Archive for the ‘textile’ Category

During a paper I gave at In the Loop 4, I mentioned a blurring of boundaries: when does a garment start, and when does it end? Musings about Taking time, Woolly Comrade Felicity ‘Felix’ Ford’s Slow Wardrobe project, and having conversations with other friends who make clothes to last, have culminated into my own thoughts about a Slow Wardrobe.

Brioche Sweater and grafitti

My Brioche Sweater: a recently completed garment. Or is it?

Since I started repairing with purpose, I’m slowly but surely drifting away from the idea that once the last loose end has been woven in, a garment is finished. Over time, clothes start to develop signs of wear, of having been washed, of having been used. Inevitably, an edge starts to fray, a seat wears thin, or a hole appears, and the time comes I’ll be getting out my darning needle. By making my mends visible, I continue adding to the garment. A beautiful mend can be worn as a badge of honour, and in my view, augments and alters the garment repaired.

Flanelette Plaid shirt darning by tomofholland

Darning the threadbare yoke seam of a flannelette shirt

A shift of focus from trying to keep things looking new and perfect to favouring the old and imperfect, means I’ve stopped looking at repair as a chore, but as a creative challenge in its own right. Instead of fixing something that is broken, which implies the item was finished, I now continue working on something that wasn’t complete yet. This idea is perhaps easier to embrace where it concerns clothes I made myself, but I now extend it to the clothes I buy. I frequently purchase secondhand clothes, and they already show signs of wear, and the time to repair something usually comes along sooner.

Tom spinning a yarn

Spinning a yarn

Conversely, making my own clothes has made me question at what point a garment starts. When you buy something, you could be led to believe that your garment’s life starts when you’ve handed over your cash. But this, of course, isn’t true. Somebody somewhere has laid out cloth, cut it up, seamed it, pressed it. Most likely different people were involved in different stages and many things are now mechanised.

When making your own clothes, you get to choose the fabric or yarn, the pattern, the buttons, and put it all together into a garment. You could argue that the item starts its life when you clapped your eyes on that beautiful tweed, or when you dreamt up that Christmas jumper and you started looking for the right yarn. Now that I also spin, even if as yet I haven’t spun enough of one yarn to make a whole jumper, my boundary has shifted even further back: it is possible to make a garment-specific fibre, so really, its life starts there. In fact, we can take it back right to the beginning: wool, linen, silk, and cotton are all fibres that theoretically I could grow or farm myself.

Roger from Diamond Fibre Mill

Roger from Diamond Fibre Mill spinning a yarn or two

So even if I’m not personally involved in all the process steps from farming to harvesting to processing of fibres, and subsequently turning the resulting cloth or yarn into a garment, I’m aware that all these steps are part of the story. If you want to get an understanding of some of the issues around the fashion industry, then there’s no better way than trying to make something yourself. When you wash your raw fleece, you’ll notice how much water you use. When you spin a yarn, you understand how difficult it can be to get something just right. When you sew a shirt, you get a feel for how complicated sewing can be. Try and imagine any of these processes on an industrial scale, and soon all sorts of questions pop up: how can we grow/farm fibres in huge quantities? What happens with waste water from processing fibres and dyeing it? What happens to by-products and waste from the spinning process? How can somebody sew 50 shirts a day? How are prices of clothing set on the High Street?

These are just a few questions, and answering them is difficult, and fixing things that appear to be a problem is also very complicated. So what can I do about it myself? Talking to people such as Sarah Corbett from the Craftivist Collective, or reading John-Paul Flintoff’s book Sew Your Own, made me realise that there will be things I personally cannot influence, but there are other things I can do something about. I can run workshops, I can volunteer, I can decide what goes into my wardrobe, and I can share my experiences in this blog.

A follow-up post is in the making, in which I want to share with you my thoughts about my Slow Wardrobe: what does it mean to me? Sewing and knitting my own clothes, making things that last, repairing things, and thinking about long-term style, not short-term fashion.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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!


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.


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.)


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


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!

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In my last post I talked about my participation in the Sanquhar Workshop, organised by the Knitting in the Round initiative from the University of Glasgow. Today I’d like to tell you little bit more about the history of knitting in Sanquhar and how I got interested in this subject.

Sanquhar Handling Collection at Knitting Reference Library

The Knitting Reference Library holds a small handling collection of Sanquhar gloves – image taken courtesy of the Knitting Reference Library

About five years ago I learnt how to knit gloves, and like many knitters, I started browsing Ravelry for nice patterns. That’s where I first encountered the amazing Sanquhar gloves. Never having done any stranded colourwork, I’m not sure why I ordered all four available patterns from the Scottish Women’s Rural Institutes not soon after. It was a steep learning curve for me, but at the same time as I was struggling to knit my first pair, I researched the knitting tradition of the town of Sanquhar, which incidentally, can also claim to have the oldest post office in the world, dating back to 1712.


