Sunday, March 30, 2008

I is for Inspiration

iinspireHow do you represent inspiration? as a letter? number? picture? symbol? What does inspiration actually mean, anyway? I’ve come across lots of books—and particularly knitting books—that invoke the words “inspired” or “inspirational” in their titles. Inspirational seems in that context to refer to something abstract, untouchable, awe-inspiring (there it is again!). For me, inspiration is spark. I devote a fair amount of thought to contemplating sources of inspiration and have a pretty one-sided view of it. I consider inspiration a central part of my motivation from day to day. And when I don’t allow myself to be inspired, I don’t get very far. But in this post, I’m thinking about what inspires me to knit and to allow my knitting to have a life of its own. I love to see great designs, but I like even better to make them work for me, which usually means taking inspiration from the visual world outside of knit stitches.

SourcesEveryone has particular preferences for images and ideas that give them great ideas. Some people react creatively to songs, poems, news, even emotions. My creative switch gets activated by visual stimulation—flora, color, moss, geological formations, water—and by very old, well-crafted things. Here are a few examples.

Inspiration-seeking project
Habu Textiles Back RoomAnother great source of inspiration is raw materials. A really great yarn is often the spark that ignites the idea fire. A couple of weeks ago I was in New York City (not usually a place to find nature or old things) and had the opportunity to go to Habu Textiles (storeroom, right), unfortunately only about ten minutes before they closed for the day. This place is astounding; it’s full of all kinds of material for knitting (and, of course, for other fiber arts), from spun stainless steel to paper (yes, knittable paper) to raw silk roving. With little time to look closely for the perfect project materials, I took advantage of their grab bags to get a great little bag full of extraordinary fibers. I don’t know precisely what they are, but oh, how tasty!

To the best of my flawed fiber-detection ability, the yarns are:habuyarns
* pink & purple space-dyed, lace-weight mohair/silk blend
* black slubbed nylon
* gray lace-weight merino
* magenta cotton ribbon
* silver crimped acetate
* black lace-weight mohair

haburamieI also bought a skein (?) of raw ramie. I tried to knit with it, but it was a bit too fine—sort of like knitting with hair. It’s really better on its own, but I’ll give it another try soon. It calls to me the way birds’ nests do. Maybe I’ll make a nest.

HabuscarfI’m trying to combine as many of these disparate fibers as I can into one wearable project: a fairly simple scarf, to allow the fibers to shine. It is very, very light and airy, and I chose an eyelet pattern in keeping with the “I” theme. It is so lightweight, in fact, that it’s hard sometimes to feel anything but the weight of the needles. I tried using three or four different yarns together, but they really seemed to muddle in combination. I’ll post pictures of the finished project, but for now, I’m just really enjoying the touch & the cloudiness of it all.

Inspiration(al) Bib (some of which I have previously listed)

lentenroseInspiration(al) Blogs



Friday, March 21, 2008

H is for History

DSC02011There are so many kinds of history—social, economic, political, art—but what I want to explore is literally material history: a sweater’s history. I firmly believe that things—in this case, sweaters—have lives that evolve and that their experiences leave legible traces. Their real meaning changes along with them as they lead valued lives. This particular excursion is inspired by a book I bought last weekend: Annemor Sundbø’s Invisible Threads in Knitting (translated into English by Carol Huebscher Rhoades). It is itself a history—a charming history of Norwegian knitting and cultural traditions—but it also explores garments and their individual histories. Sundbø owned a wool recycling factory in Norway, and saved countless mittens, socks and sweaters from the shredding machine. Each piece of knitting had been made lovingly by hand, then re-fashioned into new garments. Socks and sweaters that had begun to unravel were re-made into mittens, slippers, even underwear, and when they finally reached the end of their useful lives, were consigned to the wool stripper to become shoddy, and to be made into batting for comforters.

DSC02024Somehow, it’s easier to let go of a machine-made sweater than it is to give away a handmade one (particularly when you know or are the person who made it!). We live in a society that discards useful things quite readily; which I suppose makes those things made by our friends’ and our own hands seem so much more valuable. It’s nice to know that something useful can be treasured and renewed in this purge-happy culture. It seems rather important to hold onto the belief that something made by hand should not be jettisoned.

tinsoldierI suppose I’ve always believed that the lives of objects are not static. One of my favorite stories as a child was Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, “The Steadfast Tin Soldier,” (1838), in which a tin soldier falls from a window; is discovered in the street, placed in a paper boat and set afloat; finds himself in a gutter; is swallowed by a fish; returns home inside the fish and is rediscovered by the family cook; is summarily cast into a fire, where he melts alongside his paper ballerina love; together they form the shape of a heart. A translation can be found here. Very poignant, and probably much more sophisticated than my young mind was able to appreciate, but I so sympathized with the soldier; I had no trouble at all imagining him as animate.

