owls (from “Handywoman”)

I recently wrote about how I designed the owl sweater in my book Handywoman. As part of the sweater’s ten year owliversary, I thought I’d extract that part of the book here.

“In the autumn of 2008, I’d knitted a sweater that lots of people seemed to really like. As my skills and technical acumen had increased, I, like many of my friends, had started making things up as I went along, rather than always working from pattern instructions (though of course I often did that too). I’d found some nice, sheepy, super-chunky wool and had attempted to turn it into a garment featuring bobbles and raised stitches inspired by the extraordinary textures of the rhinos’ behinds I’d recently admired during a family trip to Edinburgh Zoo. But my rhino-arse sweater wasn’t really working out, so I’d rewound the wool to knit a sweater with an owl theme instead. There was a well-known owl-shaped cable motif that had been around since at least the 1940s and had been most notably popularised in a kid’s cardigan pattern produced in 1962 by US knitwear designer Penny Straker. One of my favourite blog comrades, Zigzagstich, had recently knitted the Straker cardigan for her young daughter, and I wondered how those tiny cables would look if they were made much bigger: upscaled for heavier yarn and adult proportions on a seamless yoke sweater (which was then and still remains one of my favourite garment styles to knit). So, I whipped up my chunky sweater, featuring sixteen cabled owls with their thirty-two button eyes around the yoke – and, when I wore it to Thursday-night knitting, I was immediately told by everyone that “you are going to have to write that up”. The online response to photographs of the sweater was even more enthusiastic, and I found myself bombarded with countless comments and e-mails of the OMG variety. “Are owls actually a thing, then?” I enquired of the Thursday-night crowd while my younger knitting friends laughed heartily at my ignorance. One of these friends was Ysolda Teague, an extraordinarily talented individual who, among many different crafty achievements, had published a cardigan pattern in Knitty and was among the handful of independent designers who had begun to produce their own well-thought-through designs as self-published PDF downloads. She encouraged me to do the same. I had not ever considered writing a knitting pattern. I was generally full of ideas, and felt I had a sort of knack for garment design – and this was certainly part of what made knitting so enjoyable for me – but I had never thought about what it meant to grade a pattern, or to produce instructions from which someone else might make a three-dimensional object comparable to one I’d previously made. I certainly had a lot to learn, but, with the encouragement of Ysolda and my other Edinburgh knitting pals, I went ahead and wrote the pattern. Then I made it available to download via my blog and Ravelry.

Suddenly, everyone was knitting and wearing owl sweaters. I organised an online competition, and was overwhelmed when women of all ages, sizes and locations shared happy images of themselves in their hand-knits for my “parliament of owls”. The pattern was being downloaded hundreds of times a day, was repeatedly shared on non-knitting sites, and folk were writing to me from all over the world saying they were learning how to knit, just so that they could make my sweater. Overnight, I’d somehow become a creator of knitting patterns as well as a teacher and researcher. All of a sudden, I was “the designer of the owl sweater”. Having been interested in forms of association both digital and historical for several years, it was fascinating to witness at first hand how something like a knitting pattern might focus and generate community. And producing a pattern was actually really interesting. I was a complete novice, but quickly found that, if I approached the task with the same aims of clear communication that I used when writing or teaching, I might actually be OK at this designing lark. I also discovered that there are few things more rewarding than seeing someone who, having enjoyed a pattern I’d created, was genuinely delighted with the thing I’d helped them to make from my instructions. Something in me changed. Designing the owl sweater and starting to think about pattern-writing as a particular form of creative exchange allowed me to become aware of skills I barely knew I had, and it completely altered my attitude towards what I regarded as work.

(illustration by Felicity Ford)

Knowing something of what happened next, people often speak of the owl sweater to me as an extraordinarily lucky break. As with many things in life, some good luck was certainly involved; but I don’t look back on this moment as one of mere random fortuity. Surrounded by online owls (without even really being particularly aware of it) and being of a generally experimental bent, it was perhaps inevitable that I’d have a go at reinterpreting and redeveloping a knitting idea I’d seen and liked. The owl sweater was certainly my own creative whim, but it also had a situation. For, rather than appearing out of an adventitious vacuum, it was a thing that was made in a very specific environment. Without my social milieu, without the community in which I now participated both in person and online, I would neither have knitted the sweater nor have ever considered creating a set of instructions to enable other people to knit it. The owl sweater was produced out of, and held currency within, the extraordinarily supportive collective context which had, for the previous few years, nurtured me as a creative individual.”

Extracted from the “Knitting Community” chapter of Handywoman (2018)