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Bigger Sheep to Dye

Originally published in Pom Pom Quarterly, Issue 16, Spring 2016

Anna Maltz talks lambs, natural colours, and the ethics of our crafty lifestyle.

Palettes can be found and palettes can be created in many different ways, naturally or chemically, with or without intervention. Though not quite as old as death itself, dyeing is an ancient tradition, practised in countless cultures throughout the ages. For the entertainment and beauty that colour brings, we have explored the boundaries of the organic environment and stretched the horizons of science.

Wool doesn’t need to be dyed: it comes straight off the beast in a range of delicious colours from full cream milk, through warm shades of caramel, to near black of the treacle variety. Not to mention an exhaustive palette of greys from mildly overcast, through the tones of delicate mould on cave-aged cheese, to highly faceted charcoal. These are all super close to my heart. Undyed yarn is spectacular and it’s about time we reinvigorated it seriously, from a style perspective as well as the ethical. All the patterns in this issue are knit in natural fleece colours, as are the majority of patterns in my brand new book Penguin: a Knit Collection. For a colour lover such as myself, this was a choice that surprised more than a few, but it makes perfect sense to me. In fact, I think I know exactly where it stems from.

When I was 5, my family went to the Lake District on a springtime holiday to visit friends. I remember snippets of that trip – catching a glimpse of a badger behind a caravan, proudly keeping pace with the adults on a 10-mile walk, and, cuddling a lamb. That cuddle was the highlight of the trip and remains a pivotal life experience. It happened when the friends we were visiting brought us to visit the neighbours’ farm. It was lambing season and the landscape was dotted with mother-and-child duos (and sometimes trios) of fluff. As part of our tour, we were shown where the orphaned and abandoned lambs were hand-reared.

For sheep, as for humans, the mother and child relationship isn’t always straightforward. After the good fortune of reaching a healthy full-term pregnancy, either mother or child can be lost in the process of birthing, even with experienced assistance. If both survive, it remains to be seen whether the mother takes to parenting her child. I remember the farmer explaining that occasionally lambs that had no mother could be paired with ewes that had lost their lambs, but still some unfortunate little’uns were left with humans as their primary carers.

On the day of the farm visit I was wearing the cardigan that my mother and Oma had teamed up to make for me. My mother had spun the wool and my Oma had done the knitting. This was the continuation of a creative relationship begun in my mother’s youth. She remembers spinning the wool to be woven into cloth and sewn together by her mother (who would later become my Oma). My cardigan had a long body and sleeves I had to roll up (a bit of a knitting signature of hers) and a funnel neck. It closed with a chunky zipper that made a satisfying clanking chug as the plastic teeth interlocked. The wool came from a brown sheep and still smelled richly of lanolin. I believe that is why the cuddle came about. As soon as I entered the enclosure, a small lamb whose fleece was a matching shade of dark chocolate made a beeline for me. I sat down and it crawled into my lap, nuzzling into my handspun cardigan. We blissed out. As desperate as I was to take it home with me and keep it as a pet, the adults knew better. But in an indelible way, this taught me about the beauty and worth of undyed wool.

And so to the question: to dye or not to dye? For the conscientious crafter this option is dually a simple pleasure and a great luxury. Colour is a wonderful thing. The more the merrier. They are mood-enhancing and magical to create and work with. They can also be fraught with turmoil. On the mass production scale of the fashion industry the environmental impact of dyeing is a major concern. However, even with serious delusions of grandeur, we handmakers are nowhere near that league. Rather than spend too much time worrying about a little dyestuff between crafting friends, there are much worse things we could direct our fretting energies towards. Some things we should take to the streets for. Cancer and access to healthcare, nukes, hatred, deforestation, violence, sweatshops, mass overconsumption, war, waste and enormous disparities of wealth all spring to mind.

On bad days, I’m apt to dwell on the interwoven-ness of everything. How we are on our way down a helter-skelter of hopelessness and should prepare for a rough landing in a post-apocalyptic future that may or may not involve zombies. To help myself claw out of that pit of despair I try to remember that, comparatively speaking, I’m engaged in the good stuff: small-scale, social, hands-on, creative and filled with positive curiosity. Wool, yarn, dyeing, knitting – these things we use and how we use them are not the problem.

By creating with our hands we are already postponing (or are we preparing for?) the inevitable demise of biodiversity, safe food and fresh air. I am not designing weapons of mass (or minor) destruction, developing seeds that grow for just one year, building walls to keep people out/in or other systems of control. For these reasons, I try not to get too hung up on the global environmental impact of buying or dyeing a few skeins of yarn. Yes, these are things to consider in a perfect world, but in our current situation, I think it’s OK to feel a little smug about making beautiful things. I tell myself there are bigger concerns to get caught up in and not to worry about whether to use Dylon in comparison to the toxicity of the mordant that fixes the colour derived from the onion skins I’ve been scrupulously saving. And I try to class passing commentary, or getting my knickers in a twist about how someone else chooses to engage their crafty side, as another form of entertainment, rather than a world-changing endeavour. It can be distracting at best and, at worst, depressing, divisive and elitist. For what? There are bigger fish to fry, or perhaps that should be bigger sheep to dye. Besides, at least when it comes to colouring yarn, it is possible to circumvent those dilemmas by leaving yarn undyed. It’s beautiful just the way it is.

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Knitting the Winter Blues

Originally published in Pom Pom Quarterly, Issue 15, Winter 2015. Illustration by Jo Waterhouse.

I’ve never quite understood why people don’t wear especially cheerful colours in the winter. With little light, the world is at its drabbest, but we needn’t be! This is when apple red, marigold yellow, cornflower blue, beetroot pink, grass green, shades of hydrangea – you name it – are needed most. I’m not suggesting you have to go full-on Crazy Textile Lady, but a step in that direction would certainly brighten my day. I’d be willing to compromise and accept softer tones in the summer when nature’s abundance seems to make even these colours sparkle. Sadly, I don’t have that level of bargaining power.

