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Today is Fashion Revolution Day, and like last year, I’d like to spend some time thinking about all those expert skills hiding behind all those cheap clothes we expect to see on The High Street.

Fashion Revolution Day - Who Made My Clothes?

Fashion Revolution Day: who made my clothes?

When I was writing my new artist statement, I spent a lot of time thinking about motivations for repair, captured in the following sentence:

By exploring the motivations for repair Tom shifts the emphasis from the new and perfect to the old and imperfect, enabling him  to highlight the relationship between garment and wearer.

There are manifold motivations for mending, ranging from societal issues through to the very personal: concerns about environmental impact of the clothes life-cycle, concerns about living conditions of people making cheap clothes, budget constraints, sentimental value; I’m sure you can add more to the list.

Fries Museum Knitted Darning Sampler 02a

A darning sampler in the form of socks from a time that repair came natural to people; from the Fries Museum

The people behind Fashion Revolution Day ask you to think about who made your clothes. For me personally, this question can more and more be answered by: I made my clothes. I have made my own boxershorts, trousers, numerous socks, cardigans, and sweaters. With less success I’ve also attempted to make some shirts, and it’ll be some time before I feel happy to tackle a jacket or coat.

Making my own clothes has made me realise that it takes a lot of time, skill and effort to create garments I’m happy to wear. Of course, I’m not a professional tailor, so I’m happy spending my whole Christmas holiday on one pair of tweed trousers. I don’t know any shortcuts or tricks to make things go faster and I don’t feel the need to use them, either. Every time I make something, I learn something. How to make a nice welted pocket; how to bind edges on knitwear; how to copy a pattern from an existing garment.

boxershorts from old sheets

Boxershorts made from ripped sheets: the softest cotton you can get your hands on! The pattern was copied from a pair of boxershorts I already owned

Making my own clothes has made me realise, too, that those cheap t-shirts, jeans, and other items were made under very different circumstances. The shops we buy these from are mostly trying to get a decent profit margin. At the same time, their customers demand a low price for these items. Something is going to get squeezed somewhere. You will notice that when you buy cheap clothes, their material quality might be poor, seams might fall apart easily, or the finishing isn’t great. This is not because those people in sweatshops like Rana Plaza don’t have the required skills, but because they are constrained by time or poor quality materials.

I believe therefore that clothes made by those people deserve the same respect as that carefully hand-knitted sweater you made at home. When I do buy new clothes (I mostly shop secondhand now), I try to buy something made to last, but I know that’s not always possible. And I myself have not always been in the position to buy less, but of higher quality. It happens. I try not to feel too bad about it (some people in the sustainable fashion corner worry about what might happen if suddenly nobody buys cheap clothes anymore: thousands of people in developing countries would suddenly be without a job.)

Visible Mending of a Cardigan

An early Visible Mending example

There is no one solution to these ethical questions, and I think we should all do what is within our reach. For me this means I will repair my clothes, including cheap ones. When repairing clothes, my mind often starts to wander and I think about who made the item. It might be me, a dear friend, or indeed, it might be an anonymous seamstress.

So, even if you will never find out who made your clothes, you can still think about this person.

Pay them respect and repair your garments.

Brioche Sweater

Some time last year I wrote about my intentions of knitting a sweater, based on a picture from an 1950s Dutch knitting book called Het Breien in Betere Banen, or A Better Course in Knitting:

a better course in knitting - breien in betere banen - de vries-hamburger men's outfit

Although this book deals with knitting, it doesn’t contain a single pattern for garments. Nevertheless, it is scattered with inspirational outfits, one of which was this beautiful sweater, knitted in alternating textural stripes of brioche rib and honeycomb brioche.

As you can see, the original sweater is very much of its time, with its high waist and tight fit. Not a shape I would want to wear, but almost everything else about it I love: the texture of brioche stitch, the zips, the small pockets at the waist line, referred to in the book as “ticket pockets” and the collar. The only thing I wasn’t so keen on were the chest pockets, but they could easily be left out.

