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Category Archives: Authors And Artists

Current State of Mind: All The Things (Preview)

I am currently hard at work editing the book projects. However, I did find time to design a shawl which marks the first collaboration with local dyer Sheila of DyeNinja. Sheila dyes exquisite rich jewel tones on beautiful bases and I know many of you have already fallen in love with her palette. I have more to say about the forthcoming pattern once it is closer to being released (cross fingers it won’t be long) but I shall leave you with a little preview and a tiny hint about the inspiration:

“To every age its art, to every art its freedom”

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.

Making & Doing: Shawl, Skirt & Teaching

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Happier times ahead. We had a photo shoot yesterday for this asymmetrical shawl knitted in three colours of Ripples Crafts BFL 4ply. I’ll be writing much more about this shawl later (including my source of inspiration, why it’s the next instalment of Authors & Artists, and how it is constructed) but for now let’s glance downwards..

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Hello skirt! This is one of the first things I’ve whipped up since I started dress-making again. I made this skirt in just a few hours and it worked perfectly for the photo shoot.

I use the super-simple Burda 6682 and made View B. The fabric is a slightly stretchy cotton poplin I found in a remnant bin in Glasgow’s Mandors. I had around 0.75m and still managed to eke out a knee-length skirt. The construction couldn’t be simpler: darts front & back, side & back seams, zipper, waistband, hem, done. I had never inserted a regular zipper before (it’s always been invisible zips until now) but even that went without a hitch. I’m not entirely happy with how the waistband was attached – it was easy but looks a bit sloppy on the inside – so I’m going to try a slightly more fiddly waistband next time. I think my perfectionist tendencies are rearing their heads again..

.. but the skirt is super-comfortable and fits well. Its no-nonsense style makes it a good, basic pattern that I can see myself making again and again. Well, I am trying to make an everyday wardrobe, after all! The next skirt will be made of a medium weight denim that I picked up at the same time as the pattern. I have a bit more fabric to play with this time, so I might add a bit more length.

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I’m off to Manchester this weekend for the Joeli’s Kitchen retreat. There are going to be all sorts of amazing people there and I cannot wait to see everybody.

Next Wednesday I am going to be at Kendal’s finest wool establishment, Williams Wools. I’m teaching a class on colourwork and how to design it yourself. I know people have lots of ideas in their heads, but it can be difficult translating those ideas into a project. I’ll also talk about how to find the right colour combinations because that is probably one of the questions I get asked the most!

Then Saturday the 6th I am back up in Dundee’s Fluph Shop doing c-c-cables in the morning (sorting out those C2R, CNB, and T3R abbreviations!) and Shetland lace shawls in the afternoon. It’s never dull teaching at Fluph and I expect a fair amount of difficult questions flung at me!

I’m late updating my workshop page due to Life Happening, but hopefully that’ll whet everybody’s appetite! I’ll return with more details about the new pattern and some Edinburgh Yarn Festival lowdown!

Authors & Artists: Hello Astrid

When I grew up my best friend was called Astrid. I don’t know if she were named after Astrid Lindgren (I suspect as much) but I do know that I loved reading books by someone called the same as my best friend. Then Astrid moved schools and met cool girls who liked clothes and makeup way more than books. Heartbreak is really hard (especially when you are a kid) but books get you through.

Yesterday I released the Astrid hat.

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When I released the Lindgren mittens back in December, I had a slew of people asking about a hat. As it happens, I had left-over yarn from the mittens – and I also had cold ears. You can see where this is going. Yes, this is a companion pattern.

It became very clear during the design process that I didn’t just want to take the colourwork pattern from the mittens and slab that on top of a generic hat. I just don’t work that way and I wanted something that had its own identity whilst still calling back to the mittens. Instead I took the pattern from the thumb and opened it up across the top of the hat. The lower rim has the same pattern as the mittens but I love how the hat plays with “open” and “close” patterns.

The pompom is striped – Katya Frankel has a neat little tutorial on how to get a speckled pompom. To get a stripe you simply add more layers of your contrast colour before going back to the pompom’s main colour.

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We had the first photo shoot on Boxing Day on the beach in my favourite Scottish fishing village. The weather was horrendous. I had sleet flying in my face and the wind was blowing a gale. I was so happy to be wearing my cosy mittens and hat. The weather did not make for great photos, though.

The next day we went back as the weather had cleared. We had a lovely time climbing the rocks, watching the surf and strolling down the coastal path.

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And I felt much better about having a camera pointing at me.

As Dave was taking photos, I thought about my life and the things we go through that make us the people we are today. As a lonely child, I found solace and strength in books. As an adult I do the same – but I also find strength and joy in making things, sharing my makes with other makers, and in walking down steep coastal paths with my best friend who understands silence and everyday beauty and me.

