Posted on

Planted In Memory

Originally published in Pom Pom Quarterly, Issue 28, Spring 2019

When we knit, we are using plants indirectly and directly. It can sometimes get confusing which is which. Even the most carnivorous among us ingests some plant-based nutrition and that will be part of the energy that fuels our stitches. Certainly the chocolate and wine that enhance many a night of knitting come primarily from plants (thanks to human interference honed through the ages). Knitting needles or crochet hooks made of bamboo or birch often come directly from the plant. There’s careful selection before drying, shaping and sanding. Yet, needles and hooks can still be called bamboo and birch if they are formed from composites, meaning that particles left over from the cutting and sanding of larger pieces are bonded using adhesives. It’s still a direct process – you take the shavings directly from the raw material, mix them with glue, press real hard and then start the shaping and sanding process from the ‘new’ material.

When bamboo and birch are used to make yarn, they have to go through a more indirect process. Manufactured cellulose fibres come from the bark, wood and leaves of plants, be they grasses, shrubs, seaweed, or trees. These fibres might be familiar to you under names such as bamboo, rose, eucalyptus, viscose, rayon, modal, acetate, lyocell, Tencel, and seacell. They are what are known as semi-synthetics, meaning that their origin is more recently based in plants than in the petro-chemicals from which full synthetics are made. Crude oil was once also plants and animals, just a reeeeeeeeaally long time ago, so it’s possible to think of acrylic yarn as spun from dinosaurs*, in the same way that viscose comes from bamboo – it’s not a direct process.

For plant-based protein fibres from sources such as soya bean, corn, and peanut, it is the proteins that require extraction and spinning (in the same way that milk alternatives can be produced). For manufactured cellulose (also called regenerated cellulosic) fibres, it is the cellulose that is isolated for use. To put both processes crudely, to get semi-synthetic fibres/thread/ yarn from plant sources such as bamboo and birch, the plant bits are pulped and then melted down using multiple intense chemicals. Certain parts of the goop are isolated to be extruded, stretched out, and spun into fibres. A lot of water is involved. If this process can happen in a closed-loop system, where water and waste are carefully managed with less noxious chemicals, then problems are mitigated. In the rapidly changing array of these types of fibres, there is constant improvement.

The thing is, manufactured cellulose certainly is plant-based, but much more tenuously so than we might imagine. Many people might think that bamboo goes through a process from plant to fibre that echoes that of traditionally processed tough-cookies such as flax, hemp or nettle. Though traditional processes vary and are not without their own issues, put simply, the plant is harvested, whacked about to start breaking things down, then left to rot in water (this is called retting, and is now often sped up by the addition of chemicals), so only the stringiest, least degradable bits remain. These are whacked about a bit more to further soften them and then combed before being spun. No melting into goop and reforming. You can’t get thread from bamboo (or birch) like this, no way, no how. To me, the easiest distinction between traditional and semi-synthetic processes is to think about the former as being able to take place in living rooms or small farms (but let’s not be romantic and ignore the dust, hardships and danger of any form of textile production, or forget that it is the origin of the problematic Industrial Revolution, as well as having links to slavery, past and present). The semi-synthetics, on the other hand, have their origins in labs and require factories to carry out the processes.

To further complicate matters, our ‘living-room’ plant fibres, cotton, flax, hemp and nettle, like almost any other plants, can be used as bases for semi-synthetics. Alternatively, scientifically introduced enzymes can be called into action to speed up the process of softening them for our delicate contemporary taste. Also, on an industrial scale, the raw fibres can be altered through a process called cottonising. The vast majority of machinery in the textile industry has been built around processing cotton or wool, whose staple lengths range from 10cm (for cotton) to around 30cm (for wool). These machines can’t deal with bast fibres (the general name for fibres that come from stems, such as linen, hemp and nettle) that can clock in at 2m. By mechanically breaking down the length and width of flax, nettle and hemp staples, they can be spun alongside cotton and wool. A combination of these industrialised nature-modifiers appear to be behind the sudden boom of tricot fabrics (the tiny-scale knits used especially for T-shirts and socks), containing blends of hemp, nettle and/or linen with cotton. It’s also how a lot of yarn blends come into existence for us crafty folk. We should expect these factory fibres to behave differently from traditionally processed and spun hemp, nettle and linen, because they have been developed to have different characteristics. The drape and strength will certainly be different with these shortened fibres. This is why you can break many of the new linen blends by hand, rather than needing scissors, which the more traditional stuff does. Even in the face of these new processes, the number of plants we rely on for fibres has dropped dramatically over the past 200 years, through declining biodiversity, loss of knowledge, and market forces.

Throughout human history, we have nurtured our understanding of the plants we use, through selective gathering, breeding and, more recently, the sped-up version: genetic engineering. The resulting materials can be as raw as a hand-turned crochet hook, or as processed as the evolving semi-synthetics that take the place of fossil-based synthetics. So much remains to be learnt from plants, especially with a whole other dimension opening up in the field of plant neurobiology.

Plant neurobiology is a branch of science using evidence- based research to demonstrate how plants learn and have memory. It has already been established that plants do have cognitive abilities, and these new studies are sending tendrils out to explore how far these senses extend. There are convincing results that show exchange of knowledge and resources within interspecies communities through underground root networks, much like a botanical Ravelry. The discourse around this field raises ethical and philosophical questions, echoing semantic, identity, and classification debates happening elsewhere in the human world. To a large extent, the contention lies in what these senses should be called, and what we understand that to mean, based on existing cultural norms. You see, plant intelligence takes the pecking order that has always put humans on top and literally turns it on its head, because it is the plants’ root system that is most akin to our brain- centred neural networks.

There are many ways to learn and many different sorts of intelligence in humans, and the same is true with other fauna. Recognising the same possibilities in flora shakes things up. At the crux of evolutionary differences seems to be that the type of neurology anchored in brains, as we currently think of them, benefits self-contained movers and shakers such as humans, but wouldn’t suit relatively sedentary yet segmentable plants. Plants use different cognitive systems that we brain-centric beings haven’t been savvy enough to identify or value until now. Alongside the burgeoning of artificial intelligence, we are provided with prescient reasons to scrutinise alternative complex networks and their implications.

Anthropomorphism is inevitable, however green matter definitely thinks differently from grey matter, while artificial intelligence provides yet another angle. Human reasoning enjoys picking sides, so one becomes good and the other bad. We label things. We are storytellers and listeners. This is a key part of how we make sense of the world and are moved to support what we believe. I notice this happening a lot in our world of fibres. While filled with so much warmth, care and knowledge, the strong feelings, doses of snobbery, careful positioning and greenwashing can make it increasingly hard to dig up the bigger picture of fibres – and how we process them affects our future in terms of sustainability. While my own senses prefer the more traditionally processed fibres, both animal and vegetable, I am aware that this is based largely on what I can grasp, with my hands and mind. I find it easier to comprehend and judge whether and where they could be made more sustainable. When it comes to the newer ones, I must rely on what I am told without the benefit of generations of tacit knowledge.

Biodiversity would be a great thing to focus on as the artificial elements (synthetic fibres, genetic engineering, and machinery) we have introduced expand. It’s important to be conscious of whether we are making more fibres, of any description, because the growing human population needs protecting from the elements, or simply because we want more variety in our wardrobes. A lot of the emphasis on speed and economy of production, even environmental impact, is in line with desired consumption, not protection of the botanical world, which we now know has an intelligence all of its own. We need to ask how our desire for fibres affects the planet as a whole – humanity and plant kingdom alike.

*Actually crude oil is formed from marine life older than dinosaurs, but it’s more fun to think of dino-yarn.

Further reading
The Intelligent Plant intelligent-plant
Pavlov’s Plants: New Study Shows Plants Can Learn From Experience shows-plants-can-learn-from-experience-69794
Technology Could Allow Hemp And Flax To Break Cotton’s Global Hold On Textiles bast-cotton-crailar
Preparation of Enzymatically Modified Flax Fiber for Producing of Rotor-Spun Yarn for Apparel
Textile Qualities of Regenerated Cellulose Fibers from Cotton Waste Pulp /10.1177/0040517517 723021
Fibers & Fiber Plants
A Brief History of Regenerated Cellulosic Fibres regenerated.html
Eucalyptus fibre by any other name
Producing Forest Products From Birch Trees

Posted on

Yarn Forward

Originally published in Pom Pom Quarterly, Issue 27, Winter 2018

When we look to the past for inspiration, we are always being selective. The past and the future are fantasies of different sorts, filtered and shaped by the present. They provide a rich seam for inspiring knits, knitting and how to wear our creations, but those dreams are always more of a reflection of current realities and desires than they are about a time passed or to come.

I find it hard to idolise the apparent realities of the past; the dominant narratives are narrow and violent and I don’t want to invite them onto my needles. The lion’s share of recorded history was/is authored by, and pictures, straight, white, affluent men perpetuating power structures that hold little romantic or creative value to me. I do dabble in imagining a past that would lead to a future I would like to be living in, but mostly, I try to focus on now. That requires some imagining too.

Let’s imagine this as a natural history documentary. Picture a camera close-up into an underground burrow, but it’s an upstairs room in a pub. Instead of a covering of straw and down enveloping a huddle of fresh-eyed fuzzballs, ancient upholstered chairs hold a tangle of knitters, animatedly chirping and squeaking. I would like you to imagine this in David Attenborough’s voice, because frankly, that makes everything better. David narrates: “Once on the brink of extinction, these beautiful creatures are thriving, even in the face of dramatic changes in the environment. We ascribe this to their ability to adapt: to function as a community, and to innovate. For these shy yet fierce creatures, it has been predominantly the females of the species, the flamboyant males and those of a non-binary nature, who have ensured their continued presence in a harsh world. Their fight isn’t over, but the numbers are healthy.” Cue dramatic music.

For a good while, it has been habit to think of knitting as historical, as part of the past – but knitting has been saved. Saved from the brink of extinction. Hell, in my mind, it’s even off the endangered species watch list. If preservation is our main concern, it’s useful to note that there were more pussyhats marching on Washington on January 21, 2017 than there are big cats left in the wild. That march was a historic moment and knitting was a big part of it. Not because knitting is inherently historic, political, liberal or feminist, nor because it was chosen by those who raised their voices and organised on that occasion, but because it makes sense within the networks of mass communication and skills available to us right now. Not as a re-enactment drama, throwback or sympathy vote, but as a prescient, vigorous, and living practice. Because knitting is thriving and adapting in many ways.

Much of the current health of knitting could easily be attributed solely to the adoption and proliferation of digital technology. This has certainly eased the formation and interaction of communities. While it is absolutely true that computers, smartphones and the world wide web have been essential, they are the vehicle, rather than the driver. To even give the digital cogs the honour of the shotgun seat would be to miss the playful joy of the constant revisions and innovations in how and what we knit. Not only in how knitting travels through society, but in the fabric itself.

