Origin Stories: Starcroft Fiber Mill

EDITOR’S NOTE: Happy Friday! Today I’m pleased to launch another new regular column, this one by Hannah Thiessen (whose book Slow Knitting is due out this Fall) on the subject of yarns with great origin stories! I hope this will be a great resource for all of us who want to know more about where our materials come from, representing a wide range of sources, fibers and price points. I also want to say a special thank-you to photographer-knitter Gale Zucker (follow @galezucker on Instagram) for providing the shearing-day photos for this piece! For more of Gale’s photos of Nash Island, see her blog.
—Karen

Origin Stories: Starcroft Fiber Mill

BY HANNAH THIESSEN // The first time I encountered Jani Estell’s yarn from the Starcroft Fiber Mill, it felt a lot like being let in on a well-kept secret. I was in New York, attending a fiber show, and some friends of mine mentioned that there would be a yarn-related pop-up show the same day in Greenwich Village. Having never been to Greenwich Village before, and always enticed by the idea of undiscovered yarns, I hailed a cab and headed out for adventure.

The weather was chilly (perfect for those having wooly thoughts), and the rotating art-space venue was just the right amount of cozy, rustic, and full. The glowing warmth of incandescent light and fading sunshine lit up several large farm tables and rustic benches, laden with Starcroft Fiber Mill’s Nash Island wools. Jani Estell wove her way through those purchasing single skeins and sweater lots, while some knitters settled in on skinny, wiggling benches and pulled out their projects to chat. I couldn’t resist the pull of this perfect moment and purchased seven skeins of Nash Island Light, a soft and shiny worsted (almost aran) weight yarn. The color I chose was the palest, faintest collection of cloudy blue: what I dreamt as a reflection of the story of this wool.

The story, really, is simply the best part of this yarn. Yes, the hand is lovely, the colors are beautifully applied, the finished knit has character in abundance — but so many yarns can lay claim to these attributes. It is after the true “yarn” untangles, after I discover the story of a wool, that I truly fall in love.

100 years ago, in 1916, a woman named Jenny Cirone’s father became the lighthouse keeper of a small island off the coast of Downeast Maine. Jenny started a flock of sheep that she tended on Little Nash Island. Over time, her family purchased the land of the small island and its neighboring, larger one, Big Nash Island. When the lighthouse was decommissioned, she moved to the mainland, but continued tending her flock until she was 92 years old. In her will, she entrusted the flock (now wild, with free reign of the island) to her neighbors, the Wakemans, with whom she had a deep friendship (and had taught to lobster-fish!). They continue to care for the flock today in the same way, leaving the sheep free to roam, and rounding them up for shearing. The wool from each shearing was partially sold at wool markets and also combined with a local wool pool, until Jani began working with them around 2005.

Jani Estell started up a small spinning mill just a few miles inland from the Nash Islands in 2000. She began processing fibers for small customers and eventually came into contact with the Wakemans and Jenny (who passed in 2004.) As a local purveyor of yarns, Jani got to know a shearer who worked with the Nash Island flock and was asked along to complete the circle — help out with the shearing. She felt immediate kinship with the Wakemans and with Jenny, whose passion and love for the sheep on her islands was contagious. After working with the sheep, Jenny, and the Wakemans, she fell in love with the story behind the wool and felt a desire to create yarns that could fully celebrate the uniqueness of the island’s fleece. Jani shifted the focus of her mill to producing only her own Starcroft-branded yarns, and providing the Wakeman family with the viable income needed to support the continuation of the Island flock. She is now involved full-time as the wool manager for the flock and purchases all the wool from the islands at fair-market price.

Origin Stories: Starcroft Fiber Mill

After 100 years on the island, the sheep are truly their own landrace breed, with Coopworth and Romney wool introduced through breeding for continued genetic diversity. They produce heavy fleeces with a 6-8″ staple fiber: a medium wool that is surprisingly soft, airy and shiny, with a glowing halo. She sees the wool as akin to a fine wine: Changes in weather and diet for the sheep can yield small changes, giving each shearing a unique vintage. Unlike hay-raised wools or other rustic wools, Nash Island wools are almost completely free of chaff, due to the diet and habitat of the sheep, making them easy to work with and requiring minimal processing. Jani dyes them in a range of “fog-washed” colors, similar to watercolor washes on wet paper.

The sheep are absolutely wild by nature, and do not interact with humans regularly. They have formed a dynamic community and Jani says that they tend to stay together in family groups: Grandmothers, mothers, sisters, daughters and a matriarch ewe might be seen ‘standing vigil’ in lambing season. Their caregivers do their best to minimize contact and observe from a distance. For now, the future of the sheep is clear: It is the desire of Jani and the Wakemans to continue to care for the sheep in just the way that Jenny did. The island is privately owned and cared for with the same level of respect and dedication, and the Wakemans’ three daughters have grown up with the islands and sheep as part of their lives. The eldest Wakeman daughter and her mother have even learned to shear, allowing the mantle to be passed down from Donna Kausen and Geri Valentine, friends of Jenny’s who have been shearing the flock for 35+ years. Shearing is a community effort, with Jani, the Wakemans, and friends from near and far joining to ‘complete the circle’ and bring the wool to the mainland.

Jani has now fully dedicated her time and the mill to solely producing yarns made from the wools of the island flock. Currently, there are three yarns available from Starcroft Fiber Mill: Nash Island Light, a light worsted-weight 2-ply from ewe wool; Nash Island Tide, a DK-weight 2-ply from ewe wool; and Nash Island Fog, a special fingering-weight 2-ply made exclusively from the flock’s lambs’ wool, with an added touch of Maine-grown angora. This Spring, she’ll introduce a new yarn, which I will await with eager anticipation and ready needles. In some small way, by buying the yarn, it’s almost as if I’m getting to complete the larger circle: the story of lives entwined with wool.