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Authors & Artists: The Mahy Shawl

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The Mahy shawl is the second instalment in the Authors & Artists series. It is a traditional hap shawl knitted in Shetland Organics 1-ply and some of the motifs are traditionally Shetland – yet the shawl also takes it cue from a place on the other side of the world.

I was 13 when I first came across Margaret Mahy’s The Changeover. It was a YA book about Laura Chant who lived with her divorced mother and her baby brother in Gardendale – a modern suburb of Christchurch, New Zealand. I recognised myself in Laura: she was stubborn, a head too old on her shoulders, and she felt uneasy in her surroundings. Many’s book was cleverer than I realised when I first devoured the book. It is a subtle post-colonial book about finding your own identity in a young country; it references Alice in Wonderland constantly; and Mahy plays riffs on rites of passage. I had my first literary crush on the male protagonist, Sorry Carlisle – the complicated boy with labyrinths in his eyes.

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Waitangi River

But it was the mundane exoticism of New Zealand that caught my eye. I recognised the remoteness, the myths woven into every branch and stone, and the complexities of the past mixed with the present.

The Changeover sparked a lifelong romance with New Zealand. I would later drive through Paraparaumu – a town dismissed by Laura in the book – and I felt like I was walking inside the book. I re-read the book at least once a year and I still find myself reflected in it.

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Lion Rock on Piha Beach

The Mahy shawl owes its name and soul to a New Zealand author – but much of its philosophy belongs to another Margaret from New Zealand: Margaret Stove. Stove is a lace knitter and designer who I admire very much. Her book Wrapped in Lace is not just a fine collection of patterns, but Stove also writes passionately about the need to develop a local lace vocabulary. While Stove understands and respects lace knitting traditions, I am utterly fascinated by Stove’s insistence that her work needs to reflect her landscape and flora. In the book she charts local New Zealand flowers and plants – kowhai features heavily together with ferns – and I find that overwhelmingly inspirational. Why should we not respond to the world in which we live? Why should we not design inspired by what we see around us rather than base our work upon age-old stitch patterns that do not reflect our own lives?

The Mahy shawl uses old Shetland patterns as inserts, but the main motif is inspired by the stylised ferns I saw carved everywhere in New Zealand. The carved section is reflected by the applied border which is a smaller version of the carved section.

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I wanted to knit a hap shawl out of the beautiful yarn, but the design itself surprised me. I find knitting is a form of autobiography, but I had not expected to dwell on my love for The Land of the Long White Cloud. And yet it seems so obvious to explore a landscape which has had a huge impact on me: Laura Chant’s infinitely complex inner life in Mahy’s book, the music from Karekare beach, the lighthouse dwellers, the man on the Lone Kauri Road, and even comedy. For a myriad of reasons, this seems the most personal of designs.

You run from the river, when it long ran over you..

Mahy is now available from Ravelry.

Knitting Mahy – Yarn Choices

Mahy1 The weather gods were in our favour. We finally have proper photos of the Mahy shawl. I’ll write about the inspiration behind the shawl in the next blog post, but first I wanted to talk yarn.

Mahy was knitted using roughly 770 yards of Shetland Organics 1ply.

Gulp, doesn’t 1ply mean that this is cobweb, sewing-thread thin and ethereal? Oh, Karie!

No.

In this context it simply means that the yarn consists of a single strand rather than several thinner plies twisted together. The yarn is registered on Ravelry as a cobweb and I find that grossly misleading.

Shetland Organics 1ply is a heavy laceweight. I used the light grey shade which runs 700 yrds per 100 g. The shawl is knitted on 5mm needles which results in a lightweight, yet substantial fabric.

This is not an ethereal, dainty shawl. Mahy is delightfully light on my shoulders, but it is also warm and practical.

The yarn was given to me by Louise Scollay who understands my taste in yarns.  In many ways, this yarn is reminiscent of Garthenor 1ply  (which I used for my Ronaes) and also of my beloved Snældan 1ply (which I used for Hoxne and Storegga): it is a heavy laceweight which has a lot of body despite appearances, blooms beautifully after blocking, and has a great deal of character whilst you work with it. I recommend both the Garthenor and the Snældan as good substitutes. Any excuse to use Snældan, really..

But what if you don’t share my passion for crunchy, rustic and woolly laceweights? Well, here’s another photo of Mahy and then we’ll talk yarn subs.

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Susan Crawford’s Fenella 2ply would make a really lovely shawl. The yarn is a smidgen heavier, but it looks beautiful worked up in garter stitch. The colours are all subtle and beautiful – and the yarn is very well-sourced (if you care about such things – I find I increasingly do).