On the fashion colour front, the new black is blue in an unprecedented way, or at least since the early 90s. It is being served as the main dish, not just as a side of jeans. The craft world too is awash with shades of indigo. We’ve embraced the shades of sky (day and night), bruises, gentian, sapphire, and newborn baby eyes. This time around it’s ideally naturally dyed in urine vats, and perhaps even spun and woven from local fibres. In this way, it is a new spin on the 70s, when denim reigned supreme and everyone was all about the DIY craze. Now I am going to go out on a limb here; I’m going to tie together our current blue period with our increasing awareness and openness about depression. We still have a long way to go but, like double denim, being blue really isn’t as taboo as it once was – it is everywhere.

At the tail end of August, the fourth In the Loop conference took place in Glasgow. Sadly, I didn’t get to attend this year, but I did have the pleasure of attending the third iteration a couple of years back. One of the talks was by Betsan Corkill and Jill Riley. They spoke about ‘Knitting for Wellbeing’ and it struck a chord with many of us, both as knitters and as teachers. It’s possible you were one of the 3,545 Ravellers worldwide who took part in the extensive survey they conducted. Though the focus of their lecture was on their research related to the alleviation of chronic pain and depression, the curative and distracting nature of knitting rang true to many of us. Betsan Corkhill has now written a book entitled Knit for Health & Wellness: How to knit a flexible mind and more…, which is very much on my reading list if I ever manage to put my needles down for long enough.

Through research such as theirs, the health benefits of knitting, particularly for mental health, are gaining increasing attention. A knitting project requires engagement in something outside of yourself and helps you envisage a future in which, at the very least, you have a finished item. It’s a gentle way to be social which can even encourage you to leave the house. If you don’t, it still involves movement, albeit just with your hands, eyes, and brain, which if you’re depressed is no small feat. Whatever level your knitting is at, there’s choice, skill, and learning involved – all good things. A little challenge, or a whopping great knitting conundrum, keeps your brain spry whether you are 5 or 95. It’s well known that engaging in activities and in society helps to improve life expectancy. It’s something a lot of us have known in our bones all along. I’m convinced many of us, knowingly or not, self- medicate with our stitches.

As we enter the darkest months, I think it’s important to remember that knitting puts the ‘win’ in winter. You can be productive while sitting under a pile of blankets fuelled by a pot of tea and snacks. Up the pleasure stakes with the addition of a hot water bottle (knitted cosy optional, but thoroughly recommended). Outside may be varying degrees of cold and dark, absolving you of the feeling that you should be out enjoying the sunshine or getting some air. If you can persuade a friend into your nest, all the better. If you relish being alone, you may just be in luck; you can delight in extending an invite without the hassle of actually hosting since they will probably opt to stay home.

While there are many occasions for knitters to meet and we are often social creatures, the truth is quite a few of us also like doing it alone. That’s where social media plays a funny role in allowing us to be chatty crafting loners. It makes us both more and less social and continues to intrinsically shift the way we communicate as we form and maintain communities. We don’t need to be physically present to share a project, buy yarn from a ‘friend’ or solve stitch-related (and a few of life’s other) problems together. But there are issues with this cyber existence. It both alleviates and perpetuates feelings of isolation. It keeps us even further than arm’s length apart, though our projects and long- distance friendships are truly close to our hearts. Often it feels terribly modern. At the same time, it isn’t a world away from having a pen pal of the sort you may have signed up for in secondary school or that a faraway aunt hooked you up with. It certainly mediates our experiences and allows us to be more creative with our self- presentation.

While these social networks for knitters have many positive sides, we must be wary of how they feed our unhealthy habits of jealousy and feelings of low self-esteem. I am thinking about our constant inclination to think someone else’s life is easier. Whether it’s their career, kids, family, love life, or knitting, we jump to the assumption that other people have it better. We know we are getting a mediated view, a fraction of the full picture, yet we would readily crown someone Penelope Queen of Intarsia, Well-Behaved Children in Handmade Attire and Regular Good Shags, while considering ourselves crap, lowly fudgers. There are people who really draw the shortest straw in life, but for most of us there are ups and downs. Ask yourself who you know who has a straightforward, easy life and whose knits are always stellar? Who woke up instantly accomplished at everything they do? Anyone? No? Now ask yourself why this would suddenly apply to someone on the other end of a gadget. If it bums you out to see a stranger presenting a beautifully edited version of their life, unfollow them. If they are a friend, you probably know the bouts of chaos that occur behind the scenes. Why would strangers be exempt from that?

As knitters we are inclined to feel the winter blues as much as anyone, but, luckily, we do have at least one extra incentive to love the season. Dark, chilly days and long evenings call for copious layers of wool and motivate a multitude of creative projects. When I lived in California, where seasonal transitions are near non-existent, I missed that sense of celebration that the changing world around us inspires. Discernable winters make fleeting summers a constant party with light till late and happy people out to enjoy. We make an extra effort to savour summer; it’s an acceptable thing to do. Liking winter makes one a little odd, but so does knitting. Let’s revel in that, vanquish the green-eyed monsters and let knitting the colour blue sooth away our troubles. We have the wool to make it happen. Knitting truly provides a reason for the season and helps beat the winter blues.

