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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!


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.

Screenshot 2016-04-07 14.31-horz

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.


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.


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.


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).


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


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.

Ingenious Impressions at Glasgow Hunterian Art Gallery

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

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

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

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

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

Clip My Wings

Pause, rewind.

Sewing is a different process to knitting. So far I have traced the pattern, worked up a toile (muslin) and discovered that I need to move the bust darts higher as well as doing a FBA. It is sort of a pre-process prior to making the actual garment out of the fancy fabric. Had this been knitting, I would have swatched using the actual yarn and probably be well under way making the actual thing itself.

Different processes. It’s interesting.

Anyway. Random selection of linky bits:
+ The George Hotel, Glasgow. If you like urban decay, faded glamour or Trainspotting (the film, not the activity)
+ Is Denmark Breaching Human Rights? The other reason why I left Denmark. Even if D has a so-called “correct” skin tone and is an EU citizen, he would still get so much flak. No way would I put him through that.
+ BBC4 – The Beauty of Books. For a programme series apparently about the materiality of books, it does boast a suspicious amount of textual critics and biblical scholars. I was not impressed but I’m not exactly a layman. You might like it?
+ 100 Young Adult Books For the Feminist Reader. I spot certain omissions (such as this and this) but everyone’s got opinions and it’s a handy list.
+ Are you a knitter of the literary persuasion? Why not give the Beowulf socks a go?

Finally, I’ve derived great enjoyment from this video tonight.. Enjoy!

In Edinburgh

The tebirkes (teh-beer-kes) is on the left whilst the raspberry-jam filled spanduer (i.e. traditional Danish pastry) is on the right. Not pictured: the two other tebirkes I had. Hey, I don't get to eat any on a regular basis..

In Copenhagen, the Nørrebro neighbourhood is my favourite. It is bohemian, multicultural and vibrant. The streets are filled with small ‘ethnic’ eateries catering for small immigrant groups and niche culinary interests. My taste buds really came off age when I lived there. Today we went to Edinburgh and visited Jo Jo’s Danish Bakery & Cafe. As I sat there munching my tebirkes (think a croissant filled with a marzipan/butter concoction and topped with poppy seeds), it struck me: now I’m the ethnic minority with niche culinary interests.

If you are in Edinburgh or thereabouts, I thoroughly recommend Jo Jo’s place. Jo’s got the recipes just right and she’s a lovely person too.

Alasdair Gray: the real reason why we went to Edinburgh.

And then that big exhibition on Alasdair Gray and his images for his books: Gray Stuff was good stuff.

I was particular taken with the process shown in-between the works: the process of taking complete control over every little aspect of his Book.

Gray’s need to take control over the visual impact shows up early (with Lanark, of course) but he gets more and more confident about his level of control as each book is published. I was sadly sad that the exhibition was not arranged strictly chronological (and I would have loved to have known how much say Gray had), but I was fascinated.

I particularly liked the collages making up the frontispieces in Lanark with marginalia written in Gray’s distinct handwriting pointing out how the images should fit on the page. And, oh, the notes written about the colour scheme of The Book of Prefaces (or The Anthology of Prefaces – the mystery of its real title has not been solved nor has the ‘is it/isn’t it’ mystery about the comma in 1982 Janine.. forgive me, I have been geeking out all day)!!

How I wish I had had access to some of this material back when I was an aspiring academic. Oh, the joy! the rapture!

Work by Andy Goldsworthy and log boats

Just along the street from the Alasdair Gray exhibition, the National Museum of Scotland. Neither of us had ever been, cough, and we arrived too late to see more than the first two floors (we only had three hours and we like to take our time).

The basement was particularly interesting: the pre-history and early settlements in Scotland. I’m a sucker for anything relating to the Picts.

Whilst in the basement I thought fondly of Erika and Lori who both recently referenced Andy Goldsworthy. Goldsworthy is a contemporary British artist who makes .. some call it ‘land art’ because his pieces tend to be site-specific and employs exclusive natural materials .. I think of his art as being peculiarly ritualistic: fire, circles, traces and marks. The National Museum has commissioned him to create installations playing with and off archaeological finds and instead of detracting from the objects, I think his works added to them. It was a pleasant surprise.

Next time we are through, we’ll work our way through the second and the third floors. It’s a labyrinthine museum and that is awfully appealing in its own right.

Tomorrow: another trip to Edinburgh (it’s work-related) and Friday: another trip to Edinburgh (it’s flight-related). Today was all about indulgence.


This will require a bit of back-story, but not much.

Alasdair Gray is a Glaswegian writer and artist. I once spent a lot of time looking at how he imagines and uses the Book as a material object. Somewhere in this flat I have a opus magnum which details Gray’s use of paratextual elements in constructing and assembling his books (In case you care, his The Book of Prefaces really pushes these ideas to the very edge. I wouldn’t call it an interesting read; it’s a maddening exercise in finding a text. It’s fun.)