Hannah Thiessen is a freelance creative & social media strategist who specializes in yarn and fiber. She knits and dabbles in other crafty pursuits on her blog, www.handmadebyhannahbelle.com, and you can follow her on Instagram as @hannahbelleknits

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Photos of Jani Estell, husband Grant and sheep © Gale Zucker and yarn photo © Holly McBride for Starcroft; used with permission

Slow Fashion Citizen: India Flint

Slow Fashion Citizen: India Flint

BY KATRINA RODABAUGH | It is such an honor to bring you today’s interview with India Flint, aka @prophet_of_bloom. India is an Australian-based natural dyer, fiber artist, visual artist, costumer, teacher and author, best known for creating the “ecoprint” dye technique. Her natural-dye methods lead to eco-friendly, plant-based, biodegradable and locally foraged color for cloth and yarn, allowing the maker or designer to reduce the toxic impact of synthetic dyes while also gaining traditional skills and connecting with the land through foraging, gardening, or even using food scraps like onion skins or carrot tops before they head to the compost.

I first came across India’s work when I started my fashion fast in 2013 — her books Second Skin and Eco Colour were instrumental in my natural dye experiments. Second Skin is also a great book for considering how to thoughtfully care for our clothes, including some thoughts on mending, repairing, enlivening and ultimately honoring our wardrobe. When I started focusing on using quality secondhand fibers like denim, linen, silk and wool in my wardrobe, natural dyeing and mending became instrumental ways of repairing, rejuvenating and otherwise adding meaning or connection to clothing I purchased secondhand.

But more than her natural dye recipes or techniques was the visceral impact of India’ work and her ethos — this hard to describe, palpable modification of the cloth and wool as if to receive not only the imprint of the dye object but also the imprint of her passion for the environment. There’s a confidence and complexity to her work that I find to be the mark of a lifelong process — the journey to the core of one’s individual aesthetic that can only really be defined as self-recognition and confidence. It’s as if the journey of experimentation and surrender to the process is as much about gaining intimacy with her materials and with the immediate environment as the resulting finished object.

Technically her work might best fall into categories of fiber art and natural dye, but her dye method results in printmaking and surface design while her work with choreographers, galleries, and publishers pushes it further into an interdisciplinary practice that defies genre. I categorize India as a leader in the Slow Fashion movement as much for her dedication to natural fibers and natural dyes—more specifically local Australian wool and native eucalyptus — as for her ongoing experimentation with eco-friendly processes, slow fashion community-building through teaching and writing, and her attempts at harmoniously living with her environment. I love the term “regenerative design” in sustainable fashion and I see India’s work as regenerative and rejuvenating—to the actual cloth but also to the approach of adding color to our fiber.

India regularly travels to teach workshops around the world. If she’s coming to a workshop near you please attend one for me.

. . .

Your book Second Skin is something of a revelation for me. I think it really embodies the ethos of the contemporary Slow Fashion movement — the way you gracefully move between origins of fiber, caring for our clothing, and sharing your own intimate connection with your wardrobe through natural dyes. Do you consider this work part of the Slow Fashion movement? It seems so intuitive to you, but how would you encourage readers to make this connection in their own wardrobes?

It’s the way I was raised, really, and just makes sense to me. I develop warm relationships with my clothes (no pun intended) and like to have them last as long as possible. So I wash gently, air and mend as required. Sometimes I re-dye. I don’t follow fashion trends and couldn’t give a hoot what people might think of the way I dress. My family practiced slow gardening and slow cooking well before such terms were used. As a child I stitched tablecloths while my mother knitted our sweaters. I’ve always chosen to wear natural fibres (synthetic ones itch, I find) and I’d rather wear things that are naturally dyed than have my skin come in contact with synthetic dyes.

Tell us about your journey to natural dyes. I know you’ve done extensive research on eucalyptus — the variations between species and the resulting variations in natural dyes — and that you’ve collaborated with choreographers and shown work in various visual arts contexts, but I’d love to know how natural dyes became the center of your work.

Not only did I grow up in a family of dedicated gardeners, I also spent many hours with my maternal grandmother, a thrifty woman who from time to time refreshed faded garments in naturally prepared dyebaths. As I was finding my path in my work I was for a time seduced by synthetic colour, but I returned to natural dyes when it became clear to me just how dangerous these products were. Research into various means of ‘natural dyeing’ led me to the conclusion that the traditional metal salt mordants used in natural dye work should also be avoided, and so I began to investigate less toxic means of coaxing colour into cloth.

Slow Fashion Citizen: India Flint

You’re the founder of the ecoprint dye method — using steam dyeing and bundle dyeing to wrap the leaf or plant material inside the fabric and gain the actual print of the leaf on the finished dyed cloth. I’ve tried my hand at this method a number of times and I’ve yet to yield results anywhere near as distinct as yours. Can you talk about your work with this particular method? How you were interested in conserving water? And how you developed this method as something of a form of printmaking or surface design on the fabric?

For most of my life I have lived in places where water was a precious commodity that we actively harvested from the environment. Traditional dyemaking with eucalypts (as explored by Jean Carman in her book of the same title) uses large quantities of water and leaves. When I first discovered the ecoprint I thought it a useful technique that would allow dyers to easily assess individual eucalypt species for their colour potential, as the print showed what the dye outcome would be if pure water were used to make the substrate. It did not take me long to realise that quite beautiful patterns could be made by combining different species of eucalypt. And then venturing into other genera, I found that the eucalyptus frequently had a contribution to make as a co-mordant.

The simple trick to making distinct prints on both cloth and paper is to remember that the key word is “contact.” Tight bundling to ensure contact is the answer.