Brioche Sweater and grafitti

Me posing in a decidedly urban setting

For this sweater I spent a lot of time swatching and calculating, to arrive at the right fabric and shape. Apart from the hints and tips from the Dutch book, I also used a lot of ideas from Catherine Lowe’s book on couture knitting techniques The Ravell’d Sleeve. I thought a lot about the right selvedges to use to make seaming up easier, using bound edges to create a finished look, and using many needle sizes to make a good ribbing and transition from ribbing to main fabric.

brioche sweater sleeve

The sleeve cap has been fully shaped for a nicely set-in sleeve. You can also see the waste yarn at the ribbing that helped me make a very nice tubular cast-on

One of the things I’m particularly happy with, are the sleeves. Knitting is a very forgiving fabric as it is so stretchy, and many knitting patterns nowadays do away with a curved sleeve cap as things will kind of find their way after a few wears. It is also a nightmare for pattern writers to write up the instructions for a fully curved sleeve cap, as the decrease rate changes every few rows, so many knitting patterns don’t bother. But as I didn’t have to worry about that, I could do exactly as I pleased and I made fully curved sleeve caps (as an aside, some knitting pattern writers did use nicely shaped sleeve caps, such as James Norbury.)

brioche sweater cuff

Tubular cast-on and 1×1 ribbing and about five different needle sizes to keep the ribbing under control

I’m also really pleased with the ribbing on the sleeve cuffs and the welts. I decided to use Lowe’s preferred method of a tubular cast-on with waste yarn. I find that using the waste yarn method (you can still see it in the picture of the unseamed sleeve, as I only took it out after final assembly) it is much easier to be consistent with the cast-on. I used to favour the Italian cast-on, also sometimes known as the alternate cast-on, but that relies on attempting to be consistent with the tension whilst casting on. A bit of a challenge when casting on roughly 180 stitches! As a tubular cast-on looks very nice, but isn’t necessarily that resilient, Lowe advocates the use of a very small needle size for the casting on, and then gradually increasing the needle size as the ribbing is worked. To make the transition from ribbing to main fabric smoothly, the first inch or so of the main fabric is also knitted in a smaller needle size than the bulk of it.

brioche sweater collar

The collar of the sweater has bound edges for a neat finish

Another area where I used graduating needle sizes was the collar. The outside edge of the collar was knitted on a large needle size, and then I gradually moved to smaller needle sizes to give the collara curved shape. It’s barely noticable I used this trick, and that makes it extra satisfying. No decreases to distort the honeycomb brioche! Speaking of which, I found Nancy Marchant’s book on brioche knitting indispensable in chosing the right increase and decrease techniques. Brioche stitches are not like your regular knitting, as they are built up by slipping stitches whilst making a yarn-over at the same time, alternated with knitting together the slipped stitches with their buddy yarn-overs. This has all sorts of implications, which Nancy is much better at explaining than I am.

brioche sweater set-in sleeve

The set-in sleeve cap, with perfectly matched stripes

I also managed to perfectly match the stripes when I seamed the sleeve into the armscye. I wasn’t sure whether this would work out, as this area of pattern matching was elusive. I haven’t found any resource that explains how you can ensure that the shaping you come up with for sleeve cap and armscye will allow you to match stripes perfectly. All the tutorials I found were for sewing patterns, and they all start with: check that your sewing pattern is suitable for stripes, otherwise you will not be able to match them at the armscye seam. But surely somebody must have designed it to be so to start with?

brioche sweater in merino

The brioche sweater was knitted in merino, a surprising choice for me!

The author of the Dutch book, De Vries-Hamburger, explained how she feels you arrive at the best results if you think about the fabric you want to achieve and then find yarn to match rather than starting with the yarn and then hoping to find a suitable pattern to go with it, and I wanted to put that theory to the test. And I ended up with a surprising choice: merino! Im not usually a fan of merino. It’s often only good at two things: it’s very soft, and it takes colours well. I don’t find it performs very well as a hand-knitting yarn. It’s often superwash treated, which affects the handle, and it often starts pilling very quickly. The Blacker Swan merino 4-ply I chose, however, seems to be different from what I’ve experienced before and it is more lively, and a has nice handle as well as being soft. So far I don’t regret my choice!

A few days ago I met up with my dear friend and comrade in wool, Felicity “Felix” Ford, and we had a lot of fun taking these pictures, so I’ll part this blog post with some more gratuitous photographs of my sweater. I hope you’ll enjoy them as much I did taking them with her!

brioche sweater side view

The triumph of the set-in sleeve

brioche sweater collar with zip

The collar with its bound edges

brioche sweater ticket pocket

The ticket pocket

Today is International Women’s Day, which got me thinking about all the inspirational women in my life. Although the field of knitting is dominated by women (attending the In the Loop conferences is a good example of where I’m in the minority as a man) there are a lot of issues around how people view women artists and makers, and how the things they produce are valued. Here is a list of some of the women that inspire me and inform my knitting directly or indirectly. I’ve listed them in alphabetical order as they all inspire me in different ways. I could easily write a long blog post about each of them, so instead I hope you will follow the links and see for yourself.

international women's day

Amy Twigger Holroyd: Amy managed to take away my prejudices against machine knitting, but mostly I feel inspired by seeing her practice, in which she combines many interesting things, from experimenting with knitting, thinking about sustainable fashion, and her belief in the power of the amateur maker.MendRS Symposium 2012

Both Amy and I presented at the MendRS Symposium in 2012

Anna Maltz: some people may know Anna as sweaterspotter, as she loves taking surreptitious pictures of gorgeous knitwear. I love Anna’s colourful approach to knitting and life, and I’m always amazed to see what she has on the needles.

