Today I am delighted to introduce my friend Judith, AKA Auntie Fred, to the KNITSONIK blog.
As some knit-buddies may know, we are in the last couple of weeks of the #knitsonikmittsalong that started last Autumn with some optional KNITSONIK kits. For those of us still finishing our mitts I thought some inspiration might ease us towards the finishing line. And I can think of few things more inspiring than Judith’s amazing Jane Austen Vest which takes its inspiration from some beautiful editions of Jane Austen’s novels. Today we will be talking about this glorious vest. Please fetch tea or another beverage of your choice and get settled for a wondrous chat!
Felix: I saw the beginnings of this vest at one of my Quotidian Colourwork workshops in Shetland in 2014. For these workshops I always ask people to bring inspirational objects or photos with them, but I was especially impressed that you’d carried two hardback books with you all the way to Shetland! I wonder if you could say something about the books you brought to the workshop and why they are important? I also wonder if you could comment on whether the actual objects themselves gave you ideas for designs that you might not have found had you worked only from photographs?
Judith: The first thing is that I have always loved books and reading, and for many years Jane Austen has been one of my favourite authors. I also find the sight of a full bookshelf immensely satisfying particularly when sets of books go together; hence, I was drawn to these editions as soon as I saw them, they just look so lovely to me on the shelf. But my collection needed to be books I would read. There are other books in these editions that I just wouldn’t read and so I don’t have copies (although I do have more than just the JAs). In terms of the objects rather than photographs, I never thought about photos at the time. But looking back, I think I looked more closely and in more detail at the real objects. And by having the actual books there at the time I was able to hold them and feel their bookishness.
Felix: After the workshop, you began to incorporate design elements from a third Jane Austen tome. You also introduced some darker shades of blue that don’t appear among any of the books but which bring sufficient contrast to make the book colours really sing! I wonder if you could talk a bit about the tensions between staying true to an original inspiration source and making something which also works well in knitterly terms?
Judith: After the workshop I realised that I wanted to do something with my swatch; that I wanted a garment. That meant that I needed to translate the colours from those that matched the books as closely as possible to those that I would also find wearable. I also though about some of the other colourwork designs that I have knitted, particular in relation to shading. I really like the effect that shading can give and so wanted to incorporate this, so that meant that I couldn’t be too rigid with the colours. The books became the inspiration rather than the direct pattern, but I know that the inspiration is there in the final design and I think it’s still visible to others if they know to look for it.
Felix: One of my favourite details about your design is a lovely play on ideas. In Northanger Abbey there is a red ribbon running through the book to allow you to keep your place – an idea that you have taken forward in a really lovely way in your motif based on the cover of that book…
Judith: Thank you. One of the things I have seen both in practice in other designs but also written about elsewhere is the idea of adding a “pop” of another colour. That doesn’t necessarily fit with the Quotidian method and, to do it properly, that “pop” would have been neon orange or something. But I did like the idea of using the dark red ribbon as a “mini-pop” in my design. Interestingly, there’s also a red ribbon in Sense and Sensibility (the blue with pink flowers) but when I tried the red strip in that motif it just didn’t work as well!
Felix: In the KNITSONIK System that I present during Quotidian Colourwork classes and in my book I advocate the swatch as a wondrous canvas on which to explore and test out ideas. Starting with a swatch that is purely for playing solves the problem of FEAR… it’s just a swatch, so if you come up with something that doesn’t work then you can abandon it and begin a new one. However in developing your vest you went beyond this idea of the swatch as a playground for testing ideas and created further swatches to help you develop and refine your design. Could you tell us about the swatches that you made, and the problems that you solved with each one?
Judith: The picture you have below is the first swatch and so shows some of the initial thoughts. I quite quickly came up with the basic flower motif and that didn’t really change much through the various iterations but I did tinker with the colouring and there were larger and smaller versions. Similarly, with the keys there were changes to size and colour but the basic concept stayed the same. With the chairs I struggled a bit more. Again there were changes to size and colour but before I got to that point there was the basic shape to contend with.
What was interesting was how the actual swatches worked. There were four of them. In the first one I really was playing with ideas; shapes, colours, sizes and, to some extent, transitions.
Once I’d finished that, I thought I knew what I wanted the final design to be and so I knitted swatch two.
However, once that was finished, I still wasn’t happy. Some of the transitions weren’t quite what I wanted (and you provided some extra advice on these I seem to recall), but more, the balance of colours wasn’t right either. I started swatch three but quickly decided it wasn’t right and bound it off. And then there was swatch four which was pretty close to the final design.
The later swatches included ribbing and the swatch four version was close to what I used in the final design – the colours didn’t change but I moved from 3×3 to 3×1. I felt the 3×3 was too chunky for the rest of the design. Apart from that there was the odd row that got missed out in the swatch but got happily included in the final design!
Felix: I loved seeing the efficient way that you used other tools, besides swatching, to develop your ideas. For example your wonderful drawings and sketches and the fantastic EXCEL spreadsheet that you produced to help you with the charting. Could you talk about these tools and how they helped you develop your ideas?
