Category Archives: knitting and yarn

big star

I have a new design up on Ravelry! But before I go into it, I first have to tell you the back story…

One of my most favourite knits ever is this big shawl:

Faroese

Faroese

I first saw this traditional Faroese shawl in one of my very favourite knitting books, Nordic Knits by Susana Pagholdh, not long after I started knitting. I was floored by its beautiful simplicity but intimidated by the idea of lace and so I filed it in the back of my mind as something to come back to if I stuck to knitting and ever got “good enough to make it”. I finally came back to it a few years ago and had such a ball knitting it, both for the joy of the pattern itself but also in the knowledge that I was not only good enough to knit it but that I’d found such a lovely craft that I had indeed stuck to.

I’ve worn it most cold days since then, loving its incredibly light but warm fabric (it only weighs 350gm!) and the way I feel so enveloped in it. And so many people comment on it, especially in the yarn shops that I’ve worked in. Unfortunately Nordic Knits is no longer in print (though you can score the odd copy second hand- do watch out for it as it’s a real beauty) and the other book it is found in is only available in Faroese and it is always disappointing to tell people that. So that I decided to use it as a springboard for my own design, using the same traditional elements: bottom up construction, lace panel, central gore and the ubiquitous fringe!

This is Big Star!

Big Star

Big Star

Detail of the Big Star lace panel

Detail of the Big Star lace panel

Jeni's beautiful handspun Big Star

Jeni Reid’s beautiful handspun Big Star

Just like the original shawl that inspired it, this one is a large, cozy shawl incorporating the characteristic features of a traditional Faroese shawl: garter-stitch body, large graphic lace panel, central gore, shoulder shaping and fringe. It is constructed from the bottom up, with garter stitch to start, an interesting lace section next and rapid decreasing to finish, it’s a surprisingly quick knit with just enough to keep you interested. Big enough to wrap a couple of times around your neck, it can also be worn in the traditional way- wrapped around the waist and tied at the back… Either way, Big Star keeps you as warm as toast!

Big Star owes much to the original design but is a hybrid, combining traditional lace motifs from both Faroese and other knitting cultures of the North Atlantic and Baltic that, together, form a series of stars and evoke the folk knitting and warm, utilitarian shawls of knitting cultures around the world.

I was lucky enough to have a lovely bunch of knitters to test-knit it without even having seen the new version of the design- how ace are they! Thank you so much, Kerry, Jeni, Laura, LeonaLizMel, Susana and Zoe! I’ll post some shots of their beautiful versions here over the next few days.

I also sought the help of a tech editor for this one and found a great support in Joeli, who answered all my many rookie questions about pattern writing and chart software and was particularly helpful in suggesting formats for charting such a large lace panel.

Special thanks goes to Jeni Reid, photographer extraordinaire who not only spun up a special Shetland fleece that she’d bought at last year’s Shetland Wool Week to make her own stunning version but also took these beautiful photos of my version of the shawl. We had a hilarious time trying to get some good shots but Jeni did a great job at enduring my grimaces and general dislike for having my photo taken and captured the shawl and Dundee beautifully. Next time, however, I’ll ignore the dark blue yarn in my stash and reach for something more easily photographed that shows up lace well!

Big Star, Dundee

Seafield Lane, Dundee

St Peter's garden, Dundee

St Peter’s garden, Dundee

Faroese shawls are traditionally made in the natural shades of the local sheep in yarns produced on the islands, such as Snaeldan aran-weight, but I deliberately left the yarn weight for this design flexible, ranging from fingering to light worsted; lighter yarns will create a lighter, slightly smaller shawl like mine with more open lace, such as mine, whereas Jeni’s and Mel’s are both heavier and warmer.

Both the original shawl and Big Star were knitted in Rowanspun DK, sadly discontinued but a great example of the type of yarn that I think is most suited to this large shawl- you’ll want to use a light, airy woollen-spun yarn that both traps air to keep you warm but has long metrage, resulting in a light but very warm shawl.

Suitable yarns include Brooklyn Tweed Loft or Shelter, Elsa Woolen-spun Sport Weight Cormo, Jamieson and Smith Jumper Weight 2ply or Jamieson’s Spindrift, Moeke Elena, Peace Fleece DK Sport, Rowan Felted Tweed DK or Rowanspun DK, Schoolhouse Press Unspun Icelandic, Shilasdair Luxury DK and Snaeldan 2ply.

After seeing Jeni’s beautiful version in handspun, I’m actually considering making a third with the fleece I bought in Shetland… did I mention that I’d bought one?! Now I just need to find a wheel to borrow ; )

Happy!

Happy in my new cosy Big Star!

Big Star is now up on Ravelry, just in time for the northern winter- enjoy! Do let me know if you make it- I’d love to you see your version and hear any thoughts about it…

jokulsarlon

A new shawl from the beautiful pattern of my very clever friend, Zoe (of Glasgow’s Queen of Purls), made from the leftovers of my Isager Winter Jumper….