Brioche, double knitting, marlisle, shaped intarsia and stacked stitches… In some senses, these techniques have always been around in some shape or form, because they rely on the existing canon of knitting stitches, but oh what we do with them nowadays! It’s not like it used to be. Almost unrecognisable. And in recognising the folks who are helping to take them places, we are also doing something modern. By being able to cite and thank those who have dedicated their time to the betterment and diversity of our stitching pleasure, we break from a past whose ’unventers’ largely flowed namelessly back into the ebb of history. So, thank you to the likes of the very alive Nancy Marchant, Nathan Taylor, Lucy Neatby, Alasdair Post-Quinn, Wendy Peterson, Jana Huck, Britt-Marie Christoffersson and Xandy Peters for guiding the adventurous to the next frontier. There are so many others, including those who are not (knitting) household names or simply not familiar to me – testimony to the fact that the knitting world is huge, encompassing many different countries and cultures, and operates on many channels, thus making omniscience impossible.

When considering attribution and authorship, this could easily become a discussion about intellectual property, copying, copyright, credit, influence and etiquette, but these are subjects worth focusing on in their own right, on another occasion. To me, knitting is inherently open-source and stays relevant, exciting and healthy because of that. It’s what allows us to build on what exists, without necessarily needing to reinvent the heel. Being able to recognise and acknowledge an individual’s contribution is not mutually exclusive with being open-source. And so new systems, such as Cecelia Campochiaro’s Sequence Knitting or Felicity Ford’s Knitsonik stranded colourwork method, allow us to relook at our approaches to knitting and firmly empower us to knit on, with a new lease on familiar ground. We can nod our thanks to Hitomi Shida and Andrea Rangel for creating and compiling new stitch dictionaries. We also have designers pushing the boat out with construction, and sailing us to places we haven’t stitched before. Captains such as Olga Buraya-Kefelian, Woolly Wormhead, Svetlana Gordon, Bristol Ivy, Lucy Hague, Cookie A, and, of course, Norah Gaughan.

Our journeys to these new lands are often made possible by tools that are innovative in themselves. Many advancements have been digital, with apps such as Cathy Scott’s StitchMastery software for creating knitting charts, Hannah Fettig’s Stashbot for calculating yarn quantities on the fly, and platforms such as Ravelry, founded by Casey and Jessica Forbes. However, gadgets such as the Sirka counter from Sarah Jackson, for keeping track of multiple sets of numbers while you knit, is a firmly analogue solution. As are those sets of three needles that allow you to knit small circumferences in the round, which appeared on my radar this year. Having grown accustomed to circulars, interchangeables, carbon and square, who even thought there was space for another kind/configuration of needle? For knitting small circumferences in the round, Addi’s Crasy Trios follow on from the shortest short circular needles with one tip longer than the other (pioneered by Kinki Ambari) – and are a sort of mash-up between circular needles, magic-loop, DPNs and the three- needle system employed when using a knitting belt.

And sheep are on the move too – did you know that farmer Emma Boyles and shepherd Susie Parish, of The Little Grey Sheep, have come up with a new breed, the Stein Fine Wool sheep? Originally crossed from Gotland, Shetland and Merino, this breed is reared for the quality of its fleece in a market dominated for decades by breed development focused solely on high-yield lambing and meat production.

When it comes to dyeing yarn, the ingredients and equipment have changed little in recent years, but hand-dyers are honing their skills in regards to scale and repeatability of previously small-batch speckling, glazing, and space-dyeing. The effect of these innovations on how colour can be applied to knitting projects as one of the endless varieties of self- striping socks, planned pooling, and fades to be found, broadens our ideas of how we knit, and is supported by designers such as Andrea Mowry and Stephen West. The possibilities are literally dyed in the wool; a new approach to intentional colour placement, standing on the wool-clad shoulders of colourwork luminaries such as Kaffe Fassett, Kieran Foley, and Marie Wallin.

Even cognitive research is currently engaged in forwarding our understanding of knitting, recently finding it beneficial for mental health and for staving off Alzheimer’s and dementia. Notably, for the latter two, only when knitting is practised in such a way as to create new neurological pathways: you have to knit something unfamiliar, something new to you. It seems even our health relies on knitting being innovative and challenging, even if just on a personal level.

Yet despite these constant progressions, we keep on thinking and talking of knitting as historical and bound with tradition. Tradition is not inherently good. There are plenty of traditions that have fallen by the wayside or actively needed curbing, including ones that pertain to knitting (hello Shetland’s truck system and other methods of low pay). Yes, people of many persuasions have knit their way through a good chunk of history, and history includes the best of times and the worst of times. Just because it has been done for hundreds of years doesn’t make knitting an intrinsically historic occupation, but it is constantly historicised in a way that other actions and skills are not. People throughout history have had sex, and in more recent history, have taken to using spoons, yet we do not consider anyone having sex or using spoons as predominantly concerned with maintaining historical traditions. So much of the ‘thing’ around knitting is about its preservation, often just for the sake of preservation. For the longevity and health of knitting, it might actually be more prescient to not constantly historicise it, and tie it down with its roots, but instead allow it to just be. It might not even need romanticising: it might actually be good enough as it is. Because, you see, currently, exactly RIGHT NOW, knitting is particularly vibrant and progressive, and to see it as simply maintaining a tradition would be to ignore how much more is happening in knitting now than ever before. Not to mention how much more is possible in the future.

Posted on


In the spirit of clearing up/out and getting things in order for whatever is next, here are some notes I’ve had half-typed up for a good long while. More than five years ago and possibly less than ten, I was given a knitting machine by the neighbour of friends – she had dementia and no longer had the capacity to use the machines. She could still remember what belonged with what. In this way I got a standard gauge Brother machine, the machine knitting section of her bookshelf and a Hague Linker (a blue thing on a tripod that she knew I needed, but not what it was anymore – at the time, I had NO idea). It seemed respectful to learn what to do with all of it. Up until then I’d had the standard hand knitters’ opinion that machine knitting was somehow cheating, in some dramatically different way than using a sewing machine, drill or blender. I took a year of machine knitting classes at Morley College on Fridays with Jo Thompson. It changed the way I knit and think about knitting, enriching my hand knitting and how I approached it, as well as adding a whole new set of skills and options provided by the machine. While the stitches formed by both hand and machine have the same structure, each can lend itself better to certain things. Some things are harder to do by machine that can easily be done by hand, and others harder by hand than by machine. And of course, there’s the time factor, which makes them very different beasts indeed.

For the most part, I now knit things by hand that don’t make sense on the machine. Certainly, I try to design hand knitting patterns that are intrinsically easier or indeed only possible by hand, with all the accompanying challenges and satisfactions. Yet, occasionally a pattern pops out that can be easily adapted to be made on the machine too.

My Halvis and Visser sweaters use the same basic construction, with subtly tweaked dimensions. Halvis is written to be worked in 4ply/fingering weight and Visser in DK/light worsted. It’s an unusual construction, which I hadn’t come across before, though all likelihood it was out there. I’ve certainly seen it adopted elsewhere since. I am especially proud of it, as not only does that make for an interesting knit (even for the seasoned knitters amongst us), but it importantly also looks good on the many different bodies I have seen versions on. Garments with sideways knit bodies usually rely on batwings to allow movement around the armholes. The inset Sleeves of Halvis and Visser, with the extra hidden ‘seam’, creates more structure that doesn’t slouch or ‘pull’ at the shoulders the way it can with a batwing. There’s also less ‘wing’, making it a shape less easy to date, and the decorative decreases along the top, rather than under the sleeves are fun and follow the body well. I wear mine for a comfortable, oversized fit, but this can be adjusted to personal taste.

Having knitted both a Halvis and Visser sweater by hand, I then made one of each using a knitting machine. By hand, it’s A LOT of stocking stitch, which, I know, at times/for some can be wonderful, repetitive yet productive, mindless/full satisfaction. As someone who knits as work, it just feels like, well, a lot of slow-going, work. Work that a knitting machine could do quicker.

I have no experience of following or writing patterns for use with a knitting machine. My intention is to give pointers to help you adapt my hand knitting patterns for machine, but you’ll need to rely on your own experience and smarts. And you’ll need to have bought the Halvis and/or Visser patterns for any of this to make any sense at all. You can find them for purchase here: Halvis and Visser.

These notes are not intended to be or replace the pattern in any way, but hopefully they make some sense and will help you with your own puzzling and calculations. They are also notes for myself, if I ever make more by machine (because, while I think I will remember, I won’t). 

– Just a little reminder, cause you’re on a knitting machine, not knitting flat by hand: you will always be working from the wrong side (aka. with WS facing), so adjust accordingly. 
– You will still need to work the corrugated rib Neckband and Bottom Edge by hand.

In terms of machines and accessories, I have both Brother standard gauge and chunky machines. I do not use a ribber (haven’t learnt how yet), so the following tips are based on using a single bed (with no ribber attached), and the standard transfer (1, 2 and 3 stitch) tools and latch hook that come with the machine. I also used scrap yarn for casting on and off (explained in ‘Scrap Yarn for Grafting’ below).

My personal handknit gauge ratio (stitches to rows) is close enough to match the knitting machine gauge ratio, so I was fine to combine machine and hand knitting. It also doesn’t bother me that the stitches worked on the machine are just slightly smoother than those I work by hand. After blocking and wear, the difference really fades away. And most folks looking wouldn’t spot it (or mention it if they did), and the folks who do, well, they’ve probably got bigger problems being them.

In other words, you gotta swatch for both hand and machine tension, if using both, so they match (closely enough). And make note of what they are somewhere you will for sure remember where, for future reference.

I worked my Halvis Body on a standard gauge domestic Brother (with no ribber attached).
– I set the tension dial to 7.
– I set the tension dial to 10 to work the cast-off row for the Upper Body (on Front and Back, that becomes one side of each armhole). Just remember to put it back to 7 after!

I worked my Visser Body on a chunky gauge domestic Brother (with no ribber attached). It was a while ago (a few years), so I don’t remember the settings. I’ll add them if I make another one.

Depending on how many needles you have in the bed of your machine, you may not be able to work the larger sizes on the machine (without shortening the length of the Body (which could in turn be replaced with longer ribbing…)). To check, compare the number of needles you have on your machine with the greatest number of stitches you will need, as specified in the pattern. This will be the number of stitches that span the top of shoulder to the bottom edge. As long as your machine has enough needles for the largest amount of stitches – the drop from top of the shoulder to bottom edge – you are good to go with the numbers in the pattern, as is.

Maximum number of Body stitches needed for Halvis: 131 (133, 137, 143, 147, 153) sts.

Maximum number of Body stitches needed for Visser: 105 (110, 115, 122, 127, 134) sts.

Make sure to cast on the stitches far enough over, so that as you increase for the Underarm Shaping and Upper Body, you have sufficient needles available. To be sure, you could start at the very right edge of your needle bed (and always increase on the left side). I prefer to work as close to the centre of my needle bed as I can, so I did the little extra calculations to work out where on my bed to start, so I ended my final increase on the far left of my needle bed.

