Friday, 30 September 2016

Material Things: Dovestone Natural Aran

When Jess of Baa Ram Ewe contacted me to tell me about their newest yarn and ask if I'd like to sample it, I said Yes please! Baa Ram Ewe are a small yarn company based north of Leeds; in their words:
Our masterplan is to make Yorkshire famous for wool production across the world once more, reconnecting it to its woolly heritage. We've put ourselves at the centre of this renaissance commanding worldwide appeal for our luxurious and authentic wools, all spun and made in Yorkshire.

Sounds good, doesn't it? Most knitters will know that British wool has long shed its reputation for being itchy, scratchy and stiff; this is thanks in part to local yarn producers like Baa Ram Ewe who have developed modern blends of lustrous wools, suitable to wear against the skin. The local factor is key to Baa Ram Ewe's appeal, and their catalogue is photographed beautifully, featuring chilly Northern idylls, cold enough to crack out all your favourite knitwear. I particularly enjoyed the story behind their Titus yarn, which was named after Sir Titus Salt, the founder of the Saltaire wool mill (now an amazing textile art gallery). The catalogue shows the inspiration for the yarn colours and names, which I thought was a great touch.

They launched their newest range Dovestone Natural Aran in the summer, and I received this lovely sample pack in the post. This is a blend of 50% Bluefaced Leicester , 25% Wensleydale Longwool and 25% Masham, and as you might expect, it comes in 5 undyed, natural shades of sheep. The shade card was especially handy, as the colours slightly differently in real life - as you would expect from an undyed fibre.

The packaging was all really lovely: matte paper, textured cardstock and translucent frosted stickers. I received shade 1, which looks like the ideal sheep's coat, but the coloured options are very subtle with a slightly mottled look. The yarn has has a beautiful natural sheen to it.The sample skein was enough to knit a large swatch, and the two-ply yarn is spun fairly loosely, allowing the fibres to bloom out and creating a soft and squishy handle.  I'd love to try out colour work and cables and see how it behaves.

It's worth commenting on the fact that this is quite a thin yarn for a self-described aran weight. Aran yarns normally take 5mm needles, but I knit this swatch on 4.5mm needles and it was looser than I prefer. It appears the same width as a DK-weight yarn I'm currently knitting with on 3.75mm needles. So it's worth swatching carefully with this yarn before launching in with an pattern for aran-weight yarn.

It's great to discover small businesses who are doing so much for local manufacturing as well as their heritage. Dovestone Natural Aran costs £14 per 100g hank (170m) so it's comparably priced with other small yarn companies. This is the kind of yarn that fits in perfectly with a slow-making ethos: make little, choose well.

Yarn samples provided by Baa Ram Ewe; all opinions my own.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

The Future is in the Dressing Up Box: at the Burberry Maker's House

London Fashion Week has been and gone, and fashion labels are once again trying to cheat the apparent death of the industry by doing something different. Burberry did something quite radical which was stage a pop-up showroom that was open to the public. No press passes, no booking: you could just walk in off the street. Which is what I did on Sunday.

Tucked away in a side street off Charing Cross Road, pedestrians were beckoned through a courtyard dressed as a Victorian greenhouse, and into a vast building. It was intriguing and inviting - way more so than actual Burberry boutiques. Through a cafe serving delectable treats amongst a swarm of selfie-snapping visitors, a dark hall downstairs featured many different craftspeople from the organisation The New Craftsmen carrying out demonstrations of their practice. Life sculpture, calligraphy, ceramics and printmaking all featured, and live readings of passages from Virginia Woolf's novel Orlando took place - an inspiration for the Burberry collection. Up the grand central staircase, a video of the catwalk show was projected, and a double-loop of mannequins lined the room. The collection was rather androgynous - appropriatel for the Orlando theme - and it was unclear whether the looks were intended as menswear or womenswear. But then, the whole feeling of the collection was a grand dressing up box filled with muted garments from an antiques dealer, where the evocative nature of a garment, rather than a gendered purpose, is key.

The designers clearly tucked into their fashion history tomes when brainstorming this collection - and it's all the better for it. Sometimes unexpected, occasionally humorous, it was above all imminently wearable. But then again, appearing as an elegant but eccentric mash-up of garments, one could just as easily re-create looks from this collection by going through Granny and Grandpa's wardrobe.

I've written about the knitwear on my craft blog, which was my favourite aspect of the collection. But my second favourite part was all the pyjamas. There was pretty much every single type of pyjama you could think of in this show (minus the slobby boyfriend's T-shirt kind). Silky dressing gowns, boxy two-pieces, lacey negligees and babydolls, and cropped boxer shorts - all layered up on top of each other in a cacophony of textures and cuts. It's the homeworker's collection, giving fashion to freelancer-lifestyle. It's a very inspiring suggestion of how to dress when you finally drag yourself out of your bedroom-office at 2.30pm with your Macbook to work at the local coffee shop/British Library till it closes. In fact, I may well bring my dressing gown with me to the BL tomorrow.