Jokulsarlon

Jokulsarlon

It’s not at all perfect in its sequence of colours… Zoe used a beautiful, smoothly graded rainbow, whereas mine is not! Although my colours are in the sequence of a rainbow, they don’t look like one at all. But I love it nonetheless and am so pleased to have found a good use for the many lovely colours of Spinni, a yarn that I love so much and that holds so many memories from the making of that jumper. In a nice twist, I cast this on on the ferry over to Shetland and knitted most of the grey section over Shetland Wool Week so this yarn is now worked into another project that will be close to my heart…

Jokulsarlon

Jokulsarlon

The pattern is designed for Jamieson and Smith 2ply Jumper Weight, a lovely woolly 4ply, and 4.5mm needles but, because Spinni is a heavy laceweight, I jumped down to 3.75mm for mine and it made a light, warm and supple fabric that should be lovely to wear. I just knitted in the silvery grey until I’d used up the whole 50gm skein and then joined in the smaller balls (and used a felted join so that there were only two ends to weave in at the end).

I did agonise about how to work the stripes, anticipating that as they got wider as the shawl grew, each row would use more yarn and so I’d have fewer rows… But I wanted to use as much of the yarn as possible so in the end I winged it, just being sure to change colours on a right-side row so that the colour changes are nice and clean. Although the stripes do get narrower, I’ve found it actually doesn’t look that strange, probably because the eye is distracted by all that colour going on ; )

Jokulsarlon

Jokulsarlon

Jokulsarlon

Jokulsarlon

I love this take on the traditional Shetland Razor Shell pattern and found it soothing and simple to knit with just enough to keep it interesting. Which, along with the stripes, means that what might seem a bit epic- a heavy laceweight lace shawl measuring 190cm from tip to tip- was a quick and lovely knit.

The perfect design for scraps of yarn- in case you have any…

dyeing with dyer’s coreopsis

I’ve been doing quite a bit of dyeing again over the last few months! When we first moved to Glasgow and into our flat, I really didn’t think I’d be able to do much at all as the kitchen is minuscule and there are no windows where I could put jars of dye and fibre to catch the heat of the sun… but, since we don’t currently have a garden and I’m not currently doing any hort work at all, it’s been the finding and collecting of plant material for dyeing that’s been my main interaction with plants, so I had to find a way to be able to then dye with it! So I’ve worked things so that, if I’m careful to be super clean and keep all my dyeing equipment separate, I can actually dye in the kitchen. Happy!

I recently discovered a huge patch of Dyer’s Coreopsis growing in a council bed near Glasgow University and was really keen to try dyeing with it. Despite the temperature dropping and the days shortening, a huge number of flowers have continued to appear, so I got into the habit of swinging by there every morning and picking a handful on my morning walk. Thanks, Glasgow City Council! (Normally collecting plants is a great conversation starter as people are always interested in what you’re going to do with it but, in this case, the students rushing to class were mostly oblivious to the strange woman harvesting flowers!)

So the results…

I’m using my standard method for dye tests with new species so that, though I’m still in the process of gathering a wide range of different fibres to test on, I get a sense of the possibilities of a species:

  • I’m using an 8ply blend of Jacob, Portland and Leicester Longwool from Garthenor Organics (from Queen of Purls here in Glasgow) that dyes beautifully, I imagine because of the Leicester and Portland components… The large skeins are mordanted with alum and cream of tartar and the short lengths with iron (top) and copper (bottom).
  • I also added small samples of silk and silk velvet fabrics, mordanted with alum and cream of tartar.
  • At the top left, you can see two small samples of Polwarth from Tarndie, the original flock of Polwarth sheep in my home state of Victoria, which I added to compare how a yarn that is softer and less lustrous would show the dye- the top one is a pale grey and the bottom a white.
  • And, to the left, a number of flowers showing the varying ratio of yellow to red found in the flowers…
Coreopsis tinctoria

Coreopsis tinctoria

All of these fibres were dyed in the same bath of flowers that had been covered in hot water, left to soak for 36 hours and then simmered for 1 hour. The bath was then cooled, the flowers removed and put in the freezer for another bath (Coreopsis is meant to be very generous!) and then the fibres added and simmered for 45 minutes.

I then removed the fibres and checked the pH to find it was in the neutral zone so put aside one set of fibres, which became the test set for dyeing at neutral pH (including the Polwarth samples).

Coreopsis, neutral bath

Coreopsis, neutral bath

I then added enough vinegar to lower the pH to 3-4, added one of the remaining sets of fibres to the bath and kept it on a low heat for 10 minutes. I then removed and rinsed that set.

