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A Knitterly Guide to Ireland – Nadia of A Cottage Notebook

I’m currently very busy working on my forthcoming book, so I asked the Irish podcaster and blogger Nadia to guestblog. I know many of you enjoy my knitterly guide to Scotland, so here is Nadia’s fibre-filled guide to Ireland. I hope you enjoy!

Kx

Image 1 © J. Seaver

I know what you’re thinking: most of you dream of Ireland filled with green fields, sheep and lots of fibre related crafts. While in a way, you are right, everything is probably a little more spread out here then you think. So, let me take you on a province by province yarny trip of Ireland and as this is my guide, the sun is shining, birds are singing and you all magically have sparkly wellies for spontaneous field trips!

Leinster

To start with a little history, you can visit the Museum of Decorative Arts in Collins Barracks to have a glimpse into Ireland’s textile history before starting on a yarn crawl to the local yarn shops This is Knit in Powerscourt Townhouse, The Constant Knitter on Francis Street and WM Trimmings on Capel Street. Leaving the city center you have Spring Wools in Walkinstown and Winnies Wool Wagon in Blackrock. Starting early in the morning we are off to Co. Wicklow where you can visit the beautiful Powerscourt estate before having an afternoon tea and some baked goods at Avoca HandWeavers. Now further south it’s off to the National Craft Gallery in co. Killkenny before checking out the fabulous Cushendale Woollen Mill.

Munster

Waterford is my personal favourite with Waterford Crystal and the Museum of Treasures in the viking triangle worth a visit. While in Co. Kerry visiting the locations of famous movie sets, you can stop at Kerry Woollen Mills and visit the mill. If weaving is also of interest to you, a visit to Lisbeth Mulcahy  in Dingle is a must. Moving on to Co. Clare to McKernan woollen mills if you want to see some looms in action. A trip in Munster wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the Hedgehog Fibers and Vibes & Scribes while in Co. Cork.

Image 2 © J. Seaver

Connacht

The Museum of Country Life is one to visit while in Castlebar, Co. Mayo if you want to learn more about the different types of Irish traditional lifestyles. The Connacht Textile Crafters meet up here so check to see if you can catch them while you visit. While in Mayo you can pick up some craft supplies in Lunasa and you can watch the looms at work in the beautifully restored Foxford Woollen Mills and popping by Beth Moran of Ballytoughey Loom before heading off in a more northerly direction.  A personal favourite of mine is a trip to the Aran Islands to explore everything they have to offer, before settling in for the joy of Galway city with a yarn top up at the Crafty Stitchers.

 

Ulster

This may be the last section of our journey but it is by far one of the most beautiful and breathtaking in Ireland. I have a deep love for Ulster from spending so much of my childhood there. We have to start out with the Yarn Spinners of Inishowen before continuing the theme of spinning with a trip to Johnny Shiels cottages in Inishowen to have a look at his wonderful wheels. Do drop him a message first through the web or Facebook because he might be off visiting local schools sharing his vast knowledge and inspiring the local youth. While we are on the subject of spinners, you should also have a quick check in with the Ulster Guild of Weavers, Spinners & Dyers you might be in luck and your travel dates coincide with a meet.  For a yarn top up you have Love Wool in Portadown, The Wool box in Lurgan and Lighthouse yarns in Whitehead.

From here I would also recommend a trip to the Ulster American Folk Park. Yes I know it’s on every tourist site out there but during their exhibitions I learned how to basket weave, how to plait straw into dolls and braids and I had an in depth talk about clothes and textiles of the time. No visit to Ireland would be complete with a visit to Donegal Yarns. You can visit the working mill and the surrounding area is one of the most picturesque in Ireland. While here why not pop in to Edel Mc Bride to have a look at some knitwear.  On our way back to Dublin, we cross back in Lenister once more and stop off in Carlingford. Why? Because I spent a day on the mountain with a packed lunch hugging sheep and visiting the derelict buildings of a famine village and seriously who doesn’t want to do that?

