Wednesday, April 30, 2014


Feeling so lucky to live where I do. 
Marveling at the wonders of spring; tulips and forget-me-nots...

 ...the first cheese from our goat (a simple soft cheese made by heating the milk to just-boiling, adding lemon juice and allowing it to separate, then straining it), so creamy and unexpectedly rich...

 ...the bluebell woods in full bloom, perfect in the evening sunshine...

...and ferns, unrolling themselves in the undergrowth behind the house, getting ready to spread their leaves. 

I'm so grateful for the wonders of spring. Even though our winter was mild and easy in comparison to some we've had recently, the new season - the freshness of things, the sunshine and the growth is a balm to the soul.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The KNITSONIK Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook

My amazing friend and knitting comrade Felix AKA Felicity Ford has been working with wool to recreate her environment in knitting, and to write a book to teach you how to do the same. This post is an interview with her about her awesome book-to-be, which she is running a Kickstarter campaign to fund this month. The campaign runs until the 27th April 2014. Felix's campaign reached its funding goal incredibly quickly thanks to serious support from the online knitting community, but the best way to be sure you will be in line for a copy of her forthcoming book is to go and pledge the value of the book on the campaign page. 

So read this and then go bag yourself a copy of what is lining up to be a thoughtful, beautifully executed and incredibly informative sourcebook on creating your own colourwork patterns from the world about you. 

 Leg warmers from beer mats

In Felix's words, here is what the book will be about:
It's the book I always wanted to own but could never find! It shows you how to turn things you see in your everyday life into gorgeous stranded colourwork. It contains a nice straightforward system with a how-to-section and easy to follow tips to assist you in developing unique charts from the things you find inspiring in daily life. 12 case studies based on my life here in Reading demonstrate the concept in practice, and there are charts for all the things I love here as well as instructions on how you can make charts based on whatever you love where you are!

Here is the full interview with Felix:

All images copyright Felicity Ford

Bricks in Reading

An Snag Breac (ASB): I love the images from the book. There is this amazing depth to them that seems to come from how deeply you engaged with the subject matter of your pattern before making the chart/knitting. I love the idea of knitting a jumper that had the solidity that your brick patterns have. It would feel like an incredibly protective garment, solid, warm - my own brick wall that both held me up and protected me from the elements - like wearing a wall, but one that is comfy and warm!

Brick swatch

Felix Ford (FF): I am glad you like the bricks! The more I have explored Reading, the more appreciation I have for those anonymous bricklayers who have given this town such a distinctive feeling. There is a clear relationship between a bricks-and-mortar house, and a nice woolly jumper. As you say, they are both things which wrap around your body and keep you warm and safe. I also like that brick walls are made row by row; the pattern emerging one round after another, just as in knitting. Walking around Reading taking photos of the bricks gives me a feeling of familiarity in my neighbourhood, and it got me thinking that knitters everywhere might notice details in their "patch" which would be nice to knit. So the ideas are connected; warmth, solidity, comfort, and the feeling of being at home on your turf.

ASB: I really like that you have this desire to translate the world around you into knitting - this engagement with your environment. I understand the desire to connect with your environment, but why knitting specifically? What do you think gave you that desire? What made you want to wear your environment?

Biscuit tin swatch

FF: I think it's something to do with wanting to emphasise my connection with Reading, where I live. I don't really have roots anywhere - I lived in Croydon for a long time, then in Ireland, then in Oxford, now in Reading, and there has been a lot of International travel in recent years for artist residencies and commissions... the feeling of being rooted to just one place is special, and somehow the whole process of studying the environment around me and then painstakingly recreating it in knitting affirms my bond with this place; it makes me feel I belong. I also love the poetry of having clothes which echo the landscape and history around me; how mischievous and jolly to one day go to the site of the old Huntley & Palmer biscuit factory clad in a big poncho designed to resemble their old biscuit tins! How fun to one day pick sloes for making sloe gin wearing arm-warmers inspired by those very same bushes and their bloomy fruit! I've not yet made these exact garments, but starting out with the charts is the beginning of the process. 