DSC02021So now I want to explore the life of one of my early knitting attempts, and consider what new life it might now assume. My first attempt at color knitting was a Kaffee Fassett pattern, which I was seriously under-equipped to master, but having supreme confidence and not knowing any better, I dove in headlong. I had fallen in love with the yarn on a trip to England and this seemed like a great way to showcase it. It was a mess: I ran out of that lovely yarn; the sweater was thick enough to insulate a house; the wrong side looked like a child’s pot holder. I could never have worn it. So I cut it up and made it into pillows. I still have a bit left (see above), which I think will make a nice felted tea cozy.

MosaicBut that’s not the sweater I want to explore. It was—is—Annabel Fox’s pattern, Mosaic Cardigan, which I believe was published by Rowan around 1990, and it was my next attempt at color knitting. But the important point for this story is that it was a pattern I had chosen for myself. I had scraped together the money to buy the yarn (not easy for a grad student!), and really looked forward to wearing it. When I finished knitting the pieces, it was enormous; looked more like a huge sack than a cardigan. It was more or less the right length, but my gauge had been tremendously loose and produced a very wide overcoat. Still, I loved the design motif and colors and even found the perfect pewter buttons. Since I am a complete failure when it comes to sewing, my dear sister-in-law agreed to help me cut the cardigan down to a smaller size and stitch the pieces together on a machine. This operation was quite effective and although the cardigan was still roomy, it was certainly wearable. About two minutes after I had decided that I could really enjoy wearing this imperfect sweater, my father came along and admired it. Then he tried it on. Not only did it fit him perfectly, it looked great on him. Really great. His silver hair really set off the colors and he clearly loved it. How could I refuse him? I didn’t. It was clear that the cardigan had found its right home. He wore it all the time, and took great pleasure in it.

DSC02012When he died a few years later, my mother gave it back to me, quite holey and its pockets full of cookie crumbs. I haven’t been able to bring myself to wear it, but I love thinking about how happy it made us both. I think the time has now come to give it a new life. So I’m taking a lesson from Annemor’s book and am contemplating its new life: pillows again, I think, or some kind of a lap rug. It needs to be a more visible feature of my daily life. And I don’t want to wear it because it was his. And I don’t want to felt it because I want to recognize it as his.

I looked long & hard on the web to find traces of Annabel Fox’s mosaic cardigan pattern, and discovered that someone else had blogged about it, and had similar plans to “re-purpose” it.

More Annemor(e):
Annemor has written two other books

Recycling & Knitting

Saturday, March 8, 2008

G is for Gansey

gansey_detThe gansey is such a paradigm for knitters. It is the ursweater. A fisherman’s garment, it was as essential to fishing life as nets, hooks, even boats. You don’t say “gansey sweater,” just “gansey.” Its simple name conveys at once its nature, history, design, construction, and use. Gansey, apparently, is a Scottish version of guernsey. The OED gives the first published version of the word as 1886, in J. J. H. Burgess’s Shetland Sketches: “He rubbit aff da shute wi’ da sleeve o’ his gansey.” By 1922, the word was so well known that Joyce used it in Ulysses to describe Bloom’s fantasy through his fashion sense: “In workman’s corduroy overalls, black gansy with red floating tie and apache cap.” Gansey is certainly also a version of the word guernsey, from the name of a famous Channel island, and is likewise used to describe the guernsey shirt.

The most famous ganseys come from the Yorkshire coast: Filey, Scarborough, Whitby, but were also made extensively in East Anglia, especially Sheringham. Frank Meadow Sutcliffe devoted much of his career as a photographer to the fisherfolk of Whitby, and his nineteenth-century images feature a kaleidoscope of ganseys in action. In addition to the many pictures of fishermen at work, Sutcliffe also took some wonderful portraits that offer us some great close-ups of gansey designs. His works are still within copyright, since he died in 1941, so I can’t post any, but several are available elsewhere online (see below).

gansey_det2What makes the gansey so fascinating to knitters (at least to this one) is its construction. Full of challenging and interest-grabbing techniques from the get-go, the gansey begins with the Channel Island cast-on, incorporates side welts, textured pattern blocks, underarm and neck gussets, and shoulder-to-cuff sleeves into an all-in-one knit unit. Most of the features have very practical purposes: cast-on edges are strong, underarm gussets allow much more freedom to move (and haul in nets!), raveled sleeves can be re-knit from the cuff (where they get most wear), and because they are a solid color, there are no fussy ends to darn in. I love the thought that a fisherman could repair his own sleeves (by the way: don’t miss Sarah Orne Jewett’s story, “Along Shore,” from Country of the Pointed Firs; there’s a wonderful scene of an old fisherman knitting a sock—not British, perhaps, but still charming).

