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I made a sweater. And for a humble sweater, it brings together a lot of ideas and people, hence my conundrum on the title of this blog post.

Heraldic Sweater Front View 2

A Heraldic Sweater made from Clara Yarn Shetland 1.0

When I got my lucky hands on some Shetland 1.0 by Clara Yarn – an occasional, exclusive, and always interesting yarn range from my dear friend and fellow Comrade in Wool, Clara Parkes – I wanted to play with colour, but I also wanted to eek out the yardage as much as I could. So the most obvious approach, stranded colour work, was out of the question: I wanted every inch of yarn to be knitted into a visible stitch. The second option was intarsia, and for a long time, I thought that this would be the solution.

Suddenly, a lot of things came together: I remembered my swatch of “tweed knitting”, a method of creating a tweedy fabric using a mistake rib, which I had found in a 1950s Dutch knitting book.

a better course in knitting - het breien in betere banen - de vries-hamburger

“Tweed knitting” from A Better Course in Knitting, a 1950s Dutch knitting book

My interest in knitting patterns from the 1980s:

A Jumper by Jane Wheeler

A cozy cardigan by Jane Wheeler, shown in Rowan’s Design Collection; Summer & Winter Knitting, edited by Stephen Sheard

Tapestry Sweater, designed by Susan Duckworth

Tapestry Sweater, designed by Susan Duckworth, from her book Floral Knitting

I implore anybody who shudders by the thought of 1980s knitwear to take a closer look. If you can see past the oversized boxy shapes, a rich world opens up. I don’t see a nadir in knitwear design, but an exciting and heady mix of texture, colour, and technique. Young knitwear designers and labels such as Artwork, Kaffe Fassett, Annabel Fox, Bodymap, and Patricia Roberts, to name just a few, explored exciting new things. Rowan yarns started to make a lot of new yarns in a variety of fibres, texture, and colour. No technique was considered too complicated. It’s full of inspiration for me. I particularly like the colourwork designs where the different areas of colours are accentuated by the use of a different stitch, or a yarn with a different texture, such as the Tapestry Sweater by Susan Duckworth. In my sweater, though, I wanted to stick to using the Shetland 1.0 only, so I started playing around with texture and colour.

Clara Yarn Swatch

An early swatch combining blocks of colour with contrast in texture – with apologies for the poor quality of my phone picture

As I now knew where I wanted to go, I made a start with knitting, even if I hadn’t worked out the detail yet, hoping that I would find a solution along the way. I had finished the back and one sleeve when I found out about Sequence Knitting, a knitting method explored and documented by Cecelia Campochiaro in her book. I had a flash of inspiration! Why not try out some sequence knitting by knitting swatches, which I could then incorporate into the front piece? To knit this unhampered by attempting to match stitch and row gauge, I would block the swatches and the back piece, and that way I could work out how to knit the front piece with matching holes, into which I could then sew the swatches. And that’s just what I did:

Heraldic Sweater Front Piece Puzzle

The front piece puzzle, using a wide range of knitting sequences

As you can see, the front piece blocked out a bit larger than planned, so sewing together was a bit more of a challenge than I had anticipated. Huzzah for my endless stash of coil-less safety pins.

Sewing Up of the Heraldic Sweater

Sewing the swatches into the front

When I had completed the sewing up, the front looked less than presentable. Lots of puckers along seam lines, and fabric pulling into all sorts of directions. But such is the power of The Second Blocking (after sewing up and adding button bands or collars, I always block again) that all puckers and warping disappeared, as I knew would happen; I had, after all, used the largest gauge swatch I could make: the whole back piece.

When I showed my nearly finished jumper to Anna Maltz, she declared it looked “very heraldic.” It all made sense:

Shield Sweater and Cardigan by Sandy Black

Shield Sweater and Cardigan, from Sandy Black’s Original Knitting, knitted in stocking stitch and reverse stocking stitch. The shield is on the front of the sweater, and the back of the cardigan

A bold design, and a contrast in texture by using different stitches: I believe I have managed to take what I like in 1980s knitwear, and make it into something new.