Burberry are clearly doing some clever marketing and branding with this event. Although the premise is that one can order looks from the collection directly, the majority of the general public who wandered into this show are going to be unable, or unlikely, to do so. Additionally, as long as you have access to hoarders or enjoy raiding thrift shops, it's very easy to replicate these looks yourself. So aside from generating huge amounts of press and enforcing Burberry's brand attributes (heritage, craftsmanship, tradition, fashion), I am not entirely sure how such an exhibition will lead to increased revenue.

But it was certainly full of pretty things, and the Internet loves pretty things. Perhaps that's all that matters.

Disclaimer: this blog post was written whilst fully dressed, and not in pyjamas.

Historo-Futuristic Knitting at the Burberry Makers House

Over the weekend I stumbled upon the Burberry Markers House, a pop-up showroom just off Charing Cross Road that was open for the public to peruse. Burberry tapped into the company's heritage and expanded upon its current associations as a luxury brand in order to explore what is at the core of couture: exquisite craftsmanship. Downstairs were various craft demonstrations, including life sculpture, ceramic glazing, calligraphy and even Tom of Holland's Visible Mending project. It was dark inside, using chiaroscuro-like spotlighting to highlight the diligent, repetitive activities of the craft demonstrators, who patiently answered all questions. Upstairs was Burberry's latest collection. They took the increasingly common step of presenting looks that are for this season, not next, and which were available to order immediately.

The collection, apparently inspired by Virginia Woolf's novel Orlando, reminded me of a dressing up box in a grand English country mansion. Muted woodland colours were very 1860s-meets-1970s, and so were the silhouettes. What stood out the most was the knitwear. It was full of gorgeous textures in restricted colour palettes, and very bold silhouettes. The deep V-necks, dropped shoulders, nipped waists and droopy full sleeves were a knitted copy of mid-19th century Victorian bodices. But combined with ribs, cables, and split and spliced hems, it was as futuristic and progressive as it was historically reminiscent. 

Fashion plate from the The English Woman's Domestic Magazine, July 1860 (source- V&A

This is bold, inspiring knitting that is a wearable form of textile art, or fashion design - whatever you'd prefer to call it. These kinds of shapes and textures challenge knitwear design, but importantly, do so in a wearable manner, bringing it into the public eye. The next step for Burberry would be to embrace craftsmanship not as a commodity but as a practice, and collaborate with yarn houses to produce and sell knitting patterns and kits - as was far more common in the past. Meanwhile, we can all look. And looking is free.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Nettie: stripes and friendship

This is a dress that is marked by friendship. Despite its distinctly autumnal palette, I made it during the spring in Scandinavia. I was living in Stockholm and feeling, more often than not, cold and alone. A friend from my undergrad days was also living there at the time, and kindly invited me to spend the Easter weekend with her mother in the countryside south of Stockholm.  After so many months living in a horrid white box filled with the cheapest furniture Ikea could offer, my friend's mother's flat was a warm, artistic sanctuary filled with genuinely creative and nurturing vibes. And what's more, there was an amazing fabric shop just a ten minute walk down the road!

I didn't take any of my sewing things with me to Stockholm, but my pal was running a small workroom at the time, so she let me use it off-hours. The pattern is the jersey body-con Nettie dress by Closet Case Patterns with the mid-neck and high back option. I was between sizes at the time of cutting, so graded up a size at the hips. Now that my kanelbullar tummy is beginning to disappear, the dress is a touch loose around the waist; but it still shows everything I've eaten! I lengthened the pattern by around a foot to get the ankle-length dress length, and created the split by leaving one side seam half open. The dress goes from modest to daring at the bevel of a leg.

When I tried the dress on, it became obvious that there was something weird going on at the shoulder. I didn't have time to hem the dress, and since I am not an acrobat, I was unable to do a decent fitting on myself to sort out the problem. However, a short while later I visited another close friend from undergraduate days in Copenhagen. Dorte and I shared a table during our final year studying costume making, and I was the fit model for several of her costumes. Lots has happened in both our lives since we spent all day every day drinking tea, listening to Nina Simone, and making period costumes by hand. I forced Dorte to do a fitting on me, whereby she came up with a simple and effective solution that involved no unpicking. Then I just had to hem the dress; however after struggling with her machine for all of thirty seconds, I managed to persuade her to also hem the thing for me.

And so, this dress started with one friend, and ended with another. It got its first outing at a fantastic little jazz pub in Copenhagen where we heard great music, drank tiny glasses of wine, and ended up running for the last train home. And since my Swedish pal is set to be following me in leaving Stockholm for London, I see more good outings ahead. I'm enjoying this summer so incredibly much; but this dress is one warm light to look forward to during the inevitable fall of autumn.

