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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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One of the reasons I bought a spinning wheel, was to learn more about British rare sheep breeds and their wool and eventually to be able to spin yarns that will emphasise a particular breed’s wool qualities. Always on the look-out for learning opportunities, I jumped at the chance to sign up for Deborah Robson’s Wooltypes workshop at Fibre East this year. Together with Carol Ekarius, Deb Robson wrote the Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook; a terrific compendium on a huge amount of different rare sheep breeds, their wool, and how to work with them.

So far, I have only really used a worsted spinning technique. This is suitable for wool that has a longer staple (fibre length), but I expect that at the workshop we will also be working with shorter staple fibres. And for these fibres woollen spinning techniques are more suitable. For worsted spinning you prepare the fibres by combing them in order to get them all lying parallel; worsted spinning techniques aim to keep the fibres aligned – this results in a shiny, drapey yarn. For woollen spinning, however, you prepare the fibres by carding, and using a woollen spinning technique, the fibres end up all higgledy-piggledy in the resulting yarn. This makes the yarn lofty and very warm as it traps more air.

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A pair of handcarders, finished yarns, rolags, and unprocessed fleece

So, what better fibre to use for practising making a woollen yarn, than the Shetland fleeces I brought back from Shetland Wool Week last year? As I only have one grey fleece (this particular shade of grey fleece is called Shaela in the Shetland dialect) and half a black fleece I think I have just about enough for a jumper. So how to combine the two colours in one garment? Perhaps the most obvious choise would be some stranded colourwork, however, this will take up more yarn than something knitted with a single yarn in each row. I didn’t fancy stripes either, but then inspiration struck, and I came up with a cunning blending plan. I’ll be making a few skeins each in pure shaela and in pure black, but for the remainder I’ll blend the shaela with the black on the handcarders; you can see the resulting rolags (the fibre tubes) in the picture above, and I’ll spin these up into some more skeins. But that’s not all! To blur the transition from shaela to black even more, I will ply a blended single (the single strand that makes up a, in this case, 2-ply knitting yarn) with a shaela single, and also a blended single with a black single to make some marled yarns. In the picture above you can see a skein of pure shaela on the left, and on the right a marled yarn made from a shaela single and a blended single.

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James Norbury. Will I end up looking like this when I get older?

James Norbury Knitting Books

A few of my Norbury books: Traditional Knitting Patterns, Odham’s Encyclopaedia of Knitting, and Knit with Norbury

So what does James Norbury have to do with all this? Norbury (1904-1972) was, according to Richard Rutt, the “strongest single influence on British knitting during the 25 years after the Second World War.” I have a few of his knitting books, and reading through the patterns, it’s always the superb shaping that strikes me and that is exactly what I’m after. Handspun woollen spun yarn is a bit lumpy-bumpy by nature, but seeing that this is my first attempt at making enough yarn for a big project, and because I don’t have a lot of experience in spinning woollen, my yarn will be even more lumpy-bumpy and probably look very homespun, in every meaning of the word. So to make up for that I want to make a jumper using meticulous shaping and really push myself with that challenge. I’ll be employing the very best knitting techniques I know, knit all the pieces flat, and use good shaping. An example of this is the sleeve caps that Norbury uses in his patterns. There are three progressive rates of decreases, so that the sleeve caps are very rounded, just like they would be for a sewing pattern. I did once knit a jumper like this, which I don’t often wear for other reasons, but the shoulder on it fits me like no other.

James Norbury Polo Neck jumper

A polo-neck jumper designed by James Norbury; look at the shoulder shaping!

I will be documenting progress here on my blog, but as I do like to switch between projects, I think it will take some time before this jumper will actually be on my shoulder, but that’s okay. I like making things that take forever, and now that I’ve added spinning in the mix, you can make that forever and a day.

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Today sees the launch of my Tom of da Peathill pattern, a fitted men’s Fair Isle cardigan inspired by the seven natural shades of Foula wool it was designed for.

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Tom of da Peathill cardigan – alas, there are no peathills in Brighton to serve as a backdrop

When Magnus Holbourn approached me last year to ask what I thought of his Foula wool, I didn’t expect to end up working with him on a pattern. The minute the samples of yarn arrived, I was excited by the natural colours of the wool, and its very own character. Foula is the most isolated inhabited island in Britain, so it will come as no surprise that the strain of Shetland sheep on Foula is very old and has plenty of character.

balls of Foula wool in 7 natural shades

Seven shades of wonderful Foula wool: clockwise from top mioget, grey, black, moorit, light grey, fawn, and white in the centre

I tried out various patterns before settling on the combination shown in the cardigan. Having played around with many colours as part of my Aleatoric Fair Isle experiment last year, it was an interesting exercise to use only seven colours. This did make me more confident in putting the colours together in pleasing ways, and in fact, one of the Aleatoric Fair Isle swatches guided me in the choice of some of the patterns in the cardigan.