Your books and your Instagram feed have this connection to the land — this interweaving of land, art, plant and fiber that feels holistic and profound. How do you communicate your connection to the natural world in your work? Or is it just so inherent for you at this point that you just continue that dialogue in your images?

It’s simply such a deep part of my makeup as a human being that I cannot imagine working in any other way. My love of the land feeds my work, and the work itself (in whatever form) becomes in turn an ode to the whirled/world.

Your books are gorgeous. I use them often in my studio and in my workshops. I love Eco Colour for the way you explore mordants and dye techniques from so many angles. You don’t just offer one-step solutions but various techniques. Do you still experiment with multiple techniques in your own dye work? Or have you found what works for you and you stick with it?

I am always playing and experimenting. In recent years this play has led to new book folds, new patterns for garments and to the discovery of more techniques for dyeing (many of which have not yet been published yet). I’m particularly pleased with one of my mordant ideas for cellulose fibres, shared with a couple of workshops so far but yet to go into a book. And I’m working on making naturally derived paints (for paper). Of course when I am dyeing cloth that needs to be resilient I stick with eucalyptus, but it doesn’t mean I cannot play with other things.

Slow Fashion Citizen: India Flint

As I mentioned above, you work across arts platforms in collaboration with performing artists and choreographers, visual arts institutions, and you also work as an author and teacher. How do these various aspects of your work inform each other? I find that leading workshops actually strengthens my creative practice because students ask difficult questions or share their challenges and I have to respond to their needs. Do you find this to also be true? Is there a synergy between your work for stage, exhibition, books and the classroom?

Absolutely. I love creating exhibitions because installing them allows me to manipulate space as much as simply showing my work. I teach and write primarily because I need to earn a living. I’ve been a sole parent for over a quarter of a century and though my children are all independent now, I still need to earn my living. There is no safety net. Travelling and teaching allows me to work with a broader spectrum of flora and to experience the influences of different water qualities as well as new environments. Making things that dancers are able to leap about in requires a different kind of thinking to making things that will hang on walls. I delight in taking up residencies from time to time, as they allow me to gain a deeper experience of place. And frankly, maintaining a diverse work practice offers the safety of not having all of one’s eggs in the same basket.

Who are three of the biggest influences or mentors on your creative work?

It’s hard to limit the answer to three. My late great-aunt, master bookbinder Ilse Schwerdtfeger continues to be a huge influence on my work. I think she would be quite proud of some of the folded books I have invented in recent years. American architect Roger Buckhout has been both friend and mentor to me since I was ten years old, and continues to be a light in the darkness. And lastly I must pay tribute to my late father, climate scientist, writer, musician, adventurer and consummate polymath Prof Emeritus Peter Schwerdtfeger who passed on to me an indefatigable curiosity about the whirled and a deep appreciation for nature.

Favorite dye tools or materials you can’t live without?

I have a couple of large cauldrons that have done sterling service over the years, and my favourite materials would have to be wool and eucalyptus. That’s a match made in Heaven.

Your work, your wardrobe, your surroundings and your photographs have this continuity and strength. When you post on Instagram your images are instantly recognizable. When do you feel like you hit your stride, so to speak, with this consistency in your work? Was there a surrender or “Ah-ha” moment when you felt aligned and had an added or increased momentum?

I cannot really put a finger on it. I decided to reject synthetic dyes completely in 1998 (the year I turned forty), was grateful for the development of digital photography because it allowed so much freedom compared to film (though I do miss those long nights in the darkroom) and will confess I love the magic of the iPhone as recording device. I think I am still learning, though, and I have a lot yet to learn — the vocabulary is growing and at the same time consolidating into a language that’s beginning to make sense to me.

Slow Fashion Citizen: India Flint

Advice for the novice natural dyer just starting out? In my experience you just have to begin and be willing to experiment but it can seem so intimidating at first. Any suggestions to quell the fears?

‘Do not be afraid.’ Play, it’s how I learned most of the things I know — at the same time, read. Inform yourself about the properties of the plants you choose to work with. When interesting results happen, consider all the elements that have played a role and try and repeat the process while they are fresh in your mind. Keep notes. And have fun.

. . .

Thank you SO much, India. It’s really a pleasure to share this space with you. Your work has been so instrumental in my own slow fashion journey and I applaud you for all your efforts to lead the rest of us towards a more meaningful relationship to our wardrobes and to our textile arts practice.

Katrina Rodabaugh is an author, artist and slow-fashion advocate. Visit her website www.katrinarodabaugh.com or follow her on Instagram at @katrinarodabaugh

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PREVIOUSLY in Slow Fashion Citizens: Jaime Jennings and Amber Corcoran

Photos © India Flint, used with permission

Swatch of the Month: The politics of knitting

Swatch of the Month: The politics of knitting

BY JESS SCHREIBSTEIN | The day after the 2017 presidential inauguration, as I joined many of you in the streets in protest, it struck me: I was maybe one of the few knitters at the Women’s March on Washington who hadn’t knitted a Pussyhat.

As a long-time knitter, it was both a little startling and thrilling to see nearly everyone rocking a handknit hat. The closest I’ve ever come to seeing handknits worn on that scale was at Rhinebeck, which really says something. The now-iconic pink hat with pointy ears, a project started by Kat Coyle, became a powerful visual sign of solidarity at the marches – splashed across all of the day’s news coverage and even making its way to the covers of both Time and The New Yorker.

I have my own reasons for not knitting a pussyhat (some good critiques of the project can be found here, here and here, but regardless of your politics, it feels safe to say that we may be at the cusp of a new wave of knitting activism.

KNITTING AND POLITICS

Knitting as political commentary or protest is nothing new. Like all art, knitting can serve as a platform for political and social critique. But unlike painting, music, writing or other male-dominated mediums, knitting serves, at its core, a functional purpose: making clothes that keep us warm.

