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Category Archives: Art

Authors & Artists: The Frances Herself Shawl

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Helen Lockhart of Ripples Crafts dyes exquisite yarns from her home in the Scottish Highlands. I first met Helen at a knitting conference when her stall was next to mine. We bonded immediately, so I cannot believe that it took us nearly five years to finally collaborate. We decided on our collaboration at In The Loop. I fell deeply in love with the blue-teal shade (Stormy Seas) and the rest followed. The rich magenta (Jewelled) and the warm grey (Assynt Peat) worked perfectly in unison. Working with her Quinag base was an absolute joy. The BFL gave Helen’s colours additional depth and the yarn flowed through my fingers.

The construction of Frances Herself will be familiar if you knitted my Byatt shawl (though it works in a slightly different way). You increase alongbthe top edge at an accelerated page which makes the shawl grow very rapidly in one direction and at a more considered pace in the other. It makes for wonderful asymmetry when worn – yet it is surprisingly straightforward to work. I do not believe in overcomplicating patterns when wonderful results can be achieved in a straightforward manner!

A lot of the Frances Herself joy is derived from working with such wonderful handdyed yarns. Frances Macdonald McNair was a child of the Arts & Crafts movement and its truth to material ideas. Truth to material simply means that you take the material that is best suited to your project and you showcase it honestly. The shawl is designed to reflect that. I am a big fan of basic stitches (like stocking stitch and garter stitch) precisely because they let handdyed yarns take centre stage.

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I have included a guide to modifying the colour sequence so you can make it work with your given yardage. I used three colours in this shawl – one neutral and two jewel-like colours. If you are considering other colours, think about getting enough contrast between the two contrast colours. You might also be tempted by mini-packs of yarn – Col B would be the obvious candidate for this – so keep the following yardage breakdown in mind:

Col A: Gray / Assynt Peat (approx. 380m/ 415 yds)
Col B: Magenta / Jewelled (approx 180m/196 yds)
Col C: Teal / Stormy Seas (approx 180 m/196 yds)

Another modification you might like is beading. Frances Macdonald McNair used beads extensively – both as material and as visual metaphor. I opted not to add any (mostly as I was travelling when knitting my shawl and there is no worse combination than beads & a bumpy road) but it’d look incredible done right. If you want to add beads, I suggest doing it in the middle of the garter stitch sections with the beads nicely spaced out. I would also suggest choosing beads that reflects cols B and C – you do not have to agree!

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The shawl was knitted on 4.5mm needles which the beautiful 4ply yarn was more than capable of handling. I strongly urge you to swatch if you substitute with any other 4ply yarn (and also to check your yardage!). The open fabric has a lot of drape and character, yet it still retains a sense of itself. I love how the lace pattern blocked out – it looks like tiny tenement tiles which is so very apt for a pattern inspired by Arts & Crafts in Scotland.

You can buy the pattern here. If you are going to Edinburgh Yarn Festival, make sure to check out Helen’s stall where she’ll be happy to advise on colour combinations (and we might have more up on our collective sleeve!).

(Note: I am away from keyboard February 26-28 2016, so I’ll get back to any queries as soon as I can afterwards).

Authors & Artists: Frances Macdonald McNair – or Frances Herself

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The first artist in my Authors & Artists series is Frances Macdonald McNair (1873-1921). She was born in England and attended the prestigious Glasgow School of Art with her sister, Margaret. Frances and Margaret became part of a creative collective known as The Glasgow Four together with Charles Rennie Mackintosh and James Herbert McNair. Their work was multi-disciplinary (though that concept didn’t exist then): painting, furniture design, architecture, textiles and metalwork. Margaret Macdonald married Charles Rennie; Frances married J. Herbert McNair. The future was bright.

Charles would go on to be an incredibly influential architect. He was lauded across Europe and influenced Gustav Klimt in Vienna. His wife collaborated with him extensively. Today the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society is dedicated to preserving his heritage (just a hop & a skip from where I am typing this!) and he was commemorated on a series of bank notes in 2008.

