The Importance of Joy

I have just spent twelve days in bed recovering from food poisoning with added complications. Twelve days. Forced downtime makes you think about things that you usually don’t examine, but I’ve had a lot of time to think.

What does it mean to feel joy, let alone share it, when every day seems to bring a new wave of terrible news? What does it mean to make things slowly when the world seems be buried under an avalanche of new, shiny things? What does it mean to sit quiet at home, connecting with other souls in remote corners of the world, when your local community is struggling?

I took up knitting again in early 2008 when I had a prolonged stay in bed. The activity gave me a sense of achievement, a sense of agency. I could not dress myself but I could make a scarf. A scarf became a hat became a sock became a cardigan (and by the time of the cardigan I could dress myself again). I made friends through knitting, I became part of a community, and before long I was working for a yarn company.

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Somewhere along the way I stumbled into designing and writing knitting patterns. I taught workshops for the yarn company. I blogged about knitting. I was on social media discussing knitting. I was part of many, many knitting groups. And then in 2014 I began doing all this as a full-time job for myself. I travelled to exciting places, met wonderful people, gave papers at academic conferences, and I even ended up writing a book.

Despite all those hours devoted to the practise of knitting, despite all the hours I’ve spent examining the act of knitting, I don’t think I’ve ever really thought about the importance of joy. And I don’t know why.

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Sometimes I feel emotionally unequipped to deal with making. In recent years I have used making as a way to deal with family loss, but I end up not feeling able to look at the finished pieces afterwards (an aside: not great when you make for a living - there are several pieces I will never show you, let alone publish). Things I make to keep myself occupied become things I cannot stand to look at afterwards. I’m a utilitarian maker and the thought of having made things I’ll never use pains me. Making becomes a distraction, not the central act. I am not sure I like this.

In a world where we are constantly fed pictures of perfection — yes, even on the amateur making end of things — there is something liberating about a slightly misshapen cookie, a cable that is crossed the wrong way, a painting where the nose isn’t quite right, and a quilt where the pieces are not perfectly aligned. These pieces express the joy of making in a way that carefully staged social media posts don’t. They are less about impressing the outside world, and more about being moved by what our hands are capable of doing with simple tools.

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I will freely admit that sometimes I wonder what the point of making is when the world is full of bleak news. Making a woolly hat feels frivolous when basic human rights are revoked, people are killed, and the world is experiencing one natural disaster after another. And yet making a woolly hat reminds me that I do have agency and I do have power. I cannot stop bad things from happening, but I can make good things happen through small acts of my own. I can find joy and peace when the media insist I must be scared. I can reach out to near-strangers and share kindness through making.

Joy is and must be a central part of making. Because making creates something out of nothing. Making transforms the world. Making gives us agency. Making is a radical act, a declaration that you possess the power necessary to bring about change. Making should be full of joy on the most personal level possible.

The world might not have “neither joy, nor love, nor light, nor certitude, nor peace” (to quote Matthew Arnold) but as makers we need to seek the joy, the love, the light, the certitude, and the peace we create through our chosen form of making.

I think we forget about the simple joy of a well-made hat that keeps us warm when the world is cold. I know I had. Sometimes it is good to stop, take stock, and realise what is important to us.

A Doggerland Anniversary

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Four years ago I finished writing and designing Doggerland: Knits From A Lost Landscape. It remains one of the projects that I am most proud of having done. It is a collection of essays and knitting patterns inspired by a landscape that disappeared into the sea some 6000 years ago, and which made me wonder about where we live, who we are, and how we connect with our daily landscapes (whether inner or outer).

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 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.

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I first started working on Doggerland in 2011. The first few sketches were rough outlines of motifs, but soon I began sketching all sorts of things: shells, driftwood, coastal outlines.. then I started reading about Mesolithic archaeology, I met with archaeologists, I delved into Land Art & psychogeography, and then set myself some parameters:

+ The Doggerland moodboard

+ A limited palette of colours:  I ended up using mainly undyed yarns (mostly Snaeldan) and the only dyed hue is the vibrant green you see in the Storegga shawl above. I chose the green because it reminded me of seaweed - it'd be a colour that Mesolithic people would have seen. I did wonder about using wool rather than flax, as domesticated sheep for wool-production would still be a few millennia out.

+ A limited palette of stitches: I wanted to strip back what I understood about lace knitting, colourwork, and textures. I looked to Mesolithic artefacts like worked flint, carved bone, and late-Mesolithic pottery shards for inspiration. I was really interested in how Mesolithic people used geometric shapes and lines in their work. Garter stitch ended up forming the backbone in the collection and i also strove to use a pared-down lace vocabulary (which was one of the hardest challenges I set myself).