For years, knitting was unpaid labor produced in the private home, not something that would be sold in a public market or valued beyond its functional purpose. Its historic ties to domestic labor and women’s work serve to undervalue its role as a creative art form, to a degree where we don’t even refer to it as art – we call it “craft.” Because of this, any use of knitting outside of its primary role could be perceived as inherently subversive and political.

Of course, all of us knitters know that art and functionality are not mutually exclusive. Like all artists, knitters are creative problem-solvers. We negotiate space, color, organic material, texture and tension in our work. We also know that clothing is a powerful symbol of both status and identity, a fact that many knitters have leveraged to create subtle, but impactful, statements through their designs. Consider the political origins of the Icelandic lopapeysa, or how the Aran Islands have seized upon the fishermen’s sweater as a marker of their local identity and heritage.

One of my favorite recent books about clothing and identity is the hefty compilation, Women in Clothes, which came out in 2014. Through a series of surveys, essays, interviews and photographs, over 600 women discuss why and how they present themselves through their clothes. In its early pages, Heidi Julavits writes:

“I don’t check out men on the street. I check out women. I am always checking out women because I love stories, and women in clothes tell stories. For years I watched other women to learn how I might someday be a woman with a story.”

I love that statement, and I love the idea that everything I wear has a story. But beyond that, I think about how my choice of clothing has its own narrative and can make its own statement in the world, particularly regarding my own commitment to slow fashion. For me, that means increasingly making my own clothes, either through knitting or sewing (I’m slowly learning), and supporting small, women-owned labels with ethical and safe labor and animal welfare practices. It means trying to know more about the origins of my clothing and the fibers I knit with, and the willingness to pay a pretty penny for fewer garments that will last.

There’s a lot to unpack here because “slow fashion” means a lot of things to a lot of different people, and thankfully Slow Fashion October and Slow Fashion Citizen dig into a lot of those conversations. But from my vantage point, the personal is political and our actions – however small – are a vote for the kind of world we want to live in.

Swatch of the Month: The politics of knitting

“CRAFTIVISM”

The word “craftivism” – an amalgamation of the words “craft” and “activism” – was coined by Betsy Greer in her book, Knitting for Good!: A Guide to Creating Personal, Social, and Political Change Stitch by Stitch. The term has been thrown around a lot lately, especially regarding the ubiquitous pussyhat. Greer defines it this way:

“Craftivism to me is way of looking at life where voicing opinions through creativity makes your voice stronger, your compassion deeper and your quest for justice more infinite.”

Her definition is pretty broad (perhaps intentionally so), but because of that remains squishy and, in some cases, problematic. Is this a term that can only be used to define politically liberal or progressive actions, and does that exclude other voices that fall outside that spectrum? How do we define “craft,” or “activism” for that matter?

Beyond questions of semantics, the creation of a word to talk about something that has been happening for generations – leveraging a traditionally domestic art form towards an overt political purpose – seems redundant and a little cute. Regardless of your feelings about the term, we can likely expect to see it a lot more craftivism in the future as more and more knitters explore using the medium to make their own political statements.

One of my favorite artists working in this way is Lisa Anne Auerbach, an L.A.-based knitter, photographer and cycling advocate. I first heard about Lisa from a friend who took her photography course at my alma mater, USC, although I’ve never met Lisa myself. She creates bold, irreverent sweaters (they’re machine-knit, not handknit) with political statements splashed across an otherwise traditional motif. During the final days of the 2016 presidential election, she also participated in the I-71 project, a billboard exhibition curated by the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. As part of that project, details of her sweaters that she created in 2008 were featured on billboards across Cincinnati.

I’ve always been especially taken by Lisa’s work, and not necessarily because of her political statements. (To be clear, my sharing of her work is not an endorsement of her politics.) I appreciate her work because she does what all effective artists do – she makes us think. We’re free to agree or disagree with her, but her work forces us to ask tough questions and start a conversation, and I think that’s a good thing. The bigger questions – Does art make a difference? Does it change anything? – are open for debate, but taking a hard look at the challenges we face as a society is a place to start.

Swatch of the Month: The politics of knitting

THE SWATCH

With Lisa’s work in mind, I wanted to create something with a clear and simple statement that could be adopted and worn by many. Enter, the RESIST hat. I’m not really a fan of swatching in the round or swatching for a hat, so I skipped over the swatching part of this Swatch of the Month post (oops) and just went straight for the full design.

After sketching out the chart and playing with the math, I picked out a couple colors from my stash of Quince and Co Finch and started knitting. I’m a big fan of Finch (I wrote about it previously here), and it provided a crisp read of the lettering (important) and a light, smooth halo when blocked. And while I chose the colors Clay (main color) and Canvas (contrasting color) as a nod to the pussyhat (and also because I’m a sucker for that earthy pink color), one of my favorite things about Finch is that it comes in dozens of colors that let the knitter choose the mood and tone of his or her own RESIST hat.

Swatch of the Month: The politics of knitting

Yarn: Quince and Co. Finch in Clay and Canvas colorways
Needles: US2 / 2.75mm metal needles
Gauge: 33 stitches and 38 rows = 4″ in stranded colorwork pattern

M E T H O D

The pattern is my own and is currently in testing! Keep an eye on my Instagram for a release date this April.

Jess Schreibstein is a digital strategist, knitter and painter living in Baltimore, MD. Learn more about her work at jess-schreibstein.com or follow her on Instagram at @thekitchenwitch.