As for "why knitting specifically", knitting I think is appropriate because of the timescales involved; it's very slow and thoughtful so each massive swatch I am making becomes a long, reflective activity which allows me to go into a lot of detail thinking about the exact shades of blue, red and cream on an old biscuit tin; the very specific bloominess on the surface of a sloe and how on earth to recreate those elements in stitching. It's a very appreciative process... and once you have spent an afternoon charting the brickwork of a nearby terrace, you never look at it the same way! So knitting because of the time involved, because of how it forces you to see things and break down the world into rhythms and patterns and shades, and because how lovely to celebrate everyday things in the everyday medium of things you wear.


ASB: How does the geometric and almost pixellated world of colourwork knitting work for more organic subject matter? I can see how it would be easier to translate a brick wall or other geometric patterns into knitting, but how do you deal with the challenge of more fluid shapes? How do you sort out the jumbled mess of the natural world and convert it into a neat geometric pattern? 

FF: This is a great question. I have made some hideous stranded colourwork in the past, trying to recreate the jumbled mess of the natural world! I can show you a chart I made based on lichen, and you'll see at once that it would never work as knitted fabric...  

Lichen chart

...when I began exploring this concept a few years ago, I rather arrogantly thought that the repetition in Fair Isle knitting was something I would like to avoid, and I sought to make patterns which would - while using the same technique - be far less rhythmic and repetitive. The results were dire and made no sense! You can see where I have tried to make leaves that "flowed" one into the other in this tam...

Failed leaves! me the pattern looks blobby and a little clumsy and doesn't resemble either the lovely underlying patterns of Fair Isle or the giddy chaos of actual plants!

I realised I was looking at knitting like an artist who paints and draws, and not like a knitter that knits. The rhythm and repetition in traditional Fair Isle knitting and the stranded knits of Estonia is precisely its strength; it is what gives stranded colourwork its structure coherence, and what creates that magical effect of being able to look both in detail and at an overall impression comprised of smaller parts. I think that you have to think carefully about how to work with organic shapes whilst respecting the architecture of stranded knitting. The process undoubtedly tames and restricts the wild lines of tree branches and the curl of leaves, but I have learnt that if you don't adapt the flowing wilderness to the constraints of your medium, you end up making knitting that perhaps will not be so wearable! 

Sloe swatch

You can see here how I have worked with the leafy shape of my blackthorn bush, and also with the constraints of stranded colourwork to resolve the "leaves" issue! In the revised version I've respected the need for rhythm and repetition; for not-too-long sections of the same colour; diagonal lines to make sure there isn't too much puckering etc. and I think it is an improvement on my initial tries at knitting leaves! That said, I have some ideas for doing something with tree branches which I am really looking forward to exploring in the book. Some knitters have done lovely things with very wide charts which allow them to create a design which is different all the way around a yoke or a sleeve; that is definitely something I will explore in the book, too!

ASB: I'm really looking forward to the parts of the book devoted to telling readers how to translate their own environments into knitting. It's awesome that you have devised a method for observing your environment and converting it into a pattern - this is the magic part for me! Can you give us a sneak preview of any of the thought processes that you go through on that journey from observing to knitting?

FF: Haha! Yes - without giving too much away, I have developed - mostly through making mistakes and studying textile collections from Shetland and Estonia - ways of breaking down everything I see into elements of colour, shade and pattern. I've also developed a simple way of swatching-to-learn. Every time I have got stuck in my own knitting, I have noted down ways of getting unstuck. Colours not working? Here's why. Shading is a disaster? Try this. I've made loads of messes and have thought quite carefully about how to solve each one; the book saves lots of time for knitters who are keen to translate things into stranded colourwork but don't know quite where to start... I hope my mistakes will save you some time! It's about learning to see the world in a very specific way... 

Seaside swatch

ASB: What processes do you go through in picking the colours for your designs? Do you narrow down to a small section of what you see in front of you? For example, I look out my window right now at the woods behind my house and as I've been writing this I've been thinking about how I would knit that view and there are so many colours!!! So many greens and browns and greys and yellows, I think I wouldn't know where to begin! What is your colour editing process?

FF: I like to start with a few main shades which very approximately convey what I'm looking at, and then add and remove from that selection as I go. I pick the main things that jump out, and usually have a question mark around which EXACT blue or which EXACT pink or whatever, so that there are always a few shades in reserve, either side of the main selection. What is interesting is that things which stand out very strikingly from one another in nature might not work at all in stranded knitting, and then you have to exercise some license in how you interpret what you see. Many browns and greens - which appear distinct from one another in the environment - become very muddy and non-distinct in stranded colourwork. The actual environment communicates through light and texture as well as colour, whereas with stranded colourwork you are working in a very reduced way with the uniform texture of knitted wool. The green leaves stand out from the tree because they are shiny, but without the textural contrast of bark/leaves, the two shades - brown and green - just melt into one another. In that case, I will take one shade up or down in value, to introduce contrast between the shades and to compensate for the lack of contrast in the textures of the two yarn shades.

