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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Elsewhere: The great swatch experiment

Elsewhere: The great swatch experiment

This week shook me up, friends — I’m having a whole lot of trouble wrapping my brain around what’s happening in this country right now. Under other circumstances, today I’d have a nice juicy pile of links for you, but my focus has been, uh, elsewhere. That said, though, I do have one bit of brilliance for you to explore. My friends over at Kelbourne Woolens have been doing something fascinating: The Great Swatch Experiment. It all started with a tweet, which led to a crazy idea:

What if we did an experiment? We could write up a quick “pattern” for a 4″ square stockinette stitch swatch, with a nice little garter border. Tell people what needle size to use, of course, but not tell them the gauge. We could send a skein of each of our yarns out to volunteer knitters to knit the swatches and mail them back to us. (They would keep the rest of the skein, of course). If we had three or four different swatches from three or four different knitters, all using the needle size we recommended, how different would the swatches be?

Which led to a whole lot of swatches (75 of them!) and a whoooole lot of number-crunching. Each yarn’s swatch instructions were based on a specific pattern — so the swatch dimensions could then be compared to the garment dimensions — and the results are dramatic. Take the Canopy Worsted example — and remember each knitter just cast on the designated number of stitches using the suggested needle size. If the knitter of the loosest swatch had cast on with the suggested needle and knitted and blocked the sweater, it would be 3.5″ too large. If the knitter of the tightest swatch did that, hers would be 8.5″ too small! Eight. And a half. Inches. But in addition to a lot of jaw-dropping case studies, the whole thing has afforded a chance to talk about all sorts of knitting and swatching issues and concerns. You can (and should!) check out the whole series on their blog. (Scroll to the bottom for the start.)

I hope we can all find some peace and understanding in the coming days. Please be kind to yourself and your neighbors this weekend and always—

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Photos by Linette Kilenski/Kelbourne Woolens, used with permission

Swatch of the Month: Rhinebeck treasure hunt

EDITOR’S NOTE: I missed Rhinebeck this year so am happy Jess’s column this month takes us along vicariously. I also love how much her experience echoes mine! Cheers to both of us eventually getting great sweaters from the trip—
—Karen

Swatch of the Month: Rhinebeck treasure hunt

This post marks 6 months (?!) of Swatch of the Month. First off, thanks to Karen for welcoming me here on Fringe Association, and a big thanks to this supportive community of knitters for reading along.

Back when I pitched this idea to Karen, I felt like my knitting practice was on the cusp of transforming from a hobby to something much more – a greater expression of my own creativity and a deepened commitment to a slow wardrobe. By setting aside time on a monthly basis to explore new yarns, stitch patterns and knitting history through the mere act of knitting a swatch, I feel like I’ve been able to stay true to that path. It’s a simple but powerful check-in each month, an opportunity to step outside the relentless “queue check” and dig in on things that have been inspiring me lately. I hope this practice has and continues to encourage you to do some of the same.

For this month’s swatch, I wanted to take a step back and get back to basics. When I take a look at my wardrobe, there are a lot of neutrals – blacks, grays, creams, some indigo and rust. But in my handmade wardrobe? I’ve never knit one thing that is white or black, and subsequently have no completely neutral, throw-over-anything, cropped and boxy cardigan or other layering piece. It’s kind of crazy to think about, and it’s one of my 2017 goals to knit up two or three sweaters that fill that gap.

Swatch of the Month: Rhinebeck treasure hunt

RHINEBECK

With that vision in mind, my best friend Claire and I drove upstate to our first-ever New York State Sheep & Wool Festival in Rhinebeck last month. The Friday drive from Baltimore was easy and once we passed New York City, the trees began to really turn and the temperature dropped into respectable sweater weather territory. Rhinebeck is as cute as they come – Market Street is lined with trees, restaurants, a wine shop and bakery, and even an art supply store. Heaven on earth, basically. After picking up some hot apple cider, we checked into our Airbnb just out of the center of town, and settled in with more tea and cookies before heading back out for dinner. We tucked in early, knowing the next day would be a busy one.