The McNairs led an unhappy life, however. They had exhibited across Europe in the early 1900s but just a decade later, everything was in tatters. McNair’s family had some financial misfortunes, he started drinking, and his career stalled. Frances suppressed her own career in order to help Herbert with his. She had his son, left the marriage briefly but returned before dying at the age of 48. It is notable that even as Herbert McNair stopped producing art (around 1911), Frances kept painting.

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This watercolour dates from when life started wobbling – 1907 – and is entitled Girl & Butterflies.

 

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This is called Woman Standing Behind the Sun. It was painted sometime between 1912 and 1915 – when Herbert’s career was in serious decline, their marriage mostly over, and Frances was looking after their child. The symbolism is fairly clear.

 

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This is the amazingly named Man Makes the Beads of Life but Woman Must Thread Them – again painted sometime between 1912 and 1915. I’m not a psychologist, but I think we can agree on the anger emanating from this painting.

I find Frances really, really interesting. She is an artist that seems almost unbearably twee with faerie princesses, butterflies, bows, gauzy dresses and long flowing locks of hair – but if you scratch the surface you find serious thoughts on women’s rights, motherhood, society, and (lack of) equality. Even her early art asks questions about identity: who am I as an artist, why am I being defined by men, how can I break free? Her later art is more outspoken and confrontational – it is as though Frances decided to cast off her mask. Her late watercolours show near-nightmares of darkness crashing against frail female bodies – as an artist she was very much rooted in the Symbolist art movement.

Herbert McNair destroyed most of Frances Macdonald McNair’s work after her death. I presume her work did not depict him in a particularly flattering light.

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Bow, Beads, Birds (1911)

I celebrate Frances. She was struggling to be an artist on her terms; her art shows a woman grappling with huge topics, and her having a very limited outlet for her struggles. We are still struggling to be heard and we are still struggling to be taken serious. We are still defined by men and we are still expected to conform to society’s expectations.

So, Frances Herself. I struggled to name the shawl but ultimately it is about Frances herself – and by extension our right to be ourselves no matter who we are. This is already a very long post – and I like leaving this celebration of Frances here. I’ll talk about the shawl in tomorrow’s post (it’ll include details on colours and modification – including how to add beads if you want to give the shawl even more Glasgow Style).

All images via Wikimedia Commons.

Why Naming A Pattern Can Be Hard

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This is an image by Frances Macdonald McNair, a Glasgow-based artist at the turn of the century. Her art looks whimsical with sleeping princesses, fairies and gauzy dresses. In fact, her work is a lot more complicated when you look closer and she’s the inspiration for my new shawl pattern.

As part of my job I help other people figure out their pattern names. I usually have a wealth of names at my own disposal, but this time I am having trouble naming the pattern. This post is all about why.

Frances was born in England and attended the prestigious Glasgow School of Art with her sister, Margaret. Frances and Margaret became part of a creative collective known as The Glasgow Four together with Charles Rennie Mackintosh and James Herbert McNair. Margaret married Charles; Frances married Herbert.

While Charles went on to become an incredibly influential architect and collaborated extensively with his wife, the McNairs led an unhappy life. McNair’s family had some financial misfortunes, he started drinking, and his career stalled. Frances suppressed her own career in order to help Herbert with his. She had his son, left the marriage briefly but returned before dying at the age of 48. Her husband destroyed most of her artwork after Frances’ death.

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I went to see an exhibition on the McNairs about ten years ago. I was struck by how Frances was the much better artist of the two – her line work, sense of colour, and understanding of storytelling in art were all superior to her husband. I will be writing about her art tomorrow, but suffice to say I find Frances Macdonald McNair intensely interesting. She was an artist whose talent could not fully blossom because of her gender and the age in which she lived. If she had been born just a few decades later, perhaps her life story would have looked very different. She is deeply inspiring for many reasons – I’ll share more tomorrow.

Naming my pattern is hard.

I want to honour Frances as the artist she was and could not be. I want to tell her story rather than a story in which she is relegated to being a wife or a sister-in-law of a celebrated man. Frances yields 77 pages of hits on Ravelry.

I cannot name the pattern after the man who destroyed most of her art work. McNair is not even an option.

I do not want to name the pattern Macdonald because not only does it mean the son of Donald but it also has a whiff of greasy chips.