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PREVIOUSLY in Swatch of the Month: Norah’s cables

Introducing “Slow Fashion Citizen”

Introducing "Slow Fashion Citizen"

At the turn of the year, I asked what you guys had enjoyed most last year or want to see more of this year, and what I heard loudest from you was more content relating to slow fashion. There were several requests for me to spread the subject out more, with comments that Slow Fashion October can be overwhelming and that obviously it’s a subject that’s of interest and relevance year-round. I couldn’t agree more! I’m definitely not saying Slotober is going away or anything, and obviously there’s a slow fashion aspect to every post I do about what I’m making (or even that I’m making my clothes in the first place), but I do want to address the subject in various and direct ways throughout the year. I was particularly happy to hear that feedback because I already had an idea for a series of interviews — discussions with slow fashion proponents and role models of all kinds, from sewers and knitters to thrifters, designers, manufacturers — and had that on my editorial calendar beginning in January.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the series launch: while falling immediately behind schedule, I also found out author/slow fashion advocate/mending teacher Katrina Rodabaugh had the exact same plan! I’m a fan of Katrina — we met in an “embroidermending” workshop in Oakland in 2014 (a workshop that had a major impact on me) and we’ve been social media friends ever since. (We also bonded at Rhinebeck ’15 over the difficulty of adjusting to life outside the Bay Area, both of us having moved away.) So when I heard what she had in mind, I got in touch. And I’m happy to report that instead of the two of us hoeing the same row, Katrina will be conducting the interviews and they’ll be published here on Fringe Association! We’re calling it “Slow Fashion Citizen” and it starts tomorrow. So welcome aboard, Katrina! I’m really looking forward to this.

I’ll have more to say about other slow fashion content coming up soon. Meanwhile, if you’re not familiar with Katrina — or even if you are — I hope you’ll go read her recent post where she talks about her background and what she hopes to accomplish with this interview series. Definitely check out her Instagram feed. And if you have kids, take a look at her book The Paper Playhouse.

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Swatch of the Month: Norah’s cables

EDITOR’S NOTE: For her column this month, Jess got to dig into the book I’ve been dying to spend more time with …
—Karen

Swatch of the Month: Norah's cables

The first knitting book I ever bought was Last-Minute Knitted Gifts by Joelle Hoverson, around a dozen years ago. (Years later, still a reliably solid and inspirational compilation of designs.) But the second knitting book I bought was Norah Gaughan’s Knitting Nature, a striking collection of over 35 knitwear designs and patterns inspired by geometry found in nature. More than any other knitting book I own, this is the one I come back to again and again.

Knitting Nature is one of those books that grows with you as a knitter and, amazingly, years after its publication doesn’t feel stale or outdated. I bought the book when I was knitting nothing more than accessories – the idea of, or even the desire to knit an intricately cabled sweater had never occurred to me. I enjoyed the book in a way that you might enjoy a stroll through an art gallery, with awe and admiration of creative work that feels simultaneously accessible and completely above your abilities as a maker.

But now, I look at some of the patterns that I glossed over when I was younger – like the Pentagon Aran Pullover or the Asymmetrical Cardigan — which both now seem so fresh and contemporary. I could easily imagine the hexagonal cable in the Asymmetrical cardigan being adapted to a top-down symmetrical cardigan (using Karen’s top-down recipe) with a cozy shawl collar in a neutral, worsted weight yarn. Maybe Blue Sky Fibers’ new Woolstok in Grey Harbor colorway? (I got a few skeins recently at my LYS and I’m obsessed.)

Swatch of the Month: Norah's cables

Norah has certainly been busy in the past ten or so years since Knitting Nature’s publication. She served as design director for Berroco Yarns and is now a member of the Brooklyn Tweed design team. All of this to say – when I found out (via Squam’s Morning on the Dock podcast interview with Norah) that she would be releasing a new book dedicated entirely to cables, I knew I needed to nab a copy.

KNITTED CABLE SOURCEBOOK

Norah’s latest book, Knitted Cable Sourcebook, is a collection of 152 stitch patterns and over a dozen garment and accessory patterns. A cable dictionary it is not – nor is it intended to be. The patterns and techniques are decidedly Norah’s, many appearing in print for the first time. As Norah writes in the Introduction:

“To my mind there can be no such thing as an all-encompassing encyclopedia of cables (as much as my publisher would have loved for this book to have been called an encyclopedia) because one volume can’t begin to contain all the cables in use already and all of the cables yet to be revealed by our imaginations. This book is intended to be both a resource for existing cable patterns and a jumping-off point for making new cable discoveries.”

The book is simultaneously accessible to newbies and challenging to advanced knitters – quintessential Norah. It starts off with the basics, including an overview of cable terminology, instructions on how to read and follow a cable chart, and troubleshooting tips (one of which Karen described here). This upfront section is worth the price of the book alone, as it so succinctly describes, in less than 20 pages, everything you really need to know to knit cables well.

The rest of the book is broken up into sections defined by complexity and motifs, starting with basic ropes, braids and horseshoes and eventually working towards the final chapter on “drawing” abstract or representational shapes with cables. At the end of each chapter are two or more garment patterns that incorporate cables and techniques covered in the preceding chapter.

But the most exciting part? Each garment pattern is accompanied with recommendations for cable substitutions using Norah’s SSE (Stockinette Stitch Equivalent) method. Each stitch pattern throughout the book is assigned an SSE number – basically, how many stockinette stitches are needed to achieve the same width as the cable. This system allows you to substitute any cable you like for other cables shown in Norah’s patterns – or heck, any pattern with cables in it. This is where this resource book really shines, as it enables any knitter to customize and design her own garment based on her own personal preferences.

Swatch of the Month: Norah's cables

THE SWATCH

While there are many, many stitch patterns in this book that pluck at my heartstrings, the one I was most eager to cast on was Fave, introduced in Chapter 5. The pattern is a distinctive grouping of four 2/2 crosses, which Norah writes is her go-to motif. And it’s easy to see why. It feels both classic and modern, basic and also totally unexpected. A panel of Fave could be easily extended into a scarf and be striking on its own, but any of these variations could be incorporated into a chunky cardigan with a shawl collar (like this one) and be the show-stopper winter cardigan of my dreams.

