Sunday, 24 April 2016

Reluctant Teacher

 BellaCrafts is a lovely craft shop near Eastleigh and Hedge End in Hampshire.  They recently invited me come and give a talk about my knitting experiences and to host a work shop which introduced the basics of fairisle and stranded knitting.  I have to admit to being rather reluctant and nervous to begin with.  I wasn't sure if I was really qualified to instruct this kind of thing, but I thought I'd give it a go.
 In preparation for the workshop, I wanted to design a few projects that attendees to could make on the day or complete at home.  I didn't realise what a task this would be as it's difficult to gauge who might attend such a workshop and what their skill levels/previous knowledge might be.   
I started with a simple beanie shape and got my graph paper out to design several motifs that could be used around the hat.  Then, I adapted the pattern for two smaller, quicker projects: a hairband and a wristband.  The biggest challenge was to put my design to paper and write a pattern that was both intelligible and informative yet concise.  I'm not schooled on the finer points of pattern writing, so I got a few friends to have a go at knitting from my pattern and theirs seemed to come out ok.  Also, they gave me some helpful tips for the future.

The two motif designs I took to the BellaCrafts workshop were a fish pattern (Bella Pesci) and one of rabbits (Wunny Babbits). The fish design came about because the craft shop is situated next to a tropical fish store which had gorgeous Koi carp swimming in a pond outside.

Here's a couple of pics of finished work by two of the ladies who came along.  They took away my pattern and completed two Wunny Babbit hats in their own colours and adding their own twists to the design.  I think you'll agree, they did a great job.

Wunny Babbit pics from BellaCrafts facebook page - check them out!

Star Flowers

 A little while ago, out of the blue, I received a phone call from a woman called Jasmine.  When she said, "this may seem strange, but I have a knitting related question for you", my immediate assumption was that she had seen a poster for the craft group I host and was wanting to find out more.  But it turned out she was phoning on behalf of a craft shop near Eastleigh (Hampshire) and was wondering if I would like to come to their craft festival and give a talk about my experiences on Kirstie Allsopp's Handmade Christmas shows.  Jasmine's ears had pricked up when she heard that I live in Portsmouth.  Rather disturbingly, it was apparently quite easy to track me down.  It seems, no-one is a private citizen anymore with Google.  But then, if you put yourself forward for a tv show, one can hardly complain.  Anyway, I digress...  where was I going with this little tale?

Oh yes.

I shall give you more details about my craft festival experience in another blog post, but what I wanted to tell you about was that while there, I bought several balls of yarn by West Yorkshire Spinners.  They have produced a really rather gorgeous DK yarn range called Illustrious which is spun using a mix of British Alpaca and Falkland (Islands) wool.  Another company to produce a similar product is Blacker yarns, but I haven't yet sampled their product.
The Illustrious yarn comes in a range of 13 colours, plain and variegated.  I bought: Mulberry, sea glass, old lace, highland.   I took a deep intake of breath at the price as it's not cheap for a 'mass' produced yarn, but the balls come in 100g weight so you get a reasonable amount for your money, comparable to others of this class like Rowan.  I suspect they would do well to offer the range in 50g balls to for those who don't want to invest so much on their first try of the range but nevertheless, I took the plunge.  My problem, which is familiar to many knitters/crocheters is that I often buy yarn without a project in mind.  So, it was by chance rather than design that I cast on (is that the correct term for crochet too?????) a blanket.  I know Americans use the term Afghans but I'm not quite sure why, perhaps someone can tell me.

 My first crochet project after being shown the basics at my craft group last summer, was a basic granny square blanket that has got bigger and bigger.  It's been an excellent project because it has helped me use up lots of single skeins of yarn that I bought on a whim (and without specific projects in mind).  But, it must be one of the most expensive projects I've ever done as most skeins were bought at fares like Unwind and Unravel from independent producers selling skeins at around £15 a go.  All in, it must have cost several hundred pounds so far, but it will become an 'heirloom' piece - not because of the time/effort/complexity involved, but because of it's intrinsic value!