The first knitters in Scotland were highly paid craftsmen of the 16th and 17th century, but by the mid 1700s knitting skills had spread throughout the country and created a thriving cottage industry, mainly producing knitted stockings. The entire Scottish hand-knitting industry declined dramatically in the late 1700s, due to a variety of reasons, amongst others the loss of trade to the American Colonies, and the increasing industrialisation of spinning and processing wool. It was most probably around the late 1700s that the distinctive two-colour patterns developed as an attempt to create a product that stood out and thus protect the livelihood of local knitters.
Thomas Brown, a Sanquhar printer,  noted in his Union Gazeteer of Great Britain and Ireland (1807), that the stockings were ‘almost peculiar to the place…parti-coloured and of great variety of patterns.’ Mittens, and rather later, gloves were made in the same manner.  One feature of good eighteenth-century stockings was that the customer’s name or initials could be worked into the tops. This may be the origin of the Sanquhar practice of working these into the wrists. Although Brown doesn’t mention it, this was a feature by the 1890s. The gloves were knitted from a yarn referred to as ‘drugget’ and this appears to be a wool/linen or a wool/cotton blend. The knitters sourced this yarn from the nearby John M’Queen’s Mill in Crawick, where it was used in the production of carpets.

Sanquhar Gloves with Initials

Sanquhar gloves usually have the initials of the wearer stitched into the wrist – these gloves are from the handling collection of the Tollbooth Museum in Sanquhar

Hand knitting as a cottage industry died out in Sanquhar during the 19th century, but the tradition has survived. The presentation of specially knitted gloves to the Cornet and other principals during the annual Sanquhar Riding of the Marches Festival is still an important part of these celebrations, when all the horse riders of Sanquhar ride around the boundaries of the burgh. Today Sanquhar knitting is rarely made for sale. Nonetheless the style remains a favourite with keen knitters, with pattern leaflets available from the Scottish Women’s Rural Institutes and other sources found on the internet.


Sanquhar knitting is worked in two shades throughout. Although black and white are most common, other colour combinations regularly found are yellow and brown, and red and green. The patterns show a resemblance to other erstwhile thriving cottage industries in Cumbria and the Dales; small and intricate, the two yarns are worked into a close fabric, with no long strands. One particular refinement of the gloves are the small finger and thumb gussets, which improve fit and relieve stress points in the fabric where the fingers join the hand.

Sanquhar Glove in Duke Pattern with finger gusset

The little finger gusset is shown here at the base of the ring finger – image taken courtesy of the Knitting Reference Library

The stitch patterns can be divided into two main types. Firstly the so-called dambrod patterns: a grid of black lines on a white ground, filled in with diamond or saltire variations. Secondly check and tweed patterns: all-over patterns in diagonal checks, and small motifs scattered on a spot pattern background. It’s likely some of the patterns were named in honour of local benefactors and visiting dignitaries, like the Dukes of Queensberry and of Buccleuch, who gave large orders for gloves, and the Prince of Wales, who was entertained by the Duke of Buccleuch in 1871. The Glendyne pattern was named after Robert Nivison when he took the title Lord Glendyne of Sanquhar. The cuffs are knitted in black and white ribbing or broken ribbing. It is customary to work the wearer’s initials in the wrist.
As the patterns fit around the gloves just so, the size of the gloves is altered by changing the tension: thicker needles for larger gloves, thinner needles for smaller gloves.

Tolbooth Museum Sanquhar Gloves 1Tolbooth Museum Sanquhar Gloves 2

The Sanquhar gloves come in a wide range of patterns as this display at the Tollbooth Museum shows – dambrod patterns at the top; tweed patterns at the bottom, with the exception of the Duke glove fifth from the left


First and foremost it’s important to knit a decent sized tension swatch in the round. Read through your pattern and work out how many stitches go round the hand, as sometimes this is more than the number of stitches you cast on. Measure around your hand and work out what your tension should be for a good fit.
The most common alteration to the traditional patterns is probably the cast-on: one way to avoid the cast-on edge curling over,  is to use a variation of the long-tail cast-on sometimes called twisted German cast-on, followed by two rows of purl, before starting the ribbing.

An other alteration often seen on the Ravelry Sanquhar group is to stagger the finger gussets at the correct height according to the wearer’s hand, rather than all on the same round. A personal alteration is to decrease 5% in the black round after the cuff to narrow the wrist. Then, after knitting the wrist, I increase back to the original number of stitches. This makes for a more comfortable fit, especially as ribbing in stranded colourwork doesn’t pull in.

Prince of Wales Sanquhar Gloves

My gloves in the Prince of Wales pattern – the fingers each start at the right height

You can read more about the Sanquhar knitting tradition on the FutureMuseum website, the Dumfries Museum website, and about Riding of the Marches on the committee’s website.

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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.


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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