Remember how much my parents liked Shetland? They are going back at the end of August via overnight train from London and overnight ferry from Aberdeen, bringing one of my Niblings – Barney. Luckily Barney is an enormous fan of travel and especially travel by train. On hearing about this wonderful trip, I invoked The Hat Rule, which is that my family members are not allowed to travel to Shetland without a proper Shetland Wool HAT. I duly sent across photos of all the official Shetland Wool Week hat patterns to date, from which I thought Barney might choose his preferred design. However at seven years old, Barney very much has his own distinctive sense of fashion (and geography) and what he really, really wanted was a hat with the Scottish Flag on it.
I’d asked Barney’s parents – Ned and Mel – to measure his wee swede and, using my reliable gauge for stranded colourwork in Jamieson & Smith 2ply Jumper Weight Yarn, had calculated how many stitches around the hat would need to be in order to fit correctly. Barney’s initial vision was for a hat with four flags – one on each quarter of the hat. When I started trying to chart out out his scheme, proportionate to the number of stitches required for the hat, I immediately realised the strands on the back of the work would be far too long! For those of you unfamiliar with the construction of stranded colourwork, you are generally knitting with two colours in your hands; one is your pattern shade and the other is the background shade. As you knit from your chart, you use each colour in turn, as indicated in your chart or pattern, always stranding – or carrying along the back of the work – the unused shade. These carried strands give stranded colourwork both its name, and the distinctive texture on the back. Maintaining a nice constant tension is crucial to making a nice wearable fabric; if the strands of carried yarn across the back of the work are too loose they will catch on things like your glasses, your fingers, your keys… and if they are too tight, the fabric will be pinched and puckered, and will not lie flat or drape or wear in a pleasing way – there will also be no ease in the fabric, so it won’t stretch kindly and warmly to accommodate your head or your body or your hands. In general, a nice relaxed woolly wool like Shetland wool with life and stretch in it will be far more forgiving about minor shifts in tension than something less flexible such as cotton. Diagonal lines in your motif will help disperse tension through your fabric, whereas perfectly rigid straight lines will concentrate it in one place. Lastly – and crucially – it is easiest for most people including me to maintain an even tension across short distances of not much more than eight or nine stitches wide.
In this context you can see that my initial and most literal charting attempt would have been quite difficult to turn into a nice and stretchy hat to wear! Charting the flag out in its most literal form revealed that there would be extremely long areas of blue across which it would be very difficult to nicely strand the unused white in between working the big bold X of the Saltire.
I knew it would be possible for me to catch the white yarn every few stitches at the back of the work – and I love and use this technique in other contexts – but catching the unused yarn with your working yarn (in this case catching the white with the blue, across the massive areas of blue in the chart) produces a tweedy effect in which the caught yarn shows through to the front of the work. I felt that in this context that tweedy effect would be at odds with the bold, high-contrast, crisply lined aesthetic of the flag. Furthermore, I felt that once repeated around the hat, the basic flag design would look less like the Scottish flag and more like a series of Xs and Os.
For the purposes of this post I have created some illustrations retrospectively to illuminate my process however, in reality, these thoughts were all contemplated where all my designs begin: in my KNITSONIK Bullet Journal! However, as my scrawly half-thoughts are for private use and often unfinished, they are not desperately revelatory to anyone else – other than as a reminder that messy working drawings are fine as long as they help you work out whatever you need to know!
I toyed briefly with whether placing the flag on a diagonal, as though blowing in the wind, would help with the stranding issues…
…but you can see that, as long as we stick to the four massive flags idea, this still does not produce a workable stranded colourwork chart. LOOK AT THOSE GREAT SEAS OF BLUE ACROSS WHICH ONE MUST STRAND THE POOR WHITE YARN!!!
I also felt this was an extremely literal course of action – something I prefer to avoid. Why not play to the strengths of the medium itself, at what it’s really good for, at the glorious way one small pattern – repeated – can contribute to a larger overall design? Why not find a way to utilise numerous blues rather than searching for THE ONE TRUE BLUE (apparently Pantone 300) and – best of all – why not find a way to incorporate some of Barney’s favourite colour, GREEN, to match his glasses frames?
I abandoned the large flags and the diagonal flags and, once I had a basic small repeating shape that I felt was fairly representative of the flag and that did not involve stranding white yarn across thirty seven million blue stitches, I opened up Adobe Illustrator, created a chart template based on the required stitch count, and mapped out my design.
There was quite a bit of tinkering with the chart until I liked it and I think the end result is more “inspired by the Scottish flag” than totally representative but I’m fine with that. This is how my charting experiments knitted up…
…I love the different blues that added interest and fun to the knitting, and the different greens I found that do nicely pick out the colours in Barney’s glasses-frames. As a fellow wearer of glasses I feel the importance of this cannot be overstated!
Most of all, I hope that with this hat I’ve managed to simultaneously incorporate Barney’s magnificent creative vision of a hat made of Scottish flags, while also speaking respectfully to the incredible knitting tradition of Shetland. All of my design solutions – copious use of diagonal lines, shifting colour changes across a canvas of stitches and the use of repetition and offsetting of patterns to create a visual sense of rhythm – speak to Fair Isle Knitting. I would never claim this to be any sort of traditional Fair Isle pattern or anything like that but, in trying to solve the problems presented by the initial design brief, I have definitely borrowed from the knowledge and experience of stranded colourwork design for which Shetland is renowned!
Speaking of which, I *may* be designing a second hat based on this…
…the Shetland flag!
More of which soon –
THANK YOU, BARNEY, FOR AN AMAZING CREATIVE PROMPT!
Yours in Happy Auntie-ing and thanks for letting me take your picture for my blog xxx