Image 3 © L.Sisk

Returning to Dublin for rest and now filled with the knowledge of fiber in Ireland. You can head to both This is Knit in Powerscourt Townhouse and The Constant Knitter in Francis street to squish some final skeins and top up on yarn before heading back to the airport or ferry.

Before your visit why not check out The Dublin Knit Collective for the nights you are in Dublin if you would like to meet up with local knitters. The Irish Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers also have meetings and events and you never know you might even get a glimpse of a Great Wheel made by one of the members!

I hope you all enjoy your trip, prepare for rain… the wellies are not a joke!

Like Karie’s Guide to Scotland, all recommendations are from my own travels, including the hug a sheep part and yes I apologised profusely. I haven’t been bribed to include places in the post with either money, baked goods or promises of yarn. I would love to hear your favourite yarn shops in Ireland and other suggestions as I’m sure there are places I haven’t gotten to visit yet!

Love, Nadia

(Catch up with Nadia’s lovely podcast here.)

This Thing of Paper – March & April 2017

Earlier this year I had the great pleasure of meeting many knitters at both Joeli’s Retreat in Manchester and at Edinburgh Yarn Festival. Many of them backed my This Thing of Paper Kickstarter whilst others had just learned about the project. This update is for backers and non-backers alike.

First, An Important Housekeeping Note:

If you need to get in touch with me for any reason, please contact me via email (hello @kariebookish.net) or via the contact form on my website (this goes directly into my email). When you email me, please use a descriptive subject header. Please.

Thank you so, so, so much!

This ensures I see your message as quickly as possible and that your query will get resolved that much quicker.

The Book – or, what has Karie done with her life this month?

The book is coming on in leaps and bounds. All the patterns are finished. I have been working closely with my technical editor Amelia Hodsdon on getting them ready for publication (more on that later). My focus has now shifted to three other things:

  1. Essays. All my notes have been collated; the essays now exist in keyword form; and the narrative structure of the book is mapped out with post-it notes. I am not sure how other writers do this, but I like to have my book outlined like a ghost on the page before I start fleshing things out. I am working with a copy editor, the marvellous Kate Gregory, on this part of the project. I am very aware that I only have a finite amount of words inside of me, so you will see less of me online as I save my words for the book.
  2. Perks & Rewards. All the Kickstarter backers signed up for sweet, sweet rewards and, whilst I sourced all the goodies very early on in the process, all the lovely stuff is now going to start arriving in Casa Bookish and will be sent out with the book itself. I’ll be getting an assistant to help me with the admin load.
  3. Making It Happen. Shops and non-backers have asked how they can buy the book once it is released. I’ll be setting up a small shop section on this website. Just like the Perks & Rewards section, I’ll have some help doing this.

 

The Book  –  or, what goes into making a pattern ready.

I thought I’d write a bit about what work goes into making a pattern ready for publication. Amelia and I work from a house style sheet – a document I have written that covers all style standards and practices involved in writing a knitting pattern. Here are some examples of what a good style sheet covers:

  • a set way of writing phrases like the beginning of the round – the style sheet determines if you write BORbeg of rndbeg of round, or even Beg of Rnd (or something else!).
  • how abbreviations are styled – k2tog or K2TOG; if you capitalise KYOK, should you then also capitalise SKYK?
  • the narrative flow of a pattern: does the garment start with the back or the front? is it important that the sleeves are worked first? When do you write about the extra cast-on stitches – do they belong to the body section or the buttonband section?
  • standard sections: NAME; MATERIALS; NEEDLES; ACCESSORIES; GAUGE; PATTERN NOTES; INSTRUCTIONS.
  • standard sub-sections: how materials are listed and which order; line breaks or no line breaks?
  • how repeats within repeats are written. Round or square brackets? How do we deal with really complicated stuff like a repeat within a repeat within a repeat within a repeat? Ah, look at page 5 where there is a guide on how to write this.

(An aside: When I teach pattern writing, I’m often asked if I can share my style sheet. Unfortunately there are no real short cuts to a good style sheet. It is one that designers build up themselves based upon their own experience and their thoughts on what a good pattern reads like.)

