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Interview with Fiona McDonald, author of Gothic Knits with book review and giveaway

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I’m delighted to interview Fiona McDonald today.  I’ll also be reviewing her new book, Gothic Knits, and hosting a giveaway of my review copy, courtesy of Search Press.

Fiona McDonald was trained as an artist and is known for her oil-painted, needle-sculpted, life-sized cloth figures, as well as her fabric dolls and dragons.  In recent years, she has returned to knitting and is using her skills to create interesting knit dolls.  You can find Fiona online on her blog, her Ravelry designer page, and her Twitter page.  (All pictures in this post are used with Fiona’s permission.)

The Interview

Underground Crafter (UC): How did you first get started knitting?
Fiona: When I was about 8 years old, my mother began to teach me to knit. I wasn’t too bad for a little girl but I had no idea what to do if I dropped a stitch and would have to wait for mum to attend to it. I must say she was very patient. I ended up doing crochet instead; I felt I understood it better. I haven’t done any for long time now.

UC: What inspired you to begin designing?
Fiona: I trained as an artist at the Julian Ashton Art School in Sydney after I left school. It was a rigorous programme which included anatomy and life drawing and modelling the nude figure in wax. I knew then that I wanted to work with the human form.

From art school, I went to live in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, and there I began designing cloth dolls. I made dolls and taught how to make them at workshops all over Australia. I took a break in 2000 for a few years while I studied literature at university.

Then a while ago I bought Sandra Polley’s Knitted Teddy Bear book and it was love at first sight. I got out the knitting needles and made a little bear. Knitting was suddenly no longer difficult, I could manage to recover lost stitches and I could see the mathematical basis of it.

Of course, I am never satisfied with just making someone else’s pattern, the designer within must have its say. I began to experiment with knitted dolls. When I made cloth dolls in the ’90s, I tried to get more and more sophisticated, wiring the fingers and making 3D faces and painting them with oil paints. I decided I’d try pushing the boundaries of knitting as well.

Thinking I’d done pretty well, I set about looking for an agent who might help me sell my designs to a publisher. Isabel Atherton of Creative Authors in the UK scooped me up and got me a whole string of commissions including four knitting books and four history books.

UC: Your latest book, Gothic Knits, includes designs for variations on a basic body and different ways of modifying the dolls in terms of hair, faces, and accessories. What was the design process like for this book, and was that different from or similar to your previous books?
Fiona: The biggest challenge for me with this book was the embroidered faces. I hate trying to embroider on knitted fabric. I feel it is too difficult a surface to get the fine detail I like in my faces. I decided to build on the felt eyes I’d used for the Babes and the Fairies. This time the colour was applied through embroidery thread not paint or texta.

The other difference was the male vampires. I had designed the male fairies but their size meant they didn’t have to be too different from the females. With the vampires I wanted to try getting some rippling stomach muscles and those chest plates. I was tempted to go into further anatomical detail but felt the publishers might not be very impressed.

UC: How does your fine arts training influence your knitting?
Fiona: It is very important. I use my knowledge of proportion and facial anatomy all the time. I can also visualise in my mind’s eye how to create a flat piece of knitting that will, when sewn up and stuffed, become three dimensional. This was always what I loved about the cloth dolls. With the knitted dolls I’ve gone a step further and have taken a line and transformed it into a three dimensional piece, not just a plane.

Knowing how an eye works and what kind of structure a nose really is is essential in designing my dolls. I admire stylisation and simplification in other people’s work but I am not comfortable doing it myself.

UC: Where do you generally find your creative inspiration?
Fiona: Books, books, and books. Also films. I watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer when knitting the vampires and then Angel as well. I love old fashioned things and especially children’s picture books. I’m a Lord of the Rings fan, books and movies, a Narnia girl but only the books (the first big books I ever read by myself). I want to enroll at Hogwarts, too.

UC: What are your favorite knitting books (besides your own, of course)?
Fiona: I adore Claire Garland’s books, I look at them a lot; she has such a great sense of design. I’d love her to do a story illustrated with photos of her dolls and toys. I really like Sandra Polley’s books, too; she got me started on the knitted toy bug. Alan Dart is very impressive: his mice are gorgeous.

I collect old craft books, mainly toy making ones and a lot of them are knitted toys. I think Noddy in Toyland by Enid Blyton has influenced my taste in toys; it was a favourite story when I was a very little girl and when I was about three my mum knitted me the sweetest little Tessie Bear who is tucked away safely from moths and dust.

UC: Do you have any favorite craft or design blogs and websites to share?
Fiona: There are lots, I’m a design blog junkie. I always check out:

The year before last, some lovely ladies started a fan club for me on Ravelry, Fiona McDonald Fans. I was so chuffed by it.