I'd wanted to try hexagons for a while, but there are so many variations out there, I thought I'd have a go at designing my own.  Nothing is really 'new' in design, so I wouldn't be surprised if someone came along and said, "that's my design", but here is my version of hexagons.  Of course, if they said, "that's my design", I would probably be a little suspicious for exactly the reason mentioned above, nothing IS new in design.  So much of what I see on Ravelry, Pinterest and even designers sites can hardly be called revolutionary or new.  They all use the same fundamental stitches (knit and purl for knitting, chains/doubles/trebles etc for crochet).  They also all come from a wider cultural background which drawers influence from previous generations.  You can, of course, create you own combinations of stitches and shapes which may be 'new', but with all the thousands of patterns available, there is the inevitable convergence of ideas.  In my opinion, the only true innovations come with new technology and materials.  All that being said, some of the best ideas, are the tried and tested ones :-)

 I started out with lots of hexagons, but quickly found I didn't want to join them together in a honeycomb fashion so I added triangles to the mix.  These then created larger pattern ideas of stars and flowers.  One dilemma with hexagon designs is what should the overall shape of your blanket be? Should the whole piece be a large hexagon or should it be square or rectangular?  How will you allow your hexagons to meet the edge of the blanket?  Will it have a straight or wibbly wobbly edge?  Is there a centre to the design or is at a 'field' of pattern, perhaps with a contrasting border?  I've yet to decide on some of those questions but will update you when I've finished the project.  For now, here are some pics of my progress.
You will notice that I have chosen to join the pieces using a single crochet technique which gives a ridge.  I opted to have the ridge on the right side of the work.  After steaming and a very light press, the ridge is less prominent which I prefer.  If you wanted to do your own version of my blanket, you could join the pieces however you wanted, but I rather like the leaded stained glass effect.  Indeed, I think this blanket would be splendid if you used bright colours for the centres and then black borders to mimic the look of churchy stained glass. 

Monday, 22 February 2016

Unravelled at Unravel

image by Holly Exley

Well, another Unravel festival has come and gone at the Farnham Maltings and once again I have been left feeling inadequate, inferior, inspired, insatiable and intrigued....oh, and broke.  This was my second time at Unravel but this year I chose to avoid the crowds and go on the last day, Sunday. There was quite a laid back feel going on, or was it exhaustion?  Still, the stall holders all seemed smiley and happy and keen to engage with their customers.  I had several conversations with people while I browsed their stock of yarns, trying to justify adding yet another single skein of DK to my stash and wondering how I would slip it past my hubby on my return home.  Who was I kidding? He knew exactly what I was up to and fully expected me to break the bank.
I don't like to disappoint...

...On that rather advisory note, I should apologise for the lack of photos - rather stupidly, I left my phone in the car and couldn't draw myself away from the yarn to go back to the car park to get it.   I'm afraid you'll have to use your imaginations to conjure up scenes of yarn glory and marketplace carnage in the great hall.  And there was Glory in wicker bucket loads!  In comparison with other fairs/festivals, Unravel is not huge but it's plenty big enough to spend at least a morning or afternoon wandering around and filling your mind with possibilities.  What it lacks in enormity, it overflows in creativity, quality and individuality. It was interesting to see such a variety of sellers and exhibitors, from the traditional and craft focused to the way-out and wacky.  The vast majority of yarn sellers were small-scale producers and dyers, each with their own unique twist on things.  There were some larger names too but they were certainly given a run for their money by the smaller outfits.  

I shopped and I dropped.  It wasn't all shopping though as I did manage to take in an absolutely fascinating talk by Alison Ellen about stitch-led design.  Whilst her designs are not necessarily to my taste, her techniques and thought processes are truly inspiring.  Alison has been designing for many years and it was obvious that I have a long way to go before I come anywhere near her level of skill and expertise; much of her talk went way over my head. I can't really explain anything more about her approach except to say it was about accepting, rather than fighting, the innate nature of knitted stitches and using them in your designs to create shape and movement. 

It wasn't all lovely though and something left me feeling rather more unravelled at Unravel.  The thing that left me perplexed and vexed about my Unravel experience was a topic close to my heart: men, where do we fit in?  Before I carry on, let me be clear, there is NO chip on my shoulder and I hold no grudge, cast no aspersions and pass no blame.  I visited on the quietest day of the festival, so I can't really be certain about the truth of my observations, but, it seemed to me that there was distinct lack of men in attendance. The reasons for this could be debated and picked apart 'til one died of boredom. Having been burnt in the past when trying to have a conversation about gender, I will try to steer clear of the why's and wherefores. I will, however, make one other observation about gender at Unravel: men are in the minority, on the ground and in terms of representation.  The majority of men there seemed to be supporting partners who were exhibiting, a few were stall holders themselves and I could count on one hand the number of men visiting. Yes, this is a perhaps a true reflection of the gender makeup of the fibre crafts world, but what was more vexing was the same gender imbalance in the number of menswear patterns for sale. Perhaps people have put too much stock in the tale of 'boyfriend sweater curse' and now only knit for the women, children and pets in their lives?  

