flat window, where I spent many happy hours gazing out at the waves. I’ll write more about it once I’ve finished the project.
Today we’ve arrived back home. Washing is in the machine, new acquisitions unpacked (including a yellow teapot- notice a theme, anyone?) and the last of the beach sand is being shaken out of bags and off our shoes. As the last week of school holidays begins, I know that my to-do list will start to be taken over by preparation for the new school year- there’s a classroom to sort out and all my grand ideas for exciting stuff need to be captured in some sort of cohesive plan as well as the countless little jobs that present themselves when preparing to welcome a new class.
If I’m not careful the thought of what can be all-consuming teaching work pressure looms over me like the rain clouds that have greeted our return to the North. My time off and time away this year has left me brim-full of ideas and inspiration about designs and projects and I have to admit that I’m a little heavy hearted at the prospect of having a lot less knitting and designing time in the coming months. Still, the journey home has seen me reach the yoke of my Scollay and I’m hoping that wearing it during the coming term (which I’m certain I will, a lot) will bring a bit of that holiday brightness and inspiration back to me. And once that’s done, there’s still the matter of those socks. And the hoody. And some increasingly urgent baby knitting. Not to mention all those ideas I’ve been hatching. Happy new knitting season, everyone!
First, a proviso: I am not an artist or an art teacher. This is in no way a sketching how-to. In fact that’s kind of the point. Just because you can knit and design well doesn’t mean you have an skill in drawing. I think there a number of knit designers and would-be knit designers out there who, like me, cringe at the point where they have to include a sketch in their design submission. If you’re in that camp then here are my top tips for producing something you’re happy with:
Give yourself enough space
If you’re quite uncertain about your technique in drawing, the tendency is to cramp your work up apologetically, like an introvert hunching into the corner of a sofa at a party. A big blank page is a lot more scary, but increasing the scale of your drawing means detail will be easier to put in and will show up much better when you scan it- so try to go large.
Get comfortable with drawing
I know this sounds like an obvious one, like saying ‘just get better’. What I mean is, try to spend more time doodling and drawing other stuff, when the pressure isn’t on to make a design sketch. I recently signed up to Alisa Burke’s ‘Draw With Me’ course. It doesn’t relate directly to drawing design sketches but it’s got me exploring different materials (I love my new Sakura Koi watercolour set- a slightly pricey investment but well worth it) and feeling a lot more bold about making marks. I’m also finding that now I tend to incorporate considered sketching into my initial thinking about a design, so that when it comes to making a sketch for a submission, it’s a lot less painful. There are loads of sketching and drawing courses, tutorials and books out there- or you could just treat yourself to a nice sketchbook and a few art materials and give yourself some play time.
Tracing isn’t cheating
At primary school, ‘Thou shalt not trace and pretend it’s your own’ was practically the 11th Commandment (maybe the 12th. 11th was ‘Thou shalt not wear nail varnish or tie your hair back with bands that aren’t navy, brown or black’. It was that sort of school.) We’re not at school now. A sketch is there to get your ideas across, not get you through GCSE Art. Croquis ( the word means ‘rough sketch’ , but in this case body outlines you place underneath the page so you can trace over them) are great for helping to show garments and larger pieces. They can be found in books such as this and this or as downloads (often free), which as a bonus include body outlines with real life proportions as well as the bizarre aliens you will come across for most ‘fashion figures’.
Accessories can be trickier as I’ve not come across much in the way of head, hand or feet croquis. However, if you find a photo of the kind of shape you’re after, e.g. fingerless mitt, slouchy hat or even a hand/head/foot in the right pose, you can trace the outline through a thin-ish piece of plain paper and add your own details and refinements. I do this straight on my laptop screen (make sure you press very lightly!) but you could print the photo out to trace instead.
