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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.

In Her Soft Wind I Will Whisper

Lady on the left? My great-grandmother. She would have been a hundred years old today.

The photo was taken in the early 1950s outside her cottage and she is with two of her sons, K and T.

I have several photos of her; my other favourite is from the 1930s when she was approached by a travelling salesman who wanted her to become a hair model. I presume she shot him one of her withering glances. The photo shows her with long, gorgeous hair. I was told it was chestnut-coloured. The photo is black/white.

I was lucky enough to grow up around her. She looked after me when I was pre-kindergarten and I spent most of my school holidays in her cottage. Her cottage did not have running water until I was maybe seven or eight and never got central heating.

I can still envision her sitting in her chair in front of the kerosene-fuelled stove. She’d knit long garter stitch strips from yarn scraps and sew them into blankets. She was the one who taught me to knit. She was certainly the one who taught me how to skip rope.

Happy birthday, momse. We may not always have seen eye to eye, but we loved and understood each other. And I still miss you.

Title comes from this beautiful farewell song (youtube link). Post reposted from previous years with Momse’s age amended. I continue to miss her.

“Don’t Think You Knew You Were in this Song” – Goodbye Bowie.

You are going to read this many times for mine’s a common tale even though it feels otherwise.

Short version: I grew up in Nowheresville. I grew up, left Nowheresville, and found David Bowie’s artistic output to be a constant touchstone. Bowie passed away today and I am very, very sad.

Longer version: I grew up in rural Denmark in a family whose cultural references were mainly the Great American Songbook and 1950s American pop culture. The school playground was a hard, cold, bewildering place. I knew I had to fit in somehow and that I couldn’t manage. The other kids loved Disney, sport, and Madonna while I was really into prehistoric archaeology, art history, and Gene Kelly.

When I was 18, I moved to London. It was the first big move in a life that’s seen quite a few big moves. I spent my days looking after spoiled kids and my nights going to art galleries and listening to music. London was in the early throes of what would later be known as Britpop – the rank commercialism of the Blur vs Oasis feud was not even a glimmer in a record exec’s eyes. I discovered music that was to be mine – Suede, Pulp, Jeff Buckley, Radiohead, and dEUS among others. Drifting towards David Bowie was inevitable. Strange, raw, androgynous, glamorous, queer, desolate, alien, and utterly beautiful Bowie.

One of my favourite songs is by an obscure 1990s band called Subcircus called 20th Century Bitch and there is such a beautiful line: “There is a hole in the sky / Where Bowie fell through” before it continues to blur the lines between gender, desire, and self.

I made more big moves. I ended up in Copenhagen. And I met people who were strange, raw, androgynous, glamorous, queer, desolate, alien, and utterly beautiful themselves. Bowie and his cultural brethren/descendants became shorthand for a lot of identity-making. We discovered we were free to define (and crucially choosing not to define) ourselves in every way that mattered.  Bowie paved the way.

One of my favourite films is Todd Haynes’ glam musical Velvet Goldmine. It is a thinly veiled Bowie biopic and isn’t particularly complimentary towards him (you cannot blame Bowie for turning down requests to feature his music). It is a wildly ambititous, crazily messy film. I love it. There is an unforgettable moment where Christian Bale’s character points to Brian Slade (i.e. Bowie) on TV and exclaims: That is me! Mum, that is me! That powerful moment of recognising something buried so deep inside yourself in someone else. That joyful surprise of realising that you are not alone even if it feels like that sitting in a shabby living room in the middle of nowhere. There is a whole world out there where you’ll feel some sense of belonging: That is me! Mum, that is me!

Along the way I managed to catch David Bowie live. He was about the size of my thumb nail and his charisma hit me squarely in the face. I could not take my eyes off him. He made you feel like you were a member of an exclusive club of misfits and outcasts – yet Bowie was touring 1. Outside and we were 80,000 people in front of him at the Roskilde Festival. This was part of the paradox and fascination with David Bowie: so much intimacy in such a remote way. Bowie was like a two-way mirror. We all looked at him and saw ourselves reflected back at us – but there was always something else lurking behind it all. Something we could never reach or see.

I am very sad today but most of all I think of the people who knew David Jones rather than David Bowie. They are the ones who really feel the loss. The rest of us mourn the man and the masks that brought us solace from loneliness and a sense of freedom.

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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2016: New Words & An Almost Blank Slate

2016. I start the year with a spring in my step. I gave myself real, honest time off and I cannot believe the difference it has made to my general state of mind. I did a touch of dress-making, I watched a lot of films, I went for long walks with D. and I finished some work knitting. I also had a lovely Christmas in Aberdeenshire and I spent New Year’s Eve in Glasgow. Oh, and I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens twice because I am a nerd.

So, 2016.

I sat down this morning and made a quick list.

