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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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Knitting Fire and Fury

Originally published in Pom Pom Quarterly, Issue 20, Spring 2017. Illustration by Elena Skoreyko Wagner,used with kind permission.

Here’s to 2017! Last year has unanimously been called an annus horribilis. We lost a number of high-profile creative souls far too soon, and even more passed on at a ripe old age. David Bowie, Victoria Wood, Mohammed Ali, Prince, Phife Dawg and Carrie Fisher, to name but a few we collectively mourned last year.

In their creative and public lives these artists challenged the status quo and extended what was possible. They opened up avenues many of us struggled to walk alone and inspired us to speak up, sing out, laugh together, and dance a better world into being. At the same time, elections and referendums across the globe threw up results that removed the luxury of ignoring some disturbing realities. Many have become ‘woke’ to the need for vocal and creative action in their everyday lives. We entered 2017 with our eyes open, knowing we may need to stand up and stand together In new ways. Undoubtedly, difficult and uncomfortable confrontations lie ahead. Knitting will provide a solace, as it always does, but can it also provide the fire?

The meditative, mindful and therapeutic qualities of knitting are well established. Researchers have repeatedly shown that a hobby or a craft practice, and particularly one involving textiles (knitting especially), can provide relief from depression, anxiety and chronic pain. These activities tend to engender supportive communities and friendships, and crafting itself offers a focused pause in our increasingly complicated, fast-moving and busy lives. Intuitively, we know that beauty and its creation are powerful and important endeavours. Prominent figures like William Morris have also highlighted the social value of arts and crafts. Perhaps the role of knitting is to further this cause. But how can we ensure that we aren’t just sweeping our problems under a stunning hand-tufted carpet?

So much of what I currently read and listen to on crafting emphasises its ability to help process, relieve, control, and distract us from our stress and misery as an end in itself.
I firmly believe in the curative and transformative potential of making things, but among all this earnestness it can be hard to find a constructive voice and use for the fire and fury I also see at the heart of our crafting community.

For many handcrafting no longer plays a central role in the building of our homes and working lives. It is no longer essential to the production of furniture, tools, clothing and a roof over our heads. For the majority, knitting, crochet, quilting, pottery, spoon carving and sewing are now firmly ‘hobbies’. I say this not to belittle such endeavours in anyway; the world needs more hobbyists, hobbies and the time to engage in them.
But perhaps many of us crafters are still questing for a function, a focus to our passion. Of course, we can satisfy our generosity and desire to ‘do something’ with acts of charitable kindness like knitting for the homeless, premature babies or oil-slicked penguins. Though these are much needed and appreciated, where are the earth-shattering, life-changing actions we get to play an essential role in?

We regularly look longingly to times when the power of crafting seemed clearer. We study pamphlets and photography documenting knitting for the troops during both world wars, admire the way Land Girls dressed themselves in lean times, and find inspiration in the honesty of workwear from the interwar period. We look to Honsestrik, an act of rebellion against prescriptive, proprietary patterns in a time of economic downturn in Denmark in the 1970s. Whether historically correct or not, we love the gruesome tales of distinctive patterns knitted into fisherman’s sweaters to enable their bodies to be sent back to their villages should they be washed up on faraway beaches. All of these instances combine necessity, resourcefulness, and design in invaluable ways. As craft has ceased to be the main form of production, it seems unsurprising that our handiwork and focus has turned inwards to self-care and betterment. These are important, but without social necessity, can knitting provide anything on a wider scale? In these times of struggle, how will knitting answer today’s calls to action?

Crafting is undeniably used as a form of highly productive escapism. However, our current ideas of escape are curious. We like it when our knitwear models languish on fences or in fields, wistfully gazing off into the distance, cracking only a discrete smile if any. Pattern books, profiles and websites are typically populated by the slender, pale-skinned and able-bodied under titles like Perfect and Essentially Feminine Knits, Girly Knits and plenty of variations on ‘vintage’, ‘romantic’, ‘countryside’ and the like. Where are the alternative – or some might say, realistic – titles? Nasty Knitters? Cool Knits for Hot Flashes and the Furies that Accompany Them? Fault-Free Knitting for the Pedantic and Difficult? A Compendium of Colourwork in the Struggle for Racial Diversity?

