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 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… 🙂

Creative Inkwells

I’m back to personal knits again – in fact, making in general.  I have some sewing projects on the go and will share those in a few weeks; the pile is growing and I need to slot in some time at the sewing machine!  Luckily the knitting is under control – relatively speaking – and in the last weeks of October I was inspired by several exhibitions, notably Quentin Blake’s in London, and seeing what illustrators have been creating for Inktober.

First things first: knitting.  As of last night, the green Drew cardigan was finished.  It should’ve been done by now, but I ran out of the laceweight ten rows before the end of the second sleeve.  Never mind!  I’m just glad it’s off the needles.  Here it is, pre-sewing up:

DrewCardigan4 DrewCardigan5I know that many knitters dislike sewing up, but I usually enjoy it because it gives my fingers a break and it’s the closest I get to doing any needlework!  There’s something soothing about hand sewing.  Plus, if cast-off projects are piling up (ahem), sewing up several knits in one go is very satisfying and I like to imagine that it’s like having THE best shopping trip ever!  I may never have one in real life but I’ll take this instead!

My latest is a Christmas/birthday present for a lovely friend of mine.  She’s been wanting a cosy something to wear as a yoga cardigan and I immediately thought of her when I saw the Darkness coat in Still.  The only concern was whether her delicate skin would be irritated by the Brushed Fleece; happily it wasn’t, and after deciding on the purple I cast on over the weekend.  As I write, 1.5 sleeves have been knitted – and amazingly, I managed to complete the first sleeve in the space of eight hours on Sunday!  Definitely a personal record, helped by the fact that Brushed Fleece is GORGEOUSLY SOFT.  It goes on for miles and knits up beautifully.  I think it’s my favourite new yarn, and I hope it’s around for a long time to come.  Rowan have hit the spot with this one.  I haven’t been crazy about their new yarns lately, but this one’s a winner.

DarknessCoat0 DarknessCoat1You can see in the photo on the right that Brushed Fleece makes a lovely, mottled or marled kind of fabric.  My friend was leaning towards the pink in the range, which we also liked – bright and cheerful without being garish – but she gets the best of both with the purple.  It’s shot through with a pink and is lovely on the eyes.  I can’t wait to see her in it and how she likes it.  As ever, I’ll be posting progress updates on Instagram (username: berylliantknits, or follow the link in the right sidebar).  Sadly my work rate for the second sleeve hasn’t equalled that of the first…

The last project I’m hoping to have time for is the Heart cardigan.  Brokenhearted is more like it; it’s been put to one side for some time now.  I took it out of my project bag this morning to remind myself of how it looks and why I need to give it some attention!

HeartCardigan1Lastly, Inktober has been wonderful viewing.  It’s new to me, and if it’s also new to you, do have a look.  If it’s not, apologies…and bear with me!  It’s an annual drawing challenge, and artists/illustrators create one ink drawing every day throughout the month of October.  As you might guess, there’s been so much to see on the internet and social media, but thankfully there are hashtags!  Search for it on Instagram, Twitter, etc (or just Google ‘inktober’) to see the incredible range of artwork that people have created; it is truly marvellous.  And as you might guess, there are plenty of Halloween-themed illustrations – here are some cats by Emla and spooky faces by Maritza Lugo.

On a similar note, I went to see the Quentin Blake exhibition at the House of Illustration a few weeks ago.  Like many children of a generation or two, he has a special place in my childhood as a result of illustrating Roald Dahl books.  My souvenir from the exhibition was the Matilda mug below, but an answer to one of the questions in the Twitter Q&A Blake did with the House of Illustration really struck me on a personal level (you can read it here on Storify); it was a question about how long it took him to define his style:

I think I found it when I was 20-something, when I stopped worrying and it became like a form of handwriting (my emphasis)

That is so true, in so many ways.  When I left my old job in academia and took the plunge into knitwear, one of the first things I did was a year-long foundation course at the London College of Fashion in 2010, just to see if I could draw and whether I had talent worth bothering with.  I hadn’t taken art as a GCSE option, and drawing within the context of fashion seemed like a safer option than plain Art and Design; I could utilise my home-schooled knowledge of needlecrafts and dressmaking and gain credits there if art didn’t work out as I hoped.  And one of the things I remember thinking – bearing in mind that I’m a English postgraduate – was whether I’d ever be able to draw or express myself visually as well as I do verbally or in writing.  Watching the other students pick up their materials with ease and (relative) in life drawing classes and the like really struck me.  They didn’t have to think about HOW they were going to draw or capture something; they made marks on the paper and they created images bursting with individuality, fluency and poetry.

