Thursday, 31 December 2009

Feeling thwarted

Once again Christmas plans have been somewhat thwarted. Having started the year with Other Half on antibiotics for early-stage pneumonia, it's been my turn to be put on penicillin on Christmas Day. Fortunately, we were staying in Denmark with my doctor cousin Stella who decided to take action! We still managed to have a lovely Christmas with her and the family, which they weren't celebrating until the 27th December this year (so all the family could be together) - and we had lots of snow as well. Nevertheless, it's all been rather disappointing and I'm still feeling very weak.

Danes celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve and ours, on 27th December as I said, involved a traditional turkey meal at 8pm cooked by my cousin Caspar (although that was the English influence - Danish Christmas meal is usually roast pork or goose). Then there was the wonderful Christmas rice pudding with hot cherry sauce. A whole almond is hidden in it and if you find it you can claim a prize. The idea is to keep it hidden at first to encourage others to go on eating in search of it. The dedication of my nine-year old cousin Kjarthan in pursuit of this goal was truly amazing - he must have hollow arms and legs - although he did confess to having a slightly sore tummy afterwards. He duly received his prize - a big box of chocolates! After that we walked round the beautifully decorated and candle-lit Christmas tree (chopped down that morning) singing carols before opening our presents and eating more sweets. It all finished off about 2 am and not much activity was to be observed the next day. Usually things kick off a little earlier and end with a midnight walk but nevertheless it was all really delightful and a much better expression of Christmas than we seem to be able to muster in the over-commercialised, over-crowded UK, which greeted us with long delays on the M25 and a five hour return journey from Harwich, something we could have done without.

Anyway, that's it for 2009, which has been a strange mix of illness, bereavement and job struggles, alongside some really good travels and opportunities for creative expression. With knitting, it's sometimes felt like one step forward and two steps back, with lots of ideas for designing but not so much realisation of projects. I'm hoping that 2010 will see an increase in the latter as well as new approaches to work.

Wishing everyone a very Happy New Year and lots of inspirational knitting. Perhaps these decorative features at the entrance to the Natural History Museum in London will inspire us all!

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Where did that last 6 weeks go?

Not quite sure how it has got to be the end of November! Last time I said I'd post some pics of my trip to southern Spain and here they are - lots of wonderful design inspirations from a weekend wandering around Seville and Cordoba under warm blue skies. I spent a delightful time virtually on my own in the Real Alcazar in Seville among wonderful blue and yellow tiles and water gardens. The trick, as advised by a seasoned traveller, is to be the first in the queue and walk right through to the final garden then work your way slowly back. That way you get about an hour to yourself before re-joining the tourist crowds. In Cordoba there was a miniature version of this Alcazar next to the famous Mezquita. If you are patient enough to work through the photos, do be sure to check out the Roman mosaics from the museum there. These are brilliant inspirations for cable patterns, which are my current City & Guilds preoccupation having moved on from Intarsia and Fair Isle work.

Seville and Cordoba

Since then the clocks have changed and we've plunged into an English winter. Despite the dark evenings I've been enjoying going up to the V&A on Tuesday afternoons to learn about Asian textiles. We've worked our way along the Silk Route from Japan to Turkey and are now in India for a couple off weeks before finishing off with a fortnight in South East Asia. I'm posting a small selection of some exquisite Chinese embroidered animals, which apart from being stunning in themselves, will I'm sure inspire future knitting, especially their exceptional use of colour.

Chinese Embroidery

It's still too early to wish everyone a Happy Christmas so I will try to do another post before the holiday season is upon us. But I do hope you are warm and safe and enjoying the time you are managing to create for your creative activities.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Still here

A very quick post to say that I'm still here, still blogging, and still knitting. It has been a very busy time at home and work since August and surprisingly painful without dear Solomon, still very sorely missed. Touchingly, a sweet little cat from two doors down has decided to adopt us from time to time and her owner is happily willing to share. The possibility of a visit from Dora has been a great help over the past few weeks - long may it continue!

