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Archive for the ‘textile’ Category

When I visited the Fries Museum earlier this year, their textile conservator, Gieneke Arnolli, showed me an old Dutch knitting book that I just couldn’t get out of my head. I felt it would be an indispensable addition to my knitting library, but it took me a while to find a copy of this book.

a better course in knitting - breien in betere banen

A Better Course in Knitting – “Het Breien in Betere Banen” by L De Vries-Hamburger

Het Breien in Betere Banen, which I think translates best into A Better Course in Knitting was written by L De Vries-Hamburger and published in 1949 by DA Daamen’s Uitgeversmaatschappij n.v., ‘s-Gravenhage, The Netherlands (you may know ‘s-Gravenhage better as Den Haag.) So far I have not been able to learn much about De Vries-Hamburger. From the introduction I know she taught knitting after the Second World War, and she wrote this book as result of many requests by her students.

The introduction is an essay about her one-woman quest to shift knitting from the realm of domestic craft to that of applied arts, and an attempt at creating a new folk art movement. De Vries-Hamburger recoils at the thought of knitting patterns written out row by row, as this will lead to the mind-numbing copying of someone else’s creative thoughts. She makes this very clear in the opening paragraph:

What is the purpose of this book?

Is it necessary that another new item is added to the reams of existing ones and is the publication justified?

Those that speak thus expect a knitting book, preferably brimful with new patterns.

This book, although it deals with knitting, is not that book.

She feels that every girl and woman is capable of creating unique garments, and following knitting patterns to the letter can never be fully satisfactory. Handicrafts can be much more than that! This book aims to point out possibilities and make knitters more confident in their own abilities.

BreienInBetereBanenSidewaysKnit

left: blouse designed by the wearer and knitter, aged 16; right: both dresses designed and created by the wearer: no. 1 by a girl aged 9, no. 2 by a girl aged 11. De body of dress 1 is knitted in red and white cotton; the other in pale yellow, white, and rust-brown cotton. Skirts and sleeves made from cotton fabric

So, this book then doesn’t give you any knitting patterns, but plenty of hints and tips on how to approach the knitting of garments. De Vries-Hamburger is a fan of knitting from the top, as she feels it’s easier to try on works in progress on and ensure a good fit. When knitting from the top is not desirable for whatever reason, she advocates knitting the ribbing last. The knitting starts with the main part of the body or sleeve. These then get blocked and sewn up, and the ribbing is knitted in the round from the cast-on edge down. This way it’s easier to adjust length, or replace fraying cuffs and welts.

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

Creating tweed effects by using two or more colours in a “mistake rib” pattern

This book was written not long after the Second World War, and in one section where this becomes apparent is on how to create colourful fabrics without resorting to stranded colourwork. Yes, stranded colourwork is good way of using up odds and ends, but she points out that by playing around with mistake rib (cast on an ODD number of stitches, then K2, P2 to end (you’ll end with 1 knit or 1 purl); turn work, and again K2, P2 to end (again you’ll end with 1 knit or 1 purl) and using more than one colour can be even more economical. The purls on top of knits in different colours create pleasing tweed effects. By using double-pointed needles it is possible to knit the right side of the fabric more than once, by sliding it back to the other side of the needle once a row is knitted. This way it’s possible to knit odd numbered repeats. For instance in the little swatch above, in the top section I knitted two rows in white, and one in blue.

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

Creating dazzling effects with simple stitch patterns on top, and using short-rows for shaping fabrics

However, De Vries-Hamburger also likes to play with colour in a more traditional way and has lots of lovely examples of stranded colourwork. She even devotes a whole section on sideways knitting (knitting from side seam to side seam instead of knitting from top to bottom or vice versa,) and how a few simple stranded colourwork rows can look very sophisticated when used this way, such as the blouses shown in the second picture.

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

Short-row shaping used to great effect in this detail for a gored skirt

I feel that De Vries-Hamburger really understands knitting and the qualities of knitted fabric. She is very clear on why knitting is a unique way of creating fabric, as it is possible to shape it whilst you create it. Compare this to sewing, where one uses a piece of cloth, which needs to be cut to make the shaping. With this in mind, she believes that a knitter should start by asking: what kind of fabric do I need to make this item fit for purpose, and once this is determined, start looking what yarns and stitches will lead to the desired effect. This in contrast to what often happens: a knitter has some pretty yarn and a stitch dictionary, and then tries to find a garment  to which these can be applied.

