Getting started

The Skirt Project Chronicles, Part 2

The first step in our Skirt Project is to knit up a sample skirt; a template for the later designs.  We want to make sure that the fit is right, and also that we are happy with the chosen yarn, gauge, fabric, drape, shape, style, etc.  The initial plan is that I will ponder over the basics involved in designing and knitting the template (and knit it, of course!) while Emma is busy with designing the first series of skirts.  Of course it is a much more collaborative process than that implies, since we are bouncing ideas back and forth nearly every day.

3-IMG_9317There are three major decisions that I have been grappling with: top-down or bottom-up, back-and-forth or in-the-round, and which yarn to use.  This post will focus on the yarn selection and I will discuss the other two in the next post in this series.

3-IMG_9232A skirt needs to have some sturdiness built into it.  The skirt has to give and move with your body, but you don’t want it to sag and bag.  Essentially, you need to be able to sit and stand, repeatedly, and wash it frequently, and you don’t want it to stretch out or to pill.   It needs to have memory, and to “sproing” back into place.  I decided that I wanted wool, which has great drape and memory, but with some nylon mixed in to make it tough.  Sort of like sock yarn, I pondered.  In fact, what I want from the fabric for the skirt is similar to what you want with a sock – it needs to be able to take a lot of abuse and hold up to wear and tear.

The problem with sock yarn is that the gauge is too small.  As Emma keeps planning for more and more skirts, I must keep the gauge to something reasonably quick.  I thought about it and decided my preferred needle size would be a US5 or 6, and that I would be aiming at 5-6 stitches per inch.  After pondering some time on the pros and cons of various types of yarns, I decided that I would try to use a sock yarn but knit with it held double.  This serves two purposes – it puts the gauge in the range I want and it also means that I can use a beautiful hand-dyed wool without worrying about pooling.

2-IMG_9239The Uncommon Thread makes beautiful yarn.  I used their worsted weight Lush yarn to make my Livvy sweater and I loved knitting with it.  The company is reasonably local to me and is environmentally aware.  I can pre-order it from the dyer or can purchase it at my local yarn store (Loop in London), so it is readily available.   The sock yarn is very rich and saturated and the colours are beautiful.  So, I ordered some of the yarn, called Tough Sock, to make Template Mach 1 (hopefully, there will be no need for a Template Mach 2).   I bought three colours for the template skirt – a deep grey (nearly black) called Charred, a very beautiful medium grey with silvery highlights called Plata, and a lovely blue with green and grey tones called Leaden.  Here is a photo of the Charred and Leaden colours:

1-IMG_9241Just as I was about to wind the skeins, I read on the label that the yarns should be washed before using if doing colourwork.  I know this of course, but always in my excitement to begin a new project, I neglect this step.  This can lead to disastrous consequences (see my earlier post The perils of red for a project gone bad through colour running).  So, I washed the skeins and hung them to dry.   While this meant that I had to wait a few days before swatching, it also gave me pretty photos of yarn hanging from the line in the breeze; these photos showcase the Plata colour.  (By the way, none of the colours bled at all; but we all know that it is better to be safe than sorry.)

4-IMG_9234The finished swatch is beautiful.  The yarn has lots of give, and the colour, with the two strands held together, is even more rich and gorgeous than with a single strand.

2-IMG_9316I must admit to knitting the swatch back and forth instead of in the round.  This means that I can not be 100% certain that the gauge is accurate.  (Clever readers may notice the foreshadowing here for the next post.)  But I am impatient, and after all, that is why knitting is made to rip!  We knitters can be as impetuous as we like, as long as a little ripping doesn’t faze us.




Design wrapped up in a bow

The Skirt Project Chronicles, part 1

A few weeks ago, Emma had her 21st birthday.  I thought long and hard about what to get her.  I wanted it to be special.  I wanted it to be personal.  One night, the idea came to me, fully formed: For her birthday, I would give her a design collaboration.

Let’s step back for some background.  Emma and I have been thinking about knitting and design for a long time.  We spend hours pouring over patterns, discussing fashion trends, techniques, styling, yarn, texture, colour.  Emma would frequently say “Mom, you should write a knitting blog.”  I would procrastinate.  In the meantime, I began to modify patterns more and more, concentrating on fit, learning new techniques.  Emma took a course in fashion drawing at Central St Martins and we thought about collaborating on a design project.  I would procrastinate some more; life was busy, I had too little time to knit.