On the knitting front there is some really exciting news. I'm going to tutor a course at the Oxford Summer School in 2010. It's called New Directions in Knitting and will explore the boundaries between knitting as art and craft. We'll be doing lots of exciting things with different fibres and other materials, so do think about signing up for this. The date for your diary is the week beginning Monday 26 July, probably from Wednesday to Saturday. I will post more information about this over the coming weeks. I'm also arranging to take a group of Jam Factory knitters to Shetland and Fair Isle in late May/early June, something I've wanted to do for a long time.

Yesterday I started a ten week course on Asian Textiles at the V&A in London. It's quite hard to manage logistically around my work but I think it will prove really interesting. I've also written an article about my trip to Xinjiang and Kyrgyzstan for the next issue of Asian Textiles, the magazine of the Oxford Asian Textiles Group. Look out for this on the OATG's website -

I've been working on my own designing, too, like the butterfly in the picture. I'm even beginning to enjoy the dreaded Intarsia! At the moment I'm working on Fair Isle swatches for Module 4 of the City and Guilds course. Good for the long bus journey back from the V&A on Tuesday evenings...

And finally, I am off to Andalucia this weekend, for a bit of autumn sun and hopefully some knitting inspiration. I've bought a swanky new camera (Canon IXUS 100IS) so there should be some nice pictures for you to look at in a week or two.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Farewell My Lovely

Just a few knitting-related pics of my wonderful feline companion Solomon who sadly passed away on Sunday 9 August, 11 years after we moved into "his" house. Sorely missed.

Friday, 7 August 2009

Slow Knitting

Progress has felt quite slow on all knitting fronts lately, although in fact I've just completed Module 3 of my City & Guilds Hand Knit textiles course. I've thoroughly enjoyed it too, playing around with print-making, line and mark-making, embroidery on knitting and lots more besides. See some pictures here.
C&G Module 3 pics
I think it's a general sense of stuckness I'm feeling, as I'm frustrated on a number of projects. I feel that I need to press on and complete several of these but various things are blocking their completion. Most of these are actually to do with finishing things off to a satisfactory look, rather than the knitting itself. And some of it is about feeling that I don't have enough time or energy for everything I'm trying to do at the moment.

I have of course written abour Knitter's Block here before, specifically on 20 July 2008, when I see that I wrote that: "Far from representing stuckness, knitter's block can create progress." Creative blocks (in both senses) have been very much on my mind for the past three months as I've been working my way through Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way. This week I'm completing the final week, Week 12. It's an amazing book, full of insights about how our creativity becomes blocked and the steps we can take to recover. In fact it's a 12 step recovery programme for blocked creatives! The exercises in the book are certainly helping me to resource a way forward and I highly recommend them to anyone who wants to explore and improve their creative abilities.

All of this has led me onto thoughts about Slow Knitting and as I've been mulling over what that might mean, I've had the image in my head of broken bones slowly mending. Indeed, this is sometimes described by the medics as "knitting together". Julia Cameron talks about the need to take baby steps on the journey to creative recovery, to go at things slowly, not running before you can walk. Slow Knitting might also be likened to the Slow Food movement, something that brings the pace of life and eating back from the frantic "sandwich-lunch-at-your-desk" to a more meditative and sociable time out to enjoy the good things in life. In this sense, knitting can become meditative, a contemplation. The root of the word, contemplare, means to see things as they really are. To be here in this moment, now, and to know it for what it is. "The Kingdom of God is here, this is it, now." Annie Dillard, that wonderful writer about the natural world and the spiritual life has it thus: "A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough. The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet." (The Writing Life, 1989)

There is certainly plenty of opportunity for a life of the senses as a knitter: more stash, more projects, more patterns, more magazines, more courses, more blogs, more websites, more events. It's a wonderful world of sensation and delight and I'm certainly not against it. But, as Meg Swansen said about Ravelry in a recent interview, it's "like taking a shower under Niagara Falls, there is so much information that it is impossible to take it all in." (Yarn Forward, Issue 16, August 2009) And eventually one can begin to reel from a kind of Stendahlismo , named after the nineteenth century novelist Stendahl who experienced sensual dizziness when faced by the artistic and architectural richness of Florence.

Slow Knitting may be the life of the spirit for knitters, a point where the simple act of hooking loop over loop in a set pattern becomes meditative, centred entirely in the moment, this Now, which is all we every really have but which links into something else, perhaps to another unknown knitter clicking her needles in the same spirit at the same moment, or to a sense of Other, knitting into a piece of eternity.

