A new take on Kaffe Fassett …

I’ve been nuts about Kaffe Fassett knits since his wonderful colourful designs exploded into the knitting scene in the early 80s. You may have read in my earlier blog about the knits I made using his patterns. But my Kaffe knits (as I like to think of them) sort of fizzled out as we came to the Millennium – partly this was because I was very busy on the employment front, and partly fashions in knitting had changed.  Like many other knitters I explored knits that focused on texture rather than colour.  I now have lots of lovely single colour shawls.

But last year I sort of came to a halt with my knitted shawls.  I had lost heart – they weren’t really my thing.  What I really longed to do was to return to my original knitting passion and knit multi-colour again – with strands and strands of differently-coloured yarn – just as Kaffe had taught us.

But those huge boxy garments! To some extent they were necessary for the enormous dramatic patterns, but I knew I just wouldn’t wear a new knit that was as large and ungainly as this.So I began to think small pattern.  This is Kaffe’s Little Circles pattern (which you will find on p.136 of his Glorious Knitting)If you look carefully at my sample piece (and in much better light) you will see that my circles are much smaller than in the original pattern, and some rows feature designs that are not circular at all. Because most of the yarn is so variegated, in many rows you lose definition anyhow.I was pleased with this – I liked the colours, especially the odd shots of fuchsia, and the pattern may be pretty random at times but it still looks regularly patterned to the casual eye.

This irregularity was important because I’d decided to knit a cardigan using Truly Myrtle’s Timely pattern. This is a striped top-down knit – and far from being baggy and saggy as those old Kaffe knits were, this is fitted, and funky!  I love it! Because it is a top-down knit with no seams there are lots of increases and decreases.  The irregularity of the stitch pattern is important in that it allows me to make all these alterations without revealing these adjustments as glaring mistakes.

I’m sorry to do this to you, Libby, but here is my very shabby printed copy of your lovely pattern – you can tell it’s well-loved …I selected two yarns for the background stripes. The vibrant green yarn is Madeline Tosh.  It’s a fingering weight merino (Tosh Merino Light) called Jade.

The other yarn is my own hand-spun.  It’s predominantly a blue/green/black alpaca batt dyed and prepared by The Border Mill but I have added bits and pieces of my own hand-dyed silks and wools.  It’s very light and soft, and combines beautifully with the Madeline Tosh, making this garment much softer and lighter than my old Kaffe Fassett knits (into which I threw every yarn I could find – including my own hair.)As for the rest of the yarn …. well, in proper Kaffe Fassett style it is a motley collection.  There is handspun, and shop-bought – but most importantly there is Rowan Kidsilk Haze.  This is such a useful yarn for projects such as this.  Being a very fine fluff yarn, it lends itself so well to padding out another yarn that is just too thin to fit in to the general ensemble … So, I started knitting …It was tricky.  After all, I was knitting alternate pairs of rows in first one background colour and then the other, with extra yarns introduced to give the stitch pattern. At times the variegation of colour in the yarn meant that I was knitting with almost identical colours …With any knit like this, you are going to have to stop and sort out muddled yarns frequently …However with persistence, I very soon had enough body to try it on.  This is the beauty of a top-down knit.  You can tell so easily how well the fit is working out – and see too how the decorative pattern is developing.  You can tell that I’m pleased!The original Timely cardigan pattern had a deep ribbed border, but I felt that wasn’t suitable for such a very patterned knit , so I opted to knit a picot edge instead …It looks nice here – a very pleasing detail – but alas, it was so darned frilly! I’d have to think about it …Picking up the sleeves and knitting down on 6 needles (yes, 6!!) was horrible knitting.  So fiddly! It didn’t help of course that I was working with so many yarns …The knitting needle and yarn muddle made for truly miserable knitting – the sort when you really don’t want to pick your knitting up because you know you’ll have to concentrate so hard …How pleasing then to get to the bottom of the sleeves and finish them off with these very fine cuffs! As I said earlier, I didn’t feel plain ribbing was suitable for this very patterned knit, but this two-colour rib works very well. (It’s a 2 purl, 2 knit rib.)Then I returned to compare that picot hem against the ribbed cuffs.  Yes – it’s definitely time for some frogging …I got so excited with the success of the re-knitted two-colour hem rib that I forgot to photograph it before I completed the cardigan.  But this pic does very clearly show how much nicer the ribbed hem is than the picot one …Now for the button band.  I did get my picot edging in here.  Because the yarns were so soft, I double knit each band and then folded them over. This works more easily with the button band than the buttonhole band (where you end up with rather unshapely buttonholes which have to be tidied up.)The tidying-up method I favour is binding with buttonhole stitch (of course). When pressed it gives a very nice edging …And finally for the neckline – where I followed the Truly Myrtle instructions to the letter. I do like this informal slight neck border …That last pic reminds me: there were ends to darn in. Lots of people hate this part of the process, but I (luckily) find it rather restful …So – now for the finished cardi!I’m very pleased with it!  The Truly Myrtle pattern is just what I wanted for this project – it’s a comfortable and stylish fit. The cardigan is very light and soft to wear.

