Category Archives: Events

Fear of Floats

I’ve never been a big fan of Fair Isle and other stranded knitting. For some reason, the ‘floats’ on the reverse side put me off. But I really enjoy Kate Davies’ blog and have been inspired by some of her designs to give the technique a go.

Yesterday, I took part in Juju Vail’s Fair Isle workshop at Loop down here in London. It was an all day event and by 5pm, my mind was spinning like a whirligig beetle. We covered a lot, so there is much to practise in order to fix processes in my muscle memory. To start with, there was magic loop knitting, then continental knitting, then the Fair Isle method, and to round it all off, a look at steeking. Phew! I have to say, I’m not very fond of this magic loop malarkey. It seems very faffy, and all that extra length of cable doesn’t half get itself in the way. Annoying! But I’m not giving up on it just yet, and the Fair Isle itself was not as tricky as you might think.

I’m glad I attended a workshop – any problems or “eek!” moments are dealt with before too much frustration sets in. We all know how much this can hinder progress and motivation! For instance, someone in the class said she tried to teach herself magic loop, but the ‘ladder’ that appeared when switching back and forth between needles put her off. Juju assured us this was a temporary problem which would sort itself out as the piece of work grows, and blocking would help even this all out (unlike with dpns? I didn’t think to ask this..)

If you’re new to stranded knitting and live in London – or not too much further afield (like America! One woman on the workshop was from “the left side” of the States, and was in the UK for as much holiday crafting as she could squeeze in) – I recommend a workshop with Juju. She’s dynamic, patient, encouraging and positive.. as all good teachers are!

As for those Fair Isle patterns by Kate Davies that I’ve idly had my eye on for a while.. I’m that little bit closer to being able to make one. But there is a queue. Isn’t there always?!

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First attempts at magic loop, continental and Fair Isle knitting

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Alpacas and Dragons and Sheep, Oh My!

Ickworth House, a National Trust property in Suffolk, held their second Wool Fair at the end of May. I went along because my IDC teacher/assessor Helen Jordan asked if I might, on the off chance, be up for helping with her crochet supplies stall Thread of Life. I had just handed in my household project and the request came when the project was returned to me. I didn’t immediately agree, as I’m not really a “Roll up! Roll up! Come and see this…” kinda gal and thought that this, combined with my rubbish maths, wouldn’t make for a good stall companion! Helen said it was fine, and that I could sit and do demonstrations. The magic words were “all expenses paid!” Well, I thought, why not?? It would be a good, if slightly daunting, experience for me and, although a stall companion isn’t essential, it is handy to have someone to mind the stall during a break as well as to help with setting up/deconstructing a stall, and hefting things about.

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Helen Jordan and her stall, Thread of Life

The event came around, and the forecast was for a lovely bright Saturday, followed by a wash-out the next day (did someone say Sunday?). We were situated in a big marquee – less likely to get blown away than the individual tents (this did happen to someone the night before the event!) The weather matched the forecast but the rain didn’t put the public off, as I think there were nearly as many visitors as on the sunny day.

To calm my nerves, I sat and did demonstrations for much of the day (mostly of hairpin crochet, with a bit of tunisian thrown in), The hairpin really piqued people’s curiosity and I was asked about it lots. I explained it wasn’t new-fangled technique dating to at least Victorian times but, for some reason, had never become widely used. I showed how it could be used to create intricate and delicate shawls but also to produce denser fabrics. It uses less yarn than ordinary crochet, and works up quickly, which is great if you’re an impatient beginner! Most of those stopping by the stall didn’t know what hairpin was, though some had heard of it; only one elderly lady knew exactly what it was. She told me her grandmother had used this technique but that she hadn’t seen it in a long time. I found out she had taught a bit of crochet so I encouraged her to teach this method of crochet which deserves to be more widely known.

Another fascinating conversation sparked off by the hairpin was with a Textiles graduate. From a distance, she seemed totally entranced by what I was doing, before coming to talk to me. Turns out she had tried her hand at most textile crafts but had never encountered hairpin. Not that she got on with crochet at all – apparently, the constant motion of slightly flicking the wrist in crochet wreaked havoc with her neck. My comments about hairpin being an old technique in a relatively young craft surprised her as she believed crochet to be older than knitting, which is ages-old. (Pauline Turner of the International Diploma in Crochet teaches that there is no solid evidence of the craft prior to the 1800s.) The graduate’s eyebrows rocketed! This all lead on to her telling us about her studies, and her dissertation which revolved around the idea of the invisibility of “women’s work” – the cooking and cleaning and clothing – which enabled men to get on in life. Her husband was nearby and smiled at the irony – while his wife studied, it was he who did the housework… much better with the Dyson than she was, in fact! Not content with a Textiles degree, this crafter is going on to do a Masters in Fine Art – no easy thing when the emphasis is textiles. I remember something Grayson Perry said about craft not being valued as highly as art, and how it was more difficult to “come out’ as a crafter than as a transvestite”! Let’s hope this woman manages to shake up the status quo!

