There are many creative handywomen I admire here in Scotland, and today I’m really happy to introduce you to one of them: Flora Collingwood-Norris. A super-talented designer of knitwear (of whose palette I’ve long been a huge fan), over the past couple of years, Flora has proudly advocated both the value of making, and the importance of sustainability and longevity with her exquisite visible mending practice. I’ve often felt that those of you who had not come across Flora’s work before would really love it, so it was great to have the opportunity last week to have a good blether with her about making, mending, and running a small creative business. Here’s my chat with Flora in full.
Hi Flora! It’s lovely to see you here on the KDD blog! Perhaps we can start by your telling us a little about your background in textiles, and how you came to establish your knitwear business?
Thank you so much for having me Kate! I’ve always loved making and first started knitting and sewing when I was about 6: my mum is very creative and she taught me at home. I also learnt at school, and spent a lot of my free time during my teens making and customising my own clothes. I then went to Leith School of Art, and, having applied to several universities to study fashion and clothing, realised (after working on a personal knitting project) that I was very happy knitting all the time and wanted to study textiles instead. So I then went on to specialise in knitwear at Heriot Watt University in Galashiels. I had always wanted to learn the more technical sides of my craft, and it was there that I learnt to use knitting machines – both domestic and industrial, hand powered and digital.
After university, I did an internship with People Tree. I was already interested in fair trade and ethical fashion, and their knitwear was hand knitted, so it seemed like a perfect fit for me. After that, I went freelance, working for a swatch design company. Swatch design is where a ¾ sized garment front is designed and created, and these are then sold to design houses all over the world, from H&M to Louis Vuitton, and my designs have been bought by both! Those companies then own the right to that design, and can use it however they choose: sometimes it’s just the trim or pocket detail, sometimes the whole design is put into production. It was very practical hands-on work, which is really all that I enjoyed about it. I then did some work for Christopher Kane, creating all the crochet pieces for his AW11 Liquid Collection, and working on the production for some of the pieces afterwards. I also worked for Jasper Conran to create pieces for their AW12, SS13 and SS14 collections, involving a lot of very fine silk knits and one crochet piece that took me 110 hours to create. I also created some pieces for House of Holland for their AW17 and SS18 collections.
My work has also included working for Carruthers Associates, an international textile and fashion design consultancy, creating fabrics for trend areas at international yarn showcases, and working for another local company Studio Roam, from whom I bought my V-bed knitting machine. I’ve also taught knitwear at Heriot Watt and Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, and designed knitting and crochet patterns for Whistlebare, where I think my favourite design was the Eadfrith Wrap. I enjoyed the variety of my freelance work, but it made for an unknown and often quite stressful life and income. In 2015 I entered a competition to design a piece using wool from the Cambrian Mountains in Wales, and my design for a crochet bomber jacket was one of the ones chosen. At that point I started thinking about creating my own collection
I started Collingwood-Norris in 2016. I wanted to have more control over my own destiny, and I wanted to create a brand that would value skills, the people behind the designs and not place a heavy burden on the planet. My collection started with one scarf design in six different colourways, and it’s grown from there!
I think the first thing to strike anyone looking at your knits is your distinctive palette and individual use of colour. I’m really interested in the emotive aspects of colour: can you say something about how working with colour makes you feel?
That’s the best question I’ve ever been asked about colour! I think colour is such an individual thing, and for me it’s very connected to how I feel. My colour choices were initially inspired by my childhood holidays on Mull and Iona, and while the blues are very reminiscent of the waters, I’ve mostly chosen colours that make me feel the way I felt there. Iona gives me an amazing sense of calm, like nowhere else I’ve ever been, and blues also make me feel relaxed and happy. The yellows and coral that you can see in my Staffa and Erraid scarves add the excitement and happiness of playing on beaches, paddling, seeing the friends I only saw once a year there. They’re colours that lift my mood when I wear them, and give me a confidence boost when I need it. They’re great to work with, and my knitting days are always better when I’m working with these shades. The greys remind me of wet walks through long summer grasses – that heavy misty kind of rain that just envelops you. I had to tip puddles out of my wellies from one particular walk that sticks in my mind!
You produce your pieces yourself, in your studio. I feel that the creative, and always ‘handy’ work of machine-knitting can sometimes be slightly under-appreciated by hand-knitters, perhaps because of a simple lack of understanding of the kinds of skilled labour that can be involved in working with such tools. I wonder if you could talk about your process, and the different processes that are involved in producing a single piece?
