A little knitting shop in our community is quite cute, located in a tiny old house on the edge of a tiny old downtown. While it displays a lovely array of knit samples and packs the classics within its walls–Malibrigo, Madelintosh, Lornas Laces, Rowan, and so on–it is also distinguished by an I-knew-him-when association with an icon of the knitting world. A dance student at the local university wanted to learn more about this thing called knitting. It was here that the young man first learned about fine fibers and techniques beyond the knit stitch, opening up a whole new world of exploration. That exploration led to mastery of techniques, a thorough knowledge of knitting, experimentation, and eventually to design. His designs grabbed the imagination of knitters and soon examples of his designs became ubiquitous wherever knitters gathered. He had ascended the Mount Olympus of the knitting world, joining the revered knitterati. Yet every now and again he returns to visit the little knit shop in the little house. This spring he came for a week of events in our community sponsored by the shop, including classes and exhibits.
When our knitting group heard a circus was coming to town, we were in line to buy our tickets. Of course I had heard of Stephen West; I was aware of and had seen many examples of his designs. Anyone who had been to Stitches would find it impossible to miss the Stephen West and Steven B booth, both of them decked out in a cloud of colors and surrounded by hoards of admiring fans. But truth be told, I had never been bitten by the SW bug, never knit one of his patterns, and never braved the crowds at Stitches to elbow my way into his booth. In joining the parade, I had no idea what to expect, no expectation of learning anything substantial, and no thoughts of becoming a convert. However, I had no doubt at all that it would be entertaining. We signed up for a shawl class and a fashion show luncheon to be held at a charming B&B and waited in the coming weeks for our curiousity to be satisfied.
What I did not expect, but found, was a very knowledgable and patient teacher. He was so sweet and charming, no hint of impatience with any of us; he was there to share his discoveries with us and share he did. I have knit an abundance of shawls in my knitting journey–often chiding myself to get out of the shawl rut–yet he still managed to switch on a few lightbulbs. The class was structured with a pre-printed pattern and an assignment to knit a swatch from the pattern. While we did so, he gave us tips, helped individuals, and answered questions. Not only did he answer questions about the task at hand and knitting in general but he also answered many questions about his designs and his design process. I got the impression that his design process is more often–although not exclusively–the result of hands-on experimentation rather than intellectual forethought and envisioning.
With only 10 people in the class, it was a relaxed session. His mother joined us towards the end of the class, stayed for the luncheon, and was one of the models for his fashion show. We all enjoyed chatting with her, finding her as open and charming as her son. It was like a comfortable living room knitting group; a group with the purpose of learning but with the enjoyment of social knitting. There was ample time for individual attention, the time he spent with each student was unhurried and focused. Between the group teaching and the individual instruction, I believe every student, from novice to experienced, learned something.
Other students may have left with different impressions and different pearls of wisdom, but I am quite happy with my impressions and my pearls. These were my personal Aha! moments. I have included links to YouTube videos demonstrating what I learned but warning, you are trusting I paid attention in class and remembered it 😉
First Aha! moment. On a garter tab he casts on the number of sts for the border, knits his rows, and picks up the side stitches by inserting the left-hand needle into all the purl bumps before knitting them. For years I have picked up each purl bump awkwardly with the right-hand needle, but this was so much easier. Sure, I had a few twisted loops that I had to knit into the back loop to straighten, but it was so simple and neat and, as an added bonus, if there were not enough purl bumps it was simple to pull out the left needle and knit more rows to make more bumps. For some reason, it seemed easier to count the purl bumps when going from bottom to top rather than the reverse. To finish the tab, he picks up from the cast on edge, not bothering to use a provisional cast-on. I was skeptical, having religiously used a provisional cast ons for the bottom edge, but it looked fine. Using his method resulted in a garter tab that was smooth and even and, happily, easy to do.
Second Aha! moment. For M1L and M1R (directional increases with either a left- or right-hand slant), he substitutes a neutral (unslanted) increase by doing a single backward loop cast-on. In looking at my swatch I was not entirely convinced. I would not want to use this in all situations, sometimes the slant is a design or a shaping element that would be lost. However, it looked just fine for an increase on the edge or around the center stitch and did not tighten the knitting; no borrowing yarn from the row below to make an increase. It was also much quicker and saved me from reciting, “Came right through the back and left through the front,” as I do when knitting a M1L or M1R.