Keep it simple
In some cases a sketch is mainly to show the placement or proportion of a stitch pattern or colourwork sections, rather than the way it is worn. This is often true of accessories such as a simple beanie hat, a pair of mitts or a scarf and could also apply with a simply shaped sweater, especially for children. In this case, I pare my outline down to the most basic shapes- a beanie hat is pretty much a rectangle with a semi circle on top. Scarves and mitts are rectangles. A tam, viewed from above, is a circle. These can be refined with basic detail like shaping at the wrist , but I stick to a flat, front-on view without a body part in it and concentrate on showing, for example, how many stripes there will be, or how far up that colour will reach. I use a ruler for my straight lines and draw round objects with the right shape to create the outlines I want. If I was very organised, I’d make some master copies of these basic shapes to use again and again. I’m not very organised. It’s on the to-do list.
Keep it clear
If a sketch is for a design proposal, scanning is usually an easier option than photographing to get it into electronic form. Sometimes scanning can make fine pencil lines and light colours, on what would otherwise be a good sketch, disappear. I get around this by first exaggerating the colour (my favourite media to use are water soluble coloured pencils or the aforementioned watercolours, which give you control but can be intensified) and then, when the colour is dry, going over all the pencil outlines with a black fineliner. The fineliner does give your drawing a particular look, but you could always just use it on the key details. On the subject of key details, you need to consider the level of detail that is worth including and necessary to include. Drawing every single stitch is impossible and your swatch should showcase the finer details of cables, lace, colourwork etc. so I try to pare it down to an impression of the colour or texture- hatching and dots can be useful in this way.
Once I’ve scanned, I really look at the scanned copy to check that it shows everything it needs to. You can do a certain amount with editing contrast and brightness once you’ve captured the image but really you want the original scan to pick up all the detail that you need and if necessary I go back, adjust the drawing and re-scan.
I got to see the submissions process from the other side for the first time recently, when I helped with shortlisting for a collection of patterns I’m curating. Believe me, there was a lot of variation in the way ideas were presented, but ultimately the choices we made came down to the quality of the ideas. I asked Kate Heppell, editor of Knit Now and someone who has supported and guided me a lot with getting ideas from my head into print, for her take on design sketches:
You might have noticed just a small fuss when Yorkshire yarn purveyors baa ram ewe launched their own yarn: Titus, a little while ago. A small fuss…more like a full-on frenzy. Knitters couldn’t get enough of the silky softness and those delightfully vintage-feeling colours.
Sooo….I would have uttered a pretty big SQUEEE when baa ram ewe asked me if I’d rework my Ziggy mitts (originally designed for Titus) in their new yarn, Dovestone DK. However, it had to be a quiet and private ‘squee!’ as at that point it was very much under wraps.
Keeping quiet about Dovestone got considerably harder when skeins of Coal and Filey arrived. You can read more about the composition of this yarn in the baa ram ewe Autumn/Winter lookbook, but in terms of what you feel when you get to squidge it in real life, it’s a wonderful combination of substance and softness in a generously proportioned DK yarn. The sort of proper, no-nonsense woolly yet soft yarn you only dream about. There is a very visible twist that gives nice definition when you knit with it- I see some cabling with this in my future! At the same time, there’s enough of a woolly halo to ensure that the colourwork of Ziggy melded together well, especially after a light steam blocking. I have to admit it, I think I like this even more than Titus.
The main change I made for Ziggy Reloaded was the addition of a proper, gusseted thumb. I think this, along with the more robust nature of Dovestone compared to Titus, makes the Reloaded version more of an outdoorsy, stomping around in the cold and mist sort of affair.
You can see a whole lot more Dovestone loveliness in the lookbook, which showcases designs by a range of very clever people- and me! The print version of Ziggy Reloaded is available from baaramewe.co.uk, along with the all-important yarn. Alternatively, the pdf version is on sale through Ravelry and Love Knitting.
I should love knitting socks. I’m a magpie for bright colours (helloooo, sock yarn). I love a good indie dyer. I’m an inveterate knitter-in-public so portable projects are good for me. My main designing beef is accessories. I’ll happily knit up more than one of a hat design or make a pair of gloves without losing stamina. I constantly have cold feet.