In late 2011, we started this blog.  I did the knitting, and most of the writing, but Emma was very active behind the scenes.  She set the blog up, did all of the styling, photography, layout; furthermore she was the person I bounced ideas off.  Sometimes, we would have a design idea and Emma would sketch it, we would discuss it and tear it apart on every level – looking at every aspect of the design and implementation.  Despite my best intentions, however, these designs never made it to my needles.

Then, Emma flew off to Canada for university.  She could no longer do the styling and layout and photos for the blog.  I had to figure it out on my own.  I thought about stopping the blog, but I found something about it intrinsically satisfying.  I kept it up, I learned how to do things, Doug and Leah stepped up to help out.  Emma was busy at university, and I started business school (in addition to a full-time job) but this didn’t stop the long discussions of design and knitting.  Sometimes, Emma and I will spend hours on Skype, sitting thousands of miles apart, each of us online, sending links back and forth, discussing projects, patterns, yarn.

I have not had much time for knitting lately, but hoped that when my business school Stage 1 exams were done that I would be able to knit a project for each girl.  When Emma came home in May, just before her birthday, I asked her what she wanted me to knit for her this summer.  “Skirts,” she said. “all I want are more skirts.”  I began to think about skirt designs.

All of this history must have been bubbling away in the back of my mind, because one evening when I sat and thought “What will I give Emma for her 21st birthday?” – there it was:  The Skirt Project.  I would give Emma a design collaboration.  The idea was simple:  I would design a prototype skirt – a template.  It would be simple, short and snug.  We would then use the template as a blank canvas and design a set of skirts, each of them having the same shape and structure, using the same yarns, but going wild on colour and design.

Emma, needless to say, was all over it.  When I approached her with the idea, I was thinking we would create four skirts.  I suggested a few ideas for patterns, she took them and flew with them, adding more and more, bouncing them to me.  I bounced back.  Things got out of control.  A few nights ago, during our late-night Skype marathon, Emma told me that she has now conceptualized three distinct themes, with 4 skirts in each theme.  She sent me a sketch of one of them.  It blew my mind.  Seriously, this is going to be amazing.

Emma and I will chronicle the Skirt Project here on this blog.  You can watch it unfold, from knitting the template and getting the fit right, through the design project itself, with all of the sketches, knitting, discussions, tears (hopefully not many), smiles, photos, ideas, ups and downs.  We will do some collaborative writing as well as designing.  (Who knows, I might get Emma doing some collaborative knitting as well.  Emma, by the way, could be a fabulous knitter, her stitches are so neat and beautiful it is unbelievable and her instincts are perfect.  She suffers from startitis, however, and rarely finishes any of her projects.  That’s why this collaboration is so cool; it plays to both our strengths.)

I will continue, of course, with my normal (if slightly more infrequent) posting.  The posts in this design collaboration will be labelled and tagged The Skirt Project Chronicles.  I hope that you enjoy them.


Designers behaving badly

Does your opinion of the designer influence whether you buy the pattern?  In my case, the answer is definitely yes. I have thought about this question a number of times over the last few years, and recent events have brought it to the forefront again.

A few years ago, I heard of a knitting retreat being organized in a lovely hotel in a beautiful coastal area of the UK.  Three days of knitting classes, plus good meals, in a resort hotel, with the added bonus of beach walks and other knitters; it sounded wonderful.  It was very expensive, however; the cost included board and all meals and also a not insubstantial fee for the knitting classes.  There was to be 15 hours of classes over two and a half days.  What clinched the deal for me was the fact that a very famous knitting designer and blogger was to be an instructor there, and I would have 6 hours of classes with her.  I was something of a fan girl.  I had read her blog for years and thought it clever and fun.  I thought her designs were pretty and well-engineered.  Quite a few of them were in my queue, just waiting for the right yarn or the right opportunity to knit.  I sent in my (hefty) check and signed up.

On the first morning of class with said designer (who we will call Designer X) she handed out a ball of yarn and one of her patterns to the class, and said “OK, let’s knit this.”  She talked for about ten minutes, and then we all sat and knit.  For three hours.  She provided no instruction, but said “Here is an empty seat beside me; if you have any problems, come sit here and I will sort you out.”  On the second morning, when we had another three hour long class with her, she said “Isn’t it nice to have a class where there is no teaching?  I always think we get a little tired of being taught at all the time.”  We were flabbergasted.  We were also all polite people, whose mothers had taught us manners, and none of us complained.  In retrospect, this was a big mistake.  We should have been more vocal (in a polite way, of course) about the class.  But, I must say we were all completely astounded  at her behavior and didn’t quite know how to act.  One woman had flown in from Canada just to attend this workshop; others had arrived from Ireland, and Belgium, and France, and from around the UK.  Each of us had paid a lot of money to be there.