If you want to lengthen the Body (and have the spare needles in your bed to do so), cast on extra stitches at the start and maintain these throughout, keeping them consistently in the Lower Body. This is clearly explained and highlighted in the Halvis pattern and not hard to work out in the Visser pattern.

Sleeves should be placed centrally on the bed.

If you wish to graft the seam along the edge of the Lower Body (rather than mattress stitch it – both options given in patterns), cast on and off with a few rows of scrap yarn (say, at least 6) in a noticeably different colour. Use a smooth yarn you can easily pull out – I know my machines came with a really slippery line of nylon cording that can easily be pulled out. Then, graft together BEFORE unravelling or otherwise removing waste yarn.

Do away with the garter edge. It is there as a guideline to make picking up stitches easier and neater, but it isn’t a necessity. A garter edge is easy to do when knitting by hand, but, while possible and not complicated, slows things down when using a knitting machine, for minimal benefit.

To work the 3-row stripes, I removed and replaced the carriage on the other side of the needle bed (quicker, safer and less fuzz-inducing than putting stitches on hold every few rows). Yes, it is a fiddle. I found it useful to put the guide rails on.

When increasing avoid creating an eyelet. I used the 3-st transfer tool. I transferred 3 sts over to the left to leave a needle free and then twisted the strand in between (using the single stitch transfer tool) and placed it on the freed up needle. I made sure to always twist each increase stitch in the same direction (to replicate the M1R on RS specified in the pattern). 

Make sure all decreases will look the same on the RS, remembering that you are always working from the WS on a knitting machine. To decrease, so that the decreases work like a k2tog on the RS (p2tog is used on the WS) as specified in the pattern, I used the 1-st transfer tool to move the 4th st in from the edge, to the left, onto the 3rd st in from the edge and then used the 3-st transfer tool to move the edge 3 sts (including the doubled stitch) to the right, to close the gap. 

Just a couple of extra suggestions to make it fit how you need/like…
For a small increase, I’d suggest adding a Stripe each of A and B to Front and Back Necklines (+4 Stripes in total), which would widen the neckline a little. You would then need to add the extra stitches to the corrugated rib neckline (that will, ideally, be obvious how to once you get there).
You could sneak 3 extra Stripes in (colour order; B, A, B) in the straight section at the centre under each armpit (+6 Stripes in total). You would then need to pay attention to the knock-on effect on the armholes – Sleeves would need to be 6 sts bigger.
Add 2 Stripes (one each of A and B) on each Shoulder (+8 Stripes in total). If you wanted to keep the length true to the pattern, you’d need to shorten the Lower Body length to account for extra decreases that will be made, by transferring then from Lower to Upper Body, or add those extra stitches to the Upper Body.

Do not be tempted to leave stitches live on the Upper Body when creating the armholes for the Sleeves (whether by casting on with a provisional cast-on or not casting off). The specified ‘seam’ (picked-up-and-knitted into the cast on/off) is necessary for the structural soundness of the garment. Do make sure to cast on/off the stitches loosely around the armholes. Loosely, because when you pick-up-and-knit into them, these stitches need some space. For casting off, you can do this by increasing gauge on the row you will cast off (it’s standard to turn the tension dial up by 3). Just remember to return the dial to the regular setting afterwards!

I used the machine to work the Bodies only, because I wanted to keep the Sleeves knitted in the round (by hand). In this way, the construction stays pretty much true to how the patterns are written. It is however possible to knit the Sleeves on the machine too. I haven’t tried it myself yet, but I’ve thought it through. I would suggest trying it as follows.
You can cast on the Sleeves as separate pieces to sew up and on later OR you can rehang the Body on the machine and work directly from it. If you wish to do this, do graft or sew up the side of the Lower Body BEFORE hanging on the machine to work the Sleeves, but do not sew up the Shoulder seams until AFTER. Re-hang the Body (from the armholes, with the underarm in the centre) on the machine to work the Sleeves directly from the Body.

Split the instructions for working in the round in the centre of the decreases. The decreases should be worked a couple of stitches in from the edges, in the manner used for the decreases on the Shoulders. Make sure to add an extra stitch at each edge, to give yourself a seam allowance (selvedge) along both edges of the Sleeve (these are not present/necessary when knitting in the round).

You want to keep the decreases where they are, running along the top of the Sleeve, because they are a decorative feature of the sweater. Also, I don’t suggest working the Sleeves with the seam under the arm, because, as the decreases run along the top of the Sleeve, NOT underneath, this would mean a ton of transferring of stitches, as the decreases would fall in the centre of the of the stitches being worked. 

Once the Sleeves are complete, you will then seam all the way from the Shoulder (neckline edge), down the Sleeve to the cuff. Finally work the Neckband by hand.

Links to patterns:

Posted on

Picturing Many Moons

Originally published in Pom Pom Quarterly, Issue 26, Autumn 2018

Like the cycles of the moon, stitches make an excellent marker of the passage of time. Each stitch is a unit, equivalent to the seconds it took to shape. When knitting in the round, we even make ourselves an alternative clock face that our hands travel round, leaving behind them indelible marks of minutes, and then hours, passed in stitches. The stitches we form are a beautiful manifestation of time, the benefits of age, and the acquired knowledge for shaping them. So why is it that these accumulated years are not celebrated, but derided in jokes about older women and caricatures of grandmothers? And why is ageing absent from the majority of images presented to us?

‘Knitting isn’t just for grandmothers’ is a very true statement in one sense, yet it often carries the implication that an activity associated with older women needs reclaiming or reinventing to make it relevant to others. Who decides what constitutes ‘old’ anyway? It is an elastic term. On a personal level, it shifts constantly in relation to our own age and those in our orbit. When you’re five, eight is old. When you are 58, 85 is old. When I was 5, my grandmother seemed old at 70; I’m now aged 39, and my 70-year-old mother still seems young. All my grandparents died at around 84, so while I am not old old, I am now halfway there by my family’s standards.

My current circumstances dictate that I will never be a grandmother, so I will not be able to use that title as a marker of true oldness. On a cultural level, old age is also flexible, expanding or contracting in relation to what and whom it is describing, as well as fluctuating with historical and geographical variations in life expectancy.

If ‘grandmother’ is being used as a stand-in term for ‘old woman’, perhaps it is useful to look at when a woman can become a grandmother as a marker of what that term can mean – bearing in mind that becoming a grandmother is an involuntary act. Let’s observe the UK age of consent, which dictates that sexual intercourse of the sort that can produce a baby is legal from the age of 16. Then, taking human gestation periods into account, this means that you could be a grandmother at 33. This probably isn’t the age most of us imagine when we think about grandmothers knitting. It is likely that we are picturing someone at least double that age, and a caricature at that.

Older women who knit, whether or not they are caricatured as ‘grandmothers’, are without doubt many moons older than the women that typically appear on knitting social media, or the models, professional or otherwise, we see pictured in knitting patterns. Knitting unites ages, and allows many occasions for intergenerational friendship, support and the exchange of knowledge through a levelling shared interest. However, there is a bias towards youth in the images produced by the knitting world as a whole, whether by knitters or businesses. The pictures that we see, and post ourselves on social media, are important, because as the the old adage says, seeing is believing.

Businesses certainly still rely heavily on the standard dogma of youth-worship in advertising. A change is overdue, and likely to happen slowly, but we can hurry it along by actively supporting more age-diverse imagery with equal likes, shares and purchases. The number of knitting designers who model for their own patterns dwindles dramatically among the over 40s crowd and falls off even more dramatically among the over 50s. I think this will change as the designers who found their stride during the Ravelry-led transformation of the knitting world continue to self-publish and model their own designs. They already seem at ease with being inextricably bound with their own branding, so one can only hope that we will have the joy of ageing along with them.

Knitters are a smart bunch but that doesn’t mean we currently have the capacity to instantly shed years of being influenced by the advertising industry insidiously telling us what type of pictures sell products. While we may want to see our own diverse selves reflected, we may not yet be in a position to actually perceive such images as anything more than a novelty, open to judgement in a way that images of ‘standard’ models are not. But we can work on this by supporting those who are already making the change and joining in ourselves. There might be an element of being sacrificial mutton, but social change relies on brave souls to push for it by being the change they want to see.

Away from the narrow frame of companies’ images, swathes of society have been turning the camera on themselves. While selfies are easily associated with the presumptive vapidity of youth, they are building up an entire catalogue of diversity. As the selfie generation ages, I hope they will continue to photograph themselves and thereby help remove some of the stigmas of age, making it visible where others have made it invisible – partly because the technology did not exist, and partly because of the flawed idea that old age is at odds with beauty.

This burden cannot be shrugged off without a formal and informal stock of images containing older people. Unfortunately, older women tend to edit themselves out. This may be down to shyness, or to satisfy personal needs for privacy, but it will not help to chivvy things along. The tools we need to share and praise images are already in our hands.

When I was a child, the superhero power I was most curious about was invisibility. I spent a lot of time considering it and the associated pros and cons. Would I be able to switch my invisibility on and off, or would it be a permanent condition? At what point would the things I came in contact with (such as food and clothing) become invisible too? And, being practical, I wondered whether my poo would be invisible or visible, once it left my body. When I felt awkward as a teen, the ability to disappear would often have been desirable. It was at this age that I was regularly told by older people that one day I would look back on pictures of myself, recognise my own beauty and aspire to such youth. In my mid-20s, I did a lot of work around making knitting invisible without erasing it (no frogging or burning). This resulted in a series of chromakey blue knits that could become invisible in a blue-screen studio. I did a lot of accompanying research into how invisibility is represented in film and television.

I found that it is usually something that men acquire in order to do unpleasant things such as breaking and entering, murder, theft, or just plain creeping around. Now I find myself at an age when I am regularly told that, as a woman, I will become invisible when I turn 50. To my teenage self, this sounds not entirely unappealing, but it is rarely presented as such.

If we want to counteract this invisibility, and see more older women in pictures and advertising, we will have to start taking pictures of ourselves more, because then the market can follow trodden paths, as it prefers to do. It is not fair to take ourselves out of the picture and expect others to put us back in. There are shining exceptions, but so much more can be done. Older women – please share images of yourselves! If duck lips, peace fingers and belfies don’t appeal, then find something that does. Advanced Style has achieved a lot by celebrating the beauty and joy of dressing up in older age, but it is still largely based on novelty and flamboyance. What we need is for it to become normal. Normal can still be a celebration and contain as much diversity for older people as it does for younger people’s fashion. Yes, yarn companies, designers and magazines do have a responsibility to show diversity in their models in order for things to progress, but that responsibility also lies in the less-youthful among us sharing pictures of ourselves, and in all of our reactions to images of diversity.

