In June I started teaching a lovely lady called Stephanie who didn’t want to be attending my class. Stephanie’s boss had hired me to teach her staff to crochet once a week at lunchtime. Stephanie is a keen knitter, but she told me as soon as she entered the room that every time someone had tried to teach her to crochet, they had failed. She stated categorically “I can’t crochet!”
Fast forward an hour: it turns out Stephanie can crochet, enjoys it and is even really good at it – she is now bistitchual!
The key to success
So why did I succeed where others had failed? Because one of the first things I said when we started the lesson was that there was no right or wrong way to hold the hook and the yarn.
Knowing that she was a knitter, I immediately reassured Stephanie: although she was going to see me hold the hook in my right hand and the yarn in my left hand, she would probably feel the urge to do everything with her right hand, which is absolutely fine. Telling her this right away enabled her to just be comfortable and focus on the actual steps required to create a stitch rather than try to fight years and years of knitting habits.
Because what matters is what happens between the hook and the yarn; which hands or fingers get involved is of no consequence whatsoever – you could be crocheting with your toes for all I care!
Whose fault is it?
Novice crocheters often tend to have friends & family members who can crochet beautifully, but who can’t teach their craft, because they can only demonstrate the way they do things themselves. They are (usually) well-meaning, and sometimes you just know what you know but you don’t know how you know it (right?), so they can’t be blamed.
There are also numerous crochet books, magazines and online resources who tell aspiring crocheters that they have to hold things a certain way, and it drives me mad! These publications are making sure that a proportion of beginners, who believed they were about to embark on their crochet journey, will immediately get discouraged. Why? Because they will think that if they can’t do exactly what they are told, they just can’t crochet at all, and that is so wrong!
So please remember…
IN CROCHET, THERE IS NO RIGHT OR WRONG WAY TO HOLD THINGS!
According to the author profile at the end of the book, “Emma Lamb is a British crochet designer and blogger living in the beautiful city of Edinburgh, Scotland” who “draws inspiration from the Scandinavian aesthetic, mid-century design and her everyday life”. Crochet Home is her first book, published by D&C, the same publishers as Toft’s famous Edwards Menagerie.
The cover features a living room interior with 1950s style furniture, decorated with crochet items in a pleasant colour palette mixing brights and pastels that are brought together with a lot of white.
Lots of good stuff
Like any good crochet book, this one starts with a section about how to go about using it and I love the fact that the very first information given is that Emma uses UK crochet terms throughout. The introduction on how to read the charts is really good and thorough – I get ridiculously excited when a crochet book contains graphs! I’m not so sure about the huge emphasis Emma puts on tension and blocking given that this is a book of homeware, so the exact size of the finished item doesn’t really matter that much (although she does make a good point about the risk of running out of yarn if the tension is way off, which is fair enough).
Emma recommends steam blocking everything, which makes sense if people use the same yarns as she does (i.e. only natural fibres) but if somebody decides to substitutes the original yarn with acrylic, that would really not end up so well (acrylic is best wet-blocked and left to dry).
There is a very clear graph for every pattern, which, as I said before, I love. (I am so happy this is becoming more and more common!) There are also some very clear and helpful yarn substitution notes. One of the items (a garland) uses something that I had never heard of before: Paperphine paper twine – I’m going to have to try this myself!
This book offers a variety of patterns for the home, as the title suggests: a few different garlands, a wreath, a dreamcatcher, a wall hanging, many potholders, a few cushions (including one with a rather complicated way to make a pinwheel patchwork pattern that am not entirely sure is worth the effort), some blankets and even throws – one of which Emma calls a floor throw… wouldn’t that just be a rug?
Most items are made up of many individual pieces that have to be attached together and the floor throw/rug is the only big item worked in one piece (and as I don’t like putting together lots of small fiddly things, the only item I would actually consider making myself).
Not so good
The book ends with a Techniques section, which provides very clear pictures. However, the aesthetic decision made to have only three pictures per stitch works fine for the smaller stitches but makes the longer stitches (from the treble onwards) rather confusing. So, although some patterns are pretty simple, I would rule out this book as a learning tool for complete beginners.
