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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.

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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.

This Thing of Paper: Design Considerations

I introduced This Thing of Paper last week. This week I am writing about the work that went into the design process and how I defined the design vocabulary. If you like reading about how designers’ brains work, this post will definitely give you a glimpse into my way of working!

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Work on This Thing of Paper started some time in 2012. I began talking to friends and colleagues about this mad notion I had: I wanted to make a knitting collection by hand like a medieval scribe. The practicalities made me abandon this idea: I am a semi-competent calligrapher, but making a whole book by hand* would have taken me years. Also, pattern support would have been interesting (“Let me send you a handwritten letter about row 97”) and the idea of inserting errata was daunting.

*) manuscript literally translates as something ‘written by hand’!

As it happens, though, I have a background in book history and as the idea of making a book by hand left me, I began thinking about the shift from manuscript to printed book. I knew I’d have enough material to write about but I had to find out if I had design material.

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I set up a moodboard. I browsed digitalised archives of books from the period. I visited art galleries & museums (and one of my local museums was even kind enough to have a relevant exhibition!). I sketched and examined sources from 14th century Book of Hours manuscripts to 16th century embroidery manuals.

Keywords emerged as did a distinct colour palette and design vocabulary.

The colour palette was fairly easy to conceptualise: parchment and paper with ink and decoration. Soft natural shades with rich, deep mineral-derived pigments. Below you can see some fairly typical details from 14th century illuminated manuscripts and how they translate into colour palettes. Contrary to what many people believe, though, most manuscripts were not highly decorated. As time progressed, technology allowed for woodcuts to be inserted into printed pages – some were tinted by hand afterwards.

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Related: here is an  an excellent article about why it is impossible to replicate the colours of medieval stained glass.

The design vocabulary was harder to capture. I had worked with such a sparse design vocabulary for Doggerland that I was overwhelmed by the visual possibilities in This Thing of Paper. Dragons! Devils! Stars! Acanthus leaves! Overwhelmed.

Instead I began to fall in love with the concept of negative space. Paper being much cheaper than vellum meant that you did not need to cram as much information as possible into a page; margins became wider and spaces between words appeared! I’ll be writing much more about this in the actual book – but how things relate to one another in a confined visual space definitely became a thing for me. I also fell for small geometric motifs and how things are visually repeated in different ways.

So, the design vocabulary is much more exuberant than it ever was for Doggerland, but it does not mean I have not edited it ruthlessly. I am placing the visual cues in a 21st century context with wearability at the forefront. Less rustic garterstitch and pared-down lace; more play with colour and delicate, ornamental motifs.

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Further design considerations: I wanted items that would appeal to a range of knitters. The projects are aimed at advanced beginner knitters to advanced knitters. Some projects will be achievable in a weekend or over a week; others will demand more involvement. The items cover texture, colour and lace. Needing to include such a variety of things in a relatively small collection meant editing what I needed to design.

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For structure, I divided This Thing of Paper into three sections (or three main stories, if you like) and each section includes a garment as well as accessories. Each of the three garments will be graded across seven sizes (XS to 3X) and will have notes on how to modify fit. The accessories are a mixtures of shawls, hats and gloves. I’ll be including sizing options here as well. Most patterns will be both charted and written out, because I know many people prefer to work from both (the jury’s out on one shawl pattern, but I will keep you updated on that).

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Thank you so, so much for all the enthusiasm and excitement so far. This is already a long entry but I want to tell you how much your reaction has meant to me. At the risk of sounding corny, I genuinely feel like I’m not alone on this whole This Thing of Paper journey because you are all sharing this adventure with me. I know this may sound like one of Those Inspirational Quotes I usually wince at – but I genuinely mean it. It is so nice to have you along.

Next week I will be writing about all the practical stuff (but there will still be pretty colours & images).

Introducing This Thing of Paper

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It is time to announce a project that has been a long time coming.  It is a project dear to my heart and one that I hope you will love as much as I do.

May I introduce you to This Thing of Paper? As both a knitter and a bibliophile, I have been yearning to do a project that combines my two loves. So many of you have been asking for a physical book, and I’m afraid I really took that concept and ran with it. On May 23, 2016 I will launch a Kickstarter for the publication of the book. I have chosen to do this as I want to produce a book that is as beautiful to hold and read as the patterns themselves will be to knit and wear.

This Thing of Paper is a a book of ten knitting projects with accompanying essays. The project is inspired by the age of Johan Gutenberg and his invention of the printing press. Gutenberg’s work meant that books changed from being rare objects reserved for the elite to something that ordinary folk could access. I have always been fascinated by how one invention could change the course of history.

But there is more to this story.