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I ended up designing and writing nearly 25 patterns for the collection - most of which I also knitted. Obviously most of these designs never made it into the collection for one reason or another - and it meant an enormous amount of work on my part. Still, I wanted a coherent collection with a very distinct formsprog (mode of expression - though I like the Danish phrase better: "shape language" which contain the making and moulding aspect of creating your own creative idiom).

Four years on, I sit here looking through the Doggerland collection and I am so proud of it. Our photography have improved vastly as have our layout and pattern writing skills (I didn’t have an internal style sheet, the horror) — but Doggerland still resonates with me. I am now sufficiently removed from the project to appreciate the strong pull of ideas and the defined design vocabulary. I was working part-time for a yarn company while doing the collection, and I’m quietly amazed that it became such a good piece of work. (Is it weird praising yourself? I feel like it’s weird praising yourself.)

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In the four years that have passed, I have become a full-time designer, writer, and teacher. I have written a proper book — again, combining essays, knitting, and a niche topic — and I’m now teaching Knitting the Landscape, a class that owes its existence to Doggerland. The knitting world has seen a surge of interest in the connections between landscape and knitting: from the interest in rare sheep breeds to conversations about sustainability. We sadly also live in a world where climate change affects us on a daily basis.

I never do this, but today you can buy the entire Doggerland collection at 20% off on Ravelry. No code needed. It is one of the best things I’ve ever done, and I’d love for you to discover your own landscapes.

Don't Call It A Guilty Pleasure

It is autumn again, and I have my first cold of the season. I’m doing the usual things: drinking plenty of fluids, making sure I’m wrapped up warm, and feeling very sorry for myself. Then last night I read a Variety article about how more than 80 million Netflix subscribers watched their original rom-coms over the last few months. Variety’s article reminded me that I’m a big fan of comfort reads, comfort films, comfort food, and comfort knits — and that I am not alone.

I may have watched To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before four times on Netflix, and according to Variety TATBILB is not only one of the strongest performing original films on the platform, but it also gets repeated views. I have books I fall back on — AS Byatt’s Possession, Georgette Heyer’s Venetia and A Lady of Quality, and Caroline Courtenay’s Love Triumphant (a truly terrible book that’s been my comfort read since I was 12) - because I know the journey I’ll go through as a reader and that everything will turn out okay. I have periods of listening to comfort music on repeat: The One Direction song Love You Goodbye (but only this live version) is a frequent source of delight as I try to figure out why this 1990s rock ballad-throwback works so well for me — particularly as half the band appears to sleep-walk through it. And when I feel extra under the weather, I put on Ella Fitzgerald while I sip camomile tea in my jammies.

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Making-wise, I also have comfort zones.

I have knitted my Karise shawl more times than I care to remember — it’s a pattern where the lace repeats are small but interesting, and I can upsize the shawl to fit the amount of yarn I have. Hap shawls are also great because there is so much garter stitch in them and the applied edge is usually just what my attention span can manage when I’m sniffly (ten rows of twelve stitches each? my brain is happy). This week has been all about colourwork for me, though. I’ve been designing some projects which work with small repeats and are quick to finish, so I’ve snuggled up with them on the sofa with a comfort film running in the background.

We shouldn’t forget yarns, either. I have a shortlist of yarns that I return to when I need to feel uplifted and happy. Most of them are rustic, sheepy, and full of memories of when I bought them. The best thing is really that once I’ve completed a comfort knit, I get to wear it. My most recent comfort knit was the Vinterskov pullover and I’ve worn it so much since I finished knitting it. The yellow colour is a comfort in itself, but it’s also warm and cuddly.

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A lot of people talk about guilty pleasures, but I don’t understand why you should feel guilty about anything you enjoy (except, maybe, Love Triumphant which really has few redeeming qualities). I’m a big fan of leaning into what makes you feel happy and safe, as long as you don’t hurt other people in the process. Yes, Annihilation is a much better film than To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before — the conversations about its meaning run deeper, the cinematography is far more stunning, and the acting is superior — but I’ve not watched it more than once. Yes, Shearwater’s Jet Plane & Oxbow is a stunning, multi-layered album that makes my synapses weep with joy, but sometimes I just need a metaphorical swaying-with-a-lighter moment at my desk. Yes, I know that a super-food smoothie packed with oxidants would probably fight off my cold better, but that milky tea is just what I need.

Some news before I sign off to spend time with my hot-water bottle and a blanket: I’m away teaching most of the next month which means a lot of travel and little time with my inbox. Team Bookish is reshuffling and the Mighty Penny is leaving us at the end of next week. I’m already dealing with a massive email backlog, so please take time to read my FAQs if you have any questions and also seek out help via Ravelry, if you can. In the meanwhile, here are four upcoming appearances/workshops:

  • October 20: The Freehold Yarn Co, Lancaster: Knitting Selbu Mittens

  • November 2: Yarnporium, London: Colour & Pattern: Designing Signature Colourwork

  • November 2: Yarnporium, London: Knitting the Landscape

  • November 3: Yarnporium, London: Your Pattern in Print - a panel talk with Kate Atherley and Kate Heppell

I’ll be updating the workshop pages as soon as possible (i.e. when I stop coughing my lungs out). Take care, drink plenty of fluids, and tell me about your comforts.