Not only was her teaching non-existent, but Designer X also avoided socializing with the group.  We would all be sitting in the bar (a totally lovely bar overlooking the ocean) and gabbing and knitting and drinking, and she would sit across the room with her husband, generally avoiding us.  It was sad, and also perplexing.  There was another teacher at the workshop, and she was lovely.  She had prepared her classes, and was an interesting and engaging teacher.  I met many wonderful knitters there and had fun staying up with them late into the night, drinking wine and knitting away.  I enjoyed the hotel and the great food.  I walked on the beach.  But Designer X clearly cast a pall on the event.  I resented having paid money for her classes and thought she was an unpleasant person.

Afterwards, I tried in my head to come up with all sorts of excuses.  Maybe she was having a really bad week.  (We all have them.)  Maybe she wasn’t feeling well.  Maybe she was having family problems, or money problems, or legal problems.  After all, I had avidly read her blog for years, and thought she seemed like a great, amazingly cool person.  But, the truth is, I haven’t read her blog since that workshop, not even once.  And, I haven’t considered making any of her patterns.  I have occasionally wondered whether this makes me a petty person.  But really, I have only so much money to spend on patterns; I would rather that money goes to someone who I like than someone who  I don’t.

When discussing this with Doug, he said “There is no correlation between how nice someone is, and how good a designer they are.  They could be a brilliant designer and be a horrible person.”  But somehow, my image of their work is inextricably influenced by my image of them as a person.  Here is another example:  When I was a child I was a huge fan of musicals.  Guys and Dolls, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, I loved them all.  My favorite of all time is Summer Stock, a completely ridiculous musical with Gene Kelly and Judy Garland that I love to bits.  Musical and dance devotees fell into two camps: Camp Fred Astaire and Camp Gene Kelly.  Oh, Fred was elegant, Fred was delightful, but he wasn’t Gene.  I was definitely a Gene fan girl.  As I got older, I read many accounts of how Fred Astaire was a completely lovely man, and also read many accounts of how Gene Kelly was a very difficult man, not well-liked by his co-stars.  Do I still like Gene Kelly musicals?  Yes.  But I find my opinion of them is always tempered by the fact that he wasn’t the dream boat I imagined.  Conversely, I love Fred’s musicals more now because he was such a nice guy.  Is this silly, or childish, or hypocritical?  Perhaps.   But I think it’s how people are.

A year after my knitting retreat fiasco, I enrolled for another half-day class with a knitting designer and blogger who I admired.  My first experience had made me apprehensive, but I needn’t have worried.  In retrospect I would have paid three times as much for this class.  Said blogger, who we will call Designer Y, was charming, erudite, respectful, a fabulous teacher, and nice as can be.  He was extremely knowledgeable, but also very humble.   I will buy Designer Y’s patterns, and in fact will even buy those that I have no intention of making, because he makes his living this way and I want to support designers whom I admire.

In my last post, I commented on Kate Davies, who felt that her Owls sweater had been copied by Debenhams, a major UK department store.  There was a huge amount of controversy regarding whether or not this constituted a case of copyright infringement or not.  I think the issue is very complicated and therefore am not at all surprised by the differing opinions on this case.  I was astonished however, by the vitriol of some of the comments made against Kate Davies on public forums, particularly on Ravelry.  One thread on Ravelry, devoted to this topic, was so nasty I could not believe it.  The amount of personal abuse flung at Kate was truly beyond belief.  One person, in particular,  really crossed the line, especially in reference to Kate’s disabilities following her stroke.  The moderators tried to black out a number of her responses to the thread, and eventually closed down and locked the entire thread.  This person, a young designer herself, who we shall call Designer Z, posted no fewer than 34 times to this thread (which was open less than two days), with each response becoming nastier and more personal.

Interestingly, I had first noticed  Designer Z a few months ago, when she posted a prototype of a gorgeous sweater on Ravelry.  It is a sweater that would look beautiful on Emma, and suit her very well, and it was interesting and different and stylish.  I was impressed.  I have been following the progress of this design as it has been put through the test knitting stage, and have discussed it at many points with Emma.  I certainly intended to knit it.  Not only that, but my eye was caught as well by two of her other designs.  She was clearly, in my estimation, a designer to watch.