It’s a book that is very pretty to look at (it oozes comfort and calm) and that opens up many possibilities if you are willing (and able!) to take inspiration from Emma’s designs and make them your own
The other day, I was chatting with fellow yarn lovers and we discussed the fact that the first thing most beginners want to do (whether they have a go at knitting or crochet) is to make a scarf, and that’s often a big mistake.
Because a scarf is a large object, that requires stamina. You may not be ready for this if you’re still trying to find your way around stitches. Unless you use super chunky yarn, you may start feeling discouraged that you have nothing recognisable and wearable after hours of work.
So what should you do?
I would advise you to start with playing around with practice samples, not making anything in particular, just getting familiar with the stitches and finding your ideal working position and rhythm. Then choose something quick and small as your first project: a facepad, a coaster, a hairband, a decorative little thing that will make you smile. Something you can manage in a weekend, so that you can start the following week with a great sense of achievement, telling yourself and others “I can crochet! Look what I made!” while having a little dance.
The next step?
Truly master the pattern of your first project, know it inside out and back to front, understand it fully (no allowances for luck in having ended up with the right number of stitches at the end of each row), then pick something a little bigger – NOT a bit more complicated. By all means, make a scarf now! See how you feel spending more time making one single item. You can then decide what to do next: continue making bigger yet simple things, or look for increased complexity while sticking to small items.
What if things don’t go according to plan?
If you managed to get a larger/harder project finished without getting distracted and starting another one, well done! If you didn’t, don’t be hard on yourself – it’s a perfectly normal behaviour, shared by many yarn lovers. Never beat yourself up if you get bored with a project and want to give it up. Life is too short to crochet things that we don’t enjoy making! Just make sure that you pick something more manageable (shorter/simpler) as your new project. Yarn does not have an expiry date, so just make sure to keep all the project materials and info in a closed bag or box, that you could label “PhDs” (Projects Half Done) or “UFOs” (UnFinished Objects), and stop thinking about it for a while. Who knows, in a few months/years, you may feel like resuming your abandoned project!
Over the summer I saw a post somewhere on social media about the mental health charity Mind encouraging people to organise a Crafternoon to raise money for the cause and I thought, why not? So I ordered a fundraising pack!
I had a chat with Ruth and Jenny, the lovely owners of Ammonite Yarns in Pontyclun, and they agreed to host a Crafternoon on their premises on 22 September from 2 till 5. Our big plan was to have some general knitting and crochet as well as kid-friendly weaving and braiding going on in the shop itself while we would take it in turns to run mini-workshops in the back room every half hour. There was going to be double-sided knitting, spinning, broomstick lace crochet, Dorset buttons, weaving on a peg loom, as well as wet felting and needle felting (courtesy of resident expert Eva).
There was a lot of prep involved in the run up to the event, with lots of knitting and crochet samples to make up in all sorts of sizes (I had to make some extra thick T-shirt yarn to showcase my 20 mm needles and hook). I also had to come up with a more convenient implement than an actual broomstick for the broomstick lace workshop (it turns out that a 15 mm crochet hook stuck in a sturdy ball of yarn so that it stays upright on the table is a very good solution; a marker pen will also do the trick).
By that point, things had already started going a bit pear-shaped: Ruth’s childcare plans had fallen through so she had to go and pick up her son from somewhere and take him somewhere else (so we had to swap a couple of workshops in the schedule); Jenny’s daughter was doing some IT maintenance on the shop’s computer in the back room and the machine was still churning data at 2 o’clock. Finally, at about 2:10 we got people in the back room to get started on the broomstick lace workshop.
Initially there were only about six people and I felt confident that I could teach them how to do broomstick lace, even though a couple of them had no crochet experience to speak of. But then more people turned up, including a young girl and her mother, and they had never crocheted, so that was a bit more of a challenge: I love teaching complete novices how to crochet, but the circumstances were not quite right – unlike my classes for beginners, it was a crowded, busy, noisy environment, with other people waiting for me to show them the next step, which stressed me out big time!
I must say a big THANK YOU to all the attendees of that workshop for their patience with me as I got a bit flustered. Extra special thanks go to the more experienced crocheters who helped the newbies when I was busy with somebody else – you are the unsung heroes of the day. My workshop was supposed to run from 2 o’clock until 2:30 and there was supposed to be a different one at 2:30, but we only started at 2:10 and we didn’t leave the room until way past 3 o’clock. However, nobody complained and the whole atmosphere remained very happy and jolly all afternoon.
