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Archive for the ‘textile’ Category

Ethel Mairet (1872-1952) was an exceptional weaver and dyer, who’s influence can still be felt today. She was a member of the small but vigorous crafts community in Ditchling, where she established an influential weaving workshop at Gospels, alongside Eric Gill, Edward Johnston and Douglas Pepler. Mairet was greatly interested in demonstrating and educating, teaching weaving at the Brighton School of Art, exhibiting her work widely, publishing a number of books and articles and producing what she referred to as ‘textile portfolios’ with accompanying pamphlets to support teaching.

She has also been an important teacher to and collaborator with other well-known hand-weavers such as Mary Barker, Peter Collingwood, and Marianne Straub.

Ethel Mairet Weaver and Dyer Sign

The sign for Ethel Mairet’s workshop at Gospels, Ditchling

I’m fascinated by her approach to texture, colour, and fibre, and I had a very enjoyable afternoon with fellow textile appreciators Louise Spong and Jenny Dean, looking at the Mairet collection at the Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft, and seeing some of Mairet’s work up close. Mairet has written a small number of books on weaving and dyeing, and Vegetable Dyes; Being a book of Recipes and other information useful to the Dyer was first published exactly 100 years ago.

Ethel Mairet, Hand-Weaving today; vegetable dyes

My copies of Hand-weaving To-day; Traditions and Changes; and Vegetable Dyes; Being a book of Recipes and other information useful to the Dyer

Talking to natural dye expert Jenny Dean it soon became clear to me that Vegetable Dyes is very much of its time, and a modern-day dyer would perhaps struggle with some of her recipes, and certain mordants used by Mairet, such as chrome, are now no longer in use as they are very poisonous.

Dye Garden at Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft

The grounds of the Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft contain a dye garden. Jenny is seen inspecting the dyer’s broom

Ethel Mairet Madder Samples

Weave samples using madder-root dyed wool. Wonderful to see these were clearly off-cuts from the sewing room

Ethel Mairet natural colour samples

Mairet also used undyed natural colour wool to great effect

Hand-weaving To-day, on the other hand, shows an acute understanding of hand-weaving and industrial development, and her success at the hand-loom has not, however, prejudiced her against the machine, which can be directed in the service of quality. She was inspired by methods of the French cloth house Rodier, which employed hand-weavers to make highly regarded modern fabrics.

Ethel Mairet Rodier Samples

Samples labelled ‘Rodier’; I’m assuming these were fabric samples from Rodier, to serve as inspiration

Many of Mairet’s fabrics combined different fibre types, natural and dyed yarns, and machine-made and handspun yarns to great effect. On the whole Mairet herself preferred to use simple weaving techniques, and concentrate on colour and combining differenty textured yarns instead, but other weavers in her workshop used more complex weaving techniques to great effect.

Ethel Mairet plaid sample

A typical Ethel Mairet plain weave fabric, combining subtly varying yarn weights, and a certain penchant for combining yellow and grey

Ethel Mairet Textured Sample

Some very bold samples combining colour and texture to great effect. These pieces come from Mairet’s workshop, but are most likely woven by one of her co-workers or students

Ethel Mairet various samples

Fabric scraps showing an exciting combination of fibre types, colour (both natural and dyed) and texture

One thing that really stood by me when I first read Hand-weaving To-day was Mairet’s excitement about synthetic yarns. Although I personally prefer natural fibres, Mairet felt that with developing and producing synthetic fibres ‘…the chief error was the close copying of the natural fibres – and the names ‘artifical silk’, ‘artificial wool’, etc., which suggested to the mind materials of very secondary quality. Instead of creating a quality of its own, a new fabric entirely unknown and unforeseen – a new art of the textile world – so far, all it has done is to copy silk, to copy tweeds, velvets, and other materials. […] Cellophane as used by the great textile artists such as Otti Berger, or Rodier, or some of the Finnish weavers, become textiles of rare beauty, holding their place with the greatest textiles of the world. […] The combination of synthetic materials with natural materials holds great possibilities for the hand-spinner and weaver[.]’ (E Mairet, Hand-weaving To-day, 1938) I was very excited to find some samples showing exactly what she meant:

Ethel Mairet Sample with Cellophane

One example of Mairet’s use of cellophane, giving a subtle glistening quality to the fabric, and, I imagine, it might also impart a light rustling noise when manipulated

Ethel Mairet sample with synthetic yarn

There were no notes with this sample, but the golden weft threads just above the black ones appear to be synthetic

The output of Mairet’s weaving room was not only sold as fabrics, but also made up into clothes and accessories. The weaving room at Gospels served as an informal shop most weekends, and in addition, Mairet sold through some small galleries, and used to have a shop on 68a East Street, Brighton.