It’s not that I’ve never managed to complete a pair of socks. I have a couple of ill-fitting vanilla pairs I forced myself to complete, with literally years between first and second sock. I made these for the Ravellinics- completed in a sensible time scale (and oh, such touching optimism that I’d make more!) but again, they don’t really fit that well and I’m not sure the pattern and the yarn really do one another any favours (although I like both separately). Somehow, sock knitting has always been about unhappy knitting- guilt as chronic second sock syndrome sees beautiful yarn languishing, half-used in a project bag for months and disappointment when the finished article doesn’t really fit properly or look quite right.
So how is it that you find me now, wearing a lovely pair of well-fitting socks knitted by yours truly and with plans afoot (bwahahah, sorry, couldn’t resist) it for more?
1. I bought a book
Not just any book. I bought Rachel Coopey’s Coop Knits Socks Volume 2. I’ve known Rachel’s fantastic work through both of our designs being in Knit Now over the years- I even tried (and failed, but not through any fault with her pattern) to make her Lilybet socks from Issue 8. Anyway, for various non-sock related reasons, I’d bought a copy for reference but while I was admiring the excellent layout, photography, writing style etc. I was meant to be looking at, I found myself drawn in. The socks are so pretty. The style of writing is so friendly- just the right amount of advice and tips to make you feel you can do it, without becoming an essay on how hand-knit socks will change your life. There are socks called Wilbert and Dave (I love the idea of having socks called ‘Dave’. Rachel has since informed me I should be grateful she hadn’t discovered Ru Paul’s ‘Drag Race’ before she wrote this book). Go on then, one last try at this sock knitting malarkey.
2. I gave myself no choice.
One of my greatest life discoveries a few years ago was that I can knit when I’m a passenger in a car without throwing up. As someone who has suffered car sickness her whole life but who is also a fidget-bum who hates just DOING NOTHING IN THE CAR this has made my life (and that of my fellow travellers) infinitely better. As a result, every trip now involves not only the selection of the ‘while we’re away’ knitting but also the ‘car’ knitting. With a kind of ‘just jump into the cold water before you think better of it’ masochism, for a recent weekend in London (involving two 6-7 hour drives) I only took a sock knitting project. No choice, just a ball of sumptuous sock-weight, a couple of 2.5mm circs (more on needles in a minute), some stitch markers and the book. Guess what? I loved it. Even though I chose to make Phyllis, which involved a little more peering at charts than is strictly good for a bad traveller, it kept me interested, grew gratifyingly quickly, looked splendid and was so portable, tucked into a little Hiya Hiya zipped bag that also travelled with me on the Tubes when we went to the V&A and Tate Modern (Sonia Delaunay exhibition- swoon! So good! Go see!). I completed one sock by the time the weekend was over and immediately cast the other one on before being back with my stash and multiple unfinished projects could tempt my roving eye.
3. I used lovely yarn
Part of our holiday last summer was spent in Edinburgh where I managed to incorporate visits to both Kathy’s Knits and Be Inspired Fibres. At the latter I treated myself to two skeins of Madelinetosh Tosh Merino Light. One was a rich gold colour whose name I forget- I used it to make a Byatt shawl (shawls- now there’s a story for another time). The other was Baltic- a gorgeous rich blue that I sighed over and admired and had no clue what to do with. Turns out what I was meant to do was make socks. They won’t be hardwearing socks, but they are beautiful and soft and cosy and the semi-solid colour works perfectly with the single cable diamond patterns of Phyllis. It’s so easy to think that if you aren’t sure you’re really committed to a project, you shouldn’t bother using your best materials. I think that would have been a false economy. Using the good stuff made it infinitely more enjoyable and I think I made the effort to live up to the yarn I was using.