Gansey maniaMy favorite gansey tradition, not suprisingly, is the practice of knitting the wearer’s initials into the otherwise plain area towards the bottom of the sweater. Texture in ganseys is achieved almost entirely through knit-purl combinations or through judicious use of relatively small cables. It is often suggested that particular towns developed very specific and identifiable combinations of textured patterns, so that one could identify a fisherman’s home town simply by looking carefully at what he was wearing.

gansey_girlI’ve only knit one gansey, and it was for my very dear nephew whose name conveniently begins with G. I chose Beth Brown-Reinsel’s pattern, snakes & ladders, as I thought the recipient would appreciate the snaking cables and color, which he certainly did. His little sister, who fits it perfectly now, would prefer pink and ponies, but I can’t quite bring myself to do that. I’d love to make a proper gansey at the fine gauge (9 stitches per inch) and in some of the lovely 5-ply, high-twist gansey yarn that is available now on the market. The yarn knit at that gauge makes all those textured stitches stand up and shout. The problem is that it really hurts my hands, so I’ve never really progressed further than swatching (above). So a child’s sweater at a slightly more manageable 6 stitches per inch is probably the closest I’ll get for some time. Except that, now that I think of it, perhaps the pink princess might be willing to wear lavender hearts...

Frank Meadow Sutcliffe

Pile o gansey swatchesFlamborough Marine, Ltd. History of the Gansey

Shetland Museum & Archives (thanks, Ruth!)

Guernsey Yarn’s general directions for knitting a “guernsey” sweater

British Gansey yarn available in US

Beth Brown-Reinsel Gansey workshops

Gansey Bib
Gansey Patterns
Gansey swatch

Saturday, March 1, 2008

F is for Fair Isle

FfairisleIs Fair Isle a technique, tradition, pattern, style, or geographical origin? Well, all, really, and it’s a pleasure to appreciate all its dimensions. For the purposes of this post, I’d like to focus on Fair Isle knitting as a technique. Patterns developed in the Shetland Islands (of which Fair Isle is an outlying member) during its origins in the mid-nineteenth century have endured for over a century and a half, defining and enriching this remarkable tradition. How extraordinary that a pattern forged on a tiny island—then almost as Norwegian as it was Scottish—could have become an international sensation. To attribute the wide adoption of the style to Edward VIII’s decision to wear Fair Isle waistcoats on the links would do an injustice to the remarkable knitters and colorists who have knitted in the Fair Isle idiom and have made it the treasure it remains today. It is a wonderful fashion style, a compelling group of techniques, and design scheme all rolled into one, and its international popularity and frequent “citation” make it a truly global style.

I remember receiving my first real Fair Isle sweater from my dear godmother; she had brought it back from a visit to the Shetlands in the early 80s. It was yellow and had a beautiful eyelet yoke pattern (something along the lines of the one in the upper left of this photo). It was clearly in a different class from the so-called Fair Isle sweaters I also admired in the L. L. Bean catalog. I treasured that sweater throughout high school and college, and when I grew out of it, my mother happily “appropriated” it for her own use. I never dreamt that I would actually be able to make one! It was another ten years before I thought I could attempt a Fair Isle sweater, and when I did, I felt as if I had come home. I immediately took to the small size of the needles & small gauge, two colors per row (my preference: one in each hand), frequent color changes, knitting in the round (who couldn’t love steeks?), and the amazing palette of colors available in 2-ply jumper-weight yarn...all continue to appeal to my hands and heart fourteen years along.

DSC01855After discovering that my gauge is significantly looser when using the needle size generally recommended in Fair Isle patterns, I became somewhat obsessed with making swatches. After the second or third pattern, it was clear which needle size I needed to achieve 8 stitches per inch with 2-ply yarn, but I continued to swatch anyway. I’ve even made swatches after the fact; they seem to have become a way of documenting projects, especially when the projects go to recipients who live far away. But I also swatch to try out new colors, designs, motifs, even patterns (because colors in print do not necessarily correspond to colors in person), so I’ve accumulated quite a few (as pictured above). The swatch at the center top was one I made after I had finished Rona (below).

