Unpicking the Stitches: How I designed the Snuggle cardigan

Hi everyone!  Where has the summer gone?  The last few months have been and gone so quickly I’ve had almost no sense of time; only the sense of rolling along with whatever life brings.  But the equinox brings with it a sense of coolness and calm.  As I write, the autumn sun is streaming in through the window, casting its gently golden beams across the room.  The feeling makes me want to write, and tell you a little bit more about the cardigan I designed to be worn at this change of seasons.

I’ve been wanting to design a cardigan like this for a long time: something that can be pulled on for those days when you really cannot be bothered to make an effort, but don’t want the world to know (or see!) that you don’t care how you look.  At times like that, you need clothing that will do all the work for you, put in the effort that you can’t muster.  Sometimes, on days like that, you need the feeling of something comforting throughout the day: the air is turning colder, you wish you could take your duvet to work with you, and you’re drinking more tea or hot chocolate than you have done for the past few months because it. is. getting. COLD.  The nip in the air tells you to wrap up, but the bright autumn sun means you can’t quite bring yourself to don darker, autumnal shades.

And the idea for Snuggle was born.

Naturally, cables were my first thought for a cardigan like this, but I didn’t want a look that was too overworked and traditional.  It had to be clean, streamlined and flattering to as many people as possible: who doesn’t appreciate a cardigan like this in their wardrobe?  So long, linear patterning was the way to go.  As I mused, I recalled this early experiment, when I was teaching myself how to design, practising and testing ideas on my own:

This must have been getting on for 8 years or so ago.  I don’t dislike it now, but I would make some changes to the composition.  First, I would not put the fancy rib with the cable panelling any more; I think it is a bit too busy and the two textures are fighting for attention.  A plainer sweater with that rib detail would be lovely, and if I revisited this I would develop the lacy rib more; perhaps incorporate it into the main body of the jumper in some way so that it isn’t just plain stocking stitch with nice edgings.

The central panel with horseshoe lace and symmetrical rope cables is also pretty and works well, but I didn’t think that keeping this would work for the cardigan I wanted to design.  To me, the proportions were just right.  One design development idea would be to increase the width of the horseshoe lace panel at the centre, so that there are about three-ish repeats as the main focus.  I may yet still find a way to make that idea work, so you may be seeing this photo again in future!  But my main takeaway from this was getting a feel for editing, curating my ideas so that there was more clarity and less busy-ness.  Sometimes the eyes need a rest.

 

The detail I zoomed in on was the braid and lace at the sides.  I thought that it would be ideal for the cardigan if I flipped one of the lacy panels to face in towards the cable plait; that way, the paths of the stitches would mirror each other and create the clean, vertical lines I wanted for the design.  It’s fun working with cables and lace because you can manipulate stitches in so many ways to create line and shape; plus, texture is something that everyone appreciates about knitting because there is pretty much no other constructed textile that affords so much inspiration in this regard.  I decided to develop the texture offered by the 3-strand braid by incorporating a wider one for the central panel.  The feel would still be traditional, but the lines would be clean and the relationship between the two stitch patterns would be obvious.

So, here’s the initial sketch and swatch:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the swatch above, the central panel isn’t wide enough because I didn’t want to run out of yarn!  But it’s enough to get the idea.  I knitted this in Rooster Almerino Aran, which isn’t a bad choice and has the lovely plushness of alpaca, but a good quality wool would be equally soft and give the cables the definition they deserved, and Debbie Bliss Falkland Aran was perfect; plus 100g hanks mean fewer ends to sew in or that annoying situation when short balls of yarn = long ends that aren’t quite enough to knit a row, grrrr…  The final decision came when Christine and I were discussing styling options, and we both liked the idea of a longline cardigan finishing at mid-thigh.  Also, we both like yellow 🙂

