The Tale of A Scarf: When Knitting Chooses You

 September 2014 - wearing the scarf

September 2014 - wearing the scarf

Everybody says that I chose knitting, but I think knitting chose me. Yesterday I was looking through a drawer and came across a scarf I knitted in early, early 2008. Around the neck it went and I wore it running various errands. I wore it as a secret badge of honour.

This is what I was, this is me now, and this is what knitting brought me.

I fell horribly, terribly ill shortly after I moved to the UK. I don't talk about it much because it is a really boring topic, but I was very ill for many months. The illness meant I had to stay in bed and I could only do a very limited number of activities. I read a lot of books but I needed something else to do.

After one of my hospital visits, I persuaded David to stop at a local yarn shop. I bought a crochet hook and two balls of Twilley's Freedom Spirit from a quirky girl in the shop. I liked the name of the yarn and I liked that it was green. Dave was surprised I knew how to crochet. I made a hat that evening.

I crocheted more hats and gave them to friends. I realised that yarn was expensive and that crochet used a lot of yarn. On our next visit to the yarn shop, I bought a pair of knitting needles and three balls of Noro Silk Garden. I sat in bed wondering if I could remember how to cast on. While I was trying to remember, I looked down and my fingers had done it. Muscle memory from years ago. My body which had almost given out on me was now helping me. Knit two, purl two..

 the scarf

the scarf

And this is it. A humble k2, p2 scarf in a Noro yarn. Looking at it now, my stitches are incredibly even, the edges are (mostly) slipped and the fringe is a bit awful looking. Starting this scarf was the start of many things in my life. Recovery, finding friends, building up a new life, and settling into what would become a passion and a career.

I knit a lot. I have knitted many, many things much more beautiful and much more complex than this scarf. But this is where it all began. This is when knitting chose me.

Edinburgh Yarn Festival 2018

I'm going to tell you a secret. It is not a very cool secret, and chances are that you will already have guessed it if you have been following me for a while. Still, here it is: I don't deal very well with crowds. I am a quiet woman who prefer her own company to large parties, and I rarely enjoy large gatherings. Some people find it difficult to believe because I can get quite chatty online. There is obviously a difference between the person you see on social media and the person I am behind closed doors. I am not shy, but I'm quiet and find large crowds challenging.

However, I freaking love Edinburgh Yarn Festival. I know of no other knitting events like it and it is really difficult to explain what makes it different. Part of the appeal is obviously its marketplace which is filled to the rafters with exquisite fibres and yarns (one esteemed knitting guru said to me "it is truly one of the finest marketplaces in the world" and she would know). Another part of its appeal is its sheer size. This year it was bigger than ever and I never made it round the entire space despite being there for four days(!).

But its biggest appeal is its sense of community.

One of my very first teaching gigs was at Edinburgh Yarn Festival in 2013. I taught colourwork to a small group of knitters. When I entered the workroom, it was early morning and the venue was very quiet. Later, when my session had ended, I stepped outside and faced near-pandemonium. Knitters from across the UK had showed up in droves to meet old friends and make new ones. 

The size of the festival has changed (as has the venue) over the last five years, but the heart remains.

EYF is a place you meet friends, including the ones you did not know you had. People readily chat to complete strangers about their yarn, what they are wearing, what they are making, and much more. Hugs are handed out liberally. Smiles are just that bit broader and warmer. This year the organisers had added a big marquee at the back to accommodate all the knitters who wanted to sit down and knit with friends new and old. I only visited briefly as I was busy elsewhere, but it was a thoughtful addition. 

  L-R: The  This Thing of Paper  KAL participants compare Woodcut shawls; the  Martin's Lab  stall was filled gorgeous hand-dyed skeins; the ladies of  Yarn in the City  take in the marketplace (and Rachel is wearing her  Incunabula  cardigan)

L-R: The This Thing of Paper KAL participants compare Woodcut shawls; the Martin's Lab stall was filled gorgeous hand-dyed skeins; the ladies of Yarn in the City take in the marketplace (and Rachel is wearing her Incunabula cardigan)

This year was quite different for me in a number of ways. Usually I am too busy to spend more than 30 minutes in the marketplace, but my class schedule was arranged such that I could spend most of Thursday walking around the festival. I really enjoyed visiting old favourite stalls and finding new yarnies. #

The breadth of the marketplace means that there was something for everybody: gorgeous multi-coloured speckles from Qing Fibres and Mothy & the Squid via beautiful soft semi-solids from Eden Cottage and Moel View Yarn to heritage yarns like Shetland Woolbrokers and Garthenor. Other stalls specialised in notions, project bags, and books. 