But I can say unequivocably, that I will never knit anything she designs.  Not because she disagreed with Kate Davies on the issue of whether the Owls design was copied (because as I said, this was definitely a matter of interpretation, and a legal matter at that) but because of the sheer nastiness of her response.   Is this childish of me?  Perhaps.

I might add, that Kate Davies has reached an agreement with Debenhams (which entails them agreeing to disagree on the copying issue) but also entails Debenhams making a contribution to the charity Chest, Heart and Stroke Scotland.  This group provides post-stroke recovery help, and was instrumental to Kate in her recovery. Kate’s report of the agreement can be found here; her polite and respectful discussion of this matter from start to finish is a definite contrast to that found elsewhere.

On that note, I think I shall make a bowl of popcorn and a gin and tonic and watch Top Hat.  Go, Team Fred!

Owl Theft

If I had to name my favorite knitting blog, I would without any hesitation pick needled, the blog by the many talented Kate Davies.  Kate stands above the crowd for any number of reasons.  First, her designs are absolutely beautiful; immaculately designed and crafted.  Second, Kate is articulate; it is an extremely well-written blog.  Third, Kate is an (ex-)academic, who brings her skills, focus and enthusiasm to bear on knitting; she is a fabulous scholar of  knitting history and textiles in general, and related issues, such as textile employment, gender, and industrialization.  (She also, incidentally, has wonderful posts on all sorts of other intellectually stimulating topics.  She once wrote a beautiful post on the many different available translations of a German poem.  My children, who grew up in Germany, spent hours discussing this post and the various translations she cited.) And fourth, Kate suffered a massive stroke two years ago, and has chronicled her stroke and on-going recovery in the most astonishingly honest and articulate fashion.  I work in a research neuroscience environment, where we frequently deal with people attempting to navigate through the mine field of post-stroke recovery; and I know that such an articulate first-person account is rare indeed.

Kate shot to fame in the knitting world with her fabulous Owls sweater, which has been knit by thousands of knitters around the world.  It comes in both adult and child versions.

I knit it myself, for my daughter Leah, a number of years ago. Here is a photo of Leah wearing it, taken in March 2009.

Kate is no longer able to work as an academic, as a result of her stroke, but has managed to make a name for herself, as well as an income, by selling her beautiful designs.  The Owls sweater, as her first and most famous piece, has helped to make this possible.  Yesterday, Kate wrote a post, which you can find here, detailing how the design has been copied and is now being marketed by Debenhams, a retail department store in the UK.  The Debenhams version is a cheap, poorly made second cousin to Kate’s but is clearly a  knockoff.   This brings up a lot of interesting questions about intellectual property and the design process.  I am not a lawyer and don’t know much about copyright law, but I tend to agree with Kate, that this is theft of her design.

I think it would be difficult to be a knitter with an online presence and not be able to instantly identify the Owls sweater as a Kate Davies design.  Kate argues very convincingly in her post that the design has become iconic.  There are well over 5000 of them documented on Ravelry, each of them hand knit using Kate’s pattern.  Even the BBC acknowledges her pattern, which will be worn later this year by a character on a TV crime drama (can’t wait to see that)!

Some may feel that fashion always borrows elements from other designs, and this is just how the industry works.  On Ravelry, for example, I have seen many examples of someone reverse engineering a design that they have seen somewhere (say, an Emilio Pucci design, or alternatively, something they have seen at the Gap or Anthropology).  Copying a design to knit something for yourself, is one thing, however; copying it and selling thousands of them on the High Street quite another.

When Kate first made the pattern for Owls, she didn’t sell it, but made it available as a free download.  Much later, when the design first began to be copied for financial gain (detailed in her post), she was advised by lawyers to start charging for the pattern.  It can now be purchased from Ravelry (and presumably directly from Kate) for £3.95.  I was one of thousands of people who downloaded the pattern for free and knit it.  Today,  I bought a copy of the Owls pattern.  (I already own many of her other lovely patterns, such as the fabulous Peerie Flooers hat I have blogged about here.)  I encourage knitters to show support for Kate in the best way possible, by purchasing a pattern from her; you can make a statement and knit a beautiful garment in one blow.

I also encourage each of you to read Kate’s post; it is of interest to anyone interested in design, in copyright issues and intellectual property law, and also in the story of knitting in the age of the internet.  I have no idea what the legalities of the issue are, and imagine they are rather complicated, but one thing that we can all agree on; the handknit versions of Kate’s sweater, using her lovely design, are infinitely more beautiful than the knockoff.