I’m sure you can come up with a few more. We have Sweater Girls covered, but no ‘Sweaty Girls. ‘Knits for Nerds starts inching in the right direction. We get closer with Confessions of a Knitting Heretic, Knitting for Anarchists and of course, The Opinionated Knitter, yet cursory reads and common quotes from even these will soon throw up ‘gentle’ and ‘soothe’, rather than ‘focus’, ‘channel’ and ‘question’.

If knitting is so simpering, so demure, so well controlled, then why does “I knit so I don’t kill people” strike a chord with so many? So prevalent on t-shirts, sweatshirts, bags, pendants, stitch markers, badges, mugs and keyrings, it’s hard to know the exact origin of this phrase we like to utter with a chuckle. Perhaps its popularity arises from its ability to simultaneously function as an acknowledgement between knitters and a warning to the outside world: a warning that you are prepared to offer a deft kick in the teeth to anyone with the view that crafters aren’t badass.

We’ve all watched enough of the likes of Star Wars and Karate Kid to know that anger isn’t the way, but we certainly feel it and it’s never far away. “Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned / Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned,” wrote William Congreve in his play The Mourning Bride in 1697. Often misquoted and misattributed to William Shakespeare, these words were written for a tragic tale of love and deception between people, but could just as easily describe the fury of a maker when their project goes awry. Though every WIP starts with desire, promise and excitement, it can quickly turn to confusion and dislike, then remorse and disdain, even hate. Many a frustrated beginner would gladly throw their work across the room because it’s just not turning out the way they imagined. More advanced knitters may experience deep dissatisfaction with the pattern description, knots or weakness in the yarn, the relationship between swatch and garment, the pilling, the size, the cast-on/off, the ethics, the interruptions, or the way the colours work together. All these can quickly spark flashes of intense anger.

A lot of this anger is focused on ourselves in our personal quests for perfectionism in life and craft. You may be familiar with the phrases: I’m not patient enough”; “I knew I should have frogged it way back when”; or “I should have known better.” These frustrations are personal reflections on ourselves and our projects, but our crusade for perfection can extend outward. Spending a little time on Ravelry forums, in the comments section after blog posts or on Twitter, will show that knitters are not always nicey-nicey or calm. Among skilled, intelligent, committed crafters with passionate opinions, forums can very quickly turn ugly. There’s usually a hefty dose of thinly-veiled judgement and passive aggressive camaraderie, but I do wonder: if our feistiness were laid bare, might it offer up more creative fuel? Instead of petty griping, what can we cast on to direct our anger towards agency and change?

What could such projects look like? One answer is Pussy Hats.

On January 21,2017 the Women’s March took place in Washington DC, with solidarity marches across the globe. Thanks to the beautifully worded call and proposal that kicked off the Pussy Hat Project, knitters, crocheters and assorted other crafters have been busy making hundreds of thousands of pink hats with feline ears to be worn in the streets on this day of dissent. The idea is for everyone present to have their heads kept warm by a handmade hat, whether made by the marcher’s own hands, a gift from a fellow marcher, or from someone unable to attend (as a representation of their commitment). Worn after the fact, these hats will continue to be emblems of solidarity, ignite conversations, identify allies, visualise dissent and bring beauty, laced with humour, to winters for years to come.

I hope we can create more such avenues to channel our anger in the coming days. With our wits and our skills we can turn our fear and despair into a positive collective strategy. So, what’s next? What else can we put our anger and our passion to…

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Fitting Reflections

Originally published in Pom Pom Quarterly, Issue 19, Winter 2016

I have a long-standing, unsubstantiated theory that the rise of mass-produced clothing has brought about a rise in dissatisfaction with our bodies. There are many associated reasons, but it boils down to the fact that, like Cinderella’s ugly stepsisters, rather than finding the clothes (or glass slipper) to fit us, we try to change ourselves to fit the clothes. Before the Industrial Revolution, and a good number of decades following, we made our own clothes, or had them made for us by a seamstress or tailor, according to our own body shape. With the advent of ready-to-wear clothing and mass production, the vast majority of us now dress in impersonal pre-made garments. That is not a shift to be taken lightly if you consider how many of us feel oddly-sized and shaped when looking at our reflections wearing these standardised clothes.

My hope is that with the current resurgence of making garments for ourselves, coupled with increasing interest in the origins of the garments we buy, we can start to readdress the balance. One of the pitfalls we need to be wary of is letting pre-made pattern sizes of the clothes we sew or knit make us feel just as skinny/ fat, tall/short, etc, as the pre-made clothing we buy. True, this will require some skill and bravery on the part of the maker to read and adjust patterns to make them fit as they would like them to, but when you consider how many generations of humans have made body coverings, it can’t be the rocket science it sometimes seems.