Felicity Ford: Felix is my comrade in wool, and whenever we hang out together, we bounce off each other about wool, knitting, and finding inspiration in the most unlikely places. Not only that, she’s also a sound artist, and somehow she has managed to show the world that sounds and knitting are not mutually exclusive.

Felix in woollen outfit for her Slow Wardrobe

Felix in a woollen outfit for her inspirational Slow Wardrobe project

Elizabeth Zimmermann: Elizabeth Zimmermann is one of my knitting heroes. Reading her books opened up my mind about what knitting can mean and how you don’t need restrictive knitting patterns to create beautiful knitwear. Her knitting allowed her to start a knitting business that is still going strong, with another inspiring woman at the helm: her daughter Meg Swansen.

Kate Davies: Kate creates beautiful knitting patterns, often inspired by the places that she loves. However, what I particularly like is that her designs show a integrity of design, material and construction and are meticulously researched.

The George Hotel at Loch Fyne

Kate and I went on a beautiful country drive when I visited her last year

Louize Harries: I met Louize at Prick Your Finger, a yarn shop and gallery which she co-founded. She taught me about wool and keeping an open mind, and has always been very encouraging of my own textile endeavours. Currently she is concentrating tapestry and weaving, the slowest art known to man (to paraphrase her slightly).

Mary Thomas: Mary Thomas wrote two important books on knitting back in the 1930s, and they should be on every knitter’s bookshelf. Her technical knowledge is unsurpassed yet clearly explained to the reader. Her pattern for gloves is still by far the best in my opinion.

Mary Walker Phillips: the New York Times obituary says it so succinctly: What Miss Phillips did, starting in the early 1960s, was to liberate knitting from the yoke of the sweater. Where traditional knitters were classical artists, faithfully reproducing a score, Miss Phillips knit jazz. In her hands, knitting became a free-form, improvisational art, with no rules, no patterns and no utilitarian end in sight.

Mary Walker Phillips

Mary Walker Phillips knitting

My mother: alas, my mother doesn’t write a blog, so no links here. My mother is a very good knitter and when I was a child, she would always knit me the most amazing jumpers. She would allow me to select pattern, yarn and colour, which meant I never suffered from the dreaded “itchy jumper” syndrome. Instead, I was always impatient for her to finish her latest creation for me!

Rachael Matthews: Rachael founded Prick Your Finger together with Louize Harries, and Rachael, too, has always been very encouraging of my own work. Prick Your Finger was where I had my first exhibition, and my first darning workshop. I have met many interesting people through Rachael and some of them have become close friends.

Why must we lead this creative life?

Rachael second from the right, during a panel discussion on leading a creative life

This list is by no means exhaustive, and I think if you read my blog regularly, you will find many other inspirational women mentioned.

What is it I do?

In the past few months I have been thinking a lot about what I do as a maker. Throughout the coming months, I want to blog a bit more about what my creative practice means to me.

The Visible Mending Programme - Shoulder and Sleeve Detail

Using knitting to mend knitting: a private commission

Thinking about what I do means I have updated my ‘About‘ page, and I’ll use this as a guide to write these blog posts:

Tom is a self-taught textiles practitioner, with an emphasis on creating and repairing knitted objects, working mostly with wool. He is currently based in Brighton, UK. Tom’s craft practice is slow, allowing him to gain a deep understanding of material qualities and the traditional techniques that he uses for making and mending contemporary objects. Through his combined interest in sustainability and the rich textile history around wool in Britain he has started to question when the life of a woollen garment (and by extension any object) starts and ends. By exploring the motivations for repair Tom shifts the emphasis from the new and perfect to the old and imperfect, enabling him  to highlight the relationship between garment and wearer. His interest in using traditional techniques for creating and repairing (woollen) textiles mean that in Tom’s practice creating and mending textiles are in constant conversation with each other.