In short: I like Alasdair Gray a great deal. In a strange and roundabout way, Gray’s work in art and fiction was one of the reasons I moved to Glasgow and probably also one of the reasons why I connected with Glasgow so quickly. When you spend a significant amount of time living with your head inside books that write Glasgow, Glasgow herself becomes familiar.

I was watching BBC’s The Culture show tonight. Alex Kapranos was reading a passage from Gray’s Lanark whilst sitting in Óran Mór. The inside of my head was splattered across the television screen. To clarify: the frontman whose band’s first album was the soundtrack to my life circa 2003-2005; the passage the very one you can find in the sidebar on this website; the novel which spawned a thousand and one things; and my local pub which just so happens to be decorated by Gray himself.

I learned that Alasdair Gray is working on a giant mural for my local underground station, Hillhead. And there is an exhibition in Edinburgh (there are two exhibitions, actually, but I’m mostly interested in the first one).

Life is very odd and very good and very bitter-sweet and very perfect sometimes. I am amazed at where my life has taken me.

On Frocks & Books

A few things to tide things over..

  • With a few modifications, this is how I’d like to live. I would not sort my books by colour (in fact, it is a pet-peeve of mine), I would tone down the pattern-upon-pattern thing, and I would go for a different IKEA sofa*, but overall this is my sort of home. It has that Scandinavian-midcentury/vintage-thriftiness/art-junkie aesthetic I like.
  • As I keep saying, I am not getting back into dress-making. Nope. Not a chance. Having said that, I am drooling over this sewing project. There is no way that I’d look anything like the girl in the photos, but that is one fetching dress. I never know what to wear during summer but I like the idea of wearing pretty cotton frocks. But I’m not going to make one for myself.
  • Not getting back into dress-making does not mean I cannot look at gorgeous fabric, though. Spoonflower supplies a design/print-on-demand fabric service. Look! Steampunk-inspired fabric! Fabric inspired by early American feminist writer! UK-based company, Clothkits, sells beautiful Liberty fabric designed by Grayson Perry. Sigh.
  • Meanwhile Danish ladies’ magazines keep publishing lovely free knitting patterns (mostly donated by yarn companies). My recent finds include this awesome cardigan, and a very cool top. I might even have yarn for the top.. Hmmm.

* yes, I have opinions on IKEA sofas. I’m a bit scared by this.

And on a completely different topic, take a look at this MeFi post about the quality of paper used in contemporary publishing.

“Eight years ago we started to notice the shift in buying patterns from free-sheet Permanent Paper to groundwood paper for hardcover books. Groundwood is the type of paper used in newspapers and mass market paperbacks, and its production is such that it is much lower-quality and degrades more quickly than traditional book publishing paper.” What makes a book permanent?

The discussion quickly descends into a “well, why print books at all now the digital revolution is here” argument. I have nothing against digital publishing nor against digital archiving (in fact, I support digital archiving as it allows for storage on an unprecedented scale whilst not taking up much room), but I do take issue with people saying books are going to vanish within the next thirty years because they are too low-tech to be anything but obsolete. Despite globalisation, that is a very First-World argument.

The Book’s low-tech nature is exactly why it is going to survive – and why books needs to be of better quality. Needing the Book is not about cherishing the object itself, but understanding its role in the dissemination of knowledge. Oh, but the internet! Oh, but Kindle! Oh, but what about people who have no access to the internet, or have limited/censored access? What about people living in areas where electricity is a scarce commodity reserved for the elite? Picking up a book “only” requires you to be able to read. Using a Kindle or the internet requires compatible technology, electricity, the ability to navigate and process information online, stable access, knowledge of how to download content/patch your software .. and then how to use your reading device.

(I miss working with print culture – can you tell?)

Warm and Fuzzy In Several Ways

For some odd reason I keep going back to the idea of a knitted dress. I found a machine-knitted dress in Monsoon (British clothes shop) which I absolutely loved (apart from the fibre make-up) and then I saw some jaw-dropping Briars and lengthened Dusty tunics. I just sit here in my cold flat and imagine how wonderfully soft, comfortable and warm they would be to wear. Then I remember how traumatised I get when knitting more than one sleeve or a slightly lengthy body. Maybe I would not go nuts knitting a dress or tunic, but the jury is definitely out on that one.

Plus, you know, I had the following exchange today: “Can I talk to the lady in charge of this?” – “That’s me. ” – “No, I want to talk to the slim one.” Ouch. Maybe a soft, clingy knitted dress is a very bad idea, full stop.

Anyway. Finished object: my Kaiti shawl knitted in Rowan Kidsilk Haze (shade: Liqueur). I used just a smidgen over two balls (and you could totally get away with just two balls) on 4.5mm and although I really wanted to knit Sharon Miller’s Birch, I used the top-down version, Kiri, to maximise the shawl-to-yarn ratio. This is a supersoft and very, very warm shawl.

