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.

Unpicking the Stitches: How I designed the Westcott shawl, part 1

westcottheaderimagePlease welcome my latest design for Knitting magazine: the Westcott shawl!

This reminder of early summer crept up on me nicely.  I worked on this back in June-July, which is a normal lead time for commissions like this.  However, it also means that you have ample time to move on with life and get stuck into a myriad of other things; so much so that you forget the publication date of something that almost consumed your life a few months earlier!  Nonetheless, Westcott has perked up my cold October days, ideal for a teacher in the throes of a brand new academic year.

When I got the Softest Knits brief from Christine I immediately thought of designing a shawl: something that would suit most folk and wrap them up warmly against the cold, but the yarn specifications called for glamour.  I then thought about combining comfort with glamour, and quickly found my way to Barbara Walker’s Treasury series for vintage leafy or floral patterns.  My idea was to create something beautiful and cosy; lacy, but not meshlike; and to have clean, simple lines.  Detail would be added on the border rather than all over the main body of the shawl.

veryfirstswatchesWith that, initial swatching kicked off.  Most knitters save their yarn scraps for blankets and toys; I save mine for design swatches!  The test yarn is a DK wool and silk blend, chosen for ease.  It also has the advantage of letting one know whether the design in mind is really going to take off in the chosen yarn.  I knew I wanted a fine, lacy yarn for the final design, but at times beautiful yarns have a way of doing all the hard work.  Handled well, they will make any project look good!  So I reasoned that if the test swatches looked halfway decent in a smooth, evenly twisted, well-behaved DK yarn, they should look pretty damn good in a lofty laceweight.  In the image on the left, the first idea for the side panel is in the foreground; on the needles in the background is an idea one step from the arrangement I ultimately chose.

Next step: raid the stash again and get some yarn that’s the real deal.  Here’s how that went, and you can also see here the first iteration of the crochet border:

centralpanelswatch sidepanelswatchSo far, so happy.  The sinuous lines were synthesising beautifully: curves in the dayflower pattern, curves in the mock cable, curves in the scalloped border.  Their softness mirrors the gentle drape of the yarn and the soft comfort only a shawl can bring as it moves with you, but without clinging or fitting closely.  Equally, I wanted the shaping to be well integrated, innocuous if not hidden: the column of eyelet increases in the side panel echo the lines of the flower panel, whilst the stocking stitch gives the eye a breather and allows the pattern all around it the space to shine.  I do think it’s possible to overdo it where texture and pattern are concerned; any kind of composition needs moments of quiet, if not pause.  Otherwise, it’s all just noise and no rhythm.

sidepaneldetail sidepanelmacro

 

 

 

 

Content with that arrangement, I moved on to sketching.  I’ve always felt nervous about sketching, largely because I trained as a writer and not an artist.  I am constantly nagged by the question of whether I can communicate equally well with images and words.  It used to be a real thorn in my side.  The issue isn’t resolved by any means, but I keep repeating to myself, “Draw what you see.”  The pencil is my first port of call, my comfort blanket, and I feel I have more freedom when mark-making this way, but I don’t mind trying ink if I get a hunch to do so.  One day, I will take some proper classes.  For now, I’ll be happy with the notion that people seem to understand what I’m getting at when I present them with a sketch!

eyeletcolumnswatchBelow are a couple of videos I made whilst I was working.  The first film of the eyelets is me trying to replicate (and to an extent simplify) the detail of the swatch photographed on the left.  Often, with knit, there is an element of selectivity when translating your ideas across paper, swatch and CAD if that gets involved.  It is impossible to get quite all the detail in without the artwork looking messy or cluttered, so I usually end up placing the knitting in front of me, closing my eyes for a few seconds, then opening them again.  I then make a mental note of the details that first caught my eye, and those tend to be the focus of the sketch.  In the case of the side panel, the column of eyelets and the bias line of the stocking stitch did it for me.

The sketch is the last task on the to-do list when tendering a submission.  After a final look at the finished drawing and how well it relates to the swatches – the swatches are also photographed and sent along with the sketch – it was time for a break.  The conceptual part of the design process was done; after waiting for feedback, it would be time to make the idea a reality.  But so far, I was happy with how the idea was coming together and I felt that I had made a decent stab at presenting it.

flatlayallNext week, I’ll be back with part two and sharing the making or realisation process.  Getting ideas down on paper and formed into squares of yarn is one thing – but creating them into something tangible and wearable is something else altogether!  Until next time… 🙂

REVIEW: My visit to the LCF World of Womenswear Pattern Cutting

IMG_20160710_140852Last month I was lucky enough to get a place on the Womenswear Pattern Cutting: Intensive course run by the London College of Fashion.*  Although I had a fair understanding of the subject and certainly enough to be able to realise my knitwear designs from idea to finished pattern, there were a few gaps in my knowledge that sewing experience and fudging with commercial patterns couldn’t fill.  I realised that the only way for me to really, truly understand pattern cutting was to approach it from a design perspective: bringing it together with garment construction and drawing/illustration, where it belongs.  Too often, pattern cutting is divorced from the so-called “creative” areas of fashion design because it isn’t perceived – or presented? – as glamorous, interesting or creative in its own right, but the truth is that it is all those things and more.  What could be more magical than bringing a drawing to life?