Even though many people had told me that Rhinebeck would be packed, I still wasn’t prepared for it to be this insane. If you’re hoping to arrive early to beat the crowds, you’re in good company – it seems that’s what everyone else is thinking. Tents were filled shoulder-to-shoulder with eager knitters giving hugs, petting skeins and elbowing their way into booths. Lines are long, whether it be to pay for a knitting book or a bag of apple cider donuts, but the sun was out and everyone was in such a good mood that it doesn’t seem to matter all that much.

After picking up Norah Gaughan’s Knitted Cable Sourcebook, giving high-fives to the ladies at the Pom Pom Quarterly magazine stand, and happily running into Brandi (i.e., she ambushed me with a giant hug by the pierogi stand) I continued my hunt for the perfect cream or black yarn to add to my stash. In a festival this massive, I figured that yarn would be easy to find, but by late afternoon I was becoming increasingly discouraged and thought I may very well walk away from the whole thing empty-handed.

It’s not that there weren’t white, black, gray and brown yarns – there were plenty – but once you’re surrounded by seemingly infinite choice, you become a lot more discerning about the exact qualities you want in a yarn. For me, I wanted a 100% wool or wool blend, and preferably not Merino. (There was a lot of Merino and 100% alpaca yarn at the festival, go figure.) A 2-ply or 3-ply were preferable, but for these basic sweaters I had in mind, I envisioned a yarn that felt round, crisp and springy. I wanted the yarn to feel sufficiently sheepy and minimally processed, but many yarns on offer felt loosely spun and almost too sheepy, if that can even be a thing. Bonus points if the yarn was in some way local to New York state and the Hudson Valley.

Enter, Cornwall Yarn Shop’s booth and their selection of Hudson Valley Fibers yarn. In perfect dark charcoal, cream, gray and sandy brown colors, their Hudson yarn had the palette I was after and a dreamy fiber blend – 50% alpaca and 50% Corriedale. Corriedale is the oldest of all crossbred breeds, a cross between Merino and Lincoln sheep bred in Australia and New Zealand in the late 19th century and brought to the U.S. in 1914. The feel is incredibly soft but still a little toothy. The yarn is a 3-ply with a crisp, round shape and great spring, and I could tell that it would have excellent stitch definition. And finally, it’s sourced and milled in New York. Bingo. I picked up six skeins in their “Black Rock” colorway, which is more of a dark, cool gray with a subtle, light gray halo, and started swatching as soon as I got home.

Swatch of the Month: Rhinebeck treasure hunt

THE SWATCH

Remember how I said I wanted to get back to basics? Well, I haven’t been able to get this out of my head. It’s a seed stitch kimono-style cardigan knit up by Simone of Temple of Knit, a knitwear designer and blogger based in Sweden. I love everything about Simone’s blog, knitting patterns and aesthetic. [Editor’s note: Me too.] She has such a defined and considered approach to minimalism with a specific focus on Scandinavian design, which, if you’ve read my post on Icelandic yoked sweaters, know I have a particular soft spot for.

Inspired by Simone’s project, I decided to knit up a swatch exploring a few different basic knit-and-purl stitch patterns that could create a similar nubbly textured fabric. The swatch is broken into three sections of seed stitch, moss stitch, and sand stitch, all achieved through different combinations of knit and purl. For those who are still new to knitting, and even those who are seasoned in the craft, it’s exciting to be reminded how much can be achieved with variations on the simplest of stitches.
Jess Schreibstein

Yarn: Hudson yarn by Hudson Valley Fibers in Black Rock colorway (available here)
Needles: US 6 / 4mm metal needles
Gauge: 19 stitches / 36 rows = 4 inches in seed stitch, moss stitch and sand stitch (below)

Swatch of the Month: Rhinebeck treasure hunt

M E T H O D

CO 40 stitches or any even number of stitches using a long-tail cast on.