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Aleatoric Fair Isle Swatch No. 03

Tom of da Peathill Cardigan Back

The back of the cardigan. Can you spot the patterns from the Aleatoric Fair Isle swatch?

The cardigan is knitted in the round, with steek stitches for the front opening and the armholes. As the yarn is a sturdy DK weight, I didn’t want to use a method that would leave very bulky seams after cutting the steeks open. Therefore I employed the knotted steek method: before you cut, you need to drop down the steek stitches, so you get a massive ladder. The strands are then cut and knotted in pairs. To finish these after knitting front edges and sleeves, the strands are darned in. Once you’re in the rhythm, it goes quite quickly; you can find a knotted steek tutorial here.

knotted steek on Tom of da Peathill cardigan

The ends of the knotted steek have been darned in, dramatically reducing bulk, thus giving a very flat finish to the edges

And if you’re wondering about the name of the cardigan: I originally wanted to call it the Foula Cardigan, but Magnus was reminded of the peathills on Foula, and the way that the cut peat is stacked up to dry when he saw the cardigan. And who could resist a name that is so reminiscent of the very place where the wool comes from?

You can download the pattern from my Ravelry store here. And Magnus has put together a yarn kit for the cardigan here.

Last but not least, I also would like to take this opportunity to thank a few people who helped me along the way with my first garment knitting pattern: my comrades in wool, Felix and Kate, who have both been very encouraging. Anna Maltz for her cheery chats. And of course Magnus of Foula Wool, who started it all of. But most of all my partner Anthony, who is always supportive of my crafty pursuits, even if I occasionally struggle to keep my wool stash under control.

 

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Wovember 2013 is here!

Dear readers, Wovember 2013 has arrived! Another round of Woolly Wonders to be shared with the world. Like last year, I will be working hard, together with Kate Davies and Felicity Ford, to celebrate wool in all its myriad aspects. This means I will be a bit quiet on my own blog. You can join in with the fun over at WOVEMBER!

That said, I’m planning to track my WAL progress here. What is WAL? A WAL is a Wool-Along, where we invite Wovember blog readers to join in on a woolly project of your own choice, for the month of Wovember. More details on the Wovember blog.

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I’m going to work on a new pair of woollen trousers, using a herringbone tweed I bought at the Jamieson’s of Shetland mill in Sandness, my first ever machine-knit cardigan, also in Shetland wool, and last but not least, I’m already working on a Fair Isle cardigan in Foula Wool. Come join us in a woolly project. What will you be working on?

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A couple of weeks ago I returned from Shetland Wool Week. I was invited to run two darning workshops, and to present the works-in-progress of the Aleatoric Fair Isle project I’m working on with Dr Felicity Ford. I have met so many amazing people, seen impossible feats of spinning and knitting, and enjoyed the landscape.

Hanging out with Felicity, who’s a sound artist, it may come as no surprise that apart from all the woolly wonders, I will now forever associate two songs with Shetland. The first one was recorded in 1960 for an oral history project for the School of Scottish Studies. The interviewer asks Rosabel Blance to talk about her own composition Da Spinning Sang (the spinning song.) He is clearly fishing for an answer with deeper meaning, but Blance is very matter-of-fact about it. But then she sings it and really, no explanation was ever necessary:

Taese da Shetlan oo till it’s clear an fine / Lyin laek a clood wi a silver shine

(tease the Shetland wool till it’s clear and fine / lying like a cloud with a silver shine)

But that’s enough poetry for now. Here are some pictures I took during Shetland Wool Week, in no particular order:

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The view from our log cabin – we stayed at Nortower Lodges, and we couldn’t have wished for a better cabin.

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The view from Fort Charlotte, in the centre of Lerwick. Luckily most days the weather was much nicer than these two pictures would have you believe.

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Felicity helping out participants of our Aleatoric Fair Isle workshop. Rolling the dice and following rules to create Fair Isle swatches proved controversial in some quarters, but I think we all had a good time in the end.

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A fine Shetland Ram at the Flock Book Ram Auction. In order to prevent an ever dimishing gene pool within their flocks, sheep farmers sell off their rams, and buy new ones frequently.