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

Some of the inspirational images in “Het Breien in Betere Banen”

As has been made clear to the knitter and reader in the introduction, this book does not contain a single knitting pattern. However, it is full of inspirational pictures, which De Vries-Hamburger hopes will be a starting point on an exciting creative journey for the intrepid knitter.

Reading this book, which was written in 1949, I came across many prescient ideas that resonate with latter-day knitters who probably have never heard of De Vries-Hamburger. To name a few: Barbara Walker advocates knitting from the top in order to create well-fitting garments. The inimitable and opinionated Elizabeth Zimmermann also wanted to free knitters from the yoke of the knitting pattern and preferred to give knitters “recipes” in which they can plug in their own ideas. And even finding links to the 21st Century is not difficult: Amy Twigger-Holroyd‘s PhD research on home-made fashion, sustainability, and design is partly based on the believe in the inate creativity of knitters to design and adapt their own clothes – something she calls Folk Fashion.

So, why did I decide to use a herringbone tweed fabric as a backdrop for my pictures?

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

An inspiring outfit!

I was smitten by the only men’s garment in this book. It is knitted in alternating stripes of brioche rib, and honeycomb brioche (if you want to know more about brioche stitches, then look no further than Nancy Marchant; what she doesn’t know about brioche stitch is not worth knowing.) As you may have gathered, there is no pattern for this jumper, and I have done a lot of swatching to arrive at the right fabric. I also happen to have a length of herringbone tweed I purchased from Jamieson’s of Shetland during Shetland Wool Week last week.

Taking a leaf out of De Vries-Hamburger’s book so to speak, I started with thinking about the fabric I wanted to make for this jumper, and then started to look for an appropriate yarn. I ended up with a very surprising choice: Blacker Swan merino 4-ply. I’m usually not a fan of merino yarns. Yes, they’re soft, and yes, they take dye beautifully, but they seem to lack any character. I also have a notion (unsubstantiated at this point) that the merino fibres finding their way into hand-knitting yarns are often not the best quality that can be offered by merino sheep. I have more than once been disappointed in the amount of pilling that ensues after a few wears. On top of that merino is often treated to be superwash, which to my mind alters the handle of the yarn unfavourably. Blacker Swan seems to be different, and although this may be due to the fact it has some Shetland fibre mixed in, I’m more than willing to give merino a chance once more.

a better course in knitting - het breien in betere banen - brioche stitch swatch

A whole outfit in the making

I’m looking forward to cast on and start knitting, and use my long Christmas break to make a smashing pair of tweed trousers and keep you updated on my progress. And, of course, to let you know how I got on with my renewed interest in merino wool.