Glasgow Girl is an option. It was the name of a 1990 exhibition about the female artists flourishing in Glasgow at the turn of the 20th century (and is a nice counter to another Glasgow creative collective, The Glasgow Boys) but Frances only lived in Glasgow briefly.

Frances used either very generic names for her art work (Spring; Autumn; Ophelia), deeply ironic names (Sleeping Princess), or amazingly angry names that are totally unsuitable (Man Makes the Beads of Life but Woman Must Thread Them).

Any ideas?

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Photo of shawl by Dave Fraser. Imagery by Frances Macdonald McNair via WikiMedia Commons.

Southwards Bound – pt 2

So. London to Cambridge and back to London. I had considered adding Brighton to the itinerary, but I am very glad I decided against it. The weather was hot and clammy – and it sucked all the energy right of me. Instead of doing the thousand things on my list, I opted to visit The National Gallery which I hadn’t visited for nearly twenty years. I knew it would be cool, relatively free of crowds and very restorative to my sanity

But first a gratuitous photo of The Thing which is currently blocking.

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A grey woolly blob pre-blocking transformation. I like the early evening light.

The National Gallery in London had played a big part in my days of living in London two decades ago. I spent much of my free time wandering through the galleries and several paintings had become old friends by the time I left. It was a great joy to see these paintings again – a certain Titian, Fra Filippo Lippi’s The Annuciation (it had not lost any of its power and mystery) and Paul Cezanne’s Les Grandes Baigneuses (Cezanne’s painting took on extra meaning for me this time as I’m now so familiar with J.D. Fergusson’s Les Eus). But I kept coming back to a simple portrait by Albrecht Dürer.

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Detail from The Painter’s Father by Dürer. This portrait is over 500 years old and it is still so achingly alive.

But my favourite discovery at NG was the mosaic floor in the Main Vestibule. I spent a lot of time looking at it (much to the bemusement of other visitors).

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Detail from The Awakening of the Muses (1928-1933) by Boris Anrep. That man bears an uncanny resemblance to TS Eliot.

After the National Gallery, I headed next door to the National Portrait Gallery. I tend to visit NPG whenever I am in London – it is the perfect size for an impromptu visit and yet I see something new every time. This time I was struck by a painting of Aleister Crowley – the yellow colour vibrated and clashed beautifully against the red robe. I’ll need to see it again.

And then I headed out to Hackney to teach at the very delightful Wild & Woolly yarn shop. I always say that yarn shops reflect their owners – Wild & Woolly is owned by Anna who I liked on sight. We sat down with a pot of tea and proceeded to have a fantastic in-depth talk about knitting as lifestyle, knitting as art form, and knitting as pleasure. And the shop reflects Anna’s warm personality, sense of humour and eye for detail.

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I was teaching a class on my Byatt shawl – and it was a blast. we talked colour choices, techniques and how to knit lace at the pub. The students were all lively and funny. A very brief hello from Larissa and I wish I could have stayed longer – always a good sign – but I had to dash into the dark of night as I was staying with my good friend Ben who lives quite a trek from Hackney.

And so I spent my very last hours of my time in London talking gender identity, privilege and Men Who Knit with Ben. We’ve known each other for years and I don’t see him often enough. I don’t see many friends often enough, actually, as they are all spread out across the world (that’s a complaint for another day).

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Exotic travel: Birmingham

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Somewhere north of Preston.

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Almost sure I travelled across that viaduct on my journey to Settle just two weeks ago.

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Oh Scotland. Home.

I have been travelling a lot the past month or so. As a confirmed introvert (and homebody) I can feel I need some time to recover from adventuring. I do try to soak up as many impressions and ideas as I can while I am travelling – but then I need time to sort through them all. The good news is I have finished quite a few things and I’ll be able to share a new design with you very shortly. Yes, it’s the grey blob shown above and no, it is no longer a blob but a Very Beautiful Thing.

A big thank you to everybody I met on my travels south – the people who came to my classes; Anna and Sarah who both jumped at the chance to host my workshops; Joanne and Ben who let me stay at their places; and all the lovely strangers who talked to me because I was knitting. I salute you.