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Yarn Marks the Spot

Originally published in Pom Pom Quarterly, Issue 15, Autumn 2015

Black Welsh Mountain, Border Leicester, Boreray, Cambridge, Castlemilk Moorit, Clun Forest, Cotswold, Dalesbred, Devon Closewool, Derbyshire Gritstone, Dorset Down, Dorset Horn, Greyface Dartmoor, Exmore Horn, Hampshire Down, Hebridean, Hill Radnor, Kerry Hill, Llanwenog, Lleyn, Leicester Longwool, Lincoln, Manx Loaghton, Masham, Norfolk Horn, North Ronaldsay, Oxford, Poll Dorset, Polwarth, Portland, Romedale, Romney, Rough Fell, Ryeland, Scottish Blackface, Shetland, Shropshire, Soay, Southdown, South Wales Mountain, Suffolk, Swaledale, Teeswater, Welsh Mountain, Wensleydale…

This could read as an impractical itinerary for an alphabetised tour of the United Kingdom. But you, savvy readers, probably recognise it as the names of sheep breeds. The prize on this treasure hunt is wool. Complaints abound about how television and radio have led to the disappearance of local British accents. Many traditional sheep breeds are similarly on the edge. It is not telly that has led to their demise, but the economic ramifications of large- scale farming, globalisation, synthetics, washing machines and air conditioning.

I also think the fact that knitting was decidedly “uncool” for about a decade, and the apparent increase in our intolerance for itchiness have both played a significant part in reducing the demand for yarn made from these sheep’s fleeces.

We are rapidly making up for our dropped stitches. There has been a dramatic resurgence of interest in single-breed and locally produced yarns. While scarceness could have made them hard to come by, the t’interweb and ease of international travel have made them accessible like never before. Hardly coincidentally, our skills are returning to a level where we have the nous to adapt patterns (or even design our own) to suit the small-scale producer yarns we might be lucky enough to get our hands on. The truth of the matter is you won’t find much pattern support for these yarns; it just isn’t viable. This puts the ball in your court. Luckily, in the 10+ years that knitting has been “Oh, isn’t knitting really fashionable again?!” we have followed enough patterns, blogs and knit-alongs to know there’s a world beyond sticking to the specified yarn in the pictured colours.

It would be remiss of me not to bring up the potential itch factor when it comes to yarn from these rediscovered breeds. Buttery softness has never been a top priority; they were bred at a time when you might own a couple of sweaters at best and you needed them to last. Nylon didn’t exist to strengthen your socks; you wanted them to be hard-wearing so you wouldn’t have to darn them constantly. Yes, silky soft feels nice against your skin, but its use stops right around there. It might be super squishable at the wool shop and a dream on your fingers, allowing for hours of pleasant knitting, but the likelihood is it will result in an accessory or garment that pills infuriatingly even after a single wear. And so now it seems we are ready to return to rough and tough yarns in the hope that they will increase the longevity of our handiwork and justify the hours we put in. But isn’t there also something breathlessly exciting and rewarding about rescuing something from the brink of extinction?

Before a standard issue yarn lands in the cute cubbyhole at a LYS or through your letterbox, it has often travelled further than many could hope to in a lifetime. The production itinerary of a big box yarn looks a lot like the round-the-world ticket of an American 20-something on a westward looping trip to self-discovery. The journey might start with an Antipodean sojourn (for raw fibre), then whizz through rapidly modernising China (for processing). To be swish, there will be a stop in Europe (for spinning in Italy). Next port of call is India (for packaging). Along the way there might be a stop or two more, even some backtracking before returning home. While we might be able to justify the carbon footprint of personal travel with the benefits of eye-opening exploration, there’s a growing awareness that such globetrotting is frivolous for our consumables. Especially if they can be made close to home and the international quest they are sent on is actually a question of the bottom line. Like budget airlines, there are hidden costs and a lot of fine print.

Wool of a specific place, sheep and people – where perhaps the landscape or history dictates or creates a yarn’s colour – is an exciting thing. Chances are, if a fleece protected a sheep native to your local environment from the elements, it will be ideally equipped to do the same for you. In an age of global brands, where the market is saturated with homogenous, mass-produced products, it’s important, satisfying and rewarding to find ways of circumventing them. People do it for all kinds of reasons: to be responsible, forward-thinking, old-fashioned, elitist, or simply to support friends and neighbours. The knock-on benefits of local yarn are countless, not least in the friend-making department. We all like a good story and the stories you’ll receive and have at your disposal with these yarns is incomparable to any big brand, no matter how hard their PR department works to spin a tale.

Attempts at knitting purism abound – only knitting lopapeysa in Iceland wool or just using Shetland wool for your Fair Isle knits. There is sense to this: many regional styles of knitting grew from the properties of the local fleece, but remember that there also would have been no other yarn available at the time. And if you don’t actually live in those places, some of the point is lost anyway. A more accurate reflection of our contemporary world is to engage in fusion knitting. Like fusion cooking, it involves melding ingredients and preparation styles from different regions of the world in a way that recognises and appreciates their heritage. My friend Celine has a wealth of knowledge regarding European single country yarns. Geography always plays a role in her decisions about which yarns to combine in her next project. She likes the fleece to be grown and spun in a single country in order to support the local business ecosystem, traditions and environment, but after that, she feels free to combine them. The provenance of each yarn and the stories of how she got them, whether from her local mill or as a souvenir from her or her friends’ travels, are knit into the project and make it all the more special.

Ready for some educational exploration of your own? You could do worse than reading Sue Blacker’s Pure Wool: A Knitters Guide to Using Single-Breed Yarns (A&C Black Publishers Ltd, 2012) and Clara Parkes’ The Knitter’s Book of Wool (Potter Craft, 2009). When November rolls around, be ready to join the Wovember fun (yes, November isn’t just for growing out your moustache). If you appreciate a royal endorsement from Prince Charles, there’s Wool Week in October. Most importantly though, ask around – check out your local yarn shop, farm shop, city farm, county fair, or sheep and yarn festival – and who knows what treasures you’ll discover. And if your travels take you further afield, yarn packs very well.