Since this was my first time playing with the motif, I started off with the first stitch pattern in the the chapter, “To & Fro Fave” (no. 110 on page 169). In this motif, alternating left and right crosses grow out of 2 x 2 ribbing and the column of cables is repeated four times to complete the panel. Every stitch pattern in Norah’s book includes both a cable chart and written description of the pattern. Even though I’m pretty comfortable reading a chart, having the written description was helpful as I knit the first couple of inches and became familiar with the pattern.

For the yarn, I chose Madelinetosh’s DK Twist in “Never” colorway. Amy sent me a couple skeins to try out (thanks, Amy!) and I’m really digging the yarn’s bounce and stitch definition, as well as this soft gray/green color. Reminds me of faded moss or lichen in the middle of winter.
Jess Schreibstein

Swatch of the Month: Norah's cables

Yarn: Madelinetosh DK Twist in Never colorway
Needles: US 6 / 4mm metal needles
Gauge: 22.5 stitches / 31 rows = 4 inches in Fave cable chart

M E T H O D

For the Fave “To & Fro” cable chart, see page 169 in Norah Gaughan’s Knitted Cable Sourcebook

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Swatch of the Month: Beginning a design

EDITOR’S NOTE: This month Jess highlights one of the most fundamental reasons a knitter might knit a swatch — as the basis for a coming design!
—Karen

Swatch of the Month: Beginning a design

I’ve been working on a design for awhile. As I figure out the specifics, it’s kinda secret – okay, it’s totally secret. But while I can’t tell you what exactly it will become, I do want to share a big part of that development process with you, which begins with (you guessed it) a swatch. Actually, a lot of swatches.

THE PROCESS

When I come up with a knitted garment idea, it’s usually a conflation of several sources – inspiration I see on Pinterest and Instagram, as well as objects I see in the world. Sometimes, these might be actual garments or fabrics that spark an idea of how those elements could be executed differently. Other times, I find architectural elements, pattern and nature to be just as informative. I’ll collect a bunch of photos on my phone, in Pinterest, in my head – a vision board would be ideal for this – and then start sketching.

In designing this piece, I have a vision of the kind of fabric I want to create and work with. Imagine a woven fabric, smooth but a little nubbly. The fabric is stiff enough to provide some structure, but still retains a soft drape that will relax against the body. The yarn will be cream-colored (I’m clearly on a neutrals kick) and crisp to show some stitch definition. The right yarn also won’t have too much sheen, instead veering to a matte finish. To achieve that kind of look and weight, I imagined I would need a fingering or sport-weight yarn executed in some kind of slip-stitch pattern. I took a look in my stash to find some likely yarn contenders.

Now, to be clear, I’m not a professional knitwear designer. I don’t make a living from designing knitting patterns, and to date, I’ve only published one, the Beach Tank. So my creative process and approach are completely my own and informed by my knitting experience, conversations with established knitwear designers, and some math and common sense. They don’t reflect any “right” or “wrong” way to design a knitting pattern. I’m relatively new to this, so if you design your own knitting patterns (professionally or otherwise) I’d love to hear what your own process looks like in the comments!

THE CONTENDERS

Swatch of the Month: Beginning a design

TN Textile Mill: OUR yarn
I began swatching with the truly gorgeous OUR yarn, a mulberry silk noil yarn from Allison of TN Textile Mill (formerly Shutters & Shuttles). I fell in love with the texture and palette of this sport-weight yarn when I first spotted it on Instagram, and couldn’t get it out of my head. Over the summer, I ordered a few skeins to have on hand, and once this design began to come together, I reached for it immediately.

This might sound overly poetic, but this yarn feels organic and alive in your hands when you’re knitting with it. I feel that way sometimes about some wool yarns I’ve come across (the Hudson Valley Fibers yarn from my Rhinebeck post checks the box), but other cotton, silk or plant-based yarns I’ve worked with don’t always have that quality. I think it’s a combination of color, texture and some unpredictability in knitting that reminds you that you’re working with a product of a living, breathing organism. And those silky nubs!

When developing a stitch pattern that mimicked the look and feel of a woven fabric, I turned to the woven transverse herringbone stitch pattern of my previous Churro post, as well as the chevron pattern of Michele Wang’s Abbott (which I finished knitting earlier last year) for inspiration. I wanted to try a slip-stitch that I hoped, in scale, would look unrecognizable as a knitted fabric. On size US2 needles, I cast on an even number of stitches and worked the following:

Row 1 (RS): *Knit 1, Slip 1 stitch purlwise with yarn held in front; repeat to end
Row 2 (WS): Purl
Row 3: *Slip 1 stitch purlwise with yarn held in front, Knit 1; repeat to end
Row 4: Repeat Row 2

The result, unfortunately, was a no-go. The yarn didn’t have the density and structure I’m after, and the stitch pattern looks like a bunch of dash marks across a field of stockinette. With my next attempt, I would try a yarn with a little more elasticity, so it would form a tighter fabric more easily. I would also try slipping stitches on every row, not just on the right side.

. . .

Swatch of the Month: Beginning a design

Shibui: Staccato
Next up was another yarn I had in my stash, Shibui’s fingering-weight merino-silk blend, Staccato. Unlike the subtle sheen of the silk noil in OUR yarn, the silk in Staccato shimmers a little more brightly, likely a result of its tight, worsted-spun quality. When I held it together with Wool and the Gang’s Shiny Happy Cotton for my all-white beach tank, that shimmer was a perfect complement to the matte look of the cotton. Time to try it on its own.