Self-taught Pocket Repair

A complex pocket repair, learnt from a book on clothes repairs

Many people assume I have a textiles background and studied textiles or fashion at college. As I firmly believe anybody can do what I do, it’s the first thing I wanted to say about myself: I’m a self-taught maker. I originally trained as a radiotherapy radiographer and have worked in a hospital to treat cancer patients. Nowadays I work for one of the companies that make radiotherapy treatment machines. All my making and repairing started out as a hobby and it’s been a very exciting journey so far, and one that is far from finished.

Ever from since I was a kid I have been creative and dabbled in all sorts of things such as drawing, caligraphy, crochet, origami, knitting, and whatnot. And I have always done minor repairs to my clothes, usually with very little thought behind it. Then, about eight or nine years ago I was inspired by a hugely expensive designer scarf to knit my own scarf, as I vaguely remembered knitting as a child. I got myself some needles and yarn and a learn-to-knit-in-ten-easy-steps book.

Cornish knitfrock - learnt from a book

A Cornish knit-frock: made according to the “recipe” in the Cornish Knit-frock book by Mary Wright

And from then on, I discovered the wealth of information contained in books and on the internet. I was encouraged by people around me to explore and try out things and not be afraid to fail; I feel knitting is really very suited to the inquisitive mind. It doesn’t have to cost much, and it’s easy to try something out and if it doesn’t go to your liking, you can simply rip back and try again.

And even if there is nobody around to discuss and learn from face-to-face, there is still so much help to be found around you: regular readers of my blog know I love old needlecraft books, and then, of course, there is the internet. I have learnt a lot from the forums on Ravelry (including, what books might be of interest to me.) It has opened my eyes to what knitting can be, and the potential that each knitter carries within in them.

Mary Walker Phillips Exploration Swatch Wall Hanging

An exploration of Mary Walker Phillips’s work; I would never have heard of Mary Walker Philips if it wasn’t for the internet

The above swatch would not have happened if I didn’t have access to the internet. It’s how I found out about Mary Walker Phillips’s work. It’s how I learnt about her book Creative Knitting, which has been very inspiring and revelatory. It’s how I learnt isn’t always necessary to start a new adventure with rigorous planning and calculating and worrying things won’t work out. Sometimes you just need to cast on and get going.

I truly believe that anybody can become a great knitter and I hope that sharing my knitting projects on this blog is testament to that. It’s great to get comments on my blog posts that show it has inspired you go on your own knitting adventure: may sticks and string lead you down unheard of avenues and be ready to be surprised. I have a lot of fun this way, and I hope you do, too!

A Tea Hat

Having lived in the UK for almost fifteen years, I’ve come to understand the importance of Tea. Not the “tea” I was accustomed to drink in The Netherlands: a tea bag is briefly suspended in a glass cup of water gone off the boil, resulting in a light-brown warm liquid. Of course, the tea bag is used to make not one, not two, but three cups of said liquid. Adding milk is only for children under ten. Tea it ain’t! It’s like taking your shoes off and dipping your toe in the sea, and pretending that’s the same as doing a mile-long swim in the sea. Not only that, I’m quite sure it’s only the British who solve any emotional distress with a “cuppa to cheer you up.” Luckily I have seen the error of my way a long time ago, and now much prefer a “builder’s tea” without, however, the regulation two spoons of sugar.

Tea Hat Tea Cosy from handspun wool

Wool is a good way of keeping your tea warm!

We regularly make a pot of tea here at Casa Tomofholland, and in order to keep it hot, I wanted to make a tea cosy. For some reason most tea cosies in the UK seem to be the kind that fits around the pot, with openings for the spout and the handle. Or maybe that’s just something that knitters do to show off their knitting prowess?

Fitted tea cosy in Foula Wool

A tea cosy knitted in Foula wool; my way of showing off the beautiful, natural shades of Foula wool

However, we’ve been collecting Wood’s Ware crockery for a while now, in the Beryl colourway. Wood’s Ware is another English institution: it was the crockery of choice for many canteens in schools, hospitals and other communal spaces. Although it is no longer made, it’s easy to find the pieces secondhand and they’re not very expensive as so many were made over the years. Although of a most unassuming colour and shape, I like the simple lines of the cups and saucers, tea and coffee pots, plates and tureens. I didn’t want to cover up my beloved teapot and hide what I like so much about it.

Wood's Ware England, in Beryl

 

A few pieces of our evergrowing collection of Wood’s Ware in Beryl

So I cast my mind back to when I was very young, and remembered the more usual tea cosies we used to use in The Netherlands (so there must have been a time where the Dutch drank proper Tea after all.) In Dutch they’re called a “theemuts,” which translates as “tea hat.’ And that’s really what they are: a hat for your tea pot, to be removed when you want to pour another brew. And what better material to make it from than wool? A perfect project for using some old handspun yarn; small skeins I had made a long time ago, trying out a few techniques.