Textile Conservation & Further Thoughts

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Yesterday I was invited to an event at Glasgow University’s Centre for Textile Conservation and Technical Art History. Not only did this mean I got to meet students and see the objects they were working on, but I also learned about the science behind what we see in museums and private collections. Some things were familiar to me (like dye pots!) and then I ran into a Ph.D. student who showed me a fantastically complicated machine that extracted chemical profiles from 17th century China textiles. The Centre had only invited people working with textiles one way or another, and I found it hugely invigorating to see the multiple ways we can approach textiles (it’s been a very good week for that!). If I had not been absolutely shattered, I would have stayed much, much longer.

But I have been very shattered this weekend thanks to a very hectic weekend. EYF has rippled into this week with plenty of emails and a lot of follow-ups – I am still trying to get to grips with those, apologies. I have also been curled up in my favourite arm chair thinking about stuff. I spent the past weekend in the company of some rather incredible people. The Edinburgh Yarn Festival was home to a lot of strong, bold and interesting people with Thoughts and Ideas. I came away encouraged by the positivity, the warm support, and the ingenuity of the people I met. I spoke with some very smart people who gave me plenty food for thought. I was surrounded by people who did not fit into society’s preconceived ideas of what we should think, believe or do – and I feel so encouraged to see people questioning all the big narratives surrounding gender, fashion, consumerism, and technology.

These past few days I have been thinking a lot about the Thing-ness of Things, too. What materiality means and how the physical nature of Things impact our perception of them. A weighty tome. That yarn has a nice handle. I have a favourite knitting needle that ‘sits right’ in my hand as I work with it. I will need to think more about these Things and start figuring out what the Thing-ness of Things mean when it comes to my work. Maybe when my brain is back to full speed.

Plans for the rest of the week: tomorrow I’m releasing the very last instalment in the Old Maiden Aunt/Karie Westermann sock club (this last sock pattern happens to be my favourite..) and Saturday I am teaching Continental Knitting at Glasgow’s The Queen of Purls, so do pop along to that one!

Ingenious Impressions at Glasgow Hunterian Art Gallery

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Glasgow Hunterian Museum is currently hosting an exhibition on pre-1500 printed books, known as incunabula. In my previous academic incarnation, I used to work on the transition from manuscripts to printed books, so I was obviously thrilled to see this exhibition open in a local museum.  On Thursday I was lucky enough to catch a preview before going to a workshop the very next day. It is fair to say that the workshop turned out to be some of the best and most memorable hours of my life. I cannot thank Martin Andrews and Alan May enough for their generous sharing of all their knowledge and expertise.

Not only did I get to have a go at printing a page from the famous 42-line Gutenberg Bible, but I used a replica 15th C printing press built by Alan May for BBC’s Stephen Fry & The Gutenberg Press programme (I recommend this programme – it was very well researched). May used several near-contemporary etchings and woodblock prints to reconstruct the press as no printing presses from the time has survived. I was very interested in an Albrecht Dürer etching showing a modified two-pull press which Alan May described as fundamentally flawed, yet utterly precise. Dürer is a fascinating figure, anyway, and I like the idea of him having fingers in a lot of pies!

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Another highlight was getting to cast my own type(!) under careful supervision. May & Andrews went through the entire process of carving out a prototype (the very name!), showing us how to develop a matrix from a prototype, before starting to cast types. It was absolutely fantastic.

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And dare I whisper that my next big collection actually has something to do with knowledge-making in Early Modern Europe? Much more on that when the time comes, but it’s a huge thrill that this exhibition has opened up in Glasgow just as the next stage of research begins.

Ingenious Impressions at  Glasgow Hunterian Art Gallery runs from February 27 until June 21, 2015. Free Admission.

Threading West: The Great Tapestry of Scotland at Old Anchor Thread Mill

Nearly readyI am a big fan of Scottish textiles and particularly Scottish textiles heritage. I am not much of a stitcher (more about this later), but I know a piece of outstanding beauty, artistry and craftsmanship when I see it. The Great Tapestry of Scotland is such a thing and it is currently on show at Paisley’s Old Anchor Thread Mill. I caught up with stitcher, event committee member and volunteer co-organiser, Paula McKeown.