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I have a drawer full of tea towels. Some of them are new, some of them are special, and some of them have seen better days.
Tatty Tea Towels Repair Dialogue
Two tatty tea towels
Always on the look-out for new mending projects, I’m going to find an answer to the question “How to repair a pair of tatty tea towels?” I’m not going to find out on my own though; and it won’t be the only question we will seek to answer. My friend and fellow mender and maker Bridget Harvey and I first met at the MendRS Symposium in 2012, so when I was thinking about repairing together, I knew she’d be the perfect partner for a Repair Dialogue.
The Repair Dialogue involves two menders, two towels, two questions and two end results. Once the repairs have been completed, one towel is to remain functional so it’s still fit for purpose. The other towel can become non-functional.
Repair Dialogue - Functional Towel
This towel is to remain fit for purpose
At the moment, Bridget has the “functional tea towel” and I have the “non-functional tea towel.” Each of us will do a repair, post the towel to the other, and then pick up the repair where the other left off. I’m looking forward to see what we’ll come up with, and how our repairs will influence each other.
Repair Dialogue - non-functional towel
And this towel can become non-functional
Thinking about when a tea towel is still fit for purpose is going to be an interesting question to answer. It’d be easy to just add some patches and be done with it, but that would be an easy solution, and far from thought-provoking. Both Bridget and I are excited about using these towels as a vehicle to explore the boundaries and finding out when a repair crosses over from functional to non-functional. I often discuss this at my darning master classes, as a functional repair requires certain materials and techniques. For instance, darning a hole in a fine gauge machine-knitted sock with a bulky yarn would be uncomfortable to wear. On the other hand, repairing moth holes in a jumper with that same bulky yarn might lead to spectacular results.
Repair Dialogue - non-functional towel detail
A challenge lying ahead in the functional repair category
Everyday textiles can have a very interesting story to tell, and whenever I use these towels, my thoughts go back to when I first lived on my own:
After I graduated in 1997, I moved to Amsterdam for my first job as a radiotherapy radiographer, and I found a teeny tiny house to live in. I furnished it with things gathered from many different sources. An old sofa that once belonged to my parents, now long gone. A small dining table from a colleague in exchange for home-made biscuits (yes, it’s the very table that still features as a backdrop in many of my pictures now.) A table lamp bought by my godmother on a shopping trip together. The tea towels however, I bought myself. They come from a Dutch department store called the HEMA*; they make everything under their own label, and most of their stuff is very reasonably priced and has a plain and modern look to it. I picked this particular pattern as I liked the reference to traditional textiles from the Brabant province. In the UK you might refer to this pattern as ‘gingham’ but in Dutch we call it ‘Brabants bont.’
Repair Dialogue - non-functional towel detail
The non-functional towel has a different challenge
The towels have served me well and I’m a bit sad to see that they are now so well-used that they have started to disintegrate. One of the towels has a very old grey/brown mark on it from straining home-made chicken stock as I didn’t have the more usual cheesecloth used for this purpose. The debris left in the towel after straining stained it and subsequently refused to shift in the wash. That’s okay with me. Although stained, the towel is clean and still dries dishes very well. As both Bridget and I have a lot of other things on I don’t expect them to be fully repaired any time soon, but I I’m really looking forward to the outcome of our Repair Dialogue and sharing the progress and findings on my blog. I hope you will, too!
 ——————

*) Hema opened a store in London this year: http://www.hemashop.com/gb/.

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I’m a reluctant fan of Kaffe Fassett‘s work; my appreciation for his sense of colour has come to me only a couple of years ago. Partly this stems from my slight colour blindness, which can make working with colours difficult for me. It might also have to do with the era in which Fassett first became a household name: the 1980s. It’s easy to dismiss that decade as one with ugly garment shapes and be done with it, but once you start to really look at the designs from that era, there is a bounty of inspiration to be found. Knitwear designers like Susan Duckworth and Patricia Roberts to name just a few, and indeed Kaffe Fassett, were masters at combining textures, shapes, and colour and I find there is lots to learn from studying these elements of their design.

Kaffe Fassett Banner with Anna Maltz

My friend Anna Maltz takes colour to the 21st Century

Now that I have some of his knitting books, I have started to get an understanding of how colours can work together. Even if the end result is not always to my taste, I can learn a lot from it. But looking at pictures is very different from looking at the actual garments. So when my friend and knitbuddy Anna Maltz (some of you may know her as Sweaterspotter) asked if I wanted to visit the Kaffe Fassett retrospective at the American Museum in Bath with her, I just had to say yes.

Rosie Wilks tree decorations for Kaffe Fassett at American Museum

Kaffe Fassett inspired tree decorations by Rosie Wilks greet you when you walk up to the exhibition

Fassett has a connection to the American Museum that goes back to the 1960s, when he made beautiful pen drawings of the period rooms. These drawings are also on display throughout the museum. The knitwear, needlepoint, and patchwork quilts were displayed in a theatrical setting, saturated in colour and dramatically lit.

tomofholland in the Kaffe Fassett American Museum entrance

Here’s me in the psychedelic entrance to the exhibition

I think that for me, the exhibition was not entirely successful. It was great to see all those pieces for real and I really enjoyed looking at them, but both Anna and I felt we haven’t learnt more about Kaffe Fassett the designer than we already knew. If you are interested in the background story, then I can highly recommend a five-part documentary you can find on the 4OD website here (my apologies, I’m not sure if you can view this outside the UK.) It was made when Glorious Knitting was released, and he talks about his passion for knitting, the connection between knitting and painting, sources of inspiration, and on being a professional designer.