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Some Are Knitting

Originally published in Pom Pom Quarterly, Issue 13, Summer 2015

It’s summer time! Let’s paaaaaaaaaaaaaartay! A time for skimpy clothes, scrumptious salads, trashy novels and open-air romance. There’s skinny-dipping, mosquito whacking, and jam making to be done, but what of knitting? Should we go cold turkey while it’s warm out? Pah! Of course not! Here are some quasi- scientific points to ponder as you pick your projects from these pages.

DURATION – how long is your summer? This pertains to both how long you will be able to wear summery garments and how much time you have to work on projects. Regardless of how quick your hands can form stitches, you also need to be realistic about how many waking hours you can give over to knitting. This may be dictated by nature or the unfortunate fact that other things in life need attending to. With kids around for longer hours than in term time, are they the sort to bring ice cream and knit the cuffs for you or do they require an eagle eye and ready hands? At work, do your summers mean time off or peak season?

TEMPERATURE – how hot do your summers get and how much does that vary from your winters? Are you off somewhere nice? If your summers are cool and winters crazy cold, you don’t really need an extensive wardrobe of hot weather gear. Strappy vests are aspirational to the point of frivolous and therefore an extra exciting treat to knit. If your summer morphs seamlessly into autumn, which bleeds into winter oozing into spring, you are under much less pressure to choose carefully. What you wear is much of a muchness and you can only dream of the joys of a chunky sweater and the ability to wear three pairs of hand knitted socks at once. If your winters are titty-freezing cold and your summers face-meltingly hot, well then, you have to be on top of your game.

SCALE – where will your WIPs travel with you this summer? Will you be going by bike, car, train, foot, plane or ferry? There always seems to be a lot of worry about flying with knitting needles. I’ve been polling knitters for a couple of years now: needles are confiscated once in a blue moon so, unless you are specifically unlucky, you’re good. If in doubt, check your airline and airport guidelines: if they say it’s ok, print them out and take them with you as proof. Besides, short length wooden or plastic DPNs, circulars or straights are unlikely to trigger alarms until we get a pencil bomber. Alternatively, not bringing needles is an excuse to visit the local yarn shop as soon as you arrive.

PATTERN – garment-wise, t-shirts, sleeveless thingamajigs and lightweight cardigans for cool evenings (or air-conditioning) are the preserve of summer knitting patterns. Shawls are perennially popular because they are multipurpose and free size. Crochet bikinis are winging their way back in to fashion, along with all things 70s from knobbly weavings to facial hair. Hats, cowls, socks, mittens and gloves might not be necessities in the summer, but they do have the benefit of being small and portable.

MATERIAL – more than the pattern, yarn weight and fibre content are the deciding factors in what makes a summer knit. In the winter the bulk of a warm woolly project in your lap is deeply satisfying. In the summer that same project is a burden. Look to finer weights of yarn, working them loosely or in lace. Cotton and linen are perfect. Keep an eye out for interesting combinations of plant and animal fibres. These can balance out detractors offering the best of both worlds. Try something like Lyonesse 4ply or DK from Blacker Yarns (50% wool, 50% linen) in colours created with Sue Blacker by Sonja Bargielowska whose Confetti pattern was in PPQ8. Twig from Shibui is a DK with 46% linen, 42% recycled silk and 12% wool. Karin Oberg makes Kalinka 41 (70% linen, 30% cotton) and Kalinka 21 (55% linen, 45% wool). Hemp for Knitting combines hemp with all number of other plant and animal fibres, even cashmere without the lumpy, bumpy, scratchy associations. ONION knit makes an organic wool (70%) and nettle (30%) blend that is incredibly glossy and soft with great drape, available in 4ply, DK and aran weights. They also have a 50/50 organic wool and cotton blend. Allino from BC garn is neatly 50/50 cotton and linen. Dandelion from Madeline Tosh is merino, with a 10% hint of linen.

COLOUR – get your colour fix now, be it poppy, primary or pastel. Oddly, ‘safe’ colours are for winter when it’s most dreary out and we could do with a shot of brights. So be adventurous now. If you simply can’t hack non-neutrals, stick with white, that way you can over dye it when you grow some balls.

VELOCITY – how fast a knitter are you? Are you a speed demon with a clean slate and no need to sleep? Go ahead – knit the lot, twice over. Are you a knitting tortoise with a busy schedule? Face up to the fact that for your garment to be ready and wearable ALL summer including the very first hot days of spring, you probably should have started in March. Get a jump start on next summer’s wardrobe. Stroking it in the depths of winter will bring solace. Fashion and crafting, like food, have growing ‘slow’ movements.

Consider whether you are knitting in the summer, for the summer or both. Then cast on, find a hammock and relax. Ice cubes and cocktail umbrella optional.

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Minimal Schminimal

Originally published in Pom Pom Quarterly, Issue 12, Spring 2015

Swedish minimalism is about pared-down chic with a flourish of cosy, viewed through pale Nordic light. It is a contemporary understanding of old-fashioned that elevates simple shapes in monochrome and mineral colours, and is ideally set off by bare wood. There is a love of stripes, triangles reminiscent of pine trees, and the odd red horse. Summers are endless light and wild flowers. Long winters allow for optimum crafting in houses that are warm enough to leave your shoes at the front door and where everyone wears nice socks. There is candlelight and the scent of cinnamon wafts through the air, it is tidy and blissfully well- ordered. You have space to notice and appreciate beautiful details and careful curation. Sounds lovely, right? Gosh, yes it does!

I can feel myself being swayed even though I am not a minimalist by any stretch of the word. For starters my theories on minimalism are far too expansive. The crux of it is that I am suspicious of it, I’m convinced it is hiding something. This doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the studied simplicity, beauty and challenge of it.