First, could you tell me what The Great Tapestry of Scotland is?

The Great Tapestry of Scotland is simply Scotland’s story in tapestry form.  It tells the country’s history over 160 panels handstitched  by around 1,000 volunteer stitchers all over the country.

The author Alexander McCall Smith saw a tapestry depicting the Battle of Prestonpans and he loved it so much he had the idea that he would tell Scotland’s story in that way.  The main challenges were really to pick what history to show and then coordinating the over 1,000 stitchers. So McCall Smith involved Alistair Moffat, the historian and Andrew Crummy, the artist.

How did you become involved in this project? I know it was a real challenge to bring the Tapestry to Paisley – but you were involved before then?

I went to see the Prestonpans Tapestry at the Anchor Mill last year and got talking to the people about stitching.  When they found out I am a stitcher, they asked if I would like to help stitch the panel they were making for the Great Tapestry of Scotland.  I jumped at the chance as I had tried to volunteer to stitch a panel already and had been told it was too late to volunteer.  I went back the next week and started stitching on the panel that the Thread Mill museum were making about tenement life in the 1930s.

I got involved in getting the Tapestry to Paisley simply by stitching on the actual Tapestry panel.  We were then offered to stitch two panels for the Diaspora tapestry so I stayed involved helping with the museum and working with other stitchers.  When the chance came to bring the Tapestry, the vice chair of the museum, Margaret Muir asked me to help.

How did the Thread Mill Museum end up showing the Tapestry at the Anchor Thread Mill? I know it is a small, local museum with limited resources.

They asked us!  We realised we couldn’t do it alone so partnered with an Arts group called Weaving Musical Threads and West College Scotland. We put a joint bid together and happily the Tapestry trust was happy to give us the chance to stage it.

The Thread Mill Museum tells the story of Paisley’s thread manufacturing history. Paisley was home to many mills, and the Coats and Clark families developed their businesses from Paisley, taking their threads all over the world.  Sadly all the mills in Paisley are closed now. As the mills closed, the Old Paisley society started to collect items associated with the Mills and eventually the Thread Mill Museum was opened with former mill workers acting as guides.  As time goes on unfortunately there are fewer and fewer mill workers still around, so we are always looking for new volunteers to help keep the mill stories alive.

The museum has lots of equipment and items from the mills and information about what mill workers’ lives were like. We also have a lot of stitched and crochet items made from Anchor threads and yarns.  We are located in the basement of the Mile End mill building which is now a business centre.  The owner of the building, Marcus Dean, donated the space to us and helps us out too.

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Committee member, Carla Cornelli

 

Can you tell me about the different techniques used in stitching the Tapestry?

Strictly speaking, the tapestry is not a tapestry as tapestries are woven.  The techniques involved are based on crewel work embroidery which is traditionally worked on linen using wool.  The major stitches used are chain, heavy chain, stem, Quaker and various straight stitches.  The linen is from a Scottish company, Peter Greig & Co, and the wool used is Appleton’s wool.  The stitchers were given a coloured drawing and wool in the those colours.  What stitches we used was up to us to decide.  The panel borders did have to be done in heavy chain stitch and the lettering was all done in Quaker stitch.

Which panels are your favourite?

So many are favourites. Naturally I love the one I stitched on – No 130 Tenement.  No 140 Cumbernauld is a big favourite of mine, the embroidery is amazingly beautiful.  The design is so modern and distinctive – and it shows how embroidery can be modern,  I love the scene from the movie Gregory’s Girl in the panel.  I would have loved to have stitched on panel 107 Mill working because of the gorgeous Paisley pattern motifs in the dress.  Also Panel 105 Paisley pattern for the same reason.  Panel 92 Scots in India has much amazing colours.  Every time I see the panels, I pick a new favourite.

What should visitors know about the Tapestry exhibition?

It’s open Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 6pm and open late on Wednesdays and Thursdays until 8pm.  The venue is the Atrium of the Old Anchor Thread mill -a gorgeous space.  The venue is on the 1st floor but there is a lift available.  The Thread Mill Museum is nearby but is only open Wednesdays and Saturdays from 12-4pm.