Kaffe Fasset at American Museum patchwork quilt and coat

‘Pools of colour’ in every corner of the exhibition

In order to bring some structure in the displays, the exhibition was grouped in ‘pools of colour’ and this worked well. Although Fassett sometimes uses up to sixty different colours in a design (and in the patchwork quilts this is arguably even more if you look at all the printed fabrics) there is usually one colour group that dominates and I think that’s the key to working with colour. Any other colours that are thrown in the mix are there to add a little frisson to the colour scheme, and thereby lifting up and bringing it all together into a coherent design.

Stone Colours Kaffe Fassett at American Museum

Tumbling blocks and a peplum jacket in muted colours

Yellow Chair Kaffe Fassett at American Museum

An artfully aged yellow chair with a beautiful needlepoint cushion

Hidden Treasures Kaffe Fassett at American Museum

A sneaky peek: hiding under this huge shawl were a sweater and a cardigan

Mirror mirror on the wall Kaffe Fassett American Museum

‘Mirror mirror on the wall’ the entrance to the exhibition

Apart from the Kaffe Fassett exhibition, which is on until 2 November, the American Museum also houses a great permanent collection of quilts, patchwork, rugs and blankets and is situated on beautiful grounds. Lest you think it’s only about textiles – I am biased, after all – the collection at the Museum is in fact extremely varied, ranging from quilts to Renaissance maps, and Shaker furniture to ancient Native American tools. It takes you on a journey through the history of America, from its early settlers to the twentieth century, which made it well worth a visit!

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A few weeks ago I visited the Fries Museum archives, and their textile conservator Gieneke Arnolli shared with me many beautiful textiles related to mending and repairing. It was the first time I saw darning samplers in real life. These samplers were educational tools for young girls, teaching them how to repair woven fabrics. However, the Fries Museum also holds many samplers for learning how to repair knitted fabrics. Needless to say that as I particularly enjoy repairing knitwear, these were possibly even more exciting than the darning samplers I shared in my previous post!

Fries Museum Knitted Darning Sampler 01a

One of many knitted darning samplers. This one stands out as it was knitted from and repaired with wool

The above knitted darning sampler is different from most of the samplers in the collection, as it was knitted from and repaired with wool. Most other samplers used cotton. Incidentally, it is also similar to the technique I used for repairing the Knitting & Crochet Guild Cardigan commission. As with most of these samplers, the back of the fabric is just as beautiful and interesting as the front.

Fries Museum Knitted Darning Sampler 01b

The back shows how the sides of the hole were folded back and edges neatly trimmed

The knitted darning samplers can be split into two main categories: the first is the sampler in the shape of a sock or stocking, knitted in the round; the second is the sampler in the shape of a rectangle, knitted flat. Often, the sampler is divided into squares, using red yarn, each containing a repair. Some girls practised the same technique over and over again, whereas others show a great range of techniques.

Fries Museum Knitted Darning Sampler 02a

Darning samplers in shape of stockings, one the left stocking even the cast-on edge has been repaired

Most often the repairs were executed in red yarn, although most samplers also have at least a couple of repairs in white yarn, too. The left stocking above mostly shows woven darns. In Dutch this technique has two names, depending on what is being repaired: if a hole is repaired by weaving, then it is called ‘stoppen;’ if a thin area is reinforced by weaving, then this is called ‘doorstoppen.’

The right stocking above shows mostly Swiss darning or duplicate stitching. This technique of emulating knitted stitches is called ‘mazen’ in Dutch. It also shows grafting, like the two single rows of red stitches in the right stocking above. It is a way of replacing a missing single row of stitches with a new row, using a blunt darning needle. Incidentally, you might also know grafting as a way of closing the toe on a sock, instead of binding off.

Fries Museum Knitted Darning Sampler 02b

 

The other side of the same stockings, showing more woven darns on the left, and duplicate stitching on the right, including in ribbing pattern at the cuff

Another technique that was part of sock repair, was reknitting the heel. You can see this in the picture above in the right stocking. For this, the heel flap and heel turn (respectively called ‘big heel’ and ‘small heel’ in Dutch) is unpicked. This leaves you with a hole which has a row of live stitches at the leg side and at the foot side, and edges that were originally the picked up stitches for the gussets. The stitches at the leg side are picked up on one needle, and the edge of each gusset is also picked up on a needle each. The heel flap is knitted as normal, but at the end of each row the last stitch is worked together with a stitch from the gusset edge. Once the heel turn is worked the last row is grafted onto the live stitches at the foot end. Tadah! A new heel!