Minimalism is aspirational; something you strive for and struggle to achieve. Like aspirations of grandeur, minimalism is easier to achieve with wealth. If you can afford to buy whatever you need when you need it, you don’t have to keep it around “just in case.” Bigger houses allow the same quantity of essentials and a smattering of fripperies to look comparatively sparse. Plus there’s more storage space to keep things out of sight. Curiously though, minimalism likes to conceal its wealth in a monastic romanticism of poverty or at least frugality and denial. The aesthetics of minimalism are about educated taste: understated, knowing, and perhaps just a little smug.

Knitting, on the other hand, is very much about excess. Thousands of stitches make up any given item and there’s always more to knit. Even when working with a minimal style, your brain will be full of endless possible projects, skills to acquire, techniques to try, gifts to give, knowledge to share, stories to tell, prowess to divulge. Knitting is about being resourceful and creating your own terms of grandeur, be they minimal or maximal. Whether you have a desire to be ahead or abreast of trends, or to wind back the fashion clock, there are many options. There’s even scope to be a trailblazing eccentric. You’re in control of making the things you want and making them fit you and yours, regardless of how you measure up to rarely relevant statistical averages or currently desirable body types. Unlike fashion magazines, knitting patterns (both contemporary and vintage) often use family and friends as models, rather than specifically hired folks with aspirational body types. As far as idealised bodies go, the sexy blonde stereotype is inextricably bound to Sweden. Interestingly though, these women hail from a country that supports women in ways very few others do. The confidence this recognition imparts on all Swedish women, regardless of looks, is palpable,

A couple of months ago I visited the Nordiska Museet (Nordic Museum) in Stockholm. It is a wonder-filled museum of decorative art, something of a Swedish equivalent to London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. The focus, however, is firmly on the country’s own design history. It is the representation of a place rather than a survey of the whole wide world. By museum standards their textiles collection is a rummager’s dream. It is not displayed on the walls or in open cases, but in a long galley of a room, flanked on both sides with large plan chests. Glass topped drawers (314 to be precise!) slide smoothly out on runners to reveal the fabrics inside. I approached the knitting drawers with a desire to explore the roots of Swedish minimalism which inspired this issue of Pom Pom.

The thing is, I didn’t find anything even remotely minimal in those drawers. There are stitch counts upwards of 30 per 10cm/4″ over intricately stranded floral patterns, knits embellished with embroidery and fringed edges as dense as pompoms. I spotted various techniques of double knitting used to increase warmth and weather resistance, which is necessary in a climate that gets (pardon my American) butt-freezing cold. And COLOUR! Made in a largely preindustrial era when you were in charge of making your own entertainment as well as your own wardrobe, the items in these drawers satisfied both these goals. The handmade garments and fragments of knitting are examples of skill, imagination, ingenuity, practicality and play. It would appear that when items like these were all still handmade and people were highly skilled, minimalism wasn’t valued as much. It seems it was preferable to exercise and show off your skills. What I saw on show was knitters flexing their muscles.

When I see feats of creativity like these I find it inconceivable that it became part of popular thought(and humour) that women lack mathematical, scientific or technical skills and spatial awareness. Though I didn’t see any harbingers of minimalism, there is a different lineage I can trace. Those drawers contain the work of accomplished, adventurous, industrious, aesthetically savvy women with brains of steel; the type of Swedish women I am accustomed to meeting now.

Generations of us have felt that we are competing with cleanly machined lines while we navigate a world of consumer excess designed to pull the handmade rug out from under our feet. We have some ground to regain when it comes to the skills and acumen required to cut loose and make great things. Our ideas of perfection will shift along with them. What I learned in my quest for the roots of Swedish minimalism is that the missing key in many cases is confidence. We need confidence to try, experiment, fail and be excellent. So I am willing to concede that some studied simplicity may be the route to a place of joyous rich complexity. But let’s not dwell too long in demure understatement.

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Another Round

Originally published in Pom Pom Quarterly, Issue 11, Winter 2014. Photo by Fergus Ford for the Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook by Felicity Ford

Anna Maltz on mending the social fabric of Britain – And why knitting at the Pub matters.

In this issue we are celebrating the beauteous British public house, that perfect establishment for gathering to share time, tales and a tipple. Sadly, the current outlook for pubs in the U.K is bleak, much like it was for haberdashers in the 1990s. They are closing down at a rate of knots and, as we all know, knitters don’t like knots. The alarming statistic is that on average we lose at least 4 locals a day. There’s a whole host of reasons why they are on the brink, such as supermarkets selling cheaper booze, and zoning laws that make it easy to convert pubs into housing (generally luxury apartments) or shops (generally local/’metro’ versions of giant supermarkets).

But what has the beleaguered British pub got to do with knitting? And why might we, the knitting community, want to champion the pub and save it from extinction? Well, aside from pubs being convenient and comfortable spaces to knit (and rather splendid locations for photo shoots), I see strong overlaps between pubs and yarn shops. Pubs aren’t just vendors of booze. They’re our social clubs and community centres, where we go for camaraderie and advice, much like a yarn shop. For those of us living in small spaces they become extensions of our homes, a sort of annexed living room with a cast of characters to rival any soap opera. They are where generations mix, advice is shared, opinions exchanged and disagreements entertained. The knitting shop analogy may fall short as our woolly circles are largely underpinned by online interactions (Ravelry, blogs, twitter, instagram and the like) which of course social drinking is not, yet there is something intrinsically different and bolstering to your health about communicating IRL. As social creatures, isolation does not suit us well. There’s a lot to be said for not drinking alone and the same goes for knitting.