Biscuit tin designs

ASB: Tell me more about the album. What will the connections with the designs and sources in the book be? I'm wondering how you can record the sound a brick wall makes for example!

FF: Thank you for asking about the album! The KNITSONIK Audible Textures Resource will be related to the book, but it's not a completely literal relationship. You are quite right that pointing my recorder at a brick wall will not create an instant sense of BRICKNESS, for instance! However in my wanderings I have found some lovely places to listen in Reading. There are some very nice streets lined with beautiful brickwork where you can hear Blackbirds singing throughout the spring, and we have Red Kites in our street which cry above the clay chimney pots. Making biscuits according to the Huntley & Palmer recipes also produces some beautiful domestic sounds! The album will be full of these daily textures, very nicely mixed, with explanatory texts to provide context. If you listen to my podcast you will know that I love to work with everyday sounds and the sense of place which can be shared and celebrated in audio. The process of feeling I belong in Reading is achieved as much through listening to its familiar corners as through processes of knitting them. The slow timings involved in making recordings and knitting are related, and the album will be crafted through my investigations of the city with a microphone, rather than with my little exercise book and charting pencils. The album will also contain a very nice version of The Shetland Wool Song, which reveals the concept for the book in its lines!

Shetland Ram

The Shetland Wool Song

I live in Reading and I like it here,
It's brickwork brings me inspirational cheer,
And I like to gather from familiar streets
Ideas to knit into hand-knitted treats

But - oh no! - what can I use to knit up my ideas?
You can't knit colourwork from seed packets and beers!
What I need is a wool that's soft and yet strong,
That's bouncy, from sheep that are short-tailed not long....

If places were graded and sorted for their sheep,
Then Shetland would be at the top of the heap,
For its kindly-wooled sheep, and also its rough...
For who doesn't love sheep that are made of strong stuff?

Finally - as the song suggests - The Shetland wool I'm using for this book from Jamieson & Smith is a really important aspect of the project. It's hand is both soft and grippy, (kindly-wooled and rough) which makes it perfectly suited to stranded colourwork. Therefore the Shetland sheep whose fleeces are the basis for the whole KNITSONIK Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook will also feature on the album!

ASB: If you like the idea for the book and think it would be something you would love to add to your knitterly library, please go to the Kickstarter page to to bag your copy! The campaign for the book is running until the 27th April only, so get on down there if you'd like to hold Felix's fantastic sourcebook in your hands later this year, and get knitting from your environment!

There is more information on the Kickstarter page, or if you'd like to read all the other great articles in the blog tour then there is a list here. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

Spring dyeing tutorial

I am loving the colours outside at the moment - blue hyacinth and yellow daffodil and narcissus. Someone else is loving it too - see if you can spot him/her sleeping in the hyacinth above...

To celebrate the colours of the moment I did some dyeing at the weekend. I got some acid dyes as a gift over four years ago, used them once and haven't touched them since so it was nice to break them out again.
On a sunny, springy day it is lovely to work outside, painting wool with them.

I thought I'd share my technique, which is pretty easy. 

I used Jacquard Acid Dyes and mixed some dye solution in cheap babies' bottles I bought in the pound shop. These were good for squirting the dye, but any squirty bottle will do. I made up the mix four years ago and stored it in the bottles, with a piece of string tying the teats shut. Most of the dyes were fine after so long, though a couple had gone mouldy.

Mix up your dye as follows, using rubber gloves:
1/2 tsp of dye
1 tbsp vinegar
100ml hot water

They can be mixed in the bottle, giving you less mess to clear up.

Prepare your fibre. I used wool tops (roving) and some white Kilcarra yarn. You are supposed to scour your fibre to remove any coating for 1 hour, but I have had no problems scouring for only 10 mins. Fill a bowl with boiling water, a drop of washing up liquid and a glug of vinegar and immerse the wool in it. For tops it helps to put a piece of muslin or netting in underneath and that way you can lift them out easily.