Seed Stitch

Row 1: *Knit 1, purl 1; repeat from * to finish
Row 2: *Purl 1, knit 1; repeat from * to finish

Repeat two rows to desired length.

Moss Stitch

Rows 1 and 2: *Knit 1, purl 1; repeat from * to finish
Rows 3 and 4: *Purl 1, knit 1; repeat from * to finish

Repeat four rows to desired length.

Sand Stitch

Rows 1 and 3: Knit
Row 2: *Knit 1, purl 1; repeat from * to finish
Row 4: *Purl 1, knit 1; repeat from * to finish

Repeat four rows to desired length.

*If you’re curious, I photographed the skeins piled on top of Minna’s Agnes Rug in Peach, a hand-woven, natural-dyed, 100% wool rug designed by my friend Sara Berks. Sara and I completed the same weaving residency in Oaxaca, and she went on to build her own inspiring home textile business just over a year ago working with weavers in Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua and beyond. Her studio is in Red Hook, NY so Claire and I paid her a visit (and I snagged this rug!) on the last day of our Rhinebeck trip.

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Swatch of the Month: Life at Hinterland

It’s interview week here on Fringe! This one is by Jess with Hanahlie of Hinterland, who I had the pleasure of meeting last year — remember this? — along with another exquisite swatch by Jess. But I also want to mention Hinterland’s first pattern collection just came out, with the colorwork cardigan I’ve been waiting for a better look at! So, so good.
—Karen

Swatch of the Month: Life at Hinterland

I’m not sure how I first heard of Hinterland – maybe it was through Instagram, or maybe it was an interview with Hinterland’s founder, Hanahlie Beise, on the Woolful podcast. Regardless, I’d heard only good things about their yarn and was stoked when Hanahlie reached out and offered to send me a couple skeins of their Canadian Rambouillet-alpaca blend, Range. Hinterland is a hyper-local labor of love based in Vancouver Island in Canada, and has only been around for about two years. But once I had the yarn in my hands, I knew it was something unique and quite special.

It sparked an idea to do something a little different for this edition of Swatch of the Month (or “swatchbuckling,” as Karen and I half-jokingly refer to it). I wanted to learn more about this yarn and how it came to life. I pitched the idea of doing an interview with Hanahlie, and she graciously accepted! So with this post, we’re getting a behind-the-scenes look at Hanahlie’s life on an alpaca farm and her vision for Hinterland and their line of yarns.

Swatch of the Month: Life at Hinterland

JS: Hey Hanahlie! As the owner of Hinterland Yarns, you now run an alpaca farm and produce an entire line of yarns. But that wasn’t always the case. Can you tell us about what you were doing before Hinterland, and what led you to wanting to build your work more around fiber?

HB: Before I started Hinterland I was working as a photographer and a graphic designer at Caste Projects, a design studio owned by my husband and me. It felt like I was in front of a computer every day, and that was the case most of the time. My heart wasn’t in it anymore, and I needed a change. I longed to be outside, working with animals, doing things with my hands.

I have always loved material, texture, pattern … textiles in general, so was trying to come up with ways on how I could incorporate those things into my new business. I was big into needle felting, and made this massive bear mostly for an experiment, but also for a design show that was happening in Vancouver at the time. I learned how to knit, and discovered this amazing fibre community. We moved from Vancouver to Victoria (on Vancouver Island), and my search for wooly beasts began.

Originally I was hand-spinning yarn and experimenting with blending alpaca with other fibres. But as my herd grew, I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep up with the hand spinning. I started buying more fibre from neighbouring farms who have animals but don’t use the fibre. I’d blend it with mine so I was able to meet the minimum requirements of the mill and away I went! I first experimented with blending with Corriedale wool, and other wools, but once I found Rambouillet merino, I knew I had it! I finally settled on 50/50% ratio, and I think it’s just perfect for garments now.