The rest of the Crafternoon is a bit of a blur if I’m honest. Some people stayed in the back room almost all afternoon, as they fancied all the workshops (the schedule was all over the place by that point, so the number of workshops was reduced). Ruth did a wet felting demo in the kitchen and Eva taught needle felting in the back room; Jenny then ran a very well attended (standing room only!) workshop on Dorset buttons. In the end, the peg loom only made a brief appearance in the shop, while the knitting workshop didn’t happen at all.
We had also organised a fastest knitter/crocheter competition: how many stitches could everyone make in just one minute? Ruth, Jenny and I timed ourselves knitting and crocheting for a minute but did not officially enter the competition. Ammonite Yarns regular Gwyneth ended up being the winner in both categories, with 48 knitted stitches and 27 double crochet stitches in a minute – pretty impressive!
Obviously there was cake galore and I ate a bit too much. We were all having such a lovely time that 5 o’clock came and went. After a quick packing operation I was home in time to watch Strictly! (And then I spent 12 hours in bed, that’s a good indicator or how exhausted I was!)
But the important number is not how long it took me to recover, it’s how much money did we raise? We raised £108.41, which is a great result given that we were recommending each person’s donation to be about £5 and at one point Jenny’s husband counted 19 attendees. We had received a couple of donations before the event from people who wished to support it but could not attend and I am still receiving extra donations, so I will be sending at least £120 to Mind next week.
Will we run a similar event again? We haven’t decided yet, but I think in many ways this Crafternoon was a good practice run for potentially bigger events, as we have learnt a couple of lessons about the number of people that could fit in the building and the scheduling of the workshops.
Thanks again to everyone who helped with and attended this Crafternoon. If you’d like to organise your own, check out the Mind Crafternoon webpage.
Today I wanted to talk to you about an artist who uses crochet a lot in her work: Joana Vasconcelos.
(A little note before I go any further: clicking on any of my photos will redirect you to the page dedicated to this specific work on Joana’s website, where you can find more pictures and details about the materials used).
I discovered this French-born Portuguese artist back in 2012, when I went to visit the palace of Versailles with my aunt and my cousin. We didn’t know that there was an art exhibition running at the time and we had no idea what these enormous, weird, colourful shapes were doing in the opulent galleries of the former French royal residence. But you know what? They didn’t feel out of place at all!
Everything in Versailles is very ornate, heavily gilded, too shiny, completely over the top (as you’d expect from a megalomaniac king!). Joana’s extravagant works shared some of the characteristics of the place, being so imposing, slightly overwhelming, making you want to exclaim “This is too much!”
Surprisingly, all the “too-much-ness” of the venue and of Joana’s works sort of balanced each other out in a harmonious way. I have seen pictures of Joana’s monumental pieces exhibited elsewhere, and although it is not quite the same as seeing them with my own eyes in situ, I cannot think of a better place than Versailles to display them. After all, if a sensory overload is unavoidable, it might as well be due to yarn and fabric!
Not just monumental crochet
Not all of Joana’s work is crochet/knitting/fabric based. In keeping with the opulent and feminine theme running through the Versailles exhibition, I was lucky enough to see a few others pieces, like Lilicoptère and Black Independent Heart.
Some of Joana’s other crochet works are more subtle and toned down, like the Gardes, covered in monochrome, doily-like pieces of crochet.
But you’d be wrong to believe that Joana only makes big, bold, cumbersome pieces. She used the same technique to cover many other animal sculptures (some of them much smaller than these marble lions). These pieces have a more traditional feel to them, and would probably appeal to a broader audience for purchasing and displaying in one’s home. But essentially… that’s a kind of yarn bombing, isn’t it? (I could, at this point, reopen the age-old debate about arts vs craft – but not today… maybe some other time!)
So, what do you think of Joana’s work? Let me know in the comments! And if you want to discover more of her joyous, intriguing and compelling pieces, you can have a look on her website.
Jenny, one of the Ammonite Yarns owners, was voted a Local Hero in the Knit Now magazine ‘Knitter of the Year Awards’ 2017, thanks to a customer who had been particularly impressed by the service received.