I have been working with primary sources ranging from 14th century illuminated manuscripts to 16th century embroidery manuals. I have cast my own type* and printed a facsimile page of Gutenberg’s 42-line bible on a replica 15th century printing press (once used by Stephen Fry, no less!). This Thing of Paper is steeped in one woman’s love of vellum, marginalia, woodcuts and rubrication.

*(which won’t be used in the book, though. I’m not inflicting pre-1500 typefaces on you!)

And I am doing all of this firmly focused on knitting.

Knitting and books share several characteristics and I particularly love the materiality of them both. Yarn flows through my fingers – and some yarns just feel right in my hands which means I keep returning to them. Books give me that feeling too. Some books are perennial favourites simply because they rest in my hands just so. One recurrent theme throughout This Thing of Paper will be the materiality of things and how we interact with those – just like inhabiting physical and imaginary landscapes was a core part of my Doggerland collection.

As for the knitting patterns, they will not be replica 15th century fashion. All the patterns inside This Thing of Paper are parts of a book, both figuratively and literally. In reality this means three garments (in seven sizes because that is how I roll) and seven accessories. I will later share a Pinterest board, so you can see exactly what inspired me. The patterns are contemporary and come in a range of difficulties.

Oh, and why This Thing of Paper? The title is taken from a 15th century treatise raging against the terrible, terrible modernity of the printing press called De laude scriptorum (In Praise of Scribes – I’ve read this treatise, so you don’t have to). The full quote reads:

Who is ignorant of the difference between writing [scriptura] and printing [impressura]? A manuscript, written on parchment, can last a thousand years. How long will print, this thing of paper [res papirea] last?

I just couldn’t resist.

Stay tuned for more blog posts about the designs, the Kickstarter details (there are some truly ace rewards) and I even have a blog tour lined up with some really amazing, talented people.

Knitting in Wartime – A Study Day Retrospect

Last week I had the pleasure of attending another of Knitting in the Round’s Public Study Days: The Kitchener Stitch: Knitting in Wartime – Wartime Knitting. The whole day was a delight with many friendly faces in the audience and some cracking speakers.

Dr Jane Tynan gave an absolutely fascinating talk on military uniforms, modernity and knitting as craftivism during the First World War. Dr Tynan is an expert on military uniforms and her research on ‘khaki’ in WW1 led her to discover how knitting served as supplement to official wartime military issue and how this led to unexpected tensions at home between the War Office and women who volunteered their time and skills. I was particularly interested in how conservative gender roles were promoted (this in an age of Suffragettes, lest we forget) and female activist efforts were soon turned into an achievement of the War Office. However, I was mostly enthused by Dr Tynan’s work on the disembodiment found throughout knitting patterns and wartime propaganda. I have been interested in modernity, modernism and the Body for many years and it was exciting to see certain recurrent (and familiar) themes pop up in an unexpected context.

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The other speakers were absolutely excellent too – Wendy Turner on the importance of Glasgow Women’s Library; the irrepressible Joyce Meader with her extensive collection of war-related knitting patterns, knitting paraphernalia, and her knitted ‘comforts’ from vintage patterns; Professor Maggie Andrews on the WI, domesticity and knitting as war effort; and Barbara Smith on items found in the Knitting and Crochet Guild’s archives (including one of my favourite pieces: warships depicted in filet crochet for a table cloth). I was particularly excited about Barbara speaking as I really enjoy reading her knitting history blog.

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I was fortunate enough to spend my lunchtime  together with Barbara (and we discovered we have friends in common), the ever-lovely Susan Crawford and my partner David. We sat outside in the sunshine discussing many of the issues the morning had uncovered – particularly knitting as a gendered pursuit and the politicising of knitting during the World Wars. It was absolutely lovely to discuss these things with smart, engaged people who all brought different perspectives to the table. While Dave does not knit (and has no interest in starting!), he does have a life-long interest in textiles and how war affects the production & design of textiles. I really enjoyed having him join me at the event – he also took the majority of these photographs!

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After the Study Day concluded, I spent a very happy evening with Susan and Dave. First we went vintage shopping (word of warning: Susan WILL put you in various 1950s frocks), then had a very relaxing meal during which we talked about everything between heaven and earth. What an enjoyable day meeting so many fantastic people, thinking about knitting in new & unexpected ways, and then spending time with good folks.

A huge thank you to everyone involved in putting this event together.

Review: Liz Lovick (ed.) – Centenary Stitches – Knitting in Wartime.

Tomorrow I am at Glasgow’s The Lighthouse design centre for a study day on Knitting in Wartime. No better time to take a look at Liz Lovick’s excellent Centenary StitchesCentenary Stitches is the result of Lovick’s work on providing historically accurate costuming for a film set during World War One, and the book is as comprehensive and authoritative as you’d expect from Liz Lovick.