Third Aha! moment. Now that I knit continental, it is so simple to do a YO before a knit stitch, and it is pretty easy when I knit English style. But a YO before a purl stitch has always felt like a sloppy loopy ungainly action, leaving more yarn on the loose than I would like. He showed us an easy method for creating a small YO before a purl stitch, perhaps a little smaller than the opening left by a YO before a knit stitch but certainly better than my usual floppy gaping hole left by a YO before a purl.
Unexpected Bonus: a design consultation for the Daybreak Shawl. We had been told to pick out one of his designs and have our yarns caked and ready to start the project in class. I chose the Daybreak shawl. When I started working on the shawl, I discovered the first section has an increase every fourth row described as, “K halfway to [m/last 2 sts], M1[R/L]” which is simple when there are a few stitches on the needle, but as the piece grows the prospect of counting stitches was not a pleasant
one. He helped me see how to read my knitting so I would not have to count the rows and gave me a great hint so I would not need to count the stitches either. The next increase is always 3 sts from the previous increase. If I add a marker where I have made the increase, it will save me having to find and follow the increase up the rows to count over 3 sts. I had chosen a background skein of gray and a mini-skein pack of purples to black for the contrast stripes from Leading Men Fiber Arts. He also spent a few minutes to help me decide on my color orders for the stripes and assured me that I could easily deviate from the pattern so as to make as many–or as few–stripes as I would like. Oh, and although I am sticking with the M1R and M1L for the once every 4 rows increase, I am definitely replacing the M1R and M1L sts on the edges and around the center stitch with the backwards loop cast-on. Save me from getting laryngitis saying my little “came right through the back and left through the front” ditty 4-6 times every row.
Big Aha! moment. Color. Perhaps it was uncertain April’s return to the winter weather that inspired me to dress in drab neutrals. Dressed like a gray cloud and the bare earth of winter, in coming to this event I stumbled into a wall of color and was awed by a kaleidoscopic brilliance alien to this colorless season. Stephen West designs are graphic and textured, but highlighting every design element is Color with a capital C. Even he was dressed head to toe in more colors than my color wheel.
Perhaps I should say that creativity that was the message of the day. During the class we talked about mistakes as design elements. I think anyone who has knit for a while is aware that many of the interesting stitches, increases, decreases, and so on were the product of someone really messing up and, rather than jumping into the knit, cuss, frog, repeat cycle, looking at it and saying, “Isn’t that interesting. Hmm, I wonder if I could use that…” When a knit dress was modeled–that he had started as a hat–followed by a cowl–that he had started as a hat–it became clear that one thing can morph into something else while on the needles. Not ready to go from A to Z quite so drastically, but I am inspired to follow my intuition more, to break away from what is written in a pattern and take risks. At the very least stop saying to myself–as I do with every project–that “mistakes were made” and start saying, “lessons were learned.”
Still, while there was a lot of inspiration for creativity, there is a strong argument for color being the overwhelming theme of the day. Throughout the class we were treated to a preview of the items we would see later in the fashion show. So many colorful creations, and creations mixing fiber types and fiber weights for the sake of the color or texture. I am inspired to pull out my neatly organized by weight and by fiber type bins of stash and empty them out on the floor, making piles of colors. It can be a bit tricky to join two colors together, but there are some tried and true combinations and I do feel fairly confident in my ability to make groups of two. Recently I have been meticulously trying to create 3-color combinations; trying to break away from the safe gradient tones to the more uncertain realm of contrasting colors. It blew my mind to see all 64 Crayola colors combined into single garments, and finding it worked. The take-away was, when using multiple colors, use more, more, more–keep going–more, more, and still more.
Life is like a box of crayons, you never know which sharp, new, unbroken ones you will find. We reserved our spots in class with no idea of what we would experience. After my day of color, creativity, and Aha! moments, am I a convert? While I am still not ready to elbow my way through the crowds at Stitches wearing layers of Stephen West shawls and burdened with overflowing bags of purchases to make still more, but I think I am. I might just saunter by in my Daybreak and wave and, although there is no chance he would remember or recognize me, I am certain he would return the wave as if he did. In the end I am glad I joined the party as I did enjoy every minute and learn a few things and–more importantly–it may have changed me as a knitter. I may just take out more than 1 or 2 colors and boldly color outside the starkly drawn lines.