Like many knitters around the world, I was thrilled to see the return of the KDD&Co Allover Club last week, marked by this magnificent exploration of Pantone’s colour of the year by Kate Davies. I’m really enjoying the essays on the blog and hearing about different creative approaches from a variety of makers and designers. Today the series features an inspiring essay exploring Colour and feeling from the imminently thoughtful, creative and brilliant Janine Bajus AKA The Feral Knitter.
I think Janine’s work is amazing and instantly recognisable for its shimmering colour transitions; bold and glorious palettes; its combining of old with new motifs; and its rich variety of nifty finishing and shaping techniques.
Yet what’s less immediately visible (since we often only see the end result) is the rich and generous work that lies behind these stunning pieces – work that is as brilliant in itself as the joyous colourwork it produces. Janine approaches the creative process with warmth and curiosity, and is a natural teacher with that rare ability to really empower other knitters with what she discovers along the way. Janine does this through her legendary classes (though she is currently taking a break from teaching); her fantastic book, The Joy of Color; and the retreats and tours with which she is involved.
Janine is enabling when we are stuck; finds the funny side and pragmatic solutions when things go wrong; and always signs her highly-recommended newsletter with the powerful reminder to “take exquisite, gentle care of yourselves and others at this time”. I cherish all these things about her and, over the last few years, our shared passions have cemented a wonderfully supportive and inspiring friendship. I realised it was high time we did a proper Q&A together here on the KNITSONIK blog. When you’ve finished reading our conversation, I hope you’ll understand why I privately think of Janine as the Janinius (Janine + Genius).
For further information about Janine’s work please see her website: https://www.feralknitter.com/ and find copies of her book on her website, in the KNITSONIK online shop (UK) and at Sheeps Ahoy in Canada.
Felix: In The Joy of Color you take a really practical approach to designing stranded colourwork sweaters. It reads as though you’ve intentionally sought to demystify the creative process and make it accessible and straightforward – could you talk about that, and about your own background and how it led you down this wonderfully enabling path?
Janine: I came into knitting knowing that I would like to design Fair Isle garments, but at that time there was very little written about how to design your own. I took a number of color theory classes, read all the books available, knit many different swatches — and remained unclear about how it all worked: the problem is that Fair Isle design involves several different elements that all impact upon each other. Change any one item and others stop working! That’s when I applied my professional training as a technical writer to my knitting to isolate, as much as possible, the different main elements of a design: color, motif, and garment design.
Choosing colors, in particular, is an intimidating process to many people. When I broke that element down into smaller steps the mystery disappeared. Speed swatching in particular has proven to be a very useful tool; when we try to test colors AND motifs simultaneously there are too many moving pieces.
It turned out that this way of looking at the design process worked for other folks, too, even those who thought they didn’t have an eye for color. The step-by-step logical process results in magical designs!
Felix: The Joy of Color opens with a foreword from Meg Swansen and a brief mention of how attending Knitting Camp in 1998 really kickstarted your journey into stranded colourwork design. Could you share a bit more about the role that Knitting Camp and Schoolhouse Press have played in your approach and knitting career?
Janine: It is absolutely true to say that I am a knitter today because of Meg Swansen! Reading a profile of her in Knitting in America by Melanie Falick opened my eyes to the possibilities of self-expression in knitting. Knitting wasn’t just about following patterns: “Your sweater should be a an expression of you. It’s a self-empowerment deal.” I read everything that Meg and her mother Elizabeth Zimmermann had written about how knitted items can be constructed, the percentage system, different seamless shoulder constructions, how to look at your knitting rather than a pattern… the list of what I learned from them is too long to recite here. I was lucky enough to attend Meg’s Knitting Camp in Wisconsin soon after I began knitting and I was blown away by the creative energy in the room; I was with people who were unashamedly enamored of this craft that had so grabbed my imagination — they were proud to show their work and share their technical discoveries.
