Three years ago I met Anna Maltz at my first In The Loop conference. As I remember it, she was wearing some dazzling knitwear: a matching skirt and top in many colours. We clicked and stayed in touch, and soon a beautiful friendship blossomed. I have seen Anna taking her tentative first steps as a knitwear designer, and now she has released her first collection of knitting patterns: Penguin, A Knit Collection.
Every time over the last year or so that I visited Anna, she had yet another intriguing looking project on the needles; always inspired by penguins, and we discussed the ins and outs of the patterns, technical details, and how it might become a collection. So here it is!
Penguin, A Knit Collection, by Anna Maltz
As a friend, I’m proud of her for making this amazing book; and as a knitter, I think this book is full of great projects and a Q&A with Anna seemed to me the best way to finish 2015 on my blog.
Tom: hi Anna, for those blog readers who don’t know you, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you fell into knitting?
Anna: I got told off recently for someone not realising that I, as one and the same person, had done all of the following – being sweaterspotter on instagram, writing a quarterly column in PomPom Magazine, starting Ricefeld Collective with friends and knitting those nude suits. My grandfather was fond of saying, “call me anything you want, except late for dinner” and I’m happy to go with that too.
As for how knitting and me happened, ‘fell’ might be the wrong term. It’s always felt quite intentional and has always been present in my life. My mother and other family and friends taught me when I was 5, knowing it was an interesting and productive thing to do that I would enjoy, while helping me develop patience and the über important skill of being able to entertain myself.
I started knitting regularly a good 20 years ago, at a time when people would marvel about how long it had been since they saw someone knitting or that they were surprised to see someone of my tender age engaged in an old lady pursuit. It’s thrilling that in our current climate, I’m just as likely to spy a fellow knitter on the tube as provide the trigger for someone’s reminiscences about bygone family members. And to anyone inclined to make the old lady comment, I now have the wherewithal to patiently explain that it’s because society went through a moment of stupidity where it seemed like equality meant ‘letting’ women to do things considered ‘man things’ while continuing to belittle ‘woman things’, rather than saying, let’s teach and encourage everyone to do it all, because it’s all useful stuff. We’ve also gone through high-speed industrial and urbanisation that makes it appear more economical to buy things rather than make them. It may be in the short term, but looking at a bigger picture, it really isn’t. That’s why I make things and do my best to inspire others to do so too.
The Pinglette Hat and Cowl set, taking linen stitch into new territory
Tom: Penguin, A Knit Collection, is your first book, and leafing through it, I get a real sense of fun. The book design has fresh colours, there are penguin photographs and watercolours, and a photo essay. As a result it draws me in and makes me feel I’m part of a community. Why is community, in the widest sense of the word, so important to you?
Anna: I know a lot of amazing people and it seems like a waste to not involve them. It’s so much more interesting to not have to do everything myself. It’s amazing to work with other people and witness first hand what they do best. I have learnt so much through the process. Even before the wool reached the friends I worked with, it has been on sheep and through the hands of shepherds, shearers, washers, carders, spinners, dyers, winders and distributers. It seems inconceivable to me that community might not be important. Knitting is intrinsically about community. As I say that I’m not sure whether I’m drawn to knitting because of its community-ness or whether I see it as a community thing, because of how important I think community is. Knitting allows my work to occur for a large part in my community, for my community and as the result of that community – I wanted my book to reflect that.
For me, knitting transitioned from being a hobby when I made it part of my work at art school. I did that because I felt frustrated by the lack of making skills being taught and what that meant for the strength, diversity and options within my creative community. Also I was troubled by the stereotype of the artist, usually a male ego maniac loner starving (or otherwise suffering) in an attic, strapped to their easel or else womanising their way round town. Knitting you can do anywhere and it’s history is not with the elite: it’s about warmth, care, sharing, skill, resourcefulness, generosity and conversation, in other words, community.
Goofing around with fish – the Adelie hat in two different colourways
Tom: another thing that makes the book so welcoming, is the informal way you introduce the patterns, the helpful hints and tips scattered throughout, and not least the words of encouragement. We have talked about this in the past when we worked on some patterns for the Ricefield Collective together. How did you manage to get the right balance between making the patterns legible, yet putting in those additional bits?
Anna: I find that there is something quite powerful in being able to reimagine the skills you have at hand, rather than believe you have to make a huge leap into taking on a whole new set. As with the rest of life, often we feel like giant changes have to happen, when actually making small adjustments and reconfiguring what we already know can provide the interest and change needed. We can do a lot with the knitting skills we already have, by combining them in unexpected ways.