I made the majority of my modest purchases during my Thursday visit: a garment's worth of delicious undyed Norwegian Dala/Dorset Down DK yarn from Knockado Wool Mill (spun on their 19th C equipment in the north of Scotland), a skein of Rusty Ferret to go with an earlier Ferret purchase, buttons from Textile Garden, and yarn from Jill Draper Makes in various shades of blue & teal.  I made my final purchase on the Sunday when I finally picked up some Yeavering Bell 4ply from Whistlebare.  Sunday saw the main marketplace shut and the main concourse taken over by smallholders and small batch yarn from their flocks. I was too exhausted to make informed purchases (the Whistlebare purchase was a Thursday decision) but I lingered over yarns from Hawkshaw Sheep, Black Isle Yarns,  and Uradale Yarns. I do love a good #knitlocal yarn which is minimally processed and still feels alive in my hands. Anyway, I posted photos of my new purchases on Instagram, in case you are interested!

But stash enhancement was only one part of EYF for me. 

I ran three classes: a techniques-based class on colourwork, a masterclass on shawl design, and a conceptual class on storytelling and psychogeography. I enjoyed the breadth of topics as well as getting back into a classroom. Teaching is hands-down one of my favourite things to do and I derive so much joy from seeing my student push themselves into new directions.

My class on storytelling & psychogeography is always challenging to teach as it is student-led and I have to constantly stop myself from imposing structure (it's a thing with me). The EYF students were all exceptionally willing to be led astray and go exploring armed with yarn and needles. Watching knitters trusting each other with deeply personal stories nearly undid me. I continue to be amazed by the knitters I meet and the depth of emotion with which they approach their craft. It is an honour - and it really seemed to fit the EYF ethos. 

  L-R: One of my former design students show me how she's used her background in mathematics to play with construction, a sheep watches over knitters relaxing, the  Travelknitter  stall showcased Larissa's gorgeous jewel tones.

L-R: One of my former design students show me how she's used her background in mathematics to play with construction, a sheep watches over knitters relaxing, the Travelknitter stall showcased Larissa's gorgeous jewel tones.

I wrote in my previous post that "EYF 2018 felt like the first time I showed up as myself rather than as an idealised version of myself." Remember my confession that I am really a quiet woman who prefers small gatherings to large crowds? This is a super-interesting post on clothes as armour and it mirrors some of the many conversations I have had with friends over the last few years on clothes, semiotics, the performance of the Self, gender, social media, and image culture. Some of you might also recognise these themes from essays in This Thing of Paper (especially the Vellum, Psalter, Rubrication, and Bibliotheca essays). It is testament to the friendly and generous spirit of EYF that I do not worry about showing up as myself. It is somewhere I do not have worry because people are lovely. Thank you to everyone I met and apologies to everyone who slipped through the crowds. No names mentioned because you are all incredible.  

It looks as though I have words and thoughts again. This is rather nice. Thank you, denizens of EYF 2018. 

And thank you to Jo and Mica for creating EYF. 

Clothes Make The Woman - Thoughts on Self-Expression, Making & Wardrobe Choices

While I was at Edinburgh Yarn Festival, I met a number of people who exclaimed "I love your new look!" and "it's a new you!" or a variation upon it. So, maybe this is a good time to write about some changes I have made in my life and why I have made them. 

(Before we get started: I am a big believer in you do you. The following post contains my own reflections upon the clothes I make and the clothes I wear. I am not addressing other people's wardrobe choices. You do you.) 

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The above photo combines an image of me taken in 2016 with a photo of me taken in 2018. 

