In Praise of the Handmade Sweater

On the whole, I'm anti-resolution because to be honest, life is just too short to setting myself up for disappointment as an annual event. However, if you were thinking about taking up a new hobby, perhaps leaning towards a little crafting, may I make a strong case here for knitting yourself a sweater?

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Slow Fashion October: Known

My journey for traceable yarns to knit with took me on an adventure this year that has changed my whole outlook on the way I knit. No longer satisfied to just shop local, I began wanting to explore the stories behind yarn production and in doing so befriended the inspiring team behind Blacker Yarns

Blacker yarns

As a reaction to Karen Templer's final prompt for Slow Fashion October, I'm honoured to host this powerful guest post from managing director of Blacker Yarns (and The Natural Fibre Company), Sue Blacker:

"I spend a great deal of time in the supermarket – much too much according to my family – even though I actually go there very rarely (I prefer to delegate!).

Why do I go there rarely?  Because we buy eggs from the farm on the way to my field, fish, fruit and vegetables from the local greengrocer who sources quite a lot locally, milk from the newsagent who gets it from a local dairy, meat from a butcher to whom we have been going for over 25 year and whose meat is all locally grown and slaughtered, bread from the local post office who get it from the local bakery, and so on.  Also I am in the fortunate position of breeding all my own lamb and when I have time I make jam, bread, etc., though growing fruit and veg I leave to my sister, who grows all her veg and lives in a city!  That I can do this is partly a result of living in a rural area and partly because that’s what I believe in.  We gave up doorstep mill in the end because deliveries were completely unreliable and the milk was less local than that from the newsagent – not because of price!

Why do I take so long when I do go?  Well, by the time I have checked where things come from and what they contain, it just does take a long time.  I have to reject things from regimes I don’t like, reject things which are out of season and/or have travelled too many miles and lost all flavour, reject things containing added sugar (except chocolate of course) and then of course there are few things which we simply don’t like much!!  Of course, I also select things which can show they are British, local, organic or have relatively few ingredients and taste good.

Fibre prep at the Mill- pin for later

Fibre prep at the Mill- pin for later

Being a farmer, as well as a wool mill owner has made me even more conscious of not just where things come from.  In the first place, unless animals are healthy, with good husbandry practice, they will not produce good things: whether it be eggs, milk, meat or wool.  So, of course, I want to know that a yarn is from a high quality version of the animal and not mixed up with some other stuff to improve it (like sugar or sweeteners in fizzy drinks!).  And I want to know where the animals have been, how they have been cared for and who they are! 

And then I want to know how the animals were treated in harvesting their product, how the products have been made, with low environmental impact and also that the workforce at every stage is also able to feel free.  Workers in the EU have the right to consultation about their conditions and to decent working conditions, even though this is not always adhered to in practice.  Worldwide, there are now also informal regulatory systems, such as Fair Trade or via standards set by individual businesses, such as Eco Age with its Green Carpet Challenge.  There is also the organic movement, through the Soil Association and other sister organisations across the world, where the standards and inspections also involve ensuring fair treatment of workers.  And in the UK there is also the Living Wage Foundation …

Why does this matter to me?  Because it does and I cannot cope with the idea of any other way of doing things.  I also like it to be fit for purpose, well designed and durable!

Fibre being carded at the Mill- pin for later

Fibre being carded at the Mill- pin for later

So how can we tell what it means to buy British or local wool and, better still, to buy farm assured wool?

-          The Five Freedoms laid down by the Farm Animal Welfare Committee are at the beginning of all farming regulation in the UK: freedom from hunger and thirst, from discomfort, from pain, injury and disease, to express normal behaviour and from fear and distress.  These are worked in tandem with EU regulation, so farming across the European Community is also based on these principles.

-          We know that there are scandals surrounding the treatment of animals, sadly even sometimes in the UK and Europe, and there are reporting systems, inspectors at markets and abbatoirs, such that sick animals cannot get into the food chain and the reasons for any signs of ill treatment or neglect will be investigated.  The recent news has been of tearing the hair off angora rabbits or kicking sheep, and I know from talking with them that it upsets our British farmers and shearers terribly to hear of it – because they are close to the animals, respect them and would not wish to harm them.

-          We have strong safeguards in place with a bio security regime, reporting movements, to reduce the risk of spread of infectious diseases.  The plans have been updated and improved since the horrific Foot and Mouth Disease outbreak in 2002 and are now shared by farmers, vets and regulators alike for better, faster responses.