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While I am not one for inspirational quotes, I found having a word lodged at the back of my mind incredibly useful last year. I also think we all have a word or two guiding us throughout our lives (“family” and “money” are two such words I have encountered a lot). It’s just nice to sit down and really have a think about what I have to have a guiding principle – and this year it is joy.

I struggle a lot with perfectionism (like many other creatives do), work/life balance, and my desire to say yes to everything. By asking Will this job bring me joy? Does designing this fill me with joy? If I go to this event, will I enjoy it? I hope to have a tool that will cut through a lot of the noise. Will it work?

Well, I ended 2015 looking like this. Yes, it’s a hat to match the Lindgren mitts. Yes, the pattern is forthcoming. Most importantly, I look happy and relaxed. Here’s to joy in 2016.

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Crafternoons & Coffeespoons

Workshop season is drawing to a close with only a few classes remaining in 2015. The past few months have been fantastic but I am longing to spend time at home. Quite apart from a scary mountain of laundry and a suitcase still waiting to be unpacked, I also spending time with family and friends. However, I am already looking forward to 2016 which has some quite special things in store.

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I am incredibly happy to announce that I’m running two special workshops on Shetland Lace for Aberdeen Art Gallery as part of their Birth & Baptism season. I always enjoy talking knitting in a wider context and while my workshops are focused on teaching you knitting skills, there is a bit more to these workshops. You can book either a Beginner’s Class (where you’ll make a bookmark and also learn more about motifs, techniques and construction) or an Advanced Class (where you’ll try your hand at designing a hap shawl and also delve into construction methods, design decisions and history). It’s a series of classes I have developed especially for Aberdeen, so grab those tickets while you can!

On the subject of workshops, it was a real treat to be on the other side of the proverbial table last Sunday. I took part in a crafternoon at Glasgow’s adorable The Butterfly & Pig Tearooms in the city centre. The Crafty Hen hosted an event where we tried out various crafts using Laura Ashley craft kits. I really enjoyed myself – who knew that craft workshops were this relaxing when you are not running them?! I had a go at two crafts – decoupage and needle-felting. Shall we start with the abject failure?

Okay, there are no photos of me needle-felting and I have nothing to show for my efforts. I have tried needle-felting before and I am ridiculously awful at it. All around me, people were making beautiful things (Jenny made an incredible 3D bird in no time) and I was basically just stabbing an ever more sad looking 2D Christmas bauble (which looked more like an Easter Egg than a bauble). After around 25 minutes of crying into my fibre, I just gave up. Sorry.

But to my eternal surprise, I really enjoyed decoupage. Who knew it was super-therapeutic to tear up pieces of paper and use copious amounts of glue to stick them onto shapes? I could have decoupaged all day long, I swear. If only decoupage would keep my toes warm, it would be my new favourite craft. Pretty paper -> tearing it up without care -> glue glue glue -> result! What’s not to like about that? The kit contained some exceedingly beautiful paper – shades of duck egg, primrose, soft blues, and dusty pinks. As always I tried to match my outfit.


And I ended up with something that I think is pretty respectable for my first go at decoupage. I’ve posed the result on a crocheted hand towel made by my mum (who is really, really getting into her crochet). It’s all too adorable for words. I’ve actually gone so far as to check whether Laura Ashley does dress-making fabric as I’m mildly obsessed with the bird print you can see on the heart (answer: not yet which is good for my purse .. but it does come as curtain material which means a bag down the line?).

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So, craft workshops. Turns out they don’t always involve me travelling and dealing with piles of prep. Sometimes they just involve me trying not to glue myself to a table and how fun that was. The materials were gorgeous and pretty. I also delighted in meeting a lot of cool ladies (who were all so much better at needle-felting than I could ever be) and a gorgeous lemon/polenta GF cake served with copious amounts of tea. I need more Sundays like this.

Discover What You Wear – Building A Handmade Wardrobe, pt 2.

In the first post in this series, I wrote about discovering the joys of wearing handmade clothes. This post is about looking at your existing wardrobe and find out how you can slowly turn it into a handmade wardrobe. Key adverb is slowly! I know a lot of lovely people who have a (mostly) handmade wardrobe but it is a long process to get there. A handmade wardrobe is also always a work in progress and about mending things you have already made.

With all that in mind, let us look at how you can figure out what you need to start making. No use making something you won’t wear!

1. Throw Things on the Bed

Open the wardrobe and take out all the things you keep wearing. Do the same with your jackets and coats – everything goes on the bed! Try to grab the fifteen or thirty things you keep wearing – from belts and scarves to skirts and cardigans. If you want, you can arrange them into the outfits you usually wear.

See if any trends emerge at this stage. Do you have more clothes than you thought? Do you have only a very small selection? Do you wear the same five things over and over? Can you sort them into piles of near-identical items (i.e. grey t-shirts) or do you have a very eclectic selection?