There was a time when it was considered generous if a knitting pattern came in 3 sizes – which still holds true in some handknitting communities. A sweater or cardigan that appears in Pom Pom will generally have 5 sizes and elsewhere it isn’t unheard of to come across patterns that offer well upwards of 7 sizes. This is amazingly convenient and inclusive, but I would urge every maker to share the responsibility of making their garment fit their own body. Just because a pattern fits across a wide spectrum of sizes, doesn’t mean it is tailored to your body and fit tastes. Sometimes I wonder whether the inclusion of so many sizes lulls us into a false sense of hope that it will actually fit us the way we want it to. If there are a smaller number of sizes, it makes it clearer that we have a shared responsibility for creating our desired fit.

The idea of a ‘perfect fit’ is as loaded as the term ‘beautiful’. Sure, we have to be able to get into a garment and move our body parts to a lesser or greater degree, but so much of fit, as well as other elements of garment style, is based on current fashion, historical precedent and cultural tastes. At the very least, we can all agree that clothing should be designed to stay on, come off when needed, and not cut off oxygen or blood circulation, at least not since corsetry (fetish wear is another debate altogether). Though there are blips of oversized dressing, for over a hundred years in the UK, we’ve been preoccupied with clothing that fits with comparatively little ease or even negative ease around our bodies. This is the opposite of the trends of many cultures and eras, where clothes fit with a lot of space around the body or have no shaping at all, relying on the body to make their shape. Think of sarongs, sarees, huipil, togas – these are ostensibly flat lengths of cloth, wrapped or draped over our bodies to achieve their fit. When wearing such garments, your body size would have to change dramatically to notice if, for example, your waist had grown or shrunk.

As well as being cultural, fit is also personal and professional, based on how our bodies occupy our clothes, and the environment and movements the clothes have to allow for – climbing a tree, withstanding sub-zero temperatures, sitting in a chair all day, dancing all night… The body we are most familiar with dressing is the one we see in the mirror on a daily basis. It’s not a far leap to assume that a designer also holds their own body and fit taste most clearly in their mind, no matter how skilled they are at catering to other body sizes and shapes. That’s the beauty of it. Take a look at your favourite designers and there’s a chance their bodies are not wildly dissimilar from your own. I wouldn’t look to someone with a ballet dancer’s physique to design a sweater for a busty broad, or the reverse. Sure, designers have honed their skills, basing their patterns on standardised sizing, but is it a far stretch to suppose they are also informed by their experiences of occupying their own bodies?

The sizes given on the Yarn Council of America’s website are often used as the basis of pattern sizing. They’re not shrouded by membership requirements or buried deep within a website, so I encourage you to take a look and compare them to your body’s measurements. I’ll hazard to say there will be differences. These are standardised sizes, developed from averages; they are not your body. Statistics will vary from country to country and company to company and there are no laws that dictate what sizes should be. This helps explain why you might find trousers that fit perfectly at a certain shop, and then the following year they suddenly don’t – a change of factory or approach to sizing may cause discrepancies. Certainly a change in the country of production will change the understanding of a standard body.

Luckily, the absolute beauty of wool and knitting in combination is that they stretch; they have generosity and give worked into their fabric structure. Switch out the fibre and you’ll notice a change: if you have tried knitting with cotton or linen, you will feel, while knitting and in the resulting stitches, how much less natural flex these fibres have. If you stick with wool but change to a weave, you will notice that the stretch is gone. Woven fabric is formed by a grid of threads that make for a more stable structure, rather than loops of knitting that allow for movement. Stick with wool, but try switching to crochet and you’ll also generally find the stitches have a solidity knit doesn’t. Each is perfect for a different type of garment, but the forgivingness of wool and knit together are, in my opinion, something special. So, before you get all worried that you have to calculate everything yourself for a personal fit, you can also rest assured that your knitted items will allow for a lot of shaping. In fact, often I would be more inclined to trust the natural stretch of the garment than trust a designer to know exactly where my waist is in relationship to my bust and the bottom of a garment. Personally, I would rather have a straight up-and-down garment and allow the stretch over my body to shape it, OR put my own shaping in where it needs to be.