While that is soaking, prepare your workspace. Tape down a large black plastic bag and lay lengths of cling film along it. These should be slightly longer than your skeins of yarn/pieces of tops so that you can roll the yarn/tops up in them to make a little package for your steamer afterwards. Tape the cling film down.

Get your wool, and press all the water out of it, then lay it along your cling film. Use rubber gloves and get your bottles of dye. Squirt away to your heart's content.


Then wrap up your wool. Bring the two sides of the cling film inwards to seal the wool in and roll it up from one end so you have a neat package.

Place all your rolls in a steamer (one you will not use for food) or if you don't have a steamer, a stainless steel pot with a couple of blocks of wood in the bottom will do just fine. Add a glug of vinegar to the water.

Steam for 45 minutes, making sure the water does not boil off.

Allow your wool to cool then rinse it to get any dye out. Again wrapping the tops in muslin or netting can be very handy here. Add a glug of vinegar to the final rinse.

Friday, April 11, 2014

New arrivals!

 Yesterday we heard some bleating in the barn in the afternoon and found Csibi had given birth to her first kid - the white one in the picture above. Sometime later the second, beige-coloured one arrived. Csibi is being a totally amazing first-time mother, licking them and even letting the first one feed while the second one was being born. After trying to suck her hair, legs, the wall, and more, they finally latched on with a little bit of help.

This morning, one of the sheep had a lamb up in the top field. It was standing as The Fabulous K got there and already feeding, but not out too long. Unfortunately, this sheep is our least tame ewe - the rest will eat out of your hand, but there was a bit of kerfuffle getting her into the maternity ward (AKA the stable) as she is so flighty.

The other sheep got penned in during the ruckus.

Two down and two more ewes to go. The first ram they were with seems to have only impregnated one of our ewes, so we are looking at a bit of a gap now until the next two lamb.

 But the stable is filled with tiny new lives! Amazing!!!

Thankfully everything went well and there was no intervention needed from us. We picked these sheep in particular partially for their wool and partially because they are hardy and rarely need help lambing, which was a relief as we are on a learning curve with this, involving plenty of book reading and internet consultation.

Yay for the sheep and the goat! Awesome mothering from them and awesome impregnation from Chuck the Buck and Umber the ram!
Thanks to my sister for the photos!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Pinwheel quilting and geek sewing

 Normal activities were postponed for a short time as some therapeutic sewing was in order this week. For some reason I decided I'd like to know how to make a pinwheel quilt and decided to make a cushion cover for a rather grotty orange velvet cushion that has been knocking about since I made it 10 years ago or so... (Orange velvet has its places, but my home is no longer one of them.)
I used this great tutorial on how to make pinwheel squares and recycled a linen skirt (of roughly the same age as the orange velvet cushion cover) and some other recycled fabrics to make it.

In the process I re/learned a few things: 
1. Piecing a quilt together is SLOW!!!
2. Accuracy is key. (This is why I am not a quilter.)
3. Linen is very hard to quilt with. (It's not that I'm a messy and sub-accurate quilter, I'm blaming the linen on this one.)
I quilted it in the ditch (that means doing your quilting along your seam lines rather than sewing while sitting in mud) which just seemed easier and quicker than other ways of quilting it.

I'm not totally sure about this one. I made it more for the practice and learning, and it has definitely improved the look of the cushion by about a billion-fold, but I think it is still growing on me.

What excited me more to be honest was doing the other side. I decided that sashiko embroidery would be perfect for drawing a map for those who are lost in the Milky Way and trying to find their way back to planet Earth. 
 It is hard to catch on camera because of the colours, but it is based on the map on the golden record that NASA sent into space with the Voyager spaceship. It shows the location of our solar system in respect to 14 pulsars, which is essentially a map to home, which is what cushions are all about - home.
(More info on the map here in case you are interested. I had a book on the Voyager spaceship as a child and loved the idea that we had sent this amazing record of sounds of planet Earth out into space with instructions how to find us - a map even! And it is still out there, floating around the cosmos!)
So it seemed an apt thing to embroider on the cushion - a map to home. And somehow it is more meaningful to me than the other side! 
 Maybe that is the problem with the other side - it doesn't mean much to me. It looks nice, but that doesn't seem enough somehow.

On the subject of filling textiles with meaning, my dear friend Felix is running a kickstarter campaign for her amazing knitting book at the moment. Check it out here. Felix is also doing a blog tour and will be coming this way later in the month so keep checking in!