Heraldic Sweater Shoulder

A well-shaped sleeve cap, and a mock-turtle neck

There’s also a lot of shaping hidden in this sweater. The sleeve cap has a “proper” bell shape, like for a sewn shirt, and of course making the holes on the front meant using lots of different rates of increasing and decreasing: I learnt a lot about that, too! The mock turtle neck was knitted by graduating the needle size: at the picked up edge I used 3.5mm needles, and every few rows I went one size smaller until I reached 2.75mm. The part that’s folded to the inside is knitted on one needle size smaller throughout, from 2.5mm through to 3.25mm.

Heraldic Sweater Front View

Me looking a bit smug in my Heraldic Sweater

I thoroughly enjoyed bringing all these disparate things together in one sweater, and the Clara Yarn Shetland 1.0 was a dream to knit with. I hope to wear this sweater with much pleasure for years to come!

My vintage-obsessed knitting comrade Susan Crawford embarked on an exciting project about three years ago: she has taken 25 20th century knitted pieces from the textile collection of the Shetland Museum and Archive and turned them into 21st century knitting patterns.

Vintage Shetland Knitwear

In order to fund the costs of making the book, Susan started a Slushpub fundraiser, which has already well exceeded her initial target! The additional money will go to more of the photoshoot costs,  a second photographer to take ‘behind the scenes’ footage of the photoshoot to enhance the book further, additional research to make the book even better, and image licencing to increase the number of historical images included in the book.

As part of this blog tour to promote the book and raise funds, Susan has asked each contributor to share some of the bloggers’ favourite garments in the book. Originally I was going to knit one of the sample garments for the book so I’ve seen all the garments before as Susan gave me the choice, but unfortunately I had other priorities and in the end I didn’t get to knit a garment after all. So, here’s a shortlist of my favourite garments:

Short Sleeve Jumper

Short-sleeved jumper

This short-sleeved jumper appealed to me because of the unusual design, which combines a classic “all-over” with stripes and a border of diamonds. All the diagonal lines really pull the design together.

Casual Cardigan with Pockets

Casual cardigan with inset pockets

This is such a classic cardigan! It’s possibly one of the most typical Shetland knits in the collection, but I love the quiet elegance and the large collection of peerie patterns, punctuated by the recurring diamond pattern.

golf stockings

Golf stockings

How could I not like a pair of knee-high socks with some darning? Against better judgment I once knitted a pair of socks from woollen spun Shetland wool. I wore holes in them after only a few wears, and they’ve been in my mending basket for almost two years now. I wonder whether these golf stockings were knitted from a worsted-spun yarn instead.

But in the end, the garment I wanted to knit most, was the “Prisoner of War” jumper.

Prisoner of War Jumper

Prisoner of War jumper

When I attended Shetland Wool Week in 2013, this jumper was on display in the Shetland Museum. I had already seen pictures of it from Susan, but that didn’t quite prepare me for the impact of seeing the real deal. It’s knitted from fine wool, and as you can see, it’s been mended a lot, and being able to see it failry up-close was a humbling experience. This jumper was knitted for Ralph Paterson by his wife. He was wearing it when he was taken prisoner of war in Hong Kong. It brought him comfort, and reminded him of home. It must’ve been very precious to him, as it has been mended in many places, using odds and ends of yarn.

prisoner of war jumper darning detail

Darning to keep loved ones in mind

POW jumper Darned Detail Neckline

An unexpected pop of colour

POW jumper undarned detail

Not all holes were darned on this jumper; perhaps Ralph Paterson might’ve been on his way home again when he discovered this hole?

I’m looking forward to seeing Susan’s book, and you can probably guess which pattern I’m itching to cast on!

All pieces – each with their own unique story to tell – have been developed into comprehensive multi-sized knitting patterns, complete with instructions, technical advice and illustrated with colour photography shot in Shetland. With an introduction reflecting on the story of each hand-knit item this book is a treasury of Shetland knitting patterns and an insight into Shetland’s rich textile traditions.

The blog tour continues with Kate Atherley‘s blog on Wednesday, 29 July.