(I’m not-so-slowly getting addicted to Kidsilk Haze – I’d love to knit a cosy jumper in KSH and have fallen in love with yet another Kim Hargreaves design: Veer from Rowan 32. The simple lines plus the quirky little details just stole my heart. )

Photo taken at the Kelvingrove Museum which is my favourite Glasgow museum, hands down. No matter how often I visit, I see something new and interesting. They even have a small, but exquisite collection of Early Modern Period art (one of my favourite ages). Afterwards we headed towards the Hunterian Art Gallery where, be still my heart, we saw a special exhibition on Albrecht Dürer in Italy and printmaking (including an incunabulum, phroawr). Seriously, seriously good stuff. I love my neighbourhood.

Reading the Past

The economic recession has claimed many victims. The first phase saw people losing jobs, companies going bankrupt and banks folding. Experts say that this first wave is over. Signs of economic growth are visible in the financial sectors. We are now living through the second phase: spending cuts have to be made. This is all very textbook Keynesian economic theory and I recommend reading up on John Maynard Keynes (quite apart from being a significant economist, Keynes was also part of the Bloomsbury group alongside Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster and Lyndham Lewis) if most of the current financial news leaves you confused.

Spending cuts hurt. Before Christmas, many of my physicist friends were shocked when spending cuts to the tune of £115m were made in the science research sector. When I graduated from university in Denmark some seven or eight years ago, I saw what huge spending cuts will do to scientific research. It was not pretty. My then-department went from being autonomous with at least six new PhD students every year to being yoked together with five other subjects and get one PhD student every other year. The departmental restructuring made for some interesting cross-pollination, but also for disastrous academic results.

And so I learn that Kings College London may have to shut down its Palaeography department in order to meet budget targets. No restructuring, no “let us marry you to Library Science (however awkward) or maybe History or how about Archaeology?” and no shuffling the cards. I am not just saddened. I am shocked. KCL is the only place in the UK to have a Palaeography department and, I believe, even the only place in Europe.

Palaeography, the study of ancient handwriting, may sound like a very obscure subject – and really it is an obscure subject – but it is also incredibly important to scholars. Printing being a very recent invention, most available written material was done by hand and scholars need to be able to decipher handwriting. You get different writing systems (think Cuneiform), different alphabets (think how different the Phoenician alphabet looks to the Latin alphabet) and then different ways of interpreting the alphabets through writing. Pre-printing, many European kingdoms would have their own way of combining and forming letters – Johanna Drucker is particularly good on this, if you want to read more – and some handwriting is only intelligible to specialists who have studied handwriting traditions of a particular area (South Germany, for instance). So much material is now being made available by library specialists, but now I wonder who will be around to read, understand and disseminate this material.

(If I had know that Palaeography existed as a discipline when I started university, I would have ended up in a very different place to now. As is, most of my knowledge is filtered through print culture, so I apologise for any glaring mistakes)

Work As If You Live in the Early Days of a Better Nation

Alasdair Gray, SignedI do not know how many of you have read Alasdair Gray’s excellent dystopian novel, Lanark: a Life in Four Books? It takes place partly in Glasgow and partly in an imaginary Glasgow, known as Unthank. In Unthank the characters are forever chasing sunlight whilst seemingly dying of a symbolic disease known as ‘dragonhide’ (Yes, well, Lanark isn’t your average book). Right now I am feeling like I’m living in Unthank-Glasgow and not Glasgow-Glasgow because sunlight seems just out of reach and like something I vaguely remember from a dream.

I have a lot of time for Alasdair Gray. He is one of those novelists I am never sure whether people will like or not. I tend to recommend Poor Things as the gateway to Gray’s oeuvre: it reads like a postmodern feminist Frankenstein; it is exuberant and giddy; and it is wildly entertaining.  Unlikely Stories, Mostly is a rare beast: a short story collection which feels like a cohesive book and which is also a compulsive read. The stories ranges from short childhood snippets to the fantastic typographic fantasy of “Sir Thomas’ Logopandocy” about Sir Thomas Urquhart (it remains my favourite piece by Gray).  Lanark tends to divide people – my boyfriend still cannot believe that I like a book that nasty and unpleasant, but then again he has not read Gray’s 1982, Janine which is Gray’s tour-de-force in sheer unpleasantness and utter despair (and I really like that one too).

I once spent a lot of time looking at how Alasdair Gray imagines the Book as an object. 1982, Janine is not only a typographical wonder (at one point the protagonist attempts suicide which is portrayed in visual poetry) but its hardcover is beautifully decorated by Gray himself. I always try to get hold of Gray’s books in hardcover whenever I can because underneath the dust jackets, you get elaborate beautiful books. Gray also writes his own blurbs, controls the typesetting and draws his own illustrations. The Book of Prefaces is as close as Gray has come to a postmodern Gesamtkunstwerk. The book is beautiful, of course, but Gray adds an extra layer by writing prefaces to the selected prefaces and writing prefaces to those prefaces. It is all rather dazzling.

And as fate would have it, I have ended up in Glasgow. Alasdair Gray lives just a few streets down from me (I may have said “Good afternoon, sir” once or twice), my local pub features his artwork and my boyfriend has drawn him at art class. Strange how these things work out.

Read more about dear Ally Gray and his artwork or his writing and remember that Poor Things is the best place to start. Meanwhile I shall continue to chase sunlight.