Tea Hat with toast, marmalade and Wood's Ware in Beryl

My Tea Hat spotted in its natural habitat: a breakfast table with toast, marmalade (lime jelly marmalade if you must know,) some books to read and a random skein of yarn

The grey is coarse Herdwick: a sturdy fibre with excellent insulating qualities. The creamy white is lustrous Wensleydale: also surprisingly sturdy, but very soft, too. Apart from the appeal of using British rare sheep breed fibres, I was also reminded where the fibres came from when I knitted this up. The Herdwick was a gift from Victoria of Eden Cottage Yarns fame (who apparently has a shed full of fleeces.) The Wensleydale was a gift from my dear friend and woolly comrade Felicity “Felix” Ford. She gave this to me when I became interested in spinning, and she was very enthusiastic about it, in a way only Felix can be. It was very infectious! It comes from Julia Desch’s flock of sheep, and her Wensleydale really is something else.

I also wanted to try out knitting two-colour brioche, and take another opportunity to do some free-form knitting. Apart from taking some rough measurements I didn’t plan anything upfront. It soon became apparent that the very bulky Herwick yarns would not stretch to a whole Tea Hat in brioche stitch, so I ended up using a variety of stitches. Some stocking stitch on one side, some garterstitch with woven in strands at the other. After the pompoms were made, I had quite literally used up all of my yarns, apart from the small scraps I trimmed off after sewing in the ends!

Tea Hat, toast rack, Wood's Ware England in Beryl

The luminosity of the Wensleydale is accentuated by the matte Herdwick

I’m really pleased with this little folly of a Tea Hat. The interplay between bulky and thin yarn, the contrast between the rough Herdwick and slick Wensleydale, the lustre of a creamy longwool against the matte appearance of a fibre most often used for carpet yarn. I’m sure it will provide its warming service for years to come!

Dear readers, first things first: a happy new year to you! I hope 2015 will be full of many fullfilling spinning, knitting, darning, and other crafty pursuits. I’d like to thank you all for following my blog and leaving me comments; I really appreciate your interest and support.

It’s a time for reflection, so I want to share with you some of my 2014 highlights, and also talk about what I have planned for 2015. I hope you will be as excited about that as I am!

2014

Looking back at my blog posts, I find I have done a lot of things, and I also realise there are a fair few things I haven’t even got round to share with you.

In chronological order here are some of my personal favourites of last year:

Creative knitting

Mary Walker Phillips Exploration Swatch Wall Hanging

A linen swatch, exploring Mary Walker Phillips’s book Creative Knitting

Returning from my parents after Christmas 2013, I had found out about Mary Walker Phillips, who wrote, amongst others, Creative knitting. For somebody who usually does a lot of planning and swatching this was a refreshing approach. After knitting this linen swatch I have been taken her philosophy to heart, and it’s given me a sense of freedom and let things happen as they come. As I always need a balance in my practice, I have also started a jumper with the largest amount of planning and swatching I have ever done. Using these different approaches side by side means they inform each other and make me value them both more than I did before.

Playing with wool with Deborah Robson

Wool Types workshop with Deb Robson

Deb Robson in her element: wool and spinning wheels, and a captive audience

2014 was the first time I went to Fibre East as I really, REALLY wanted to attend Deb Robson’s class on wool types. I almost didn’t make it, as I had an awful flu the days before, but I’m glad I went, as half a year later my head is still spinning (pun intended!) with all the possibilities of wool. Deb Robson is most generous and amazing in sharing her knowledge and knows how to get anybody interested in wool. Unfortunately I did not have much time for spinning since, so this is something I would really like to remedy in 2015.

Friesian darning samplers

Fries Museum stoplap darning sampler 4

One of the many darning samplers I saw at the Fries Museum

When the textile conservator of the Fries Museum, Gieneke Arnolli, invited me to view their collection of darning samplers, I couldn’t wait to get on the plane! I thoroughly enjoyed my visit and Gieneke’s hospitality. I learnt so much from it I had to write not one, not two, but three blog posts about it. It has inspired me to learn more about repairing cloth in the coming year.

A visit to Sanquhar

Sanquhar Gloves with Initials

Darned Sanquhar gloves, what a treat!