In the spirit of Slow Knitting, I've been knitting a letter E for the Poetry Society's Knit A Poem event (pictured above). The aim is for individual knitters to knit a square with a letter in it plus some blank squares, which will eventually be joined together to make a giant knitted poem. We don't know yet which poem it is. Knitters are asked to think about the poem that they would like it to be as they knit...

Doing this has also been good practice for Intarsia, which is a bit of a bete-noire for me - and also a big element of City & Guilds Module 4! You can read more about this project on the Poetry Society's website and there is also a Knit A Poem group on Ravelry. And talking about Ravelry, that great Niagara Falls, I have now finally developed a profile there as Stileknits, so do go and take a look and, if you are a Ravelry member, do drop by and say hello.

I'm off to the Bath Fashion Museum with some of the Oxford Jam Factory knitters next Friday to look at the Bill Gibb exhibition, the Supremes' costumes on tour, and peek behind the scenes at their collection of 20th century knitted textiles. A few pictures below of the wonderful Bill Gibb show from my last visit.
Bath Fashion Museum visit 3 July 2009

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Focus on Textiles

After going into a bit of a political rant last time, I thought I should bring things back to textiles (without promising not to stray into other areas). Well, it's a knitting blog, after all, and time to update you on my current design inspirations and projects. I think this is going to end up being quite a long entry!

Of course, my main inspirations in the last few weeks have come from my fabulous trip to China and Kyrgyzstan. On the downside, there were quite a few relentless travelling days which meant that time for textile browsing sometimes got squeezed. On the upside, though, were several museum visits and a trip to a silk factory, which provided lots of insights into the traditions and production of Central Asian textiles, which are a big inspiration for me. You can see a slideshow of some of the photos from the trip by clicking on the picture below:
50th birthday trip

We stopped first at the Xinjiang Regional Museum in Urumchi, which set the context for the regions and the peoples of Western China, although this was presented in a rather faux-naif Soviet-style of "here are all our wonderful ethnic groups, aren't they cute"? In a twist of history Russians were included in this section, not sure how the fallen-but-trying-to-rise-again Empire would feel about that! Urumchi (Chinese Urumqi) is also famous for its mummies and you can read more about these here:
The Loulan mummy is certainly very impressive and has an exquisitely delicate bone structure. There is something intensely beautiful about skeletal structures. At the museum I kept thinking of a programme we'd been watching just before going away about how humans all share the same DNA source from a small African diaspora, disproving certain Chinese theories that the Han people have a separate origin. I tried to make some sketches in the museum (no photos allowed) but it was difficult with the distractions of school parties and somewhat officious guards anxious that we went the right way round!
The hotel we stayed at in Urumqi was also a strange place: men and women alike received a phone call from the basement offering sexual services! Trying to fall asleep after that I felt really aware of being in the wild East, perhaps also influenced by reading Peter Hopkirk's book about the Great Game. And, however acceptable liberal protagonists would like to make the sex industry, I can't see any positives in young women resorting to earning a living in this way. The contrast between this and the covering up of women required in the Uighur Muslim community was both interesting and confusing. Neither approach fits with my view of what gender equality is all about, and may indeed be different sides of the same coin.

After crossing the Takla Makan desert (see last entry) we stayed a couple of nights in Hotan which, before being conquered by first Islam and now the Chinese, was previously the ancient Buddhist kingdom of Khotan, see There was evidence of much destruction of Buddhist culture under Islam and of course now the Chinese are making considerable changes themselves; however this is still a major silk production area. Our trip to the Atlas Silk factory was really interesting, although I'm not so keen on boiling worms! I did buy a very nice piece of silk in natural dyes while we were there.
From Central Asian Textiles
There's an interesting article on Atlas Silk production here although unfortunately the photos don't seem to work.