Project details:
Nettie dress
Pattern: Nettie by Closet Case Patterns. Lengthened to ankle length, with a side split.
Fabric: striped cotton/viscose jersey from Sweden
Cost: around £25 for fabric and pattern

Friday, 9 September 2016

Mending, saving, waste: thoughts on making and non-disposable living

I have just finished knitting a new heel on my worn-out, favourite pair of socks. It is perhaps the third or fourth time that I have mended them. Reinforced with two strands of polyester sewing thread, the new heel is strong and sturdy, so I'm happy to be able to pull on the sock again: it will accompany me on many more journeys to come. But even as I'm mending, I'm making many more things. To be a maker is to work through compulsions to create; but we cannot be producers without also being consumers. On my desk are scraps of material from previous projects that I will be transforming into another quilt. Not because I need another blanket (or even another pair of socks, for that matter), but because I want to make it. Sewing and knitting for me began in the desire to be self-sufficient; to step out of the cycle of buying, to break out of the need to replenish goods that are deemed unfashionable or unsuitable. But the craft industries are equally wily and lucrative; and I constantly find myself overwhelmed with piles of materials and tools that promised great things but have yet to be realised.

The desire to live a sustainable, non-disposable life often runs in dangerous parallel to being a hoarder. Never throwing anything away leads to the impulse to hang on to everything - which I have no desire to do. The minimalist-living trend often feels like a fantasy - a hazy, light-filled one where no one works zero-hour contracts or lives in house shares/with their parents into their thirties....ahem... It feels like the minimalist living trend might be a way of encouraging shopping when people have begun to question it. Having very few possessions is fine so long as you do the same thing every day; but break your routine and you might find yourself lacking.

The difficult thing is to find a balance: between preventing unnecessary waste, and being unable to let go of anything at all. Between making the things you want, versus the things that you need. And in how you spend your time, which is always precious, and little.

Meanwhile, I'm continuing with my 2016 Year of Socks project. And I'll make my quilt, too, and mend my clothes. But in sewing my own clothing, I've slowed right down, because there are only so many dresses I can wear at once.

Inspirational: historical darning samples from Fries Museum via Tom of Holland

Instructional: Re-knitting a sock heel

Darning 3 ways: re-knitting, with duplicate stitch, and basic darning

Friday, 2 September 2016

Fabric shopping in South-East Asia: Yogyakarta, Singapore & Hong Kong

In July and August, I spent 3 1/2 weeks in Asia on a research trip, holiday, and visiting family and friends. You all know that textiles make the best souvenirs, and so I was keen to spend some of my "holiday money" on fabric to take home.

Yogyakarta, Indonesia
Whilst holidaying in Yogyakarta, Java, my grandmother and I stumbled on an absolutely brilliant fabric shop stocking all manner of batik-style prints and stunning laces (above). After wandering around the massive shop for 20 minutes or so I felt completely overwhelmed and unable to choose a single cloth to bring back. I always aim to buy fabric with a project in mind, but at the huge array of pattern and colour, every single thought left my head!

There was quite a lot of batik available in Yogyakarta; but I saved my batik purchases for Ubud in Bali, where we bargained hard at Ubud market for a few sarongs.

Hong Kong
Naturally I later regretted not buying anything. My next stop was Hong Kong, where I'd read a lot about the fabric district Sham Shui Po. I'd experienced this market second-hand when I worked for a lingerie company one undergraduate summer. My (thankless!) task was to unpack the designer's suitcase absolutely filled with sample cards after trips to HK and China, and file them by type. So I was aware of what wonders might lie within the shops.

I had no desire to go through the process of ordering from a wholesaler and then collecting the next day. I did manage to buy 4 yards of gorgeous stretch lace from one of the trimmings shops; and purchased some more stretch fabrics for lingerie making from the nearby remnants market for $35/yard.

In Singapore I asked my relative who is a retired tailor where to shop for fabric. She recommended People's Park, by Chinatown MRT station. Entering the complex was slightly confusing but we managed to find the fabric shops pretty quickly. They had a really lovely selection, and many shops also offer dressmaking services, which is fun. My favourite shop was Maggie's Textiles.

Maggie has a really considered taste, and carefully selects fabric for her shop. At this time it was absolutely filled with Japanese fabrics, mostly cotton prints but in the corner was a small selection of indigo resist-dyed linen. at $24/m it wasn't cheap, but I reckon still less than it costs in the UK. After a lot of deliberation I bought this classic star print indigo linen to make a shift dress; and this faux-indigo cotton print by Cotton + Steel for $10/m for a shirt dress. (The "unbranded" Japanese cotton prints were $6/m). The Cotton + Steel print is rather darling: kitten faces and full moons.

Textile souvenirs
The conclusion is that buying fabric in Asia is a fun experience that I highly recommend - but go with projects in mind or it will certainly be overwhelming!

Now all I need is loads of time off to sew...