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Rare Breed Sheep.. before the music started..

Of course, no wool celebration is complete without sheep. In a spare moment I wandered round the fair and got drawn in by the dancing sheep. Yes, you did read that right. Even scarcer than a rare breed sheep is a dancing rare breed sheep. There was Lenny the Lincoln Longwool, Nobby the Norfolk Horn (a breed rarer than the panda), Dougal the Scottish Blackface, and Sam the Suffolk. These disco woollies were on tour with The Sheep Roadshow. Of the many interesting facts thrown at the audience by Sean the Shearer, here are a choice few: there are more sheep in the UK than the rest of Europe; the waterproof oil in wool is lanolin and is used in cosmetics e.g. lipstick, which is “basically sheep sweat with a pretty colour!” And did you know that sheep have a great sense of smell? Desert sheep can smell water from a distance…

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Rivals for the attention of the public were the (non-dancing) alpacas. They are lovely creatures belonging to the camel family – think camels without humps. Mind you, I’ve tended to think of them as long-legged sheep with elongated necks. But don’t you dare call their fleece wool! For some reason it’s called fibre. Unlike wool, it is hollow in structure, and the absence of lanolin makes it hypoallergenic. There are two types of alpaca based on differences in their fibre: the Huacaya have sheep-esque woolliness; the Suri have long,spiral locks.These camelids are friendly with sheep, goats and chickens and can be kept alongside them. Handily for the chickens, they offer great protection against foxes. But if you’re thinking of keeping a guard-alpaca, do remember that they are herd animals and must be kept on groups of at least three. Not that they’ll vocalise aggressively; they don’t even brazenly bleat like sheep or goats. It’s almost as if they’re ventriloquists, throwing their voices, as the sound doesn’t quite seem to come from them. I now understand why it’s described as “humming”..

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The dragons were of the non-maiden-eating type. They jingled a bit, they skipped a bit, for these were the Green Dragon Morris Dancers, a “family side” meaning that women are allowed to participate.

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Other delights included a sheepdog trial which I, unfortunately, missed, and non-woolly stalls such as the Suffolk Wildlife Trust, and Libbidib Pottery. All in all, an enjoyable weekend – and a lesson learned: don’t pass up an opportunity because of self-doubt.

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Tangled Yarns

Cotton is the most common yarn derived from plants that we hooksters and knitters use, and it was with this in mind that I went to an exhibition by Alke Schmidt at the William Morris Gallery last month. Entitled Tangled Yarns the exhibition examined, through painting and textile arts, the often contradictory politics and morality inherent in the cotton and textile industries over the past two centuries.

IMG_0408Morris’s Dilemma depicts an 1892 triple-expansion spinning mill engine, its cylinders bearing the words CAPITAL and LABOUR. The engine is superimposed against a Morris design: Honeysuckle and Tulip. This piece is easily relevant to the hookster, crochet being an as yet unmechanised craft. What this means. of course, is that our work is more time-consuming. To ask a price for our products that reflects the hours we put into making them may well render the item too expensive for many a purse. William Morris wanted to make useful things beautiful and beauty accessible by everyone. But the irony is that handcrafting goods is rarely both egalitarian and profitable. Morris himself realised this. Though he was horrified by the industrial system of mass production observed in the Lancashire mills, he utilised cloth manufactured there for his printed cottons as this was his only real financially viable option.

IMG_0400A different attitude to mass production was highlighted in End of Empire, which portrays Mahatma Gandhi’s 1931 visit to the Lancashire mills. Though his visit coincided with serious decline in the industry and high unemployment, he was keen to elucidate his push for a boycott of English cloth exports to India. Despite this, Gandhi was welcomed by the workers “as one of their own”. The problem as Gandhi saw it was that the cheaper, faster production of industrially manufactured cotton was devastating the Indian hand-loom trade, and he urged his followers to return to locally spun cloth. This all linked in with Indian independence, and the spinning wheel and hand-loom were taken up as symbols of that struggle.