I used to wear a lot of tea dresses. I'd pair them with a cute cropped cardigan and a lace shawl. My hair was dark brown with a blunt fringe - often worn in a high pony tail. I'd wear red lip stick, eyeliner and a pair of catseye glasses. This look was one of cute, quirky and soft femininity. I found it easy to wear and my everyday wardrobe revolved around a dress with a cute print + a matching cardigan + sneakers. 

2016 was the year when world politics came into sharp focus, and I truly began to reflect upon what my clothes were saying. I am (and have always been) what is known as intentionally femme. The 2010s have not been kind to marginalised folks and, although I recognise my privilege in being a white cis-gender woman, I am also a differently-abled migrant woman falling somewhere on the rainbow spectrum. Until late 2016, I had never considered that my style choices fell into that sense of nostalgia for "simpler times" which fuelled so much of the turmoil in the world and which has already hurt so many people. 

I simply asked myself: do I want to present myself as traditionally feminine? And I realised that there had to be other ways of expressing an intentionally femme identity that didn't subtly contribute to all the problems around me. 

Since 2016, I have been trying to figure out what feels authentic to me.  The journey began at the same time as I began working on This Thing of PaperIt influenced the styling choices I made in the book - my hair was shorter, for instance - and it allowed me time to reflect upon what clothes I wanted to make and wear.

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Right now I am playing in a sandbox that I describe as mix of 1920s Bauhaus women designers, 1970s Bowiesque glam, and 1990s British indie with a dash of art school chic. It is a complex sandbox still rooted in nostalgia, but the nostalgia is empowering rather than confining. Instead of cute prints and a nipped waist, I am looking at fluid fabrics, exuberant geometric prints, and deliberate pattern clashing. The silhouette is simultaneously boxier and more slim-fitting. I am still trying to figure out where this is taking me, but it feels liberating and far more authentic to me.

I recently read an interview with Harris Reed, a second-year student at CSM, in which they said: "I am someone who needs meaning to be behind everything I do and that my designs are not just clothes, but an extension of who I am and what I stand for" and I can fully relate to that. I often say that "knitting is never 'just' knitting" and I truly believe that clothes are something more than just something we wear to keep warm. Clothes are communication and identity-formation. What we wear communicates something to the world.

EYF 2018 felt like the first time I showed up as myself rather than as an idealised version of myself. Some people told me they felt a bit confused about my new direction, and I understand that. I hope this post goes some way to explain things, and it is very important to note that I have not changed as a designer. I still believe in classic knitwear design; pieces that look amazing but are surprisingly straightforward to knit; femininity as strength and agency; making as a tool for change. I still prefer dresses to trousers (although I have a pair of brown brocade trousers with gold polka dots which I love wearing) and I still wear eyeliner & red lipstick. I'm growing out my grey hair somewhat disgracefully and I'm having more fun. It's all good.

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Apropos of nothing, I've stopped being interrupted by men who want me to knit something for them whenever I'm out knitting in public. So there is that. 

The Festival Survival Guide - the 2018 Edition

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A couple of years ago I posted this little survival guide to knitting festivals. With the Edinburgh Yarn Festival just a few days away, I thought it was time to revisit the guide and share some of my favourite tips!

Attending a fibre festival is always a great day (or weekend) out. You are surrounded by people who love the same activities as you do, and you get to do some serious knitwear-spotting too. It can also be a really exhausting time because there are just so many things to see and do - and you might find yourself so overwhelmed that you end up leaving empty-handed and slightly burned out. 