Please see the list below for all the stops along the tour past, present, and future:

Thursday 9th July
  
Saturday 12th July
  
Monday 13th July
    
Wednesday 15th July         
  
Friday 17th July
  
Saturday 18th July
  
Sunday 19th July
   
Monday 20th July
  
Tuesday 21st July
  
Wednesday 22nd July
  
Friday 24th July
  
Saturday 25th July
  
Sunday 26th July
   
Monday 27th July
  
Wednesday 29th July
  
Friday 31st July
  
Sunday 2nd August
  
Monday 3rd August
Tuesday 4th August
Wednesday 5th Aug
TBC
Thursday 6th August
   
Friday 7th August

Last year I went to the Fries Museum to see their collection of darning samplers. Little did I know that almost a year later, I would own my own antique darning sampler. Note: if you want to see the following pictures in close-up, simply click on them to see the larger version.

Darning Sampler 1892 Front

My darning sampler was started in 1892 by ‘EAE’, but never finished. I have very little additional information about it

A good excuse to read up on darning samplers and I’d like to share with you some of the things I’ve learnt.

Making darning samplers seemed to be particularly popular in The Netherlands, although you find them also in other countries. What follows comes from Dutch books that specifically talk about darning samplers (listed below) and reflect how things were in The Netherlands; I can only assume things might’ve been similar elsewhere.

Darning samplers seem to have been part of any girl’s education, rich or poor. All women were supposed to help out with household tasks, which included maintenance of clothes and linens. Girls and women ought to keep themselves occupied with useful things, and for those who needed to supplement their income, needlework was a respectable way of earning some extra money.

Darning sampler 1892 fancy darn front

A fancy darn with different patterns in the arms of the cross

Girls were often sent to a small girls’ boarding school (they were often called “French Boarding School” as the girls were also taught French), where needlework was part of the curriculum. It was also taught at orphanages to ensure orphaned girls would be able to look after themselves once they left. For those girls who were too busy during the day (they might have a job as a maid, or help run a household), there were also evening darning and sewing classes.

Needlecraft lessons included embroidery, knitting, sewing, and mending. Often girls started with a cross stitch sampler, practising the letters of the alphabet. Many households sent their laundry to the laundry house and by marking all the linen, they could all be returned cleaned and bleached to the rightful owners. Often these samplers started with the alphabet repeated a few times (making sure the letters were embroidered exactly the same and lined up: an exercise in counting the threads), and then little motifs were added, which could be used for decorative purposes.

As I understand it, girls started with the easier embroidery sampler first, and then moved on to the darning sampler. And in the darning sampler there was also a build-up of complexity in technique. One started off with damask darning, which is nowadays still used as a decorative technique. This simply required the darner to pick up threads from the sound fabric. You can see this in the centre square of my sampler: each of the borders show a different damask darning pattern.

Darning sampler 1892 centre square front

The centre square shows the relatively easy technique of damask darning

Darning sampler 1892 centre square back

The back of the centre square shows that using star stitch (a reversible stitch) for the initials and numbers makes for a very neat finish

After the damask darn they moved on to the real deal: darning across an actual hole. A hole was neatly cut out and the edges whipped to stop them from fraying. First all the vertical threads (the warp, so to speak) were put across the hole by starning some simple damask darning a bit away from the hole, span the thread across the hole and then darn in a bit more on the other side. When turning direction to work back, a little loop was left at the end. Used linen was usually washed a lot, so wouldn’t shrink anymore, but the new darning thread used for the repair would shrink upon the first wash, so these loops allowed for that. The horizontal threads were woven in in a similar fashion, weaving them over and under the warp threads. The first hole (top right in my sampler) would be done in a simple even weave, and then slowly the complexity increased to other weave patterns, such as twill weaves, bird’s eye, satin, and checks.