2. Time to Look Closer: Colour

Now you need to look at the colours you see. I’d suggest you sort the colours into three categories:

  1. Neutrals: the colours that bind everything together.
  2. Core Colours: the non-neutrals you keep wearing.
  3. Accent Colours: the occasional splashes of colour.

Your neutrals could be colours like black, grey, ecru, beige, khaki, fawn, brown or navy blue.

Your core colours are very individual to you. These are the colours you see again and again in your wardrobe – this can be anything from more neutrals to rich jewel colours or maybe soft pastels.

Your accent colours are the colours you only occasionally wear but you still see them again and again. What colours are your scarves? Your hats? Your jewellery? Maybe you keep being drawn to prints that have tiny bits of green or pink in them?

Becoming aware of what colours you keep wearing will make it easier to decide upon the colours you need to use when sewing or knitting something for yourself. I used to knit a lot of moss green cardigans until I realised my favourite cardigans were deep navy blue and grey!

3. Time to Look Closer: Style & Lifestyle

Many people tell me “Oh, I don’t think about fashion – I don’t have the time nor the inclination” and I hear you on that. Everyday life can be so hectic that many of us just grab whatever we can afford and what more-or-less fits. However, I promise you that subconsciously you are drawn to similar things again and again, and that your wardrobe will reflect this.

Ask yourself:

  • What items of clothing form the skeleton of my wardrobe?
  • Do I have anything that’s really too ratty to wear any more, but I cannot bear to throw it out because I don’t have a replacement? What is this thing?
  • What words can I use to describe the things I reach for again & again? Classic? Country? Romantic? Urban? Punk? Unisex?

4: Think About Your Discoveries

This process is designed to make you think about your everyday wardrobe. I trust you will be honest with yourself here – no embellishing the truth and lying to yourself about being a slinky Bohemian kimono-wearer when you are actually a sweatshirt & jeans girl!

When I first did this exercise, I was surprised to find that I didn’t have any jeans and that I leaned towards wearing dresses with bold complementary colours. I had no idea I was so “dressy” in my everyday life! I was especially surprised to see how very little black I had in my wardrobe – I used to live in black clothes! – and how much I used navy as a neutral. The first thing I knitted after all this was a fitted yellow cardigan which has now become a wardrobe staple despite my misgivings! It works!

In the third instalment I’ll talk more about how to decide what to make and how to plug wardrobe gaps.

Clutching My Gladioli – On Making It Work as an Indie

Currently BBC4 is showing a series about the independent music business in the UK. The series traces how record labels like Factory, Rough Trade, Mute, 4AD, and Beggars Banquet made it possible for less mainstream bands to release records. Many of the bands turned out to be hugely influential and enduring (Joy Division, New Order, The Smiths, Depeche ModeThe Stone Roses, Suede, Franz Ferdinand, and Arctic Monkeys to name but a few!) and today UK indie labels continue to champion new music that would never be signed by major labels.

As someone working as an independent knitting designer, I recognised a lot of what was being covered in the documentaries – from small record labels operating out of a bedsit in Sheffield via creatives forming loose partnerships to dealing with complex distribution problems/solutions and worries over intellectual properties. I love many of the bands covered by the documentaries, but it was eye-opening to see how much of the amazing music was being created in an environment that was in many, many ways similar to how the indie knitting industry works.

Everything I do is created at my kitchen table. I have a small nook with a desktop computer (which needs replacing) and some bookshelves where I keep all my designing resources. I create my own layouts, my partner does my photography & art, I model my own designs, and everything passes through my hands. I deal with emails, accounts, wholesale, distribution, workshop dates, social media, marketing (which is always my sore spot), and obviously pattern designing & writing. I hire in technical editors to work on my patterns, but what you see is what you get and you get me.

And most indie designers work like that. Some have pooled resources, others have grown to the stage where they have one or two people on staff. But we are all just very, very small independent ventures.

Why be independent? Is it that much fun to do accounts at 11am on a Friday night? I think most people understand the allure of having full creative control – and yes, being able to decide what to design in which yarn is amazing – but the allure of intellectual property is even stronger. Quite simply, indies choose to own the right to their work.

I learned a hard lesson when I first started out: I handed over the rights to a pattern for a pittance and saw somebody else make a lot of money from it when I could barely cover rent. And that got me thinking. I still work with mainstream publications on occasion (and some of them are incredibly indie-friendly and lovely!) but time & experience has taught me to be wary of Big Besuited Companies offering me deals too good to be true.

Indies pay the price by having to do all the things – including all the tough things mainstream publishing would normally have done for us – but I maintain it is worth it.

So, clutching my gladioli, I began thinking about where indie knitting businesses are heading.

The BBC4 documentaries on UK indie record labels traced the trajectory from bedsit record labels with rough DIY graphics to bands like The Smiths appearing on prime time TV and finally a world where indie labels are regularly outselling the big record companies.