While in Hotan we also visited the local museum, where there were some really interesting examples of textile work (again no photos allowed), and the old town, where several women invited us into their homes and one showed us her beautiful cross-stitch embroidery.
From 50th birthday trip

Continuing our journey towards Kashgar, we stopped off at a local market in Kargalik (one of our best stops) where I bought some very simple woven braids.
From Central Asian Textiles

In Kashgar we visited the livestock market which was utterly absorbing (and much better than the traditional Sunday market, which has been moved indoors.) There were lots of the famous fat-tailed sheep for sale and evidence of felting and weaving techniques in the blankets and decoration on traditional wooden carts and donkeys. I also noticed this cross-stitch hat being worn by one of the young girls and became fascinated by the apparently machine-knitted brown veils that some of the older women wore.
From 50th birthday trip
From 50th birthday trip

The veils had a definite and consistent pattern, mixing garter stitch with basket weave, although it was hard to get too close without being considered rude! Although made of quite lightweight yarn they must be very difficult to see through unless you really know your way! Back in the centre of Kashgar near the mosque, I watched one woman sifting through brightly covered synthetic scarves set out for sale on the pavement. She used one hand for sifting and the other to lift her veil to see, but very expertly so that her face remained invisible. Yet I saw other women wearing this type of veil folded back over their heads revealing the face, so there must be subtleties of practice and expectation of which I was completely unaware. I would have liked to buy one of these brown veils and but didn't see any sign of them for sale in the local markets.
From Kashgar we did one day trip along the Chinese bit of the Karakoram Highway (another highlight). At the checkpoint on the way back I saw a woman using a drop spindle, the only time during the trip. Unfortunately as we were at a sensitive area I was advised by our guide that asking to take her photo was not a good idea.
After Kashgar we crossed into Kyrgyzstan. This was an experience in itself - nearly four hours to complete the crossing, through at least four checkpoints. For one bit two Chinese soldiers decided to come onto the bus with us. They promptly fell asleep, and I think just wanted a ride in our air con, but not before they had told our tour guide to put his shoes back on...

Kyrgyzstan, probably the poorest of the five former Soviet Central Asian republics, is a stunningly beautiful country, although still prone to some soviet-style attitudes to tourism. We were wonderfully welcomed and looked after everywhere we stayed (two nights in yurts, two nights in a lovely guest house in the capital Bishkek) but we had three long travelling days during which rest breaks and photo stops were only grudgingly given. We were also rushed through a textile stop (some interesting felting techniques but items for sale mostly adapted for a Western tourist market)in order to visit a very polluted and un-scenic lakeside in a run-down town at Lake Issyk-Kul. I was not impressed, although I gather that there are more delightful spots we could have visited.
However, much the best bit of our stay in Kyrgyzstan, was a day at leisure in Bishkek (our last day before heading home) where we wandered round in a very chilled state, had leisurely meals and took a ride on a ferris wheel in one of the many leafy parks. At the local history museum, as well as beautiful textile displays and a weird but extensive Lenin collection, we met the lovely Nina and Rita, who run a souvenir shop which provides an outlet for local women to sell handmade textiles, mostly embroidery with some woven pieces. These are mainly older pieces that have been created within the seller's family and are adapted for modern use. I shopped.

See a slideshow of the pieces that I bought here:
Central Asian Textiles
I did have some concerns about the process of chopping up old textiles for sale (reminiscent of dismembered atlases we saw in the markets in Istanbul). However, as a business opportunity for Kyrgyz women who are no longer living the traditional nomadic lifestyle it seems unanswerable, particularly as an alternative to hotel basements. I certainly hope to return to Bishkek and elsewhere in the region before too long and develop my understanding of both the situation and the textiles.

Meanwhile, back in the UK I am slowly returning to my knitting projects. I've completed a top in Rowan Bamboo tape that was taken from Rowan magazine 43 (Mine, p. 117) to which I introduced my own striped design for the front. It worked really well (better than I deserved since I didn't work it all out in advance, tut tut) and I was greatly helped by advice from members of my knitting group - Jam Factory Knitters in Oxford - about how and where to place the colours, both for body shape and visual appeal.

As always I learned a lot from doing this design work and I am greatly enjoying wearing the result. I wore it to a City and Guild students' gathering at Winchester School of Arts this week, where we viewed the displays of recent graduates in fashion and textiles, and talked about our own progress.

So now it's back to Module 3, armed with lots of fresh ideas from my travels. These are very timely, not just the silk project, but also the exercises on print, line-marking and applying embroidery to knitting. And I also have a course on plaiting baskets to look forward to at the Oxford Summer School in July. More next time.

