Spilly Jane Knits Mittens!

Today on the KNITSONIK blog we are speaking about this book by my friend Spilly Jane!

Spilly Jane Knits Mittens!
Spilly Jane Knits Mittens!

I first discovered Jane’s work when I visited a friend knitting some of her cupcake mittens. I did not then know how to knit with two colours at once, and the project struck me as pure magic. On the same afternoon that I saw those mittens on the needles with their little balls of buttercream and raspberry icing coloured yarns, I went home and immediately began learning how to strand myself. How could I not embrace a technique that could produce such wonderment?

Mittens with cupcakes on them - a design classic
Mittens with cupcakes on them – a design classic

When I tracked down Jane’s Ravelry page I was thrilled to see a wealth of other inspiration sources translated into mittens; bacon, gnomes, beer, chairs, pottery, architecture, electronic music generating devices… in Jane’s deft hands, every sort of subject may be transposed into the humble medium of the mitten. Her designs convey a wonderful restraint; although any subject might provide the inspiration, the end results always reflect a quiet, pleasing geometry, and often a very striking effect is achieved with just a few colours. In knitting Jane’s designs, you enter a rich world of references, and your hands get to stay warm afterwards in the useful mittens you have made. I’m thrilled to see thirteen of Jane’s signature designs now organised into a thoughtful tome. The book begins with a useful and encouraging section on techniques, and then patterns of increasing complexity build your skills up, providing confidence for even the most nervous mitten knitter.

Jane’s book will give you everything you need to knit mittens. Journey with her from the tips at the start, through her own glorious designs, and finally to blank templates at the end where you can design your own. On a conceptual level, you won’t be able to prevent yourself from seeing potential mitten inspiration everywhere you look. As Kate Davies writes in the foreword;

Smart and witty, bold and handsome, I also feel that Spilly’s designs have important implications in the way that they suggest how pattern plays a role in the structure of the everyday. After absorbing yourself in this book you may find yourself, like her, observing meadows and pavements and imagining them on a mitten.

After seeing my copy of Spilly Jane Knits Mittens, I had some questions which Jane kindly agreed to answer. I’m sharing our correspondence here in a Q&A format for the KNITSONIK blog, so pull up a chair, fetch up a tea, and settle in for some joyful MITTENTALK (Oh, and watch out for the gnomes…)

Some of the fantastic mittens whose patterns appear in Spilly Jane Knits Mittens
Some of the fantastic mittens whose patterns appear in Spilly Jane Knits Mittens

KNITSONIK: I really like your structure for the book, starting with pointers and tutorials and technical tips, presenting increasingly intricate designs, and ending with blank templates and an encouragement for your readers to design their own mittens. Could you say a bit about how you arrived at that structure, and how you hope comrades will MITTVENTURE their way through Spilly Jane Knits MITTENS?

Jane: My intention was to produce something that knitters of various experience levels would find useful and enjoy. For those with little or no colourwork experience, I wanted the book to read like I was sitting with them walking them through it, so the intro to colourwork section at the beginning is written in that kind of conversational tone. Someone who has never done colourwork before can go through the intro and tutorials and then take little nibbles with the first few patterns, which go from simple to more challenging. A lot of people seem to be afraid of colourwork, which is unnecessary; I don’t think colourwork is nearly as difficult as people think it is, and it’s a rewarding and valuable skill. It would make me very happy to hear from people who had never tried colourwork and learned to do it by working through my book. As for the knitter with more colourwork experience, I imagine she might browse the book and jump in at whichever pattern catches her fancy, maybe even go right to the back to use the blank charts if she wants to.

Plain brown mitts - one of the pleasing ad straightforward introductory patterns, introducing thumb gussets
Plain brown mitts – one of the pleasing ad straightforward introductory patterns, introducing thumb gussets

KNITSONIK: It seems that you have been influenced on different levels by your exposure to Latvian Mittens. The idea of using a useful, wearable accessory as a canvas for bold colours and designs seems important, but there is also something deeper concerning motifs and patterns with personal significance for the wearer. Do you think that in your approach to designing mittens you are inventing a sort of contemporary symbolism?