Ageing happens to us all, with every passing stitch, minute, and moonrise, regardless of race, gender identity, body size and physical ability. As inevitably as our projects grow and our knitting knowledge develops, so too does our age. Ageing is glorious; it is progress. It is something we should and can celebrate by taking, embracing and promoting images of those who would otherwise be invisible.

Posted on

A Stripe Beyond

Originally published in Pom Pom Quarterly, Issue 25, Summer 2018

An exploration of stripes through the ages.

There is something elemental about how stripes appear in nature and as part of textile production. It is as if their endless diversity allows a chance to play, experiment and learn, through creating, observing and wearing them. They speak to the ‘of course’ experienced when making things by hand, which makes me feel connected to makers going back through the ages. Of course we would make stripes! The way textiles – weaving, knitting, crochet – are constructed makes them inseparable from striping, because it can occur so naturally within their structures.

Stripes are everywhere. Inspiration for their colour, depth and texture in textiles can be found all over the natural and made world, from zebras to zebra crossings, from strata created over millennia in canyon rock faces to the comparatively quick layers of a lasagne. You’ll find stripes in the desert, in the waves blown in the sand by the wind, and in THE dessert for lovers of stripes: the pinnacle of layer cakes, known variously as keh lapis, kueh lapis, lapis legit, spekkoek, spiku and thousand layer cake, depending, in part, on where you are in the world and slight variations in looks and composition. There are candy stripes, which, less appetisingly, have the same red-and-white helical twists as barbers poles, symbolic of blood and bandages (historically, barbers were some of the only folks in town in possession of sharp blades, so they carried out small operations and dentistry, alongside haircuts). With survival in mind, many of the cutest baby creatures that exist, such as wild boar piglets, tapir calves and quail chicks, are striped to help them stay camouflaged when they are comparatively bite-sized. They grow out of their stripes in later life. In the human world, stripes need not be something you grow out of, though our approach to wearing them may differ. Indeed, the history of wearing stripes has been a tumultuous one, but one that I, coming of age in the latter half of the 20th century, didn’t need to worry about, save for avoiding affiliations with football teams.

A little cursory reading on the history of stripes in fashion would suggest that they were not the done thing in polite company until 1846 when Queen Victoria dressed her young son Bertie (who would grow up to be Edward VII) in a sailor’s suit. These were just subtle stripes – small details on the collar and cuffs – but they were enough to start a wholesale redemption of the stripe among fancy folk. Before that it had only been lepers, prisoners, performers, pirates and prostitutes who had worn stripes. In fact, in some parts of Medieval Europe, wearing stripes could get you executed. Stripes were considered vulgar and demeaning, becoming strictly verboten or required wearing under various moralising sumptuary laws, depending on your class and occupation. Meanwhile, when the Carmelite monks arrived in Paris from Palestine wearing striped habits, they rejected the Pope’s orders to stop wearing them until they were finally overridden by a Papal Bull after 25 years. The brothers contended that their striped habit had been given to them by the prophet Elijah, who had likely dressed in the Bedouin style1. Much more recently, the stripe has still had ambiguous connotations: gangsters in their wide-stripe suits and bankers in their skinny pinstripe suits blur the line between whether stripes denote the wealthy or swindlers, or both at the same time.

By 1858, a fully striped shirt became the official undergarment of the French Navy (though note, it was the lower ranks, not the admiralty who wore it). The marinière was adopted from the workwear of merchant sailors and fishermen in Brittany. From there, similar stripes made their way into the undergarments of the Russian and Bulgarian Navy too. As with other coastal garments such as aran sweaters and ganseys, myths exist about stripes helping to identify seamen washed ashore. Though in this case, the stripes were believed to facilitate fishing them out while still alive by making them more visible against the waves, rather than to identify the origin of their corpse once washed up.

Moving on from the Russian Revolution where the striped telnyashka became symbolic, the line draws onwards to Coco Chanel who heralded the birth of leisure wear and romanticised workwear through championing comfortable clothing for wealthy women. European cool kids – intellectuals, artists and rebels such as Brigitte Bardot, Jean Seberg, Audrey Hepburn and Picasso – took up wearing the marinière. It then transferred to the USA (think James Dean, Marlon Brando, and Andy Warhol), where stripes were already forming a key part of the national identity thanks to the Stars and Stripes. Wearing them under leather jackets, the Ramones helped to ensure the legacy of the striped shirt in counter-culture chic.

Somewhere along the way, wearing horizontal stripes got a bad wrap for being unflattering. This presumes that being or at least appearing slim is the aim, which you may or may not subscribe to. Stripes do have the ability to play tricks on your eyes, giving a misleading idea of volume or creating the appearance of movement in stationary things. This is why, counter-intuitively, camouflage consisting of bold, strikingly graphic, intersecting stripes known as dazzle camouflage were painted on UK and US naval ships during World War I (and somewhat in World War II) to help confuse enemies about their outline, speed and quantity. Bridget Riley’s smart use of colour and scale appears to make the stripes in her paintings almost pulsate, causing your eyes to hum. Agnes Martin was equally enamoured of stripes executed with resolute fastidiousness, however hers radiate a determined calm. Neither artist’s work reproduces well, which is a good reminder of the intangible magic of a handmade item. Paintings are often talked about in a different category of handmade, with a reverence not extended to other crafts, though they tend to be, at their core, textile (colour on woven canvas).

To look only at the symbolism of stripes is to miss out on the simplicity and joy of making them. In textiles, stripes are the easiest way to add colours, difference, and interest. They are a feature of every textile and costume museum I have been to around the globe. I find it hard to imagine national dress from almost anywhere in the world without stripes. They are also key identifiers of branding and affiliation to sports teams (which has its historical roots in owners being responsible for clothing their mercenary armies and stripes being an easy way to tell sides apart).

At the crux of it all is the fact that textiles are easy to stripe. In a weave, stripes are easy to add to the warp or weft. Stripes in knitting can be introduced into your fabric intentionally or unintentionally in a multitude of ways: from different types of stitches and gauge, through thickness and texture of yarn, to colour. Whatever outcome you are after, knitting stripes necessitates choosing at least two varying factors. They can be subtle or unmistakable. They can be close in colour or in stark contrast. You can change needle size between rows/rounds or wrap multiple times around the needle and drop stitches to create your stripes vertically or horizontally.

For all the variety stripes can add to knitted fabric, the extra work needed to make them appear is minimal, save paying a bit more attention than you would for stocking or garter stitch. Where colour comes in, they often require just a few extra ends to sew in (and the possession of more colours). If you are a sock knitter and choose a yarn that has been specifically dyed to do so, the stripes will instantly appear as you go, with nothing required from you other than knitting and watching the colourful adventure unfold. Stripes are brilliant for stash busting, as they allow multiple colours to make up the required yardage/metreage for a project.

If you always change colour on a Right Side (RS) knit row/round, you will get a smooth transition between colours. On the Wrong Side (WS), you will get a less smooth transition with a row of purl bumps. There’s no reason this can’t be worked into the design. It will just be more along the multi-coloured lines of Missoni than the clean lines of Gaulthier or Rykiel.

Fat stripes, thin stripes; straight stripes, wiggly stripes; striking stripes, subtle stripes; regular stripes, single stripes – oh stripes, how we love them, these notches on the bedpost of knitting. As well as allowing us to add more colours, they provide targets: goals to work towards. Stripes provide an excellent motivator, providing clear, visual incentives to the already just-one-more-row/round nature of a good knit. They egg you on, while at the same time being markers of how far we have come.

1 For those who want to delve in deeper there’s a book by French scholar, Michael Pastoreau called the ”The Devil’s Cloth: A History of Stripes and Striped Fabric” (Columbia University Press, 2001). It’s good to note that he told the NY Times in an interview that he doesn’t like to wear stripes, so you might not want to turn to him for an unbiased view. He also isn’t a maker or textile historian.
2 Regulation uniform shirts needed to consist of 21 2cm white and 20 1cm blue stripes with 14 blue stripes on each sleeve, apparently symbolic of the number of victories of Napoleon against the British.

Posted on

i-cord for the Tarmac Tank

It was a pleasure to design the Tarmac Tank for PomPom Quarterly Summer Stripes Issue number 25, 2018. Most of my knits are woolly and warm, but I love adding the occasional pattern for my knitting friends who live in constantly warmer climates, both with knitting and wearing in mind. And of course, there has been a super heatwave in London (and beyond) this summer, so it’s felt like we might never need a sweater again.

The Tarmac Tank is knitted in Yoth Best Friend, a slightly slubby 4ply/light fingering weight yarn that is a combo of 75% cotton and 25% wool, perfect for all but the stickiest summer days. The addition of wool helps the yarn keep some memory (in comparison to only cotton) and the teeny bit of stretch it adds makes for a more pleasant knitting experience. The little slubs soften the monochromatic single-row/round stripes, to give them a shimmering effect, like heat rising from hot tarmac. Vertical rows of eyelet increases from 4 points introduce A-line shaping for a floaty shape.

I have been loving watching other knitters’ Tarmac Tanks appearing on Ravelry and Instagram in many different colour combinations. The endless possibilities of knitting is one of the things that keeps me fascinated (to the point of obsession) by it. I’d love to try a million different colour combos, but obviously there’s the time issue, so it’s great to be able to see what other knitters chose, and be able to knit vicariously. Some knitters are even on their second Tarmac Tank already!

There are sunshine colours (@cribbetcribbet), and earthier ones (@ribbels_ribbels). Some knitters have done away with the stripes in order to use a marled yarn (@sarahjaymes), or use a variegated yarn (@marion_strickt), while others have colour-blocked the placement of stripes. For this, two very different approaches can be seen from @mestre82, who combines the stripes with a plain section, and @annatricote, who has cast-on her second one and is using stripes of stripes, perhaps inspired by all the colour-combo testing that @meghanaf has been up to with all the shades of Yoth Best Friend. All these approaches not only add great customising options, they are really smart choices for using the yarn you have stashed. On this note, there’s a lovely one knitted by @knitcola, using an ombré of oddments. Madelene of @stickkontakt has knitted hers in fine linen, which makes it gloriously see-through.

As for the i-cord edgings, some have honoured the striped i-cord and made it pop even more (@emmaknitsthings and @fillyourknits), while some have gone with a plain single colour (, @frau.schaefer, @britt.schmeising, @sunnelite, and @josephineandtheseeds). It might have been for a different project, but I don’t think I was dreaming that I’ve seen one that uses a variegated yarn for the i-cord…

All those options have made me realise I should stop being awkward/shy/slow and just share the video I recorded while I was finishing the Tarmac Tank I knitted for myself (actually, it’s a team-knit between my mother and I, but I go into that in the video). The video is just me sitting on my couch, in my living room, talking it through, before I move to my kitchen table to give a close-up of how I work the stitches. It’s not slick, it’s not pro, but there’s plenty of info being shared. And I especially did it because there’s not much out there on striped i-cord.

