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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

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.

 

Penguin A Knit Collection, Pinglette Hat and Cowl by Anna Maltz

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.

Penguin A Knit Collection, Adelie Hat by Anna Maltz

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.

Penguin A Knit Collection, Rockhopper Shawl by Anna Maltz

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.

Penguin A Knit Collection, Teenguin Cardigan by Anna Maltz

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.

Penguin A Knit Collection, Humboldt sweater by Anna Maltz

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!

Penguin A Knit Collection, Pinglewin Toy by Anna Maltz

Pinglewin is the cutest penguin, and he can take off his tux!

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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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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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