On size US2 needles, I cast on an even number of stitches and worked the following:

Row 1 (RS): *Knit 1, Slip 1 stitch purlwise with yarn held in front; repeat to end
Row 2 (WS): *Purl 1, Slip 1 stitch purlwise with yarn held in back; repeat to end

I was pretty thrilled with the result, which got much closer to the woven look I wanted. But then I had this idea – what if I were to create a knit fabric on the bias? I think that concept bubbled up from some of my adventures in sewing earlier last year, specifically A Verb for Keeping Warm’s Tendril Dress, which is sewn on the bias. I haven’t sewn this dress yet, but I remember conversations with my grandmother about this pattern and the ripple effect that a bias drape could lend a garment. Sounded intriguing. Here’s what I did:

Swatch of the Month: Beginning a design

Cast on 2 stitches on size US2 needles.

Row 1 (RS): Increase 1 stitch by knitting front and back (KFB), Knit 1 (3 stitches on needle)
Row 2 (WS): Purl 1, Slip 1 stitch purlwise with yarn held in back, Purl 1
Row 3: K1, KFB, K1, KFB, K1 (5 stitches on needle)
Row 4: *Slip 1 stitch purlwise with yarn held in back, Purl 1; repeat from * once; P1
Row 5: K1, KFB, Slip 1 stitch purlwise with yarn held in front, K1, Slip 1 stitch purlwise with yarn held in front, KFB, K1 (7 sts on needle)
Row 6: *P1, Slip 1 stitch purlwise with yarn held in back; repeat from * until 1 stitch remains; P1

It looks pretty messy, but here’s the gist – I increased 1 stitch at the beginning and end of each row on the right side, and alternated slipped stitches on the right and wrong sides to create a hatched, or woven look. Once the swatch became as large as I wanted, I began decreasing at the start and end of each right side row with K2tog or SSK, instead of increasing with KFB. Ta-da! A square swatch, knit on the bias.

There is still some tweaking to do, particularly on the edging. (Do I try a garter stitch edge? Or maybe finish the edges with rolled stockinette? Jury is still out.) But I feel like I’m really close to what I originally envisioned. The other plus was that the wrong side (lower photo) is just as beautiful as the right side (upper photo) – looks like a pebbly seed stitch knit on the diagonal. But I still wasn’t sold on the yarn. The Staccato has the fullness and stitch definition I was dreaming of, but the fabric didn’t look as matte as I hoped. I did some research and bought a skein of one more yarn to try.

. . .

Swatch of the Month: Beginning a design

Purl Soho: Linen Quill
Karen has gushed about Purl Soho’s Linen Quill before (here, here, oh, and also here), and I’m proudly adding my name to the Linen Quill Fan ClubTM. This fingering-weight blend of highland wool, alpaca and linen is remarkable. It has the elasticity of wool, the softness and halo of the alpaca, and the structure and subtle wiry quality of the additional linen. I loved knitting with it, and love the final swatch even more.

For this swatch, I followed the general slipped-stitch bias pattern above, but played around with the edging throughout, so you’ll see some irregularity on the edges in the photo. I also opted for Oatmeal Gray colorway, which on Purl Soho’s website looks like a scuffed-up cream (in the best sense), but actually is more of a true, light heather gray than a cream. For my final swatch, I’ll likely pick up a skein of Linen Quill in Heirloom White and give it a try. The only downside of this yarn is that it doesn’t have the same linear definition that the Staccato has, so I’m still undecided between the two. Do you all have a favorite?

At this rate, the pattern will be available in 2020… stay tuned!
Jess Schreibstein

Swatch of the Month: Beginning a design

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Swatch of the Month: Latvian cheer

EDITOR’S NOTE: My first exposure to Latvian mittens was when I won this amazing little boxed kit a few years ago. I don’t know much about Latvian mittens other than that I’d love to know more! So I’m especially happy about Jess digging in on the subject for her column this month—
—Karen

Swatch of the Month: Latvian cheer

For this month’s swatch, I wanted to do something festive. December is an intersection of many cultural and religious celebrations of light and color in the darkest month of the year (for the northern hemisphere, at least), and I thought this would be a perfect moment to look at knitting’s role in ceremony and celebration.

Back in college, I worked at a coffee shop owned by a Latvian woman. I didn’t really know much about the country, its people, or even where exactly Latvia was (in Eastern Europe somewhere, right? My international relations degree really strutting its stuff, guys). It wasn’t until I stumbled across Latvian and Estonian mittens for the first time as a knitter that I made the connection and picked up a copy of Lizbeth Upitis’ book Latvian Mittens to learn more about the region and its knitting traditions.

THE BALTIC REGION

The Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania sit east of the Baltic Sea, to the immediate west of Russia, and quite close to Sweden and Finland. People of the region share common history and similar traditions, although regional dialects and tribal histories distinguish them. Latvians and Lithuanians are known as Baltic people, and their respective, archaic Indo-European languages are the only surviving Baltic languages. Despite these close ties, Lithuania generally identifies itself more strongly with its neighbors to the south in Central Europe, like Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic. Estonia, on the other hand, due to its linguistic and historical connections, strongly identifies with its Finnish neighbors to the north.

Although these linguistic and political differences have set them apart, the region shares a common history of being occupied and ruled by its neighbors for hundreds of years, most recently by the USSR. In 1989, more than two million people formed a human chain through Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, called “The Baltic Way,” to peacefully demand independence from the Soviet Union. All three countries achieved independence in 1991 and later became members of NATO and the European Union. Today, the three countries are part of the Nordic-Baltic 8, or NB8, which includes Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway and Sweden. While these countries have been closely connected for centuries, their closest cooperation began with the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s and continues today.

This brief historical overview serves as a reminder of the interconnectedness of this region, which of course affects its knitting and textile traditions. As I began riffling through images of Baltic knitting, embroidery, lacework and more, I couldn’t help but see the similarities in motifs and design from Latvian mittens to Fair Isle sweaters to Nordic stockings. And even though I’m a bit of a minimalist myself when it comes to knitting and my own wardrobe, I can’t help but want to cast on some brightly colored mittens or a complex colorwork cardigan when I look at these designs. I mean, c’mon.