I might have a few knitwear designs published now, but I am still figuring out how this all works.  Visual creative expression seems to be as much in seeing as it is in doing, and it reminded me of how I was drawn to English as a subject: growing up, I loved reading and writing, and by reading voraciously, absorbing many styles of writing and types of literature, my own personal style developed.  It happened without my realising it and without being aware of having made an effort (would a child realise this anyway?), but choosing a new mode, switching from word to image, made me think about the effort, refinement and application needed to carve out a clear channel for creative self-expression.  And it is like learning how to write, or even use a pen.  Eventually, the marks you make become recognisable as your own handwriting, and you don’t have to think about how to write individual letters or words.  You pick up your tools, put them to paper, and there they appear.  The method isn’t really magical, but the creative results are.

MyMatildaMug

Asymmetric Fairisle Jacket – Knitting Magazine, November 2014

AsymFairisle_01Here it is! My latest work for Knitting Magazine is a fairisle jacket with asymmetric front fastening detail, using Rowan Felted Tweed DK.  As ever with commissions like these, work takes place a good few months before publication: I was creating this during midsummer, which is not the best time of year to be knitting fairisle with wool/alpaca blend yarn!  Still, time has passed, and one tends to forget the hard slog involved.  Then you see professional photos of your work and almost fail to recognise it: Did I create that?  When did it happen?  It all seems so long ago!

I tend to be completely absorbed in the task at hand when working, and am glad I had the presence of mind to take photos of my work in progress at the time.  As ever, the creative process takes place in relatively unglamorous, unromantic surroundings.  The very start of this process involved a brief asking for designs and textures with an autumnal, English feel.  Amongst other things there were pictures of checks and herringbone tweeds to give us an idea, and as you might guess I took my cue from those.

Technically, I set myself a challenge by submitting a design with an asymmetric front and dolman sleeves.  I wanted to create a relaxed, easy to wear, outdoorsy garment with an edge about it, and it was easy to focus on shape and detail to create that edge because the fairisle pattern provides enough of a traditional, heritage feel.

Squared paper is one of my best design friends.  It is with me nearly every step of the way, helping me to work out how a photo or an initial sketch or idea will work when transmuted into tiny little boxes, each of which represents a knitted stitch; and later again, when I draw out the design and use that technical drawing to write the instructions.  For fairisle, squared paper works brilliantly.  The final fairisle pattern originated from a classic herringbone – I ended up chopping up, inverting, rotating, rearranging the various strips of a herringbone tweed and they ended up looking like a diamond or check pattern:

AsymFairisle_Making0I realised that the more lines of symmetry a fairisle pattern has, the more pleasurable it is to knit.  It is easy to get into a rhythm, easy to programme the pattern repeat into your brain, and – for two-handed fairisle knitters like me – both hands are doing a fairly equal amount of work.  I’d been vaguely aware of this when knitting fairisles by other designers, but had never been able to work out why I preferred some patterns more than others.  Creating a fairisle design from scratch – I say ‘from scratch’ because I didn’t do any research or consult any stitch dictionaries, but given that knitting has been around for hundreds of years and every country has some form of knitting in its culture, it’s pretty likely that someone, somewhere at some time has done something similar to me – really helped me to understand and articulate this.  It is another example of why symmetry and rhythm are so crucial to knitting, and another reason why so many people find it soothing and relaxing.  Fairisle projects are often a big undertaking and require lots of commitment, so creating a pattern that was equally pleasurable to knit and make up was crucial – particularly as the design includes a number of long rows on the back piece when knitting the sleeves cuff to cuff!

Here’s a small gallery outlining the various stages of knitting up:

AsymFairisle_Making1 AsymFairisle_Making2 AsymFairisle_Making3 AsymFairisle_Making4 AsymFairisle_Making5 AsymFairisle_Making6

When finishing up I oversewed the collar to the main body to reduce bulk and ensure the collar wasn’t too erect.  I felt that a more relaxed neckline would be better overall.  I’m not a fan of stiff collars but if you want a more erect collar, change to smaller needles when the dart shaping has been completed and then work to the depth stated on the pattern, or vary this depending on how high up you’d like the collar to stand when worn.

After that, buttons were sewn on and the finished design was packed up and posted away.  It was a huge undertaking in the space of six weeks and involved many long days, but it was amazing to see my ideas come to life as the knitting grew.  By the time I cast off the last stitch and collapsed onto the sofa, I was very happy to have produced something that resembled my original idea!  That was the last I saw of it until a couple of weeks or so ago…which brings this little post full circle.  Now it is available to buy – the November issue goes on sale today, i.e. Thursday 23rd October – and I can share it all with you, my very first fairisle design to appear in print.

AsymFairisle_01 KnittingMag_Nov14Cover(Photo on the right tweeted by Knitting Mag)