So, Amelia and I have double- and triple-checked the maths in the patterns, but we have also worked very hard on ensuring consistent style across all patterns and making sure the patterns have good narrative flow. One of our longest discussions was over whether one line of instructions needed to be in one section or another.

This Thing of Paper contains 11 patterns (and one exclusive pattern for high-level backers), so it has been quite a lot of work getting to this stage. I started out designing the patterns last spring, knowing that I needed a cohesive collection with a broad selection of project types aimed at different types of knitters, then I began writing the patterns and, finally, they have been edited.

 

Hiccups – or, what has Karie learned along the way?

Oh dear.

I am currently unravelling a large sample I had commissioned for the book. Not only did the sample arrive very late, but it also arrived in a completely unusable condition. Why don’t I just crocodile clip it and fake my way through the photo shoot? Because a) that is not how I roll, b) the book samples will be shown at trunk shows, and c) I actually want to be able to wear my samples. So, I am having to reknit the piece which means delays are cascading down the entire production line: photo shoots, layout, writing time etc.

This has proven one of my biggest lessons of the last year: outsourcing work does mean I can focus on my core tasks, but it also means that I rely on other people to work to deadlines and an agreed standard. I have been incredibly lucky to have good people step up to the plate when I needed them (and you will learn about them in the book), but it has not been a smooth process.

I have also learned about perfectionism. This is always my curse. Back in the day I designed nearly 25 patterns for my 8-piece Doggerland collection. This time I have curbed my tendencies a bit better but the early days of This Thing of Paper definitely saw me design an excess of patterns. I think I need to accept that is how I work and allow myself time to do so.

Timeline – or, Karie accepts she cannot control the universe!

I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. There are still issues that need to be solved, but that’s part of my job description. We also have a metric tonne of work to do between now and the publication of This Thing of Paper – but we have a clear road map with a full tank of gas. All the deadlines are locked in place and This Thing of Paper will be with you by the end of the summer (or winter if you live in the Southern Hemisphere).

Authors & Artists: Alma’s Song

A few years ago I read Florian Illies’ excellent book 1913: The Year Before the Storm. Following the entangled lives of artists and cultural mavericks in 1913, Illies weaves a fragmented fabric of a world tethering on the brink of something new – change is in the air and artists respond to it, though they are unsure what that change will be (we know it will be the First World War). The book stayed with me – and the result is Alma’s Song.

Alma Schindler-Mahler was a key figure in Vienna’s cultural life at the turn of the 20th century. She served as a muse for the painter Gustav Klimt, married the composer Gustav Mahler, then had a fling with the expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka, before she married architect Walter Gropius. She ended up fleeing the Nazi regime with her third husband, poet and playwright Franz Werfel – first heading to France, then to the US where she died in 1960s.

Alma’s torrid love life tends to be what most people focus on – after all, she was involved with some very famous artists – and you will often hear her described as a femme fatale. This focus has much in common with today’s celebrity gossip, of course. The headlines talk about Amal Clooney‘s personal life rather than her work. Alma was a composer, you see, but she had to give up her own music when she married Gustav Mahler and only returned to composing much later. On the other hand, Alma’s notoriety saved her from sinking into obscurity unlike most of her fellow women on the contemporary Viennese arts scene. Names like Broncia Koller and Teresa Ries have been consigned to oblivion for decades – a desperately sad combination of anti-Semitism and misogyny. It is a familiar tale throughout early 20th century Europe.

Reading Illies’ book and later hearing Alma’s music, I could not stop thinking about these artists living through an age of upheaval, uncertainty and eventual darkness. I wanted to design something that celebrated them.

So, the shawl. It is a crescent shawl with easy stitch patterns, both written and charted. 

The vivid colours are inspired by the Vienna Secession movement and, in particular, the look of the secession building’s gold dome against the blue sky. The body of the crescent shawl has a simple eyelet pattern designed to contrast greatly with the textured frieze section. Garter stitch ridges form horizontal lines in the vein of the Secession’s use of linear ornamentation. The cast-off is extended and decorative with dramatic loops that soften the angularity.