When I began knitting I thought Fair Isle design was too complex technically and artistically for me, a relative beginner. At that first Camp in 1998 Meg announced a millennium Fair Isle competition: Campers were challenged to design a Fair Isle garment and bring it to the next year’s Camp. I thought to myself, “I wish I were good enough to do that.” The next year Campers brought their designs and a gloriously colorful pile of garments grew in the center of the room. I was consumed with envy and thought, once again, “I wish I were good enough to do that.” But as I watched one knitter unravel and re-knit her hem I realized that this was just stocking stitch with two colors — and I could do that! I watched Meg’s Fair Isle Vest video while I knit her Turkish Maple Sweater design to develop my technical skills. And since then I’ve had the fun of looking at the world through a dancing lens of patterns and colors.
I still read everything Meg writes, am grateful for the technical knowledge I’ve learned, and cherish the friendships I made at Camp.
Felix: Knitting Camp is amazing – so much knitting and knowledge in one place – and so many wonderful friends forged across the years (shout out to the Camperoos!).
It strikes me that the writings of Elizabeth Zimmermann and Meg Swansen really speak to the seams between making wonderful things, and all the other parts of our lives. Friendships and colleagues, the seasons, weather and so on often end up in the newsletters that introduce this or that pattern or the notes that tell how any particular design came about. I think those connections between our lives and what we make are so intrinsic – so important. In The Joy of Color you wrote an amazing paragraph where you speak about Wearing what we make – it’s on page 129 – I really love this paragraph because it epitomises something vital about what it feels like to create and wear truly meaningful things. Can you tell us the story of a few special sweaters you have made (and I know your library is large!) – what they meant to you to create, and what they mean to you to wear?
Janine: I love the idea of imbuing objects with meaning through regular use, which is the opposite of consumer culture. Although most of my sweaters have deep personal meaning, there’s one that stands out as being worn the most: my Celtic Knot Yoke Sweater (Ravelry link).
At the airport recently, while the security officer examined my ancient driver’s license photo and looked at me, I realized that I was wearing the same sweater as was in the license photo — and it struck me I wear it on nearly every trip. It’s not a complex design but I made so many really big mistakes when knitting it that by the time it was finished we’d already been through a lot together. The fixes to these mistakes took a lot of time and grafting and swearing. Now this sweater hangs in soft folds and sports a loving repair, signs that it is truly my signature in the world.
Sometimes I don’t wear sweaters that I’ve made for any number of reasons. I think that the Salmon Coming Home Vest (Ravelry link) has the most meaning for me, though it hasn’t been worn often because my body has changed and it’s a bit large for me — time to re-knit it!
Felix: As well as being the author of The Joy of Color, you are an incredible teacher – many of the sweaters included in your book were created by students from your classes. Could you say a bit about how your teaching experience shaped your decisions in structuring and laying out this book, and your decisions about what to include?
Janine: I love watching people gain confidence in their ability to create their own personal, meaningful garments. I began teaching relatively early in my design career due to the encouragement of Suzanne Pedersen, the organizer of Madrona Fiber Arts Retreat. Because I was still very conscious of how I was working, I was able to communicate a step-by-step process that, while it didn’t remove the complexity of Fair Isle design, broke it down into manageable parts. My book grew out of my workshop handouts, which were getting longer and longer and longer as I added material in response to each workshop. When I thought of writing a book it was always in terms of giving anyone who wanted the information and encouragement that I gave in person, so the book follows exactly the process of an in-person workshop experience. My students taught me that everyone can succeed if they just persevere, but that there were real roadblocks to finishing a sweater. The final chapter, Getting It Done, reflects the emphasis on emotional resilience that is sprinkled throughout my classes!
A valuable part of the workshop experience is learning from other students — it is so helpful to learn from the success and failures of others. I sent out an email to all former students, asking if anyone who had finished a garment would like to be part of the book. They were asked to respond to series of questions, such as What inspired you? What worked? What didn’t work? Do you have any advice for other designers? These answers were turned into a narrative that I hoped would recreate the experience of sitting down and knitting together. I love the pride they have in their sweaters—and the wide range of their designs demonstrates that we can use Fair Isle knitting design principles to express many different aesthetics.