IMG_0391Child’s Play draws attention to the conditions of the workers that harvest cotton in Uzbekistan today. This country is the fifth biggest exporter of cotton in the world, and child labour was a problem there until 2013. Whilst this seems to have abated, the forced labour of adults persists. Picking cotton by hand results in a finer quality product than if machine harvested. To my mind, forced labour could also apply to environmental degradation and the forcing of nature. Cotton accounts for approximately half of all textiles in the world and, by and large, is farmed in an unsustainable way: water sources are depleted in areas of scarcity, water that remains is polluted by chemicals applied to the crop, and soil also becomes contaminated as well as vulnerable to erosion. The impact this has on ecosystems and biodiversity is huge. What affects the environment  inevitably has repercussions for humankind. The first to suffer will be those same communities subjected to forced labour. Just as there are fair trade and organic clothing companies, there are yarn manufacturers who press for social and environmental justice. For example, Debbie Bliss has generated a range of cotton yarn that is fairly traded and eco-friendly.

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Deeds Not Words was the last piece in the exhibition and echoes one of the rallying slogans of the Suffragettes. It encourages us to make enduring changes in the textile industry whatever link in the supply chain we are. This brings me back to Morris’s dilemma, which I think belongs to everyone. After all, what crafter wouldn’t want people to be treated fairly? But for those of us on tight budgets (myself included), ten balls of yarn to make a jumper may well end up being too costly. The least we can do is compare and contrast yarns and, where possible, substitute ethically produced yarn if they are similarly priced. I have recently discovered an indie yarn shop called Knit With Attitude which sells only ethical yarns, and I’ve noticed some that are reasonably priced. The website has an excellent section on the companies whose products are sold in the shop, so it’s well worth having a nosey. And as the shop is not too far from where I live, I’ll certainly be frequenting there in future!

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Centenary Stitches

One of my lovely gardening clients, who knows I’m a crochet addict, told me of an exhibition she’s heard about on the radio called Centenary Stitches. It sounded very interesting, and I was keen to go. Finding out it was in Lincoln, I figured it was a bit too far to visit just for an exhibition! But then I remembered I had some money-off vouchers from a delayed train journey in the summer, so I decided to use them to day-trip halfway up the country especially. And I’m glad I went – it was a small exhibition, but I spent nearly an hour and a half having a good ol’ rummage around.

The Centenary Stitches project grew from the costuming of a community film called Tell Them of Us. The aim was to create something centred around the war story of ordinary people, not celebrated already by fame or high rank. But these are the people about whom there is typically less documentation. However, one family – the Crowders from the village of Thimbleby in Lincolnshire – had maintained a comprehensive archive containing letters, memoirs and scrapbooks, photos and other items from the Great War years. From this family archive, a script and screenplay developed.

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If the stories of everyman are difficult to discover due to lack of records, costuming and clothing can be even more tricky. Fabrics are fragile, especially the woollens, being susceptible to moth damage or easy to repurpose, for example, through felting. Photographic evidence provides little more information, as these tended to record special events rather than daily attire. Knitting patterns from the era are a more reliable source, though these are problematic for the 21st century yarner thanks to the difference in culture; in the early 20th century, most girls were schooled in knitting and crochet, so patterns didn’t need the details required by many today. For instance, sock instructions could use the short-hand “turn the heel” and the reader could proceed without panic and you-tube how-to guides. Some of the items in this exhibition are clothes crafted for the film, but there are also reproductions of other items from World War One.

There are two woolly stories to be told here: one is military – how knitting affected the lives of troops at the Front; the other is social – the tale of women and how their clothing reflected their increasing emancipation.

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Military uniforms were not enough for the needs of the soldiers, and were supplemented with knitted accessories that came to be known as ‘comforts’. These were sent by women to their loved ones in the trenches, but also distributed by organisations like the Red Cross and Regimental Comforts Fund. Such items included scarves, gloves, balaclavas and smooth-seamed socks. Lord Kitchener, British secretary of state for war and the face of “Your Country Needs You” posters, is credited with the invention of an invisible grafted toe seam which helped prevent blisters – sock patterns of the time were made with a seam up the toe that tended to cause chafing. Among the more unusual knits were knee warmers, often worn over bandages in hospital, and rifleman’s gloves without thumb and trigger finger. Despite the value of their endeavours, many of the crafters put themselves down as being just a “Sister Susie”, and denigrated their war work , believing it to be a minimal contribution because  they did not suffer or don a uniform. But VAD nurse Olive Dent noted otherwise in her diary: “We nurses know how much the gifts and comforts are appreciated… Every stitch..meant a few minutes greater comfort – and correspondingly less pain – from an aching body tortured on our behalf, for our defence and birthrights.” She goes so far as to say that these Sister Susies performed “some of the most valuable war service”.