While I’m not condoning the over-consumption of alcohol (or yarn for that matter). When you go shopping for yarn of course it’s in the shop owners’ interest that you leave with as much as possible, but they will also guide and encourage you to make the right choices. The idea is that you leave happy and therefore come back, just like in a pub. There’s a sense of community and shared responsibility. Another cheery note on the subject of community and locals, be they boozers or yarn shops, is that when you spend a pound at a small or medium sized business, an estimated 63p stays in that local economy, whereas only 40p of that pound stays local if spent at a big business.

Pubs tend to cater to a specific community (football fans, cool kids, foodies, real ale drinkers, dog owners, old men, suits on a Friday, winos, etc.) in the same way that knitting shops have their niches. I’m imagining what the equivalents would be: your LYS specialising in local ethical yarns is your real ale pub; your international standard bigwig stockist (selling mainly Coates plc products; a large umbrella company encompassing Rowan, Red Heart, Susan Bates, Milward, Schachenmayr, Aunt Lydia, Anchor and more) is a chain pub; your old fashioned multipurpose haberdasher with an extensive range of acrylic colours and crochet cottons is your traditional ‘old man’ pub, and for lovers of cashmere and hand-dyed, you’ll likely frequent your local gastro pub. Knitting remains an undeniably female dominated occupation and pubs are often still seen as male spaces. There is definitely a history of pubs being a male preserve. There were times in British history when women weren’t just unwelcome, they were not allowed in at all, or there was a token section where women were admitted if accompanied by men. There even used to be a gutter running under the bar so you could whip out your todger and take a pee without losing your place in conversation. Times change. For this reason alone, knitting in pubs is a brilliant way of highlighting and perpetuating progress while celebrating and continuing the best of the past. We can foster both an inclusive community and the empowerment of hands-on self-reliance skills.

Plus pubs are fab places to knit. A little drink helps the stitches and conversation run more smoothly. Their public nature means they are the opposite of exclusive. Shy knitters can hide behind both their stitches and their pints, while gregarious ones can rouse the bar in to a spontaneous singing knitalong. They can be a bit dark, as you need less light to raise a glass to your lips than you do to count your brioche stitches. But just as you wouldn’t wear a white wiggle dress to a picnic (unless it had a John Waters theme and you were going as Divine in Polyester, in which case, get your pompom maker out), there are certain projects you wouldn’t take to the pub, and others which are perfect. I like to refer to garter stitch as the social stitch – something you need to pay far less attention to than stranded knitting or, god forbid, lace. Though this will depend on your personal propensities, there’s a time and a place for those things and it might just be called alone time. Our projects to knit in company should be conducive to chatting, drinking and developing a strong girl crush on your neighbour’s handiwork skills.

After a few decades of decline, which brought them to the brink of extinction, yarn shops are experiencing something of a renaissance as we realise the impact of making things ourselves and the importance of shared stitches to the fabric of our lives. Hopefully the half-century decline of the British pub can enjoy a similar turnaround. As much as I can’t imagine my life without knitting, I hate to think what the social landscape of Britain would be without its public houses. Let’s meet for knitting and a pint soon.

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Fingertip Travellers

Originally published in Pom Pom Quarterly, Issue 10, Autumn 2014

The term “armchair tourist” has become familiar. It describes someone with a penchant for travel shows on telly and DVD; a follower of adventurers’ blogs, feeds and podcasts. They experience the sights of the world from the comfort of their couch with a mixture of amazement, admiration, jealousy and relief that someone else is doing it. They learn an awful lot. They may even go to some of these places one day.

And here we are: Issue 10 is full of beautiful projects inspired by different folk textile traditions from around the world. These designs originate from times when more discrete communities existed, pre-internet and even mass printing, before trains and certainly air travel. Because there was less movement and connection between communities, patterns and techniques developed that are highly recognisable as anchored to a specific geographic region. But, if there is one thing I know about crafters then and now, it is that we love to learn new things. Perhaps as a way to counterbalance the fact that we maintain ancient skills, we also tend to be early adopters of the new technologies at our disposal. Maybe it’s our innate overactive curiosity and itchy fingers that drive us to be makers in the first place.

It has become so easy to find and adopt designs from around the world, but this makes me wonder who is currently responsible for keeping these folk traditions alive? Does it have to be in your blood? Can you marry into it? Can you move into it? Can it still count as part of a folk tradition if you are geographically half the world away? What if the colours you use didn’t exist at the time when our idea of that particular folk tradition is anchored? Can you and should you use the technological advancements at your disposal? Recently, at a mending get-together (like a knitting circle or quilting bee, but for fixing things), I sat next to a sock knitter who made socks for her family to take part in historical reenactments. Everything had to be specific to the era they were obsessed with. I couldn’t help thinking that the folks they were aping would have jumped at the chance to make their calves less pointy, heels more comfortable and toes less square, but she followed the pattern to the T.

There is another crafting and authenticity conundrum that perplexes me: the do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do school of craft. Let me illustrate this with a response we got to Ricefield Collective, a project I started with friends. It saw me teaching 25 indigenous women how to knit on the side of a mountain in the Philippines for 5 months last year. We got support from around the world, especially via the online crafting community. There was much excitement and communication about what we were up to and, of course, a couple of complicated questions to field. The most challenging were along the lines of ‘why are you teaching them knitting, don’t they have a strong weaving tradition?’

The question itself didn’t confuse me: it means that traditions should be maintained. It means that people with a direct link to their heritage should be responsible for keeping it alive (sometimes with outside support). And the answer to the second half of the question was a resounding YES. Where it gets confusing to me is in the subtext. Why it is that We – Developed WorId’/’Global North/’Rich People’/(insert your current term of choice) – can take as many courses as we like, be crafting polyglots,find inspiration from around the globe while snacking on ‘ethnic’ food and giving ourselves RSI tapping on our tablets, but we want and expect Other Folks – ‘Developing Nations’/’Global South’/’Poor People’/(again, insert your current term of choice) – to keep their specific traditions alive and unsullied? So we don’t have to? So we can be spectators of their ‘authentic’ lives?