I knew I’d love pattern cutting because I find the technicality and engineering of knitting fascinating: when you are able to understand HOW something is constructed, a whole new world of creative possibilities is opened up to you and your ideas are imbued and infused with all the more depth because of it.  There is a sense of mastery about the ideas generated by a mind capable of harnessing all aspects of a discipline’s creative power.  It is like having an infinite vocabulary for ideas yet to be conceived, knowing that you will be able to say exactly what you want to say in the way you want to say it.  You become the purest possible conductor for the electrical fire of ideas, and your light shines all the more brightly for it.

Such is my philosophy about the creative arts, and you now have an idea of how excited I was to turn up at Lime Grove on Monday 11th July!

In short, there’s very little that we didn’t cover within the realms of pattern cutting.  In week 1 we had skirts and trousers: all styles we drafted fell within the four basic silhouettes of circle, rectangle, triangle and inverted triangle.  LCFWPCI_introtoskirtsThus a circle skirt, on account of its drape and flare, is a triangle shape; a tulip or peg-top skirt would be an inverted triangle.  Pencil skirts are rectangular; puffball skirts are circular.  And of course there are infinite variations possible by adding frills, yokes, godets etc – but we had our four silhouettes and the foundation of all shaping and styling is how to add flair (not to mention flare) to them all.  Techniques for adding volume and suppression were repeated throughout the three weeks, across all areas of design detail.

Week 2 was THE most intensive by far.  We covered bodices, collars and all manner of dart manipulation.  Jane Steadman, our teacher, warned us that we’d need a good breakfast to cope with the content of week 2, and she wasn’t kidding.  (I recommend something high in protein.)  In fact, self care and lots of food is highly recommended throughout: when the course is marketed as intensive, LCF really do mean it.  There was nothing watered down about the content or delivery of this course.  You need to turn up with your game face on every day.  If you can put the majority of your life on hold for the three weeks, so much the better.  Chances are it will take over your life anyway, so why not invite it in?!

For a course like this you need a teacher who can double as the font of all knowledge, and we had that in Jane.  There are rare and blessed times when you realise just how lucky you are to have a gifted teacher, and my classmates would agree.  Pattern cutting is a dying skill, and with that comes the frightening prospect of lost experience and expertise.  Acutely aware of this, Jane encouraged us to get as much as we could out of her and turn up early for class.  Once I cottoned on to the kind of woman and teacher she was, I drank in as much as I could.  All my early starts were worth it, and she was glad to see me.  It meant that I could share a few design ideas and get valuable 1-2-1 tuition long before the others arrived.  Over time, I hope to share them on this blog.  The list of projects and ideas lengthens…but back to bodices.

IMG_20160718_171433

I always like a nice bodice on a dress, and going into so much depth with the two methods of dart manipulation (slash and spread, pivoting), made me appreciate them all the more. Because dart manipulation has next to no place in knitwear, I am fascinated, and have been for a long time.  And the method of tuition we had – where both were given equal billing, and exercises were repeated using both techniques – conferred a sense of power and control.  It’s that vocabulary thing again, and how important it is for self-expression.

BowToThePatternMasterCollars, facings, necklines, and button stands featured here too.  Of these the collars were the most detailed, and personally I will need to practice drafting these a few more times; they have had virtually no place in my clothes making life to date and there are a few more steps involved than with several other drafting processes.  This new appreciation, coupled with Jane’s humour and entertaining stories about this history of garment features, has made me sit up.  As an aside, this could be a little project for me, if not visual research.  It’s very safe to say that collars interest me far more now than they ever did before!