And no – I didn’t block it.  I pressed the button bands with a hot iron through a very damp protective cloth, but that was all.  I like the rough texture of this multi-yarn knit.

Of course, I made it much harder for myself because I used a two-colour background.  Were I to knit such a cardi again (and yes, I’m already mulling over how I might translate one of Kaffe’s bolder patterns to a modern knit), I’d definitely restrict myself to a single yarn for the backing.  Perhaps a variegated yarn or I might change the yarn as I went along, but I definitely wouldn’t want to be carrying two main colours right the way through another knit.

Off now for some serious mulling …

Our knitted patchwork blanket

When Stephen and I married in 1991, we each brought to the marriage a stash (a dowry, so to speak) of  children, books and knitted swatches.

Children and books both found their places, respectively settling into a pecking order and a merger.  But the swatches – what to do with the swatches?  What about a patchwork blanket?!knitted blanketWe come from different knitting traditions.  Stephen is a whizz at the knitting machine, which allows full expression of his sophisticated designing skills.  He’s a mathematician and is never happier than when with a notebook or computer, calculating patterns, repeats, algorithms.  Stephen works with coned, oiled yarns, preferably 2-ply Shetland wool.

I’m a spinner, and a hand knitter.  I’d knitted on and off from my teenage years, but what really sparked for me in the early 1980s was the combination of learning to spin and the multi-coloured knit designs by Kaffe Fassett. My chunky, wildly-coloured, homespun yarns worked perfectly with his garments.Katherine knittingBoth Stephen and I swatched – and we still do.  I’m always hearing of people who skip this essential step.  But how do you test colour mixes, patterns, designs – let alone tension – if you don’t swatch?

These old swatches now tell stories.  They are reminders of garments we have made, perhaps for others, possibly for ourselves, – and some, for one reason or another, never got made at all.

Let’s start with one of the most popular Kaffe Fassett patterns, and definitely one of my favourites: Poppies.  PoppiesI’ve knitted it again and again.red and white poppiesBoth the two swatches above became cardigans for good friends of mine. My old photographs leave a lot to be desired, but they still give some idea of one of the finished knits.  Odd buttons are the perfect finishing touch to this riot of colour.SJK cardiganSmall swatches in the blanket remind me of other colourways I’ve experimented with.pink and yellow poppiesEventually I made an orange version for myself.K's poppy cardiganPoppy cardiganI still have it – little worn, alas, these days because it is huge affair, with massive square shoulders (so fashionable at the time).  You can make out quite clearly the mix of yarns I’ve included – somewhere in there is my own handspun hair!

These were my first attempts at rainbow dyeing.  I had some beautiful yarns to work with, notably the fleece of a local Shetland sheep called Charity.  My sister brought the long lustrous mohair back from Turkey for me  – it caused great alarum among my fellow spinners at the Devon Guild – ooh, it might have anthrax, scrapie ….!  I survived.

There are all sorts of other interesting bits and pieces of yarn included as well that I used to pick up in charity shops or was gifted by friends.Orange poppy cardigan (details)Kaffe Fassett aficionados will recognise the patterns in these swatches below.  They were experiments that never took off – I forget why now. In some places the yarns have faded very badly.  Those are yarns I dyed with natural dyes, and this explains why I am so reluctant to dye with plants nowadays. The fade completely changes the pattern.Kaffe Fassett pattern IrisesLet’s move on now to one of Stephen’s swatches.  Here are two examples of the same interlocking pattern. He writes:

This is based on a tessellating design trying to interlock the shapes with a variety of different colours – alas, some of them did not have enough contrast to bring it out.Interlocking patternsmall interlocking pattern swatchThese are wave patterns he was experimenting with.  Over to you Stephen:

Trying to do 2 things here – firstly a pattern that moved sideways, and secondly trying to capture a wavy design so that the finished fabric looked as though is was rucked up or creased. Alas this version was not particularly successful.Wave experiment patternHe continued to experiment with wave patterns and came up with this fantastic wave pattern which is part of another blanket we made.