It sounds like your alpaca flock came together almost by accident or chance. How did you decide that you wanted to focus on alpacas, rather than sheep?

Alpacas were sort of a surprise. I was on the hunt for sheep — I still love sheep and hope to have some one day. There was an ad online for a farm retirement sale, and with that were about 20 yearling alpaca boys. So I thought, why not go out and look at them? I hadn’t really been around alpacas or llamas before, and when the owner took me into the field, all these yearlings came running, jumping, pronging toward me – it was the cutest thing ever. They were beautiful and somehow mystical … and totally stole my heart. After that day I went home and started doing as much research on alpacas as I could, and basically about four days later I bought my original six.

As a farmer and business owner, what does a day-in-the-life of Hanahlie look like?

Typically I get up and take my dogs for a hike or a run. I love that part of the day, being outside first thing with those two. Once they’re tuckered out, I usually head to the barn to do my regular alpaca clean up and feed. I try to get all of my chores done by around 11 or 12 so I can have the rest of the day for computer work. If I don’t have a lot of online orders or emails to respond to I get down to packaging finished yarn, or sorting raw fibre into my next yarn order. It seems like I always have plenty of packaging or sorting to do. Those jobs are never done.

Tell us more about your alpacas.

Over the years my husband and I have been taking on rescue alpacas, shearing for the animal shelters here. When we can, we’ll take them home — and for the ones we don’t have room for, we try to find them homes. I wish I could take them all. We are still pretty small, just 16 alpacas and one llama.

Alpacas and llamas are really interesting. They are very intelligent and have excellent memories. I have gotten to know all of their unique personalities over the years. We have one boy, Bronson, who’s a bit of a bully, but also just a goof. Nutmeg is always looking for treats, so will trot up close and give kisses. Then one of the new rescues, Arthur, who is a very sweet boy, likes to just follow me around wondering what I’m going to do next. They’re all different, so it’s just nice to be around them watching them interact and listen to them make their little hums and grunts.

Their fibre is really amazing too. It’s lightweight because the fibres themselves are hollow (similar to the structure of human hair), so they also retain heat very well. Because the fibres are fairly straight, it creates amazing drape in garments. I love that aspect of it too.

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Hinterland yarns are blended with Canadian born and raised Rambouillet and Corriedale sheep, and you even carry a Washington-grown Navajo Churro lopi. Why did you choose to incorporate these specific breeds into your family of yarns?

The Navajo Churro came originally as a felting fibre, but because I had bought so much from that farm in Washington I ended up making some rug yarn and lopi with it. Navajo wool is somewhat similar to Icelandic wool in that it has a soft downy undercoat as well as a coarse guard layer so it is suitable for lopi. I’ve been learning how to weave, so have high hopes of making some hand-woven rugs with my Navajo yarn one day.

I was originally trying to blend my alpaca with Corriedale wool, before I got into the Rambouillet. I thought the alpaca could balance out a more rustic wool like Corriedale. It is a beautiful yarn on its own, still very soft, but didn’t quite have the loft I was looking for. The ladies at the mill convinced me to try out Rambouillet, so I did! The Rambouillet is a merino sheep, so it’s got a lot of lanolin (which I love), the wool is incredibly soft, with lots of bounce and loft. It ended up being the perfect blend with my alpaca.

Hinterland yarns are woollen spun and minimally processed. Can you tell us more about your vision for Hinterland and how that informed the development of your family of yarns?

I wanted a more rustic feeling yarn that was suitable for our climate up here on the coast. It’s generally pretty wet up here, so woollen-spun fabric is warmer and fluffier, so softer feeling against the skin. Canadian merino-type sheep (like the Rambouillet merino) have had to adjust to living in a harsher climate so the wool ends up being more dense and wild. It’s still amazing and soft wool, but not as consistent to something like New Zealand merino for instance. I also wanted to make a garment yarn, so needed something that would balance the alpaca out and create a yarn with memory and bounce.