Finally - and if you've read this far, congratulations - don't forget that there is still time to donate to my birthday charity via my website below. An amazing £1075 has been raised so far for the Lavender Trust at Breast Cancer Care.

And check out Other Half's blog too:

Monday, 22 June 2009

Birthday Challenge

A fabulous trip to China and Kyrgyzstan and I promise to post some more pictures soon. For now, as you can see, I crossed the famous Takla Makan desert and, even though it only took four or five hours in an air-conditioned bus rather than a year by horse and camel, it was certainly worth it. I'd never been in a sand-dune desert before and it was the nearest I've ever come to a barren wilderness.
At one point the day before it seemed like we might not make it, however. On my birthday we stopped for lunch at a place called Onsu, on our way between Khotan and Aksu, the starting point for the desert. Most of us went off for a meal in a local restaurant but a few of the rest went to buy lunch in the market. This aroused the suspicion of the police, perhaps on the alert for trouble in the run up to the 20th anniversary of Tianmen Square, perhaps always concerned about foreign tourists talking to the local Uighur people in Xinjiang, where the situation is very similar to that of Tibet but not publicised so much in the West. Anyway, when one of our party refused to show her passport to the police, they became very nervous and wanted us all to register at the local police station. I must confess that I did send up a little prayer at that point asking that this not be the way I spent my 50th birthday! Fortunately our very able local guide calmed everything down and we were allowed to go on our way. And I had a fabulous birthday in Aksu, with cake and a candle and everything! But we were certainly made very aware that we were not travelling in an open society and this was confirmed when we saw evidence later in our travels of the bulldozing of the old town in Kashgar by the Chinese government. The corner pictured had been full of brightly coloured pots two weeks previously.

This near escape from Chinese officialdom has been very much on my mind this week as Aung San Suu Kyi has been spending her 64th birthday in Burma's notorious Insein Prison. Please keep her in your thoughts and prayers.
Meanwhile, it's not too late to donate to my birthday charity at, £1005 raised so far for The Lavender Trust at Breast Cancer Care.

Monday, 25 May 2009

Go in never come out again

The day after tomorrow I am setting off on my 50th birthday adventure from Beijing to Bishkek across the Takla Makan desert. Takla Makan roughly translates as "go in never come out again" and in the days when camels were the only way to get across it, this was quite likely. Today there is a road, so hopefully we will re-emerge...

It's always been my dream to go across the Takla Makan, ever since reading Peter Fleming's News from Tartary, his account of travelling there in the 1930s. Older brother of Ian Fleming of James Bond fame, he was also married to Celia Johnson, star of Brief Encounter. Their recent marriage didn't stop him linking up on this particular journey with fellow solo traveller, a Swiss journalist called Kini Maillart. Fleming's book contains a fulsome tribute to her stoicism and unflappability during their journey, although back at home the (reasonably) suspicious Johnson unlovingly dubbed her "The Swiss".

The textiles link to our journey is that we are travelling along the old Silk Route across western China and into Kyrgyzstan, and the trip includes a visit to a silk production centre, as well as to see carpet weaving and Jade craft. No doubt there will be plenty of opportunities to buy! This dovetails very nicely with my yarn fibres project for Module 3 of my City & Guilds Hand Knitting course, which is, you've guessed it, silk!

Congratulations to Lyn Wymers for being the first (and only!) person to respond to the quiz in my last post - yes my 50th birthday is on Tuesday 2nd June. If you haven't yet done so, please consider making a donation to my Just Giving website for The Lavender Trust:

My 50th birthday challenge is to raise £1000 for this charity, which advises young women diagnosed with breast cancer, by 13th July 2009. Yes, the challenge was originally £500 but my wonderful friends responded so fast that this was raised within a week! I will update you on progress on my return from Bishkek in mid-June.

By the way, this post's picture is not the Taklamakan Desert but the Atacama Desert in Chile, which we visited in November 2007.

Monday, 11 May 2009


Too long no blog, for which many apologies. I once read that the first half of life is like riding uphill and the second like freewheeling downhill. I never was much good at bike riding but the pace of life does seem to be speeding up and I'm certainly over the hill as my 50th birthday is fast approaching...

