Over the years I’ve dabbled in all sorts of crafts, most involving thread, fabric and needles. I’ve spun, tatted, hooked, made bobbin lace, stitched, sewn (cross stitch, embroidery, tapestry, clothes and curtains) and felted, to list only those I can remember. But knitting has always been a constant in my life.
From many of these crafts I have taken ideas or a new level of understanding back to knitting. A perfect example of this would be the Navajo Knitting idea, something gleaned from the spinner’s trick of making a three-ply yarn from one bobbin of singles. Many other unexpected ideas have wormed their way into my consciousness this way, too.
So, throw into an already brim-full life the sudden unexpected urge to play with fabric, and what do you get? The sensible part of me says: “Step away from the fabric, NOW, you’ve enough to do!” The other part says: “Give in gracefully and see what happens”.
It’s tricky when your overriding hobby / passion becomes your full-time occupation; ask any yarn store owner! I have been fortunate, in that I still adore the knitting. To keep things this way, I very rarely design for anyone else, or work to a deadline, or design for magazines. I allow myself to design, knit, write or film about things that are currently my passion. But sadly (in a way), in my mind knitting has now become associated with making a living. Whilst I knit, I’m always considering the best way to write the pattern. I no longer can comfortably browse through a knitting book for fear of plagiarism or being unduly influenced by someone else’s ideas. There are several other designers whose work I greatly admire and would love to knit, but I dare not take the time. I no longer allow knitting books in my bedroom!
Maybe I do need a new diversion. On of the upshots of purchasing the little cottage on Big Tancook Island is the luxury of space unfettered by the demands of others; in fact, I have a spare room with no particular function. I also, by sheer serendipity, came into possession of a lovely old Singer sewing machine, an iron and an ironing board. All very useful to the would-be sewer.
So what were the influencing factors in my fascination? I always find it intriguing to look back to try to pinpoint the circumstances that might have led to some change of heart, new direction or discovery. I’ve tried to list them in chronological order, but all have occurred in the last two years, all precipitated somehow by acquiring the cottage.
It started out with a bit of sewing on the island with a dear friend, just making a couple of curtains. I discovered how lovely the sewing machine was and the satisfaction of speedy production (it would have taken months to knit the curtains). The old Singer is like a nice old diesel launch rather than an outboard engine: nice and steady and reliable.
Add into the mix my discovery of the book “The Gentle Art of Domesticity”, which I found at Shall We Knit in New Hamburg, ON whilst visiting my daughter. A beautiful store BTW. This book was nearly put down in horror after reading the cringe-making title, but I have found it to be such a feast for the eyes. I can always be wooed by colour. In it, Jane Brocket explores with gorgeous photography the things she likes to create, including knitting, baking, quilting and good books. Her quilts were lovely and they left me thinking slightly differently about a number of things.
This was then coupled with some most unfair exposure to totally seductive fabric, which started at Lambikin’s Hideaway (Hamilton, OH) which was both a quilting and knitting store. How can one possibly teach for several days surrounded by a glorious array of colour and resist? This was where I acquired the fabrics for my first project which I began last winter.
Being a practical knitter, I find it difficult to doodle around with no goal. I should really be working on a new knitting design. So I set myself the task of covering an extremely repulsive-looking but useful foot-stool that I had on the island.
All of the furniture out there was gleaned secondhand, and I had several pieces re-upholstered before they went over (knowing that once on the island they’d never return to the mainland), but economically decided that I’d cover the stools myself.
On this first project I drove myself crazy striving for exact pattern match and precision corners, covered my own piping, and then three-dimensionally mitered the corners so that they’d conform to the shape of the stool top. Then I chickened out once it came to assembling all the pieces. I sort of enjoyed it, but it was all a bit nit-picky for me. I cunningly hid it in a corner where I could easily ignore it throughout the summer months.
In the mean time, the rot continued: in Anchorage and on my Alaska knitting cruise in June (with Craft Cruises) I found a quilt store in every town and actually bought a few patterns and some fusible backing to help with applique work.
Over the summer I had a go at using a quilt pattern for an Alaskan scene with some of the fabrics purchased there. It was all very nice, but of course I couldn’t follow the pattern (which is OK – just as with knitting – it’s a starting place and you don’t have to do as you are told), however sticking one bit of fabric to another just didn’t feel right to me. I was still being very precious in my use of the fabric and rather persnickety. It just didn’t light my fire, and it languishes still (although I now have wonderful plans to revolutionize it).