The wool and fibre is washed just with organic and biodegradable soaps by hand, then picked, carded and spun with old machinery. It’s not perfect, but I kind of love that aspect of it. It’s a very old, mom- and daughter-owned mill, so I am happy to support them too.

Sounds like supporting Canadian wool farms and mills is very important to you. What are the biggest benefits and challenges of staying committed to a locally-sourced and produced yarn?

I am constantly learning about the wool industry here — what it was, and what it has become. Canada was once a big wool producing country with many mills and wool-producing farms. A lot of the machinery that is still here is very old, very few people know how to do repairs, so a lot of the time they are working with equipment that has been on its last leg for a while. Many wool-producing farms have also bred meat stock into their herd to create a more dual-purpose farm, but which often lowers the quality of the wool. That’s not always the case, for sure, but it is something I have come across.

Plus, it has been challenging to find consistent farms to work with, but I think that’s because so many farmers here are getting to a retirement age and are not as interested anymore. I am getting there, but I definitely have to work with many farms in order to make a viable production. I am sure that is the case for most yarn producers, but it is a learning curve for me!

Regardless of the ‘what it was’ though, I am very excited about the future of farming in Canada. I feel like I’ve had an overwhelmingly positive response to the yarn I am making, and it has allowed me to reach out to other wool- and fibre-producing farms to help support them by purchasing wool they have otherwise been unable to sell. That part feels really great too.

Another benefit to this for me is that as my yarn business grows, it will allow for us to take more rescue alpacas and llamas into our herd and grow in that way too. That part makes me feel really good, because there isn’t a week that goes by where I don’t get an email about some animals needing to be re-homed.

What’s next for Hinterland?

Along with continuing to make my yarn — eventually coming out with few new weights — I do have a few other plans for Hinterland and how to grow the business in another way. I’ve been conceptualizing a new project that is called Colour in the Cauldron, which is a natural dye research and residency programme that takes place in Oaxaca, Mexico. In Oaxaca we will be visiting the five main valleys around the centre of Oaxaca to visit and learn from various master weavers and dyers. Alongside these tours will be an intensive natural dye course where we learn about the natural plants and insects in the area traditionally used to create vibrant colours.

My long-term plan for Colour in the Cauldron is to open up the residency to various parts of the world that have an ingrained textile history. Places like Peru, Guatemala and Iceland are currently top of mind for various reasons, but there are just so many amazing places in the world where textiles are an enormous part of cultural identity and storytelling. This could be a lifelong journey of exploration and learning.

Swatch of the Month: Life at Hinterland

THE SWATCH

Once the yarn arrived in the mail, I couldn’t wait to swatch with it. The last time I knit with alpaca was years ago for an ill-fated hat with a 100% alpaca yarn that felt very dense and heavy. So I loved that Hinterland’s yarn was blended 50/50 with Rambouillet to give it some lightness and loft from the wool, while still retaining the softness from the alpaca.

Range has a rustic, nubby look and the strands oscillate between thick and thin. With the Maple colorway, you can even discern fine red fibers twisted around the center core of the yarn, with flecks of cream and tan. It’s incredibly soft, and I can easily see this yarn become a slouchy, simple ribbed hat or a stockinette cardigan that would allow the yarn to speak for itself.

However, I was itching to see how this yarn worked up in cables, and I couldn’t get the cables from Michele Wang’s newest design for Brooklyn Tweed, Auster, out of my mind. I’m happy to report that the cables look simply stunning in this yarn, and I’m already plotting to make a wide, cabled scarf in this stuff.
Jess Schreibstein

Swatch of the Month: Life at Hinterland

Yarn: Hinterland Range in Maple colorway (gift from Hinterland)
Needles: US7/4.5mm wood needles
Gauge: 21.5 stitches / 25 rows = 4 inches in cabled pattern, below

M E T H O D

For the cable chart, please see the Auster pattern by Michele Wang in Brooklyn Tweed’s Fall 2016 Collection

