Subtraction, or removing what is not absolutely required, is the secret of ease. This languid time of year is perfect for practicing subtraction—and Julia Farwell-Clay might just be the right designer to reveal the path. Her designs in MDK Field Guide No. 7: Ease are quintessential summer knitting right now.
“The more mature I become as a designer, the more I am attracted to refining down to the clearest version of an idea,” she says. “The clearest version usually ends up be being the simplest to communicate. I’m learning how to create interest without it being complicated.”
My first run-in with a Julia Farwell-Clay design was her Hiro yoke sweater, for which she has yet to see a color combo she didn’t like.
MDK readers might know Julia from her fascination with Eddie Redmayne’s Prada jacket.
(Her Eddy Wrap design emerged from that fascination.)
Julia’s Dr. Knit Fix-It incarnation may have cut into your sweater at the MDK Knitting Getaway.
Kay was taken with Julia’s Metronome Shawl, an endlessly entertaining project that looks far more complicated than it actually is. (That’s it, up top.)
For all her knitting success, Julia didn’t start out in the fiber or fashion industry. What you might not know about her is that she went to Middlebury College’s prestigious Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference a couple of times, years ago.
“I was going to write the Great American Novel or, at least, one of them,” Julia says. What held her back was her own doubt about her writing, which she also feels, to a lesser degree, when starting a design.
“But I think that’s any designer,” she says.
“I think the doubt thing is so much bigger when it comes to writing. My husband rolls his eyes because he believes in me more than anybody. He’s wonderful. He knows that I can do it, but I’m so petrified. I knit instead of write. It’s less frightening to me. My mother won’t disown me because I knit a sweater; it’s born of the same pathos,” Julia says.
“So all of your pathos is in the sweater?” I asked her as we talked on the phone on a sultry afternoon. “Here is my Sweater of Pathos. I made it just for you.”
And, no, Sweater of Pathos is not her next design. But I wouldn’t put it past her. As a knitter, Julia likes a challenge.
“My first sweaters were Rowan sweaters. They were intarsia rat’s nests that lived in a basket next to my knitting chair,” she says. “I would record David Letterman, binge watch, and knit. It would take me a year but I would knit these crazy Kim Hargreaves and Kaffe Fassett sweaters. I knew it was just knitting. It’s just one stitch at a time.”
Looking to Art for an Idea
Julia’s fiber fearlessness is currently occupied with a grand project on her “back-back burner.” After a trip to an art museum in Baltimore, Julia found herself taken with Richard Diebenkorn, whose paintings were paired with Matisses. It felt like the two men were having a conversation, she says, across space and time. She wrote about it more than a year ago and hasn’t stopped thinking about Ocean Park #79.
“It’s enormous. It’s 15 feet square. It’s stunning,” she says. “It’s these wonderful shapes. These layers of paint and all of these lines he’s scored into the canvas. It’s just so painterly. And modern. And California. But when I saw it as part of the Matisse and Diebenkorn show, it’s the exclamation point at the end of the sentence. It’s so much better.”
After that experience, her mind turned to knitting.
“I always thought that it would be really fun to knit it as a shawl, in gauzy yarn and colors that match the painting. I’m doing a first draft right now, using a yarn from Sincere Sheep, because Brooke Sinnes’s colors are perfect matches in a lot of ways. I got about 75 percent into it. Then I went, no, no, no, this isn’t big enough. It has to be big. I ripped it all out. And I bought another couple of skeins. I’m tilting at the windmill again.”
MDK Field Guide No. 7, however, isn’t about the Mount Everest patterns—those that are complicated or enormous or both—that nearly every knitter finds herself or himself obsessed with at some point. This Field Guide is all about knitting that conveys ease, which doesn’t necessarily equate with simple.
There’s enough going on in each design to keep your mind engaged but not overheated, which is important when the weather is steamy.
The book was born on a walk through New York City that Julia took with Ann and Kay. At first, the word “ease” called up images of garments that were exquisitely tailored in the shoulders and had a flattering neckline but, Julia says, “as a woman of a certain age, I like a little room around my midriff. I really like positive ease and also think that positive ease is easy to wear. There is a nice homonym there.
“Of course,” she adds with a laugh, “Kay and Ann didn’t want garments.”
Each of the four patterns in Field Guide No. 7 explores an angle of what ease means. The Bodhi Leaf Washcloth is a snack-sized knit, quick to produce but still engaging.
Bodhi Leaf Washcloth, in Euroflax Linen
The Sail-Away Shawl is yards and yards of easy-breezy-beautiful garter stitch with a kicky detail at the bottom edge.
Sail-Away Shawl, featuring Sincere Sheep Cormo Sport
“The Picket Fence Afghan is the most challenging piece in the collection,” Julia says, “but it’s the same square over and over and over again. It’s like you’re playing a joke when you knit this, like ‘hahaha’ I’m getting away with this.”
Picket Fence Afghan, in Rowan Denim
The same is true of the Sea Breeze Cowl-Poncho, which demonstrates two facets of ease: fit and construction.
Sea Breeze Cowl-Poncho, in Spud and Chloe Sweater wool/cotton
“It looks very elaborate. It’s really not. It’s easy to memorize. Once you’ve knit a repeat of the pattern, you can almost continue it by reading your knitting. It’s not intense.”
Which, you are thinking, is something that is easy for Dr. Knit Fix-It to say. But Julia would urge you to embrace this season of ease by subtracting doubt about your own skills.
“So many women begin questions to me with “This may not be a very good question.” Or “I’m not a good enough knitter to know the answer to this myself.” There’s always this couching of it in terms of putting themselves down. “I can’t knit that because that’s too hard.”
“How many times have you said to a knitter: ‘I love that shawl.’ Then she’ll say, ‘Me, too, except for this place where I made an error.’
“What do I wish knitters knew about knitting? If it’s bad, it’s just knitting. And if it’s good, look what you did! It’s not a competition. The only person judging it is yourself.”
Perhaps this is the season for ease-ing up on ourselves as well as our knitting.