I am a long-time collector of old knitting patterns. Single-patterns and booklets, printed over the course of nearly the last hundred years. The knit is only a small part of the overall greatness of knitting patterns and it is the combination that I derive the most happiness from: the instructions, graphic design, styling, locations, hair, poses, props and interactions of the people in the photographs. Sometimes I like to get them down from their files and spread them out on the floor, sitting cross- legged among them. Bicycles, soap bubbles, beer, guns, stuffed animals, pipes and musical instruments all make regular appearances. But you can also trace the specific fashions and cultural preferences of the different eras and the subgroups within them. You can notice specific tastes for body shapes, from the rectangular silhouette of the 20s, to the wasp waists and pointy bras of the 50s, morphing into flatter chests in the 60s. Hairstyles change dramatically from kiss curls to beehives, a rare afro, centre partings and sideburns, to perms and feather cuts. They are documents of their time, but unlike a standard magazine or advertisement, they are a call to activity. They are about making something yourself, your own version, regardless of if it is a copy. They might be aspirational, but you’ve got a hand in it. The real difference from fashion and lifestyle magazines is that in knitting patterns you can often readily see that somebody roped in their partner, offspring, parent, colleague, neighbour or sibling for the photoshoot, and I love it.

Sure, my collection also includes knitting patterns with early pictures of a youthful Joanna Lumley, Diana Rigg and Kate Moss, who all went on to have illustrious careers based in large part on a consensus that their physical appearance and proportions worked well on camera. I am skirting around the use of a word like ‘beauty’ here, because it is such a flexible and taste-based term. The reality is we have become practised at evaluating clothing as depicted on a very narrow view of beauty. I think the variety of models found in knitting patterns should be celebrated and perpetuated. In fact, I think even more diversity should be encouraged. For that to happen, like sharing responsibility for a knit to fit our bodies, we must also respect the difference and learn how to judge how a garment may fit us on a wider range of shapes, not just the ones we have been trained to desire more than our own.

We should reflect on our reflections and celebrate them. In the skill and thrill of making a garment for our own bodies we can help to challenge the way things are in the world – starting with the way we feel about ourselves.

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Witches, Friends and Fugitives

Originally published in Pom Pom Quarterly, Issue 18, Autumn 2016

Anna Maltz talks to legendary natural dyer Kristin Vejar

There is something wonderfully witchy about dyeing, especially natural dyeing. Turning weeds and peelings into shimmering gold is a type of alchemy. Every dyer I know keeps at least one book of spells, and consults yet more. Whether cryptically scrawled or fastidiously ordered, they contain recipes for summoning up their desired colours with precision. Bubbling pots are part of the package. Whether or not you choose to call them cauldrons, they steam and bring forth potent smells, followed by colour.

Witchery has long been derided and condemned by the straight-laced powers that be: caricatured as crones all in black with pointy hats and crooked-tailed cats, up to all sorts of nefarious activities. This can throw us off the scent from the fact that these characters of fable and history are actually wise, creative women with knowledge of the sort that comes from experience and deep understanding. They are skilled, resourceful women, in tune with their environments and able to combine elements to achieve results greater than the sum of their parts, and with lasting implications. And really, warts on noses should be welcome (while not obligatory) in any inclusive society.

With that in mind, I have to resist the temptation to proclaim them a coven (since it is preferable to let individuals and groups choose their own descriptive): Kristine Vejar and her partner Adrienne Rodriguez, together with a team of women, have created a magical space called A Verb For Keeping Warm (AVFKW or simply, Verb). Their familiars are two dachshunds, Cleo and Calliope, and Marcel, a veteran French Angora rabbit. Located on San Pablo Avenue in Oakland, it’s a dye kitchen and garden, a classroom and shop, and a hub for the incredible community of conscientious makers that emanate from it. I wish it had been there when I lived in the California Bay Area for 5 years. However, I was lucky enough to give a talk there when I was last in town.

It’s hard to keep an introduction to Kristine brief; she is always up to so many things with other thoughtful, dedicated folk across a range of disciplines and cultures. Kristine’s personal adventure with natural dyeing started in the North of India and changed the course of her studies from a more academic approach (art history) to a hands-on one. Through her initially extra-curricular study of textile techniques with the Rabari tribe, she gained a deeper understanding of how colour and cloth can be embedded in a community’s traditions and identity. The creation of colours using locally collected natural dyes makes them even more rooted in a place. This experience changed Kristine’s focus.

