Alison Ellen’s’ Lockdown

I’m writing this after a month spent isolating in lockdown and am settling into a new way of life. For me I think the worst time was the week before lockdown, as this was when all the planned work events were cancelled one after another. Teaching workshops, talks, an open studio event, and all the shows for the next few months went down like ninepins. What is the point of being a craftsman and making things for people to enjoy if there is no opportunity to show them? And how to keep a business going with all the costs involved if you can’t sell?

Guild shows give the perfect opportunity for explaining ideas and processes to the public to spark their interest and meeting our customers.  For my business designing garments, feedback from the public helps enormously.  I need to see the work tried by all different shapes and sizes and to hear what people say!  My aim is to have something suitable for everyone to try and seeing how the designs work on different people is essential.

When lockdown started, I thought life would not be much different from usual, as both my husband and I work at home ‘in isolation’ all the time! But it is different. I realize how much I do rely on human contact, including other activities outside work. So thank goodness for the internet, both as an opportunity to ‘see’ friends and family, and to ‘show’ and display work.

My business of designing knitwear is more craft than fashion: my aim is to make things that will look good for years. Hand knitting is a very slow process, but it has qualities and characteristics that are unique, and I concentrate on designing shapes that use and emphasize its potential; otherwise why not use a machine? The garments are ‘built’ or constructed in one piece without seams as far as possible, with interest in texture and pattern, and colour of course. I dye all the yarns, either to achieve plain colours or patterned yarn through tie-dyeing and dip-dyeing. Living in the country, surrounding garden and landscape often inspire colour combinations. Some of the designs are made from small units or blocks, joined as they go, which gives design opportunities very different from patterns knitted straight across. The stitches themselves alter the width and length of the fabric, and I consciously use this as a way of shaping garments to fit as well as to create texture.

Recently we decided to clear our attic and discovered a beautiful wasps’ nest. Looking closely, the colours were subtle but amazing; all shades of grey and buff, and it seemed to be made bit by bit in curved shapes, which reminded me immediately of a knitted construction. Could it begin a new design idea? I can’t do all the knitting myself as it’s too slow to produce enough, but have wonderful knitters around Britain who are skilled and patient with my (sometimes confusing) ideas: I write the pattern with colour instructions, dye the yarn, and post the parcels. Looking closely at the wasps’ nest, the number of shades could involve a lot of different yarns, but a more practical approach is to dye a multi-shaded yarn, making it easier to knit as well. This is achieved with a combination of tie-dyeing the skein of wool, dipping into different shades, and crucially not stirring, so it becomes blotchy and will knit up with soft patches of colour following and emphasizing the different directions of the stitches. After experimenting with different scales of units to build the shape, I found a way of shaping for the body that would be flattering to wear, worked out the maths, words and diagrams from my knitted pieces, and sent it off to be knitted.

Then came lockdown. I had a few orders for repeat garments to complete from earlier in the year, and a few sales from postings on social media, (which also brings encouraging comments to raise the spirits and keep one going), This is a perfect time for experimenting with new ideas.

Yesterday, back came the wasps’ nest jacket from the knitter: looking wonderful, just as I hoped! The colours vary and merge beautifully. Because it is a new design, we made it in separate pieces which  then needed a bit of juggling to fit the jigsaw together, but now I see it in the flesh (wool), it will be written up properly and can be made again seamlessly all in one piece. From this, other designs and colourways will emerge, and with more calculations different sizes can be made.

At the moment we hope to be able to show work later this year, but who knows what will happen. So, this new design will be shown virtually for the moment but will have to wait a while for real people to try it on.

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