Jane: I love Latvian mittens, can’t get enough of them. Slavic folk art, folk patterns in general, actually, really appeal to me. I connect intensely to symbols and colours and I love it when they come together in a pattern. Folk patterns use colour and pattern not just for aesthetics, but as a sort of protective talisman to welcome luck and ward off danger. They have been used for so long there must be something to it. I would like to think my patterns work in a similar way. Even if the pattern is new, the repetitive motion of knitting works to focus intent in a sort of meditative way. The act of knitting infuses the garment with personal significance for the knitter and the eventual wearer. I recently read that, in the Latvian tradition, mittens were often knit in the summer so they would be infused with the warmth of the season. I have always thought about knitting mittens the same way, and would love to think that I am adding to, or at least working parallel to, that tradition.

A modern-day Venus; "The girl with the pre-fabricated heart" - mittens with  contemporary symbolism
A modern-day Venus; “The girl with the pre-fabricated heart” – mittens with contemporary symbolism

KNITSONIK: In her foreword to your book, Kate Davies talks about entering the “world” of Spilly Jane Knits and I think that is just right. Your mittens have such rich back stories that knitting them is a bit like entering a world. Do you find that knitters connect with the meanings and associations with which you embed your designs as much as they connect with their aesthetic elements? And in working on the book did you find that writing about your mittens helped to deepen and enrich their stories?

Jane: I have always enjoyed entering the “worlds” created by musicians and writers that I like. I am flattered that some people, like Kate, think about my work in that way. My patterns are certainly infused with my own personal symbolism; they draw from things I have seen and with which I have connected and translated into knitting, often weird things that don’t immediately make sense as textiles. The act of turing an object into a pattern, the physical act of knitting it, and then the experience of seeing it become a new, separate but connected object makes it mine. Its like creating my own relic or writing a love letter to the object.

Midtown - a love letter to the NYC subway ventilation gratings
Midtown – a love letter to the NYC subway ventilation gratings

Knitters have told me that I’ve turned them on to new things they would not have experienced otherwise, like buddha machines for example. I really like the idea that people can connect with my patterns; even if they just like the patterning and don’t care about the story, I know it’s still there, and they are still engaging with it in some way. They knit it and wear it, and give life to the story even if they aren’t aware of it. Seeing the patterns in a physical book solidifies the collection for me in a way that digital or even individual paper copies of patterns don’t. Seeing a collection of my patterns in a proper book in a real shop makes it seem more concrete somehow. I have always been into books and records and enjoyed that feeling of cracking open a new book and browsing through it, or opening a new record for the first time and going over the track listing. I agonized over the order of the patterns in the book like I imagine a producer would over the sequence of songs on an album. I considered the mood and general feel of each one, as well as the colour of course. The book is one big finished object and feels like something more than the individual patterns would on their own.

Wheatfield mittens from the book
Wheatfield mittens from the book

KNITSONIK: One thing that really struck me when looking at your book was the role that travel has played in inspiring various designs. Midtown was inspired by your travels to New York and your glimpses of the ventilation grating on the subways; Wheatfields capture the sense of driving through Ontario in the autumn; and Abney Park celebrates one of the old London Cemeteries here in the UK. Do you think there is something about traveling that enables you to see things with fresh eyes?

Jane: I like the impact of objects observed while in motion. Objects seen from the windows of a car or train naturally have a fleeting, romantic aura. When I am in a new place everything takes on the fleeting romance of being seen in motion because I will only be in that place for a short time. When travelling I am getting a feel for my surroundings and purposefully seeking out the things my city doesn’t have, like subways and old Victorian cemeteries. In that way I am more aware while travelling, but I am always gawking at everything, even at home; I can’t not notice things. I have many locally inspired patterns like Guardian (based on an Art Deco building in nearby Detroit) and Willistead (based on an ironwork park gate close to my house).

KNITSONIK: The range of references in your designs is wonderful – songs, urban environments, confections and gnomes have all played their part in the creation of the book. I wondered if you could talk us through the creative process for some of these designs, perhaps sharing some photos or other things that reveal something of the journey from source inspiration through to completed mitten?

Jane: It’s difficult to explain how a pattern comes together. Every so often an object catches my eye and it just can’t not be a mitten. Patterns are a way to celebrate things that I love, and I am as surprised as anyone else when things turn into patterns.