Machine knitting is definitely very different to hand knitting. As someone who does both, I like to try and make the most of each and use my knitting machine for things I couldn’t hand knit and vice versa! Setting up the knitting machine is step one- working out what stitch works works with what yarn and which stitch to get the best effect. The yarn carriers have to be quite precisely positioned so that the selvedge of the fabric won’t fall off now and then. Getting the set up right can take a bit of trial and error to begin with! My old industrial V-bed machine has two needles beds in an upside down V, with 12 needles per inch, so it produces a very fine fabric. Whenever I want to change from a rib to a single bed fabric (like stocking stitch), I have to manually transfer all the stitches from the front bed over to the back bed- it requires a lot of precision!
In terms of making a scarf, I think there are about 7 processes that will go into it. Knitting is just the first, and includes two sets of transferring stitches from one bed to the other. Instead of binding them off, I press the scarves off the machine and link the edge- it gives a nicer finish, but involves a linker- a machine that has a disk of spiky points in a gauge that matches my knitting machine, and each stitch has to be put on one point. The linker then produces a chain stitch along the edge. (This is also how I would join panels of a garment together and add trims). After that I check it for any burst stitches, sew in all the ends and do any mends, and hand wash the pieces as commercial knitting wool comes with excess oil and dye in it. This is quite a key stage to get the handle I want. Once it’s dry, I press the scarf, check it again, and then hand stitch my labels on.
You live and work in a lovely part of Scotland and, like me, you love the outdoors, and walking (with your dog). Do you have a favourite local place to walk and how does it inspire you?
I’m very lucky to live in the Scottish Borders, and I have a few lovely hill walks here that I do regularly. The Eildon hills are one of my favourites, and during the first lockdown I walked there very regularly, enjoying the colours of everything coming to life in Spring. There was so much gorse, beautiful little reddy pink blaeberry flowers, yellow and grey lichens, and these colours have started coming into my work in the last year. During the late Summer, the hills were just covered with heather- I’m sure it must have been a particularly good year! So my Eildon and Yair scarves particularly remind me of those walks.
And are there other parts of Scotland you enjoy exploring?
Yes! In 2019 my partner and I spent a couple of weeks exploring the Outer Hebrides, working our way up from Barra to Harris and Lewis. We had one particularly memorable evening on Eriskay (an island I’d been really looking forward to visiting, as I used to play and sing the Eriskay Love Lilt on my clarsach!) – we wild camped on a beach, and just as we were eating our supper, an otter worked it’s way around the bay. So my Ersiskay scarf reminds me of that.
In 2020 we were lucky enough to visit the isles of Eigg and Canna, and I particularly loved Eigg – we were there just as the heather was blooming, and had some wonderful walks above and below cliffs, and spent a lot of time watching gannets diving. One of the things I most enjoyed was a walk along the rocks- there are the most amazing rock formations there, and I think at some point in the future I’d like to go back and spend a few weeks drawing them!
I think what I love about exploring Scottish islands is the combination of beautiful landscape with sea. The outer Hebrides have so many beautiful beaches, and the most amazing waters, that I just want to go back every year.
I totally agree, Flora. That distinctive meeting of land and water makes the western isles very special.
You are an expert (and exquisite) visible mender, teaching workshops, producing instructional materials and darning kits, and taking on individual repair commissions for clients. Can you tell us a little about how this aspect of your creative business has developed and grown over the past few years?
When I was first thinking about setting up my own business, I spent a lot of time thinking about how I could extend the life of garments. It ended up not being something I focused on straight away (it’s very easy to get carried away making), but I started visibly mending my own old knitwear and sharing images of it, and started getting requests from people asking if I would mend theirs too.
In 2019 I launched my visible mending and creative knitwear repair service, and started to teach some workshops. Last year I had lots of workshops planned, but due to the pandemic they all had to be cancelled or postponed, so I moved a lot of the material online, and put all the information I would cover in a workshop into a digital package (Darning: An introduction to visible mending) so people could carry on at home. It’s been a great way of connecting with people outside the UK, especially at this time when it’s felt like my personal world has become very small, chatting with people who are in the same position around the world has really helped!
I have added some of the yarns I use for mending to my website, as I’m aware that I’m very lucky to have such a range of fine wools and cashmere to work with, picking out colour combinations that I think people can be really creative with.
I feel that mending is a really nice addition to my business- I love that each piece is an individual design project, and I really love that I can utilise more of my creative skills to rejuvenate someones favourite jumper!
You and I have talked a bit about how so much of the work of running a design-led small business can be about simply championing the value of making (and hoping others perceive that value too!) I can think of no better way of celebrating the value of made-things than repairing them, as you do, so beautifully. Can you say a little about how the process of visible mending, for you, enhances the value and meaning of making?