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A visit to Jamieson’s of Shetland‘s mill in Sandness. One of many banks of spinners; in many ways a very different affair from Diamond Fibres Mill, which I visited recently. Jamieson’s spin their fibres with the woollen method, resulting in a lofty, warm, yet light yarn, very suitable for Shetland wool. Diamond Fibres on the other hand, specialise in the worsted spinning method, which is much better suited for longwool (like their own flock of Romney sheep) and this makes for a smooth and lustrous yarn.

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The Textile Museum has a working loom, as found in the traditional crofts. Until my visit, I never knew that Shetland once was also famous for their tweed fabrics.

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As part of the Flock Book Ram Auction, there was also judging of the best rams. Here are the Shetland hot shot rams, all together in a special judging area. The atmosphere was palpable and tense, as a price-winning ram means a lot to the owner.

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And here is your good self. Elizabeth Johnston, spinner and dyer extraordinaire, showed me how the Shetland lace spinners managed to get such exceedingly fine yarn. After three hours of blood, sweat, tears, and some rather flowery language, I managed to get some extremely fine yarn. Elizabeth told me that I had started to understand the technique, but that my thread wasn’t near fine enough… The aim is to make a single ply the thickness of six individual fibres. This will then be used to make a two-ply yarn. I will keep on practising!

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This delapidated croft was not far from our lodgings, so we passed it every day.

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I also ran two darning classes. A drop-in session took place at the Shetland Museum and Archives, who helped organise Shetland Wool Week, and who invited me to come over in the first place: so a massive thanks to them for making this visit possible. Secondly, I ran a darning master class at Jamieson & Smith, pictured above. More thanks due here, as they kindly provided Felicity and me the yarns for our workshops.

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Susan Freeman found a new application for the Scotch darning technique. As you can clearly see in this picture, you can make pockets! I think I will have to add a fountain pen pocket to one of my cardigans.

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And here is a beautiful gift from Diane Houdek, who came all the way from America for Shetland Wool Week especially. A small box with teeny tiny wooden reels of darning silk. What a magnificent addition to my collection of mending ephemera!

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The fleece in this picture was chosen as the Champion fleece during a fleece-judging competition. The fleeces are judged on, amongst others, resilience, crimp, uniformity, and presentation. Readers of Jane Cooper’s excellent blog Mrs Woolsack’s Blog, may recognise this fleece. Incidentally, Jane also maintains the Woolsack website. Woolsack was started as a Cultural Olympiad Inspire project to make British wool cushions as personal welcome gifts from the people of Britain to the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic athletes. The Woolsack website now lists and links to information and sources of British wool products from spinning fibre to dyed knitting yarn and woven fabric.

Oliver Henry, Jamieson & Smith

Here you can see me with the fleece judge himself: Oliver Henry, who is the Master Woolsorter at Jamieson & Smith.

The keen observer will be wondering where that second song comes in, that for me is so inextricably linked to Shetland? Well, as part of Felicity’s lecture Listening to Shetland Wool, she composed a song, which she performed at the end.

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Here she is, performing it in the Jamieson & Smith shop. Sandra Manson and Adam Curtis are listening intently. As Felicity was fine-tuning the song during any spare moments we had at the lodge, I can sing it from start to finish. It has proved to be a great success, and indeed, it has found its way to the internet. One word suffices, as Oliver Henry said: BRILLIANT.

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Wool Week UK 2013 is in full swing, and so far I have been enjoying the effort and enthusiasm put in by most participants. As a member of Team Wovember, I wholeheartedly support their cause and it’s great that the Campaign for Wool are trying in general to get more wool into the existent and problematic fast-fashion industry. The point of the Campaign for Wool and Wool Week UK is to educate consumers about wool and its unique properties. As they explain on their website, wool is natural, renewable, biodegradable, breathable, resilient, elastic, easy-case, odour resistant, a natural insulator, and more.

Therefore I was surprised to find out that Topshop created a 80/20 wool/polyamide blend jumper to celebrate Wool Week. Having a garment promoting wool week that is actually a wool-blend dillutes this educative opportunity to teach the consumers about wool and its benefits. Worse, it actually feeds common stereotypes about wool being ‘scratchy’ and ‘unwashable,’ whereas there are 100% woollen fabrics available which are both soft and machine-washable. I started asking questions on Twitter why this was. Soon the Campaign for Wool got in touch, explaining that

“At CfW we don’t ask that the garments are 100% wool. We stipulate a 80% min which Topshop have stuck to.