Sudden Epiphanies: On Creativity, Writing and Making.

I recently finished reading Alice Mattison’s The Kite & The String. It is ostensibly about creative writing, but even more about how to navigate murky creative waters as a woman. Many things resonated with me, though I mainly write non-fiction and technical instructions these days (leaving aside the behemoth of a novel I took up writing earlier this year as a non-work creative project). If you are one of those people who would like to design or are already working towards designing, you might want to grab a copy (even if it is not about knitting — more about that later).

One of the things I really liked about the book was Alice Mattison’s practical approach.

I hear a lot of people saying that they don’t have enough time to design and “if only XYZ would happen, then I would ..” She neatly dismantles that inner voice by pointing out that only a very small number of people will ever have that kind of privilege of having time to devote days or weeks to pursue a creative notion without interruption, child-rearing, house-keeping, bill-paying and so forth. She then says something that is so important that I am going to put it in bold: because you don’t have that privilege, it is vital that you share your ideas. We cannot have art and culture produced only by that tiny handful of people who have the luxury of time.

In other words, we need to make time in order to make.

I’m not going to give away everything, but Mattison is both sensible and radical when she suggest reassessing what creativity means to you and how you need to carve out your creative time. You may think I am one of the privileged few because I design knitting patterns for a living, but my creative time is maybe 10% of my job. Mattison’s book is a reminder that I need quiet time away from emails and packing slips — or I simply won’t create.

Earlier this year I feared that I would never design again, that the well had dried out. I tried writing and had no words. It felt absolutely terrifying. I was staring at sheets of blank paper and I had nothing. That is when I began writing my novel (the one that no one will ever read). You may ask how I ended up with 80K of fiction when I could not write 100 words of non-fiction. I do not know. Mattison suggests letting playfulness into your work, making stuff without defensiveness. I do not know if that is what I did, but I am happy to be back designing (on a related note, thank you for loving Vinterskov as much as me).

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One part of Mattison’s book that really floored me was its chapter on silence. I began reading the chapter thinking it was going to deal with narrative silence and how to use that in prose. No. Alice Mattison addresses the silence of women. The chapter is a tough and painful read (and far, far too topical) — not only because she discusses how the voices of women writers have been silenced for a very long time but also because Mattison writes about how women self-censor ourselves. We silence ourselves, because we have been conditioned to believe our voices are not important.

I self-censor when I design. I talk myself out of a lot of ideas because I don’t think they are good enough or important enough. I nearly did not write this blog post. I meet a lot of women who talk their own creative pursuits down, who do not think their creative impulses merit two hours of quiet time every second Saturday morning.

And we all know that while knitting is amazing, fun, worthwhile, and full of wonders — we have to have that discussion every time someone discovers we are knitters. And I think it is rooted in the perception of it being women’s work (just like we have women’s fiction that isn’t real literature, and teen girls don’t like real music).

Sorry, where was I?

Ah, yes. That chapter on silence in Mattison’s book is worth its weight in gold, if you identify as a woman and you’ve ever talked yourself out of something.

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So, I went to Denmark and I read Mattison’s book and I released a pattern. That brings me to my last point.

I started out by saying “If you are one of those people who would like to design or are already working towards designing, you might want to grab a copy (even if it is not about knitting)". I am a big believer in seeking inspiration outside the obvious places. I’m someone who designed collections based on land art, Mesolithic archaeology, psychogeograhy and 15th C printing, so I would say that.

But it is important.

I always say “you do you” because we cannot be anybody but ourselves — including in knitting design. I found Alice Mattison’s book incredibly useful (and there is an invaluable chapter on publishing too) because it dealt with a general sense of creativity within a specialised field. I related to so, so much but it also gave me an outside perspective because it did not deal with knitting.

Read broadly and wisely. Find your own path. Mine your own ores. Discover what matters to you and articulate that through your knitting, your making and your creativity. Make pockets of time (and make them count). Believe your own voice should be heard. And go forth and be brilliant.

Vinterskov - A Wintery Pullover Pattern

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I am often asked about my design process, and I always give the same answer: I have a story to tell, and my job is to figure out how to tell this story through the stitches on my needles. Designing Vinterskov (rav link) was a very different experience. For the first time in years, I designed something because it was gosh oh so pretty and I wanted to wear this pullover.