Fries Museum Knitted Darning Sampler 04a

More Swiss darning, or ‘mazen’ on this square sampler, with a variety of different stitch patterns

The most common Swiss darn is executed on thinning fabric. This is relatively simple, as you can use the original stitches as a guideline. However, it is also possible to Swiss darn a hole. I also used this technique on my Knitting & Crochet Guild commission. The sampler above was never finished, and this gives us a glimpse of the technical aspects of Swiss darning a hole. You can see that the hole is neatened, and then a foundation is layed with sewing thread. This foundation will make Swiss darning easier, as it holds the loops of the yarn in place as the rows are worked.

Fries Museum Knitted Darning Sampler 04b

The back of the sampler shows that all Swiss darns filled in holes, rather than covering thinning areas. You can also see a piece of lino or floorcloth used as a temporary stabiliser

When the holes to be Swiss darned are on the larger side, then you can first baste a piece of lino or floorcloth at the back. This will prevent the hole from being stretched out of shape. At the same time the lino or floorcloth is flexible enough to allow for easier needle and fabric manipulation.

Fries Museum Knitted Darning Sampler 05

A small undergarment used to practise knitwear repairs

Not all samplers take the shape of socks or squares. I particularly liked this small undergarment. It has beautiful underarm gussets, and a lovely sideseam stitch. Clearly no learning opportunity was wasted, as I’m quite sure the girls would first have to knit the sock, stocking, or other garment, before making holes in it to learn how to repair them. I think my darning workshop students get a good deal here, as I provide them with knitted squares to practise on!

The final sampler I want to share with you may not seem as a high point: at first glance it looks rather unassuming.

Fries Museum Knitted Darning Sampler 07a

The most exciting darning sampler of all!

It has yellowed a lot, the top half seems rather lumpy-bumpy, and apart from the lace stitches, not much seems to be going on. Upon closer inspection, however, I discovered that the lumps are actually sock heels. Furthermore, most of this small sampler is covered in nigh-on invisible repairs.

Fries Museum Knitted Darning Sampler 07b

The back is finished off very neatly

The repairs are exemplary on the front as well as the back. Very neatly finished, the repairs really are virtually invisible. I think this was a stocking sampler of sorts. Not only are there heels hiding, there’s also a seam stitch right through the middle, with calf decreases alongside it. Then there are the stitches often used in knitted stockings: two types of ribbing, and a number of fancy stitches that would work well on stockings. It’s like a deconstructed stocking, broken down in its essential elements. We will probably never know why the maker chose to do it this way, rather than by knitting an actual stocking.

I hope you enjoyed reading about my foray into darning samplers, and I would like to thank the Fries Museum and Gieneke Arnolli in particular for inviting me to see these textiles that are not on public display at the moment. I have learnt a lot from them, and their possibilities as sources of inspiration are like a map that will allow me to travel in many directions!

With many thanks to the Fries Museum and Gieneke Arnolli for allowing me to take pictures and giving me permission to share them on my blog.

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Last weekend I spent two wonderful days with Deb Robson at her Wool Types workshop at Fibre East. Deb wrote the Fleece & Fiber Source Book together with Carol Eskarius, which is a compendium of many sheep breeds and other animals, and the fibre they grow. It explains for each of the fibres their characteristics, strengths and weaknesses, and is illustrated with pictures of the locks, spun yarn, and a knitted or woven sample. She has also contributed to Wovember more than once.

Deb Robson Wool Types Workshop

Deb Robson distributing wool amongst her students

Needless to say, Deb knows a thing or two about wool, and she shared her knowledge freely and liberally during her two-day workshop on wool types. Although I have had a chance to play with wool from a number of different breeds, it was very enlightening to be able to compare and contrast sixteen different wools, ranging from the softest and most luxurious Saxon Merino to a very springy Southdown X Beulah cross, to the coarse hairs from a double-coated Hebridean fleece.