Perhaps if you’re from pure Shetland stock it falls in your lap to keep your Fair Isle knitting traditions alive. And because they are your traditions you are allowed to update them with synthetics, fluorescents and a sprinkling from somewhere else. The same goes for Aran, Navajo, Tuareg, Muhu, T’boli, Masai and Gee’s Bend (the list goes on). There will be fussers and naysayers, but it’s your inheritance to mess with. But what happens to those of us with mixed or multiple heritage? Do we have to choose? Just imagine your grandmothers each came from an amazing knitting tradition: one was half Latvian, half Turkish and other half Peruvian, half Icelandic. Stranger things have happened – and I haven’t even mentioned your grandfathers.

It is the very portability of textiles that has made them so valuable for millennia. Whether you were a nomad, immigrant, trader, soldier, explorer, refugee or bride: textiles were, and remain, essential and easy to carry to your next stop or home. Some started the journey with you and others got picked up along the way as trophies, spoils and souvenirs. Some were worn and others were schlepped. They were vessels of identity and wealth. They still are today, but global fast fashion, made possible by the combined forces of the industrial and digital revolution (reliant on oil to transport it all and huge disparities of wealth) is rapidly changing our visual identities as being geographically bound. What I am curious about is what ‘folk’ means now that so many of us have inspiration at our fingertips. All you need is a good search term and the world is your oyster.

That is not to say that there wasn’t mobility of people, skills and designs before the advent of mass travel and the World Wide Web; it was just a lot slower. The folk traditions we think of as being from THAT place since FOREVER actually travelled there from somewhere else. Here’s what I think. Fashion exists because we are social creatures. We kind of like looking like our family and neighbours. They’re likely to be our teachers in how to dress ourselves. It’s not just an aesthetic concern, it’s survival; there’s a strong chance the people around us have already worked out a good way to dress to suit the local environment. Previously making your own clothes was a necessity for the majority and your community taught you how; it wasn’t a hobby or scholarly pursuit. You learnt directly from someone that this or that was the best way they knew how to spin, weave, cut and stitch to keep you warm, dry, safe and decent.

Then the decorating could begin! Inspiration came from whatever was under your nose, because there wasn’t a library or newspaper stand bursting with publications telling you what’s hot or not, outside visitors were scarce and there certainly was no Interweb. And boy did they come up with some amazing, beautiful, detailed and crazy shit! Folk traditions are testimony that decoration and functionality are intimately bound. By pushing boundaries and challenging yourself as a maker and then sharing those skills, you challenge and push your ability as a community to come up with even more breathtaking things. I could look endlessly at images of ‘folk’.

So that term, armchair tourist – does it sound familiar? How about if we substitute ‘tourist’ with ‘crafter’? There are fewer craft-related telly programs, but what is lacking on one screen we make up for on another with Ravelry, Etsy and an overabundance of blogs. The main difference however is that we are also making, not merely viewing I hope). We may be in our homes, LYSs and craft circles, but we are experiencing and translating our armchair tourism to our fingertips. Rather than tourists we are travellers, prepared to engage with more than a guide book and camera; we like to smell the smells and walk the walk – maybe get a little dirty. We are Fingertip Travellers. Let us travel lightly and share what we know. We may even go back in time as we travel to the future.

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A Lot of Little Bits About Linen

Originally published in Pom Pom Quarterly, Issue 9, Summer 2014

Anna dives into the summery and eco-friendly world of linen – the very fibre with which she made her Sceles mesh top.

Last issue we heard from Caitlin ffrench about her forays into growing and processing linen with the goal of making her wardrobe as self-sufficient as possible. Even if you don’t have the chutzpah to start up your own miniature linen farm and mill, linen is an excellent fibre to knit with. It’s anti- bacterial and wicking and it’s especially good in summer when it will keep you cool and airy, whether you are wearing it or knitting with it. If you get in a pickle on a desert island, it’s so tough and strong you can make excellent fishing nets or hitch together a nifty lean-to.

The linen industry in the UK is now mainly part of our bucolic past, but we don’t need to look far to import it. The stuff I am most interested in is grown between Caen and Amsterdam, a short hop across the Channel. Linen derives from flax, a blue or white flowered plant, which thrives in these moderate coastal environments. It is those same fields that produced the linen for the canvas on which artists from Bosch, through Rembrandt to Van Gogh (and beyond) would have painted on. In this soil and climate linen can grow without irrigation. It satisfyingly requires seven times less: pesticides and fertilisers than cotton and that’s before we have started factoring in air miles and such. The eco credentials run strong in this one.

It is useful to make the distinction between woven and knitted linen clothing. Whereas with woven linen you have to worry about ending (or even starting) the day looking like you crawled out of the bottom of the laundry basket and don’t know what an iron is, with knitted linen you only get the benefits of its beautiful drape. The wrinkly nature of linen comes from the fact that it has much less memory/elasticity than other fibres; less than cotton and a hell of a lot less than wool. It can’t bounce back in to shape; it just does what it’s told.

Most natural fibres come from a soft puff (sheep, cotton, bunnies, llamas, silk, and so forth). Linen comes from the stalk of the plant; a stick rather than a puff. Bamboo and hemp might also spring to mind as fibres derived from a stick. Confusingly, bam boo fibre doesn’t actually come straight from the plant; it is turned in to a fibre through a process akin to making synthetics. To get linen from flax you have to whack it a bit. This is called scutching and later hackling, which sounds like a more violent form of heckling. But we are getting ahead of ourselves, so let’s back track. The linen plant grows in about a hundred days let’s call that three months and a long dirty weekend. It is then hoicked out of the ground, rather than cut off, to maximise the length of the staple. It is the length of the staple that dictates the quality of the fibre that can be produced from it. More pilling occurs the shorter the staple is. The same applies to all yarns, regardless of fibre content.