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Leading a team of more than one hundred volunteers from the UK and the US, Lovick has pulled together a book that features more than 70 patterns – most of which are lovingly updated vintage patterns from the 1910s. Together with over one hundred volunteer knitters and a strong technical team, Lovick undertook the mammoth task of not just updating the knitting terminology, but also offering a larger selection of sizes. I really enjoyed reading the little notes to each pattern – for instance, Liz Lovick says this about the cream shawl pictured above:

Although most of the shawls at the time were square, there were some triangular ones. I found this one in Columbia Yarn books. Like many patterns of the time, this one had several mistakes in the lace section. These have been corrected!

Maybe it’s just my sense of humour, but I found these glimpses of ‘behind the scenes’ very entertaining. A lot of work clearly went into transcribing and ‘translating’ the patterns with some amount of good-willed frustration thrown in for good measure.

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The patterns themselves are interesting. Some are clearly period pieces, but other patterns seem ageless. As you’d expect, I really found the array of shawls fascinating. The children’s patterns are good, basic garments – I chose to highlight this gansey which is a Liz Lovick original design. I like its simplicity and versatility. It really feels timeless – even with the flat cap and the plaid trousers. Other patterns are really interesting because of their specific context: riflemen’s gloves, helmet/balaclava patterns and simple cushions for the soldiers to bring into the trenches.

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And war does cast its shadow all over this book. Lovick provides plenty of context for the patterns. The photography is handled with much sensitivity and includes screen captures from the film, Tell Them of Us. The book benefits from several long essays that lends context to some of the editorial choices – from where the film was shot to which patterns were selected. The film tells the story of one Lincolnshire family and how World War One affected them. If you are someone who usually skips straight to the patterns, I recommend taking your time. The essays are very good and meaty.

I rarely come across knitting books like Centenary Stitches but I think we need to celebrate efforts like this book. I am always very, very pleased to see ambitious knitting books that seek to treat knitting as both craft and social history – and Lovick’s book certainly delivers that. The book was clearly a labour of love for the people involved with it and I applaud the tenacity behind its existence.

It is not your standard knitting book and it is all the better for it.

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(Thank you to Liz Lovick and Elly Doyle who both suggested I would enjoy the book. You were so very right. All photos by Pauline Loven and published with permission)

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!

Knitting, Needles and Wednesday News (Of Sorts)

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I have had a hectic start to September, so I am pleased that I am spending most of today knitting a sample. I am trialling some new-to-me knitting needles – you can see the KnitPro Nova Cubics in the photo – but I’ll write more about the needles once I’ve had a chance to trial the other ones. My tool kit is so important to me; good needles make all the difference if I am knitting to a deadline and I cannot rely on one type of needle to work for every kind of knitting. I’m knitting my current sample in Malabrigo Rios that I got from Love Knitting – it’s a yarn that definitely needs a smooth needle with a blunt tip.

It’s been a while since I had a chance to do a real round-up, so here we go!

+ I went north-north-north to the quirkiest, most delightful yarn shop I have seen in ages, Fluph. I taught a class on lace shawls but we deviated a bit from the script as most of the students were textile students who wanted to understand how to design lace as much as they wanted to understand how to knit shawls. So, we talked charts, fabric bias and how to position lace within a given shape. Good times with bonus dog cuddles at the end.

+ Glasgow University is hosting another Knitting in the Round seminar – this time on Sanquhar gloves. It’s “an informal public event to explore Sanquhar knitting – its history, its current popularity, the skills required, the wool needed and the patterns recorded” – November 1, 11am-3pm, Sanquhar in Dumfriesshire.

+ A couple of workshop dates have been added: Glen Gallery Crafts in Cullybackey, Northern Ireland is hosting me for two workshops on Nordic colourwork knitting on November 14 and 15. Before then I will be at McAree Brothers in Stirling on November 8 running a lace workshop in support of The Knit Generation (I’ll tell you more about the book later).

+ Finally, there’s an interview with me over on the Playful Blog today. I talk about what it’s like being a freelancer and I give my top 3 tips on how to make an impact in the fibre industry. Ms Playful and I are hosting a Twitter hang-out on September 9 where a panel of industry experts will be on hand to give their tips on how to make the leap. You won’t believe who we got lined up for this hang-out. Chills.

+ I am heading down to spend time on Susan Crawford‘s farm next week, so I will make sure to take lots of photos from this inspirational place and hopefully I will also be able to share a sneak preview from Susan’s forthcoming book. We have plans brewing, plans.

But first I need to finish my sample. Tea’s brewing and I have sneaked a couple of Abernethy biscuits from the cupboard. Shh.