During my visit in November 2014, Kristine let me in on a beautiful secret: I got to see a mock-up of The Modern Natural Dyer. Even in its rough state, it was clearly a craft book with a difference. More of a coffee table cookbook in appearance, it is infused with

Kristine’s generosity and belief in community. The intervening year and a bit has seen the release of the book and the rise and rise in an interest in natural dyeing, due, in no small part, to the book itself. It’s a spellbinding book: inspiring, enabling, invigorating and beautiful. It whets your appetite to make colour and to find out more about Kristine, so here are some insights from the woman herself…

AM: Why use natural dyes? Why not use Rit, Dylon or whatever brand of synthetic dye is available at your local chemist or hardware shop?
KV: There are so many reasons why I think using natural dyes is a worthwhile venture. Personally, I love to cook and enjoy all of the steps leading up to making the meal. I like to go to the farmers market, to choose my ingredients, to learn how ingredients come together to create delicious meals, and then to share these meals with friends. I find natural dyeing is very similar to cooking. I enjoy growing, shopping, and sourcing the ingredients – like onion skins, marigolds, and madder root – because I want to know what creates these colours and where they come from. I like thinking about how to create new colours through different combinations of these ingredients. I also like how each of these ingredients has its own story to share, instead of being made in a factory or a lab. I like to know the farmer who grows my dye plants. These stories are embedded into the yarn, fabric, or clothing I am dyeing. Ultimately, I think it makes the colour more interesting. Using natural dyes I’ve foraged myself gives me a greater connection to the place I inhabit. I’ve always enjoyed nature and hiking. I gain an even greater appreciation for a particular tree when I have also been able to use its leaves or bark for colour. It’s a way of carrying that tree and nature with me throughout my day.

AM: Is your favourite colour the same as the colour you most enjoy dyeing?
KV: My favourite colour tends to shift quite a bit. Currently, my favourite colours are neutrals and blues. I do enjoy dyeing these colours. I love madder – the colour, the way it smells when I am dyeing with it – yet, I don’t wear a lot of red. If I did, I would be in heaven!

AM: Is there a difference between a stain and a dye? And what is a fugitive colour?
KV: Absolutely! Not all plants are created equally when it comes to dyeing. The measurement of how long a colour lasts is referred to as colourfastness. The longer the colour lasts, the better the colourfastness. A stain is a colour which fades quickly – let’s say over the course of a few days with light exposure to the sun, or within a few washings. Often times you can see this happen with colour from blueberries or beets, where the vibrant purple colour made by these ingredients will fade to a brown or cream mark. A dye is a colour which stays on longer than that – hopefully much longer. I would describe a fugitive colour as a state in between a stain and a dye, so it stays longer than a few days or a few washes but leaves within a year or so.

AM: How do you encourage the colours to stick around?
KV: Before heading to the dyepots, there are two important steps in preparing the fabric to accept dye: scouring and mordanting. By completing both of these steps, colourfastness improves drastically for some stains and certainly for all dyes!

AM: ‘Scouring’? I think of that as a process of cleaning really dirty pots when I am doing the dishes by hand. How does it mean in the context of fabric preparations for natural dyeing?
KV: Scouring means to pre-wash.

AM: Just pre-wash? Nothing else? Just in soap and water, like normal laundry?
KV: Protein-based (wool, silk, etc) = stovetop, pot, water, liquid dishwashing detergent, heat.
Cellulose-based fibers (cotton, linen, etc) = stovetop, pot, water, soda ash preferably, heat. Or a very hot, long cycle in washing machine. All of this said, I really do believe it is best to keep curiosity alive and to create room at the table for everyone who is interested in natural dyeing. And that it really comes down to a conversation about expectations regarding colourfastness. Some people want their dyed colour to stay on for a very long time (for 50+ years), I advise them to use dyes with a long historical record, like madder and other dyes which I included in my book, The Modern Natural Dyer. Then, there are people for whom the process of natural dyeing, or that day’s dyeing anyway, is about wandering, and exploring the garden or forest. There might be some great colours out there, though they might not be very colourfast. I think as long as people know this risk, and can look at it more as an experiment then there is less disappointment when the colour fades. One important thing to note is that once the yarn, fabric, or clothing is mordanted once, it can be re-dyed over and over again. So, if the colour fades, just dye it again.