To mark the event I'm raising funds for The Lavender Trust, which provides support and advice for young women diagnosed with breast cancer. If you've managed to escape my e-mail about this, then please visit my website to read more. It's really easy to make a donation: my aim is to raise £500 and amazingly, thanks to the generosity of my wonderful friends, I'm nearly half-way there!

On the knitting front I've had two really good trips to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London recently with fellow students on the City & Guilds course and led by our tutor Loraine McClean. The pictures I'm posting today are from the V&A's online knitting collection, which is really worth taking a look at. The first one is from a fantastic book of swatches - the sample book of Elizabeth Hume - which we saw in a behind the scenes visit along with a wonderful knitted Tudor jacket and a weird but equally wonderful Body Map dress from the 1980s. The second photo is a Second World War "Victory" jumper and you can download the pattern if you feel like knitting some lacy chevrons! I'm offering a prize for the first person to spot the significance of the date (2nd June 1945) on the cover. Why not post a comment with your suggestion? Clue: it's not the year!

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Island Life

A perfect early spring week on Alderney,in the Channel Islands, with lots of inspiration for stripe patterns and colours in the natural landscape. We couldn't have been luckier with the weather - ten hours of sunshine nearly every day and no need to put on our overtrousers once!
I knitted a few samples for my course in the evenings, although this time I'm posting some pics of the island itself plus some inspirations for those stripes.

And finally... a sample from a different set of islands, the Falklands, which Other Half visited last month, returning with a pack of 100% Falklands wool in a lovely shade called Pebble. The swatch here has two cable patterns which according to Pam Dawson's book, Traditional Island Knitting, are typical Falklands' designs. I particularly like the double cable pattern below, which I am hoping I can include in a jumper. My tension swatch is slightly off from the pattern in the book, so I'm going to have to do some adapting, which WILL BE GOOD FOR ME!!!

Friday, 13 March 2009

Marching On

Here are some examples of the design work that I'm currently doing. The original inspiration was my set of Portmeirion Botanic Garden china and placemats and the heathery colours used in one of the patterns. I used Debbie Bliss Cashmerino Aran to knit the samples, which are in a Broken Garter Stripe and a reversible stripe, which makes use of slip stitch techniques to create a vertical stripe.

Saturday, 28 February 2009

Squeaking into February

It's been a curious start to the year, with Other Half's flu/pneumonia closely followed by a viral bronchitis for me. Neither of us feels great yet - but meanwhile knitting continues. I am now well ensconced in Module 2 of my City & Guilds Hand Knitting Level 3 course, enjoying playing with colour. This month's picture shows a sample knitted in all the colours of the colour wheel, using different yarns and textures. It's huge fun seeing what can be achieved, knitting samples in complementaries, secondaries and primaries, collecting inspirational colour images, and considering how these might build up into design ideas for knitting. More next time - I just wanted to make sure that I got a posting up in February!

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Wheels within wheels

Hello and slightly belated Happy New Year to all! I've just been reading that the artist and TV presenter Tony Hart has died. Limited though my artistic efforts were as a child, he and his programme Vision On were a great inspiration, so thanks for the gifts that his life has brought to me and many others. And this past couple of weeks I've been re-connecting to all of that as I embark on Module Two of my City and Guilds Handknitting course, which is all about colour. Working on the production of my own colour wheel with paint I've also been inspired to knit one - I have to say this was much easier than mixing colours with acrylics (although of course I now have to sew it all together!)

It's been a strange start to the year as my Other Half has not been at all well and has been off work. Meanwhile I'm trying to improve my work-life balance by working from home one day a week. This is certainly helping but I still feel like I've got a crazy amount to do in all areas of my life. Meditation wheels and mandalas are designed to help us preseve a still centre and by chance(?)this week I came across a beautifully hand-painted mandala a friend of mine made and gave to me a while ago.

It seemed to work well with the theme of both the colour wheel and the Buddhist idea of the wheel of life, a suitable image for the cycle of my own life in the year I turn 50. A time of life to take stock and look for new opportunities in a different way from before, perhaps. I'm struggling to make sense of this at the moment in a time of conflicting tasks and responsibilities, as well as creative possibilities. Who knows, in any event, where the Wheel of Fortune is going to land you next?!