4. I’ve worked out the best tools for me
I’m not monogamous when it comes to needles. I started with straights but now I’m more likely to use circulars. Wood used to be my favourite, but I’ve dabbled with bamboo and now tend to like metal, although my current crush is carbon fibre (KnitPro Karbonz, swoon!). Double pointed needles have always been my nemesis, though. Whatever they are made from I will invariably lose all my stitches from a needle, lose the needle down the side of the chair, twist my work when joining, create ladders at every corner and stab myself in the chest with a needle (by mistake, not through frustration) at least once in every project. For the record, Joeli has filmed a great tutorial on setting up stitches on DPNs and joining for working in the round here. Watch it, but don’t think I’ll be joining you in your double pointed madness. For me, a couple of short (23cm cord) HiyaHiya 2.5mm circular needles work best. The small gauge of needle was a revelation for me from the Coop Knits book. It’s smaller than is usually suggested for sock yarn but, just as Rachel says, this produces a firmer fabric that seems to me to fit your foot a lot better. The cord on HiyaHiya Sharp needles is so flexible and smoothly joined that I tend to flit between a version of magic loop on one needle and splitting my stitches between the two- whichever is most comfortable at the time. This also seems to have eliminated the laddering problem. Actually, there are ways to eliminate all the problems I have with DPNs (for the stabby thing it’s probably going all ‘Game of Thrones’ and rocking a metal breastplate) but why bother? I think I can live with not making socks ‘properly’ by using DPNs, so long as the socks come out as they should.
5.I bought lovely new yarn immediately
It could all have been a summer romance, of course. ‘Phyllis’ the one-hit wonder. However, being in London reminded me that I’d admired other people’s projects using Trailing Clouds’ ‘Mind the Gap’ self-striping yarn. For the uninitiated, its sock yarn dyed in all the different colours of the London Underground lines. Even though during this visit to London I found that my assimilation into Northern ways is such that I found myself pining for the hills and wishing people would be more friendly (I know, such clichés!) I still have a lot of affection for the big city, so I ordered myself a skein sharpish- my needles would barely be empty before another project was on them. Reader, Phyllis will shortly be joined by Dave (with an afterthought heel) in my sock drawer. He is half complete already- I just have to make sure that the second half matches the first in terms of where the stripes fall or I won’t be able to look at him.
Me, knitting socks. Who’d have thought it?
It’s the school holidays. For me, that means knitting season has begun. I’m sketching ideas, knitting samples, writing up patterns, attending to social media, answering emails without a time delay, writing blogs. Occasionally I glance up to check that the children haven’t been crushed beneath a falling Lego monolith or eaten any non-food items. If I’m feeling generous I speak to my husband when he gets in from work and cook a meal for us all.
You see, for me, knitting design is the job I fit around my other job as a primary school teacher. Officially, I work part-time (just about- my hours are now 80% of full time) as a primary school teacher. Anyone who has tried working part-time as a teacher will know that what that actually means is that you work full-time and just get paid part-time. During term time, full time often means 10-12 hours of work, 6 days a week (Sunday is marking and planning day). You also get big long holidays at the same time as your kids and off-the-scale job satisfaction so I’m in no way complaining- I chose this career.
The effect teaching has on my knitting design job is that there are long periods of the year when my time is so squeezed that it’s really hard to do it properly. I’m lucky enough to know a number of very knowledgeable people when it comes to building your brand as a designer and through them I realise that there are a lot of things I should be doing, like a more structured and diligent approach to my online profile, a less haphazard approach to the work I do etc. The trouble is, the on-again, off-again nature of the time I can give to designing makes that really hard to achieve. During the last year, the challenges and responsibilities I have in my teaching job have meant designing has had to take so much of a back seat it’s basically trailing along behind, hanging on to the exhaust pipe.
All this leads to a few questions about what I do. First among them must be: Why do the knit designing instead of just knitting for fun?
That’s pretty easy to answer. I love it. I love the whole process from coming up with an idea and writing a proposal, to getting commissioned, sorting out yarn, making the sample, writing up the pattern (even though I grumble about that part), working with tech editors (even though that feels like getting your homework marked) and seeing how people react when it’s published. It stimulates and challenges me in ways that nothing else I’ve done ever has, has led to me getting to know some amazing and brilliant people, added a whole new dimension to the craft I love and it’s still a source of joy to me to find that this is something I can actually do.