Finally, week 3 covered dresses, sleeves, and a bit of draping for a cowl neck.  A cowl can be drafted flat too, and of course we used both methods for comparison, which was extremely useful.  There was no way in the world that we could’ve covered draping in any depth – nor did we want to, we were all so tired! – but it was fun to do and I’m already looking at the draping courses offered by LCF.  Maybe next year, if I’m VERY lucky…

DraftingAFlyZipperI would recommend this course in a heartbeat.  Whatever you need to save up, however much time you need to carve out – do it.  You won’t regret it.  My only wish or suggestion would be the addition of a garment construction course to support the content delivered in the three weeks.  References to sewing up, calico samples and how our drafts related to the body were thorough and constant – I should interrupt myself here to say that drafting and creating pattern pieces that resemble commercial patterns are not the same thing.  The draft is the mapping and calculation of the elements that become the final pattern: thus it is possible to have drafts for several skirt styles on one sheet of paper, as we did for the yoked skirt story above.  The final pattern pieces, balance marks and notches are traced off onto clean sheets of paper and have seam allowances and key information added, e.g. “Style 001, back bodice, size 12, cut 1 pair”.  All this was fully contextualised within the design and realisation process – but to follow through on this, I think that a few of my peers would’ve liked if not benefitted from some sewing to consolidate our learning, but certainly NOT at the expense of any of the course content as it stands.  Definitely something separate, because there is nothing baggy or flabby to trim away.

In this respect I felt very fortunate to have a respectable bank of dressmaking experience.  This isn’t to say that someone without it is at a disadvantage – but it does substantiate some aspects of pattern cutting training because practical subjects are all about the doing.  My only other recommendation here is to get Pattern Cutting and Making Up by Martin Shoben and Janet Ward (ISBN 9780750603645).  Many pattern cutting books don’t discuss garment construction (partly due to the student target audience, groomed for working in industry), but this is the only one that does.  There are some useful techniques in here and it helps to join everything up in your head: why, when and whether to.  Again, Jane had a huge array of samples and working examples to demonstrate each key point.

Which reminds me: You will have a LOT of stuff to bring home at the end of the three weeks!  I needed help carrying mine.  I highly recommend buying at least two adjustable cylindrical carry-cases, like these ones here: you can sling them on your back or over your shoulder, and you won’t be sorry you got them.  I have since bought several and categorised them for reference (#geek).  The other, not-so-geeky takeaway from the course was this collection of cute 1/5th scales of the blocks, which we used for homework:

DSC_0380They now live in my special pattern cutting pencilcase, which is quite separate from my beloved Snoopy one made by my mum.  Oh yes.  New world, new order.  And since finishing the course I’ve felt so much more confident about creating the styles that I’ve always wanted.  Professionally, it’s going to make my teaching better because I feel more comfortable about combining knits and wovens in different ways, and the ideas I’ve had are going to form part of what I teach the second year fashion and textiles students.  On a personal level, I’m not sure if I’ll ever buy a commercial pattern again!  Maybe if I feel it’s too complex to fathom, but seriously…the content of this course is such that, when you leave the bubble and go back into the real world, your eyes will see so readily how several fashion styles were created.  If you have time in the last day or two of the course (or are a swot like me and get in early as often as you can), have your measurements taken and draft your personal blocks for when you get home.  This personal bonus probably outdoes anything I will do for my students, which is saying a lot!  It means that there’s no faffing around with fitting and adjusting; even when you’ve got yourself into a routine and know which pattern companies you like, cutting out this step is a dream because you have more time for the creative stuff you like best.  With that empowering knowledge, plus this beast of a tome to keep you company, you will fall in love with sewing all over again.  I know I have.

ThePatternCuttingBible* Please note that this post has NOT been sponsored.  All views are entirely my own.

Adventures in Yarn Dyeing, Part One

Last week I tried two things for the very first time: drafting a bodice block and dyeing yarn.  It’s safe to say I’ll be doing both again!

My not-so-new job has kept me away from posting regularly like I used to, but it’s been a crazy, eventful and educational nine months in post and I hope – HOPE – that I have enough of a grip on things to get back into a writing routine.  It’s much easier to find time now that the graduate showcase is over (take a look here if you want to see the culmination of hard work by a group of talented people), and of all the things that I could have done this Monday morning, I chose to write.

PreInspirationThe yarn dyeing came about as a consequence of similar circumstances.  With all the students finished up and only Graduate Fashion Week on the horizon, a group of us came up with the idea of skill swapping as a means of enjoying each other’s relaxed company and actively appreciating our areas of expertise.  My contributions were intros to hand knitted socks and domestic machine knitting.  In turn, I asked how to learn how to dye yarn and draft a bodice block based on my own measurements.

I should probably be more explicit than I was at the start about having never dyed yarn: I’ve NEVER dyed ANYTHING.  Very truly.  Not even in the bath or washing machine at home.  The last thing I ‘dyed’ prior to this was my fingertips when mashing down turmeric root in a mortar and pestle!  Thank goodness that came off after a couple of days or so; I had the left hand of an 80-a-day smoker 😦

So: I turned up last Thursday 19th with five hanks of Rowan Creative Linen in white, bouncing with excitement, a bellyful of beans.  I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited about anything changing colour! – or nervous.  Not that it wouldn’t turn out as I wanted; the nervousness that accompanies treading uncharted waters, the feeling that you get as you swell up to fill a new space in the world, a space held in trust for you until you’re strong and brave enough to understand it’s always been yours.  Discovery, excitement, trepidation, awe.