Coreopsis, acid

Coreopsis, acid

And finally raised the pH to 9 by adding sodium carbonate and added the final set of fibres, again leaving them in for 10 minutes and then rinsing them.

Coreopsis, alkali

Coreopsis, alkali

And so you can see that, while there is there a huge amount of lovely colour in Dyer’s Coreopsis, it seems to have more of bit more of an affinity with wool than silk. PH definitely alters the result, with acids taking the colour to yellow and alkalis to deep orange and, while the copper-mordanted samples are very similar to those treated with alum/ cream of tartar, the iron samples range from a very dark hunter green to brown.

Coreopsis tinctoria

Coreopsis tinctoria and fibres dyed with it

I think this is my new favourite dye plant! It might have something to do with the fact that I’m still getting used to how dark and grey Glasgow is at the moment but I love its cheerful, sunshine-y colours and the way the dye just poured out of it when I prepared the dye bath! I’m going to try to get the coral-red that is apparently achievable by leaving it in an alkali bath for longer so I’ll let you know how that little experiment turns out…

And in case you’re interested in learning more about dyeing with plants, there is one place left in my workshop at the Glasgow Botanics on November 15- you can find out more via my shop!

breed swatchalong

I remember a long conversation with a friend or a customer years ago about the fact that it would great if Ravelry had a function that allowed you to track other people’s thoughts and experiences on the longterm wearability of a particular yarn…

Of course, there is the option to simply read the comments on the page but somehow that feels a bit limited as most people tend to only write a few sentences about a yarn. And sometimes cranky comments can rank higher in our memory (creating an vague question about the yarn in our head), not to mention the fact that it’s much more likely that someone unhappy with something makes a fuss about it than someone happy with the same thing. In the end, we came to the dissatisfying conclusion that what we were looking for fell outside what we could reasonably expect Ravelry’s yarn pages to be capable of doing and that they can at best function as a starting point for further investigation.

We both felt incredibly passionate about the idea of tracking yarn in this way because, like most knitters/ crochets/ weavers/ other, it’s not just how a yarn feels and behaves when you first pick it up and work with it that counts for me- I want to know how it responds to wear. Does it hold up and bloom when it’s worn or turn into a sad saggy, pilly mess? All of this can be related to the processing of the base fibre but it’s also a lot to do with the type and quality of fibre used. Either way, we’d both spent a lot of time trawling projects made in a given yarn, hunting for their maker’s initial and subsequent thoughts about the yarn and that had made us want to give as much detail as possible in our project pages, in the hope of sharing information about yarn and inspiring others to do the same. Because sometimes yarns that don’t seem particularly promising to start with end up being the ones we love because they hold up so well and even improve over time- and we just wouldn’t know that from picking them up in a yarn shop and using that old knitter’s trick of rubbing them against our cheek!

This particular project is a great case in point. I bought a couple of balls of Blacker Yarns Alpaca/ Shetland 4ply at the 2010 UK Knitcamp marketplace and dithered for ages over what to make with it. It felt sturdy and strong and a bit too rough for a hat or mitts and so I finally decided to use it doubled to make a Winterberry hottie cover.

Winterberry in Blacker Alpaca/ Shetland

Winterberry in Blacker Alpaca/ Shetland which, along with my Hansel, keeps us snug and warm

Winterberry in Blacker Alpaca/ Shetland

Winterberry in Blacker Alpaca/ Shetland

As a plant nerd, I fell in love with those bobbly berries and thought they were a great use of the bobbles that so many of us love to hate (and, using it for the first time, discovered that they also made for a great foot massage!).

Now, a yarn with a 50% alpaca content is not the obvious choice for a project that needs to keep its shape because alpaca has little memory and so is very prone to stretching! But I worked it quite tightly on small needles, anticipating that it would grow… which it did. On blocking, the FO went from very tight and stiff to soft with a bit of give and I slid it onto my hottie (filled with hot water) when it was still damp so that it would mould perfectly to the shape and size of the bottle.

Over the last eighteen months since I finished it, I’ve used it all the time! Despite the feet rubs and having been taken camping and all over Scotland, it looks like it was made yesterday. Although the alpaca gives it a halo, the stitch definition is definitely good enough to show up both the rib and the bobbles clearly. The odd pill forms every now and then but they are those lovely, discrete balls that pull off cleanly. Even with a 50% alpaca content, because it was knitted firmly, it hasn’t stretched out of shape at all.

Winterberry in Blacker Alpaca/ Shetland

Winterberry in Blacker Alpaca/ Shetland

Winterberry in Blacker Alpaca/ Shetland

Winterberry in Blacker Alpaca/ Shetland

There is just no way that a merino yarn or anything in the soft end of the range would stand up to this wear and use and still look this good! Well, unless perhaps it was processed beyond recognition but that is something I choose not to use. And who needs a hottie cover to be that soft anyway?