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Rifleman’s glove

The process of women becoming more active participants in society, in roles that were previously denied them, meant that their clothes had to change. Greater freedom of movement became necessary. There was a shift from garments which needed to be clung to like the shawl, to those such as jumpers and cardigans. Women started to ditch the restrictive corset and this was hastened by metal shortages brought about by the war – metal, of course, was needed to construct the framework of corsets. Apart from maintaining a rigid, upright posture, corsets also provided an insulating layer  to the torso so all that would be required to stave off the chill might be a shawl. Without this thermal layer, those same garments enabling freer movement, the waistcoats etc, became fundamental for warmth.

The costume design for the film was based on original knitting patterns from the Edwardian period as well as photographs of the eldest Crowder sister, Grace, whose clothing was ‘reverse-engineered’ by specialist knitters. Looking around the exhibition, most of the items were knitted which is hardly surprising given that, traditionally, crochet uses more yarn, which isn’t conducive to the frugality that the war demanded. One of my favourite pieces was a knitted wrap waistcoat.

Knitted wrap waistcoat with crocheted embellishment

Its maker said she was excited to see the way garter stitch was used in this pattern because people usually think garter stitch is boring. It has a crocheted embellishment on the belt, which I liked. Other crocheted items included a bag, shawls and hats. The most surprising item was a tie done in Tunisian crochet, certainly an unusual technique today as I suspect it was then, too.

Tunisian crocheted tie

Commemorating a war through its woolies is an unusual venture, perhaps deemed too trivial in comparison with the horrors endured by the soldiers, or not dramatic enough to be considered. But knitting and crochet really did play an important, if understated, role.

 Further Reading

http://www.centenarystitches.wordpress.com

Jane Crowfoot, The Kitchener Stitch, in The Knitter, Issue 19

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Knitbone

A sunny day emerged from the horizon and the end of an exhibition loomed so, today, I took me down to Kew Garden for ‘Plantasia’.  I’d heard there were knitty things there which added extra appeal on top of the planty things I wanted to see..

Now, I like a yarn-bomb as much as the next person, those pops of colour and creativity brightening up grey surrounds. I especially liked the monster feet that Knit Diss was so fond of doing (see www.knitdiss.wordpress.com/yarn-bombing-gallery/) However, I haven’t been so keen on these yarn-wrapping escapades when done on trees.  I suspected it mightn’t be good for our arboreal friends.  But hey!  if it’s okay by the boffs at Kew, I’m slightly more won over.  Though I do like to admire a tree trunk for its own beauty, and would prefer that such adornments are made for boring lamp-posts etc.

These two cosified trees are the Northern Pin Oak (Quercus ellipsoidalis) and, in the distance, the Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera).The project was carried out by Knitiffi with the help of 50 knitters. ( www.knitiffi.blogspot.com ) Take a closer look and you’ll spot that there was a lot of crocheted contributions too.

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On the other side of the garden, I visited the Healing Giant.  This display comprised raised beds in human outline, with medicinal plants growing in the body areas which they help heal.  For example, in the heart region was Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus), which has historically been applied to heart problems, and is now being researched for its potential to decrease blood pressure. Another knitting link here is the plant Comfrey (Symphytum officinale), traditionally known as Knitbone for its reputation of mending fractures and broken bones.  I once worked for a woman who swears by the stuff. She had broken her elbow and was told by her doctor that she’d never be able to straighten her arm. She treated her arm daily with Knitbone for a while and to the surprise of the doctors was able to hold her arm out flat.

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There’s no doubt about it in my mind – the healing powers of plants is amazing.  But so too is the healing power of crochet and knitting, which has been recognised for their benefits to mental well-being.

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I was in one of my favourite shops, Lush, recently and spotted this postcard as I was paying for my soap..

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Wool Against Weapons is part of a peace campaign aimed at banning nuclear weapons.  The request is to contribute a 60cm x 100cm knitted or crocheted piece (peace!) in … PINK!  My least favourite colour. Funnily enough, I was chatting to the cashier about it and she happened to be a knitter.  She said although she loves the colour pink, she doesn’t like knitting with it!  We laughed about how bizarre that is..