Ethel Mairet Silk Scarf

A silk scarf in delicate colours

Ethel Mairet Beret

Scraps from the sewing room were used to make beautiful berets. This particularly fine example shows off the rich colours used in the weaving room

Visiting the Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft and seeing their Ethel Mairet collection has allowed me to get a better understanding of her forward-thinking approach to creating textiles, and it remains a constant source of inspiration and motivation for me as I continue to explore and find my way through ‘slow textiles’.

As the Ditchling Museum is only small, there is necessarily not much on display; so if you wish to see the Ethel Mairet collection, then you can find more information here to make an appointment.

If you wish to learn more about Ethel Mairet, then I can highly recommend A Weaver’s Life, Ethel Mairet1872-1952, by Margot Coatts, published by Crafts Study Centre, Bath, 1983.

Note: unless otherwise stated, all pictures are taken at the Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft, with their kind permission.

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If a dear friend asks you to contribute to a new book, then it’s hard to say no. And if that new book is by Kate Davies, with contributions by some of the most exciting and innovative knitwear designers currently around, then you know it’s going to be an exciting publication! Kate’s new book is called The Book of Haps, and is now available to pre-order; shipping will start as soon as the books have returned from the printers, see details at the end of this post.

Kate’s new book is a collection of essays about haps, which were shawls knitted by Shetland women as everyday items, as opposed to the fancy lace wedding ring shawls that are perhaps better known today. In addition, Kate has asked twelve designers to come up with their own interpretation of a hap, including myself.

Please note: all images in this post are by Tom Barr, ©Kate Davies Designs, and used with kind permission

Hexa Hap Shawl

We chatted about my design, the Hexa Hap, a little while ago and I think you’d love to hear more about it. So here is Kate’s interview with me (also published on Kate’s blog this morning):

Kate Davies: One of the many things I enjoy about your work is the way you use the deeply technical aspects of fabric creation or manipulation to produce really innovative designs. Can you tell us about how Cecelia Campochiaro’s Sequence Knitting inspired your Hexa Hap?

Tom: Campochiaro’s book on Sequence Knitting, which described very simple methods to create complex textured fabrics, is a ground-breaking work. The book is littered with many beautiful photographs: although every method is illustrated with swatches in grey yarn, sequence knitting lends itself well for using colour, as evidenced by many of the projects in the book. However, that’s not what I wanted to concentrate on with the Hexa Hap. What struck me is that all of the stitch patterns are reversible in some way: some are identical on both right side and wrong side, others are just aesthetically reversible (right side and wrong side are completely different, but both present a pleasing texture), some fall in between. I found this reversibility a very attractive quality for a shawl as you can wear it every which way; preserving this reversibility was the main driver for the techniques and patterns I’ve used. This goes for the lace edging (Campochiaro’s Sequence Knitting is knits and purls only) and the reversible intarsia twist technique I “unvented.” In addition, some of the sequence techniques involve decreasing at the end of every row, creating triangles, and this led me to brush off my books on modular knitting. . .

tom4 copy


Kate: Can you tell us a little about the process of designing your Hexa Hap? Where did you begin? Did everything turn out the way that you expected, or were there any surprises?

Tom: The idea for a modular shawl or blanket (originally without lace edging) came to me soon after seeing the triangular swatches inSequence Knitting. Not being a shawl wearer myself, and not in need of yet another blanket, I squirreled away the idea. But every time I opened Sequence Knitting, the idea developed a bit further in my head. So by the time you asked me to contribute to your own book, I had an almost fully formed design in my head. It was then a question of finding the right stitch pattern for the lace edging, and working out some of the reversibility challenges. Swatching soon confirmed that my ideas would work, and the only real surprise for me was the swirl that gets formed in the centre of the shawl. I had expected to have straight lines separating the triangles. The only thing I wasn’t sure about was the lace edging, which I wanted to be in a different colour from the centre. I tried out a few things before settling on the intarsia technique and knit the whole thing in one go. Again, the driver here was reversibility. Picking up stitches along the edge of the centre, or knitting on an edge, wasn’t quite so reversible in a DK weight yarn.

tom8 copy


Kate: Your pattern includes options to knit full, half or 2/3 hexa haps, because of the design’s modular construction. Can you explain a little more about this?