I have a bit of a “thing” for the traditional gloves from Sanquhar, so I was more than happy to attend the one-day workshop in Sanquhar itself. I gave a presentation on the Sanquhar knitting tradition, met a lot of interesting people, and developed a bit of a “thing” for Scotland – to be fair the first seeds for that were sown a long time ago.

Hacking the KNITSONIK System

KNITSONIK System Swatch Complete

A swatch made according, or against, the KNITSONIK System, depending on your point of view

My comrade in wool and good friend Felicity “Felix” Ford, published a book on how to find inspiration for stranded colourwork patterns in everyday things. She asked me to hack her system and I enjoyed taking on this challenge. As I had helped her out a bit with the book, we have had many conversations on rules and guidelines you can set yourself, and on how strict her instructions in her book should be. I think we both learnt a lot from this, and it has added a new perspective on my quest to be a more creative knitter and trying to let go of rules and planning.

Mending

Of course my year is not complete without some mending and repairing, and I have worked on two very special commissions this year, so they deserve a special mention.

The Visible Mending Programme - repaired jumper

“A Mother’s Work” repair commission for a private client

A Mother’s Work” was a very special repair commission that went much further than simply fixing a jumper. Being asked to repair somebody’s jumper made by her mum who has passed away proved to be a very intimate experience.

Knitting and Crochet Guild Commission in colour

Knitting & Crochet Guild Repair Commission

The other special repair was commissioned by the Knitting & Crochet Guild, and it allowed me to use some traditional techniques, which I have highlighted by using naturally coloured undyed yarns.

And apart from the things I did blog about, I have done some other things that made 2014 a great year for me: I made a jumper with a graphic design on the front built up in single row stripes and other technical details; I have been interviewed a few times by PhD students, magazines, and newspapers, which helped me think about and better understand my own practice; I volunteered at the monthly Brighton Repair Café, which I thoroughly enjoy, so I’m looking forward to many more meet-ups to come (incidentally, the next one is on 31 January 2015.)

2015

I’m much looking forward to 2015, as I have plenty of things I’d like to get done, such as:

Repairs

Late last year I met up with my good friend and repair comrade Bridget Harvey, and we have started a repair dialogue. We want to explore the difference between functional and non-functional repair, using a pair of tatty tea towels.

My visit to the Fries Museum has given me an insight in repairing cloth, and also about the way you can learn to repair, and who traditionally performed repairs of household items and clothes. I want to learn more about repairing and darning cloth, using some early 20th Century Dutch lesson plan books I have.

Spinning and creative knitting

Spinning and creative knitting will meet each other this year, as I have a project in mind that involves first spinning up British rare breed fibres, and free-form-knit them up in some sort of mythological cloak. I want to learn more about the role of clothes in myths, sagas and folklore at the same time.

Finishing things

There are also some things left over from 2014 that need finishing. Most importantly a Shetland fleece spinning project that’s currently on hold; I have started a jumper in brioche stitch (this is the project I mentioned earlier, for which I’m doing a extraordinary amount of swatching and planning.) I’m also knitting a  version of my Tom of da Peathill cardigan in a more roomy version; I have one sleeve left to do!

In summary, 2015 will be a year in which I will be doing a lot of personal, slow craft projects. Some of you may know that I also have a full-time office job, so in order to make sure I get to do the things I want to do to grow as a maker and mender, I have decided to run fewer darning workshops this year. I’m sure I’ll keep myself busy with planned things, and any surprises that might pop up. I hope you are looking forward to a new year as much as I do!

Earlier this year I posted about a book that my dear friend and comrade in wool, Felicity “Felix” Ford, wanted to publish.

I was honoured to be asked to help her along the way, and I’m so proud to say that Felix’s hard work has paid off. The KNITSONIK Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook is now published! Congratulations to Felix!

Note: Scroll all the way to the bottom of this post to find links to where you can buy UK and USA hard copies, and a worldwide PDF download.

KNITSONIK Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook

The Beautiful cover of Felicity Ford’s KNITSONIK Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook

The KNITSONIK Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook explains in clear and easy to understand steps how to create your own stranded colourwork patterns, inspired by everyday things. There are lots of working examples to show how to approach this, and plenty of suggestions and exercises to help you if you feel a bit stuck.

As I was privy to the development of her book and the KNITSONIK System, I decided I wanted to knit a swatch to share with you in this blog post, in which I asked Felix some questions, and she gave me some insightful and detailed answers. So you had best make a brew before continue reading this post!

Faye Moorhouse, Forty Faces

 

This gouache titled “Forty Faces” by Brighton-based artist and illustrator Faye Moorhouse, was my inspiration source for a KNITSONIK Swatch Sensation

Tom: why did you ask me to do hack your KNITSONIK System when I told you about my swatch plans?