Knitting is not the music business (there’s a big difference in gender make-up for one thing! It made me sad to see many female musicians simply disappear as indie music became bigger in the 1980s and 1990s) but maybe there are lessons to be learned there.

Here are some of the lessons I have gleaned from the documentaries:

  • Surround yourself with people who understand and support your ethos.
  • Don’t try to follow the crowd but embrace what sets you apart.
  • Take control of as much of your own operations as you possibly can.
  • Choose your collaborators with care and imagination.
  • “Indie”can become a very diluted term when Big Besuited Companies realise it is an untapped market – this will result in products that look, talk, and walk like indies but have big money and committees behind them.
  • Digital marketplaces mean that everybody can sell their products (music, books, knitting patterns) so quality control is difficult. Indies still need gatekeepers (or “curators” as I believe the Pinterest generation calls it!)
  • Don’t believe the hype lest you want to turn into Morrissey!!

There isn’t a right or wrong way of making it work  as a creative. Some people work best as part of a larger team with stylists, graphic artists, distribution centres, remote printing, and so forth. Then you have stubborn donkeys like me who enjoy having my fingers in every pie.

What about you as a knitter?

Some knitters love following a particular design house and yarn brand with big budgets and aspirational marketing; others find themselves more at ease at an indie show where they get to know the dyers and the designers. Some people prefer buying a magazine with glossy ads and a plethora of patterns; others like buying single patterns they have especially chosen for one particular yarn. And some prefer to just spin their own yarns and knit without a pattern.

The world is your oyster – you can to pick and choose as you like. And as an indie girl that really makes me happy.

A Bit of Tryghed – the Last of the Hygge Patterns

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The Tryghed hat was released today – the hat’s the last HYGGE pattern and it’s rather sad to say goodbye to a project that’s been really close to my heart. All good things come to an end, though, and Tryghed is a really nice way to finish. I’ll write more about the hat itself in a second, but first I want to go a bit Scandinavian on you.

Hygge is really hard to define because it encompasses so many things. We’ve talked about how it means to be warm, cosy, spending time with good friends, taking your time over coffee, and just kicking back with a good book and candlelight. The feeling of tryghed is really key to hygge, actually. Tryghed can be translated as ‘feeling safe and sound’ but it is also a really tactile thing. I feel it when I’m wrapped in my favourite quilt or when I walk hand in hand with my partner. I feel it when I’m sitting inside on a rainy night and I am warm. Without tryghed, you can have as much coffee or as warm a quilt as you like – but you won’t have hygge.

So, I wanted to translate that feeling of cosy tactile feeling of security into both a hat and the knitting experience.

Tryghed is a fully written pattern which can be knitted by most people. If you can knit in the round, knit & purl, and do basic decreases, then you can knit Tryghed. I have included some sneaky details like the crown shaping and one clever lace round, but this is a hat for most abilities. The yarn is Thick Pirkkalanka, a worsted-weight yarn from Midwinter Yarns and the hat takes just one skein. It is warm, squishy and everything I love in a yarn – again, the idea of tactile tryghed came into play! It goes without saying that I chose to knit the hat in my favourite colour in the entire world..

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I’ll spare you the photos of me eating a cinnamon bun (we shot these photos on National Cinnamon Bun Day!) but I’ll link you to a few Scandinavian recipes for you to try out!

+ Swedish Cinnamon Buns (kanelbullar)

+ Danish Dream Cake (drømmekage)

+ Elderberry cordial syrup – for more Danish flavours, leave out the cloves and substitute with some lemon peel.

+ Gløgg, obviously! I really like this white wine version too.

It’s been such a joy to see all the beautiful things you’ve made. Keep sharing those photos with me and thank you for going me on this little adventure into my traditions and homelands.

 

Sunlight Shifting

So this is what September feels like: waking up, sitting at computer, remembering to have lunch, working, saying hello to David who quietly comes home, finally shutting down all screens, looking up, and seeing the sunlight shifting outside the window. Soon it will be dark. Soon it will be winter and I will wonder where the year went.

At the moment I am hanging on. I am happy because I am too busy to remember to be sad. I am content because I have no time to rue things. I am singing because I have no time to think. This is better than it has been. I miss my friends whom I haven’t seen for a long time. I miss hearing the birds sing and feeling the sun on my skin. I miss waking up and having an empty day. I need to relearn how to take time off.

We went north this weekend and I saw the sunlight shifting. The light is bluer up north. It is clearer, more translucent, and more fragile. I sat on a stony beach and watched the waves roll in. Then we had a photo shoot and I straightened my shoulders while the gulls cried. Now I am south again, back to warm light, asphalt and stolen moments.

The sunlight is shifting and I am moving with it.

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(photo by David Fraser)