Swatch of the Month: Latvian cheer

KNITTING AS CELEBRATION

Prior to the introduction of knitting, people in the region created fabric through a technique called nålebinding, also known as “knotless netting” or “needle looping.” This technique is estimated to predate knitting by 1,000 years! Instead of using two needles, the method required only one. Unlike crochet, it involved pulling through the full length of the working thread through each loop, which would make it difficult to unravel and adjust one’s work during the process. The finished work could be felted to make a more durable and cold-resistant fabric. If you’re interested in trying out the nålebinding process for yourself, there’s a tutorial in English here, or you can watch the process in action here.

Knitting likely migrated to the Baltic region during the Crusades, when knights brought the knowledge of knitting with them from the Middle East (Source: Nordic Knitting website). The oldest-known knitted object found in Estonia is the cuff of a mitten discovered in 1950 by archeologist Jüri Peets, which probably dates to the end of the thirteenth century. Other knitted textiles that have been discovered in the region include pattern knitting, indicating that more complex, two-color knitting has been practiced for a long time.

So, where do mittens come in? Aside from being highly functional and useful knitted objects, mittens in the Baltics also served as small capsules of information. The pattern, technique and colors in a pair of mittens could indicate where its wearer was from, and the patterns themselves could be full of symbols from archaic pagan mythology. A zig-zag, for example, represented the goddess Mara, whereas a sideway “S” represented an adder, a popular animal of the goddess Laima. Both motifs were and continue to remain popular in mitten design.

Latvian folk songs, or dainas, provide further clues about mittens’ role in ceremony. In 1880, Krisjanis Barons began to collect and document the folk songs of the Latvian people, a project he continued for the following 35 years of his life. Because of his work and dedication, nearly 36,000 dainas were preserved and provide a glimpse into the daily and ceremonial life of Latvians during that time. As seen in these folk songs, knit mittens were a critical part of weddings and were an opportunity for a young woman to display her skill and readiness for marriage. See this daina, written in the voice of a young woman eligible to be married:

Many mittens am I knitting
Putting in my dowry chest
When the rich girls have been taken,
Then will I come in their mind.

Young girls were taught to knit as young as four or five years old, and were knitting daily during or between their other tasks. By the time a girl had reached marrying age, she was expected to have accumulated a dowry chest full of over one hundred mittens and socks that were knit by herself and other women in the family. See this daina that’s written in the voice of a young suitor:

Good evening, maiden’s mother
As you see my hands are freezing;
All the while my mitten knitter
Snugly in your room is sitting.

During the wedding celebrations, which lasted three to four days, the bride gifted pairs of mittens to just about everyone. This included the minister, the groom’s parents, the driver of the wedding carriage, all brothers, sisters and remaining relatives, and the kitchen helpers. Even the barn animals received symbolic offerings of mittens, which were later retrieved by a member of the family. The married couple ate their wedding meal with mittened hands. Before entering the threshold of her new home, the bride laid down a pair of mittens, hung mittens above the hearth, tied them to doors. When I first read this in my copy of Upitis’ book, I couldn’t help but think of these mittens as magical totems, blessing the newly married couple and their community.

There is so much more I could write here about Latvian, Estonian and Lithuanian mittens, but instead, I’ll leave you with some resources to explore further. I’ve heard only good things about the book Mittens of Latvia by Maruta Grasmane, which I haven’t read myself but would likely be a good companion for Upitis’ book. Mary Neal Meador’s quest for an authentic Estonian mitten at the Mason-Dixon Knitting blog is definitely worth a read, as is Donna Druchunas’ guest post about knitting in Lithuania on Hélène Magnússon’s The Icelandic Knitter blog. And be sure to check out the eye candy that is the incredible knitting from the Estonian island of Muhu, as shared through the eyes of Kate Davies on her blog here and here. Adding this to my Christmas wish list, please and thank you.

Swatch of the Month: Latvian cheer

THE SWATCH

When it comes to picking a yarn for a project, I’ve gotten accustomed to searching for that elusive, perfectly woolly and perfectly crisp je ne sais quoi yarn – and I often overlook some of the most readily available and solidly good yarn on the market. Quince amd Co., case in point. Of all the projects I’ve knitted to date, the ones knit in Quince were a delight to knit and have reliably held up to time and wear. Plus, for an American-sourced and produced wool yarn, Quince’s broad selection is so well priced and comes in a generous (and ever-expanding) palette of colors.

For this swatch, I originally picked a pattern that called for three colors. I chose Quince & Co.’s fingering-weight Finch in Canvas, Poppy and Barolo colorways, but after ripping and redoing the swatch twice with dismal puckering and pulling, I admitted that my colorwork needed some practice. I switched to a two-color chart instead, using the Canvas and Poppy. I really love how the warm cream of the new Canvas color and the bright, orange-red of the Poppy play off of each other.

I also knitted this swatch in the round, and with a little more time probably could have finished a mitten. Since the swatch is so small and my colorwork skills still a little rough, I figured it would be easier in the long run to just knit it in the round rather than knit an “in-the-round” swatch, as I did for my Icelandic lopi swatch. While working the chart, I trapped long floats using a technique I learned from Andrea Rangel during the Cowichan vest knitalong last year, which is a method I’ve come to rely on to prevent uneven tension in my colorwork.
Jess Schreibstein

Yarn: Quince & Co. Finch in Canvas and Poppy colorways
Needles: US 1 / 2.25mm double-pointed needles
Gauge: 18 stitches / 20 rows = 2 inches in colorwork chart

Swatch of the Month: Latvian cheer

M E T H O D

For the colorwork chart, see Chart 29 in Lizbeth Upitis’ book, Latvian Mittens.

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