Wool Types Workshop 16 Sheep Breeds

Sixteen breeds: Saxon Merino, Rouge, Lleyn, Lonk, Hampshire Down, Polwarth, Southdown X Beulah, Soft Fell, Corriedale, Romney, Hebridean, Badger Face, North Country Cheviot, Texel, and Ouessant

The students in the workshop ranged from absolute beginner (amazingly, Heather learnt to spin especially to attend this workshop!) to the very experienced. They came from all over the world (from the USA to Finland), and there was also a good mix of wheel and spindle users. I think we all learnt from each other as well as from Deb.

Wool Types workshop with Deb Robson

This one’s for Donna Druchunas, who wanted to see a picture of Deb in England

Apart from learning about wool, I also learnt about spinning, and about spinning wheels. Until Fibre East I haven’t had a chance to try out many different wheels, but as I couldn’t arrange for my own wheel to be there, I got to try a number of loan wheels. It made me appreciate my Timbertops wheel, although it would be nice to have a travel wheel one day. On the other hand, for this class I could’ve just used my spindles.

I now have some new techniques under my belt, too. One is Andean plying, which is a way of managing your singles yarn in order to ply it up. The other one is a quick and easy way to make a textured yarn. Deb called it ‘spinning from a cloud,’ (please note that the linked video is a slightly different method that what I learnt) for which you first pick open some locks until you have light mass of randomly arranged fibres in your lap. When you spin this, you feed in the fibre unevenly, giving you a very textured singles yarn.

So, what did I play with?

wool types class with Deb Robson samples 1

Lonk, Southdown X Beulah, Ouessant, Lleyn, Badger Face, and Romney

The picture above clearly shows how different breeds produce different wool. Although they are all “white” you can see that there are many variations in hue; some look creamy, whilst others are a much cooler shade of white. You can also the difference in lustre, or shine. Some breeds produce a very shiny, lustrous fibre, and others a very dull and chalky fibre. This can be emphasised with the spinning technique chosen. To emphasise lustre, you can prepare the wool by combing it, so that the fibres lie all parallel to each other, and then use a worsted spinning technique, to keep the fibres parallel in the yarn. Carding on the other hand will hide the lustre.

wool types class with Deb Robson samples 2

Ryeland, possibly Ouessant, Texel, Rouge, and Hampshire Down two ways

Deb is also fond of trying out spinning techniques that you wouldn’t immediately think of. For instance, the Ryeland at the top has a very short staple (fibre) length, and is traditionally carded, like my sample. This jumbles up the fibres and plays up a fibre’s crimp (waves in the individual fibres) and elasticity; this is enhanced by spinning it long-draw, where you keep the fibres jumbled up in the resulting yarn. This leads to very warm and lofty yarns. But not Deb, she decided to comb the Ryeland fibres on mini combs and spin it worsted style. The resulting yarn is also very nice, but not something people would immediately think of doing.

wool types class with Deb Robson samples 3

Soft Fell, Lincoln, Corriedate, North Country Cheviot, Hebridean – hair only, Hebridean – wool only, and Finnsheep

Sheep can produce three types of fibre: wool, kemp, and hair. In some sheep breeds the wool and hair are hard to distinguish. Wool is a fibre that naturally has a lot of little waves in it, which is called crimp. The crimp can be organised or unorganised (in other words, show as a regular pattern of waves, or jumbled up). Hair is just what you imagine it might be like: it behaves like human hair, so it’s stiffer and when spun up, it will feel more wiry and be more like twine than yarn. Kemp, on the other hand, are short and brittle fibres. It’s most usually white, but some breeds produce red or black kemp. Kemp doesn’t show dye well, or not at all. Traditional tweed fabrics and yarns use this as a feature as it will give a heathered effect when dyeing the fibres.

The keen observer may have noticed there are no sample skeins of the Polwarth and Saxon Merino fibre samples shown in the second picture. I tried to prepare a little bit of Polwarth, but as it was so hot and clammy that day, the combed top just collapsed into a clumpy mass in my hands before I even had a chance to draft it. I’ll wait for the cooler weather to return before trying thatand the Saxon Merino out again. Both fibres are very fine and quite slippery, and once mastered, will produce luxurious results.

The Sheer Sheep Experience with Michael Churchouse

The Sheer Sheep Experience, with Michael Churchouse, who has around forty different breeds in his flocks!