Now comes the weird bit. The outside of the fax has to be allowed to rot before it can be separated from the more useful inner fibres. The rotting of flax is called retting, not to be confused with rutting which is what young male deer do during mating season. Retting can happen in the field where the linen was harvested or in water.

Now the whacking bit happens, followed by carding and suddenly it is as if you are brushing long blond hair. Watching the mechanised process is disconcerting as it looks like Rapunzel’s epic tresses are being slowly drawn in to a mill only to come out as yarn.

And hey presto, its ready for knitting with! Unless it’s going to be blended: there are blends with everything from the slippiest rayon to the fuzziest mohair, though cotton is most prevalent. Each combination has different properties. You can count on Habu to mix it with steel (because being the second strongest natural fibre after silk apparently just isn’t enough). If you prefer to consume yarn one flora or fauna at a time, ideally place specific, as far as 100% European linen goes there are excellent choices. Euroflex always gets rave reviews, and Quince & Co have their Sparrow. Kalinka, a DK from Karin Oberg is spun in Sweden and comes in an array of breathtaking colours. If you like your yarn on the cone, try the linen from La Droguerie.

Let’s roll through some steps that will make working with linen a lovely experience from beginning to end. If your linen is a bit tough, soak it in a solution of water and hair conditioner before knitting with it. The term flaxen hair comes from flax, so it seems fitting. Do make sure to tie your skein in MANY places. It doesn’t cling like wool does and will spring in to a big old knot given half the chance. Wind it slowly if using a swift and ball winder – if it flies off you’re in for hours of trouble. If you’re in a patient frame of mind,I highly recommend you hand wind your skein in to a ball. Winding a skein of madder-dyed lace weight from Artisan Yarns once entertained me on a train journey from London to Brussels. There was the synchronous thrill of travelling through linen country and it resulted in the most pleasant ball of linen I have ever knit from.

If your linen is a bit tough, soak it in a solution of water and hair conditioner before knitting with it. The term flaxen hair comes from flax, so it seems fitting. Do make sure to tie your skein in MANY places. It doesn’t cling like wool does and will spring in to a big old knot given half the chance. Wind it slowly if using a swift and ball winder – if it flies off you’re in for hours of trouble. If you’re in a patient frame of mind,I highly recommend you hand wind your skein in to a ball. Winding a skein of madder-dyed lace weight from Artisan Yarns once entertained me on a train journey from London to Brussels. There was the synchronous thrill of travelling through linen country and it resulted in the most pleasant ball of linen I have ever knit from.

Having wound your ball, start it from the outside rather than the inside, as it will be less likely to end up in a tangled mess. If you insist on starting from the centre pull, place it inside an odd sock or the cut off foot of a pair of stockings (a pair that has recently moved beyond being fashionably laddered perhaps) as this will keep it snugly contained. Whichever way you like to unwind, keep a close eye when nearing the end, so you don’t suffer from infuriating tangles. Play around with your needle choice. You’ll enjoy knitting more on metal or wood/bamboo depending on how humid it is (and how clammy your hands are). Wood or bamboo will have a little grip that might bug you in dry climates, but will be beneficial in steamy conditions – the slight texture will actually stop the yarn sticking as it would to metal, helping it move more easily.

It’s important to remember that, when working with linen its lack of stretch will put you utterly in control of tensioning the yarn. Be aware that there will be some drop – stitches will ease downwards as it is worn, making rows longer with little change in the stitch count, so it is good to get your tension sorted. Your knitting might also be a bit biased. Most linen yarns are stranded (laid together) rather than twisted, which means they have a stronger inclination to lean. Knitting the lace patterns that linen is often used for will tend to sort this out: the k2togs and ssks pull things this way AND that, rather than this way OR that. However, if you’re subbing linen for wool when working a circular knitted garment with lots of stockinette you might consider changing it to a seamed piece. Alternatively, Shibui Linen, which is chain spun rather than stranded or twisted should be a safe bet.

When starting another ball, ensure the join happens in an inconspicuous place as it can be a bit tricky to hide. In other words, not bang in the middle of your bosom. You can’t spit-splice it. Just sayin’. Secure it ASAP, as otherwise it will sneak around and throw off your tension. I would even suggest loosely knotting it until you have knitted further enough along to sew in the ends, making sure to double back. Don’t try to break off the remaining yarn by hand. You will not succeed. You will hurt yourself and you will regret it. The damage you do will be part way between carpet burn and a paper cut, Anyhow, don’t you have a small pair of golden scissors in the shape of a stork just for taking care of such matters?

Linen is the S&M yarn in the knitter’s closet. You can beat up on linen and it will love you for it. Throw it in the washing machine, even the drier and it will come back begging for more. All the things that would shock animal fibres in to a shuddering pile of soft, supple bliss. Save on water and electricity and don’t give it a private load in the washer. Being bashed against jeans and rubbed by frisky towels will give it the rough treatment it desires. One thing to watch out for though is that linen can shed a bit, so keep an eye on what you wash it with. You don’t want the rest of the load coming out looking like a gerbil crept in with the hot wash.

All this talk of easy laundering is not to say that blocking won’t make it shine, especially lace. Feel free to block the proverbial hell out of it. This will help it come in to its own. The aim here is to fill you with confidence rather than trepidation. An equivalent set of guidelines could be given for wool, but we are all far too familiar with wools peccadillos to need it. For all of the times linen is referred to as not as forgiving as wool, think about the way wool felts, shrinks, sticks to Velcro, makes you itchy and attracts moths – things you won’t have to worry about with linen. Plus its summer; time for an adventure!