Mahy is a true hap shawl using traditional Shetland techniques – and if you want a traditional feel and also want colour, Jamieson’s Ultra is a natural choice. Note that the balls are 25g balls, so you’ll need to order accordingly. I find the Ultra slightly more frail during blocking than other similar yarns, so take care.

As for handdyed yarns, why not think outside the box and go for slightly heavier yarns? Dublin Dye Co. Plush Lace runs 600 yrds/100g (you’d need two hanks). MoonlightYarns does an amazing gradient set which would look stunning with Mahy. You can use finer yarns, but make sure to swatch (i.e. simply work up enough of the central triangle!) to check you like the fabric you are getting. You may also want to consider using handdyed sock/4ply/fingering yarn – it would make for a bigger shawl and you’d definitely need to watch your yardage – but I love that idea. Due to the stitch patterns used, Mahy can take a fair amount of colour shifts, actually.

Recap:

  • I used roughly 770 yards of a heavy laceweight (700yrds/100g)
  • 1ply does not automatically mean cobweb etherealness!
  • Think about yardage/weight if substituting yarn.
  • Choose a yarn that looks lovely in garter stitch on 5mm needles.

(One day I shall convert you all to squishy, crunchy, oatmealy, rustic, woolly goodness.)

Mahy will become available as soon as my technical editor gives me the thumbs up. As for now, it’s wrapped around my shoulders.

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No Pressure, Karie, No Pressure.

June 2015 157Another photo shoot beckons. I am a perfectionist and I haven’t been happy with the photos we’ve managed to get so far. The first shoot was basically us trying out a couple of locations. Obviously the first location we tried turned out to be my favourite – isn’t it always so? – but we had only shot a couple of photos. I wanted more.

So, yesterday we headed out for another shoot. I was tired and I think it showed in the images.

I used to joke about modelling being a real job, but now I know it’s actually hard work. Usually our shoots lasts between fifteen to forty-five minutes: you have to account for the light, get a variety of shots, get pattern details, and find that magic connection between yourself and the camera. So, going into a shoot with a tired body and a tired brain wasn’t the best thing.

But this is your first real glimpse of Mahy, isn’t it?

I absolutely love this shawl and I think this is one of the reasons why I’ve been so hard on the photos. I want to capture just how special this feels to me. I want the photos to convey just how amazing it felt to knit the shawl and how fantastic it feels to wear it.

No pressure, Karie.

Introducing Mahy – Design & Writing Considerations

I have a new design coming out shortly. It is possibly the prettiest thing I have ever designed and knitted; it is also the first design that has challenged my ideas about what a pattern should do. I have been designing and writing knitting patterns for a handful of years now. I like patterns that look deceptively complicated, yet can be explained on an A4 page. I prefer to combine written instructions with charts. While I am a chart knitter myself (and the majority of my designs start out as a chart doodle), I don’t write patterns for myself. Knitting patterns should be clear, concise and inclusive. These are my pattern writing principles.

My new design is lovely. I knitted most of it whilst travelling around the United Kingdom: on trains, in buses and on underground trains. I found it intuitive to knit and the lace straightforward to read. After a short while I found I could actually work the lace without looking at the charts – the lace flows in a way that subsequent rows suggest themselves once the lace is established. So, I was surprised when I began writing the pattern and I realised that the written instructions made the pattern seem exceptionally complicated.

writtenThe intuitive lace becomes daunting and obscure as soon as you write it down. The flow turns into a Chinese Box structure of repeats within repeats within repeats. I looked at the written instructions – even as I rewrote them to fit my own style sheet – and I knew I had to axe the written instructions. I am the designer of the pattern, I knitted the sample with great pleasure in just over two weeks, and the written instructions read like a horror story completely at odds with a lovely, relaxing knit.

For the first time since I began doing this professionally, I am not going to offer written instructions but just a fully charted pattern. It has been a tough call to make (I know many people like written instructions) but I think it’s the right one.

So, having scared everybody with my tale of terrifying written instructions, I’ll share a little preview of the thing itself. It has been a remarkably lovely knit – when I look at it I still get a “gosh, that’s my work” glow in my stomach. Everything little thing about this design feels right to me – the way it was constructed, the structure of it, the design idea, the motifs, the yarn and how it feels when it’s draped around my neck. June 2015 014

Let me introduce you to Mahy. It’s the next installment in the Authors & Artists series and I blooming well love it. We’ll be doing a proper photo shoot soon – I cannot wait to share the story behind the shawl and show you just how absolutely gorgeous it is. Proper details soon.