Mending is a great way of connecting with the piece you’re working on, of spending time with it. I really only use a needle for mending- I love the hand process, but it’s time consuming, so I can get quite attached to the pieces I repair because I spend so much time with them. If it’s been hand made, I really notice how it was put together, how it was shaped- I really get to see marks the maker made. If it’s a more commercially made piece, often it’s the quality of the fibre that’s beautiful, the garment construction is lovely- the skills might be different, but there’s always evident skill to look at.
Adding visible repair to a piece of knitwear enhances its story. Sometimes pieces are inherited, so the mends are almost like making it suitable for the next generation. They add history to a piece, and they show that it’s loved, which is the most important thing. I’ve been sent a few pieces that have been repaired by other people before me- where possible I try to leave those mends, as I love the idea that the pieces have been so cared for by different hands. I also like that our garments can change over time as we do, and we can all age beautifully.
I’ve been so encouraged by seeing so many people mending their clothes recently. For those of them that are perhaps new to making, my hope is that they will start to realise (if they didn’t before), just how much time, effort and skill is needed to create, and I hope that understanding will be reflected in their buying choices in future.
The cashmere socks you repaired last year really illustrate for me how the act of repairing something can, in itself, make that something more precious. Your time-consuming, painstaking and extraordinarily intricate mends on these socks are wee works of art in themselves! While the worn socks were unwearable, I wonder whether the mended ones are now almost too precious to wear?!
Haha that’s a very good question! I do wear them after all that work, but only as bed socks, in the hope that they won’t get worn out again too soon. Just wandering around the house in them wouldn’t quite feel like a fitting fate for them somehow. But I’m also wearing another newer pair quite a bit so that I can have another mending project in the near future!
One of the things I enjoy most about your mends (and mending instructions) is that they are so emphatically knit-specific: using swiss darning and duplicate stitch where appropriate, but also (where different kinds of repair are needed) reinforcing knitted fabric with intricate and colourful woven structures. Bringing knit and weave together in this way seems to hold so many creative possibilities! I wonder if you could say a little about the challenges and pleasures of combining knit and weave through mending?
Darning knitting is an interesting thing, because suddenly you’re mixing stretch fabrics with something that’s not stretchy. So the challenges are working in larger areas, where the lack of stretch can be an issue. At university, I went straight into specialising in knit, so I didn’t do any weaving, so I’m really enjoying exploring darning as a mini form of weaving!
One of my favourite of your visible mending projects is your embroidered, embellished blue jumper. Could you tell us a little about the process of working on this piece?
It’s still my favourite piece! This is a jumper I’ve had for many years, and it was wearing very thin at the elbows and had a stain or two on the front. I’ve always loved vintage floral embroidery – I think that comes from the collection of vintage tea cosies my mum had, so I used those as inspiration. My great aunt was a keen flower presser, and used to create small oval framed pictures of pressed flowers, so that was the effect I was after with my embroidered elbows. I don’t plot or plan my designs particularly, but I have a rough idea in my head and work very freehand with that. I knew I’d never be able to create the two sides exactly the same, so I went for the same-same-but-different approach. Interestingly my elbows seems to wear the knit in slightly different places on each side anyway. When it comes to stains, I often choose to go for a distraction, rather than a compete cover up, and that gives me more creative scope.
Like all small creative businesses over the past year, I imagine you’ve had to make a few changes. How has the pandemic changed things for Collingwood-Norris?
It has been an interesting and challenging year! It has shifted a lot of the focus of my business on to mending, as I think people were very keen to get making and mending at home. Knitwear wise, it gave me a chance to have some creative time earlier in 2020, which I have to admit I really enjoyed. I absolutely love making pieces for Collingwood-Norris, but it is labour intensive and sometimes doesn’t leave me with a lot of time to be creative. I have really enjoyed having more personal contact with my customers- more chats via instagram or email, and being able to make quite a few custom pieces. Combining mending and my knitwear has been one of the outcomes of this- I now offer a customisation option for my scarves, so people can have a unique darned patch, something hand stitched- a little personal connection. Pieces with a personal connection are a great way of getting people to care and love their clothes more.
And finally, can you tell us what’s next creatively for you?
Well, I think there may be a mending book on the horizon, although it’s very early days to really talk about it yet! I’m also mulling over ideas for some new jumpers, and maybe a few other things that would be useful for enjoying the outdoors.
A mending book sounds really exciting, Flora – we’d definitely look forward to stocking that in the KDD shop! Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me today.
Photography ©: Rose + Julien Ltd, Collingwood-Norris.