Guardian – Sometimes when I am walking or driving around I’ll see something that ticks my boxes. One of those boxes is architecture, especially Art Deco, and another is pottery and tile work. I have been driving and walking past the Guardian Building in downtown Detroit for most of my life. I am Canadian and live in Windsor, but Detroit is pretty much home. Most people from outside the region don’t realize how close the two cites are, but the Guardian Building, an Art Deco masterpiece from 1929, is no more than a few kilometres from my front door. It’s facade is clad, uniquely for an Art Deco skyscraper, with orange brick. The effect of that much orange brick (it is 151 metres tall), and its stepped structure, gives the building a woven look that reminds me of textiles. A few stories above street level a band of green, gold and white terracotta tiles wraps around the circumference of the building like a belt or a scarf. I combined elements of the tiled band with some patterning based on brass gratings found elsewhere on the building to make my Guardian Mittens. The interior of the building didn’t have any influence on the mittens because I had not yet been inside when I designed them, but I have since taken a tour of the interior and it is spectacular. The lobby is ornately decorated in Rookwood and Pewabic pottery in a style that can only be described as 1920s American hubris. You can click this link for some photos of the interior because words don’t really do it justice.

Pewabic is a Detroit pottery company that goes back to the early 20th century. I have not designed a pattern that explicitly draws from its work, but I love the shapes and glazes of their pottery; and I always have one my Pewabic mugs within reach while knitting.

I have a nice memory attached to the Guardian Mittens pattern. A few years ago the Detroit Public Library hosted a lecture by the Yarn Harlot and held a knitting fair beforehand. At the fair a woman approached me who had bought a copy of Guardian. She explained that her father had been the mayor of Detroit years ago and she wanted to tell me that she appreciated the way my mitten celebrated the city and its architecture. A few years ago I was asked to contribute to book called Knitting Architecture and one of the patterns I did for that book was based on the Fisher Building, another Art Deco building in Detroit. Detroit really does have some great architecture and it makes me happy that my patterns can play a small role in celebrating it.

The Guardian building from Windsor...
The Guardian building from Windsor…
...and the Guardian mitten inspired by the building (left). The mitten on the right was inspired by the Fisher building
…and the Guardian mitten inspired by the building (left). The mitten on the right was inspired by the Fisher building

Abney Park – In addition to architecture and pottery, a few of my other “boxes” are: ruins reclaimed by nature, overgrown, Romantic, lichen, moss, decrepit, faded grandeur, and cemeteries. Abney Park Cemetery in London ticked all of those. I spent a grey and soggy New Year’s day a few years ago wandering around it. The ruined chapel captured the mood of the whole cemetery; damp and mouldering, infused with the untold stories of its thousands of residents, beautifully haunting and decrepit. The end product can be appreciated for the beauty of the 19th century ironwork that inspired it, or as a memento of the mood of Abney Park. The pattern also has a musical connection, however indirect. PJ Harvey’s “The Last Living Rose” describes England from the point of view of First World War soldier who misses home. The elements of “beautiful England” she describes are reminiscent of the mood I got from Abney Park. She describes the “damp filthiness of ages” and fog covering “graveyards and dead sea captains.” The line about dead sea captains in turn reminds me of the grave of a sea captain in Old Calton Burial Ground in Edinburgh. Various things that I have seen, read, and heard, either first or second hand, blend together in my head and sometimes find their way into patterns.

Abney Park mittens from the book
Abney Park mittens from the book

KNITSONIK: You have many patterns on Ravelry and are currently sponsoring the NH Knits mittens KAL, I see! What is next on the cards for Spilly Jane Knits?

Jane: A couple a local yarn shops have asked me to make appearances with my book. I will be doing trunk show/book signing events at Pretty Skeins in Windsor and the Little Red Mitten in St. Thomas. The dates are to be determined, but they will be sometime in late spring. I am hoping to add some other events to my calendar as well.

KNITSONIK: Just for fun… can you tell me a bit about the pesky gnomes and where they fit into things? I often see them on your Twitter feed and I see now that they have snuck into one of the mitten designs as well.

Jane: The gnomes are my naughty little nature spirit buddies who remind me not to take things too seriously. They tell dirty but well-meaning jokes and have trouble controlling themselves around condiments and cutlery.