This still makes the garment wool-rich but allows the retailer to hit certain price points which make it an attractive item for their customers or add embellishments and details not always possible in 100% wool.

The aim of CFW is to get as many consumers aware of wool and its benefits but we find it important to take a balanced approach that makes it easy for our valued retail supporters to join and celebrate wool week.”

As some of you may know, I was invited to participate in another Campaign for Wool Event earlier this year. Wool House at Somerset House was a resounding success, and I’m sure that the message that wool is amazing has come across to the general public. Part of this was surely due to the high standard set by the Campaign for Wool: when I accepted my invitation to run darning workshops during this event, I was asked by one of the Campaign for Wool coordinators to remember that

” [a]lso, this is all about real wool – so all activity has to be with real wool.  Sorry to point out the obvious but you would be amazed how often it does not register!!”

Why did the Campaign for Wool not insist on setting the same high standard for their valued retail supporters? I would like to have seen that Wool Week in particular should be a more risk-taking, daring, ambitious and inspiring cultural event, which raises the bar on what is possible and seeks to educate on the value and provenance of real woollen textiles? The 20% polyamide sweater is a half-hearted attempt at educating consumers on the value of wool; it’s a conservative and unimaginative manoeuvre which allows more wool to be utilised by the fashion industry while simultaneously perpetuating all of the myths which compromise the very position of wool within that industry.

A number of High Street retailers such as Cos and Sea Salt do offer 100% woollen outfits at a similar price point. And, indeed, Topshop also managed to do so, for example with this machine-washable 100% wool jumper currently on offer. I hope that for next year the Campaign for Wool can challenge any participating retailers and their design teams to excel themselves and to help stop misconceptions such as “an attractive item for their customers or add[ing] embellishments and details [are] not always possible in 100% wool.” Topshop have already shown that it is.

Meanwhile, if you want to celebrate Wool Week UK in true style, then why not buy one of the 100% woollen jumpers that Topshop (and other participants) have on offer?

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People often ask me: Tom, how do you manage to do so many projects? The answer is very simple: I love stitching on the train. My daily thirty-minute commute means I have at least one hour a day of crafting time, and I’ll have something to work on during lunch hour, too.

However, there is a limit to what is manageable on the train. My Foula Cardigan is making good progress, which is great news, but it does mean it is now becoming somewhat unwieldy.

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Foula Cardigan in progress

So I have been looking for a smaller project to take on the train. When I met Sandra Manson and Martin Curtis during Wool House back in March, they asked me to work on some cushion covers, using Jamieson & Smith’s Heritage yarn. The Heritage yarn is a bit different from their regular jumper weight yarns: first of all, the colours are based on jumpers from the Shetland Museum and Archives collection. This means they are all flat colours, as opposed to the current trend of heathered shades. Secondly, the Heritage yarns are worsted spun. Therefore the yarn is smooth, and stronger than the woollen spun jumper weight yarns: perfect to indulge in a spot of embroidery.

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Shetland wool cushion, embroidered with Jamieson & Smith Heritage yarns

An easy project to take on the train, and it’s something I can do free-style. No need for patterns or charts to refer back to once in a while. No need to count stitches. I couldn’t help but use a stitch which I have been using a lot in darning lately: Scotch darning, although there are some other names going round for this stitch, too.

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Meta-embroidery: the lot numbers of the ball bands found their way into the design

At work I have a scrap paper doodle pad, as I find that doodling helps me think through things, and often I end up incorporating words I hear, or numbers I see on my computer screen, and this habit is hard to supress. Indeed, I ended up stitching the lot numbers of the ball bands.

Erica Wilson’s Embroidery Book is endlessly inspiring, and I was intrigued by the square fillings used in crewel work:

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Patches of square filling stitches

Once you understand the principle, it is very easy to create your own variations. As the cushion cover fabric is very forgiving due to its thick, felted surface, it’s easy to try something and, if you don’t like it, to undo it again. No holes or other marks remain! I have made every patch free-handed. No measuring out or marking the fabric beforehand. This feels very natural, as my doodles are also often made up of grid-like structures that I fill in one way or another, and I relish the slight wonkiness this creates. To me it makes the rigid grids more alive.

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Couching, back stitches, French knots, weaving, and satin stitches

As you can see, the needles have not been put back in their needle case. I don’t think this cushion cover is quite finished yet. So keep an eye out on the train, you might see me stitching away, adding a last flourish to this cushion.

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