Darning sampler 1892 even weave darn front

An even weave darn. The irregularity suggests this might have been the first proper darn made on the sampler

Darning sampler 1892 even weave darn back

The back shows whip stitched edges, loops to allow for shrinkage, and also a decorative hem

Colours and materials for repair change through the centuries according to fashion. These practice darns were usually done in coloured threads on a plain white or unbleached ground, so that it was easy to see what you were doing, but also allowing the teacher to spot any mistakes more readily. Old darning samplers often used fine silks, linen or cotton threads on a linen or cotton ground. Less common was the use of wool, although it became more popular when the ‘Berlin wools’ came into fashion for needlepoint. Older darning samplers were often executed with very fine threads, and the holes repaired were rather large and therefore presented a real challenge. The threads used are slowly getting a bit less fine, and likewise the fabric used became coarser throughout the centuries; the variety of techniques seemed to go down as well. Old darning samplers included complex repairs at the edge of the fabric, and the most difficult of all was the darning of a corner. A length of ribbon or tape was used as a corner edge, which was sometimes removed after the darn was completed. Later darning samplers don’t show these complicated repairs, and also the size of the holes to be darned became smaller. This could be due to a number of reasons, but one of them is that for larger holes and corners a sewn-in patch is a much stronger repair than a hand-sewn darn could ever be.

Darning sampler 1892 bird's eye darn front

A bird’s eye darn in two colours

Darning sampler 1892 bird's eye darn back

The bird’s eye darn looks just as neat at the back

My darning sampler seems to be typical of its time: no complex edge or corner darns, and none of the holes are larger than 3x3cm. For whatever reason, this one was left unfinished. One darn in the lower left corner only has the warp threads darned in in a herringbone pattern, and there also the start of repairing a diagonal slash. This repair was complicated, as the edges of the slash are on the diagonal, so liable to stretch out. This darning sampler would’ve been worked on over a good few months. Girls would usually have darning lessons a few hours a week, and it took them about a year to complete a sampler. I will never know why my darning sampler was never finished, but the research in the books I have show that often girls either couldn’t afford the fees, or were not able to attend classes due to other duties taking higher priority. In the country side for instance, there were no lessons during harvest time as everybody, young and old, had to help bring in the harvest.

Darning sampler 1892 unfinished darn

 

The start of a herringbone darn, shown on the back

Darning sampler 1892 diagonal slash darn front

The vertical threads were already completed on this diagonal slash, and the horizontal threads were just started

Darning sampler 1892 diagonal slash darn back

The diagonal slash darn is the only one that shows a knot

The mystery remains, and that is part of the beauty of it. Even if I don’t know a thing about who made this sampler or why it was never completed, it represents an important part of young women’s social history, and will provide me with food for thought and inspiration for years to come.

Darning sampler 1892 back

The back of the darning sampler shows neat finishes

Short bibliography (apologies to non-Dutch readers, but all these books are in Dutch):

Kipp, A; Schipper-van Lottum, MGA; Van der Vlerk, L. Nuttig en Fraai; Zuidhollandse merk- en stoplappen. Becht, Haarlem, 1987.

Schipper-van Lottum, MGA. Merk- en Stoplappen; schoolwerk van Amsterdamse meisjes uit vier eeuwen. Second print, Wereldbibliotheek, Amsterdam, 1980

Schipper-van Lottum, MGA. Stop- en borduurlappen; geschiedenis en techniek. Becht, Haarlem, 1987.

Smith-Sanders, B. Merk- en Stoplappen uit het Burgerweeshuis Amsterdam. Venlo, 2013.

Sequence Knitting

Cecelia Campochiaro may be a name you have not heard of, but I think this is about to change. She has written what I believe will become a future classic in the knitting repertoire: Sequence Knitting. I first clapped my eyes on some of her designs on Ravelry, completely by chance. I was intrigued enough to take a gamble and placed a pre-order of this book with Schoolhouse Press. When it finally arrived I was bowled over by Cecelia’s book, and I’m very pleased that she agreed to an interview.

Warning: get yourself a cup of tea before proceeding, there was much to talk about!

Cecelia Campochiaro

Cecelia Campochiaro, author of Sequence Knitting

Tom: first of all, could you give us an introduction to the concept of sequence knitting for those readers of my blog who are not familiar with it?