AM: Mordanting is permanent?! Does it really only need to be done once? So you can’t undo it?
KV: Yes and yes. And really, for the health of the planet and the people who are dyeing cloth around the world, colour should fade – all colour. There are some really heavy-duty chemicals and metals that go into creating dyes with the sole purpose of staying vibrant past a trillion days and washes.

AM: If you could step outside of your busy schedule of spreading the love of natural dyeing and ethical textiles, where would you go to learn from a different local dyeing community?
KV: Oh, that list is so long! One of the core reasons I find natural dyeing so fascinating is that it is alive around the world, and in each place there are similarities – just like cooking, due to kitchen chemistry – and then differences based upon what is readily available in terms of ingredients. I would love to visit Oaxaca, Japan, Southern China, and Indonesia.

AM: What has been most satisfying about the wonderful reception of your book, The Natural Dyer?
KV: Seeing people try natural dyeing! Being a natural dyer is kind of like living on a small island, which in some ways is great, because there is a tight-knit community with which to discuss natural dyeing. That said, it has been absolutely wonderful to be able to speak my language with more people and to have a new infusion of ideas and creativity into the natural dyeing process!

It sounds like an unfamiliar boat has arrived on the remote shores of Natural Dyeing and that it’s time to fire up our cauldrons, and conscientiously gather what we can from our gardens and forests, in preparation for sharing a great potluck feast of colour. Witches, friends and fugitives are welcome round the table. For some, the party will last for the night, for others, it will never end.

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Seductive & Slow

Originally published in Pom Pom Quarterly, Issue 17, Summer 2016

It’s time to start a summer knitting romance where time need not be of the essence.

Hopefully your summer plans include a decent smattering of lazy days to kick back, switch off and take time out from the un-fun musts in life (not the fun musts: fresh air; good conversations with interesting people; deliciously nourishing food; engaging your brain by learning exciting new things; sleeping – keep doing those in abundance). We all need proper breaks – at least a few days where we try to quiet the laundry list of to-dos in our head. Ideally the summer months are a time to lay aside our need for speed and just enjoy, well, being. And clearly there should be knitting involved.

Knitting has a funny old relationship to speed, both to onlookers and those who engage in it. There exist speed-knitting contests to decide the world’s fastest knitter, yet it is its rather slow nature that entices many of us to hand knit. Be it a way to step outside of fast-fashion, a reminder that off-screen activities exist, or a way to blissfully apply our concentration, focus and zone out, knitting knows how to hit the spot. We start slow and then we want to get quicker at it. You can work on it alone, but there are also forums and classes to help you achieve this end by matching you up with your perfect technique. With regular practice you will achieve quicker results with most things, but why not slow down? That’s what summer is for, after all.

There are only a handful of pursuits I can think of for which the marker of proficiency is being able to do it slowly. Generally, outside of the bedroom, being quick at something is interlinked with being good at it. However, to take a leaf from between the sheets, rather than racing for the finish, how about lovingly caressing your project, cradling it in your lap, savouring every stitch and forming each eyelet with gentle care, slipping slowly? Fumbling even has its place. So how about a sun-warmed, epic, languorous summer knitting romance? Slow those knits right down and be adventurous. You could stay on cloud nine from May to September. Then, like a good book, the bittersweet moment will inevitably come when your project is finished. While you’re still basking in the glow, someone will go ahead and spoil the moment by asking, “How long did that take you?” It’s happened to you too, right? No matter how romantic we get about knitting, there will always be someone to drag you straight back to clockwatching reality. I don’t begrudge the question or the curiosity it stems from, but I do find it quite odd and distracting. There are many things we choose to do that take a significant amount of time, yet no one cares to quantify them, at least not with the same regularity as a knitted item. Why is it OK to ask this about knitting? Unless you are a close friend, it is often considered rude to enquire about the timing of many other activities. When confronted with a beautiful baby (or even a funny-looking one), consider whether one would ask how long it took to make. If someone is looking particularly polished, who would deny them the right to feign effortlessness and ask them how long it took? Though tempting, and surprisingly common practice, it’s equally unhelpful to ask the heartbroken how long their relationship lasted – we all know there’s judgement in that there question.

