I never imagined knitting would give me once in a lifetime experiences that would fill my heart... until I began having them. And last weekend, another jewel was added to my treasure chest in the form of a three day Fair Isle knitting class held at the Nordic Museum in Ballard with Elizabeth Johnston, spinner and lace & Fair Isle knitter from Shetland and Martha Owen, artist-in-residence from the John Campbell Folk School in North Carolina. I signed up for the class immediately upon learning about it, and was alternately thrilled and filled with nervous anticipation about knitting in such company. There were 13 students in the class, including very accomplished Fair Isle knitters along with those of us with less experience and a lot of interest.
The teaching style was relaxed and unassuming, beginning with a brief biography of Elizabeth's and Martha's history, a circuit around the room about student hopes and expectations, fair isle patterns discussion, and we began knitting color study swatches.
Elizabeth's swatches are gloves, hats, mittens, fingerless gloves, tea cozies... never wasting a minute or a piece of yarn on a useless item. She was all about economy of motion, of time, and of effort. I've heard all of that before, then somehow having her in front of me, living and breathing that way of living, I understood it in a whole new way. Everything about knitting, about colors and patterns is second nature to her, and isn't necessarily the same sort of joy to her that many of us feel. She is perfectionist about the things that need to be perfect, and has let go of the things that don't need to be perfect in order to create perfectly beautiful knitted items (like tying knots instead of weaving in ends: "takes too much time, and the knots and ends get felted anyway").
I was surprised to hear her say that a Shetlander will always choose natural colors (did you notice her wonderful cardigan, above?), and no more than 5 tones are necessary - 7 at the most. A new way of thinking about the patterns and the colors opened up for me since it was sort of reduced to the amount of contrast from one to the next. Martha was knitting a vest for her husband in natural colors with just a shot of a beautiful teal, and I was inspired to choose my Jamieson's Spindrift colors in the NIghthawk tones. I showed my choices to Elizabeth and watched her deft movement to judge the contrast and tones together before pronouncing them a good assortment.
My stranded technique requires my full attention and although I'm fairly slow, I manage to produce a nice fabric. I want to develop the skill of knitting with both colors on the throwing hand since my picking is labored and I get easily frustrated. Still, I love my swatch, and plan to keep going with it for color and technique practice. I also enjoyed knitting the egg cozy - it was going to be a little sweater, but such small knitting in the round was distracting me from the color and pattern studies. I do love the color family and especially that Paprika color - I want to try more of that and to practice more patterns.
Martha was a lot of fun while adding stories, clarifications, and American perspective to Elizabeth's information. Martha describes herself as willing to be random and to try nearly anything. She is interested in all things sheep and brought yarn for dying. Fun for me since I've been thinking about dying without taking any action... on Saturday, we tried for variegated by adding natural coloring in piles instead of sprinkles on top of layers of yarn. She had cochineal, red onion skins, and madder, and the yarns were quite a variety of tones. It makes dye lot a lot easier to understand. Not like mixing paint for the house!
Jan (left) used the practice pattern Elizabeth wrote on the board for if we had no pattern in mind. With the colors she chose, it was very sophisticated and current - she plans to make a hat with her swatch. Andrea (right) is a very accomplished stranded knitter and tried different swatches - her color combinations are so elegant! I can see Barbara's colors in a sweater to wear with jeans, and the wonderful brown-gold will be fingerless gloves.
It seemed everyone in the class was affected in similar ways at our different levels - the things that were produced while there were beautiful and quite different. I've included a sampling here, but my photos don't really do the colors justice - you need to buy a Jamieson's color card from distributor Karen Campbell to really see the new range.
While I can't really do justice to the experience, I wish every knitter this sort of inspiration. And I'm looking forward to taking my inspiration into real knitted Fair Isle treasures!