Felix: when developing guidelines for a creative process there is usually some tension around rules. Rules can be extremely helpful and supportive, offering a framework for creativity or a set of criteria to which a brief can be fitted; but they can also sometimes seem restrictive. This tension between rules and openness was important to explore while working on The KNITSONIK System and when I was working on the early drafts, I felt your feedback and comments almost continually pushed for more open-ness.

Our discussions on this theme were really to have and I think that because of them the final text for The KNITSONIK System achieves a nice balance between offering useful rules without being overly proscriptive. While refining the system, I was looking for appropriate ways to visualise a good balance between rules and openness and I kept returning to the metaphor of a map. What I love about a map is that it does offer you some reassurance when you head into new lands, but detours are always allowed and getting lost or stumbling on wonders that are not marked are always possible! So in the final text for the book I have presented the system as a map, and an invitation to hack it is included in the introduction: there are plenty of reminders that the rules I have created really aren’t meant to hem anyone in.

However in spite of these developments I remained slightly haunted by the objections you raised to my rules in the early writing stages and I wondered what might be produced through entirely abandoning my rules or working in opposition to them. When you said you wanted to make a swatch, it felt natural to me to suggest that you hack the system in the process.

KNITSONIK System Swatch by TOMOFHOLLAND

The bottom half of my KNITSONIK Swatch; from bottom to top:

A row of the faces, but without features. This part was knitted flat, and used intarsia.

An attempt capture the flow of watercolour ink fading out on the paper. I used a mix of knit and purl stitches to blend the colour transitions a bit more, a feature often seen in the beautiful Bohus sweaters.

The start of what could become a grid of faces, the circles are knitted on a separate needle and the last row is knitted in with the main colour.

Capturing how the black ink bled into the yellow face in one of the forty faces. You can see the face in question in the gouache in the bottom row, second from the right.

A row of an enlarged mouth from one of the red faces.

A row showing the top knot of one of the faces.

A block of houndstooth check: the mouth chart two rows below reminded me of a houndstooth check, so I started exploring this further. The background contains all the shades that move from red via pink to white.

Tom: Have you hacked it yourself, or perhaps you felt safer sticking to your rules? How do you feel about the KNITSONIK System and its rules? How have they helped you, and how did they hinder you?

Felix: I find my rules very useful but will abandon them in an instant if they are encumbering a good idea! For me the rules really are only there to help and where they come into their own is at the outset of a project where my only thought is “I want to create stranded colourwork based on X”. I love that now I have a practical method for dealing with that impulse, and I truly enjoy the process very much. I used to faff about for ages trying to plan everything in advance whereas now I just grab all the colours I want to use and cast on, drawing designs in my notebook and refining them as I go. I find this really liberating and hope that other knitters using the book have the same experience.

I also like the discipline of trying to follow the rules around stitch widths included in the book because apart from anything else I think this is great practice for applying stranded colourwork to garment patterns. I am ultimately thinking towards applying personal stranded colourwork to garments and in this context the ability to understand the size of your canvas and adapt patterns to it is key. And although it’s not strictly necessary to make all the stitch patterns factors and multiples of one another, I enjoy the visual sense of rhythm and accents that occurs when they are.

Sometimes the rules are unhelpful though, and I have zero interest in sticking to them purely for the sake of it. For example the dandelion chart involves some long strands on the back of the work on a couple of rows, and I created an idea for celebrating my biscuit tin lid which is 18 stitches wide and therefore not a factor of 48. I also ignored my own rules about tall vertical columns of stitches while working on the Art Deco chart because the long verticals really are the whole point of that type of ziggurat 1930s architecture!

Biscuit Tin Swatch

The biscuit tin swatch with the offending stitch repeat of 18 stitches.

It’s all about that word balance; for me a framework gets me into a practical frame of mind and gives me a great jumping off point from which to innovate. A series of little briefs – pick colours; design a pattern; cast on; play with shading – is more inviting and manageable than a wide open idea.

I find that when a creative brief is too open the uncertainty will normally push me towards what I know and produce predictable results. Conversely I’ve discovered that if I set rules, manoeuvring within them forces me to innovate and often produces wondrous surprises. I think our Aleatoric Fair Isle project is a good example of this: the rules that we imposed on ourselves resulted in some very experimental Fair Isle knitting which was instructive and fun to create but which we could not easily  have been generated outside of that framework. The rules pushed us into new areas of knitterly thinking and problem-solving and I loved that!