A grand day out
The prize was a day out at the headquarters of Sirdar, the famous British yarn company, on Tuesday, 12th June 2018. Unfortunately, as Tuesday is always a very busy day at the shop (with both drop-in sessions taking place), Jenny couldn’t make it and suggested I should go on her behalf. As you can imagine, I was happy to oblige!
After a pleasant train journey the evening before (although no Wi-Fi on CrossCountry trains was a bit of an unexpected blow!) and a night in the Wakefield Holiday Inn hotel (very nice room, but very noisy pub just under my window), it was time to discover a place that not many knitters and crocheters can dream of ever entering.
At first sight, the whole place looks very brown. There’s a gate at the entrance of the site and you need to be buzzed in. The compound used to be fully occupied by Sirdar (spinning used to be done on-site, before it became financially unsustainable), but now the yarn company uses only a couple of buildings, for its warehouse and offices.
After the brown uniformity of the outside, everything brightens up in the reception area, where sofas garnished with knitted cushions await the wary traveller and a few knitted garments and accessories are on show on a low podium.
We were welcomed by Kate Heppell, editor of Knit Now, and Amanda Paul, Account Manager at Practical Publishing. Not having won any prize myself and not being much of a knitter, I felt a little bit out of place, as I was surrounded by prize-winning knitting experts, but I was made very welcome all the same.
Once we were all there, we were taken to a meeting room that made us all green with envy: walls lined with a ball of each yarn made by the DMC Group, which consists of DMC itself, Sirdar (and its sub-brands, like Sublime and Hayfield) and Wool and the Gang (now that was a surprise, as we all thought they were an independent brand, but I guess it makes sense to go under the umbrella of a large company once you’ve grown).
The first thing we did was visit the warehouse. Darren, the warehouse manager, made us follow the journey of the yarn after its delivery on site. Indeed, any actual spinning has stopped there since the beginning of the century. However, a factory in Turkey bought the machinery and provides about 80% of the yarn sold by Sirdar. Some of the old factory floor employees stayed on and are doing a different job within the company (you can usually tell who they are, as their eyes mist over a little when they start talking about “the manufacturing days”).
From what I understood, the only quality control taking place in Wakefield is a weighing operation, which I found a bit surprising. I couldn’t help asking about knots in balls of yarn, as I’m sure it’s a frustration we’ve all had to endure at some point in our knitting and crochet endeavours. Darren sighed heavily; he used to work on the production floor back in the day and to him, ideally, there should be no knots in any ball, but the most that he would deem acceptable would be one. I couldn’t get him to tell me more about the arrangements made with the current manufacturers about the maximum number of knots per ball they actually agree on…
After arrival, all the yarn is checked, entered into the computer system, and first put away in a temporary storage room. Walking between the very tall shelves, stacked high up to the ceiling with massive crates of yarn that could easily fit at least a couple of people, was a rather eerie experience (it made me think of the Hall of Prophecy in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix). Our guide gave us some figures but I couldn’t repeat any of them – all I can tell you is that it was mind blowing!
Later on, the yarn is stored in a more open, less daunting picking warehouse (think of a system similar to the IKEA self-serve area, with aisle and location numbers). There, the crates are open, and as we walked past we could finally indulge in some shameless squishing (albeit through a layer of plastic, as balls are not sold individually).
All the processes mentioned so far are done by human beings – no automation in sight. The preparation of orders is also done by Sirdar employees who walk around the warehouse with a shopping trolley and a pick list. The first machine we encountered was the special conveyor belt on which orders (which have been picked, double checked and triple checked) are heat sealed in a plastic bag before being loaded onto a van, ready to be dispatched.
The printing room
We were also taken to the printing room where Sirdar prints its own patterns, more or less on demand (there is a little bit of stock, but not as much as you’d expect). This gives Sirdar more flexibility than ordering them from a contractor in large quantities, especially in case of sneaky typos! Sirdar does not make its patterns available online, but exclusively in print, via yarn retailers (Sirdar doesn’t actually sell any of its products directly to the end consumer).
