In the past few months I have done a couple of interviews with crafty heroes. One with Rachel Vowles and another with Sarah Moore. This time I have interviewed the wonderful Donna Smith. Donna has just been announced the 2015 patron of Shetland Wool Week and is a successful accessories designer for Not on the High Street.
photo by Selina-May Miller
Coincidentally Donna and I lived together at University, nearly twenty years ago. She is one of the kindest and funniest people you could meet. She has such a dry sense of humour and one of my lasting memories of her is her sense of style. I have happy memories of a holiday visiting Shetland in the summer I graduated. Long bright evenings in the most glorious light. Seeing chubby puffins riding the winds near the cliff edges and the wonderful green shorelines dotted with the famous Shetland sheep.
Knitting has such breadth of complexity. You can create something luxurious and stylish with a simple garter stitch or an heirloom shawl in finest lace weight yarn. In Shetland you will see real skills, knitters weaving complex patterns in the round, on tiny needles. The garments made will last a lifetime, or indeed many lifetimes. I wanted to share the skill and sensibilities of a contemporary Shetland knitter and designer.
So Donna, when did you first learn to knit – was it from the womb? Who taught you and was there ever a period when you didn’t knit? Were you knitting when we lived together? I think was mostly doing needlepoint at that time.
I can’t really remember learning to knit but I remember knitting at my paternal Granny’s house who lived live door. I think it was probably her that showed me what to do first. We also got knitting classes at Primary school so it was something I could do fairly early on although I do remember Granny having to a finish a white acrylic waistcoat I started at school as I got bored! I made various different things when I was at school whenever the notion hit me and I actually knitted an aran cardigan when we lived together (although it might have been in the summer holiday) but I never sewed it together. I think it must be my oldest UFO (unfinished object) and I really must make a point of finishing it soon! I loved the needlepoint you did, and you inspired me to make a few cushions after that. After I graduated I really didn’t knit for quite a few years as most of my time was taken up with working and then setting up my business. I started knitting again when my son was born just over 3 years ago and since then have got a bit addicted!
Was having such a talented family of crafters an inspiration to you. Do you think you learnt trick and tips of knitting because you were introduced to fairisle?
Definitely. There was always lots of knitting going on and my Mum was either sewing or knitting. I tend to do things the way she did. One Shetland method of knitting is using a making belt (knitting belt) and DPNs (double pointed needles), and working in the round. When using two colours I have the background colour on my right hand and the foreground colour on my left. Steeking involves casting on extra stitches and knitting them, these stitches are them cut at the end to create openings, such as the front opening of a cardigan, the armholes and the neck opening. It means the knitting isn’t disrupted and the correct tension can be maintained throughout. I tend to try to make as much as I can in the round, even patterns that are written flat, to avoid seaming and still always use a knitting belt – I tried to use circular needles a couple of days ago with no success!
Unfortunately I didn’t pay a lot of attention to the details while my Mum and Grannys were alive but I have some of their work which I can get information from.
Do you design knitwear now or use traditional patterns?
A bit of both, traditionally in Shetland knitters don’t work from written patterns so I suppose anything Fair Isle can be an original design, being made up of patterns and colours that are unique. I have recently been using garments that have been knitted by family and friends to inspire new designs.
What special accessories/notions do you use to knit with? Can you explain the knitting belt?
The knitting belt is a leather belt with a horsehair filled pad with holes which is worn around the waist. The working needle (the right hand needle) is inserted into a hole in the belt and then the knitting starts. It keeps the work stable and the knitter can get into a comfortable position without having to hold onto their work too tightly.
Tell us how you started working with felt.
In 2000 I went back to college to study Art and Design, it was during this time that I found a book on felt making in the college library and I became intrigued. My Dad keeps a few sheep on the family croft and at that time, it was difficult to sell coloured fleece so I started looking at how I could use the fleece to make a final product. I used to wash it then card it before felting it, so it took many hours to make even a tiny purse, but the natural colours looked great.
Can you tell us about the wool you use and the techniques.
Making felt by hand is very hard physically and after a few years of making scarves and bags (and a bad back!), I sourced pressed wool felt from Germany for my work which is a beautiful material having a very smooth finish and cuts perfectly which means it is ideal for my current work. I cut the felt using a die cutter, I have an assortment of blocks so I can cut several different shapes. I use a hot glue gun to assemble the little bits of felt into the final product.
How has the internet affected your work
It has made life much easier in lots of ways, I used to travel to the mainland to show at trade fairs which was very expensive, getting myself and all my things there was the most expensive bit! Using the internet means I don’t have to go away as much. Sourcing materials is also easier.
In other ways it has a negative effect as I spend too much time on it when I should be doing something else!
How did you work start getting featured on Not on the High Street (NOTHS)?
I set up my own online shop a couple for years ago but running it took up a lot of time, I had been a customer at NOTHS and really liked their philosophy and their style and they are very dedicating to marketing their sellers. I just decided to apply one afternoon and was accepted, much quicker than I thought, so I then had to decide which designs I would sell and in which colours.
Do you think the Shetland isles has an effect on your sense of style?
I certainly does in terms of knitting as it has such a rich history. I’m not sure if my felt work is inspired directly by Shetland, I am inspired by so many things, from simple shapes to the material itself, so I might have come up with the same designs if I lived somewhere else.
Which knitter or crafters inspire you?
In Shetland there are many inspirational knitters, many are my relatives and would be embarrassed if I mentioned them! Wilma Malcolmson from Shetland Designer has an amazing sense of colour in her Fair Isle designs and Andrea Williamson has put a contemporary spin on Fair Isle products. Outwith Shetland I love the work of Kate Davies and Gudrun Johnston and in terms of general design I am a huge fan of Lotta Jansdotter, Heather Moore from Skinnylaminx.
What is you top top tip for knitting?
Just try it and don’t be scared! If it goes wrong it doesn’t matter, you can start again. We have a Shetland word “spret” which means to pull back your knitting – it’s something you have to learn not to be worried about! I have had experiences of people saying they can’t knit Fair Isle, and when they are shown they most certainly can. Always make a swatch before starting a project, washing and blocking it even if you think you already know your tension. Another very useful thing to do is to make samples. Make samples of Fair Isle and try out different colours, or try out different stitches and increases and decreases. You can use this as reference and by understanding how the stitches work you can become a confident knitter.
Do you work full time in textiles or do you have another string to your bow?
I work part time as a Science Technician supporting the High Schools in Shetland I have a three year old son, so I don’t have a lot of time for textiles at the moment!
Do you think the traditional knitting skills will ever die out?
I genuinely hope not, but unfortunately we are in danger of this happening unless more people take it up. Historically at one time almost every woman would knit items to sell but when the demand for this fell in the middle of the last century, the number of people knitting declined. As it had generally been considered to be work, the skills weren’t then passed on to the next generation. Things are improving now though as people are beginning to realise that this knowledge and skills could die out and are becoming more interested in learning the techniques.
If you could save just one textile piece from a fire, what would it be?
Oh, that is a very difficult one! I think it would have to be a Fair Isle jacket that my Mum made for herself a couple of years before she died, she always had a unique sense of style and it was admired by many people.
What do you hope to do what are your dreams for the next year?
I have lots of new ideas and plans involving a new blog and new work involving knitting in the next year but finding time is fairly difficult at the moment so I it is very hard to set any timescales!
Visit Donna’s lovely blog here where you can see lots more of her wonderful work