  • Plan ahead. Start by looking through the vendor list and visit their websites, so you know roughly what to expect. Make a short-list of your must-visit vendors and grab the official EYF marketplace map to find out where their stalls are. This stops you from feeling completely overwhelmed by all the squishy yarn goodness on offer!
  • Plan ahead, pt 2. Look through your Ravelry queue and make a note of yarn requirements for those must-knit-next patterns in your queue. Do the same for any needles or hooks you may want to pick up at EYF. You don't want to buy a 3mm needle when you actually wanted a 3.25mm needle! And nothing's worse than picking up a perfect skein of yarn and then realising the pattern calls for two skeins!
  • Plan ahead, pt 3. If you are meeting up with far-flung friends at EYF, make sure you have exchanged phone numbers before heading out! Also make sure to describe yourself ("I'm short with curly brown hair and will be wearing a blue/white/yellow Speckle & Pop shawl ") if you are meeting up with internet friends who may not have met you before.
  • Food. If you have special dietary requirements, always make sure to bring a back-up lunch. Personally I always carry some bottled water to keep myself hydrated and a small bag of mixed nuts to snack on so my blood sugar stays level throughout the day.
  • Bags. Scotland has implemented the carrier bag charge (very good news for the environment!) so remember to bring your own carrier bags. You can also buy gorgeous tote bags at the event, of course.
  • Wear sensible shoes! You will be on your feet most of the day, so leave your high heels at home. I hear the "wear sensible shoes!" advice all the time and yet I keep seeing miserable-looking people in high-heeled boots at events.
  • Budget. Unless you are a multi-millionaire, chances are that you will have to make some tough decisions at EYF. Decide before you leave home how much you are going to spend. Decide how much you'll spend on yarn, how much on notions, and how much on cute accessories like tote bags, mugs etc. Then leave room in your budget for impulse buys. Even the smallest budget should have an impulse buy allowance. You will fall in love with something unexpected.
  • Travel. The EYF website contains everything you need to know about transport, so make sure you know your train times and keep your tickets in a safe spot. Allow yourself plenty of time to get to and from the venue. Make sure you have a perfect travel project on the go - travelling to a fibre festival is part of the festival fun!
  • Be Prepared! If you are taking a class, make sure you know what you need to bring 5 days before you need it. Then you will have time to stash-dive or pop into your nearest LS before the event itself. 
  • Be Social! Say hello to people! Smile and talk knitting while you are waiting in a queue. Let strangers know how awesome their cardigan is. Enjoy the atmosphere. If a vendor or a tutor has been especially incredible, let them know! Take pictures of amazing things and share them on the internet. Use hashtags both during the weekend and afterwards when you share your memories. 
  • Remember to Breathe. Fibre festivals can be exhausting (especially because so many of us are introverts). If you get tired, take a break. If you need some fresh air, go for a short walk. Nothing is more important than you enjoying yourself, so be kind to yourself rather than push through. The perfect buttons will still be there ten minutes later.
  • And just have fun! This is going to be one of the highlights of your year. 

I will be teaching three classes and also floating about before/after the classes. Please do say hello if you see me! This Thing of Paper will be available from selected vendors at the festival, and I'm always very happy to chat about it. 

If you have any good yarn festival tips, please leave them in the comments!

Making Some Changes: Teaching

Later this week I will be updating the workshop & events page with all the details about what's ahead. It's already been announced that I'm teaching at EYF next month, but I'm also teaching at two other events this spring/summer. Dublin's Woollinn has a fantastic line-up and I cannot wait to visit Ireland for the first time. I'll also be at Yarningham for the first time alongside some of my favourite people.

I will be announcing more details (including the marvellous LYSs I'm visiting this spring),  but I want to expand a bit on some decisions we've made at Casa Bookish.

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Since 2014 I have been a full-time knitting designer and teacher - and it is a lot of work. I spend a lot of time on the road, I could do admin as a full-time job (and have now hired Penny to help out), I design, I write, I edit, I learn about spreadsheet functions and tax regulations, and occasionally I even knit.

I also have a chronic health condition.

My work is flexible enough to allow for days when my condition flares up, but I do have to factor in extra time to do some things (like photo shoots). And  when I get back to work, I have such a workload that I push myself to get through the things that have piled up. And then I have a flare up etc. 

 Sitting down at the photo shoot.

Sitting down at the photo shoot.

Over the last two months, I have had some major conversations with my assistant Penny and my partner/photographer David. I have to make some changes or both my creativity and my health will suffer. We have concluded that while I love to teach, teaching takes up so much of my time and energy (prep, travel, teaching, travel, recovery) that we need to be very smart about how much I do.