The last design challenge for me was to create a shape that fitted well enough over the hips.  There are far too many ill-fitting cardigans in the world!  You know the ones I mean: the ones that ‘seat’ really badly or, slightly worse, CANNOT find their way around your lower half so that you can do all the buttons up – should you wish to do so.  Instead, you get a triangle that draws perfect attention to your womanly width whether you like it or not – and I doubt most women do!  So I built some much-needed tolerance into the waist-to-hip shaping (notes on how to get this right for your shape are included in the magazine pattern).  Hopefully, the plan will work!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And here are a few other detail shots I took whilst knitting Snuggle.  If you follow me on Instagram, you might remember seeing these in my feed several months ago.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I chose to keep the sleeves plain for three reasons: one, to keep the cost to knit down; two, bulky cabled sleeves can be all kinds of annoying when you want to wear a cardigan and a coat (making three layers of fabric on the arms if you include the top you’re wearing under the cardigan); and three, it kept the look clean and modern.  If you’ve gathered from all this that I’m not a fan of fussily-designed knitwear because I think it’s a very quick and easy way to make something beautiful also a bit too old-fashioned, you are CORRECT 😉

 

After choosing buttons – I was very lucky to find the perfect ones during a trip to Bath earlier this year, when I also visited the Lace in Fashion exhibition (brilliant, by the way!  And open until January 2018), I did a few fit tests to see whether the plan to have a good fit around the hips had worked, and whether I needed to make any changes to the pattern before emailing the final version off to Knitting.  I think I did okay, but if anyone reading this also intends to knit Snuggle, please let me know your thoughts – I’d really like to know!

 

After everything went in the post, life whizzed on: I had the end of year fashion show for my BA students, Graduate Fashion Week, finished studying for and achieved my teaching qualification (whoop!), and visited the Anna Sui exhibition at the Fashion and Textile Museum (as I write, a fortnight left to see it before it closes on 1st October).  Then, less than a week after I was absorbing the impact of a big decision and feeling a bit wiped out, this photo popped up in Knitting’s Instagram feed:

Sometimes things have a way of popping up just when you need to see them, and this photo definitely gave me a lift!  So much so that I had to do a double take 🙂  As with Bonnie, the front cover was a complete surprise, and I was reminded of the thoughts and feelings I shared at the beginning of this post: the change of seasons, the cooling temperatures, the feeling of wanting to be enveloped and nurtured but not hidden in the shade.  The sun is still streaming in.

Unpicking the Stitches: How I designed the Bonnie jumper

So here it is:  My latest design for Knitting magazine – not to mention the blog post!  I am especially happy this month, because it’s the first time that one of my designs has been on a magazine cover.  It is all the sweeter since I didn’t know whether this idea would ever see the light of day, and I’ll explain why.

Bonnie was conceived at a time when I had no hope of ever becoming a designer in any way, shape or form.  She first appeared in my head when I had left my old job in academic research; so a good few years ago.  At the time I had completed an access course at the London College of Fashion and was helping Rowan to sell yarn on Saturdays.  Life was very quiet, but my imagination wasn’t.

At that time, seven years ago, I felt that I had no prospects at all.  I had just left a well-paid job to have a stab at something that I was deeply convinced was worth trying for.  The grant funding I was hoping to get for a foundation degree (old school HND for UK folk over a certain age 😉 ) didn’t manifest, so I couldn’t afford to retrain.  Sometimes it’s hard to get people to understand just how deeply held your inner conviction can be, especially in the face of cold, hard facts like little income and days when I barely spoke to anyone I wasn’t close to.  But I decided – not least because I had nothing better to do, literally nothing – to try to get some of my ideas on paper.  It was something positive to do when I couldn’t see a way out or a way to make things change. I knew I had research skills aplenty, so I spent what money I could on books, reading, and drawing paper.

Bonnie was one of the ideas I had at that time, and opposite you can see my original swatch, knitted in Rowan Wool Cotton DK (why oh why has that yarn been discontinued??).  It would have worked well in 4ply too, but I’m not much of a 4ply knitter. I like the weight, but I’m probably just a little too impatient!  Since I didn’t have the patience for 4ply knitting when I was working only one day a week, that probably says something definitive about me as a knitter 😉

Future Bonnie and friends – for she had several! – were put in a folder of faith.  And four-ish years later, I had the brave idea of seeing whether the little swatch above would be worth something to anyone.  I submitted it to the then-editorial team of Knitting, and was met with stony, cold silence.  No acknowledgement, no nothing.  Back in the box she went for another three years, along with any potential interest in my work.