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Yarn and swatch photos by Jess Schreibstein; farm photos © Brian Van Wyk, courtesy of Hinterland

Swatch of the Month: The lopapeysa trail

EDITOR’S NOTE: All I’m gonna say about Jess’s column this month is it’s so beautiful I can’t even stand it. Iceland 2017 or bust—
—Karen

Swatch of the Month: The lopapeysa trail

One of the great ironies of my twenties is that I went to Iceland before I was a knitter. I knitted a little bit – mostly hats and fingerless gloves and things like that – but didn’t know anything about Iceland’s knitting history, its iconic yoke sweaters, the fuzzy skeins of lopi. But when yarn is being sold in grocery stores and sheep are everywhere you look, you quickly get the idea that understanding knitting’s place in Iceland is central to understanding the country itself.

This was back in 2012, shortly after the country’s financial crisis, and that striking yoked sweater known as a lopapeysa seemed to be the uniform for all Icelanders — a source of national pride and identity. Ragga Eiríksdóttir (raggaknits on Ravelry) was interviewed during the recovery about just that, saying that following the collapse in 2008, “suddenly everyone started to knit Icelandic sweaters like crazy” as both a return to their roots and as backlash against the banking and globalization that had seemingly brought the country to this place. This isn’t just a casual observation – Ístex, the country’s biggest wool manufacturer, is now producing twice the amount of wool yarn as it did nearly 10 years ago. This quote from Árni Árnason in The Reykjavik Grapevine sums it up well:

It resembles the country’s rugged nature and reminds us of the history of farming and fishing when it provided its wearer with a vital shield from the disastrous weather one can encounter in the wild. Furthermore it appeals greatly to the disillusioned and globalised 21st Century traveller. It’s as close as one can get to the source without shovelling shit in a sheepfold.

This resurgence in knitting had me wondering (like with the Aran sweater from last month’s post) about the origins of the lopapeysa. As you drive through the country, sheep are clustered in nearly every valley and mountainside. They seem as ancient and integral to the landscape as the moss or the waterfalls. Surely, I thought, Icelanders have been knitting for centuries, right? But the recent digging on Arans gave me pause before assuming that the iconic sweater had been around for just as long.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF ICELAND

Vikings began arriving to Iceland between 870 and 930 CE, first settling in what is now Reykjavík and then moving on to settle the remaining arable pockets of countryside. In 930 CE, the Alþingi (pronounced “Althing”) formed to regulate the Icelandic Commonwealth, the oldest national parliament in the world. Leaders from across the island met at Þingvellir (pronounced “Thingvellir”), a huge rift valley that marks the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the meeting between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. It’s now a national park, just a short drive northeast from Reykjavík, and is stunning and awe-inspiring to see in person.

By any measures, life has never been easy on Iceland. When it was first settled, the North Atlantic was in the middle of the Medieval Warm Period, when temperatures were warmer than usual – a period that lasted until about 1250 when Iceland fell into the Little Ice Age until the mid-19th century. Within the first few hundred years of Vikings’ arrival, the country transformed from a lushly wooded landscape to arctic desert – mostly due to deforestation, overgrazing by cattle and sheep, and farmers pushing the land to the brink of what’s possible to survive.

After the Icelandic Commonwealth fell apart in the 13th century, the island was controlled by a mix of outside powers – the Norwegian Empire, the Kalmar Union (a united Norway, Denmark and Sweden), and later Denmark. For centuries, Iceland was one of the poorest countries in Europe. It was ravaged by two outbreaks of the Black Death in the 15th century; a smallpox epidemic in the 18th century; and continuous natural disasters and volcanic eruptions made survival a constant struggle.