Judith: In my day job I am an accountant and I love spreadsheets (I know that some people find this odd, but it’s genetic) so it was natural for me to use spreadsheets for this project. I mentioned that after swatch two I wasn’t happy with the balance of the colours. There was too much of the cream / beige of the key pattern and not enough of the blue from the flowers. I used excel to put together a colour chart of the design and then I was able to play with it without knitting everything. I was able to make the keys (and, therefore, that part of the chart) smaller, as well as simplifying the transitions. It was also at that stage that I added the peerie patterns on the blue / pink sections in order to increase the balance of blue in the design. The other thing I used excel for was to work out the actual sizes. I used another Fairisle vest pattern as a basis but then adjusted it to my measurements and scaled it for my gauge. Using the spreadsheet I was able to work out all my increases and decreases. I then drew those on to the chart so that I basically had a picture of what I was knitting.
The other thing I used the spreadsheet for was estimating and recording yarn quantities. That was less successful – I have almost enough left over to complete two more vests (and no, I’m not volunteering!).
Sketching isn’t something that comes naturally to me but I enjoyed playing with my squared paper and trying out different things. I found it a very satisfying way of planning out the basic shapes.
Felix: One of the things that strikes me as being particularly interesting in looking through your swatches is how, in each iteration, you approached the issues of sequencing patterns and also getting in and out of each different pattern…
…You can obviously change colour and start a new idea as you have in some of the places in your very first swatch, but this creates a hard line or stripe across the work – something I notice you have skillfully avoided in your final vest. Could you say a bit about how you approached these transitions from one area of colour to the next?
Judith: I’m not sure your realise your own influence here; the final shaded transition shown above was definitely your suggestion! I think I considered the transitions particularly because I like the effect of the shaded motifs. It seemed natural to me to want to have degree of shading between motifs as well as within them. Effectively, I did this by using the green “chair” motifs with their shaded backgrounds to transition between the dark blue of the flower motifs and the beige/cream of keys. The other thing that influenced me was maintaining the scale of the various elements of the design. Some of the transitions I tried were quite blocky and geometric. I liked the effect but they didn’t necessarily work with the other elements of the design. I might use them in something else though…
Felix: One of the things I have enjoyed seeing most of all in watching your design unfold is the progression of your ideas. For example the lovely higgeldy piggeldy chairs on the cover of Emma have ultimately become the beautiful green and white lines in your vest, while the large blooms on the cover of Sense & Sensibility form the basis for the main motif that appears in your vest… what did you learn about translating everyday inspirations into stranded colourwork whilst developing your ideas and were there any big surprises?
Judith: The main thing I learnt was that it is about inspiration and elements, not making a picture. I had several attempts at the chairs and really wanted to use them (partly because I, like you, have a great fondness for shade 141), but the actual “chair” designs just didn’t work. Then I looked more closely and saw the stripes on the seats of the chairs and realised that they could make a good, smaller transitional design. The flowers were a little more literal but I did constrain myself by sticking to floats of no more than 5 stitches (except at the start and end of rounds) and this influenced how the design ended up – and I ended up adding the peerie patterns for colour balance.
Felix: One of the other things that really struck me about your process is that knitting the vest actually seemed to be the speedy part, whereas you spent a long time working on the swatches and planning out the garment. Are you pleased with the results of your efforts, and does this wonderful vest feel different from your other garments because of the personality and creativity that you have invested in it?
Judith: The actual knitting was certainly the speedy part – partly, I think because of the amount of thought and preparation that I had put in previously. Also, I was trying to get it done within Wovember, so I was quite focussed! I am pleased with the outcome, and certainly with the colourwork. There are a couple of features around the shape of the vest that I would change if I were to knit it again but I can use that as a learning experience for the future. One great thing is that I now have a basic pattern for a vest to fit me at this gauge and I can put whatever colour chart on to it that I like. I do feel a great sense of accomplishment in the vest. This is something that is truly my design and that’s not something that I ever thought I would achieve in a full sized garment.
Felix: One of the things I often hear people saying in my workshops is that they don’t like a certain colour or that they think a particular shade is really not very them. I feel that way about certain colours too, but have noticed that while this logic applies really well to many types of garment, it rarely applies in the exact same way to stranded colourwork because of how the colours mix and blend and influence one another across the rows. Often the colours a knitter really doesn’t want to choose are the exact ones that will set off and balance their preferred shades! I wondered if you were surprised in the end by the palette that you eventually used, and whether there are any shades in the J&S palette which you have grown a special fondness or aversion to having worked on this marvelous design?
Judith: I was surprised by how much of shade 202 (the cream) I used – it’s not a “me” colour. I tend to go for white rather than cream. But white (even 1A) would, I think, have been too harsh for the background to the key design. The nature of this design, I think, is quite soft and therefore the palette needed to be softer than I might usually go for. I think I’m still likely to tend towards pinks, blues and purples but I might be less afraid of trying a bit of other things in with those in the future.
Felix: Finally, I think many knitters will be itching to make their own amazing vest after seeing the spectacular results you achieved in your wondrous creation. I know knitters will ask, so could you share your top tips for others hoping to turn their most cherished tomes into glorious, wearable designs?
Judith: Ooo, this is a tricky one. I think you have to enjoy the swatching process, because there is quite a lot of it. I think realising that you don’t need to make a picture of your inspiration is also important and this took me a while. An interpretation of elements is likely to get you much closer to something wearable. And … embrace the spreadsheets!!
Felix: Thank you Judith, it’s been really wonderful seeing your glorious vest come to life!