I’ve split it into two parts, because, well, I’m not concise and it got LONG.

Tarmac Tank: Part One (Construction) is comparatively short, and gives an overview of the construction of the whole tank. We all learn in different ways, and some knitters might appreciate me waving the tank around and talking through what happens where, as an addition to the clear written instructions you’ll find in PomPom Quarterly.

The single row/round stripes can be worked easily without leaving a ton of ends to weave in, if you simply slide your knitting down to the other end of your circular needles or DPNs (double pointed needles).

The eyelets travel down the front and back of the Tarmac Tank in a straight line, because the eyelet increases are worked to different sides of the markers, consistently, so all the extra stitches are added to the zones under the arms. To remind yourself which happens where, it’s useful to use two different types of markers: one that you increase before slipping the marker (say, a red one or a pony) and the other that you increase after slipping the marker (say, a blue one or a kitten). I used little swing tags as markers, so I could write on them to say what happened when.

Tarmac Tank: Part Two (How to Pick Up and Knit + Striped i-cord) is a blow-by-blow guide through how to pick up and knit and then work the striped i-cord cast-off. It’s a useful tutorial for knitters who like a lengthy explanation. Though fairly intuitive to work if you are familiar with knitting i-cord (either as a cast-on, cast-off or simply unattached), striped i-cord isn’t all that common, so I’ve shared how I do it. I’ve come up with ways to mostly conceal the float between the alternating colours when working 4-row stripes. I work the i-cord over 4 stitches, whereas the pattern as published in PomPom Quarterly uses just 3 stitches. Both work, but I prefer the slightly bulkier edge that 4 stitches give.

I use my shortest length DPNs when I knit an i-cord cast-off, and I show how I do that. Using the shorties (also great for knitting fingers on gloves) avoids needing to transfer stitches every row/round, which you need to if you are simply using the other end of your circular needle. This makes for slightly more of a juggle between needles in your hands, but once it’s familiar, it means far less transferring of stitches, and feels like a speedier solution.

I also cover how I pick up and knit, to make a neater edge, by picking up and knitting in every stitch and row, and the adjusting to the required number in the following row/round.

The i-cord edging needs to be worked over a number of stitches that divides by 8. This is useful to know if you want to make the top longer/shorter – just keep/stop increasing and working as set until you have reached a length you like and then make sure the number of stitches can be divided by 8. If your total remaining stitches divide by 8, you are good to go for striped i-cord (if you are using plain i-cord, you can stop whenever you want). This is also useful to remember if you want to adjust the number of stitches around the neckline or armholes.

Somewhere along the line this got confused in the published pattern in Pom Pom, so you’ll find errata for sizes 1, 2 and 3 on the Pom Pom Quarterly Errata Page for Issue 25 for the final round before you work the i-cord. The solution given there, to increase evenly 4 times around a final round, was chosen because it works well without changing the measurements of the top and adding more instructions. Personally I would stop knitting after 20 (21, 22,23, 24, 25) times for 280 (296, 312, 328, 344, 360) sts OR continue knitting for 22 (23, 24, 23, 24, 25) times for 288 (304, 320, 328, 344, 360) sts RATHER THAN the printed 21 (22, 23, 23, 24, 25) times for 284 (300, 316, 328, 344, 360) sts. This hasn’t been suggested in the PomPom errata, because it has a knock-on effect to the measurements of the top, and those are more lengthy to change. It’s super intuitive to do when you are knitting, so it’s really nothing to worry about, it’s just frustrating if you don’t catch it, and your striped i-cord doesn’t slot in exactly.

I love this knit and I have been wearing my Tarmac Tank a lot this summer. It’s a lot of simple stocking stitch, but with enough little clever details to satisfy and tickle the brains of the cerebral knitters amongst us. And seriously, striped i-cord – I could put it on everything!

And, before anyone asks, no, the pattern isn’t available as a single pattern outside of PomPom Quarterly number 25 until next summer (edit Nov 2019: it is available now though: HERE). The top I am wearing in the video is made by Marilla Walker from her Maya Collection of sewing patterns. The marbled leggings I got in 2012 from Diana Reynolds in Sydney. She used to make them for sale in her Etsy shop, Gallery Diana. The photographs of the gorgeous model, Kandia (@kandianzinga) were taken by photographer Laura Morsman (@lauramorsmanphotography) for PomPom Quarterly and I have used them with their kind permission.

Posted on

Stamp Pick Throw

Originally published in Pom Pom Quarterly, Issue 24, Spring 2018. Illustration by Elena Skoreyko Wagner,used with kind permission.

Philately – nope, it’s not a fancy word for licking male members, it’s the knowledge and appreciation of postal services, which is what Issue 24 is about. All the patterns found their design inspiration in specific postage stamps, which, in turn, dictated the country of origin of the yarn used for each one. The last in this list of stamps is the Penny Black. As the world’s first adhesive stamp, introduced for public use in Great Britain in 1840, the Penny Black was created to simplify and standardise the method for payment and delivery of mail. Thanks to her success, pre-paid lick-and-stick postage was quickly adopted by other countries and became not just a way to pay for messages and goods to get from one place to another, but also a means for national priorities and identity to be broadcast around the world. So much beautiful, groundbreaking, and public-minded design has traversed the globe in the diminutive (and affordable) form of stamps. Their proliferation birthed a new hobby: stamp collecting.

As a child, I used to collect stamps with my dad. What was depicted on the stamps and where they came from triggered much curiosity and conversation. It allowed us focused time together, supported by the wider family, who clipped cancelled stamps off their post and sent them our way. Once we had a good amount ready to go, we would soak the stamps off the fragments of envelope. It was a delicate balance of timing – they needed to be in the water long enough to dissolve the foul-tasting glue, but not so long that the stamps became mushy. Soaking happened in a brown glass measuring jug, out of which we would fish the stamps and carefully place them to dry on sheets of kitchen roll. Once dry, the stamps would be pressed between books to flatten them. From there, if we were being diligent, they would go straight into special stamp albums. Where to slot in new ones was an exercise in decision-making, grouping and cataloguing. As I write this, I realise how akin that process is to the one I undergo when finishing, blocking and posting a knit! I have given up stamp collecting, but its spirit lives on in my knitting practice.

The world wide web and other advances in technology have had a profound effect on analogue hobbies. Stamp collecting, trainspotting and ham radio seem unlikely to survive more than a couple more generations in current conditions. For other hobbies, such as knitting, it has been their salvation. While knitters often fixate on the gloriously hands-on-ness of knitting and celebrate historical styles and stories, it is our embrace of new technologies that has guaranteed handknitting’s survival as a contemporary pastime. Some of the language of knitting, however, is definitely the remnants of a different era: remnants that are worth examining, if not abandoning altogether.

I’m specifically thinking of the terms we use for how we form our stitches. The question “Do you knit ‘English’ or ‘Continental’?” might seem innocent enough, but them’s fighting words: the terms are a wartime throwback. Comparable to how German Shepherd Dogs became known as Alsatians and the Saxe-Coburg family became Windsors, ‘German style’ became known as Continental during and after the second world war as a way to avoid associations with Germany. However, while this neatly avoided namechecking a foe, the usage of ‘English’ as a catch-all to include Scottish, Welsh or Irish methods dredges up even older battles and nationalism. Differentiating oneself from ‘enemies’ might be understandable while bombs (or arrows) drop, and grudges stick around, though it is possible that antipathy may have waned enough to revert to calling it ‘German style’ once more. This would certainly better identify the origins of this method, in-line with the contemporary preoccupation with citing source – but perhaps we are better off using non-geographic terms to carry us into the future?

Throwing and picking are already in play as perfectly functioning alternatives to English and Continental.

In regards to knitting (but not fruit, trash, scabs or noses), a picker is someone who holds the yarn in their non-dominant hand and ‘picks’ it with the needle tip (held in their dominant hand) to scoop it through the existing stitch. This is what is still regularly called Continental style (as opposed to doing The Continental, which involves channelling Fred and Ginger). ‘The continent’ is an old-fashioned British-English term for other European, non-British or Irish countries. With all the regressive speak of late, it’s good to remember that, regardless of political affiliations, technically all of Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) and both sides of Ireland, are on the continent of Europe (and Eurasia, if looking at an even bigger landmass). ‘The continent’ though, described, en masse, the countries you’d reach by crossing the English Channel. Being ‘on the continent’ presupposed it was not your original or permanent location. Something preferable to being incontinent, of course, but not necessarily somewhere you’d describe yourself as being nowadays.

The truth is, ‘the continent’ is an increasingly quaint term for describing mainland Europe. This might make it endearing to use for knitters (who embrace many bygone pleasures), if it weren’t misleading as a marker of how people on ‘the continent’ knitted at the time that phrase was in more prolific use. Before our current epoch of internet-fuelled knitting (where we can share and learn so much from all over the world in an instant), knitters in Belgium, The Netherlands, France and Spain were primarily throwers. Many continue to be. A thrower is someone who forms their stitches by ‘throwing’ the yarn around the tip of the needle with their dominant hand. They often let go of this needle (also being held in their dominant hand) to such an extent that they can bring the yarn around the needle tip while it is inserted in the existing stitch to form the loop that will be pulled through to form the new stitch. You might know this as English style. In Japan it’s sometimes called French style. Many in Italy still call picking ‘alla tedesca’ (German style), because that is how they knit in the Northern regions, closer to Germany, whereas the entire peninsula threw their stitches ‘Italian style’ – so go figure. We can’t ignore that all these countries had empires which spread their knitting peculiarities (along with less pleasant practices), at the same time as they returned home with treasures. It’s worth noting that Portugal and many of the countries touched by its empire-building past have a completely different way of holding their knitting, with the yarn tensioned around the back of the neck while working with the wrong side facing.

Going in deeper, there’s also ‘flicking’ and ‘combined’, alongside a handful of others, to further identify, with increased precision, the variations of methods used to form stitches. Rootling around elsewhere in our basket of knitting language brings us to noxious terms such as ‘parlour knitting’ AKA ‘drawing-room knitting’ to describe a way to hold one’s needles to communicate refinement and poise. To me, these are even hairier than using English and Continental, as these terms were used to separate ‘ladies’ from women. They aimed to differentiate those who knit as a genteel hobby from those who knit in order to be able to clothe themselves and their families or earn an income.

So what does all this have to do with philately? Stamps travel the world as markers of national identity, because they are, the currency that pays for the passage of hard-copy words, pictures and items from one place to another, from one person to another. As with stamps, knitting (which significantly predates them) exists all over the world because of the movement of people and the sharing of information, innovation and inspiration. The long history of textiles stems from their portability for shelter, trade and beauty. Though styles of knitting can be adopted as markers of national identity, they are only transiently part of a place. On the whole, they came from a community or individual somewhere else. They stopped for a while, were fed and watered with knowledge and enthusiasm, then moved on elsewhere with added bells and whistles. Of course knitting styles are not legal currency like stamps are, so anchoring them to a place is much more complicated. There are increasing levels of sensitivity and knowledge around provenance, both of yarn and sheep and of design styles and inspiration, but at the same time there is a more global taste-making network which makes it harder for these things to exist in the future.