So I’m really excited that Louise from Knit British has kicked off the Breed Swatchalong, a community project that encapsulates so much of this- embracing the different strengths and virtues of the many sheep breed fibres, being creative in finding uses for a them and documenting thoughts and experiences with them, thus enabling the trackability of yarn (or fibre). Joining in involves the simple process of comprehensive swatching with British (or local-to-you) breed yarns and then documenting and sharing your experience and thoughts on that yarn.

All contributors will create a Ravelry project page for each swatch, outlining source, preparation method and other vital stats and, more importantly, their thoughts on its life, longevity and use, including possible applications (stitch patterns and projects) and any changes on blocking (and how it was done) and wearing (next to the skin for the day).

Some swatches and summaries will also be featured on Wovember as part of the movement’s goal to build a deeper understanding of what British and local breed yarns are like to work with, hopefully encouraging other knitters to give them a try. And, once the KAL is finished (there is no end date as yet, due to the huge number of yarns out there to try!), Louise will make summary reviews of all British breed wools available on KnitBritish so that anyone searching for information on breed wool can find thorough reviews in one place.

So what am I going to swatch with? One of the stipulations is that yarns used are undyed and I have so much undyed in my stash that it was really hard to choose a yarn to start with! But I’m going with a ball of white Isle Yarns (the sister yarn to the Hole and Sons yarns that were the viral hit of the northern summer), a beautiful, small-batch yarn from Sue Hole of Purbeck, made from her son’s flock of Poll Dorset sheep and spun by the Natural Fibre Company in Cornwall.

Isle Yarns

Isle Yarns

Isle Yarns

Isle Yarns

I’ve never knitted with Poll Dorset but I know it has a beautiful bounce to it, which Sue and Sue (from the Natural Fibre Company) have enhanced by woollen-spinning it. More thoughts on it over the next week or two, plus some other other yarns I’m planning to document.

So… will you be joining in?! You can find all the details over at KnitBritish and join in on Instagram and Twitter with the tag #breedswatchalong.

cowl collaboration

Hello! I’m back from six weeks of travelling and all I can say this morning is phew! The last six weeks have been a whirlwind, mostly full of really wonderful stuff but also some that was challenging- I’ll share more of what I got up to as I download over the next week but I’m just so pleased to be home with Scotto… and am looking forward to a quiet late autumn and winter here, getting to know the winter face of this city, walking (and hopefully camping!) in snowy woods, making stock for some lovely spring festivals, working on a couple of knitting patterns….

But today I’m preparing for a shop update with a new cowl design inspired by conversations with Kate from A Playful Day. Kate and I met at the Edinburgh Yarn Festival and immediately connected over our love for plants and adventures in nature and the conversations that stemmed from that meeting led to the idea of creating a colourwork pattern from cow parsley, a favourite spring wildflower.

Cow Parsley

Cow Parsley

This lovely plant is part of the Apiaceae family, a large group of plants that includes many culinary and medicinal species, such as carrot, celery, parsnip, fennel, anise, lovage, parsley, coriander, caraway, centella, angelica and hogweed, as well as the deadly hemlock. The family is characterised by umbelliferous flowers- inflorescences consisting of a series of short flower stalks- and a distinctive scent from the presence of volatile oils. And a bonus- many of them are also dye plants, including cow parsley!

Cow Parsley is traditionally found as part of roadside hedgerows and is commonly seen in large swathes, such as in this inner-Edinburgh gardens:

Meadow of cow parsley, downtown Edinburgh

Meadow of cow parsley, Edinburgh

Meadow of cow parsley, downtown Edinburgh

Meadow of cow parsley, Edinburgh

But, as always, I’m always interested in what it looks like close up…

Cow Parsley

Cow Parsley

Cow Parsley

Cow Parsley

Cow Parsley

Cow Parsley

So I started looking at the form of the umbel flower and wondered how to capture both its curves and geometry, something that was not immediately easy since colourwork lends itself better to linear forms. But the little clusters of flowers enabled me to get around that by using them to create a curve and, after a series of false starts, I ended up with a umbel motif in six colourways that should evoke the Scottish landscape in all its beauty…

Cow Parsley Cowl

Cow Parsley Cowl

Cow Parsley Cowl in Straw

Cow Parsley Cowl in Straw

Cow Parsley Cowl in Willow/ Bleached White

Cow Parsley Cowl in Willow/ Bleached White

Cow Parsley Cowl in Sage Blue/ Bleached White

Cow Parsley Cowl in Sage Blue/ Bleached White

They’ll be up for sale in my shop at 8pm Glasgow time this evening but you can see a preview of them there in the meantime, in case you’re keen to look at the colours and have a think!

And you can find out more about Kate and her ace podcast covering creativity, community and a whole lot about things happening in the British knitting scene (including an interview with me as part of her month theme of Sustain) at A Playful Day. Thanks so much for the inspiration, Kate!