Finally, any books resources for people wanting to know more?

There have been two books so far about the Tapestry, both by Berlinn books and available via all good bookshops and at the Exhibition.  Paisley Thread museum’s site is at http://paisleythreadmill.co.uk, we also have a twitter account   The tapestry website is at http://scotlandstapestry.com

Thank you Paula!

I have signed up for a stitching workshop with Paula. I haven’t stitched since I was about 15 years old so I love the chance for a refresher’s course. There will be other workshops running concurrently with the exhibition – keep a look out on the websites and the twitter feed for more information.

A Trip to Holmfirth

June: Yorkshire TripI usually love train journeys. I love the sounds of travelling on a train, I love having time to looking at the landscape, and I love knitting on trains. My ideal holiday would be a train journey across a country or a continent. It is just so relaxing.

Except if you are travelling down the East Coast of Britain on a hot and sticky Sunday in June. Then a train journey is hell on earth. After a five-hour journey, it was a joy to arrive at my destination in Yorkshire.

I have been to the Rowan Yarns HQ several times now and after the initial excitement of my first visit, I am now able to appreciate the Mill for other things than OMG, I recognise that cardigan and gosh, that’s a lot of yarn. This time I closed my eyes and soaked up the quietness of the setting and recharged my batteries.

June: Yorkshire TripMost of the Mill is devoted to offices, but the workshop room never fails to make me smile. It is a riot of colour and textures – the walls are laid out like a giant yarn shop (though nothing is for sale), the tables and chairs are covered in Rowan fabric and every nook and cranny features Rowan projects. The photo above shows the Wool Week 2012 collection (patterns for which you can download for free from the Rowan website) tucked away in a corner with a Kaffe Fassett pattern library on the shelves underneath.

As workshop rooms go, this is hard to beat for location and creative spirit. As you can imagine.
June: Yorkshire Trip

I was there to preview the Autumn/Winter 2013 Rowan collection. It is always odd to preview winter garments and yarns in the height of summer, but yarn companies work with long lead-times. I know that just this past week they were shooting the Summer/Spring 2014 magazine which means that the Design Room is now currently hard at work on preparing for Autumn/Winter 2014!

(Needless to say, the mannequins on the right have nothing to do with autumnal or winter knits- I just loved the simple styling and the fruity colours.)

I cannot say anything about the Autumn/Winter 2013 collection – simply because it is yet to be released (although it will be released in a month or so). There are several new yarns and it is always one of the highlights of a Mill trip to see these. I have my own personal favourite already – but I always try to remember that I am not there for myself – I am there to assess how knitters will respond to the new yarns. It’s a tough job but somebody’s got to do it!

Unfortunately I suffered from insomnia whilst visiting Holmfirth, but it meant I could work on the Stevie cardigan by the lovely Sarah Hatton. Because I live in Scotland, I’m doing the long-sleeved version(!) and I’m knitting it in Rowan Wool Cotton in French Navy. It is a top-down cardigan and I’m into the body section now which means perfect knitting night project.

June: Yorkshire TripThe train journey back was much, much better. And I even managed to catch a glimpse of Antony Gormley’s The Angel of the North.

Birdsong

About six months ago I contacted artist and designer Gabrielle Reith-Thompson. I have long been admiring her work – from her colourful paintings/collages to her more recent illustrative pieces. Her Small Stories products are sold in small boutiques throughout Britain and online. I just adore her quirky eye, the attention to detail and, of course, the tiny stories that you glimpse in her work.

I hoped Gabi would be interested in creating a logo for me. We would be a good fit, I thought:  the strong emphasis upon geometry found within organic shapes, the obvious Scandinavian influences, and our shared passion for handmade objects. Gabi was happy to help and, thanks to modern technology, we had some lovely exchanges about design heritage and personal influences.

And Gabi came up with this.

birdyI had told Gabi about how I grew up listening to stories about the Norse pantheon. I may be not be a particularly religious person, but the stories continue to resonate with me. I was rather floored when I saw this image.

