Barney’s Hat

the glorious glowy crown of Barney's hat

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.

The Scottish Flag - a white Saltire crossing a blue field of colour

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.

a very literal interpretation of the Scottish Flag in stranded colourwork chart format

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.

repeating the basic flag chart around the hat

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!

Felix's indecipherable flag motif / chart workings

I toyed briefly with whether placing the flag on a diagonal, as though blowing in the wind, would help with the stranding issues…

more mucky journal flags

…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!!!

a chart of a waving blue Scottish flag

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.

chart showing different shades of blue, little flashes of green, and repeating small versions of the Scottish flag

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…

the knitted hat, produced from the earlier charts!

A view of the hat and its glorious glowy blue crown

another view of the hat blocking in my kitchen window

…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!

Barney wearing the hat with his blue toy storage in the  background

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…

Flag of Shetland

…the Shetland flag!
More of which soon –

Yours in Happy Auntie-ing and thanks for letting me take your picture for my blog xxx


8 thoughts on “Barney’s Hat

  1. Absolutely brilliant! I particularly like the way you worked the Saltire into the decreasing section at the top of the hat.

    1. Aw thanks so much, Sue! I was really pleased with how that turned out, too! It’s funny – in the balls, those blues looked like they might make rather stripy transitions, but with the strong detail of the Saltire in white, they really mix and blur into a lovely gradient I think. Colourwork never ceases to surprise me!

  2. I am sure that Barney will not only love the train journey but the overnight ferry trip! And it is so cool that you can walk to the ferry from the train station which is so convenient. He is going to get a lot of very nice comments on Shetland for his hat as well 🙂

    1. I’m absolutely certain he’ll love the ferry too – and agree with you that there is something fab about being able to just walk from the train to the boat, much more simple than the journey from the airport! I hope you’re right – I think one of the nicest things about wearing a woolly handknitted Shetland wool hat in Shetland is that it does seem to spark the most wonderful conversations.

  3. What a fantastic hat! It’s such a delight to see your joyful creative process and the way you meet the challenges head on and resolve them. I’m sure Barney must appreciate not only the glorious design and colours of the hat, but also that you haven’t stranded over thirty seven million stitches. I remember, as a child, getting very, very cross about my tiny fingers getting stuck in long strands inside my knitted clothes as I put them on – clothes which had come from Woolworths or somewhere where they didn’t think strand-length mattered, not lovingly made with such superb care by an amazing aunt!

    1. Aw thanks so much – I did get a happy little WOAH when Barney opened the package, so I think he likes it! Your childhood experience of getting tangled in strands sounds absolutely horrid -another reason why overly long-ones are best avoided, in my opinion. For me anything over the incidental sneaky 13 stitch wide strand (caught on the back somewhere, no doubt) is pushing the limits on what is nice to knit and what is nice to wear – but it’s very personal and I know other knitters who are far less rigid than myself on this particular point! What can I say – I like the strands to be as much a part of things as the colourwork, and for me, that’s about avoiding long and straggly ones, especially because they will be worn next to hands and fingers and toes and other things that can get tangled!

  4. What a simply fabulous hat! Lucky Barney 🙂 I hope you are going to turn this into a pattern because my nephew would love one too!

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