Tom: The Hexa Hap is constructed by knitting a triangle with a lace edging on one of its edges. When the first triangle is complete, you pick up stitches along another edge, and knit another triangle. You continue adding more triangles until you have three, four, or six triangles. The Half Hexa Hap and the 2/3 Hexa Hap are quite easy to finish, as they require a knitted on i-cord edging. The full-sized Hexa Hap has a sting in its tail, as there is a seam to be closed, attaching the selvedge of the last triangle to the base of the first one. In order to preserve the reversibility, the seam is grafted closed in pattern. Once this is completed, it has proven to be rather difficult to work out the construction of the shawl, and some of the people who have seen it assumed it was knitted from the centre outwards on circular needles. I first came across the technique I’ve used for grafting in pattern on Fleegle’s blog . In her blog post she describes how she uses waste yarn to knit the row that will be grafted. The waste yarn will be removed once the grafting is finished. Despite my large reference library, Fleegle’s blog is all I could find about it, so I’ve made a video tutorial to help knitters along the way, in case the written instructions require some additional illustration. (Note that this video tutorial illustrates grafting in pattern in the context of the Hexa Hap design only!)

tom schematic


Kate: your reversible intarsia twist is a technique that you’ve “unvented” for this design. Can you describe what it involves and why its useful for this design?

Tom: With intarsia you twist the two colours around each other at the “seam” and with regular intarsia this shows on the wrong side of the work. As I was hell-bent on keeping the Hexa Hap completely reversible, I played around with the intarsia technique until I came up with something that would make it look the same on both sides. It’s a very simple variation, where you cross the old colour underneath the new colour, and then bring the old colour between the needles to the front of the work. The yarns now twist around each other inside the fabric, so to speak, rather than at the back.

tom2 copy
tom1 copy

Kate: I think there is something fundamentally pleasing about hexagonal shapes, and I love naturally occurring hexagon patterns from bees honeycomb to tortoise shells. Do you feel a similar hexagonal affinity? And do you enjoy exploring the structure of other geometric shapes in your knitting and other work?

Tom: Hexagonal affinity; what a great term! I don’t think I have a particular affinity with hexagonal shapes, but I do like geometry and repetitions in general. In particular I like it when repetitions go slightly askew. So to have the swirl appear in the shawl is, to me, a beautiful coincidence. In addition, I’m interested in texture, another reason why I find Campochiaro’s book so stimulating.

tom7 copy

Kate: I really enjoyed styling and modelling your hexa hap, and found it very wearable, in much the same manner as a Shetland hap. Like a Shetland hap, I also think it would make a wonderful blanket for a baby. I also found myself wearing one of the mini-hexa haps you made as a kerchief to keep my neck warm when I was helping Tom out on our Shetland photoshoots. It’s such a versatile design! I love the sample so much I don’t really want to send it back, but I wondered how you intended to wear or use it when I did?

tom12 copy

Tom: Thank you very much, I’m so pleased to hear you like it so much! As I don’t wear shawls myself, it was a bit of a leap of faith to design one. I could see myself wearing a mini half Hexa Hap as a kerchief (thanks for the idea), but the full-sized one I would use as a blanket. There’s nothing more I enjoy of a winter’s evening than to cuddle up under a warm woolly blanket.

tom11 copy

Kate: yes, I think it would make a wonderful baby blanket or lap blanket – and I was very hap-py to be happed up in it!

tom10 copy

These photographs were taken at Da Brigs near Vementry in Shetland – a very special place.

tom5 copy


Thankyou so much, Tom, for creating your fabulously innovative Hexa Hap!

The Book of Haps is now available to pre-order. You can see all of the designs as they appear each day on Ravelry and be sure to pop over to Jen’s blog tomorrow when the next hap will be revealed!Hexa Hap Shawl

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Recently, I was invited to deliver the keynote speech at Cultures of Repair: Past and Present, a one-day conference to conclude A Remedy for Rents, an exhibition of darning samplers from the Whitelands College Collection.

Curated by Vivienne Richmond, head of Goldsmiths History Department, A Remedy for Rents showcased a rare collection of exceptionally fine needlework by working-class women in the last quarter of the 19th century. As students at Whitelands College, the first all-female teacher training college, now part of the University of Roehampton, the women were training to teach in elementary schools for working-class children and their needlework focused on the production and repair of simple garments and household textiles.

Remedy for Rents offered a rare opportunity to see needlework by non-elite Victorian women, but illuminates also the history of working-class dress, female education and gendered roles, experiences and expectations in 19th-century Britain and beyond. If you missed this exhibition, then you will have a second chance to catch it again, see details at the end of this post.

Photography credit: all the images I’m showing here were taken by David Ramkalawon, and all items belong to the Whitelands College Collection, University of Roehampton, and are used with kind permission.

Note: simply click on an image to get a closer view of the exquisite needlework

Specimens of Needlework Whitelands College

Specimens of Needle Work, Whitelands College K.S. 1902. This unassuming leatherbound book contains a stunning collection of extraordinary needlework

The items on display are of an an amazingly high quality, and provide me with a lot of inspiration, and something to aspire to. The book shown above holds page after page of darning samplers and plain sewing samplers, each and every one of them showing the very best needlework.