Alma’s Song has dramatic flair that befits its inspiration but it retains simplicity and a sinuous angularity which I rather adore.

The yarn is Camel/Silk Fingering by DyeNinja – an extraordinarily decadent yarn which soaks up colour. I used Byzantium as the main blue colour and Shantung as the contrast gold colour, and I used just over half a skein each for this shawl. I have included instructions for a larger shawl in the pattern and you’d be able to knit the large size with one skein of each colour. I’m lucky enough to have a full box of mini-balls of CSF, so I came up with some alternative colour combinations.

From the top, L to R: Tashkent and KarakorumScimitar and DjinnGrand Vizier and Scheradzad; and, finally, Karakorum and Taklamakan.

Alma’s Song is the first new pattern I’ve published in roughly a year. I’ve obviously been busy working on my forthcoming book, This Thing of Paper, so there will be a deluge of new material coming. It just feels so nice to have a pattern out & I hope you enjoy! Both DyeNinja & myself will be at Edinburgh Yarn Fest in just a few weeks, so I’m looking forward to seeing you there!

Important notice

Dear all.

I have to travel across to Denmark next week. This is an unexpected but unavoidable journey.

Today is January 27. Emails and messages received after today will not be read or answered until Tuesday February 7. Any outstanding business will be dealt with before I leave.

Thank you.

 

 

This Is About Lilly

(my great-grandmother with my mother)

These days I find myself thinking a lot about my great-grandmother, Lilly.

Lilly was born whilst the First World War was raging outside Danish borders. Born into a poor family, she would pick grains from fields at dusk hoping to get enough for her mother to bake bread. At fourteen she was already working as a servant girl. At twenty (or twenty-one) she married her employer – a man nearly thirty years her senior. By this time she had already acted as a mother figure to her soon-to-be husband’s seven motherless children. She would end up having eleven children of her own. Relying solely on her oldest children to help her, Lilly brought up eighteen (18) children in the 1930s and 1940s during the Great Depression and World War Two. The house had no running water and no central heating. The family lived off the land and whatever petty jobs could be had.

Lilly was in her sixties when I was born and she looked after me until I was old enough to start school. She brought me old dish rags on which I could embroider my name and I made dolls’ clothes using her hand-crank Singer sewing machine. Her button box gave me endless hours of pleasure and it was passed down to me.

And she taught me to knit next to the kerosene stove in her living room.

Family lore has it that she fell out with her mother in the early 1930s and, as revenge, Lilly changed from knitting throwing-style to knitting Continental-style. They made up, but every subsequent generation of women was taught to knit Continental-style by Lilly. She was a formidable, smart woman who played the long game. Lilly would have made an excellent army general.

These days I think a lot about Lilly and her generation. I heard her stories about World War Two (during which Denmark was occupied) and these stories run through my head when I see people talking about inspiring WW2 heroes and kicking Nazi butt.

I was brought up in a family very much altered by World War Two. Someone came home to dinner one night wearing a uniform as he had signed up to guard Allied prisoners. I never knew that family branch existed until Lilly’s funeral and his son showed up. Lilly’s oldest brother went into the Resistance and when he passed away (at age 100!), we found a medal. The files are still sealed by the government and my great-granduncle refused to utter as much as a word about the War. We have no idea what he did but his eyes spoke volumes. My grandmother recalls seeing planes flying over the fields, columns of emaciated German soldiers marching through the village and Lilly ushering everybody into the threshing barn.

My great-grandmother taught me World War Two was a time of hardship, strife, loss, bitterness, and heartbreaking despair. Resistance heroes were ordinary men and women. They weren’t “absolute legends”, nor clickbait, nor Brad Pitt with a comedic accent, nor a jingoistic poster. Their actions ranged from whatever my great-granduncle did (but which affected him for the rest of his very long life) to Lilly’s refusal to break bread with a family member. War is dirty and terrible – and I really dislike seeing people almost fetishising the idea of reliving World War Two in 2017. This is not a chance to live out your favourite films nor indulge in cosplay (link from 2010 but it still strikes me as tone-deaf). I genuinely wonder what part our collective sense of nostalgia has played in Recent Events – a sense of nostalgia that has been fed by the media we consume. How is it we react to things?