A much better version. This blanket looks even better when lying down under it in bed after a drink or two – certainly brings out the wavy effect.wave patternI too have worked with wave patterns.  My inspiration came from this small saddle bag.Saddlebag for inspirationIf you change the colours, replace the reds, browns and oranges with sea colours, you come up with something like this.blue wave swatchOr Or try the blues and greens in a slightly different arrangement, and you get this.blue & green wave swatchI used the design and colour plan from the first swatch to knit a Kaffe Fassett-style cardigan.  A beachside cardigan that I still have.  It’s huge and bulky but such a good friend.Blue sea cardiganWe could not be more of a contrast, Stephen and I!  While his knits are all about calculation and accuracy, mine are wildly colourful  – and remarkably inaccurate.  I have two pieces in this blanket which are testament to how very bad my calculations can be – perhaps the reason is I never swatched, because I can not find the swatch I might have knitted for this particular cardigan.  Instead, I have the two side panels I had to cut out of the finished cardigan because it was so huge!  I’d even gone so far as to knit pockets into the cardigan, so the blanket has the rare distinction of have two pocketed swatches!

Here is one of the pieces.  You can see the rib at the bottom, and the slit for the pocket in the centre.striped cardigan swatchAnd here is the finished cardigan – before the side panels had been removed.K's huge stripey cardigan - frontK's huge stripey cardigan - backIt was so huge that I had to run elastic round the neck to draw it in before casting on the enormous collar. It’s very 80s, isn’t it?  Actually, I still have it, and it is a great cardigan to wrap myself into on bitterly cold winter days.  None of this is handspun so it’s much lighter to wear than the Kaffe Fassett cardigans I have.  It’s a happy joke to myself of my terrible calculation skills.

Back to Kaffe Fassett and this lovely pattern, a sort of variant of the poppy pattern earlier.Aunty Jilly swatchI used this pattern for a pullover for my aunt – and I believe she still has it.  I love the colourway – her choice.  It was knitted predominantly in Colinette hand-dyed yarns which are very soft and comfortable to wear.Aunty Jilly's pulloverThis little snippet is a another variant of one of Kaffe Fassett’s patterns.swatch for stephen's sweaterI knitted it into a vast sweater for Stephen.  Occasionally, I would wear it, but was soon banned because I turned the sleeves up! It doesn’t get worn very much because it is just so bulky.Stephen modelling sweaterI don’t know how to describe this colour change pattern that Stephen came up with – so I will leave it to him:

In this pattern I used the random function on my computer program to select the stitch colour at random, the probability of a particular colour being chosen changing from 1 stich in 12 to 11 stiches in 12 over 120 rows – the idea being that the colours should seem to merge from one to the other, From these designs you can see that some give a better effect than others.
blue through yellow swatchThe colours in the swatch are very strident, but the design was used to much better effect in this panel that Stephen knitted for another blanket.colour change patternThis is another Kaffe Fassett motif that I am very fond of.yellow gold swatchI knitted it up several times, and eventually came up with this.blue gilet swatchWhich became a gilet (which I still have, and still wear).giletThere are some more interesting swatches in the blanket which Stephen made. Here is his Briget Riley piece. Eye-boggling, isn’t it?! Tell us about it, please, Stephen:

I was just playing about with trying to capture some of Briget Riley’s op art designs and this just seemed to work. Very effective as the shapes seem to swirl and catch the eye.Bridget Riley swatchThis stridently green and orange swatch went on to become something much nicer!

Not my own pattern, and the swatch was done with some spare bits of yarn to see what it turned out like.  Pleased with the design, but not these colours!
star swatchA beautiful, softly-toned jersey. Alas, very little worn these days.  It was knitted cuff to cuff making it quite short and bulky. But it is such a beautiful work that I have felted it in the washing machine, and plan to cut it up for another life, one day …. Perhaps make bags, hot-water bottle covers …