Throughout the fall I visited more quilt stores on my travels. Yes, even when not teaching in a quilt/yarn shop I managed to find nearby fabric stores. I was even aided and abetted by friends and several store owners who took me to their local quilt havens. (Take a bow, Paula of Sheep’s Clothing in IN, – her wonderful store began in a quilt shop years ago.) Over the course of the fall I met and chatted with several knitting quilters, one of whom strongly suggested that I should investigate the work of Michigan quilter Gwen Marston. (If you happen to be reading, a HUGE thank you BTW). I ordered one of Gwen’s books to pick up in Chicago (sometimes it’s tricky to have things delivered to Canada). I admit that I was predisposed to like her as she lives on Beaver Island. It’s that island thing: I admire anyone that can make their living on one and be a full-time resident.
I decided to get on with it, enough of this accumulation: I wanted to produce something. I’d spent the money on the fabric, it behooved me to create something to show for it. How about a quilt for the cat? Our neighbour’s cat spends many happy hours lounging on every horizontal surface in our house. This would also give me an excellent excuse to make numerous quilts if I wished.
So, armed with my multi-directional knitting experience I decided to start with a simple log-cabin type design, with decent sized pieces of fabric so that I could still see the designs. I took fabric out to the island and got cracking. Ah, this was more like it. It grew fast and was fun. I made a bunch of squares, which seemed to develop themselves into two kinds: colour graded from dark or light inner squares. Once I saw this emerging, I just ran with them. Then, just as with certain forms of modular knitting, I could then arrange them to suit. Right at what I thought was the end, after laying out the pieces on the floor, I decided they would look better divided by an entirely different colour and added dividing strips (that I now discover are called sashing). This is similar in concept to the principles behind my popular Fiesta Feet socks, vest and mittens : take a riot of colour and segregate areas with a neutral.
I learned heaps, as usual, by making errors. I had inadvertently cut a few of the strips a quarter inch too narrow. This was a little irritating, but I discovered I could fudge it fairly easily. Who would know or care? Done is better than perfect.
Throughout, though, I was still feeling slightly distressed by all the waste fabric. The whole concept of taking perfectly good fabric and cutting it into smaller, less usable pieces was still slightly offensive to me. On my return home I found some wonderful backing fabric and assembled the layers into a quilt so that I could hand stitch it whilst visiting my mum (and her broken ankle) in the UK. (Fortunately I didn’t have much other luggage.)
Enter (stage left) the influence of Gwen Marston. She describes her quilting as Liberated Quilting – oh, how true! Her book Liberated Quiltmaking 2 left me totally excited (I’ve carried her around everywhere for weeks now). This is my kind of patchwork/quilting. I’ve hit the mother-lode. She doesn’t really give directions to make a specific quilt with x yards of this or that but gives the ideas behind the creation. Powerful magic. Just the way I like to teach knitting. Nothing has to match perfectly unless you wish it so.
My first fully Gwen-influenced piece was a cruciform quilt (to cover the other hideous stool) themed around some wonderful skull fabric that I found whilst on a day out with a friend in Chicago. This was so much fun. What I enjoy about this approach is the freedom from perfection and absolute mathematical precision, resulting in a far more spontaneous and fun endeavor. None of the triangles are the same width or angle. This is possibly akin to the richness of hand-dyed or hand-spun yarn. There’s a depth and visual tittillation that uniformity doesn’t offer.
Newly equipped with this devil-may-care attitude, I retuned to the island and decided on a ‘finish or bust’ attempt with the first footstool cover. I was delighted to find that all the fabric pieces had been assembled, I had just wimped out about how to sew them together on either side of the piping. It wasn’t fun, but I leapt in and fudged the corners as necessary afterwards. Done.
Gwen also opens a revolutionary easy-going solution to all the scraps with her title Liberated String Quits – they are now the fuel for my next island project. I no longer am appalled by the wastage, but positively relish a good supply of scraps to get the necessary colour palette. I see a two-stage process developing: patchwork made from larger pieces being made on the mainland in order to fuel the scrap quilts on the island.
I’m now making pieces by building blocks and seeing what I feel like doing next. Here are a couple made thus far. It’s pretty weird when assembling a few bits of fabric can set you off hopping and skipping with delight around the room. Not sure where this is going yet, but I’m enjoying the journey.
Over the Christmas holidays, my eldest daughter (an accomplished knitter, sewer and great with colour) and I got into team patchwork. We picked a particular style of pin wheel block and between us produced loads of them as the fancy took us. We then discovered that if we assembled all the blocks we’d made, our quilt would cover a small airstrip! We revised our nebulous plans and here is the result. The excess blocks may well become yet another quilt for my second daughter. Sam’s quilt (one day) will have to feature tractors.
I’m very glad that over past Christmases I equipped Holly with quilting tools and a sewing machine; she is most kindly letting me use them on the mainland. I do enjoy the hand-stitching of the quilt, but it’s not where my main enjoyment lies. I haven’t tried machine-quilting yet, but I’m about to. I find that patchwork is more of a daylight activity, and I still want to hunker down with my knitting in the evening. Please, could I have a few more hours per day?
PS – For the curious there is a set of photos in my Flickr account with more photos of my quilting journey.