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.


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.


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.


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









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

Unpicking the Stitches: How I designed the Westcott shawl, part 2

Last post, I talked about how I conceived the idea for the Westcott shawl.  This time, I’m sharing the realisation process with you: how the idea for the design became a tangible, corporal garment and pattern.

westcottsketchThere’s always at least a little trepidation when you cast on the first few stitches or make the first cut into the fabric when you’re just beginning to realise a design.  And no matter how experienced you are, long you’ve practiced, checked your numbers, tested it out…whatever…it’s always a test or revision of how well you can get from A to Z.  Not even B:  Z!  The nervousness is normalised, but the reaction never dulls or fades.  It will be there for as long as you put your heart and soul into whatever you create.

westcottbabyTo the left is Baby Westcott.  This was nearly 2 repeats of the central panel in, and I was beginning to get a sense of the scale of the shawl.  I was feeling happy about the balance I talked about in the previous post; the quietness of the side panels working in harmony with the elaborate central panel.  The only real unknown was how the design elements would work when in full scale, and the changes I might have to make to the final pattern.

In one respect, this is an occupational challenge when designing knitwear: unlike straight-up, hardcore fashion design, you don’t have the benefit of a toile or first pattern to really see and analyze what’s working well.  For me, the pattern cutting elements are much the same: stitches are pixels, the lines created on blotter paper are vectors.  Both require precision and good technical knowledge.  Fashion fabrics, however, don’t take as long to make up, and because of this saved time it is possible to sit at the sewing machine and make up a toile in calico, the first sample in a fabric similar to the final fabric…and so on, checking and testing, adjusting for fit, taking adjustments back to the first pattern so that one ends up with a final garment and pattern as perfect as they can possibly be, ready for production.

Frankly, this is one reason why knitting patterns can be a bit skewiff.  The item beautifully photographed, when compared to the snippet of the fashion design cycle above, is really the first sample – not the final garment.  Thus it is possible to learn from the experience of the test knitter and make amendments to the pattern before publication, so that the general public doesn’t run into trouble.  However, there’s almost never any time to have something reknitted, so whatever is made up has to do for photography, for better or worse.  It puts even more pressure on accurate calculations and drafting beforehand.

westcottteenageWhat am I building up to? you may ask.  Well, two things: I ended up making a couple of key changes to the pattern of the shawl, which I thought would improve its appearance.  To the right is Teenage Westcott: you can see I’m right into the throes of the knitting here and not too far away from the end.  At this stage, I’d realised that I’d need a deeper border pattern.  The little scallops I’d made for the swatch would get completely lost in all that fabric, so the edging needed to be more complex than a simple scallop repeat.  I spent a few minutes worrying about alienating knitters who don’t crochet: would they be put off?  Should I go back to the drawing board and come up with a knitted edging instead?  And then there was the time factor which, I’ll be honest, decided it for me!  I had little chance of backpedalling that far AND making the deadline, so I stuck with crochet.  More on that later.

technicaldoodles technicaldoodlesshortrowsThe second and most significant change was the addition of short row shaping to the outer sections of the shawl.  I had calculated the width well enough, but the shape of the shawl was a little unexpected.  As the shawl grew, the angle created by the eyelet increases was a little too far away from the original plan.  I could see from the initial swatches that Westcott wouldn’t be perfectly straight at the top, but the curves at the side were a bit too pronounced and it would’ve been more cape or capelet than shawl.  Not a problem really, but I’d set out to create a shawl, and not having extra depth at the sides would’ve made it tricky to pin or tie up.  I had to test AND resolve this problem without losing time or stitches, and the only feasible way to do so was add some short row shaping.  You can see my calculations in the bottom left photograph.  Also, because I was right in the middle of knitting, I had to put the short row shaping in asap: that way, I could see straight away whether or not it had worked, and then decide where best to place the short row shaping throughout the pattern.  Would it be best worked intermittently throughout or at the end?

If anyone reading this goes on to knit Westcott and wants to style it as a cape or capelet, just omit the short row shaping and continue straight on with the rest of the instructions.  For this reason, I decided to place the short row shaping right at the end when writing the final pattern.  It also meant that any slight nicks caused by the technique – and there’s nowhere to hide when it’s plain stocking stitch! – would be disguised by the edging.  Even the neatest technique and diligent pressing needs a break sometimes  😉

sanctuaryandakittySpeaking of breaks, I really needed one during the making of this in late spring/early summer.  This, and the resolution of the two problems above, came about during a weekend stay in the Surrey hills.  A dear friend of mine was staying in the area, so I packed a little bag and caught the train down.  There are few things nicer than loving company, relaxed knitting, and a fluffy soft kitty – just look at her stretched out in the sunlight!  And the peace and comfort this trip provided enabled me to tune back into the original inspiration for this shawl; softness and comfort.  (We decided that I’d done enough with the glamour element at that stage!) It just goes to show that designing, or any creative process, shouldn’t really be lonely.  It’s very easy to get lost in the contents of your head and finding trusted, kindred spirits to share thoughts with is always welcome, in my book.  They are your eyes when you cannot see.

And with this Westcott weekend getaway came a slightly impulsive and emotional purchase at an antique shop!  Taking a break from work, we wandered into the town centre and I spotted an Ercol rocking chair.  Ercol has a special place in my heart because I grew up in a house filled with my late grandparents’ midcentury modern furniture, including an Ercol dining table and chairs!  I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the rocking chair, and after cooling off for a couple of days I phoned the shop back and bought it.  So it only seems fitting that I share a photograph of the shawl draped over it.

westcott4ercolwestcott4ercol2My final words are on the crochet edging.  You can see here the extra rows that I designed, and I hope you agree that Westcott is a much better design for making a larger border.  It also gave me the opportunity to play around with the corner detail: something I tried in Isblomst, an earlier shawl design from a few years ago, but didn’t execute as successfully as I have done here.  I wasn’t thinking about Isblomst when I designed this (I see now that might be hard to believe!), but I guess my subconscious knew that there was some unfinished business going on 🙂  Viewed in that light, it’s fascinating for me to see how I’ve come along in that time and that’s a realisation greater than I thought it would be.  Westcott is both the story of a design and a designer.