I don’t honestly know where I am going with this. I really, really do not know. These days I just find myself thinking of Lilly a lot. I think of what she taught her daughter, her grand-daughter and what she taught me. Lessons of resilience and the many complexities of life. She would have turned 101 years this year and I honestly don’t know what she would have made of this mess.

(Lilly with her parents, my great-great-grandparents)

On Finding your Way Back to Making

I lost my voice, then I found it again. It is a true story (I had a cold over the holidays) but I think this is also true of most people’s crafting. We go through peaks and troughs where we fall in and out of love with making stuff. Sometimes we make stuff that feels true to us, other times we may work away at something but it doesn’t feel right.

Thanks to my day job of teaching workshops to creative people like you, I hear a lot of stories about falling in and out of love with making. I view making as a sort of story-telling: knitting a garment allows me to express myself and stitching the hem of a dress makes me imagine every stitch as a word. But sometime we run out of stories to tell and we lose our voices. We stop knitting the socks and squirrel away a half-finished shirt.

This narrative exhaustion is fine. Making will come back to you once you have stories inside of you again. Once you are energised enough to have words that will out through your fingers.

I lost my voice, then I found it again. I slept a lot, drank a lot of tea, wrapped up warm, and made sure I took care of my run-down body.

Practise self-care if you need to nurture your making: read books, go for walks, look at art, jump in puddles, and make big mugs of tea. Making is patient and will be there when you decide it is time to get back to your unfinished projects.

What are you planning for 2017?

2016: Let’s Make This Very Brief & With Some Good News

I am not going to write a long post rehashing 2016. I usually write these retrospective posts every year, but this year is different. You know this too. You don’t need me to remind you.

Instead I am going to share some very good news with you. I learned this a few weeks ago and shared it with my Kickstarter pals yesterday. Recently I have been travelling a lot for work. I have been to London, Northern Ireland, and off the Scottish coast. This month took me to Mainland Europe where I spent a lot of time in medieval town centres and museums as well as talking to textile people in Denmark, Germany and Belgium.

The highlight of my Mainland Europe trip was a visit to the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, Germany. Johannes Gutenberg was born and worked in Mainz and the museum is a real treat for anybody interested in book history and print culture. I was given special permission to work with their collections (which includes two Gutenberg bibles) and the staff were all incredibly generous with their knowledge of early printed books. The museum also contains extensive material on book-binding, paper-making, and print ephemera. I can heartily recommend it. Currently the museum is also hosting an exhibition on the Futura font which sent this early 20th C loving gal into rapture (I contain multitudes).

Now for my very, very good news:

I am exceptionally pleased to announce that the Gutenberg Museum has requested a copy of This Thing of Paper for their archives.

Obviously they have a great deal of material in their archives, but I believe this will be the first knitting book to be included! I am very excited about this – it shows that the scope of what a knitting book can be and do is endless. Felicity Ford has written eloquently about knitting’s potential, and I’m so proud to make a small contribution to this breaking down of barriers.

And I cannot thank my Kickstarter supporters enough to helping me do this. I love knowing that your names will be in the Gutenberg Museum Archives too. Thank you.

I am slowly winding up all work for this year. Today will be my last rugby match with the inbox but I will continue to knit until 2016 runs out of breath. You might be amused to know that my word for 2017 is nope and that my resolutions are to swear more, say hell no a lot more, and spread a lot of love in the darkness.

Peace x

P.S. If you are looking for a gift for a knitting friend, I have decided to do a 20% discount off the Frances Herself shawl with the rav code courage. Code is valid December 20-21, 2016.

Frances Herself was inspired by Frances Macdonald McNair – a wonderful artist whose work was derailed by her husband. I designed this shawl for women everywhere – we are makers, lovers, fighters, and human. I chose the word courage as the code because we are facing a world where we need all the courage we have buried inside us.