And then there was a change of personnel at Knitting, I was contacted out of the blue, and after a year and a bit of working with Christine and the team, the 1940s brief came up.  Again I thought about that swatch and sketch.  I felt it was a good idea.  It looked to me as though it would fit a 1940s brief.  I had originally thought that it would work with a 1950s full skirt and Dior-type silhouette, but then again the wide-legged trousers of the ’40s were an equally good shout.  I composed the email, pressed send, and felt grateful that second time round I had more distractions while I crossed my fingers and waited.

Happily, things were very different this time!  There were a few hiccups with yarn selection – our first, second and third choices were unavailable – but Christine and I managed to find something nice.  The Designer Yarns Choice was a little heavier than I’d anticipated, but the stitch definition was beautiful and the softness of 100% cotton yarns is improving all the time.  I really enjoyed knitting with it.  The dart detail shows up really well in the cotton and there was a crispness that really worked with the chevron lace.  But stitch definition was the least of my worries; I still couldn’t quite believe that I was knitting that little jumper!  It was becoming A Real, Tangible Design in the world, not just an idea, square of knitting and lines on paper, and I was finally beginning to think of it as a material product that others might like to make.

When I knit my samples, I often think of ways in which the design can be altered for different people.  The success of Bonnie depends heavily on the waist being in the right place, and I think the best way to change the length without interrupting the lines of the pattern is to work more (or less) stocking stitch between each group of chevron stripes.  You can see from the photo above that there are three rows before the pattern kicks off; you can lengthen here, and/or in the next area of stocking stitch (see below left).  Make sure you adjust or check the side seam shaping too.

Here are some other photos I took whilst knitting Bonnie.  Apologies for the variable light:

There is always a period of radio silence between mailing the pattern and sample to a magazine and the moment you get a glimpse of the design in print.  January-March this year was pretty busy: many of the students at work were deep into their projects, aiming for Easter deadlines.  So when I happened to get a sneak peek the front cover of the May issue, my heart leapt!  It was the perfect thing to make me keep still and pause for a few moments, realising that Bonnie herself was on the cover.  And nobody knew what kind of journey she’d been on – until now.  It has been a lesson of self-belief, faith and patience for me, so I had to choose a cheerful name to complement the sunny yellow.  Bonnie was perfect: it is a Scottish word for cheerful, and also a popular girl’s name from the 1940s.

As for the other design ideas I worked on and knitted up at the time, hopefully you’ll see some of them in the not-too-distant future.  I wish now that I had been in the habit of writing the date on things: it can be a great motivator in situations like this.  You never know what that may bring, and I certainly didn’t seven years ago.

Unpicking the Stitches: How I designed the Kim poncho

K162_P23-34_Gallery 01.inddThis design has a special place in my heart.  It was partly inspired by my favourite handknit designer, Kim Hargreaves, because a detail in one of her designs made a huge contribution to the success of this poncho.

First, let’s go back to 2009, when I was savouring my brand new copy of Precious (now out of print, sadly).  One of several earmarked designs was the Kat hat, knitted in Rowan Kid Classic, and I knitted quite a few of these!  It really doesn’t matter how many.  (Really, it doesn’t.)  But the reason I enjoyed making this hat so much was the shaping detail: the incredible shrinking cables as you approached the crown.  It was so clever!  I’d never seen anything like it before.  And the same style of cable was use effectively in designs like Nat and Dusty to create shaping.

If you must know, I kept three knitted Kats for myself.  Here they are in teal, blue and pink (excuse the indoor lighting).  I may or may not make another in Victoria plum purple…

mykathatsFast forward six-and-a-half years later, when I was thinking about Project Poncho for Knitting magazine.  Although easy to wear and blessed with the ability to transform into portable blankets, ponchos can be a design challenge.  The yarn choice was easy: something chunky but lofty was the ticket.  A quick trip to Sharp Works, my LYS – local yarn shop, for any uninitiated readers 🙂 – and I had a ball or two of Wendy Aspire.  It cried out for cables and texture, so I gave in.  No, the biggest hurdle was creating something that was one size, hadn’t been seen too many times before and was capable of suiting many people.

It was easier to think of the technical ways of solving this problem: that way, having established what could and could not be done well, I could turn back to the artistic elements of design.  I began by thinking about dressmaking and whether I could borrow anything useful from that.