-          All of this puts into place assurance (using brands such as the Red Tractor) to show that the standards are being met for food – while we can assume that this is the case in the UK, because we can all go and see it if we wish, it is a little harder to be sure right across the EU and certainly across the world – also we know that differing interpretations of the same regulations can happen in different places, and that not all inspection regimes are as rigorous – this means that, when in the UK, we should seek British first.  The same applies to each country – we all know and understand our own culture and standards best and so are best qualified to make good choices locally.

-          The same applies to wool: the British Wool Marketing Board buys wool from all farmers with 4 sheep or more unless under various exemption schemes.  The Board then quality assures the wool, grades it and markets it worldwide on behalf of the farmers.  In addition, the Board operates a national training scheme for sheep shearing, with qualified trainers and inspectors to maintain welfare at shearing.  Their approach to quality control is summarised at http://www.britishwool.org.uk/page/wool-sales/quality-control.php

-          The Wool Board also has two trademarks. There are two levels: standard British Wool (when the wool is British but may be blended with other fibres) and Platinum Certificated (when the wool is 100% British, complies with the Board’s Life Cycle Analysis, ISO 14040 accreditation and has been collected and marketed through the Board).

Flock of Sheep

I also know that there are those who comply with the standards on paper but not in their hearts, and I have found that this shows if you visit, listen, talk and see, so we always encourage everyone working with us to come and see and expect to reciprocate.  Inevitably, we have to make some compromises to get things to happen sometimes, so we try always to think carefully about that before we do it and be willing to explain it.  Unless we can be trustworthy, we cannot expect trust from our customers.  We also have to own up to making mistakes and find acceptable ways of dealing with them.

We have a pride in our provenance:

-          at my farm

-          at The Natural Fibre Company where we guarantee that each customer gets their own fibre back when processed, into the product they have ordered

-          at Blacker Yarns where we buy fibre from people we know and trust, in long-term partnerships, and selecting quality by hand to make yarns totally under our control under one roof or sometimes with trusted sub-contractors

Within the mill, we have a system which starts at the entrance door, recording what comes in, from whom and from where.  We then keep track of it through every stage of the journey to final product – each batch going through the mill has its own individual “passport” – in this case a clipboard with the production sheet for the order, recording each process as it happens.  WE have been working on updating the system so that we can be even more exact, with the exact component sources of supply for each batch of Blacker Yarns identified as well as just the breed and a list of the suppliers from whom we buy.  So we know!  We know because it matters to our customers and it matters to us.

The final bit, about fit for purpose, good design and durability is partly down to the wonderful attributes of wool and other protein fibres, which can do much of this anyway.  Then we add expertise in selecting the fibre most suited for the yarn and end product required, and of we try to add as much timeless classic essence as we can in terms of colours and pattern designs. 

I expect to be able to wear my clothes for decades, not just weeks!  And to love and care for them and, given this, I am also willing to spend quite a lot on getting that quality. 

Most known and closest of all, I also have some very special clothes and a few pieces of jewellery, along with my fountain pen (which I generally use to sign copies of my book) and some pictures and furniture, which link me to my mother, father and brother, and other family members because they once owned them or gave me them, and so I can and do sometimes choose to take them with me when I need their support.  Many of these are old … and I care for them to make sure they will last.  The emotional importance of provenance is very powerful and links us back to the known, familiar, local, comfortable and valued essence of our lives."

Blacker Yarn giveaway on Instagram

If this story has captured and moved you as deeply as it did me, please check my Instagram later today for your chance to win a skein of Cornish Tin, Blacker Yarn's special 10th Anniversary celebration yarn. Cornish Tin is a steely grey woollen spun yarn is blended from a collection of the highest quality British fibres including Alpaca, Gotland, Jacob, Shetland, Black Welsh Mountain, Mohair, and English Merino. It's rich with local provenance and I can't wait to give a skein away. 

Blog Tour: The Boardwalk Collection (and a giveaway!)

In a month celebrating Women as Makers, I was delighted to see a new pattern collection released that showcases an all female team. The Boardwalk Collection has been produced by Linda of Kettle Yarn Co to showcase her new base, Islington DK, and includes 5 female knitwear designers in a collection that includes 6 designs that will work well from Summer right though to Autumn. The fact the collection was shot by Juju Vail (who you might know as the talented photographer at Loop and Pom Pom Quarterly) and has been strongly supported by Allison Thistlewood (professional multiple hat wearer) shows what magical things can happen when women support one another to put out a great product. 