Much better colours – but making garments with ribbing like this takes an awful lot of work. Anyway at present I no longer have my ribber.cuff to cuff pulloverSome kind friends, thinking I was lacking inspiration, brought me back this wonderful print of the golden altarpiece in St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice.Gold altar, St Mark's, VeniceI did have a go at knitting it  – honest!  but it was a nightmare to knit … so never went any further.Venetian swatchThe same was true of this cat swatch.brown and white catsIt’s interesting to me looking back on all this knitting to see how very little of my knitting was textured.  The emphasis is almost all on colour and pattern.  However, there is one swatch that indicates that I was toying with textures.green homespun swatchAnd then I reverted to pattern!  This is another disappointing 80s knit (with the same homespun yarn), with enormous upper sleeves (you can just see at the join on the right side how big the sleeve setting is).  Consequently, the jersey has been little worn, but I do love the pattern and have it in mind one day to re-knit it.green tree pulloverSo here we are some twenty five years on, and what do we have?  There is still knitting going on … a new knitting machine, no less ..Stephen knittingnew swatches …

Based on a medieval tile we saw at Fountains Abbey on our recent Yorkshire trip.brick pattern

In fact, there’s a whole new pile of swatches waiting to be made into a blanket … perhaps one day …a new crop of swatchesI guess you could say these blankets are a metaphor for our marriage.  A mixture of talents and skills, many of which you wouldn’t think would work well together, but amazingly they do.

(Should you wish to make a blanket of your swatches, this is what I did: I crocheted round each swatch, sometimes several times to enlarge the swatch to fit the space available.  The crocheted pieces were then sewn together, and I crocheted round the entire blanket several times to finish it off.)

Women’s Work

Writing recently about the textiles that family members had made in Family Treasures, I was struck by how privileged those crafters had all been.   All those cushion covers, embroideries, needle cases, patchwork etc were the comfortable leisure activities of people with time and materials to spare.

It isn’t always like that, of course.  Handicrafts arose from necessity.  Sewing, spinning, knitting, weaving and darning were in many cases essential skills for women in the days before you could easily and cheaply purchase your clothing.  Skilled craftwork brought income to both men and women (and indeed still do in many parts of the world today).

Over the last few months I’ve been reading two books that have focused on these different attitudes to handicrafts:  Hands to the Spindle.  Texas Women and Home Textile production 1822 – 1880 by Paula Mitchell Marks and Women’s Work.  The First 20,000 Years.  Women, Cloth and Society in Early Times by Elizabeth Wayland Barber.  I can strongly recommend both books for their insights into historic women’s lives.  While Elizabeth Wayland Barber looks at a huge swathe of very distant time, Paula Mitchell Marks concerns herself with a narrow timeframe in the relatively recent past.Women's work booksBecause Paula Mitchell Marks is working with more recent material we are able to hear the women’s voices directly.  I’m going to tell you parts of the story she recounts from the memoirs of Sarah Harkey Hall.  Sarah was born in 1857, the fifth of thirteenth children.  She writes of her mother: “Her children were like stair steps and such a burden to card and weave, every thread we all wore, and make our clothes by hand…”  The two older sisters helped with “spin filling at 8 years old”, while Sarah was the baby nurse. “Oh! the hum of the wheel and the rattle of the cards made me weary, I knew my long weary day had begun – sitting by the cradle.” 

Sarah’s mother died in 1869 after a premature childbirth, and most tragically her father a few weeks later (suffering from a range of different complaints).  The older sisters married and moved out, so Sarah was left to look after the younger children.  Paula continues “At first, she [Sarah] simply labored to patch and piece from worn-out clothes, but she soon turned to her mother’s old spinning wheel and began spinning thread and knitting socks for sale … Sarah for a number of years had to worry, scrimp, and use every resource at her disposal to clothe and cover her younger siblings and herself.  She spun, knitted, and sewed…”

I don’t think I can even begin to imagine Sarah’s life.  But I won’t be alone in having experienced times when I was completely broke – times when I had to be extremely resourceful in making clothes and toys for the family.

My marriage ended acrimoniously in the early 1980s.   My husband then disappeared, and I found myself with two small children under 5 years old, unemployed and with no easy means of earning enough to pay for childcare, a mortgage, and everyday living expenses.  I was incredibly lucky that the state safety-net was there to support me – and continued to support me for the next two and half years.