The design room
The next stop of our tour was the design room. Picture a dozen or so ladies sitting at desks, but not typing away on computers: knitting and crocheting! As the tour was mostly focused on knitting, I had to be the one standing up for crochet and asking some burning questions. Julie, the head designer, acknowledged that Sirdar specialises mostly in knitting, with about 90% of its patterns being intended for 2 needles, and only 10% being crochet patterns. However, the company is currently trying to catch up with the renewed enthusiasm for crochet (yay!). Julie didn’t seem overly keen on crochet patterns herself, and explained that because crochet stitches tend to be taller than knitting stitches, it makes sizing variations more difficult to get right than when designing a knitted garment.
In that large open space (which I apparently didn’t remember to take any pictures of, sorry!), yarns new and old are worked into samples, to decide what they are most suited for, and pinned on mood boards. It is also where the patterns are thought of, sketched, tested, checked and rechecked multiple times (and I do mean A LOT of times – they are especially maths-checked for stitch counts and measurements). A special team is solely dedicated to sewing up garments together; that probably sounds like a dreadful job to many of us, but the ladies doing it seemed to enjoy themselves and were very kind – one of them even gave me a helpful tip to achieve a perfect mattress stitch seam. Of course questions were asked about how to get a job testing patterns for Sirdar (we were all ready to sign up!), but it was made rather clear that there was no need for new employees and that any shortfall was usually compensated by asking retired Sirdar knitters to do a bit of freelance work whenever it was needed. Ah well…
The archive room
Before lunch we popped over to the archive room, which was much smaller than I expected: basically an office with half a dozen shelves stacked with binders containing every single Sirdar pattern ever issued. We had fun browsing through a few of the binders and laughing at some of the ridiculous outfits that were deemed fashionable in the 70s.
After lunch we were allowed in a very secret place: the Sirdar showroom (it’s so secret that we were not allowed to take any pictures!). It is where the next season’s collection of garments and accessories is presented. Members of the Sirdar marketing team talked us through the yarns used for each item and whether they were old favourites or brand-new offerings. We also had a chat with a product manager, who is in charge of agreeing on the look and feel, the composition, etc. of yarns with the manufacturers. It was interesting to learn that yarns with big stripes are roller printed, whereas marled and variegated yarns (up to 6 colours) are spray dyed. I also discovered that individual strands of yarn are first plied together, then printed, before going through a steaming process and finally being balled.
We were then treated to a presentation by Kate Heppell, the editor of Knit Now, who explained how a knitting magazine is put together. Penny Jenkins (aka A Woolly Yarn), one of my fellow guests that day, wrote about it most eloquently.
A little extra
Last but not least, we were given goody bags! We were all very excited about the different yarns (although we didn’t all like the colours we had, so some swapping ensued) and other gifts, particularly a notebook with a vintage pattern book cover.
Our lovely day drawing to an end, we all returned to the reception area to take our leave. Amanda Paul stayed behind to make sure we all got on our way safely… and I’m glad she did! My taxi never turned up, so eventually Amanda gave me a lift to the station – and an extra knitting magazine that happened to be in her car!
The train journey home was a little bit stressful, with train delays and a dying phone battery, but it all turned out OK. I was still buzzing and totally unable to focus on work the day after! It’s a shame though that Crochet Now magazine does not organise its own ‘Crocheter of the Year’ awards…
It’s all about people
I met some lovely and talented people during this exceptional day, and I suggest you go check them out:
– Penny Jenkins, already mentioned above, who writes the brilliant blog A Woolly Yarn.
– Tracy Holroyd-Smith, organiser of the Leeds Wool Festival, hosted by the Leeds Industrial Museum at Armley Mills.
– Heike Campbell, a designer of gorgeous knitwear.
– Emma Heywood, a knitwear designer obsessed with cute and quirky intarsia.
Finally, thank you Jenny for giving me such an amazing opportunity to take part in this very special day!
Her book Mandalas to Crochet was published in 2016 by Search Press, “The leading supplier of arts & crafts books in the UK” (as they say so themselves). This book presents different circular crochet motifs, mostly worked in the round (from the centre outwards), with only a couple of exceptions.
A good start
It starts with an “about the book” page, which shows and explains the different sections of the book and how to use them, as well as a presentation of the author and a definition of what a mandala is. An explanation of how the charts are presented is given: after the first few rounds, only a segment of the mandala is shown in colour (to avoid getting lost while working a specific round – but also to save printing space and avoid having to reduce the size of the graphs too much!), but most of the outline of the mandala remains shown in grey to give a feel of the overall shape – very clever!