The crocheted and knitted rectangles will be stitched together to create a seven mile long peace scarf, to extend between two Atomic Weapons Establishments: Aldermaston and Burghfield in Berkshire, unrolled and twined into place on 9th August 2014 (Nagasaki Day)  For more info about the event and how to get involved, visit: www.woolagainstweapons.co.uk

Here is my rectangle in progress:

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The suggested number of crochet stitches required to reach the right width is 75, but I found I needed 90!  Something I learned doing the IDC is that the taller stitches spread more than the lowly dc – obvious now I know, but I never observed it before it was pointed out.  So one of the reasons for needing more stitches was the type of stitch I’m using.  I’ve chosen something basic in order to  finish up quickly and without hassle(!) I prefer texture to colour work so I’ve interspersed trebles into rows of dc, creating simple bobbles.

I won’t have enough pink yarn to complete a metre..  No doubt I’ll end up with more left-over pink.. Groan..

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June 8, 2014 · 2:53 pm

Inspired by Nature

Nature is a common theme from which designers draw inspiration.  Browsing some recent magazines, I noticed several people citing the natural world as their muse, whilst others named patterns after natural elements, whether a “gnarled bark” beret or a “birchwood” cowl.  Floral corsages or brooches are popular too, and the cover of a recent Inside Crochet magazine encourages readers to “Go botanical with our latest floral designs”.

This is by no means a modern trend.  An exhibition at the GardenMuseum (which ended last month – this post has been a long time in coming!)  showed how fashion over the centuries has copied nature and, intriguingly, how horticulture has sometimes emulated clothing.  Embroidery had an impact on gardening in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, particularly in Europe when the craze for intaglio took hold in the gardens of the elite. Evergreens such as box, hyssop and thyme were tightly clipped to form elaborate scrolls and knots which were very similar to those found edging clothes. The parterre de broderie literally means the embroidered parterre, and was pure pattern-work, involving no flowers.  The English, however, seemed keener to include blooms among these intricate loops and whorls.

Botanical realism was much more a focus in British clothing than in France and the rest of Europe, where depictions of plants were often stylized.  Around the time that Herbals were being printed, flowers started featuring on British clothing. They were a common motif throughout the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1st and until the death of her successor King James 1st.  Hedgerow blossom appeared alongside imported newbies, from honeysuckle and pansies to tulips (originally from Turkey) and African marigolds.

pansy flower macro photography

The enthusiasm for floriferous decoration may have diminished for a while, but returned in the 18th century. During the period between 1720 and the early 1760s, when dress styles remained static, it was through patterns woven into fabric that fashionable variety was created.  Silk weavers based around Spitalfields, for instance, endevoured to provide new designs each year, and floral motifs were a recurrent theme.  Anna Maria Garthwaite and other successful designers even joined botanical societies and were able to view the latest species arriving on our shores.  No real surprise, then, that one of London’s biggest nurseries was situated next to Spitalfields.  Whilst Capability Brown’s stark landscape style came to dominate garden design, nurserymen courted the dressmaker’s interest, and a rare anemone was equally likely to be snapped up for the loom or needle as for horticultural use.

In the 19th century, Victorian innovation meant that colour became more vibrant, both in horticulture and fashion.  Technological advances in heating and glazing were instrumental in the mania for carpet bedding; half-hardy perennials, usually unsuited to our climate, could be started off early in the season and planted out en masse in garish patterns when the threat of frost had passed.  Bedding schemes changes yearly so gardens could change their clothes, so to speak, as often as a lady changed her wardrobe.  Meanwhile, a similar eruption of colour in fashion occurred as chemists discovered how to intensify hues and developed synthetic dyes.  A new language of colour emerged with Michael Chevreal’s formulation of the Colour Wheel, still in use today.  This classification of colour according to whether they harmonised or clashed was applicable in fashion and gardens alike.  In 1861, the article ‘Colour in Dress, Furniture and Gardens’  was publishes in the Englishwaman’s Domestic Magazine,  which explained colour theory and how to use it.

Eventually this fervour for vivid tones subsided due to a snobbish reaction to its prevalence.  Public parks created by philanthropists for the benefit of the poor meant that bedding schemes originating in wealthy gardens were now for the ordinary public to appreciate.  Likewise, cheap dyes became more readily available so bold colours were no longer the prerogative of the elite.  By the 1870s, more sedate hues created a soft haze in the herbaceous borders and, in clothing, white became a status colour.  It showed up dirt, so indicated the wearer was not a labourer.

Returning to the present day..  I’m looking forward to the completion of the Suffolk Collection by knit and hookwear designer Joanne Scrace.  The basis for stitch patterns and construction is the undulating landscape of East Anglia, and its colours and shapes, the countryside where she was raised and still lives.

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