There are a few ways of dealing with darts when you’re designing with woven fabrics, and when it comes to fitting garments it is much easier if darts are taken into seams, as with princess styles or gored skirts.  That way, you can distribute the volume of the dart amongst the seams and achieve a good fit by pinning to the figure wherever needed.  On the other hand, a classic dart would have to be adjusted or redrawn for different figures.

Second, panelled designs like princess styles or gored skirts are often flattering because of the vertical lines.  I knew that I’d have to stick to panels of texture if I was going to create a gored shape within the poncho design.  I also realised that no matter how many panels I created, the space between each one wouldn’t be enough to accommodate the shaping.  The panels themselves would have to be adaptable.

AND THEN I REMEMBERED THE KAT HAT!

It had to be worth a shout.  I’d chosen two of my favourite classic stitch patterns: a cabled plait and horseshoe (or fishtail – the difference escapes me right now) lace.  Here’s swatch number 1:

kimswatchtake1I was happy to see that the shaping technique worked as well on the lace as it did on the cables; equally inconspicuous.  There was just one niggle though: as it stood there and then, I thought that the panels looked, well, a little bit…boring.  I have a vague sense that some folk reading this will see what I mean; others will  wonder what on earth I’m going on about!  It’s to do with the movement of the pattern and how it lures your eye around the swatch.  The cable plait pulls your eye downwards; the lace panel entices it up to the double decrease at the centre.  I felt that this worked, but something else was needed to liven things up and create more definition.

EUREKA MOMENT #2: RICKRACK STITCH!

Instinctively, this felt perfect.  The little stitches rapidly zigzagging left and right would do the trick.  I had just enough yarn left for another swatch if I knitted it straight, without shaping, which I’d already seen was successful.  This is what I got:

kimswatchtake2-finalThe little rickrack columns set off the larger panels beautifully.  I was happy.  It was also pleasing to see the little flounce developing at the bottom edge, caused by the inclination of the cable and lace panels.  I usually give my swatches a garter stitch border by default, but decided to make this a feature of the final design by increasing the amount of rows worked.  One sketch later and it was winging its way to Knitting HQ.

kimsketchkimhalfdoneThe knitting up was pretty straightforward, although I paid close attention to the shoulder shaping to create a curve that fitted most sizes neatly and created freedom of movement.  The fundamentally ribbed fabric helped too, creating ease and snugness wherever needed.  More panel shaping, you see.  You don’t get that kind of stretchy magic with woven fabrics!  And here’s the flounce at the bottom edge.  You can see it on the main picture to some extent, but it works very well with the overall shape of the poncho.  It almost looks like a bell, and as if the cabled plaits are unravelling slowly as they head towards the bottom edge.

And now fast forward six-and-a-half months later, for the Kim poncho was in the post before April was out and only found its way back to me a week or two ago.  It is funny how something you made so long ago can pop back into your life when you least expect it.  In some ways, that’s the story of this design.  Thank you, Kim, for being unforgettable.

kimcomplete

Unpicking the Stitches: How I designed the Alpine cardigan

K162_P23-34_Gallery 01.inddThis project took a slightly unusual route into the world.  It’s one of those ideas which ends up being very different to your original vision, but somehow works out anyway!

Here’s what the Alpine cardigan could have been:

  • A jumper
  • Published in October
  • Knitted in a shade of brown or green

One thing that didn’t change was the yarn used, for that was my main inspiration.  I’d heard of Manos del Uruguay, but not read about its origins in any great depth.  However, all that changed when a lovely big box arrived, full of gorgeous yarn!

And so I became fascinated with the Manos story: the production of the yarn, the women who make it, and Uruguay itself.  I did as much research I could within the time, and foremost in my mind was that 1) the yarn is made in rural communities; and 2) the prairie landscape and abundance of ferns and herbs.  I began to think of ways in which I could capture my new feelings and discoveries.

The dyeing process of Manos yarn makes it perfect for capturing the wide variety of colours you’d expect to see in grassland areas, so luckily I knew I just had to find the right shade of green or brown that worked with the October theme.  Many of the colours in the Manos range are vibrant and beautifully rich, but there was a subtle brown-based colour called Seal in the Serena line that was close to my my idea.