Cecelia: Sequence Knitting is simply about taking a sequence of stitches like “K3, P1” and repeating that sequence again and again to create a fabric. Any kind of sequence is possible, but it should be of a fixed length or the knitting will grow or shrink dramatically. The sequence and the way the sequence is repeated can both be varied to create an endless number of fabrics.

Moss Stitch swatch

Moss stitch (or seed stitch, depending on which side of the pond you live) is an example of sequence knitting we are all familiar with: repeat K1, P1 over an odd number of stitches, end with K1. 
Tom: your attention to detail is self-evident throughout the book, from the lay-out through to the text and the knitted items presented. You frequently refer to other books that make a point about details and choosing just the right technique for the job at hand, such as June Hemmons Hiatt‘s The Principles of Knitting, and Catherine Lowe‘s The Ravell’d Sleeve; both among my personal favourites for this very reason. How have they (and perhaps others) influenced your work?

Cecelia: We knitters are so fortunate to have wonderful people like June, Catherine, and of course Elizabeth Zimmerman willing to put their thoughts to paper. I devoured Elizabeth’s books in the 1990s, then I took a workshop from Catherine in the early 2000s in Menlo Park. She introduced me to the idea that knitters create the fabric, unlike sewers, and she also introduced me to June’s book. It was out of print, but I invested $350 to get a used copy. It was the most expensive book I had ever bought and I read it from cover to cover. Other influences were Kaffe Fassett, Barbara Walker, Montse Stanley, Setsuko Torii, Britt-Marie Christoffersson, and The Mason-Dixon ladies Kay Gardiner and Ann Shayne.

Tom: in a previous email you mentioned you have a 60+h job and that this can make creative thinking difficult. As somebody who also has a full-time office job alongside my creative practice I have developed my own strategies and I’d be curious to know how you managed to ensure time for being creative, and write a whole book?

Cecelia: in my high-tech life I developed complex machines used in computer chip factories. These machines are created by many engineers working over a period of years. This taught me that with a good plan and continuous effort, big things can happen. When I was I writing, I would wake up early and spend an hour in the morning before going to work, and perhaps another hour or two each evening. I also traveled with a personal laptop on business trips – long flights are great for getting things done. As the book got closer to completion I had to start creating my own deadlines, and I spent many weekends working straight through to meet them. I also had a lot of help from two amazing and talented women: Vanessa Yap-Einbund, who did the book design, and Renée Lorion, who did the editing. I loved doing this project so much it really never felt like work.

Sequence Knitting Book Cover

Sequence Knitting, with a whole raft of tasty scarves on the cover

Tom: your book is a beautifully produced hardback (as a bibliophile I particularly appreciate the sewn binding.) Kate Davies has recently blogged about independent publishing in the world of knitting (link to the first of three consecutive blog posts on the subject) and she discusses the different ways of independent publishing and some of their pros and cons. What has been your motivation for independent publishing and how did you settle on the format?
Cecelia: thank you. Kate’s books and her blog are terrific. I read her articles on self-publishing with great interest.

My mother was a librarian and I was raised to value and love books. I never thought I would write a knitting book, but the concept of sequence knitting seemed so fundamental and important that I decided I had to share it in the best way I could. Once the scale of the book became clear, I wanted it to be comfortable to hold, to lay flat, and be durable. It also had to be beautiful as an object by itself. Knitting books from Japan and photography books published by Steidl were my aesthetic inspirations. I was so glad to work with Vanessa Yap-Einbund. She has a great eye.

I did not approach a traditional publisher for many reasons: I was a complete unknown in the knitting world, and I did not think anyone would take me seriously, but the bigger reason was that I was figuring out how sequence knitting worked as I developed the book. I used InDesign to write the book in spreads, and would rewrite some pages as many as 10 times as I clarified my thinking. I don’t know how I could have shared the process with anyone else given my personal learning curve and the constraints of my career in technology. Working in technology also enabled me to pay upfront for the printing.

Before I embarked on the writing, I also found out that I could have Unicorn Books and Crafts be the distributor. One of the barriers to self-publishing is distribution. There was no way I could take on the storage and shipping of books, so I really appreciate having a resource like Unicorn Books.