In those years my children were dressed entirely in clothes that I had made or hand-downs from kindly friends.  Luckily, I had a huge stash of fabrics and yarns from my pre-parenting London-living days.  Here’s my daughter, Helen, looking stylish as ever, in a brown viyella shirt and blue corduroy pinafore.  Both made by me – and, incredibly it seems to me now, ironed regularly by me.1985 Style queen 1As well as sewing, I did a lot of knitting too (although I hadn’t yet learned to spin when first divorced).  Here we all are, on Glastonbury Tor.  Both children are wearing hats and jerseys I’d knitted, and I’d certainly made Helen’s trousers, though I don’t think I’d made the ones James is wearing.J & H 1985 Glastonbury TorThis pig jersey that James is so delightedly modelling here was a real winner – you might just be able to make out the curly little pink piggy tail at the back.  He’s also wearing slipper sox that I’d knitted – hmm, you weren’t supposed to wear those in the garden, James!Jam pig jumper front and backI went on to customise this pattern, and with some design help from James made a very curious shaggy fluffy red dinosaur jersey.  (I’ve been reliably informed it’s a styracosaurus.)plans for dinasaur cardiWhat really kills me about this photo is that Helen, not to be left out, has added herself in such an alluring pose just to the side of the real model. J and H Shobrroke dinasaur cardi I made things for Christmas and birthdays too.  Here’s the climbing frame cover I made.  It was supposed to mean the climbing frame could double up as a “home”, a “base”, a “safe house”……1988 Christmas climbing frame coverWhat I really focused on was making fancy-dress clothes.  This clown costume was one of the first that I made.  (Yes – it’s the same primary-coloured elephant material as above!  I’d bought a large quantity of this fabric very cheaply, and used it to make a remarkable array of toys and garments).James Christmas 1985Here – a bit later in time – are my two youngest step-daughters, Ellie and Zacyntha, joining in the Christmas fancy dress modelling show.  Ellie (on the left) was the Christmas Tree fairy, James had a conjuror costume,  Zacyntha is the Nutcracker Sugar Plum fairy and Helen (on the right) is Ariel, the Little Mermaid.1991 Christmas fancy dress costumes editedI also made odd things for sale, – anything that brought in a bit of cash.   And, of course, all my friends received hand-made gifts.  This Shetland sweater was machine-knitted.  I was asked to make two copies of a worn-out original sweater.  It was a real challenge – and I don’t think the recipient really appreciated the hard work that had gone into the two new jumpers.Machine knitted Shetland jersey (Pete)The biggest influence on my knitting in the early eighties was Kaffe Fassett.  His love of abundant pattern and colour was extraordinarily exciting and an enormous source of inspiration.  My kind neighbour taught me to spin (as I wrote in an earlier blog) and I was away!  My house became filled with fleece, wool and yarns.  It was at this time that little James told me wisely that we weren’t rich in money but we were rich in wool.  Too right, Jammy, too right!

Here my very good friend, Mandy, models the Kaffe Fassett Damask Flower cardigan that I made for her birthday one year.  I wonder if she still has it?  They had such large ungainly sleeves – very unfashionable now.Mandy Kaffe fassett cardiI knitted several versions of the Kaffe Fassett Persian Poppy cardigan for various friends. S J-K Kaffe Fasset cardiAnd I even came up with my own  Kaffe Fassett-style patterns.  (Alas – my photographic skills were SO poor!)  For my Wave cardigan, I took a motif often found in Persian carpet design, having realised that knitting it in the blues, whites and creams of ocean colours made it look just like waves.  It was knitted in any yarn I could lay my hands on – homespun, bought, unravelled old cardies …  silks, mohairs, wool, synthetic … all went in together.K's sea cardiWhat really strikes me when I think back to my hard-up times, is what an abundance of materials I had.  They may not always have been quality, or what I would ideally have worked with, but there was plenty.

Sarah, on the other hand, writes agonisingly painfully: “When my frock became so tattered and torn I would examine it closely to see if I could remedy it that it would appear more neatly.  I soon saw by taking out the whole front and put[ting] in a new one it would be whole but where was I to get the cloth?   All had been consumed and not a piece [left] over. … I had to do without.”

Writing about my younger life as I am now, I see that a golden cast has settled on these times.  I have lost the memories of exhausted and lonely single-parenting days.  It seems like a halcyon time.  Which it certainly wasn’t!

What did sustain me – and delightfully, I find this with Sarah Harkey Hall too – is the pleasure of ingenuity.  Making do, successfully adapting what you have to what you need is so darned satisfying!

Here’s Paula Mitchell Marks finishing off Sarah’s story: “While her reminiscences of these years reveal the tremendous responsibility and despair she felt, some creativity and pride showed in her textile labors.  Using commercial ‘ducken’, or duck – a strong plain-weave cotton fabric – for her little brothers’ trousers, she extracted a dye from ‘Shoneyhaw bushes’ and colored the material a rich navy blue, causing a neighbour to exclaim with amazed pleasure, ‘What kind of goods is it Sarah?  This is Ducken – Why I never saw that colour of Ducken.”

Good on you, Sarah Harkey Hall!