Sampler by Annie Hewins 1879

Sampler made by Annie Hewins, 1879. It shows a combination of darns, damask darns, patching, decorative borders and buttonholes. All made by hand

Tailored buttonhole by Annie Hewins 1879, Whitelands College Collection

Close-up of one of the buttonholes from the sampler shown above

Whereas most of the darning and embroidery samplers I’ve seen from the late 19th century are no longer of the finest quality displayed in work from earlier centuries, the work displayed by the teachers in training at Whitelands College is an exception, and it’s almost inconceivable that they were all made by hand. I’m particularly fond of the many fancy handworked buttonholes; I’ll be giving them a go when the opportunity arises.

I’ll share more images from the needlework on display throughout this post, but I’d also like to share with you the one-day conference. Vivienne Richmond talked about past cultures of repair. Needlework was a respectable way for a woman to earn some money, both teaching it, or providing needlework as a service to other households. Obviously, learning needlework is a very hands-on approach, and the Whitelands College Collection is a prime example of the students’ work. If you want to know a bit more about this, then I can recommend the blog posts I wrote about darning samplers from the Fries Museum (parts 1, 2, and 3). She also touched on the Make Do and Mend campaign of World War 2, and all those middle-class women who, with the very best intentions, wanted to teach working class women on how to mend their clothes and to be careful with resources. Needless to say their reception was rather mixed, as for working class women making do and mending was already part and parcel of their lives.

Sleeve with darning detail, Whitelands College Collection

One of the many practice pieces: a sleeve with cuff, ruffle, patching, darning, and stitching

After learning about repair in the past, we moved on to a number of artists and makers who use repair as part of their practice:

Lizzie Cannon has a background in geography and as a result her artwork reflects her keen sense of space and place. She gathers discarded items which get augmented by adding other elements, often using embroidery techniques. Her ongoing project Mended Leaves investigates how mending reflects, and sometimes accelerates, decay of delicate structures. The threads used to mend the holes in the leaves are carefully matched with the leaf is still fresh, but later contrasts with the changed colour once the leaf has dried.

Katherine May works as a designer, researcher and facilitator tracing the threads that weave together textiles and society. Through research and making she explores the origins of materials and the story of techniques. Her projects often reflect specific social contexts and emphasise participation through the dressing or inhabiting of these spaces, that she uses as a platform to engage people in an imaginative and sensory relationship with cloth. This was seen in Water – Colour a site specific installation where a ritual of practice evolved through indigo dyeing on site over 2 months. With her work she aims to expose the relational aspects of textiles and subvert prevailing processes of value production.

Ruby Hoette  works independently as a designer/curator/researcher exploring fashion in context through the intersection of theory and practice. Her projects reveal patterns of use and often investigate the construction of value and meaning in fashion. The WORN_RELICS project was launched in 2008. It is an interactive online archive in which the stories and memories attached to garments can be collected and shared. The project explores the idea that clothing acquires value over time through being worn. It is a platform for the communication of the creativity and innovation that can be found in the diverse ways we interact with clothing in everyday life.

Miniature Knitted Sock, Whitelands College Collection

Many items were made on a miniature scale. They’re easily confused with dolls clothes, but their main purpose was to learn all the different sewing techniques and construction of all manner of garments. This lace sock measures no more than 4.5cm (less than 2in) in height. I guesstimate it has about 60 stitches in the round.

Those of you who have been following my blog, may have noticed that many of the other artists and makers’ themes and interests are reflected in my own practice, so my keynote speech tied it all nicely together. I spoke about my love of old sewing and needlework books; my issues with using the phrase ‘make do and mend’ in the 21st century, when many people make the choice between replacing or repairing; aspects of Japanese crafts such as boro and sashiko, but at the same time trying to bring things back to local culture; learning from studying samplers (see links to Fries Museum above); and my bottomless mending basket at home.

Detail of sampler made by Witteridge, Whitelands College Collection

A darn made to emulate a jersey (machine knitted) fabric, which is made by stem stitching over foundation threads that go across the hole

I also discussed my shift in focus, or end point, of a garment. If I aim to wear clothes for a long time, than I will have to acknowledge that they will need some repairs at some point. With that in mind, when I make my own clothes, a garment isn’t really finished when I cast off that last stitch, or sew in some ends. I know there is more work to be done down the line. So those finishing touches are not final, but merely one of the stops on the journey of the garment’s life. To me, making and repairing are no longer discrete activities, they belong together, and the boundaries between the two are blurred: repairing is making.

Whitelands College Collection Sample Garment

A miniature undershirt as a way of learning all aspects of technique and construction of undershirts

If you want to catch Remedy for Rents at Roehampton, then please know that they don’t have a webpage for the exhibition yet, but in the meantime people are welcome to contact Gilly King: Gilly.King@roehampton.ac.uk for further information. The exhibition is opening there on 14 May, 2016 and running to July (actual closing date tbc).

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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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