The yarn and creativity at Unravel was inspiring, but what challenged my mind the most was how to get more men involved, creating and catered for?

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Ich Bin Ein Woolly Berliner.

 I consider myself a bit of a Berlinerphile, I absolutely adore the place and would move there in a heartbeat if money and circumstances permitted.  I like the architecture, the culture, the transport system, the nightlife, the people and the vibrancy.  But in addition, I like that despite its capital city status, it is not overwhelming or aggressive, nor is it hectic or expensive.

Last week, husband and I had a short break, based in the Wilmersdorf area of the city which is known mostly for the Berlin Zoo and the KaDeWe department store.  What I didn't know was that it is also home to a huge craft market superstore called Idee Creativemarkt 

This chain has several stores across Germany, much like Hobbycraft in the UK, but infinitely more Uber.   It has the feeling of being a store for real crafters, not hobbyists.  And yet, the prices and variety of product do not exclude those who just want to have a go.

 For knitting and crochet fans, there is a sizeable selection of yarns and tools to whet your appetite.  I came away with four balls of Merino Plus in a palette that I seemed subconsciously drawn to: cream, dark teal, rust and mustard.

I think the city must have been seeping into my mind at this point because I seem to have  channeled the design aesthetic of the Berlin U-Bahn system at the Mockernbrucke station.  

It was nice to see that even Tilly and the Buttons has made it over to Germany with this translated book I spotted.

This wasn't my first experience of a Berlin craft store, but it was by far the biggest.  On previous trips, I've shopped in La Laine  which is the most exquisitely merchandised yarn store and Woollen in Freidrichshain which despite its smaller size manages to pack in a great variety of yarns and has the friendliest staff.   I'm a huge fan of independent stores vs chains, mainly because they tend to offer a more personal service and often more artisan yarns.  But I really liked Idee and would love to see them expand to the UK.

 Not having a pattern or even an starting idea isn't usually enough to prevent me from starting a project when I'm bored, so I happily started crocheting with the mustard yarn at the airport whilst waiting for our flight home.  I even got quite far with a hat design before we landed but then ripped it all out again when I got home.  I guess i'm a process knitter!

In addition to dragging my husband around craft shops, we did manage some culture: museum island, a rainy and cold walk through the Holocaust memorial, the Brandenburg gate and Potsdamer Platz and seeing parts of the torn down Berlin wall.  And, for our not so cultured evenings, we visited a few bars in the Schoneberg district where we spied Fashion legend Jean-Paul Gaultier!  My fashion graduate heart did a little happy dance, especially when the bar staff changed the music to Madonna's 'Vogue' and JP did a little bopping at the bar. I'm afraid this is the closest we'd dare get to sneak a photo, so you'll just have to trust me, it WAS him.


One of the problems in starting a blog is that you really do have to keep it going!

My excuse for the hiatus is that since the middle of January I've been rather unwell with chesty/throaty/coughy/nasty winter bugs and, to be frank, keeping up a blog was the least of my worries.  But, in these 'lost' weeks, I haven't been idle, nor boring.  I've just come back from a short break in Berlin with my partner (there'll be more pics to come) and the last couple of months have seen me knitting like a wild thing with project after project being churned out....some more successful than others.  Below is a smattering of some of the things I've been working on.

 I've been knitting lots of samples of fairisle/stranded knitting to use in a workshop demonstration I've been asked to facilitate at the Bella Crafts centre near Eastleigh, Hants in March.
 This chunky brioche cowl was originally a very long scarf that I'd knitted for my partner but which was starting to look like it had seen better days.  So, much to his consternation, I frogged it and re-knit.  I had fully intended on another scarf for him...but it didn't quite work out that way.  Oops!
 Not wanting to lose my crochet bug, I made this button up cowl.  I'd hoped my mum would like it, but apparently it's "not her thing".  Oh well, I'll keep it back from another time and another person.
 I had a new year's resolution to knit more things in-the-round, particularly small things like mittens and socks.  With my fairisle workshop in mind, I downloaded a plain generic mitten pattern from ravelry and knit a simple three colour triangles design.  Such a seamingly simple pattern couldn't go far wrong, could it?  Well, the diagram pattern had very limited instructions and I just couldn't get the thumb position right and the overall gauge was just far to small for me.  But, it will serve it's purpose as an educational tool.
 Hats, hats and more hats!  It's been a bit of a recurring theme as the shape is just so simple and gives freedom to create many different colourwork designs and to use up lots of odd skeins in my stash.  One of my other new year's resolutions for 2016 is to learn the technical language of pattern writing so I can share my designs.