Under the hostas - the gnomes appear in Jane's book too!
Under the hostas – the gnomes appear in Jane’s book too!

KNITSONIK: Finally, I love your “world” and the glimpses presented in the book… it feels like almost anything you like or love or enjoy or notice can make it into a Spilly Jane Mitten design. I am obviously a huge fan of this implication – can you say anything about what has inspired you recently?

Jane: I’m always finding inspiration for new patterns. In fact I am sitting on pile of pattern ideas that could eventually become another book, but not right now. Some will get released as individual patterns. I have a collection of richly patterned antique pots and serving ware that I want to turn into knitwear. Sometimes I’ll go a while without releasing a pattern and then it all comes together at once and several will come out in quick succession. Sometimes I actually worry when I release several patterns in a short time period that they will compete with each other and get lost in the onslaught. But the great thing about releasing patterns online is that they stay there. If someone is interested in one months or years down the road, all the patterns will still be there waiting for them.

KNITSONIK: Thank you so much for talking to us, Spilly Jane! For fans who would love a copy of the book, you can buy one online from Amazon (hardcopy) or directly from Jane’s Ravelry store (PDF). I also have a digital copy (PDF) to give away to one lucky winner, so if you would like to be in with a chance of winning that, please leave a comment saying which mittens in the book you like best, and why, and I will announce a winner in one week’s time on 15th March 2016. For fans who want more of SPILLY JANE, I highly recommend this Q&A with Kate Davies, and the links below will show you more of her wonderful work.

SpillyJane’s Blog
SpillyJane knits Mailing List
Fans of SpillyJane Ravelry Group
SpillyJane Knits on Facebook

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18 Responses to Spilly Jane Knits Mittens!

  1. Mark says:

    Nice job you two! I wonder if you have considered fruitcake mittens?

  2. Karen says:

    I love the Wheatfield mittens in part because grellow is my favorite color (that is, grey and yellow combinations) and because I love knitting designs inspired by botanicals. I made a pair of SpillyJane’s Police Box mittens and have been dying to knit another design soon–would love to be able to knit this one!

  3. Eimear says:

    Thanks for an enlightening read.I can’t decide between abney park (reminds me of 70s wallpaper) & under the hostas – those pesky gnomes preparing to do mischief!

  4. Julie says:

    I love the gnomes!

  5. Suzi says:

    Very exciting about the book! I have so many Spilly Jane patterned favorited on Ravelry. Love Midtown!

  6. Hivetender says:

    Another great blog post. Hard to choose favorite but I really like the Abney mitts and so fun to read about the inspiration!

  7. Hivetender says:

    Had to come back and reply again….I forgot about the Swedish fish mitts! Love them.

  8. Larissa says:

    Living in North-East London (and being a big PJ Harvey fan too), my favourite is definitely Abney Park.

  9. Jen Simoneau says:

    Love the gnomes. I’ve always wanted to make those!

  10. Julie Evans says:

    I love the gnome under the hostas mittens – I love a bit of humour in my knits and they are full of it – all they’re missing is a rampant slug!

  11. florapie says:

    It’s a toss up between the cupcakes and the gnomes under the hostas-SpillyJane has so many amazing mitten patterns that I could work her patterns exclusively for a couple of years and still not work my way through all of my favourites!

  12. Caroline says:

    I am crazy about the ones inspired by architecture, especially the subway grating ones. I wish I needed as many mittens as she can design! I would love to get my mitts, haha, on this book!

  13. HelenMc says:

    I would start with the naughty gnomes and then tackle one of the architecture inspired patterns

  14. Ruth says:

    I love the penguin mittens. A great graphic design and who doesn’t love penguins :) The art deco/architectural ones are really interesting too.

  15. Christine T says:

    I love the Guardian mittens the most. They’re lovely!

  16. Colleen Conlan says:

    Hard to choose, but since I must…Midtown. What a fun collection!

  17. Inge Kea says:

    I love the modern-day Venus. The colours in the yarns work so beautifully with the patterning.

  18. Pepita says:

    Very interesting read. Thanks!
    It’s very difficult to choose a favourite, love them all. But I think I’d choose cupcakes, because they are fun and playful, and AbneyPark, because I just love the design and how graphic it is. There is sth very 70s about them.

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