Felix: Your chapter “Getting it Done” is one of my favourite chapters in any knitting book ever written – it’s like a manual for all creative projects, not just knitting. What I like best is how you confront perfectionism and its joy-killing effects. I’m really interested in stories that involve overcoming perfectionism and wondered if you have any knitting stories you can tell us in which things went wrong, and weren’t 100% absolutely perfect, but where – instead of being disappointed and shutting down, you found something precious, useful or affirming?
Janine: Perfection is boring! Worse, perfectionism is the usual culprit in shutting down creative exploration. So much energy spent in ripping back, so much self-judgment behind every half-knitted sweater in the back of the closet… I am drawn to things that aren’t perfect; the little mistakes are signs that the piece was knitted by a human being. In classes I like to show my November Garden Sweater (pictured above) and ask students to find my initials (I insert my initials and date into every garment); even though they completely interrupt the patterning they are hard to find! Just imagine how little impact your small pattern goofs actually make.
Mistakes can become design elements. My Celtic Rose Jacket comes to mind. The body of this jacket has a simple repeat of five rosy, warm colors but I used slightly different proportions of colors in alternating bands. This arose out of a mistake – I wasn’t paying close attention and forgot to change colors when I should have (we’ve all done this!). Being too lazy to rip back I decided to make it a design element, and it creates a subtle variation that gives life to the design.
When it came time to knit the facing to the front band I realized that I didn’t have enough of the color I wanted to complete it. I found a second color and added some stripes—I just played with the widths because regular stripes bore me. Inevitably, when knitters examine this garment, this is the feature they comment on! Sometimes the best ideas arise out of scarcity or miscalculation — and approaching these “mistakes” playfully usually creates something unique and wonderful.
Felix: Hurrah for mistakes! Something that really struck me in The Joy of Color – and when I visited you and made you pull out all your sweaters to see – is the rich and varied ways in which you have chosen to finish and edge the sweaters you’ve made. There is this somewhat entrenched idea that all sleeves, bodies and necklines should end with ribbing, but you have rightly asked why this should be so and have found infinite ways to edge and finish your garments instead. I wonder if you could talk us through the curiosity and creativity that led you into all these different edgings and maybe discuss a couple of examples?
Janine: When you get right down to it, hems and bands have two functions: the structural function of keeping the knitted fabric from splaying out and the design function of providing a visual frame. So much of our understanding of how garments are framed is based on the requirements of commercial interests — speed, efficiency, and replication. But when we are designing our own garments we can definitely look at other solutions.
The Sea and Sand Sweater has a very broad V neck that rides high at the back of the neck. The neckband needed to be extremely flexible in order to negotiate the sharp turn at the shoulders but also stable, not ruffly. I knew that regular stranded knitting didn’t meet these requirements (plus I hate purling in color pattern). When we’ve articulated the problem we can find a solution — in this case a slip-stitch pattern in a Barbara Walker stitch dictionary met the bill.
Sometimes I’ve wanted a bold, wide band, but I’ve found that Shetland fingering-weight yarn held single makes a rather limp band. So for the broad bands of the Yellow Island Jacket I held two colors of yarn together in a farrow rib pattern.
When I was knitting the Celtic Rose Jacket I didn’t have any idea what the bands would look like. I knew that I would need some sparkly color to bring it all to life but until the body was done I couldn’t envision it exactly — and of course I’m always game to add more patterning! I could see that that turn points in the front band required special consideration; whatever motif I used would be distorted there. Unless, unless… I could find two braids that could run side by side with a plain area between them where I could place the increases and decreases.
On the other hand, in the November Garden Sweater I didn’t add colors to the bands but I added a different motif in the hem (a spider web!) and the ribbed cuffs have simple stripes.