But through it all, Icelanders remained committed to their history and identity. The sagas and eddas, written in the 9th, 10th and early 11th centuries, are some of the greatest accomplishments in world literature. They detail the history and genealogy of early Icelandic settlers and many Icelanders can trace their family lineage back to figures in these stories. The literacy rate is near-universal and has been since the end of the 18th century, and I remember speaking with an Icelander while I was there who credited this high literacy rate with Iceland’s ability to rise out of poverty in the 20th century. During and after World War II, the country prospered substantially, driven by the industrialization of the fishing industry and the Marshall Plan, receiving more aid per capita than any other country in Europe. In 1944, they gained independence from Denmark.

I’m telling you this not because it’s related to knitting, but because it’s central to understanding who Icelanders are. They have been living for centuries in one of the most remote and unforgiving landscapes in the world, and have somehow risen above those odds to become one of the most prosperous, highly educated, creative and independent people of anywhere. These are some of the qualities that I admire most in Iceland and its people, and ones that I see come through in their knitting.

Swatch of the Month: The lopapeysa trail

KNITTING ON ICELAND

When the Vikings first arrived, they brought sheep with them. Bred in near-total isolation for centuries, Icelandic sheep have become one of the purest livestock populations in the world. Icelanders have relied on them for centuries for meat, milk and fiber (and still do), but now the rest of the world knows them primarily for their fleece. Their fleeces are dramatically double-coated. The outer coat, called tog, which has a mohair-like quality, is most suitable for outerwear. The inner coat, called þel (pronounced “thel”) is fine and incredibly soft. These two fibers can be spun separately, but they’re often spun together.

The word lopi simply refers to roving, but Icelandic knitters realized that they could knit with lopi instead of spun yarn to create a light but durable sweater. Traditional lopi can be found in a plate or disk, called a plötulopi , which is harder to find outside Iceland. Most commercially-available lopi is a lightly spun yarn that can be found in aran, bulky and superbulky weight.

The oldest piece of knitting found in Iceland is a mitten excavated at the Stora Borg farm in southern Iceland, dated to early 16th century, but written sources about knitting suggest it’s likely been around much longer. All people knitted, both men and women, and children were taught to knit very young. Everyone was expected to complete knitting tasks that were equal to their age and ability. For women, that might be a pair of socks each day, and for kids, a pair of mittens each week. Other objects have been found on other farms across Iceland too, but as you may suspect, the lopapeysa is not one of them. The story of that iconic garment is a much more recent one.

THE LOPAPEYSA

There are a few things that unite all lopapeysas. First, they’re always knit in lopi, usually a bulky weight. Second, there’s usually no shaping, so most designs are unisex. Lastly, there’s a unified pattern or design sweeping across the yoke.

As for the origins of the sweater, there are a few theories. But maybe the most convincing theory (and also most surprising – for me, anyway), suggests that the yoke pattern was inspired by the Greenlandic nuilarmiut. I had never heard of this garment before, but after a quick Google image search, you’ll see the connection. A nuilarmiut is an intricate, brightly-colored beaded yoke that’s part of a traditional Greenlandic woman’s costume for an important ceremony, such as a wedding or national holiday, and has become a powerful symbol of Greenlander identity.

Greenland and Iceland share a long history, shaped in part by their close geographic proximity but also their history of Danish rule. Laurie Bertram, a history professor at the University of Toronto, writes that the nuilarmiut/lopapeysa connection was likely fostered by a 20th-century Norwegian land claim campaign and handknitting revival movements in both Iceland and Norway. She then points to Kate Davies and Harpa Hreinsdóttir’s book Yokes for more of the history.

Davies writes that a Norwegian knitter and activist named Annichen Sibbern Bøhn drafted the first knitting pattern using the nuilarmiut as inspiration around 1929, basing her pattern on the beaded collar depicted in George Schnéevoigt film, Eskimo. (Davies writes about this a bit on her blog if you want to see photos.) Annichen named her pattern Eskimo, and combined the structure of the circularly-knit Norwegian sweater with the patterning of the Greenlandic nuilarmiut. Annichen was a pretty rad woman – she spent 1927 traveling around Norway and documenting traditional knitting patterns, which were compiled in her landmark book, Norsk Strikkemonstre. During WWII, she and her husband were active in the Norwegian Resistance. If you’re interested in learning more about her, you can check out a PDF of an article that Terri Shea wrote for Piecework Magazine here, and thanks to Terri, now order Annichen’s reprinted book here.

