We first encountered Julia Farwell-Clay as a sometimes uproarious, sometimes esoteric, always riveting blogger. She made us laugh out loud, and think hard to keep up with the connections she made. Over the years, as her knitwear designs emerged one by one, we realized that our fellow blogger is an extraordinary design talent. There is a consistent historical rigor and clarity of vision to Julia’s work, and a complete lack of cut-and-paste.
This first piece from Julia sets the stage for a series of articles that explore her process. We have no idea what to expect; Julia will not be talking about her existing designs, but about what she is working on at the moment. We are perched on the edges of our seats. Watch this space!
Kay and Ann
People often ask me how I continue to find inspiration again and again, and the answer is simple: I see design everywhere. Making knitwear designs out of those inspirations takes more than just dreaming up lovely ideas, and getting to this place in my life where my response to the world is an artistic practice took some time.
I began—naturally—as a knitter. About the time I was graduating from college, busying myself knitting socks for some friends and sweaters for others, my mother gave me the book Glorious Knits by Kaffe Fassett.
Leafing through those pages again and again, until some corners were worn through like the knees of old jeans, I realized that knitting could be about more than copying a useful garment to wear on a chilly day. Suddenly, I had the power to knit whatever I imagined; I could personalize the object I was making down to the very stitch. Knitting changed for me in that moment from being simply following instructions to allowing myself a constant riff on the world around me.
A little over a year ago, luck and time and finances allowed me to join Mary Jane Mucklestone, Gudrun Johnson and eleven other excited knitters on what was billed as a “Grand Shetland Adventure.” We spent a busy week meeting textile artists and taking in the scenery, eating good food and sleeping really well. We went for long walks across fields and along cliff tops, took boat rides across Lerwick harbor to view countless birds off the cliffs of Noss island, and had tea with shepherds while we bought naturally colored yarn spun from their flock.
The Shetland I became acquainted with that week far exceeded the Shetland of my fantasy. I was already a student of Fair Isle knitting thanks to Alice Starmore and Sheila McGregor, and I knew my peeries from my OXO’s. But what I had failed to understand from reading their books was the immediate connection between those designs and the place itself, how the palette and their patterns are an actual expression of the Shetland landscape.
With a knitter’s eye, you can practically see Fair Isle patterns everywhere you look. Wild flowers were abundant. Tiny sea pinks, red campion, and buttercup sprung from any crack they could find, the roadside verges blurred with purple and white and red. There were lichens and mosses decorating stone walls, fluorescent greens and yellows contrasted against the weathered gray of wooden stiles and doorways. Even the rocks were a spectrum of color: black cliffs streaked in red iron ore, volcanic boulders full of colorful pebbles, and sandstone stacks heaved up from the ocean floor 100 million years ago, now painted by the daily lives of a thousand birds. The power of the Fair Isle tradition comes not only from how beautiful it is, but from its direct connection to the land and its natural history.
From the moment cave dwellers had time to draw instead of hunt, they did, and they decorated the walls of caves we can still see today. Flash forward 40,000 years to Astronaut Karen Nyberg who, in her down time on the International Space Station, in zero gravity, made a dinosaur out of food packages and t-shirt scraps as a souvenir for her young son, and you’ll see the same process. Our urge to make things is irrepressible. Knitting fits easily with our creative impulses. Its primal and necessary function to provide warmth and survival is secure. But more and more with knitting, we also enjoy the time and freedom to use it to express ourselves.
And so this is what I do. Like the knitters of Shetland, I knit as a way to connect with my surroundings. My designs are a distillation of what excites me, what I think of as interesting, and what I think of as beautiful for me to wear. Of course I came away from that trip with a few Shetland-inspired designs of my own such as my pattern for the Niela Cowl. But the most important lesson was the one that reminded me of the constant connection that I make between my life and my designs.
In the coming months, I’ll use this space as a sketchbook to share with you part of that process. Some of the things you’ll find me working on here will just remain ideas, a swatch, a sketch, a doodle. Other things may go on to be published designs. Part of the fun will be trying to figure out what works for one or the other.
So, see you next time! I have some ideas to show you.