Continuing to use the terms ‘English’ and ‘Continental’ in regards to knitting style seems to me odd, on so many levels. They are geographically misleading, if not downright incorrect, terms that don’t mesh with the modern focus on correctly citing provenance and heritage. Besides, with their origins in nationalistic battle-speak, surely they are incongruous with a view of knitting as a peaceful and sociable activity. Admittedly, all this is a question of semantics, because they function as descriptive terms in common usage among English-speaking knitters. But the same could be said for many other descriptive words we would never dream of using in the present day.

Knitting practice has embraced the best of modern technology, now let’s make knitting language properly reflect our changing times too, so that it can serve as a model for the sensitive, diverse and smart community we aspire to be. Let’s go with throwing (out outdated language) and picking (new words that work for now.

Posted on

There’s More Than One Way to Knit a Hat

Originally published in Pom Pom Quarterly, Issue 23, Winter 2017

It is said that there are many ways to skin a cat. Indeed, there are many ways to shear a sheep. Of course, this is much more animal-friendly as the sheep survive the process.

But there are hundreds of ways to release the fleece, with diverse results in regards to comfort of the sheep during and after the process, speed, ease for the shearer, and quality of the resulting wool. No matter how carefully the process is tailored to all those involved, ovine and human alike, there will still be individuals who think it should be done differently. Others believe that we should eschew the use of anything recently animal-based altogether. I say ‘recently’ because the petro-chemicals that produce plastics often used in substitutes for animal-based products such as pleather and acrylic come from long-dead dinosaurs. And it’s terribly difficult to ensure that no insects are hurt in the harvesting of vegetable-based fibres… but now I’m clutching at straws. Why can’t anything ever be straightforward? Good or bad. An indisputable best way to do The Thing.

Everything we do when we knit and crochet, starting with the tools and yarn, through cast-on to the final blocking and the whole lot in between, involves a million possible variants, and thus choices to be made. Does this mean it’s complicated? Not necessarily. A project is as simple or involved as you make it. Is easy better? Yes, if that’s how you like it. Is complicated bad? Not in the slightest, if that’s what appeals. There is a lot to know, but you don’t need to know it all, and it’s unlikely you ever could. For example, there are more ways to cast on than you can count. Can the same cast-on your grandma taught you when you were five see you through your whole life? Of course. Is it good to be aware that you have options and that there are different ways to do things? Hell yes! Could you dedicate your life to trying, then perfecting, every single cast-on and never use them to make a finished item? Sure.

Whether you are the sort who rolls with your existing arsenal of knitting skills or adds to it continuously, the beauty of knitting lies in yarn’s potential to become any number of things in a multitude of ways. Regardless of the depth of your knowledge, simply knowing how to knit (and/or crochet) is great, full stop. It gives you the option to make things, make choices, and entertain yourself. It’s easy to default into thinking other people know better. If you find yourself heading that way, stop and acknowledge that what you know has value and whatever else you choose to take on board is an addition to your already practical skill set. It’s also likely that you have worked out a successful way to do something that a knitter you idolise would find useful and inspirational. We all have something to learn from each other. As adults we are inclined to beat ourselves up for what we don’t know, rather than gazing at the thrill of all there is yet to discover with childlike wonder.

If you know a significant amount, you might fall into the trap of thinking your favourite way is the only right one, or that there is always a better way out there, maybe one that everyone else knows except you. Let’s not beat ourselves up about what we don’t know, or blame others for what they don’t know either. The important thing is to feel satisfied. Satisfaction is one of the hardest states to achieve in contemporary life, where we are constantly bombarded with advertising that stabs us with the triple-edged sword of desire, FOMO, and self-doubt. It’s hard to be immune to it. Knitting is used as therapy in various ways – grief counselling, anger management, anxiety control, confidence building – but the greatest gift of knitting (and maybe the key to its sustained efficacy) is the satisfaction it gives us in allowing our brains to puzzle over an engaging and productive task. A task that is attainable and under our control. We can enjoy the fruits of our labour both while it is a WIP and once it is an FO. The fact that there is always something else to learn and another variation to try is what keeps us sniffing the wool fumes. It’s a reminder of the joyous state of wonder you experience when you discover that something you love has infinite applications and possibilities, but just doing it is exciting enough.

When I teach a knitting class of any level, I go in knowing I will learn something too, not because I don’t know enough or am passing the buck of my responsibilities over to an unwitting class participant (or the one who just adores sharing the vastness of their knowledge), but because there’s infinite knowledge to be gained, and I’m surrounded by a group of similarly curious people. It’s nice to be reminded, and to remind others, that we all have something to offer. Once I’ve introduced the session project and it’s on the needles, I used to start by asking when and how people had started to knit. What felt like a benign question, to get the conversation percolating, turned out to be anything but innocuous.

The moment when knitting enters our life is frequently an emotionally charged story to share, as it relates to loved ones or times of upheaval. We are most often taught our first stitches by friends and family (and what’s more complicated than family?). If we didn’t fall in love with knitting in the common childhood bracket of 5 to 10 years of age, many decide to learn or return to knitting at moments of transition in their lives: illness; becoming a parent; joining a new community. Knitting offers a welcome change of pace through distraction, focus, and control. Sharing those stories is fascinating and reinforcing, but they are about our pasts, with all their joys and tribulations. I realise what I am really keen to know is the ins and outs of why the hell people continue knitting. What makes us keep picking up the needles and casting on anew, project after project? Whether for 4 years or 70, why does it still hold our interest?

Because there are many ways to knit a hat.

Posted on

Loud Slow Fashion

Originally published in Pom Pom Quarterly, Issue 22, Autumn 2017. Illustration by Amy Blackwell, used with kind permission.

I fought it for a long time, but I have recently started to fully embrace my role as flamboyant textile lady. This means bright colours, brash prints, interesting weaves and embroidery originating from diverse cultures.

I feel I owe it to the wonders, skills and diversity of the world to shun style that is commonly referred to as neutral or classic – styles that uphold the dominant hegemony. Let me explain…

I wholeheartedly agree with the growing call for respectful and conscientious consumerism: buying less, and respecting the human and environmental impact of clothes manufacturing. However, I cannot get on board with the dominant approach to achieving such a wardrobe. You see, when I hear terms like ‘neutrals’, ‘classic’, ‘timeless’, ‘chic’, ‘staples’ or ‘basics’, I start to squirm with ornery conviction because, in the vast majority of instances, this describes a look from a narrow window of recent Western history. Such styles have spread globally thanks to colonialism – both in the old-fashioned, sending- ships-out-to-‘discover’-new lands sense, and in the sly contemporary sense of cultural imperialism.

What makes my blood boil is that these seemingly innocuous terms for our ideal capsule wardrobes are code for clothing worn to signify and maintain white affluence. Ideally old money, not nouveaux riche. How can any clothing be timeless when trends are constantly changing? I have never seen a ‘classic’ silhouette that I couldn’t date. My grandmother’s trench coat from the 1940s doesn’t look like one from the 50s. Is it possible that ‘timeless’ is really a signifier of class rather than style?

Remember that when the fashion press uses words such as ‘timeless’ and ‘classic’, it is not referring to the perpetual popularity of large gold hoop earrings or Reebok Classics. It does not mean the hoodies and black-quilted coats that have been favoured by inner city youths for the last few decades. It does not indicate turbans for men or headscarves for women, though these, being signs of enduring religion and not temporary trends, might truly be classified as ‘timeless’ attire. Leather jackets and animal print tread an interesting line, sitting on the fence between opulent society and rebel chic from 50s bike gangs and 80s punks. Denim and trainers are sort of free agents now ubiquitous, yet still banned from The Ritz.

Of course you’d be most welcome in The Ritz in your ‘classics’ or ‘neutrals’: pumps, cashmere, camel, boat necks and trench coats, LBDs, white shirts and understated gold jewellery (though not all at once). Dresses and skirts that stop around or below the knee. Tasteful fashion favours modesty under the guise of ‘flattering’ shapes (don’t even get me started on that word). For a good few decades this would have certainly included the twinset and pearls. ‘Classics’ are likely to be the legacy of Chanel, flowing on innocuously through Donna Karan and Eileen Fisher, into more minimally named brands like APC and onwards to YMC. Chic? Yes. Accessible? No.

Though Coco Chanel was radical in her time for adapting menswear and deconstructing women’s garments (and for using knits), for the most part these brands facilitate a desire to blend in, not stand out. I find this specifically problematic when it comes to women because not all of us want to be seen or treated like the understated, modest ladies that these fashions would have us be. So if you truly love ‘classic’ style, then wear it, by all means. If not, forget the rules and create a look that stands out of the pastel-coloured crowd.

I like to think the Suffragettes embraced purple as their colour as a way to makes themselves seen. In 1856 the accidental discovery of aniline purple dye caused a fashion sensation. Mauveine, as it was also known, certainly took the well-heeled world by storm and trickled down from there because it was accessibly priced. It was the first successful chemical dye, providing a much more affordable way to achieve a colour that some ancient cultures had valued above gold owing to its complex extraction methods. I find this interesting because it appears that well-to-do society currently actively eschews bright colours. Is this because they have become more readily available in affordable fashion and therefore appear uncouth? Old money is entrenched in tasteful neutrals, and being chic certainly isn’t about following technological advancements, like Day-Glo or later Global Hypercolor. It is inherently regressive, aiming to maintain a status quo of socio- economic status.

Navy, red, white, beige, and of course black, black, and more black. Interestingly, this doesn’t translate to handknitting, because black is a tad harder to work with, proving that pleasure and ease do have their place. Grey is a more recent addition to this lineup of non-offensive non-colours.

This kind of fashion serves as a sort of camouflage. If you wear a hot-pink polkadot dress over mint leggings and yellow kicks pulled together by an intricate colourworked cardi, it will be pretty obvious if you wear it again the next day. If you wear standard, low-key attire, it’s harder to tell. It’s sort of smoke and mirrors. The function of staples is to make it unclear whether you’re wearing the same thing repeatedly or switching it out every day to something similar. Of course, wearing the same thing repeatedly means you’re poor and/or smelly, and therefore uncouth and not doing your bit to uphold capitalism. Previously, below high society, you were lucky if you had a Sunday best and didn’t wear the same outfit every day. It’s now normal for many to observe even a minor special occasion with a new outfit – what if someone notices you wore the same party dress a month ago!? That is all well and good, and cleanliness is obviously important, but what does it really matter if you wear the same outfit two days in a row? I once made one of my dearest friends because, in the briefest of stints that I worked in an office, I once wore the same decidedly noticeable outfit two days in a row, signifying to her that I was friend-material.