Davies and Hreinsdóttir argue that the adoption of a Greenlandic pattern by a Norwegian woman was a political act, a deliberate stance of independence in response to a scramble between Norway and Denmark over Greenlandic resources and territory at the time. The pattern was published in several magazines and eventually spread to Iceland, where Hreinsdóttir suggests that the pattern and its roots took on new meaning for Icelandic knitters. Following Iceland’s independence in the 1940s and the Cod Wars of the ’50s and ’70s, the lopapeysa — a hard-wearing sweater made from Icelandic lopi — symbolized Iceland’s independence from foreign powers. The sweater took on a life of its own and went on to become a cornerstone of the Icelandic handknitting and tourism industry and the icon we know today.

Swatch of the Month: The lopapeysa trail

THE SWATCH

Knitting with lopi was obvious for this swatch, but the design options were seemingly limitless! I picked up a copy of Védís Jónsdóttir’s book Knitting with Icelandic Wool from my local library for some pattern inspiration, and was struck by the tree design in Jóhanna Hjaltadóttir’s pattern Ár trésins. It was originally published in the 1960s or ’70s, but the design looks geometric and fresh, as if it could be designed today.

I’m also not sure how this happened, but I had never knit with lopi before! It’s light, lofty and knits up super fast. It’s also pretty affordable compared with other bulky yarns (under $10 per skein), which is great if you’re going to make a big, cozy colorwork sweater with it. Since the colorwork yoke of any lopapeysa is worked in the round, I knit the swatch in the round as well.
—Jess Schreibstein

Swatch of the Month: The lopapeysa trail

Yarn: Álafosslopi in Black, Light Grey Heather and White
Needles: US9/5.5mm metal needles
Gauge: 16.5 stitches / 18 rows = 4 inches in colorwork pattern, below

ME T H O D

For the colorwork chart, please see Védís Jónsdóttir’s Knitting with Icelandic Wool.

Swatch of the Month: The lopapeysa trail

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Hot Tip: Abuse your swatch

Hot Tip: Abuse your swatch

There are a lot of great reasons to knit a swatch, gauge being just the most obvious one. But it’s how you can see if you like how a colorway knits up (which can be very different from how it looks in the skein); whether the yarn is well-suited for the stitch pattern involved; whether colors go together, if you’re using more than one. As a fiber mind-meld. Lots and lots of reasons. For me, one of the most important is to see if I even like the fabric (and want a whole garment in it) and also how it will wear. We talked recently about pilling, and a lot of you wanted to know how you can know in advance whether a yarn will pill. It’s a sooooper complicated subject — it has to do with the characteristics of the breed/fiber, how it’s shorn, how it’s spun and plied, how it’s being knitted. But basically you should assume yarn will pill! The question is how much, and what’s your tolerance for it. Plus there’s the matter of what kind of wear the garment or accessory will get. Is it a sweater you intend to wear often and with a backpack or cross-body bag, or one you’re making for the occasional dress-up event? Will your hat get treated with kid gloves, or shoved in your pocket and purse and glove compartment? In my opinion, not only do you need to wash your swatch the same way you intend to wash your garment, but you should also put it through a little bit of abuse. Sleep with it under your pillow, carry it around in your pocket or purse. Shove it in the glove compartment! See how that baby holds up, and whether your enthusiasm for it grows or wanes.

(For advice on how to knit and measure a gauge swatch, click here. Yarns pictured are Camellia Fiber Company Patrick for something I can’t talk about yet, and Clever Camel for my upcoming Channel Cardigan. Pouch and safety pin/keychain from Fringe Supply Co.)

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