Going forward, you will see me more often at festivals and doing LYS residencies than at one-off classes. I am so appreciative of all the LYS owners and organisers who have all stepped up in support. Thank you thank you thank you! Everybody has been so kind and understanding - this is why the knitting community is so special. 

(As always, if you are a festival organiser or a LYS owner, we'd love to hear from you. We have precious few slots available for the rest of the year - but do get in touch. I've also begun taking the first few bookings for 2019). 

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If you are a knitter, I hope you understand why I am not just popping by your LYS every two weeks or so. Please take advantage of when I am teaching at a nearby festival or teaching at a LYS - it will most likely be a while until I will be back. I also know it can be frustrating if everything's already booked by the time you hear about my class - but I'd still love to say hello to you (and please understand if I need to sit down while talking to you). 

Teaching is so magical: I love seeing you flourish and take on new challenges. Thank you for letting me be a tiny part of your making life. Let's make this work together.

The Cardigan Conundrum

A few years ago I wrote a pattern and knitted a cardigan. 

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The cardigan was part of my ongoing Authors & Artists series, and I rather loved it. I knitted it in a yarn gifted to me by my grandmother (who would later fall very ill). Granted, the colour was not one I would have chosen but I have grown to love it so much over time that I now consider aqua one of my everyday wardrobe colours. 

Trouble arose, though, when I realised that the gift yarn did not behave very well. It is an alpaca/wool mix which is warm and soft - but also refuses to keep its shape and pills quite a bit. Though we did a photoshoot for the cardigan in York, I never finished the pattern because I did not feel comfortable endorsing the yarn.

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Working professionally as a knitwear designer means accepting responsibility. My pattern needs to be error-free, easy to follow, and yet spacious enough for people to add their own modifications if they want to do so. I also need to provide clear photos so people can see the neckline, basic construction, and any particular details. Finally, I am also aware that I am endorsing a yarn when I mention what I have used. 

For this particular cardigan, I am satisfied that I have fulfilled most of my professional duties, but I am uncomfortable recommending a yarn that left me unhappy after a few months of wear. I used the given yarn out of sentimentality (and I think of my grandmother every time I wear the cardigan), but I would not want others to use the same yarn. 

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After my first photos of the cardigan (and wearing the cardigan at events), I have been asked for the pattern several times. This is genuinely lovely to hear. I really appreciate that I can design things that other people will want to make. It is truly, truly one of my favourite parts of my job.

However, part one:

Immediately after I finished knitting the cardigan, This Thing of Paper happened. The next 18 months were spent living & breathing TTOP. The aqua cardigan pattern was shoved to one side. I brought the pattern out of hibernation the other day, and it needs some love. Not only did I learn a lot about writing garments from working on my book, but I also need to finish grading the aqua pattern across seven sizes. I need to reknit it in a yarn I am happy to endorse and we need to do another photo shoot.

However, part two:

In recent months I have begun shifting my personal style. I used to wear a lot of 1950s inspired clothes: dresses with full skirts and nipped-in waists, cute retro coats found in vintage shops, and I'd have red lips & dark hair with a short fringe. A cropped cardigan is perfect for that sort of wardrobe. Yet I am moving away from 1950s inspired clothes towards something slightly more .. well, that is a blog post for another time. I don't really wear cropped cardigans anymore. 

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The cardigan conundrum. I posted something about this on Instagram and some of the comments stated that "it's okay just to have something that is just for you, Karie". It is a nice sentiment, but sadly that is not how I roll.

I am so lucky to have the job I have and nothing - nothing  - I knit is ever just for me. I design and knit intentionally - and part of that intention is always that knitting is communal. I designed the aqua cardigan because I wanted to make something with my grandmother's gift, because I wanted a cropped cardigan, and because I wanted to share my idea with the world. The inspiration for the cardigan is also pretty amazing, I tell you. 

I think the solution is to start from scratch, rewrite the pattern, grade it, and create a cardigan pattern that can be worked as both a cropped cardigan but also as a cardigan I want to wear now. It might take a while (because I'm busy at work on something else) but that is a definite solution.  

Thank you to Helena who wrote to me about the cardigan (and included photos of her dogs). There is always a way.