Deciding what information to put in the book and what to leave out was a hard balance to strike, but I didn’t need to work all that out myself, I had a bevvy of test knitters, editors and tech editors helping me. I wanted to be generous with the tips I gave while also being aware there is now so much info readily available online. That really freed me up to feel like it didn’t all need to be in the book. I very much wanted it to be a book of patterns that would convey and inspire you to try new things or combos of things, rather than be a dictionary or beginners guide. I wanted to do something that while being accessible was inspiring in suggesting what you can do with the regular skills you’ve already picked up or know where to find the answers. A book that celebrated where we’re at and the confidence we have or should have, in our own making.
The Rockhopper shawl combines clever shaping techniques that are within every knitter’s reach, to create this visually stunning shawl
Tom: what I love about your patterns is that you often combine colourwork with texture or lace, in unexpected ways, and keep the construction easy. Penguins, however, only have a very limited palette, and seem so smooth. How did you get on with such restrictions as an inspiration?
Anna: funny, I really don’t think of penguins as smooth – they are underwater, but on land they are also fluffy, spiky, sleek, dense and shaggy. There is also so much variety between the markings on the different breeds. They do have a fairly limited palette of fairly safe colours, which I like because I think they provide a good jumping off point. Like a black and white film, they encourage you to see the colours yourself, not have them feel prescribed. Hopefully it will help people not to get too hung up on their knit needing to be exactly the same as the ones in the book. I can’t wait to see the other colour combinations that people decide to knit these patterns in. In the book I’ve suggested hashtags for people to use on social media, so we can all share and see and be inspired by each other. And of course there is always Ravelry.
As I see it, handknitting is pretty much divorced from the necessity of keeping us warm – it’s no longer part of limited options for survival. We can (in a blinkered way) more cheaply and efficiently buy what we need to keep us warm. This means handknitting is all about the entertainment. I like my patterns to acknowledge and embrace that. The journey of making should be equally as fun as wearing the result. As the fun of wearing can’t be guaranteed, you should really make sure you enjoy the making! That’s why I try to work in various elements to keep the journey of making engaging and interesting: a comfortable challenge.
Anna proves me wrong about “smooth” penguins with the Teenguin cardigan
Tom: if I’m not mistaken, the Humboldt sweater is the first pattern in which you introduce Marlisle formally. Can you explain a bit more about this knitting technique?
Anna: the Humboldt sweater did get me to cook up Marlisle. It’s one of those things that when you do it, it seems odd it isn’t widely used, but so far, I haven’t managed to track down other examples of it. I would be so curious to see them. They must be out there.
The term is a mash-up of “marl” – two noticeably different shades of yarn plied or in this case, held together – and the “isle” from Fair Isle. Regardless of geographic origin, Fair Isle is often used as a catch-all for stranded colourwork. (And what an honour, that such a tiny place gets to lend its name to a whole technique that has its origins spread all over the place.) Marlisle allows this circular knitted sweater to have small patches of pure white on the front, but not the back without working intarsia, yet spread over distances that would be unworkable using regular stranded colourwork, because the floats would be epic. This was inspired by the fact that the humboldt penguin has a solid back, but speckled front and I wanted to find a way to knit that in one piece.
To achieve this, a strand each of charcoal and white yarn are held double and worked in garter stitch for the majority of this bottom-up sweater. The white yarn is separated out where required and worked akin to stranded colourwork in stocking stitch to produce that pop of single colour. Because you are always carrying both colours around, you have both colours available to use individually at all times. The density of the fabric changes little, as the yarn is always double thickness thanks to the floats behind the colourwork section.
The Humboldt sweater, using Anna’s Marlisle technique. Incidentally, this picture also shows one of Anna’s other Instagram interests: matching yarns to old cars
Tom: last but not least, where can people buy the book, and find out more about what you are up to?
Anna: it’s really lovely that a growing number of yarn shops around the world are stocking my book. When you get a copy of the book, it comes with a special single use download code, so that you can keep a PDF copy on your computer or other electronic gadget – or print out certain pages, if you want to scribble on them like mad or crumple them in your project bag. For now the PDF is only available when you purchase the book, not as download only. I’m too excited about the fact that it’s a real live beautifully printed book to not want everyone to experience it that way.
If you want to keep abreast of what I’m up to, my website is a good place to start and links out to my instagram and sweaterspotter blog, which I use for outpourings that need to be covered in greater length and permanency than makes sense on instagram. You can of course also order the book, straight from me, through my website here.
Tom: thank you Anna, for a lovely chat!
And to show that Penguin, A Knit Collection, really has something for everybody, I’ll finish with a picture of Pinglewin, a cuddly toy penguin that can take its tuxedo off!
Pinglewin is the cutest penguin, and he can take off his tux!