I’ve been playing around with writing a book about all the possibilities!
Felix: PLEASE WRITE IT!
There is a deep generosity throughout The Joy of Color in that you refer to other makers and writers and tools you have found helpful all the way through. As well as being your own very rich exploration of colour, pattern, techniques and case studies, this book is a fantastic compendium of resources. In your newsletter you also are really great at always including lovely quotes – could you say a bit about your decisions to cite and celebrate the work of others as part of putting your own work out into the world?
Janine: I have a deeply held belief that comforts me: I am held by and am in turn part of an amazing web of support across time and space. It’s important for me to acknowledge the many ways my work is built on or inspired by the work of other people.
Let me share a story: Several years ago I heard that a Felicity Ford in England had published a book about how to design stranded colourwork based on visual prompts (!). I was struggling to write my book at that time, and I had a momentary jolt of fear: “She got there first! Her book is great! Who would want my book???” I quickly came to my senses and realized that I could look at it another way: This Felicity is a kindred spirit who is doing amazing work imbued with her joyful personality, and there is plenty of room at the table for both of us. When I visited England a couple of years later we had a chance to meet and formed a real professional and personal bond – which would not have been possible if fear and scarcity had run the show.
I never need to fear another’s creativity or artistic expression or technical prowess. I can surround myself with the words of people whose light shines brightly. I can offer thanks for the fact that they have shared their insights. And in turn I can share what I know. None of us work in isolation!
Felix: Aw, I love that story! I confess that I too had a momentary jolt of fear when I realised you had a book due out that would deal with translating everyday inspirations into stranded colourwork (!) but when I sat down and read The Joy of Color I couldn’t put it down – I went from cover to cover in a single sitting and, rather than feeling anything like fear, I felt kinship and deep joy. It was amazing to read your thoughts on subjects close to my heart – how to develop palettes; how an inspiration source can help us; how we can teach ourselves to think in terms of background and pattern designs. My main feeling was excitement at all the things we’d be able to talk about if – when! – we ever got to meet up in person. Hurrah that we did. Like you say – none of us work in isolation and other folks who share our interests and field are folks to be thankful for, rather than to fear.
Finally, I wondered if you could tell us about what’s on your needles right now?
Janine: I’ve always got a number of things in process (I can’t seem to stick to any one thing!) — I’m most excited by a new series of designs I’m working on inspired by images of the moon at different times of the night. Right now I’m working on the Bella Luna Sweater, which includes images of the moon in different phases, names given to the full moon, and a snippet of poetry: “In all its phases the moon remains whole.” This moon obsession has has carried me through three garments so far — the Luna Hat (Ravelry link), the Ten Moons Yoke Sweater, and the Bella Luna Sweater, with the Sunrise Moons Vest still in the swatch stage.
…But my mind has begun to wander to the next series, and the phrase “All rivers contribute to the sea” has sparked my imagination… Who knows where this will lead? And that’s the real joy of creative work!
Thanks for asking such great questions, Felix! Enjoy your knitting, everyone!
Felix: Many thanks, Janine, for your wonderful thoughtful answers and for the JOY you bring to colourwork – and to life! If I may, I’d like to end with that wonderful quote from your book, because it’s such a rich reminder to us all of the power of our work and why we knit.
Wear your sweater whenever you can – don’t save it for special occasions. Let it become your signature in the world, a quiet symbol of intelligence, skill, persistence, and the power of individual beauty in an over-commodified world.
Revel in its warmth, privately thanking the thousands of people who helped you bring your vision to life: the shepherds, the veterinarians, the fence builders, the shearers, the mill workers, the truck drivers, the dyers, the label printers, the shop owners, the teachers, the needle makers, the book publishers, the designers, the editors, your knitting friends – in the deepest sense your sweater is an expression of your place in an interconnected web spanning time and place whose strands are too numerous to name.
– Janine Bajus, The Joy of Color