This also touches on the subject of how we value and pay for books. In a small communities like knitting, books are crucial for sharing information. However, several yarn shop owners have told me that they are no longer carrying books because they cannot compete with discount prices and free shipping from big companies. For now, Sequence Knitting is not available through any discount-sellers to encourage yarn shops and small on-line businesses to carry it.

a better course in knitting - het breien in betere banen - de vries-hamburger

A swatch in tweed knitting I made last year; this turns out to be a form of sequence knitting

Tom: last year I have been exploring something I called “tweed-knitting” after a 1953 Dutch knitting book; I now realise this is a flavour of sequence knitting. And although most of the swatches in the book are in a plain grey yarn, you clearly love using colour. What’s the connection between sequence knitting and colour?
Cecelia: I saw that post and would love to see that book!

Some sequence knitting stitch patterns create a framework within which color can easily be explored, like broken garter. The Mason-Dixon ladies have written about improvisational color work and I share their love for starting something where the journey to make it will have color surprises, as in the version of Colormill shown further down. I spent a year just working broken garter patterns and playing with colors. Using Eisaku Noro’s yarns with sequence knitting is another way to create and enjoy amazing colors.

The swatches are all in neutral grays because I want the reader to impose their own color ideas on the stitch patterns. To me, having the swatches in a strong color predisposes the reader to think about the pattern in a biased way, and I hope people will explore many colors of their choosing. In addition to color, the fiber is important and provides another level of variety in terms of gauge and texture.

Andrus Scarf

Cecelia knitted this version of the Andrus Scarf by holding a strand of ombré fingering with a strand of a silk-mohair blend

Tom: you have approached the sequence knitting concept very methodically, and as somebody who has attempted to study maths many moons ago, I can really appreciate this. I imagine I would have a lot of fun putting together the tables with all the possible variations. Could you tell a bit more about the maths behind sequence knitting?
Cecelia: as long as one stays with knits and purls, the math is all binary just like computers. Think of a knit as a “0″ and a purl as a “1.” So a 2-digit binary number can be 00, 10, 01, and 11– and a 2-stitch sequence can be K2, KP, PK, or P2. However, many of these different combinations are redundant, which may or may not be important depending on the situation. I figured a lot of this out empirically and I’m sure I still don’t understand it all. A friend who is a statistician, Karen Biagini, helped me, and I hope some knitter-mathematicians will really do it justice in the future.

Bach Scarf Detail

Bach Scarf detail: this shows that using a plain colour yarn doesn’t mean the end result is plain, too

Tom: I find your concept very inspiring; it’s beautiful in its simplicity and got my mind racing about all the possibilities. I think it would translate easily into stranded colourwork substituting knits and purls with two different colours, but I have tried a few swatches with lace. As we’ve discussed by email, this turns out to have its own problems, and for your book you’ve made the choice of playing with knits and purls only. How come? And what other possiblities have you tried that haven’t made it into the book?

Cecelia: lace, colorwork, bobbles…the possibilities are endless! Once I decided to write a book, I had to decide how broad the scope could be. If I included lace and other ideas either the book would be longer or the descriptions would have to be shorter and it just seemed like keeping to knits and purls (with a few slip stitches) was a logical place to constrain the content. I have a lovely team of sample knitters and ideas keep coming, so we have been busily working on what I hope will be book 2. My guiding principles are first that the process must be simple, and second that the end product must be lovely. The balance between these two criteria is a fascinating puzzle. So far book 2 has some colorwork and new ways to repeat sequences. I am still pondering whether to include any lace…

Color Mill Scarf

Colormill Scarf detail; knitted in a broken garter stitch sequence, which enabled Cecelia to explore improvisational colourwork

Tom: last but not least, where is the book available from?

Cecelia: in the US it is available from many sources including local yarn shops, Schoolhouse Press, Imagiknit, Jimmy Beans Wool and others. I do not yet have a UK distributor, but Loop in London just started carrying it.

Thank you so much for asking me to be a part of your blog. I’m thrilled with the ways you are expanding on sequence knitting!!