About Handknitted Scarves

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Just a very brief note as I catch my breath. Workshop season is in full swing and this means I am not home much. On the road I get to meet so many wonderful people and I see so many wonderful projects. This keeps me going until I am home on my sofa, snuggled up under the crochet blanket my mother once made me.

Knitting is one of the most soothing and calming activities I know. There is something so meditative about the repetitive hand actions and the small pattern repeats we keep in our heads: k2, p1, k8, p1.. As we sit there working, we ward off the troubles of life and can focus on something that makes sense. And then we put that scarf around our neck and it keeps us warm both in body and soul. We are reminded of that little meditative space as we go out to meet others and challenge a world that feels cold and fractured. And then when the world gets really cold and we face a very long winter, we know how to stay warm.

People talk a lot about symbols these days. They talk about baseball caps and safety pins. For me, a handknitted scarf is a symbol as well. It is a symbol of patience and perseverance. Tiny stitches are joined up in wonderful, joyful patterns to create a colourful scarf that keep us warm and happier. There is beauty in complexity and we should not forget that.

I don’t have any answers. But I try to pass on skills that will let you knit a handknitted scarf that you will be wearing in the years ahead.

Stay warm.

Twenty Years & Three Days: Living an Unexpected Life

I receive a lot of lovely messages from knitters who have found the craft in a time of personal upheaval. I understand this perfectly. While I would love to enter into personal correspondence with everyone reaching out, I cannot do this for various reasons. This post is my little attempt at telling my story and how I dealt with life veering into unexpected directions. I hope this suffices.

Twenty years and three days ago – October 14, 1996 – my life changed. It was a Monday. I woke up feeling heavy-limbed and trudged to the bathroom to brush my teeth. This is when I realised something was very wrong as I could not keep water and toothpaste from dripping down my face. The mirror told me the truth: the left side of my face was paralysed. I was twenty years old.

The story is not that interesting nor long.

I had been struggling with flu-like symptoms for two months and my Monday morning was simply the culmination of what happens when you are bitten by a tick carrying Borrelia burgdorferi and you don’t seek medical attention. I was a second-year university student who was too busy enjoying student life to pay attention to fatigue, mental confusion (one time I forgot where I lived) or weird ear-aches. Even with a partially-paralysed face, I was oddly reluctant to seek medical attention. “But I cannot feel a thing It doesn’t hurt!” I told my friend. She barked at me: “There is your m-f-ing problem right there.” She’s always had a filthy mouth.

And so I was hospitalised, diagnosed, treated with heavy-duty antibiotics and got on with my life.

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I had my life mapped out at that stage and it was a good life I had planned: university degree, good full-time teaching job, two-point-one kids, a loving husband, a charming turn-of-century house in suburban Copenhagen, three dogs, and a garden. But my plans were interrupted and changed forever.

I actually had to look up the date I woke up with a paralysed face. Twenty years and three days later, it is a fuzzy memory and this is a good thing. My life has turned out very differently as I have had to accommodate things that never really left me: my stamina is rather low, I find it hard to maintain conversation in noisy places, facial recognition is not great, and I have a patchy memory (which it is why I often end up re-watching films and re-reading novels as I rarely remember plots). I am used to these things.

Though my life turned out differently than I had planned, I have a very, very good life. I want to emphasise this: it is possible to lead a full and rich life even if life is taking you on a detour.

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First of all, I let go of any idea that my life going forward would be less worthy or less interesting just because I could no longer tick certain boxes. I let go of the notion that unless things go to plan, things are not going well. I also let go of things I thought I ought to achieve because other people were achieving them (marathons, mountain-climbing, managerial posts in mega-corps). Instead I decided to be kind, open-minded, and curious about the world. I decided to let the small things in life really matter and not sweat the big stuff.

I find my joy in the everyday: my morning coffee, the crunch of a red apple, the fine turn of a couplet, a silly dog gif, and the feel of a well-made yarn running through my hands. I find joy in meeting extraordinary people whenever I teach workshops. I find joy in learning something new from a podcast or a video. I find joy in writing blog posts and articles. I find joy in sharing my passions with the world and seeing what people make. The everyday is extraordinary and I don’t know if I would have noticed this if things had turned out as planned.