KNITSONIK System Swatch 2

The top half of my KNITSONIK System swatch. Here I went completely off-piste. For most rows I used three colours per row, I didn’t chart anything, and the colours were added in at random. It’s a reflection of the (seemingly?) random choice of colour in the inspiration source. The larger squares in the bottom half of this picture all have two edges in a darker shade (even the black ones!) to mimick how the watercolour is never one solid colour. I also tried to keep the ratio of colour to white (the paper in the original) fairly similar.

Tom: I’m also thinking here about our experience with the Aleatoric Fair Isle where we found that we wanted to rebel against the rules we set out ourselves.

Felix: In a way rebelling against the rules of any system is just another way of creating a framework; but I love the energy and friction of rebellion! To me your amazing MEGASWATCH reads as a really elaborate and wholly positive critique of The KNITSONIK System; it has its own rules (must be a random number of stitches wide; must involve both flat and in-the-round construction; must use more than two colours per round; etc.) and I love how deliberately working outside of my rules has pushed your ideas about palettes and pattern into such exciting realms. There is a wonderful exuberance and thoroughness about the MEGASWATCH!

Aleatoric Fair Swatches

 

Two Aleatoric Fair Isle Swatches: Felix and I were inspired by a composition by John Cage and used similar ways to “compose” our swatches. Using a set of rules and the roll of the dice we left pattern and colour choices to chance.

Felix: I have questions for you though: did you find you had to create a set of guidelines for yourself and how did you approach the construction of your beauteous swatch?

Tom: we had a lot of discussions about how strict or free your rules in your book should be, and I feel that we both benefited from this. These discussions meant I had a good understanding of your system, which was important to start hacking it. However, my rules weren’t quite as strict as you imply (“must be a random number of stitches wide; must involve both flat and in-the-round construction; must use more than two colours per round; etc.”) I took a very organic approach to it and I hardly planned anything; there were no “musts.”

To me the most obvious hack would be to go against the stranded colourwork technique and knitting in the round. So, perhaps predictably, I quickly ended up using intarsia for the first hack. Then I moved on to knitting separate pieces (the row of circles are knitted on a separate needle in garter stitch).

Then I started to become more and more intrigued in how to depict the colour washes, and the bleeding of one colour into another. For this I wanted to use more than one colour per row. And in some areas I even twisted a short length of darker yellow around the bright yellow and knitted with that to get a good sense of the bleeding of the colours.

Faye Moorhouse, Forty Faces detail

I was inspired by the uneven coverage of the gouache inks and how some of the colours have bled into each other.

Of course, the one big rule in your book is to chart and chart again and refine them with each iteration. I hacked this big time! Apart from the big faces in intarsia and the houndstooth check (which I developed by blowing up one of the mouths) I didn’t chart anything. This really helped me reflecting the random colour choices of the faces in the original gouache.

KNITSONIK System Swatch Complete

Felix: do you wish I hadn’t asked you to HACK THE KNITSONIK SYSTEM?

Tom: I was more than happy to hack the system for you! It gave me a chance to really get into the underlying system, as I had to understand the rules first. Also, for me it shows how strong your book is. Yes, it does offer easy-to-follow steps and guidelines, but what it really highlighted to me was that you need to LOOK at things, and then inspiration will come, possibly with the aid of some exercises if you need some encouragement to get going. However, although not explicitly stated, I feel that the over-arching “take-home” message is that you can apply this to any type of knitting. Not just stranded and other colourwork such as intarsia, but with a bit of thinking about the different kind of rules you might need, you can easily apply your design process to textured knitting such as cables, or to lace knitting. And why stop with knitting? You can also feel inspired to create your own original crochet, needlepoint, or quilt designs. To me, that’s what I really learnt from the KNITSONIK Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook.

If you want to know what others had to say about Felix’s book, then the other blog tour stops are listed below:

28th and 30th Oct – Ysolda Teague
31st Oct – Brenda Dayne
2nd Nov – Jamieson & Smith with Ella Gordon
4th Nov – Donna Druchunas
6th Nov – An Snag Breac
8th Nov – Fine Lightness
10th Nov – Perfect Weather for Spinning and Knitting with Deborah Gray
14th Nov – Deb Robson
28th Nov – Tom of Holland
30th Nov – Fyberspates
31st Nov – Editions of You with Lisa Busby
4th Dec – Lara Clements
6th Dec – Spilly Jane
8th Dec – Ella Austin
12th Dec – Susan Crawford

The book is available in the following formats:

UK hard copy
USA hard copy
Worldwide PDF download

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