The notion of a capsule wardrobe, a term coined by Susie Faux and popularised by Donna Karan, is also known as a ‘uniform’. I’ve read strong arguments for creating your own uniform: it saves time and energy spent on choosing what to wear; it uncomplicates things. Obviously, if you’re the sort who enjoys dressing up, this type of sensory deprivation might not work for you but an unchanging and unremarkable daily outfit certainly works for some.

When it comes to making not buying, the styles of garment that knitters and sewers create for themselves and loved ones (rather than for production) are in a fashion biosphere of their own. It is a more diverse environment than it was a decade ago, when it was the preserve of vintage styles and romantic frump, but that doesn’t mean it has caught up: running alongside fashion doesn’t mean mirroring current trends. This is largely because handmaking can’t and shouldn’t try to keep up with the speed at which the fashion world currently moves. For those reliant on making clothing using patterns, there’s going to be a lag between the emergence of a trend and the time it takes for a designer to write, sample, tech edit, go through a testing process and publish a pattern that reflects it. Then there’s the time a garment spends on the needles or on the sewing table. So it makes sense that handmaking clothing for personal use has its own parallel universe of style. Making clothes to look exactly like something you could buy in a chain store is not only an ineffectual process, it is also missing the point.

Imagine if everybody treated their wardrobe as though it were an art collection. Standard advice given to those embarking on an art collection is to start ‘cheap’, buying works you are attracted to, ones that speak to you and allow space for you to discover something new every single time you look at them. Something that will make you think and that sparks conversation, has intrigue, yet instant appeal. You are encouraged to be guided by your heart, not by what might make a sound investment. How different this is from the standard tenets of embarking on building a basic wardrobe? But I believe the same advice should hold true. Perhaps if we surrounded and clothed ourselves in wearable art that we found truly satisfying, intriguing, entertaining, engaging, and beautiful, we might end up wanting less. Perhaps these stripped-down basics create a lack in our creative minds, thereby instilling a desire for more and more clothes that might finally satisfy us. The neutral, chic, classic, and timeless pieces we are told to acquire do not tell us enough of a story. They do not connect us to the hands that made them, the mind that designed them, the process that wove or printed or coloured them. Could society’s insatiable and damaging hunger for fast and disposable fashion be a sign that we are not getting the beautiful, one-of-a-kind garments we crave? I look at a camel coat and it leaves me cold.

So in this day and age, when we make things for ourselves out of choice and not necessity, why not make them exciting? Why make something identical to the mass-produced things you could buy for less? Why adhere to other people’s standards of classic style? We should make the clothes of our wildest dreams and build them to last. There’s a deep sense of smugness and self-sufficiency in the knowledge that you have made something yourself. But it’s also part of readdressing the manufacturing balance for the greater good; it is a quiet rebellion. What if that rebellion was shared, made public and obvious through re-wearing clothes that obviously buck fast fashion trends and supposedly timeless style that upholds centuries-old hierarchies? And remember, your personal style is also about being generous: give the people-watchers of the world something to look at. Entertain yourself and others by making eye-catching and engaging clothes.

Posted on

High Five!!!

Originally published in Pom Pom Quarterly, Issue 21, Summer 2017. Illustration by Evie Barrow, used with kind permission.

On ghost WIPs and knitting at parties

In case it hasn’t registered, Pom Pom is five years old and that’s cause for some serious celebration.

In an era when print is struggling and most magazines fold after their maiden issue, printing a 21st issue could be considered an achievement in and of itself. But Pom Pom continues to grow and flourish, building a community that supports both new and established knitters, designers and other assorted creatives. With sumptuous colour and enthusiasm to spare, Pom Pom lovingly advocates alternatives to mass-production and gently encourages creative diversity. Oddly, with the internet so ubiquitous, print now feels like a comparatively personal mode of communication, and buying a magazine is a conscious choice to be a part of something special. Damn, I’m proud to be a part of it! High fives all round!

I’ve been contributing to Pom Pom for more than half its life, starting with the Solja pattern in the Spring of 2014. My correspondence with Lydia and Meghan led them to invite me to contribute a regular column. The rest, as they say, is history. It is incredible to have the opportunity to write at length about topics that excite, puzzle and frustrate me, all viewed through a knitted lens. Sharing my thoughts is a responsibility I take seriously and enjoy immensely, but it is not something I would have realistically indulged in were it not for their invitation. The personal impact has been huge, so it is with great joy that I join in the celebration of these last five years. Time to party, before I get too emotional!

But what kind of party does this celebration warrant? From secret raves to intimate dinners, street parties to political parties (often doubling as sausage fests), baby showers to wedding anniversaries, somewhere among the many idiosyncratic configurations of gatherings that come under the giant marquee term ‘party’, there are knitting parties. They have their own special rules and associated behaviours, not least that they are parties where knitting is always acceptable. Quite frankly it’s what a lot of us would like to do at every party (and in more extreme cases, instead of attending parties).

So, let’s thank our lucky stitches for knitting parties, whether they rock up in the form of an exclusive, besties-only knit night, a special interest group retreat, World Wide Knit in Public Day or a giant festival.

But unlike many other wild parties, there are no associated illegal drugs. It is generally a case of wool sniffing, a good colour buzz and over-indulging in yarn, paired with wine, chocolate and tea. I’d like to think that’s partly because, rather than necessarily being straight edge or letter-of-the-law, we’re a decent lot who know you can get fairly-traded sugar, coffee, rum and fleece, but that most hallucinogens, opiates and amphetamines involve nefarious production and transportation modes intimately bound with so many forms of exploitation and the arms trade that in some cases they make blood diamonds look almost benign.

It’s all a question of scale and comparison.

Of course, knitting itself can be intoxicating. It certainly is addictive. It can be used for self-medication as an upper or a downer, and, just like other forms of inebriation, knitting provides some serious social lubrication.

Knitting parties are a win-win situation: all the celebratory companionship of a party, with less social awkwardness, AND you get to knit. As anyone who has attended a yarn festival or good knit night can attest to, it’s easy to feel part of a collective high. There is a warm, fuzzy feeling all round, and I don’t just mean from our woolly shawls.

At a knitting party, lack of eye contact isn’t an issue, there’s always something to talk about (knitting!), and there is the option not to talk (because you are counting). It’s more likely that you will have a crush on someone’s crafting skills than that you will be craftily trying to coerce them into sleeping with you (or vice versa), yet you still get to be intimate with strangers by stroking their knits and asking probing questions regarding the structure of their garment and yarn. Knitting parties are a win-win situation: all the celebratory companionship of a party, with less social awkwardness, AND you get to knit.

Plus, my fellow fidgeters, if I can knit at a party it means I’m not peeling labels off beer bottles, shredding coasters into confetti, making dollhouse lampshades out of wire champagne cork guards or poking my fingers in candle wax. I’ve considered adopting the Greek worry bead tradition of ‘komboloi’ or taking up one of the many religions that use beads. However, a show of such devotion might be equally out of place as knitting at a good knees-up (and produce less visually pleasing results), so I’ll stick with knitting. The truth is: if I am awake and am not engaging my digits in constructive use, I am fidgeting. I’m sure it must serve some sort of primal survival function, but I haven’t quite placed my finger on it yet. I like to think that my urge to craft is so strong that I can’t hang my busy fingers up at the door.

You’ve heard of phantom limb syndrome, the term used to describe the sensation amputees experience, feeling as though their missing limb is still present. I suffer from a lesser known affliction: ghost WIP. A WIP can become so much a part of me that it’s as if it’s still there even when it isn’t. There’s no RIP for a ghost WIP. In a sense it’s like when, after a day of strawberry picking, you close your eyes to go to sleep and can still see strawberries projected on the insides of your eyelids. Or how, after a day at sea, your body is still rocked by invisible waves, hours after disembarking. Whether it’s survival, a verdant imagination or your inner ear, it feels very real. When I’m experiencing a serious ghost WIP, it can be a big problem. Like being engrossed in a really good book, the rest of the world fades away in comparison to the all-consuming adventure I am on. I would rather not do anything else and all my conversations are with my spectral project, Talavera the Friendly Ghost WIP.

This can make going to parties tricky, unless I can knit there. If I have to attend parties where I keep my project tucked in a coat pocket, there’s always a little voice inside of me that says, “You know what would make this party even better?” Be that knitting or an extra shot (or 4) of tequila, there are always consequences and it’s important to weigh up the outcomes. When you go to a non-knitting party, caution is required. You must ask yourself if it is OK to whip out your WIP. Among folks who don’t know you can pat your head and rub your tummy at the same time (i.e. knit and converse AND eat snacks), you may need to make some concessions. Social norms must be constantly questioned and challenged, but they can also help things run smoothly and make most people comfortable. Unless you have pre-established that you are all knitters, knitting on a first date (whether romantic or with a group of new friends or colleagues) might not be the easiest path to friendship. As the sole knitter in a social situation, your actions risk being misinterpreted as disinterest. To the uninitiated, or those not blessed with the ability to multi-task, knitting appears like cracking open a book or spending time on your phone; a way to duck out of the proceedings and form a bubble around yourself to avoid being present.

Let’s be frank, while knitting at a party might help us focus and channel varying degrees of social awkwardness, it is most often about our personal pleasure and the opportunity to double up on fun stuff for a happiness explosion. It reminds me of an episode of Seinfeld in which George decides to do all his favourite things at once: eat a pastrami sandwich in bed and watch sport on a portable TV while engaging in foreplay. His sexual partner isn’t jazzed by this self-indulgent development (and to top it off, he later suffers from the inconvenient side effect of getting aroused whenever he eats). So can you have too much of a good thing? And can doubling our pleasure be inclusive to those around us? I suggest that as long as everyone is on board, why not up the ante by combining as many of our loves as we can. There ain’t no party like a knitting party!

Posted on 1 Comment


Back in the snail mail days, it was quite normal to have a selection of pen pals; fellow letter-writers you might never meet, but with whom you exchanged a correspondence. The aim was not to supplant local relationships, but to enrich each other’s lives from afar. These friendships on paper, born out of combinations of curiosity, shared interest, sympathy and desire, satisfied our love of storytelling, adventure and sharing. Through them we may have practised a foreign language and/or found out about a part of the world or an approach to life far from our own, inter-changeably spilling our guts or helping the other through a tough time.

In many ways these analogue exchanges were so different to the high-speed backwards and forwards of emails, but to me, the relationships and the motivation is not dissimilar to the wonderful world we knitters have built online. We might never actually get to knit together on the same sofa, but we sure can provide life support through offering everything from encouragement, advice and jokes to parcels of yarn. The tenuous links of the digital realm are frequently poo-poo’d, yet these are real friendships firmly based in the hands-on reality of our knitting and the human propensity for love and generosity.