These feelings fuelled my elbow grease as I scoured the yarn, removing any coatings or residues from previous unknown processes.  Here’s a short video of me doing this:

The yarn was put into an acetic acid solution first, then well rinsed under running water.  Somewhat embarrassingly, I can’t remember whether it was hot or cold water – only that I kept scouring until I heard my colleague (find her beautiful print work on Instagram at @printmaking_paradise, including a snap of how her machine knitting turned out), say those magic words, “That’ll do.”

Next we followed an adapted recipe for the relevant dye type (cellulosic fibres like cotton and linen are treated differently from protein based ones like wool and cashmere) and I finally chose a colour.  I’d spent the day so far trying to remember what gaps were in my hand knitted wardrobe.  Unsure, I settled on a sea green/marine/turquoise vibe.  I later found out that I’d just got away with that guess: longline cardigan, yes; cropped wrap cardigan, still awaiting buttons, yes; summer sweater, NO.  Phew!  And this mental survey included the stashed yarn for incumbent projects.  Gosh, I have way too much yarn AM good! * high fives *

We threw in a wee bit of electric blue in case the colour came out a bit too green; green doesn’t love me as much as I love it.  Once the water had reached the correct temperature, in went the yarn.  No going back.  I may have likened this to a “Loch Ness monstery pit of aqua”.  Guess I can’t be articulate all the time!  Good thing I don’t do podcasts 😉

Stirring and a bit of guesswork ensued: how long to keep it in and would it be the depth of colour I had in mind?  I’d gone for the medium range of the spectrum to play safe, but it’s always a tricky thing as people can have interesting ideas of what ‘medium’ is.  I guess that’s part of the process and the charm of textiles.  Most interestingly, it was the only time the knitting, engineering area of my brain felt a bit poleaxed; it made me realise just how structured and binary knitting is or can be in comparison to other textile arts.  You have knit, you have purl.  You have front loops, you have back loops.  You cable left or right.  Textured patterns have a right side, a wrong side, or can be reversible.  The creativity of knitting is borne of a profound understanding of how the structure is engineered.  My brain and personal experience relate it to Lego and music.  You have your bricks and your notes, your eyes and ears, your theory of how the relationships work – now go off and compose.  Technicality doesn’t forego manipulation and innovation; it enriches creativity to result in masterful, original works of art.

My way of dealing with the unknown is to let it wash over me.  It’s the only sensible option: how can you compare something you don’t know to something you do know?  Of course your brain wants to make sense of it as it grapples with new concepts and you try to execute tasks correctly – more than once I mused about cooking and recipes as I stirred the dye pot – but you have to welcome that openness and receive it on its own terms, its own merit.  This open space, this stretch of uncharted waters, can only be trodden with trust.

YarnOnDryingRackThis is true even on the most mundane or microcosmic level, boiling right down to whether or not the yarn you’re dyeing turns out beautifully, let alone the shade you had in your mind or imagination.  Trust begets synchronicity.  Worry and fear can’t coexist with trust and faith.  I have no real idea of what colour my yarn will be when I go to work and into the print room tomorrow, and I can’t remember whether it’ll dry darker or lighter than its shade when wet.  To the left is a shot of the freshly dyed yarn on the drying rack as a sneak peek.  I could’ve gone in today to find out, but I didn’t.  I chose to write.

PostInspiration

My Day at the Makelight Photography Studio

Last Saturday I went to the Makelight Studio to attend a photography workshop hosted by Emily Quinton and Kate from A Playful Day.  I have been wanting to learn how to take better pictures for ages, so when fellow blogger Katie at BeNourishd tagged me on Instagram to say there’d be a workshop aimed at people wanting to take better photos of their knitting and crochet I booked straight away!

There was a lot of technical info to digest and I learnt a number of new words, but I was able to follow things well enough thanks to Emily’s warm and accessible teaching style – all the more appreciated because she was fighting a mean cold!  The good news is that her advice is helpful to anyone with any form of camera (phone, point and shoot and SLR), so if you’re interested there’ll be an online version of this course available.

Below are some of my photos from the day, taken on my Sony Xperia SP, in no particular order.  This model is definitely not the latest, and because of its age is prone to the occasional crash or tantrum, but the camera component was better than I realised and with a bit of knowledge I was taking some better pictures with it.  The next steps are practice, practice, practice – and in such a beautiful environment drowning in natural light, we all began practicing there and then.  Onward and upward!

MakelightBloomsAndBooks MakelightBunting MakelightDisplay MakelightDriedFlowers MakelightFlowersAndFrostedGlass MakelightMotivationalQuote MakelightNiceCuppa MakelightTrioOfJars