Linda kindly took some time to answer some questions I had about the collection as part of her blog tour celebrating the collection. Tomorrow, you can see one of the designer's, Isabell Kraemer, discuss her pattern contribution, Arcade (see below). 

Can you explain how you chose these female designers to collaborate with?

"The choice was an easy one as the designers are people whose designs I admire and with a similar aesthetic to my own! I admit that several of the designers are friends, so I knew the high quality of the work I'd be getting from them and that I'd love whatever they created!"

The Boardwalk Collection  (c) Juju Vail

What does the word collaborate mean to you?

"Collaborating is something I've always enjoyed when creating and feel it brings a richness to projects you'd never expect. There is something so joyful and rewarding in working with others - bringing something beautiful into the world together that is made better by working together!
In a way I feel that way about seeing what people make with my yarns as well...that it is a collaboration. I always get chills of delight when people bring their Kettle Yarn Co. projects to the booth at festivals to show me what wonders they've made in my blends! Fantastic!"

Arcade  in ISLINGTON DK  Verdigris , by  Isabell Kraemer   © Juju Vail for Kettle Yarn Co.

Arcade in ISLINGTON DK Verdigris, by Isabell Kraemer © Juju Vail for Kettle Yarn Co.

How did you go about commissioning the pieces, communicating aesthetic to each designer and tying separate design ideas together?

"It all started with Isabell Kraemer's beautiful Arcade design, which was designed as a stand alone project. When I received it I was so blown away by the gorgeousness of it that I decided to go ahead with the idea for a full collection that I've been kicking around for some time!
I decided to showcase the new bright colours I'd just created in my new weight of Islington, which is a lovely rounded DK."

ISLINGTON  - 55% British Bluefaced Leicester/ 45% Silk     © Kettle Yarn Co.

ISLINGTON - 55% British Bluefaced Leicester/ 45% Silk  © Kettle Yarn Co.

"The brief for the designs centred around the historic Hastings pier, which I've been fascinated with since we moved here. The light and views under the pier are amazing, so I knew I wanted to somehow incorporate the feeling I get when I am down there into the collection."

Pavilion  in ISLINGTON DK  Marigold , by  Renée Callahan   -  © Juju Vail and Kettle Yarn Co.

Pavilion in ISLINGTON DK Marigold, by Renée Callahan -  © Juju Vail and Kettle Yarn Co.

"I sent the designers a rather specific design brief about linear lines, lace and a link to the The Drifters 'Under the Boardwalk' so they could get a sense of the fun, breezy, seablown feel I was after!"
 

What did you learn from each other during this process?

"During this process I was reminded how important it is to be explicit in what I was after to make things easier for the designers. I knew this from teaching but it was so clear in this group how everyone approaches creating differently and how vital it is to let that bloom in its own way! "

Jetty  in ISLINGTON DK  Purple Reign , by  Linda Lencovic   © Juju Vail for Kettle Yarn Co.

Jetty in ISLINGTON DK Purple Reign, by Linda Lencovic © Juju Vail for Kettle Yarn Co.

"Pattern designing can be such a pressure-cooker as time constraints made it difficult for discoveries to grow organically and I am always astounded at how designers create beauty under such pressure. The designers in this collection really outdid themselves with talent!"

Bagatelle Cowl  by Rachel Brown in ISLINGTON DK,  Peony   © Juju Vail for Kettle Yarn Co.

Bagatelle Cowl by Rachel Brown in ISLINGTON DK, Peony © Juju Vail for Kettle Yarn Co.

The mood is free, seasonal and feminine. How did that help you style and present your collection?

"I had a style and mood in mind from the conception of the collection and new exactly what I wanted from the designs and final photos, so it was really quite simple in the end! Especially as all the designers did such a brilliant job interpreting the brief!"

I spy real life friends as models! This struck me as a piece made stronger by friendship with fellow female makers. Would you say that's true? 

"Absolutely! I am SO lucky to have such talented friends and it is always a pleasure working together. None of us are that comfortable in front of the camera but we had the amazing Juju Vail take the photos for the collection and the women knows how to make you laugh...what a talented photographer!"

Seaward  in ISLINGTON DK  Padparadscha  by  Rachel Coopey      © Juju Vail for Kettle Yarn Co.