When the likes of Skype were still part of a science fiction future, international phone calls were reserved for speedy, once-a-month calls to my grandparents, letters and postcards were the only way to go. On top of the far away friends I had a chance to roam around and play with (and then exchange highly stickered letters on novelty paper) and local friends who got postcards when I was off on holiday, I also had correspondences with fellow girls who I never met. People like Maria in Greece who Priscilla (my English grandmother, who was neither English or blood-related) had met while on holiday and decided an exchange should occur. And then there were the arrangements made by my secondary school French language class. The legacy of all these correspondence is that I can sometimes still identify someone’s country of origin based on the style of their handwriting. I also think those letters, to mysterious pen pals and known friends alike, are the foundations of the writing I do today (much more so than the essays and reports I weaselled out of doing during my years at school).

But what’s all this got to do with a knitted garment? Well, Pen Pal the waistcoat/cardigan started its existence as the result of a long-distance correspondence between Hannah, who dyes the beautiful colours of Circus Tonic Handmade yarns in Sydney, Australia, and myself in London, England. This was an online correspondence until one day an unexpected parcel arrived from a mysterious corner of my city. It turned out Hannah’s mum had been enlisted to mule yarn between us while she over on holiday. I started to imagine a garment that could grow out of these few skeins: one that might work in the warmer Sydney climate where Hannah and her crew are based, but also make sense for my home in London, which gets significantly colder.

There was a simple, hand knitted waistcoat that I rescued from a charity shop a couple of years before that I really enjoyed wearing and got my design brain ticking over. I wanted to see if I could do something that would fulfil a similar role in my wardrobe, but made and designed by me: a way to add a little bit of warmth and colourful character to outfits or the potential to be an additional body-hugging layer under a cardigan. I wanted to design it in one piece, to avoid knitting it in 3 pieces, knowing this would add more adventurous construction and a challenge. It would then allow me to use a couple of colours of Hannah’s handdyed in a more unusual way than stripes or blocked pieces. (I knew I didn’t want to use DK for colourwork for a pattern I hope will work in the Australian climate too.) It was also purely practical – I could make use of the 3 skeins of DK Hannah had sent before either of us knew what they would become. And 3 skeins is what we often use for shawls, so it was about creating an alternative to adding yet another shawl to the collection.

Pen Pal became a fun puzzle to knit and then communicate in pattern form: the body is formed by a mitre on each front, which leaves only two short seams to sew up to the shoulder. Short rows create a deep plunging V, ideal for wearing open, or the single big button can bring together the mitre fronts like a sticker on the back of an envelope (the colourful kind, with a bright sticker or sealing wax to keep it firmly closed – the kind you might get a nice letter in, not a bank statement). I’m thinking it’s perfect for between seasons in London and Sydney winters. It’s also a great thing to throw on in the air-conditioned spaces many frequent.



With the body construction sorted, I decided to add sleeves to give the option of converting the waistcoat to a cardigan and introduce another set of amazing colours, this time dyed by a comparative neighbour of mine, Helen, of The Wool Kitchen in north east London. Helen and Hannah also have a correspondence and have helped name a couple of colours for each other. (When I went to Australia last summer, it was my turn to mule some yarn between the two of them. It’s a system I like to call Knitters Post: a boutique experience in comparison to Royal Mail or Australia Post.)

The sleeves, if you chose to add them, are picked up at the shoulders and knitted down in the round, to the cuffs. The line of increases that create the mitre on the fronts continues in a line down the sleeves made up of decreases. It means the sleeve shaping isn’t exactly under the centre of the arm. That continuous line is a design feature that I love. It makes hailing a bus or reaching for things high on a shelf an even better plan. It extends super satisfyingly into the cuff too. The cuff, in its final form, came about while having a conversation at Wild & Woolly (where you can find some of Helen’s yarn) about how to finish it off. My first thought had been to do it in moss stitch, but then it was pointed out by Helen (I think), that it had to be in moss stitch AND rib to perfectly mirror the body, which is of course true! The i-cord cast-off was also a solution we cooked up in that conversation.

The waistcoat can be conveniently worked on a single size/set of long circular needles. If you are a magic looper, you can use the that same set for the sleeves and cuffs too. If not, you might want to add a set of DPNs and maybe a 40cm circular for the shoulders down.

The variety in the stitch patterning between stocking stitch, moss stitch and ribbing adds interest while you knit, but with practical reasoning behind it: ribbing at the back gives a nice cinched-in effect at the waist, and the moss stitch creates beautiful texture and structured flatness. And the i-cord cast-off just finishes it all off so satisfyingly, with the buttonhole almost hidden in it; a detail that just fills me with joy.

While not dyed on the same base – The Wool Kitchen, DK yarn is spun from Blue Face Leicester and Circus Tonic Handmade’s Carousel DK comes from Merino – both have the exact same weight to length ratio. It’s worth noting that they knit up a little differently. Personally I changed my needle size between the samples I made in each (I address this in a note in the pattern, where I also suggest needle size). It’s like the Merino is a little plumper, while the BFL has a little more drape.

Why work with two dyers on one pattern? Well, I love both Helen and Hannah and their very different, yet synchronious, approaches to yarn dyeing. It’s a way of spread the love and the work involved around a bit (and give more local yarn options to those who will knit it, depending on which hemisphere you are in). As a designer, I don’t have it in me to design for every yarn that inspires me (that’s the realistic timing of handmade things and me being a bit of a slow poke). These things take time and mostly justified by the satisfaction and connection, rather than significant financial gain. Collaborating with good people is part of what keeps this interesting for me. Learning about each other through what we do well is endlessly satisfying.

Not that everything is satisfying and/or easy. Sometimes there are bits that just need to be done, like being in pictures. It’s not something that would be on my oh-yes-please-I’d-like-to-do-that-every-day list, but I think it’s important that you see us as makers in the pictures. Being in pictures does get a little easier the more I do it and is way easier when working with fun, patient and smart photographers who make you feel comfortable and confident.

You can see Helen and I in the photographs, taken by Jeni Reid in Walthamstow, while she was visiting from Friockheim. Jeni has an equally collaboratorial approach to everything she does, so it is fun to have her as part of the Pen Pal gang. There’s an invisible Amelia Hodsdon working her magic in the background, with tech-editing and directing the day of shooting. Anna Feldman was also there as moral support. And as always, Kristin Blom in Uppsala was immensely skilled and patient laying the pattern out just-so, through the many many hours of backwards and forwards tweaking that it took. This time she drew the schematic too, to not just to show where on the garment the measurements refer to, but also to help illustrate the fiddly to communicate construction. I just wish we could have been there altogether for the photoshoot, all wearing Pen Pals. Maybe one day! In the meantime, we have our correspondence and now the experience of Pen Pal-ing together!

For me, working on a pattern together is about supporting each other; extending our reach beyond what we can do as individuals (especially on creative person’s budgets) – sharing the work of making a pattern happen and getting it and the yarn out into other knitters’ hands. I certainly can’t make a pattern by myself and I do a good amount of designing (and designing isn’t even the half the work of encouraging people that a pattern is knitworthy). It takes a lot of people to put together a good pattern.

Both Helen and Hannah gave me wonderful feedback on the pattern instructions: how to improve the pattern for the people who would knit it in the future became part of our correspondence with each other. And the garments they test-knitted become the samples they will each be able to use to show off their dyeing work and help suggest what can be made with it, pointing knitters to my pattern. I hope you’ll take the time to familiarise yourselves (if you aren’t already) with their amazing approaches to colours and communicating their love of what they do.

There have been so many places that Helen, Hannah, Jeni, Kristin, Amelia and I have exchanged knowledge and helped each other along the way in preparing for the sharing of this pattern (and all sorts else), but finally it’s ready for your needles.

I must say, it makes me very happy to think that this pattern might become part of other correspondence too, online and off, as it is cast on by you – perhaps as a Pen Pal KAL with your knitting pen pal?

You can purchase the pattern here, via Ravelry.

You can purchase Hannah’s yarn here, via Etsy.

You can purchase Helen’s yarn here, via Etsy.

Posted on


This weekend is the LA County Yarn Crawl and this pattern is the fruits of collaboration with Gather, a magical little yarn store in the very heart of Down Town Los Angeles in the sunny land of California. You can find it nestled in an upstairs corner of The Last Bookstore, which has a tunnel built out of books and a large fantasy section. Basically it’s just the sort of place you’d expect to find a unicorn on vacation, except the unicorn in this scenario refers only to the tails of the Tosh variety.

The long (long enough to wrap around my sister and I), bias knit, garter stitch, diagonally striped scarf is a riff on my Diagonapples pattern some knitters might be familiar with. Apples for Unicorns has a slightly more forgiving number of stitches per row: 25% less and a WHOLE lot less ends to sew in as it is specially designed to utilise one full skein of Tosh Merino Light and your choice of 6 (or more!) Unicorn Tails; hence the name, Apples for Unicorns.

Basically, it’s the very pinnacle of comfort knitting. Lots of garter stitch and enough little points of interest to keep you engaged. Once you have increased to the main section of the pattern, you knit along on a comfortable bias, with eyelets every now and then to keep you incentivised to do ‘just a little bit more’. The placement of these picot rows add an element of functional beauty by disguising the change of colour between stripes to make the scarf completely reversible.The majority of this project doesn’t require close counting, which makes it a good project to do while having epic chats (such as at the cosy knit night at Gather). Though simple, it is quite striking and when you are in your stride it can prove addictive. The theory of the pattern is well explained and extensive notes will give you all the tips I’ve gathered while knitting many a bias scarf.

And now for a little more magic, you see, there are lovely overlapping people in this story. The first owner of Gather was Evi T’Bolt. It was under her invitation that I first taught there. She’s a honey-coloured force of nature. You’ll see her name appearing as the photographer of the images you see here and in the patterns. The ownership of Gather has now been passed on to Tifanee Taylor. The funny thing is, beyond the yarnie connection, Tifanee and I also have a second photographer connection in the form of E.J Rose, whose name you may recognise as the originator of the photo essay The Adventures of Pengwee and The Boy in my Penguin: a Knit Collection book or as @bigdaddylonewolf on instagram. Such as the one pictured below.

Erica and Tifanee have been friends for many years – before Tifanee moved to LA and they were both on the other side of the USA. That connection is just another thing that makes the creative circle around Gather magical, as if the ‘gather’ refers to bringing good folks together, as well as beautiful yarn. I look forward to visiting every time I am in LA, which is fairly regularly (given the long distance), due to the fact my sister (who is in the photos) and my in-laws live there.

This weekend is the LA County Yarn Crawl (6 to 9 April, 2017) which seemed like the perfect time to make sure this pattern was out in the world. Also, I know Tifanee is flush with Unicorn Tails and that’s a good thing, because that Madeline Tosh can be hard to track down because she is so popular! I wish I could drop in on Gather to say hello to Tifanee and Danielle (who knitted the sample you see here), stroke the colours of yarn and talk knitting. And I have a feeling there will be snacks.

You can purchase the pattern here on Ravlery.