I met many inspiring people at Fibre East. The tutors were all top-class, and Fibre East have put a lot of effort in to get some tutors over from the USA, for which they deserve a huge thank you. Not only Deb Robson, but also Abby Franquemont (spindle spinning,) Sarah Anderson (fancy art yarns,) and Sara Lamb (spinning and weaving.) Michael Churchouse with his Sheer Sheep Experience was also there, and he puts on a very entertaining and informative show. And there were many others, too.

I already liked spinning, but Fibre East made me realise I like it a lot; and I feel inspired to spin all the wool to make myself a whole outfit – it will take me a long time, but I’m looking forward to the journey, and all the amazing people I will meet, and all the things I will learn along the way.

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Reading a book on creative knitting is one thing, but exploring it by knitting is something else altogether. In my previous post I spoke about Creative Knitting by Mary Walker Phillips. Since then, I have been itching to get my hands on some linen and try it out for myself.

Mary Walker Phillips Exploration Swatch Wall Hanging

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

I had not worked seriously with linen before, so this swatch is also about exploring a new material. Linen has cropped up quite a lot recently as various friends have been working with it. It’s very different from working with wool, it has no stretch at all and is very strong, which makes it ideal for wall hangings and other art pieces. But it also has its challenges, as any irregularities in your knitting will stand out.

Mary Walker Phillips Exploration Swatch Closeup 3

Fancy crossed throws combined with stocking stitch, and some lace stitches shown on top

First and foremost I was intrigued by Phillips’s use of a stitch called ‘fancy crossed throw.’ At first sight they appear to be made by throwing the yarn twice around the needle, and then dropping the second yarn-over on the return row. However, if you study them closely you can see that these stitches are twisted around themselves. They are made with a complex throw around both needle tips and are laborious to execute.

Mary Walker Phillips Exploration Swatch Closeup 2

Texture is added by wrapping stitches and bobbles; lace stitches create spaces

The linen emphasises stitch texture and its crips lines make lace stitches with their open spaces shine, creating beautiful contrasts. Phillips manages to play with this to great effect, and I admire her wall hangings. You can see one of them in an accompagnying picture in her obituary in the New York Times, from which I want to share this great quote with you: ‘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.’

By knitting this swatch – and more will follow – I know I’m simply reproducing Phillips’s ‘score,’ but that’s not the point of making them. She says in Creative Knitting: “Personal expression in knitting, as in any other creative medium, is not achieved by copying exactly what someone else has done. Rather, the aim is to translate with yarn the atmosphere of the inspiration.” They challenge me in different ways, making me approach techniques in a new light, and continue my journey of a more free-flowing form of knitting.

Mary Walker Phillips Exploration Swatch Closeup 1

Bell pattern and ladder stitch

The bell pattern and ladder stitch shown above is a good example of what Phillips means by translating with yarn the atmosphere of the inspiration. She was inspired by that Master Knitter, whose indispensible books should be mandatory reading for any knitter, Mary Thomas: “It was with the purchase of Mary Thomas’s Book of Knitting Patterns, discovered while rummaging through a secondhand book store, that I really became involved in creative knitting.” Thomas’s Book of Knitting Patterns contains quite a few variations on the bell pattern, and I can imagine how trying out some of Thomas’s stitches and patterns in swatches eventually transformed into the knitted art that Phillips is known for.

I’d like to finish my first steps on my new journey with Rachael Matthews’s comment on my Creative Knitting blog post: “It’s like the journey is to find the place, and you know where you are going but of course you never know what it looks like until you get there.”

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As a knitter, I’m somebody who likes to plan ahead. I knit numerous swatches; I try out new techniques and compare them with firm favourites; I take gauge measurements; I sketch and calculate. I knit up accordingly. This doesn’t mean I always get it right, but that’s okay. I will have learnt something new, and I can use that knowledge when planning the next thing. But in the last couple of years or so, I have been exposed to other methods of working. A more carefree and let’s-see-what-happens approach. A good example, and great inspiration, is the work by Rachael Matthews who runs Prick Your Finger.