When I say that I kind of fell into knit designing by chance I worry that this sounds insulting to people who have chosen it as a career and spent time gaining qualifications for it. I probably don’t explain myself well by saying ‘fell into’. What I mean is that I didn’t ever expect that I’d have the opportunity to be paid for my designs and that I’ve never gained the formal qualifications for a designer. However, I had spent years developing a range of knitting skills and making up designs as I went along without realising that this was actually the nascent stages of designing. I had a long standing interest in textiles and the visual arts. My previous career as a journalist meant I knew how to work to a brief and a deadline, following a house style and not being precious about having my work edited. When an open call on Ravelry led me to Kate Heppell and the early issues of Knit Now it was maybe less of a chance occurrence than it first seems.
The issue of Ravelry and the self-publishing dream leads to my second question: If I’m not committed to doing this full time am I not taking it seriously enough?
I find this a really tough one. I count a number of full-time knitting designers among my friends and I know from them that these are tough times. When I say full-time knitting designers, I mean people whose income is derived from knitting design, plus a number of other ways they deploy their skills to make it work, financially- tech editing, teaching workshops, pattern editing, blogging etc. One of the reasons they have to develop such diverse portfolios is that the market for patterns is somewhat saturated with self-published designs. There are a lot of people, from the weekend hobbyists to the big yarn companies, putting patterns out there. Some high quality, some awful. Some gobsmackingly expensive (in an ‘I could buy a book of patterns for that’ way), some for free (maybe as a loss-leader, maybe as a promotion, maybe just as an ego trip). The upshot is that it takes a lot of work and not a little luck to make your design stand out -and ultimately sell, if that’s your income source- amongst all this noise. A worry for me is that if I’m not doing this ‘seriously’, am I part of the noise that make it harder for those full-time designers I admire and respect and whose work I want to see continue?
Of course, one response would be to give up the teaching and pursue a career in knitting design full time. There probably aren’t many teachers who don’t nurture at least one secret escape plan, especially at the more stressful times of the year, so don’t think I haven’t considered it! What stops me is part lack of nerve and part grasp on reality. The lack of nerve probably stems from the fact that a few years back, just when the responsibilities of a young family and a mortgage meant regular income was more necessary than ever, our circumstances took a serious wobble due to circumstances far beyond our control. We got through it okay, but it’s the sort of experience that makes relinquishing regular pay cheques a scarier prospect.
The grasp on reality part is again down to the privilege of knowing a number of highly talented individuals who have gone down the ‘designing only’ route. Through being friends with them I have a little insight into the (crazy, even by teacher standards) hours they work, the balancing act of holding business/family/quality of life together and the diversity of often not directly creative skills they bring to bear on making a success of being a designer. This article from the Design Trust puts it really well. Articles in magazines accompanied by whimsical photos of twine and lavender sprigs about giving up the daily grind to make artisan soaps are quite obviously guff- either it’s a lot more hard graft for low rewards than is presented or there’s a very large income source somewhere out of shot. For more great insights into the realities of designing see Kat Goldin, specifically her ‘Making it Work as a Designer’ blog , but actually, just see the amount she does, in general, while raising her family. My grasp on reality is that while I might have the work ethic, I only have some of the skills I’d need to make this my full-time business and there would be a very real possibility of me putting it out there and nobody biting.
My answer to that question from way back is that actually, yes, I do take it seriously. I have learned when I can take on projects so that I’m not up against deadlines just when school reports need writing/new classes need settling in/grand Christmas extravaganzas need producing. I have scaled back the number of projects I take on so that I can focus on quality. I have accepted that my online profile will be less high than it could be because I simply don’t have time to maintain my blog, start a podcast or engage with social media as regularly as I could when things get busy at school. I’ve done all this because I’m determined that, even though I’m part time, I’m still professional, which means not just getting paid, but behaving professionally by doing a good quality job. It’s definitely not ‘just a hobby I get a bit of money for’. I hope that for these reasons I have the right to count myself among those I admire as designers (even if I’m hiding at the back somewhere).
With that, I’m off to check the children aren’t illicitly watching unsuitable television (screen time in exchange for Mummy writing time), wrestle with a rapidly expanding lace chart and probably do a little sock knitting (purely indulgent and/or for research purposes). You may well hear more from me on these pages over the next few weeks, but don’t get too used to it- term starts again soon!