When I graduated high school, we wore hats. Our hats were passed around to the entire year and when mine came back to me, someone had written: life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans. Years later I learned that this was a quote from a John Lennon song. At the time I loved the quote with the fierce intensity of a teenager. These days it strikes a chord for much different reasons.

Yarnporium & A Trip to Yorkshire

Last week I went on a research trip to Yorkshire for my book, This Thing of Paper. It was the first of two research trips and I am glad that I scheduled it while we are still working on the patterns. The second trip will take place later this year and be less visually intensive but perfect for the essays. Thank you to everyone who has made this work possible.

I had a profound experience when I travelled south to York, and I’m going to write more about that in a second. First, though, a very exciting announcement.

knittinglandscape1

I’ll be teaching two workshops at the Yarnporium show in London this November. First, I’m running a half-day class on knitting hap shawls which covers the classic Shetland hap constructions, how to deal with lace charts, and how to work applied edges. I will also cover any questions on how to customise & design hap shawls. Then, I have developed a class especially for Yarnporium called Knitting the Landscape. This class is an exploration of psychogeography and knitting. We’ll talk flaneuring, urban exploration, inner/outer landscapes, and how to express your own paths in knitted pieces that’ll keep you warm on your journeys.

I’m so honoured to be asked to teach a class like Knitting the Landscape – it’s really a step outside what you’d expect from a knitting workshop and it gets us all thinking about what we can do with our everyday making. I like that.

Now, back to my research trip.

I spent part of my trip in York itself. The city was founded by the Romans, then became a major settlement for the Vikings, before growing into a significant religious site and wool trading centre in the 13th and 14th centuries. Much of York’s city centre is well-preserved within the city walls (of which some date back to 300AD, but most to the 12th and 13th centuries) and the famous Shambles is a well-preserved medieval street. Between my appointments, I enjoyed walking around discovering small details here and there.

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We spent two days at the York Minster itself – one of the largest Gothic cathedrals in the world with various secondary buildings like a library and stonemason’s court. The level of detail is astonishing: little mice carved into the stonework, gargoyles peeking out, statues with changed faces, elaborate cope chests,  and the awe-inspiring architecture of the Chapter House (and its tiled floor). It was easy to spend hours here and we did.

But what I did not expect was to have one profound moment that reduced me to tears.

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I don’t know about you, but I’ve always loved stained glass. The deep, rich colours and the layers of allegorical imagery with so much religious and historical significance .. so when I saw York’s Five Sisters window, I was taken aback.

However, there was something different about the Five Sisters window. It is mostly composed of grisaille (grey) glass with just a few coloured pieces inserted here and there. Grisaille was made by painting patterns on pieces of silvery grey glass. The pieces were then arranged into intricate geometric patterns using lead to hold the pieces together. I speculated that the geometric patterns may have been influenced by crusaders seeing Islamic tiles on their travels (the timeline would be right, I believe).

So I sat there beneath dark windows with strong geometric patterns and I had a strong emotional reaction. The window reminded me of the first time I read TS Eliot’s The Waste Land which was also formed of ‘fragments shored against these ruins’. Something about the small, insignificant pieces that swirled together in highly complex patterns to create something bigger than themselves. Small glimpses of colour and light to break the dark complexity .. the more I looked at the window, the more I cried.

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I later learned that Five Sister was last restored in the 1920s and dedicated as a memorial to the women who died during the First Word War. Mrs Little, a local woman, had a vision of long-lost sisters guiding her towards the window and as she approached, her sisters faded away to be replaced by five women sitting in a garden sewing needlework. I am moved by Mrs little’s words: “After the war was over, when memorials on all sides were being erected to our brothers, I often thought that our sisters who also made the same sacrifice appeared to have been forgotten.” Names of more than 1400 women are inscribed on oak panels nearby.

I sat there for nearly an hour underneath that window and I could have stayed much longer. Great art is what changes us and the way we look at the world. I never thought a 13th century grisaille window would affect me so but it did.

Life is so much greater than just our own tiny selves. We combine to make sense of it all.