Rachael Matthews Shamanic Bed for Creatives

Rachael Matthews’s Shamanic Bed for Creatives

Rachael’s Shamanic Bed for Creatives contains a cornucopia of textile techniques. Hand knitting, machine knitting, crochet, darning, and who knows what else, all find their way into the shamanic bedspread. Ideas come into her head and these magically flow into her hands and make a fabric, as she comes up with them. Some of these will work, and others will not. Knitting and crocheting allows one to shape the fabric while making it, this in contrast to woven fabrics, where one has to cut and sew to shape it. In addition, knitting and crocheting can easily be undone without loss of material. It is possible to use the ripped out yarn and try again. So if an idea doesn’t work, then it’s a lesson learnt that can be put to use straightaway. It’s even possible to start something without knowing what the end result will be, like Rachael’s Explosion Jumper.

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Embroidered Cushion Cover, exploring Jamieson & Smith Heritage yarns

I find this way of working, when it comes to knitting, quite a challenge. With decorational techniques (for want of a better description) I struggle less with this approach. For instance, the embroidery on the cushion cover pictured above was done free-style, without any planning whatsoever. Those of you who follow me on Instagram (@tomofholland) will have seen the doodles I occasionally post. Embroidering this cushion was like doodling with needle and thread.

Slowly but surely, I’m opening up to allow my knitting also to be more free-style, and less planned. It’s a shift in thinking that wakes me up, and it allows me to use my knowledge of techniques in a different way. It started with a simple bath mat. Having worked with Sue Craig on the Knitting The Map project (more on that in a later blog post), I had developed an obsession with stripes in garterstitch. Rachael selected eight shades for me from Prick Your Finger’s carpet yarn range, reminiscent of Bauhaus colours.

knitted rug in garterstitch by tomofholland

Knitted bath mat in garterstitch

Although I had made a lot of doodles (none of them larger than approximately 4 x 7cm), I didn’t plan anything before casting on. Yes, I knitted a swatch to select the right needle size for the fabric I wanted, but after that I just started at one corner and came up with the patterns and colours as I went along. I only decided on the construction after knitting the bottom strip. It was a departure of the planned object, the self-imposed constrictions and the letting go of expectations.

inspirational craft books

Inspiration for creative knitting: C Nieuwhoff: Anders Breien en Haken; M McNeill: Pulled Thread; M Walker Phillips: Creative Knitting; M Stove: Creating Original Hand-knitted Lace; A Sutton: British Craft Textiles; S Read (editor): Wild Knitting; E Mairet: Hand-weaving Today

These are just some of my books in my craft library in which the author in some way or other speaks about, or shows, how to let go of the regimented way of working, but instead letting materials or techniques guide the way. The compendium by Ann Sutton is a showcase of British textile artists working with a huge variety of techniques. Wild Knitting shows that knitting doesn’t have to stop with jumpers and socks. Margaret Stove shows how to create your own lace patterns, after explaining how lace stitches work together. Moyra McNeill and Constance Nieuwhoff both use traditional techniques in new, sometimes unexpected, applications. Ethel Mairet talks about letting materials and colours speak for themselves, and she often used simple techniques to show these off.

It all seems to come together in Mary Walker Phillips’s Creative Knitting. A weaver by trade, she became a very accomplished knitter with a sound knowledge of knitting techniques; she also spins and dyes. She explains how she uses vastly different materials, from artificial straw to handspun linen, and how these have an influence on the techniques she uses. Mostly her art pieces are wallhangings, casement curtains or other lacy structures, incorporating pieces of mica, pebbles, or beads. I find these pieces particularly inspiring at the moment.

Lace sample in handspun Rough Fell 2ply yarn

Handspun Rough Fell 2ply yarn and lace sample

The lace sample above was a quick study in mixing and matching lace stitches, using handspun Rough Fell 2-ply yarn. I like the contrast between the kempy, hairy and wire-like yarn, and the lace stitches, which are more usually executed in, for instance, a fine and soft Shetland yarn. This is just a starting point, and I will be creating more samples of both yarn and stitches this year, and be guided by my newfound approach to creative knitting. And in true Rachael-style, I don’t quite know where this will lead me, but I’m excited to start this journey and will be reporting back on my blog.

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Post-script (added 1 March 2014): perhaps my view on how Rachael appears to create her work was somewhat romanticised and simplified in my head, so please check out the comments on this post below, where Rachael has responded to my writing.

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