Like all the best knitting adventures, it all started with the yarn. The pullover is knitted in the glorious Hjelholts Håndværksgarn, a Gotland/Merino blend spun from a small-batch Danish yarn company and spinning mill dating back to 1878. The yarn can be a bit difficult to buy (unless you are in Denmark and know some great yarn shops), so I’ve made a list of some suitable substitutions which you will find at the end of this post.

The days are drawing close in the Northern Hemisphere and the weather calls for a very snuggly pullover. I knew I wanted my precious yarn to be this pullover. Vinterskov has extra-long sleeves for that irresistible sweater-paw look, seamless construction, a casual fit, and an easy colourwork yoke. Adding to the yarn’s Nordic roots, I opted to include Nordic knitting traditions: the yoke construction is a standard Icelandic yoke, the colourwork design mixes the Norwegian lusekofte tradition with a motif borrowed by another Norwegian knitting tradition, the Selbu mitten.

And Vinterskov means “winter forest” in Danish.

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I’ve spent the last week in Denmark, (primarily working at Knitwork.dk) and I’ve been wearing Vinterskov everywhere. It is slouchy, relaxed, and the perfect go-to pullover as I’m travelling around.

A few notes on fit:

  • Vinterskov has a much more relaxed fit than my other garments. It is designed to have approximately 7 cm/2.75” of ease. I’m full-busted for my dress size, so have opted to wear my Vinterskov with 4 cm/1.5” of ease, so the yoke fits my shoulders.

  • Choose the size based upon your bust size, but if you are a D-cup (or above) look at the size below your full bust size. You don’t want to drown the rest of your frame with a lot of fabric. Your fit across the bust will be neater, but because the pullover has a relatively generous amount of ease, your Vinterskov might still be relaxed and comfortable.

  • If you prefer a neat fit, select your size based on the finished measurement numbers on page 3 of the pattern. Go for the measurement closest to your actual bust measurement.

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Several people have remarked that Vinterskov would make a great festive pullover. I can totally see it as a modern, understated holiday knit — imagine it knitted up in a rich red with white snow — but it can easily be re-worked into telling stories about rainy weather or maybe you wanted scattered rainbow rays over a forest?

Finally, some words about yarn substitution.

Hjelholts Håndværksgarn is a GLORIOUS woollen-spun yarn which is perfect for colourwork. I knitted the yarn at 19 sts/26 rows over 10 x 10 cm of stocking stitch. That makes it a slightly heavy worsted-weight or light aran-weight yarn. If you want to find a suitable substitute, look for a lofty yarn with a “sticky” handle (which makes it ideal for colourwork).

Alafoss Lett-Lopi would make a very good substitute, but as it has a slightly lighter handle than the Danish yarn, Vinterskov would feel airier. I have my eye on Harrisville Designs Highland as great US-friendly substitute and the UK’s Jamieson & Smith’s Shetland Aran Worsted would look equally lovely. Classic worsted-weight yarns like Cascade 220 and Brooklyn Tweed Shelter should also be considered, but make sure to swatch to make sure you like the fabric. You should always swatch, anyway!

I hope you like Vinterskov as much as me. Really, I don’t think I’ll ever tire of wearing this pullover.

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A Quick Letter From Denmark

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Have you ever visited Denmark? I grew up there and I am currently spending a few days there. This weekend I am teaching at KnitWork 2018 in my old hometown of Copenhagen, Denmark. I took the opportunity to spend a few days with my Danish family beforehand. And as per usual we ended up by the sea.

Denmark is a nation shaped by the sea. It is predominately an island nation (more than 400 of them! Oh, and one peninsula) and you are always just a short drive away from the nearest coast. I grew up in a rural area on the western side of Denmark’s largest island, Zealand. While most of my childhood memories revolve around running across tilled fields and climbing trees in the forests, there is something about the sea and the coastline that makes my heart beat stronger.

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And there is yarn, of course. My mum took me to Gørlev, a small town of some 2,400 people and two yarn shops. One yarn shop had eight shelving units in a row with yarn from Hjertegarn, Filatura di Crosa, and Mayflower. Eight large shelving units! Eight! The other yarn shop mostly specialised in cotton and acrylic yarns aimed at crocheters. I am quietly amazed that such a small town (and its surrounding area) can sustain two relatively large yarn shops. I fell a bit in love with Hjertegarn Incawool which reminded me strongly of the old Rowan Creative Focus Worsted. Still, no room in the suitcase nor in the stash cupboard.

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Speaking of knitwear and Denmark.. I finished this glorious pullover this week. Knitted in Hjeltholts Håndværksgarn — a small-batch Gotland/Merino yarn from a Danish yarn spinner, this pullover is probably my favouritest thing I’ve ever designed and knitted. It is certainly the quickest idea to project to pattern process I’ve ever had. It is strongly rooted in my Nordic identity and I love the colours. There is a particular Danish yellow colour you see everywhere, and I love that this yarn is the same colour.

The pullover is currently away being tech-edited, so watch this space.

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