Gabi had drawn something which not only references my Scandinavian heritage*, but also evokes my approach to knitting designs and speaks of my love of freedom, nature and simplicity.

I absolutely love it.

(You can followed Gabi Reith-Thompson on Twitter or Facebook. She is on Folksy and has a fabulous Pinterest account too)

*)In Norse mythology ravens were generally regarded as messengers, though the god Odin had two ravens on his shoulders – Hugin and Mugin – which represented memory and thought.

Knitting as Cultural Activity – Reflections 4

The LighthouseThis post is the last in a series of posts extending the talk I gave at Glasgow University as part of the Handknitted Textiles & the Economies of Craft in Scotland workshop series.

I am fascinated by knitters’ hands. No matter who we are – whether unsure beginners, lifestyle knitters, industry professionals, textile conservationists or artists – we all engage with the craft using our hands. We may hold the yarn in a myriad of ways and work the stitches at our own pace, but knitting is a tactile craft. The fabric is created by our hands. You can tell the difference between handknitted and machine-knitted fabric. Hand-knitted fabric holds the story of whoever made it. It has presence.

I think it is this echo of presence – the shadow of the knitter’s hands – that is so alluring to textile artists.

Roxane Permar is one of the people behind the Mirrie Dancers project – a Shetland-based arts project combining traditional lace knitting with state-of-the-art technology. Shetland knitting heritage is a complex story but Permar decided to take what is often a dark story and literally shed light on it by projecting knitted lace sample onto the Mareel arts venue.The Lighthouse

The Mirrie project involved a large team of highly skilled and dedicated Shetland lace knitters spread out across the islands who were all asked to knit a sample of lace in a heat-resistant material. The choice of material proved to be a surprising point of contention: some of the knitters refused to work in other material than fine Shetland wool. Other knitters embraced the task with surprising results – one of them started to play around in order to see how far you can take Shetland lace. Anne Euston is now pursuing a textiles degree specialising in a modern interpretation of lace knitting (you can see an example of her work on Kate Davies’ blog).

I was intrigued by how far you can take lace knitting and what you can do with it. What does it look like when you project something that fine and minute up on a wall? I looked at the samples Roxane had brought with her – they were so delicate and obviously crafted with great skill and care – and yet when they were blown up, they became disembodied, abstract and strange. I no longer noticed the elegant stitches – I wondered about the holes, the gaps, and the absences caught and distorted by the light.

I thought Mirrie Dancers was incredibly successful – it made me think about the gaps and absences in how we approach about Shetland (lace) knitting today.

The Lighthouse

By for me, it always comes back to the twin ideas ofpresence and absence*.

The Material Culture students at Glasgow University learned how to knit as part of their Masters. They will go on to work in museums and as field archaeologists – and will be handling handcrafted artefacts as part of their everyday working life. Knitting, Dr Nyree Finlay argued, was a way of making them more keenly aware of both the workmanship behind the artefacts but also what it means that something is handmade.

Did they? Some of them never taught themselves to knit. One girl could cast on, but could not knit. Another could knit (but not cast on). I wondered if they had thought about the materials they used – but they had been so focused on learning the craft that they hadn’t thought beyond a basic budget and colours. I don’t know why but that slightly disappointed me – I get that mastering the craft was foremost in their minds, but I had hoped they would take the opportunity to also engage with the actual material circumstances of the craft.

And this is where I am left to write about how I engage with knitting as a cultural activity.

My “problem” as a designer is that I tend to start with very abstract concepts (such as Palaeolithic marine archaeology) and I have to spend a lot of time trying to parse that into a commercially viable pattern collection. The collection following Doggerland is rooted in something even more High Concept – and while my ideas are probably more suited to being explored by textile art (hat tip Deirdre Nelson!) I keep returning to my obsession with accessibility. I want to enable other people to knit my ideas and be able to wear them. I want to make meaning through knitting but simultaneously enable others to construct their own meanings and knit their own stories.

(A huge thank you to Professor Lynn Abrams and Dr Marina Moskowitz for inviting me to this series of workshops.)

* I blame myself for reading literary theory at an age when others were out partying. That sort of thing wreaks havoc.