 Finally, I have a thing for zigzags and this workshop sample is to show people how you can use variegated yarns to add further interest without having to change yarns all the time.  One project I completed a couple of years ago was Brandon Mably's Balkan jumper which uses this idea to great effect.

All being well, normal service should resume and I hope this new venture of blogging will become as fruitful as my knitting.

Sunday, 10 January 2016


I belong to a local knitting group in Portsmouth which meets every Tuesday to knit, crochet, chat, drink copious amounts of tea and eat cake.  The cafe that hosts our weekly session is run by an extremely talented street artist and all round good chap who makes everyone feel welcome with his witty banter and generally laid back nature.  As we sit round a group of tables that have been pulled together, we can look out on the bleak winter-world outside through large glazed doors and revel in the warmth of our cosy little gathering.  This is what the Norwegians would call, Koselig.  There is no direct or fully accurate translation into English, but the nearest you'll find is the word 'cosy' or 'cozy' (US Eng). The meaning of Koselig goes beyond temperature and surroundings, it has a more esoteric sense which is about feelings and how there is comfort to be had in simple pleasures and friendships. This concept of Koselig is important to Norwegians, as it is to all the other Scandinavian countries (Hyggelig in Danish) because they have long, cold winters and the notion of hunkering down against the elements  has become a comfort rather than a chore.  It isn't just about surviving the winter though, Koselig carries on throughout the year in other elements of Norwegian life and culture.

This cosiness, it might be argued, can be seen in much of their arts and crafts.  Traditional motifs and patterns litter Norwegian textile history bringing with them a sense of continuity, quaintness and charm that many have tried to copy.  It is a design aesthetic that, whilst similar to the Scots Fairisle or Faroese designs, has more of an openness in it's design and often uses figurative and even narrative motifs.

One of the members of my knitting group is Norwegian and she introduced us to this idea of Koselig, proudly trying to explain its meaning but careful to emphasise that it was, to an extent, intangible. Whilst I can't fully appreciate what it must be like to live in darkness for several months of the year and be head deep in snow outside, I can understand the desire to knit and create comforting clothing.  It was with pleasure then that I came across this classic book of Norwegian knitting designs by Annichen Sibbern Bohn.  This book has been republished and can be bought from the Knitpicks website along with other Scandinavian knitting design books.

I challenge any knitter not to be charmed by these designs and want to give them a go.

Saturday, 9 January 2016

Colour! Colour! COLOUR!!!!

     I recently fell into conversation with someone about the textile/clothing designer, Kaffe Fassett.  If you've found this blog through my twitter account or through searching out male/men/knitters/knitting, then no doubt, you will have heard of him already.   If not, here's his Wiki entry. That conversation lead me to revisit some web searches about his work and to seek out his latest designs.  In the process, I came across a great blog post which hit upon Kaffe's work in a tangential way, via his one-time-lover, Bill Gibb. His is a fascinating tale in itself but what pulled their two stories together in a triumph of design over accident was their love of colour and pattern.  I could go on and on about their work, but the blog I've mentioned, the V&A archive and general internet searching will tell you about it far better than I ever could.
What I do want to draw your attention to though is the central theme of Kaffe's work: colour.  Indeed, Kaffe is quoted as saying, " If in doubtadd twenty more colours".  With this mantra ringing through my head, I once dressed a charity shop window with colour being the only criteria.  Clashing, rich, jewel-like colours give warmth to winter wardrobes and should not be overlooked when choosing your jumper knitting palette for the season.  We all find that we are drawn to certain colours - indeed, the Ravelry website asks you to list your favourite colours on your profile, mine are mainly blues and greens, but more and more I find I am drawn to burgundy and plums.  Strange then that come Winter time, we all hibernate in browns, blacks, greys and sombre hues.  Whether you are fair skinned or dark skinned, colour IS an option; it's just about finding the right one(s) for you.

Finally, this is a design I'm currently knitting.  It started as a cowl scarf that I knitted on a trip to Berlin a few years ago.  I wasn't working from a pattern and the size of the cowl wasn't quite right - just a bit too big to be a snug tube and not long enough to wrap around a couple of times.  So, I took the plunge and am turning it into a cardigan, braving my first experience of 'Steeking' where you have to cut your work! Eek!!  I'm currently thinking I couldn't possibly wear these colours as a cardigan, so I'm planning on dying the finished work.  It could be a disaster.....and if it is, it will be shuffled off to the back of my wardrobe.  Or, it could be a colour triumph.  We'll have to wait and see.