My mum and my Grandmother (Nanny) taught me how to knit when I was a child but I don't remember much about what I knitted at that time. My mum knitted lots of lovely jumpers for us when we were growing up, even an extremely complex Marilyn Monroe intarsia jumper when I was obsessed with her in my early teens. My mum was a knitwear designer and got to the finals of the Clothes Show Knitting competition in the late 80's and we got to meet Jeff Banks and Kaffe Fasset at the final. Hours were spent pouring over Rowan books looking for patterns I wanted my mum to knit me.
Me wearing one of my mum's summer knits on holiday
At university I had the urge to knit again and my mum cast on a scarf for me which I went away and knitted and then had to wait until I saw her again so she could cast it off for me. There was no YouTube in 1998. I knit on and off until really getting back into it around 2008 when I joined a local knitting group and meet my wonderful and inspiring friend Ruth Singer and the incredibly talented Sarah Hughes AKA Baby Long Legs (I still have some of Sarah's yarn which is so beautiful I can't bear to knit it and potentially spoil it somehow). This is when I started knitting socks and discovered the incredible Susan Crawford and her gorgeous vintage patterns. Proper wool was very "itchy" to me at this time (I don't use this offensive word with regards to wool anymore, I call it rustic) so I used Rowan's cotton yarns for everything. I still have a couple of Susan Crawford cotton garments that I wear today and they look brand new.
In January 2018 I thought I'd see if there was a knitting podcast to keep me company and I found Louise Scolley's wonderful podcast WoolWork (then called Knit British). I'm not over exaggerating when I say that this podcast changed my life. When Louise realised that most of her yarn was imported she decided to seek out only British wool and her podcast talks about the incredible breeds and variety we have here in the UK. You can apply the same rules about imported food to imported wool and yarn miles. I started to buy and knit breed specific yarns and discover so many small producers, dyers and designers who do truly inspiring work. I bought and knit 100% wool thinking I was allergic, planning to wear layers underneath. In the end my tolerance has built up and I now wear most woollen garments, even the more rustic ones, next to my skin.
Much of the UK's wealth and success was built on the wool industry since becoming the driving force behind our economy in 1100 AD but wool has been spun and woven into cloth here since 1900 BC. This makes working with primitive breeds especially, such as Shetland and North Ronaldsay, feel like a tangible link to our past. We are spoilt for choice in the UK and our wool was one of our most prized exports until 1950's when synthetic fibres and cheap overseas manufacturing began to replace it. It is however, practically a miracle material being insulating, keeping things warm in cold weather but cool in the summer, anti bacterial, incredibly durable, water resistant and stain resistant. It's sustainable and currently an abundant waste material with farmers being paid little or no money for this precious commodity. I have a copy of the fantastic Breed Book which is full of information and available free here. Maybe start by finding out what breeds are local to you?
If you want to start buying British breed yarn a good place to start is Blacker Yarns. They have an incredible range and release very special birthday yarns. I knit the Vinterskov jumper with a yarn designed by Katie Green when she worked for Blacker and it is my most treasured jumper. Use Jamieson's of Shetland for colourwork garments and accessories. Once you have used proper Shetland Wool you will never want to use anything else. I am currently making the Bressay by Marie Wallin in Shetland Spindrift. A lot of people think that buying 100% British wool is too expensive and it is a lot more expensive than buying a mass produced jumper made out of synthetic fibres. The prices however reflect the work involved in its production (often not even coming close). The rearing of the sheep, the shearing, scouring, grading and sorting, carding, spinning, weaving and finishing, possibly dyeing then marketing all takes a huge amount of time and skill. I have some jumpers which cost almost £100 in yarn but I know exactly where it came from, in some cases I've even met the sheep, and it should last the rest of my life if I take care of it. There is something magical about a breed specific yarn, specific to place and the conditions in which it was raised. This kind of yarn has been named "Soulful Stash' by the inspirational Sarah Hunt of Fibertrek. I made a Hedgewitch shawl a few years ago and it was made from seven different breed specific yarns in natural shades, most of which came from small producers and it radiates magic.
There are also some excellent budget choices for 100% British Wool that I have used as well and they are: Woolyknit (you can knit a jumper for less than £20), Frangipani, Laxtons and West Yorkshire Spinners.
Vintersko in Blacker's Tor yarn
Some of my favourite independent producers are Black Isle Yarns, Cartref Yarn, Holly Hock Flock, Garthenor, Lammermuir, Daughter of a Shepherd, River Knits, Armscote Manor, Moel View, Hawksmoor and Exmoor Horn Wool.