Without picking apart the psychology of it too much, I think as human beings we’re fascinated by what others do. One of the ways to gauge commitment is by how much time someone chooses to dedicate to something. With this in mind, I try to answer the question generously and honestly, even after the 1,000th time. I fluctuate between approaches to answering. The first entails explaining: “It’s hard to tell – I don’t knit with a stopwatch by my side. Plus, it’s an activity I can partake in while doubling up on certain other necessary activities, for example sitting on the bus, in waiting rooms and chatting to my parents on the phone”. Alternatively, if I do decide to give an idea of a timeframe, I’ll say something like: “I did it over the course of two weeks. I didn’t work on it constantly, but I did do it a few hours a day”. When I happen to know specifically, I say: “40 hours give or take”. I tend to err on the side of declaring more, rather than fewer, hours. I think it’s important to disclose that things can take a long time.

Regardless of how I describe it, the curious non-knitting party usually follows up with a statement along the lines of “you must be very patient”. This is the part of the conversation that really winds me up, because, yes, when it comes to knitting (and sometimes answering questions politely), I have a wealth of patience, but it’s silly to think that means I’m a patient person across the board. I’d like to respond curtly by pointing out that I am sure there are things they do that don’t interest me enough to dedicate my time to them. Indeed, there are a million-and-one commonplace activities I can’t imagine doing or sitting through for fear of dying of frustration and boredom (especially if I didn’t have my knitting with me). Almost any sports match on telly, for instance. Grown-up conversations about buying houses and mortgages lose me at “if only we’d bought five years ago”. I have admiration for those who spend an hour plus each morning doing their hair and applying makeup – I can’t imagine giving so much time over to that method of beautifying, while I’ll gladly put in an hour a day to knitting a jumper that makes me look great (or joyously weird). Ironing takes FOREVER, so I try to ignore it. Clean, minimal houses leave me wondering whether people don’t have anything better to do.

Clocks, industrialisation and computerisation also have a lot to answer for in our obsession with how long things take. Time is money, right? Saving money takes a long time. My father is an inveterate bargain hunter, obsessed with sales, last minute markdowns, loss leaders, loopholes, misprints, multi-buys, bulk buys, coupons, points, membership cards and dividends, flash sales and introductory offers. It’s an essential skill for getting by on a budget and I’m glad I learnt the techniques. But my dad’s constant thriftiness can get frustrating. If time really was money, it might not be cost-effective. Rather than strictly a waste of time, I think this puts it in the entertainment category. I can understand the need for this shopping behaviour out on the flamboyantly capitalist high street. It’s what you’re supposed to do. Most of us are well practiced at it. It makes us feel like we’re winning just a little against the relentless onslaught of consumerism. Playing the system. People have embraced shopping with the fervour and zeal of a hobby or sport. But what effect does this shopping behaviour have when combined with our crafty hobbies? If we shop in the creative community with the same approach as we hit the supermarket, who is winning?

Constant sales, limited editions, special releases, exclusives – these things are not relaxing, they are work for those involved on both sides of the equation. Do we always need bells and whistles to get us going? In the UK we joke that if there is a queue, people will stand in it, regardless of whether they know what it’s for. It must be special! Yes, people need to be reminded and enticed to buy, especially when there’s stiff competition in a diverse market, but it seems that it is easier to sell something if people have to set their alarm clock to wake up at an ungodly hour, for example for festival tickets to go live or a yarn update. Though comparable range and quality may be reliably available next door, we opt for the exotic tryst over the staycation. Consumerist culture relies partially on the allure of scarcity and time limits.

The yarn market goes through an inverted hibernation in the summer. While winter months are hopefully both productive and fruitful, in the summer we do not venture out for sustenance as often. Summer is often thought of as a dead time in regards to knitting. Another way to think of it is that knitters are taking a moment out of the shopping frenzy to focus on their stitches and really get to know them without the distractions of commerce. It can be a time to reacquaint ourselves with our crafting passion – not just to consume, but to create. Knitting is a relationship we nurture. It provides a pleasure beyond the timed functionality of what we will get out of the union (even though the hats and scarves and jumpers are lovely). It need not even be a monogamous partnership. There are so many approaches to love. The best thing about a holiday is that you don’t need your alarm clock, and don’t need to clock in and out. No clockwatching for the day to end and no one to notice whether your lunch lasted longer than it should have. Your accountability to time dances to a different rhythm. Therefore, I’d like to ask for a summer hiatus from the question: “How long did that take to knit?” And don’t even get me started on strangers asking “Is that for me?”