Ironbridge: from Austria to England

I liked the skein. I loved the wound ball. I adored the little stocking stitch swatch where the yarn came to life. Both sides looked amazing, but how to show it all off?

Semi-solid and variegated yarns are a challenge because they can make stitch patterns vanish. After more swatching the Fyberspates Vivacious 4ply, twisted stitches became my solution. They just popped off the purl background because of the yarn’s beautiful stitch definition. Textures had reappeared, but now what was I going to do with that fact?

I happened to mention my thoughts to a lovely and equally knit-obsessed friend. She grabbed Maria Erlbacher’s “Twisted Stitch Knitting” book down from her shelf and insisted I took it home. It was late. I was tired. I said yes without barely opening the book: it was about knitting. I was bound to like it.Image

When I sat down with this technical tome and my sketchbook, the traditional Styrian Enns Valley knitting looked incredible, but how would today’s knitter work any of these? The charting system used was totally alien, with all the action written as if it happens between the rows, rather than the chart row showing how the knitting looks after you’ve worked it. That probably didn’t make any sense. It didn’t make any sense to me either. There were no written directions beside each stitch pattern, just some instructions at the beginning of the book.

Picking the simplest-yet-still-interesting cable I could see, I swatched it. I played with the nuts and bolts of how to make it look the same as the original yet easier to knit, I tried making variations of it, and then I pushed familiar cables into this style of working. Then I picked another, slightly more challenging cable and played with that too. Now I was getting into it (read: carried away) and had a very odd-looking swatch barely 2” wide yet over a foot long. Time to make decisions. I reckoned I needed a more complicated cable to give the piece focus. But would anyone knit it?

I consulted with my friend who adores cables, and was going to make the sample. She didn’t blanche at the sight of my ideas; in fact she was positively enthusiastic. I drank lots of tea, chatted and ate chocolate in a bid to avoid the challenge of trying our favourite cable idea myself. After a couple of hours of procrastination I must have made, ooh, 6 rows. She rightly pointed out that if I put my mind to it I could easily have done several repeats. Why was I resisting?

I put it all away to mull over. I realised that I was worrying whether a slightly less cable-crazy knitter (like, say…me) would tackle a more complex cable? I trawled through the book again. I tried different ways of incorporating the easier cables I’d already tried and liked. I kept coming back to the tricky-but-beautiful one, so I stopped messing about and finished the swatch. My friend was right. It was going to be the main detail and it was totally worth it. After that it all fell into place, along with the idea for a little panel up the back. This would serve the dual purpose of being a nice surprise detail, and would stop us all getting bored with too much reverse stocking stitch to work.Image

The visual concept in my head initially was to do with looking through trees at the edge of the forest. I liked how that fit with the idea that these were knitting techniques from a “Valley”. I romantically imagined a wooded valley translated into a circular cowl, with the tree trunks and saplings standing up it. The colours in the yarn were like bark.

It was a rewarding headache (if I can say that) to write modern charts and written instructions. I’d go as far as to say I’d love to revise the whole book with modern charts. Maybe it would be wiser to say that I’d love to read the whole book with modern charts, before I cast on more than I can knit, as it were? The sample and test knits went without a hitch, so it was worth the effort of translating and updating the stitch patterns I used. The author says that she hopes that designers would use the patterns to keep them alive, and I hope I’ve played a tiny part in that. The original, ornate garments are spectacular.

Meanwhile, I was still chewing over the fact that the fabulous yarn colourway is actually called Silver & Bronze. There was something metallic, urban and industrial about the whole design. It’s just too controlled to be wild nature.Image

I threw the problem over to my group for a name-that-design competition and vote. We discussed the concepts and there were some lovely woodland-inspired ideas. However, once Ironbridge was suggested, there was no going back. The circular shapes and sculptural stitch definition fit much better with the Industrial Revolution than it did with my romantic notions of countryside.

Personally, I was reminded of a kind of middle-ground: Duisburg-Nord. This spectacular 200ha site is where nature is busy reclaiming an abandoned ironworks in the heart of the German Ruhr. The disused industrial buildings are integral to the soul of the spectacular park.

There’s something of the same balance in this very sculptural, engineered Ironbridge Cowl, which isn’t made in cold hard metal, but rather is made lovingly by hand in soft, warm wool. The contradiction makes me smile. And it makes me want to knit.

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