I was impressed by the useful section about yarn choices, with a 6-round sample mandala worked in different yarns (all in neutral colours), from super fine crochet thread to different types of DK (in acrylic and plant fibres – however not in wool or any other animal fibre as Haafner is vegan), to t-shirt yarn and jute rope (my favourite!). It is a real invitation to play and experiment with materials and hook sizes. The use of colour is also addressed; I found this most welcome, as I am not very good at colour coordinating yarns. On this double page, the illustrated mandalas are worked in the same yarn quality but in different colour combinations AND colour plans (how many rows per colour, colour changes and repetitions, etc.). It is, once again, an open invitation to discover the various effects created by different colour schemes and to experiment.
More non-prescriptive information pages follow, with two options to start the mandalas and a mention of the use of standing stitches and invisible joins to open and close rounds for crocheters ready to move on from the standard chains and slip stitches. Tips for problem solving and a “crochet refresher course” are also provided (extra info on stitches and their abbreviations are also given at the end of the book).
You can either flip through the pages of the book to find a tempting mandala to make or use the “mandala selector” pages, which contain pictures of the actual mandalas for which the patterns are provided, mostly in muted colours, with a page reference to find the corresponding pattern.
Each mandala pattern is presented on a double page spread, with its title, its chart and its written instructions, as well as a large picture of the worked mandala on backgrounds made of different white vintage linens, which I find brings out the colours while conveying an extra feeling of calm and contentment. I love that there is a key next to each chart (no need to flip back and forth to consult a master key) and also that for every pattern Haafner spells out the starting number of stitches and reminds us of the simple mathematical principle applicable to any round, flat crochet piece, which is that this number is also the number of increases necessary in every single round of the pattern.
The hook size suggested for all but one of the 30 mandala patterns is a 3 or a 3.5 millimetre hook and a diameter is given for all the finished pieces when worked with the recommended hook. Of course, as everyone’s tension is different, you might not get this exact measurement, but at least it gives you an idea of the minimum size you might get should you decide to use a thicker yarn with a larger hook.
Some mandalas are made of plain, standard stitches, while others offer a mix and match of front and back loop stitches or an opportunity to play with front post and back post stitches. Some are made from a single type of stitch throughout, whereas others offer some daring combinations featuring popcorns, clusters and loop stitches.
The 30 mandala patterns are followed by a couple of double pages of suggested borders that could be added to the mandalas and which are presented in soothing tones of ecru and metallic grey.
Mandalas are pretty and enticing, but what can they actually be used for? Haafner has the answer with a few projects like a bag, a hot pad, a table mat, even a summer scarf, a couple of blankets and of course, for fans of super chunky t-shirt yarn, a rug!
I don’t think this book can be used by complete beginners as a learning tool, in spite of the crochet refresher course that precedes the mandala patterns. However, it is perfectly suitable for rusty crocheters or beginners who are ready to make a little jump towards a lower-intermediate level – as long as they make sure to read ALL the instructions of the “Read this first!” section. The selection of stitch designs is generous and varied. Once you have found your favourite, you could just do it over and over again, using different colour combinations!
Overall it is a very pleasant book to own. As I work mainly with graphs and tend to ignore written instructions, I cannot guarantee that my copy is 100% error-free but I have checked the keys of all 30 mandala charts and everything seems to be correct (which I was relatively surprised about, given what I have seen in other publications, and especially as Haafner originally writes her patterns in American English). Mandalas to Crochet is a very well presented, clear, cheerful and subtly colourful book, and flipping through its pages is surprisingly calming (which is a side effect I was NOT expecting!). If mandalas are your thing, I thoroughly recommend it.
On this day 4 years ago I was giving my first crochet lesson. I love doing this more and more with each lesson I teach. I also learn a lot from my students and I’m super proud of all of them. It is particularly rewarding to teach complete beginners and see their lightbulb moment happen. Seeing some of them come back for more advanced crochet workshops is just the icing on the cake!
I am eternally grateful to the people who have made this possible: venue partners (especially Ruth & Jenny at Ammonite Yarns), students past and present, friends and family who have encouraged me along the way.