Seaward in ISLINGTON DK Padparadscha by Rachel Coopey  © Juju Vail for Kettle Yarn Co.

"Another huge thank you to Renee Callahan and Michelle Zimmer for agreeing to model for the collection."

Promenade  by Maria Magnusson in ISLINGTON DK  N  eckinger ,  © Juju Vail for Kettle Yarn Co.

Promenade by Maria Magnusson in ISLINGTON DK Neckinger© Juju Vail for Kettle Yarn Co.

Like what you see? You can find out more on the Broadwalk Collection Blog Tour on this next few stops:

Isabell Kraemer

Curious Handmade

Renee Callahan

Maria Magnusson

Shinybees blog/podcast

Rachel Brown

Knitted Bliss blog

Coopknits

Win a skein of Islington DK!

Islington DK

If you want to get your hands on a skein of Islington DK Padparadscha, (as shown above in Rachel Coopey's Seaward design) all you need to do is leave a comment below telling me which pattern you would most like to knit from this collection. Be sure to leave your answer by 20th July 2015 as I will be announcing the winner on the blog on the 21st July. Good luck!
 

This Month I Wish I was Knitting.... the Muse Connection edition.

I can't believe that we are less than 2 weeks away from Volume 2 of the Muse Connection! In order to make sure everyone can join in the fun, Helen (Curious Handmade) and I have been hosting a KAL for a chance to win a goodie bag. (For ways to join in, see below)

The idea is to encourage new beginnings which is the theme for Volume 2. I've agonised for weeks over what to cast on because typically, I'm suffering from decision paralysis. Then this arrived and added a whole new set of dilemmas to the mix...

Anzula Squishy colours (from bottom left) Lipstick, Red Shoe, Charcoal, Herb, Country Green, Tan, Gravity and Mauve

Anzula Squishy colours (from bottom left) Lipstick, Red Shoe, Charcoal, Herb, Country Green, Tan, Gravity and Mauve

Time is ticking and I have to get something on the needles or will be the only one standing up, slightly shame faced, asking for some sort of decision intervention. 

"Hi, my name's Kate and I have so many creative ideas I can't get anything done" (hi Kate)

Now that I've split the sleeves of my sweater, a summer tee feels manageable and the latest edition of Pom Pom has some great summer options, including Talavera by Amanda B Collins. It's pretty and I love the way it's styled. I can actually see me wearing something lacy which is a new idea for me. 

Talavera by Amanda B Collins

Talavera by Amanda B Collins

I'm also really tempted to just be that knitter that plans ahead for Fall and cast on some stashbusting DK weight 'my-feet-get-super-cold' socks. I've been wanting Soonly socks by Rachel Coopey for sometime. Also, this would be a good palate cleanser as all my current projects have hit a midway point that feels endless so something quick and scrappy might be truly satisfying. 

Soonly by Rachel Coopey

Soonly by Rachel Coopey

Then there's this colour combination that's kind of speaking to me today. The base is Anzula Squishy, a super soft blend of Superwash Merino, Cashmere, and Nylon with a springy twist. Colours shown here are Gravity, Charcoal and Herb . I see more shawls (of course) but what to choose? What would you make?

3 colours of Anzula Squishy

The KAL guidelines

To celebrate the Muse Volume 2 theme of ‘beginnings’, cast on a new project today! The KAL will run until 30 June (so you still have plenty of time to join in the chatter and fun). Join in by posting a finished object that satisfies one or more of the following criteria:

  • Any pattern from Pom Pom Quarterly magazine or website (hint there are several free patterns )
  • Any of coopknits- Rachel Coopey’s designs
  • Any finished object knit in Anzula yarn

Each FO should have its own project and picture post in the FO thread; this means that multiple entries are allowed per person. Please tag your project Muse2KAL, and use social media #muse2KAL. The more the merrier!

FO: Mara Shawl

aka the Ode to Garter Stitch. 

A Playful Day's Mara Shawl

A Playful Day's Mara Shawl

I have dreamed of such shawls as this! Warm, squishy garter stitch in soft Merino yarn. It's huge, it's embracing and it is sad that I didn't get it finished, blocked and ends woven in till early Summer. It's ok though dear shawl, we will have many hours to huddle together in front of a laptop come Autumn. Trust me. 