RonaSo what to do with all the swatches? I have read that Kaffee Fassett crocheted together all of his swatches to create a blanket. Alice Starmore used to (and probably still does) design exclusively with swatches, rather than knit up entire garments (read her story here). She traveled with a number of single swatches, which if I recall from my Starmore workshop experience, were about 12 inches square. She advocates swatching in the round using steeks so that you don’t have to risk altering your gauge while purling the pattern on the reverse side. I think I’d like to patch together all of my swatches to create a jacket, but I don’t want to feel like Joseph & his many colored coat. Perhaps I’ll knit the squares together with a dark color in between, with the aim of treating them like stained glass or cloisonné.


DSC01891This past week, I’ve made a new swatch that is completely frivolous. Trying to celebrate both a knitting technique and the beauty of uncials (in manuscript, printed & electronic form), I charted out an obvious message using some key Fair Isle techniques. Enduring and widely-used, uncial letterforms were not inherently Celtic. Still, they were a preferred style in the earliest writing of the British Isles, and were used in such masterpieces of Celtic manuscript as the Book of Kells and Book of Durrow. Although not Scottish in origin, uncial letterforms became the basis for early medieval writing styles throughout the British Isles. Thus they seem to convey a sense of history and tradition analogous to Fair Isle knitting itself.

DSC01867I looked at early manuscript examples, and at the electronic font, Omnia, and charted the design by hand on graph paper. If I had had this idea earlier, I would also have looked at the work of Victor Hammer, who created a number of metal uncial fonts for letterpress printing. Another way to knit letters in color would be to create an image file and process it through KnitPro for an auto-generated chart.

berriesBack to the swatch: I began & ended with a corrugated rib—a 2x2, two-color rib in which knit stitches are in a darker color and purl stitches in a lighter (or brighter) one. I wasn’t entirely consistent throughout with color changes, but I generally used four colors for the background and four for the foreground, saving the lightest & brightest for the center stripe, in keeping with Fair Isle tradition. My digital camera doesn’t seem to capture reds very well, but the colors were inspired by the winterberry tree (photographed last November, above). I’ve wanted for some time now to use its beautiful grays and reds for a Fair Isle sweater. For some reason, the gray yarns I chose turned out to have a slightly greenish cast, which did a nice job of highlighting the foreground/background contrast, as red sits opposite green on the color wheel. On the wrong side, strands carried behind produce a reversed version of the pattern, which you can see. DSC01886The strands of color carried across the back also double the fabric’s thickness. Ordinarily, Fair Isle designs follow a logical pattern of odd-numbered stitch repeats that often produce zig-zag lines and the signature XO shapes, but knitted letters don’t quite allow that to happen. They required a lot of weaving in of strands behind the scenes (once an inch or every 8 stitches in this case, when not called upon in the design), something ordinarily to be avoided in Fair Isle knitting. I tried to fill in around the letters with some Fair Isle-ish designs cribbed or adapted from those provided by Sheila McGregor in Traditional Fair Isle Knitting.


To add to the whimsy of this swatch, I’ve created a short movie that follows the evolution of this little project from cast-on to steek-cutting.

DSC01864Yarns used were (with one exception) Alice Starmore’s Campion, which is no longer produced. I have provided color equivalents (using the chart developed by Anne Featonby of She Ewe Knits) to Jamieson’s Spindrift yarn, which is still readily available. Chart here

  • #31, Corn (Spindrift 183 Sand)
  • Rowan Donegal Lambswool Tweed in Lightweight DK; color is 472 Marram, close to Lichen (below), but slightly greener & as if crossed with Juniper (Spindrift 766 Sage)
  • #48, Fog (Spindrift 272 Fog)
  • #72, Lichen (No Spindrift equivalent)
  • #16, Burgundy (Couldn’t find this on the Campion chart—very similar to Spindrift 580 Cherry, but slightly lighter & brighter)
  • #25 , Claret (Spindrift 580 Cherry)
  • #149, Sunrise (Sprindrift 187 Sunrise)
  • #776, Madder (Spindrift 587 Madder)
Fair Isle Bib

Fair Isle Videos
Uncial Fonts
Designers using the Fair Isle idiom in new & interesting ways