Woolly Originals

Today I’m delighted to welcome Sarah Clarkson of Edinburgh-based creative business – Woolly Originals – to talk to us about her work with colour. Woolly Originals specialises in the small-batch production of beautiful totes, project bags, and pouches for crafters with machine-knit fabric that Sarah has designed in Shetland and other Scottish yarns. There are so many things I love about Woolly Originals’ beautiful, bold colourwork patterns, and top of the list is the way that they bespeak their creator’s powerful sense of place, and her love of, and connection to, the natural world around her. Some of Sarah’s designs have been produced as collaborations that promote environmental work – such as that of Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden – while a proportion of sales of other designs go to to support the work of charitable organisations whose focus is conservation and climate. The Woolly Originals shop is regularly updated, with the last update before the festive season this Friday (18th). Here’s Sarah to tell you more . . .

My design odyssey began more than seven years ago when I set up Woolly Originals to make ­machine knit project bags from Scottish materials including Shetland-spun yarns (such as Jamieson’s of Shetland) and locally woven linen lining fabrics.  Initially, I created designs that were inspired by traditional motifs such as Shetland stars or Argyle diamonds.  However, I soon realised that I wanted my Woolly bags to tell you a story: of topics that interested me; of issues that were important to me; or simply of something so visually stunning, I just had to!  Resigning from my healthcare community post, I dived into the choppy waters of full-time creativity.

Oblong Fern design, part of a Woolly Originals collaboration with the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh. Woodsia Ilvensis, the oblong fern, is the rarest fern in Britain and in danger of extinction.

My first narrative design was Scottish Wildflowers, incorporating representations of the spear thistle and ribwort plantain.  With my former medical herbalist hat on, I wanted to tell you that plantain leaves are excellent to rub on thistle or nettle stings!  Once I was happy with a draft of the pattern, I needed to select two colours: one for the plants; and one for the background.  As I intended to launch the new design on St Andrews Day, I instantly thought of the colours of Scotland’s flag, the Saltire.  A midnight blue and a natural cream yarn seemed most appropriate.  These two single shades created a sharp contrast that allowed every stitch of this design to be seen.

Scottish wildflowers narrative design

More botanical patterns followed, Scots Pine and then Heritage Orchard.  The former represented the ancient Caledonian pine forests of Glen Affric in the Highlands of Scotland where I’d spent many joyous holidays with my family, while my Orchard pattern was inspired by my friend, Fu who one winter had planted on her organic farm more than eleven hundred British fruit trees, many of them heritage varieties.

I began to realise that the stitches of a pattern told only one part of any story; the colours chosen were an equal partner in telling the design’s tale.  This led to my using “heather” effect yarns which are created by a melange process of mixing together many different single-coloured fibres, creating subtle flecks and stipples that are a better representative of nature’s colours.  Although the hues of two heathered yarns may appear to be different, they probably have a number of similar block fibre colours.  When knit in colourwork, the similar block bases may merge visually and hence the pattern definition reduces.  Swatching colourwork samples is even more vital! 

Although I struggled initially with a colour choice for my Heritage Orchard pattern, it struck me that as the orchard was composed of three different types of fruit tree there should also be three different heathered colour schemes: dark red for the plum trees; soft yellow for the pears; and green for the apples.  Once a coordinating lighter contrast colour was picked for each of the three, I needed to decide which should be the darker shade, tree or background.  The latter won!

Apple, plum and pear colourways in the Heritage Orchard design

During a visit to the V&A Museum in Dundee, I saw an original scale model of the Scott Monument.  “I need to make this”, I shrieked!  (Quite a surprise for my aunt on her birthday outing).  Despite living in Edinburgh, the monument’s design potential had gone unnoticed.  

The Scott Monument in an early photograph by David Octavius Hill (1845). National Galleries of Scotland.

Back home, I photographed the edifice which allowed me to size, scale and draft a pattern.  And for the colour?  That was so easy!  Only the stunning Hocus Pocus yarn created by Jess of Ginger Twist Studio in Edinburgh would do.  Its blend of blues and greys perfectly replicates the gothic glory of this iconic memorial.

Scott Monument fabric, ready to be made into bags.

My Lava Landscape design presented a different challenge.  When walking along the Þórsmörk Valley in Iceland, I knew which colours I wanted but not how to incorporate them into a pattern to tell you about the visually stunning landscape.  Black was needed to represent the volcanic sandy floor.  A vibrant green to portray the small mossy near circular mounds, with a variety of pinks to detail the low-growing wildflowers.  After a number of complicated pattern drafts, I realised that the base fabric should be machine knit using only black and green yarns with the wildflowers added post-blocking using embroidered seed stitches and French knots.  This simplified arrangement allowed the individual colours of the valley to be seen more clearly.

Lava Landscape

Plant conservation and climate change were the main themes central to my three designs created in collaboration with the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh.  The first, Save the Willow surprised me with how quickly it emerged.  The allover design of sage green woolly willow leaves on a darker green background just leapt off my knitter’s graph paper.  But this didn’t tell you the whole story of how less snow in the winter due to climate change was leaving this plant exposed, and hence easy pickings for hungry deer and sheep.  I adapted the stitches so that the leaf pattern covered the bottom two-thirds with the top one-third being only dark green, with the break between to represent this new grazing line.  I still wasn’t satisfied.  Reviewing my photographs of the pressed samples from the Botanic’s Herbarium and of the low growing plant itself, I realised that my colour choices didn’t reflect the willow’s eye catching yellowish-orange young catkins.  An orange hued yarn, added post-knitting using embroidered French knots, brought a more balanced palette to the design.  At last I was happy!

Woolly Originals’ stunning Save the Willow design

Five Sisters is a pyramidal design based on the West Lothian “bings” which were formed from burnt orange oilshale waste, a by-product of the local mining industry. 

 I created an outline pattern of these five artificial hills using a pinkish orange Jamieson’s yarn to show their distinct shape and original colour, and positioned them in isolation to show you how they have now become “island” wildlife sanctuaries.  A distinctive heathered tan green was chosen to represent the bings as they are now, covered by a variety of wildflowers, shrubs and trees.  There are occasional specks of this orange within the tan green, which I hope suggests what lies beneath the overgrown surface of these mounds.

So what I have learnt over the last seven years about using colour in my designs?  Perhaps I’ve come to understand that just as the development of each of my machine knit patterns using twenty-four stitch wide and sixty row long punchcards is unique, the selection of my colour choices seems to follow an equally individual process too.  No single route seems to apply as the right colours will make themselves known pre-pattern draft, post- draft, or somewhere in between.  The trick is to have a wide ranging palette of yarn colours to call upon either in the form of shadecards and samples or simply squirrelled away within my memory!

A joyous array of Woolly Originals!

Thanks so much, Sarah, for sharing the stories of your work with us!