A Playful Day's Mara Shawl

A Playful Day's Mara Shawl

This was such a comforting knit. The pattern is a freebie put out by Madelinetosh called Mara. The yarn is Organically Farmed Merino Wool - Aran Weight. Using Aran weight rather than the DK weight this pattern calls for was my first modification and I don't regret it. I wanted a wearable blanket for cold, work from home days and I would say I've got it. You can read all about my lovely green garter stitch wonder on my Ravelry page here too. 

A Playful Day's Mara Shawl

A Playful Day's Mara Shawl

Further Modifications:

  • I opted for size 5mm needle to account for thicker yarn
  • As per another knitter's notes, I used the same increases as are used in Ishbel (every row rather than just one) to make it longer for maximum shoulder coverage.
  • I basically knit till the yarn ran out (a little too literally)
  • I used a suspended bind off for a nice neat ribbed edging. (I used this tutorial)
A Playful Day's Mara Shawl

A Playful Day's Mara Shawl

I had a few problems when I ran out of yarn and had to tink back then tried to futz around with the bind off several times but ultimately, I love it. I'm almost sad Summer is just round the corner. 

Almost. 

Finding Inspiration, Tips for Knitting Events & Some Yarn

One of the things I've loved about An Inspired 2015 has been the sense of ease that it has afforded me. Giving myself permission to explore creativity has meant that this weekend I viewed the knitting show Unravel with different eyes. When it comes to knitting shows, I've noticed a growing sense of franticness, almost like we have to attend, we have to buy, we have to be the first, we have to be in-the-moment-with-the-thing-that'- happening-that-everyone-MUST-be-part-of.... it can get a bit overwhelming. 

This weekend though I wandered happily and took in the stands as a whole. For their part, the Unravel team had done a wonderful job of creating the space and time to browse meaning healthy foot fall for vendors without any frustration to us as visitors. I saw the amazing efforts vendors had taken to make their stands enticing and I breathed in all that colour and texture with delight.

Mostly, I TALKED. I think it took me an entire morning to get upstairs! There were so many people wanting to chat about their latest projects, their favourite things and share tales and I loved hearing it all. Rest assured, there is some seriously juicy content on its' way over the coming year, starting this weekend with a podcast interview with one of the Unravel's teachers, Bristol Ivy, about her knitting inspirations. 

(In case you missed it, I shared just a few of my highlights on Instagram)

Kettle Yarn Co Waltham Aran

I came home with just a little treat- 2 skeins of the Kettle Yarn Co's Waltham Aran (100% BlueFaced Leicester) in the 'Peaky Blinder' colourway. I've been wanting to try some of Linda's hand dyed beauties for quite a while now so I was thrilled to find just the right shade of grey for a slouchy warm hat next Winter. 

There are a lot of events in the UK calendar and each with their own unique feel. Unravel always marks the start of event season for the year and I often feel that it is a real litmus test of things to come. If Unravel is any indication of the shows 2015 holds, it's going to be a really exciting year for vendors and visitors alike- the vibe was great! 

If you're thinking about attending a yarn show this year, here's my top tips to make sure you enjoy it!

  1. Research- Travel, tickets, purchases, workshops... it soon adds up. Take your time to look at what you will be getting from each show and plan accordingly. It's easy to get sucked into 'but every is going!' but buyer's remorse is yuck so just take a breath and think about what you want from your making this year. You'll enjoy the show a lot more if you do. 
  2. Nourish- Most events have some on site catering but it's wise to pack water and some nibbles. I'm always that person nibbling squashed flapjacks or an equally mangled satsuma as I just know that I'll get a case of the grumpsies otherwise!
  3. Be prepared- I usually update my Ravelry queue just before I go to a knitting show, adding in stash I already have patterns in mind for, projects I wish to have yarn for and the yardages and fibre types I might need. This helps me plan if there's something particularly special I want to get first. You can see my queue notes here. (always check for wifi and take a charger for your smart phone if you use this method!)
  4. Take it all in- Vendors work hard to impress you and showcase their best side- it's extremely inspiring and if you don't have a particular purchase in mind why not take a circuit and see what speaks to you? Chat to vendors, enjoy their knowledge and see what takes your fancy.  
  5. Keep it together- Events are as much about the people as about the products so take time to meet, chat about your day and share ideas. I get most of my blog and podcast content for the next 3-6 months from attending just one show and it recharges my good feeling about the making community every time. 

So what shows will you be attending this year? What do you enjoy most about them?