Save the Date: Knit Works

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Keep an eye on  the National Museum of Scotland, The Danish Cultural Institute and the Edinburgh Fashion Festival websites for more information. Yes, I am involved and, yes, it has an incredible line-up, and, no, I am not allowed to tell you more right now.

Pattern: Hoxne

Hoxne ShawlHoxne is the second pattern to be released from the Doggerland: Knits from a Lost Landscape collection.

The shawl is named after a small village in Suffolk. Hoxne was inhabited as early as 320,000 years ago but the site shows signs of continual flint tool production through the ages. Flint is one of the key materials of North European prehistory – and I knew I wanted to design a shawl evocative of flint tools.

I know flint very well.

My childhood landscape was shaped by the ice age: softly rolling hills and a large moraine we called Tornved Bjerg (literally: Tornved Mountain).

Local farmers cursed the vanished glaciers for leaving so much debris behind as they worked the stone-filled fields, but I loved running across the newly tilled land and finding pieces of flint. I held the small stones in my hands as though they were gold nuggets. They were warm from the sun, yet cool to the touch. They were soft to hold, yet had sharp edges. I didn’t realise until much later in my life that I had probably been picking up worked pieces of flint in a landscape full of prehistoric archaeology.

Hoxne reminds me of being that child – so inquisitive and seeing something special in everyday things. I hope I haven’t lost either quality.

The shawl is knitted in Snældan 1ply – I keep referring to this yarn as Karie’s Favourite Lace Yarn and that still holds true (I should write a Desert Island Yarns entry at some point). It is soft, holds so much character and it blocks out beautifully. Snældan is still spun in the way that it was spun in the 1940s and I love how it feels alive in your hands. Some yarns are processed beyond recognition but Snældan 1ply retains this magical feeling of authenticity and landscape which is so central to what I’m trying to do with Doggerland.

The Island Wool Company will be featuring Hoxne on their website – keep a look out and do browse that Snældan section. I continue to be thankful that Fiona & Daniel have chosen to make my beloved Faroese yarns available for UK knitters. It makes my life a lot easier!

Tomorrow I will be heading to Woolfest with my Glasgow knitting group. If you see me, do say hello!

Pre-order Doggerland – Join the Journey.

Ronaes ShawlAfter so many months of hard work, Doggerland: Knits from a Lost Landscape is finally available to pre-order through Ravelry. The first pattern will be the Ronaes Shawl (as seen in the photos) but I will write more about the shawl when I release it on June 10.

The idea for the Doggerland collection first came to me when I was looking at artefacts in the National Museum of Denmark’s Prehistory section.

I was looking at a bone antler fragment carved with beautiful, simple designs when my partner started reading aloud a piece about the lost region of Doggerland – a Mesolithic landscape now lost to the North Sea between the UK and Scandinavia (Mesolithic means “Middle Stone Age”). I loved the simplicity of the carved antler and I loved the story of a lost landscape that once formed a land bridge between Denmark (where I grew up) and Britain (where I now live).

The prehistory sections of The National Museum of Scotland and the National Museum of Denmark yielded much inspiration: worked flintstones, carved antler bones, well-preserved fykes, and excavated shell middens. Motifs and textures are either directly taken from Mesolithic artefacts found in the Doggerland region (or surrounding areas) or use them as visual cues. The Mesolithic period was characterised by very geometric designs: lines, dots, circles and simple shapes. Shapes and motifs you will find throughout the collection, both in the knitting patterns and the illustrations.

Ronaes ShawlIt is difficult to determine what types of textiles Mesolithic people made, what materials they used and how they wore their clothes. Textiles are made from organic materials and therefore they decay over the thousands of years between the Mesolithic Era and today. Occasionally archaeologists unearth tiny treasures: a maritime excavation off the coast of Denmark discovered one single thread of spun plant material, for instance.

The Doggerland collection does not seek to recreate Mesolithic textiles – but it wishes to prompt the imagination. Choose your materials with care – and think about the landscape and environment to which they belong.

Designing this collection was an exercise in psycho-geography for me and I would like to think that knitting these designs will become a journey through your personal landscapes too. I wanted to tell the story of a lost landscape but also remind you that we all walk in landscapes like Doggerland. Where we live was once covered by sea and in time will once again be covered.

The Mesolithic hunter-gatherers who lived 10,000 years ago were not all that different from you and me.

Doggerland: Knits from a Lost Landscape is available to pre-order until June 10. It costs £12 which is a special pre-order price (on June 10 going forward it will cost £15). The patterns will be released every few weeks and will be available as single downloads at £3 each.

Phew. I feel emotionally drained now!