A wonderful way to meet smallholders, dyers and designers is to go to a yarn show. I think I spent my whole budget in the first 10 minutes of being at Woolfest in Cockermouth but it was such an incredible day. I've also been to Yarndale in Skipton and I would love to go to the Edinburgh Yarn Festival one day. There have been some good virtual yarn festivals during the pandemic which have been a great way to learn more about different companies selling yarn. I am so excited about my move to Wales as I will live less than ten minutes away from Wonderwool held in Builth Wells.
Ravelry is a site for knitters and crocheters to create profiles and search a huge amount of patterns for sale and for free. There are forums and groups and a great community on there. Unfortunately they changed their design in 2020 and the new one is reported to trigger headaches and seizures in some people so please be careful when using. It's been a real blow to the knitting community but Ravelry clearly don't seem bothered about fixing it. Anyway, when I joined Ravelry back in 2008 I always used to search for the free patterns but listening to WoolWork introduced me to loads of designers who I realised absolutely deserve to be paid for their hard work. Karie Westerman was the first one I fell hard for and I bought her beautiful book, This Thing of Paper, full of patterns inspired by a love of books and manuscripts. I knitted Vellum which was my first ever colourwork garment. I chose all the wrong types of wool as I just didn't know what I was doing. I learnt loads however and I still wear this beautiful cardigan. It was my first steek as well which is where you knit in the round then (gasp) cut it down the middle to make it into a cardie.
Vellum cardigan designed by Karie Westermann
At the risk of this blog becoming a four page essay some of my favourite designers are:
Marie Wallin designs incredible traditional colourwork garments. My favourite books of hers are Shetland and Bloomsbury.
Jennifer Steingass creates incredible yoked colourwork garments.
Kate Davies is endlessly inspiring creating beautiful patterns, books and yarn.
Fresh off the needles this week Heart of the Forest Mittens by Sofia Kammeborn
We are spoilt for choice when it comes to knitting magazines these days, although you would be hard pressed to find a decent one in your local newsagent. Laine magazine may seem expensive at first but if you break it down to price per pattern they offer a lot of value. I also don't think they will ever lose their value if you fancy selling them later. I normally have a good look at all the patterns before I decide to buy one to check that there are plenty of things I want to make. I have subscription to Pom Pom Magazine which is a beautiful publication full of diverse designers and models. I also love the Shetland Wool Week Annual and Making Magazine which features loads more crafts.
Making your own clothes
I'm always saying that making your own clothes is a political act and how we chose to spend our money is also one of the most powerful things we can do. When you knit a garment you are able to support an independent farmer or smallholder, an independent dyer, designer and yarn shop. You can chose the type of yarn, how you want it to behave, how it will fit into your wardrobe, the colours. You can adjust the length of the body, the sleeves, change the neckline, the bind off, I recently mashed two patterns together as I liked the bottom of one and the top of another. And if it doesn't work (unless it's steeked) you can unravel it and make something else. I have a jumper in colours I'm not keen on now so I'm going to just dye the whole thing black making it really versatile and useful again. Wool is pretty much my entire clothing budget for the year as I tend to make most of my clothes from leftover fabric from work.
Courses, knitting groups and passing it on
If you have the chance to go to a knitting show see if there are any classes taking place. I did a wonderful one on knitting haps with Karie Westermann (I was nervous meeting one of my heroes but she was even lovelier than I thought she would be in real life) at Yarningham which was held in Birmingham. YouTube is great but there is nothing quite like learning new knitting techniques from other knitters in real life. One of the first questions I asked when I moved to the village was whether there was a knitting group and it's been a lovely way to share knowledge, knit together on charity projects and encourage each other. It's also lovely to take part in knit-alongs which designers and knitters run on Instagram. I've just taken part in one with Woolen Forest where some of us knitted a Be Thankful Cardigan designed by Lily Kate Makes. A cropped worsted weight cardigan with voluminous sleeves which makes me feel like I'm living in the pages of Little Women.
In some of the Scottish Islands they are concerned about traditional knitting techniques dying out, this is a wonderful and inspiring programme about knitting on Eriskay.
I absolutely love knitting whilst spending time with my favourite knitters on YouTube. They are The Gentle Knitter, Sarah Hunt, Woolen Forest, A Wooden Nest, Sweet Sparrow, Katie Green, Marina Skua and Pins and Needles.
Thanks so much for reading to the bottom! As you can see, this is a topic I feel endlessly passionate about. One thing I think is a bit sad is because I don't feel that confident in how I look I don't take many photos of myself in my knitwear, I really need to love my body more and try and take more photos.
This year might even see some Moon and Furrow patterns I have been mulling over. Knitting is also a connection with my Nanny who died just over a year ago. We would sit and knit together watching Miss Marple and Pointless and I'm constantly finding her instructions for knitting a mitred square which I think she wrote down and gave me every time I saw her. 💚