Of course the texture had to be leafy.  I could’ve gone for an embossed leaf, but I couldn’t help imagining the way that light falls through leaves and bushes – much like you see it as a child when you hide in the woods.  Some rays of light pass straight through; some beams bounce around as the boughs blow; others never make it to the ground and cast shadows.  I needed to engineer a pattern that said something about those tricks of light and their varying depths.  Here’s my first little swatch:

alpinefirstlittleswatchI was happy with the diamond shape because creating a half-drop repeat would be easy.  The variety in depth through the stitch pattern was there, but I needed more.  Then it hit me: if I moved the decreases at the central small diamond to the centre and worked them as per the traditional Falling Leaves pattern, that would do it!  I made some more technical and aesthetic decisions: it would be a panel rather than an all-over pattern to showcase the beauty of the yarn; within that panel, the space between each half-drop was left at 3 stitches to let the motifs ‘breathe’ and the eye dance around the colour and pattern a bit more; finally, a single stitch-width in garter would mark the line at the side edges of the panel.  Subtle, but firm.  Here’s the final test swatch of the leafy fern pattern:

alpinefinaltestswatchIn the final sketch, I decided to present it as a cardigan to give Christine, the editor of Knitting, options (always a good idea!).  Instead of cutting the panel straight down the middle, I opted for asymmetry so that there’d be two-thirds of the panel on one side and one-third on the other.  Something a bit different, but I felt that I’d lose too much detail otherwise; plus, it might be nice to do something else with a cardigan than just chopping a jumper front in half.

I reknitted the final swatch in Seal brown, and a smaller one in stocking stitch to compare the yarn’s appearance between the two textures, and with that the email was sent and fingers tightly, but routinely, crossed.

alpineswatch2alpinesketchback alpinesketchfront

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

AND THEN IT ALL CHANGED.

Or, in other words, life happened!  A colleague’s illness and some rejigging of the original plan meant that the still-unnamed design would be published in December, not October.  The palette changed from autumn to winter; the design would definitely be a cardigan; and it was time to get a move on!  I started work on this design in late spring, thinking of October, but ended up casting on in July, thinking of winter.   Christine had chosen the Alpine shade of Serena, which is how the cardigan got its name.

alpinecuffdetail alpinevariegatedtexture

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Serena yarn drapes beautifully.  It’s very difficult to make bad things happen when you combine alpaca and cotton.  As I doggedly knitted the L-O-N-G rows of the dolman, I was buoyed by the thought of how nicely the finished garment would hang on the body, open up the lace pattern, and show off the colours in the yarn.  Admittedly, I was still hung up on the fact that it wasn’t going to be the leafy grassland I’d originally conceived, but then again, that’s equally part of being a designer.  You have to be creative in unplanned ways and not too precious about your work: ideas have a life of their own and although it might not be what you have in mind, is it such a bad thing so long as they breathe and be?  And – most importantly – that others see the goodness of the idea?

alpinehalfdone(Apologies for the light variation.)

It would have been easy for Christine to abandon the design completely, but she didn’t, and saw potential in it where I hadn’t, because I was set on one look or interpretation.  For that, I am humbled and grateful: in a way, the cardigan you see – and the fact that you see it at all! – is due to the eye of a great editor.  The Alpine name isn’t just for the yarn, but Christine’s choice of it for the final garment and her role in making it a success.

Incidentally, as I write this (Monday morning), the December issue has just plopped through my door and Alpine is sitting right next to Afterglow, designed by Christine herself.  Synchronicity never fails to surprise.  Must remember that… 😉

alpineandafterglowP.S. Next week, the inspiration behind the Kim poncho.

Two new designs for December: Alpine cardigan and Kim poncho

Hello there 🙂  In the December issue of Knitting, I have not one, but two designs!  You know what they say about buses: you wait for one, and then at least two come along at once…

First, the Alpine cardigan, knitted in Manos Del Uruguay:

K162_P23-34_Gallery 01.indd

Then the Kim poncho, knitted up in Wendy Aspire:

K162_P23-34_Gallery 01.indd

I’ve been waiting patiently for these designs to be released into the wild.  Originally, Kim was made in time for the September issue, but things were rejigged.  If I had the stamina to turn over two designs for the same deadline heaven knows what I’d be made of!

Look out for posts about how I conceived each design over the next couple of weeks.  Alpine was done and dusted at the end of August; Kim was completed at the beginning of May, so I’ve been waiting patiently to share them with you.  More next week, beginning with Alpine, and have a good one until then 🙂 x