Tom: thank you Cecelia, it was a pleasure to feature you, and I’m already looking forward to the next book!

Taking Time

In the last twelve months or so I have started to gain an appreciation for Taking Time. Although (hand-) knitting probably isn’t the fastest craft known to man as it is, I have never shied away from projects that take a particularly long time to complete, such as this holy communion shawl.

Shetland Lace Shawl Rose Trellis

A Shetland Lace Shawl in Cobweb weight yarn

However, I’m now more consciously slowing down. As I become more interested in using specific traditional techniques for specific tasks, I also feel an urge to take my time to to do the best job possible.

I think my interest in this started when I took up spinning. Working with wool is a tactile experience I enjoy, and now I’m seeking out opportunities to enhance this experience. Taking time to handle the fibre at the various stages allow me to explore its material qualities.

Of course, knitting in itself allows me that tactile experience by its very nature. But instead of using a skein holder and ball winder, I now prefer to use my knees to hold the skein, and wind a ball by hand. The rhythm of winding, going from left knee to right and back again, feeling the yarn glide through one hand, feeling the ball of yarn grow in the other, I can get to know the yarn I’ll be knitting up later. How smooth is the yarn, how bouncy is the ball? I dream about the project that it will become, contemplate how I can enhance the fibre’s inherent qualities.

Handspun yarn and handwound balls

Handspun yarns and handwound balls

But as a spinner I can create even more opportunities to explore these tactile qualities. I love getting a raw fleece and process it from scratch. Laying out the fleece, sorting it, scouring it, preparing it for spinning; this all requires a lot of handling. Raw fleece feels greasy and at places, dirty, and smells strongly of sheep. It takes me right back to my childhood, visiting my grandparents’ sheep farm. During the scouring and drying the fibre transforms through its contact with water and soap. This process can’t be rushed, and it creates space to think about what this fleece might want to become.

Consciously taking time when performing tasks makes them more meaningful to me. It clears the mind and allows me to contemplate the more esoteric aspects of my work. Preparing and spinning Shetland wool makes me think about the importance of wool in Shetland’s economy and society and particularly how it affected women’s lives (if you are interested in this subject, then Myth And Materiality in a Woman’s World: Shetland, 1800-2000 by Lynn Abrahams is a good place to start.)

Fries Museum Knitted Darning Sampler 02a

Knitted darning samplers in the Fries Museum

When I’m darning, I think not only about when this was a necessity, but also about the amazing darning samplers I have seen at the Fries Museum, Leeuwarden, The Netherlands. Young girls were taught to knit and darn and had to take time to create perfectly executed darning samplers. I also noticed during my visit to the Fries Museum, that the clothes in their collection were rarely repaired to the same high standard. I can only assume that the women couldn’t afford to spend a lot of time on this task, undoubtedly one of many when running a household, big or small.

Things become more personal when I take on a specific darning commission, the most poignant example perhaps being the repair of Bernadette’s jumper.

The Visible Mending Programme - repaired jumper

Bernadette’s jumper visibly mended

Just a normal jumper to most people, even if they recognise the good knitting skills that went into it, this jumper is very valuable indeed to Bernadette. One of the few items made by her mother that she still owed, and a botched attempt to turn it into cushion cover made this a very special mend.

As Bernadette had given me the background story of this jumper, her relationship with her mother, and why she attempted to turn it into a cushion cover, the repair felt very intimate. While preparing the pieces of the jumper for repair I let my mind wander and it allowed me to refine my repair approach. I wanted to show that this was not repaired by the person who originally made this jumper, and I used a variation of the cable stitch pattern to highlight this. Although I had never met her mother, taking my time to perform a beautiful repair, allowed me to contemplate this woman while I picked up stitches she had knitted many years ago; a very intimate act.

Shetland Lace Shawl for my Mother

A Shetland Lace Shawl for my Mother

In summary, giving yourself permission to take time has, I believe, many benefits. There is time for contemplation, exploring material qualities, and re-inforcing the connections between all the things I do. It makes my work a creative, deep and rich experience that I wouldn’t want to miss for all in the world.

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

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