UC: What are your plans for the coming year?
Fiona: I have lots of knitting plans for this year. At the moment I’m designing some knitted stump dolls based on medieval clay dolls. I hope to have a stall at the Abbey Medieval Festival near Brisbane in Queensland this year. There are no known examples of knitted or cloth toys from medieval times, but knitting was practised at the time. I want the dolls to have the medieval look but still be attractive to a modern audience.

My other major project is to design a range of knitted dragons. I used to make cloth dragons, some quite big, and I think it is time I did some knitted ones. If I can’t convince my publisher to do them as a book, I’ll sell the patterns on Ravelry and Etsy.

Of course I continue to design dolls, ones to be played with by children. I knitted a little doll for my granddaughter for Christmas and bought a travel trunk for her to house her clothes and accessories. I just love the idea of a doll who can travel with you. I always take one of my dolls with me when I travel, it is company.

My biggest daydream which I’m going to try hard to make a reality this year is to get a toy shop up and running. I want handmade toys and old fashioned things. I want the shop to look like something out of a Dickens novel.

And lastly I’d like a holiday where I can take my knitting and relax.

Thanks so much for stopping by for an interview, Fiona!

The Book Review


Gothic Knits is an interesting book.  It is a collection of 9 Goth doll patterns, along with tips and tricks for making knit dolls.  It is one of the few niche knitting books I’ve seen that is quite clear that it has a specialized audience and doesn’t attempt to be all things to all people.  You won’t find illustrations for casting on or instructions on how to do the knit stitch in this book.  The book assumes that you have basic knitting skills (cast on, bind off, knit, purl, k2tog, p2tog, and increasing by knitting in the front and back loop of the same stitch) and an ability to read simple patterns.  And that specialization is a large part of what makes the book work.

Additionally, Gothic Knits is well organized into several sections.

  • Before you begin… reviews materials and pattern terminology.  This includes both standard knitting tools (needles, yarn) and specialized doll making materials (e.g., hooks and eyes and press studs, chopsticks or plastic straws for the necks).
  • Hair is probably my favorite section.  There are three techniques for attaching hair that Fiona explains: stitched-on hair (described individually in the patterns), the rooted method, and using fake hair.  Even if you aren’t interested in making Goth dolls, these techniques could be applied to other types of amigurumi.
  • Assembling the bodies is very thorough and uses detailed descriptions and photographs to explain the general assembly and shaping techniques used on all of the dolls, including sculpting breasts or chest muscles, forming detailed facial features, and proper stuffing technique for the different characters.
  • The next section includes patterns for 9 Goths (three vampires, a siren, a bride of Frankenstein, and four other creepy types).  Each pattern includes instructions for the body, the face and hair, and clothing and accessories for the character.

There are detailed photos throughout, and Fiona’s instructions are very thorough.  She also provides several warnings about how to adapt the dolls to be safe for small children.

This book is an excellent primer for learning how to make sculpted, knit dolls.  You could either follow the patterns exactly or use the techniques to design your own dolls.

As for what could be improved about the book, I think some step-by-step photos would have been helpful, particularly in the hair section.  There are close up pictures of the dolls and detailed written descriptions of the process, but it never hurts to see the person actually doing it.

I give this book 4 stars for a knitter with basic skills who is interested in improving their doll-making skills, is into Gothic characters, or who makes gifts for lovers of Gothic characters.  It could also be an interesting book for people who make other types of dolls and are interested in knitting clothing and accessories in a Goth style.  Since this is a niche book, if none of these categories describe you, you are probably best off buying something else that is more appealing to your interests.

Full disclosure: A free review copy of this book was provided by the publisher. Although I accept free books for review, I do not accept additional compensation from the publisher, nor do I guarantee a positive review.  My reviews are based entirely on my honest opinions. This also post contains affiliate links. You can read my affiliate and review disclosures here.

The Giveaway

I’m giving away my review copy of Gothic Knits, courtesy of Search Press.  This giveaway is open to any of my blog readers.  I will choose a winner at random.

Year of Projects: Crochet Master Class – Tartans & Plaids Class with Jenny King

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This post is part of my Year of Projects: Crochet Master Class series.  You can find my other posts in this series here.

Last Sunday, I woke up early instead of sleeping in, packed up my yarn and crochet kit, and headed down to the Lion Brand Yarn Studio to take two classes during Crochet Masters weekend.

There’s a scaffolding in front of the Lion Brand Yarn Studio, just like every other building in New York City.

My first class was Tartans & Plaids with Jenny King.  Jenny’s is the woven crochet master featured in Crochet Master Class: Lessons and Projects from Today’s Top Crocheters and has self-published 15 books on tartan rugs (also known as plaid blankets in the U.S.).  Jenny lives in Queensland, Australia, where she operates a yarn shop in addition to designing crochet patterns.  Although Jenny is a prolific and well established designer, her name only recently came to my attention as the author of Learn to Do Bavarian Crochet.

I read more about Jenny in Crochet Master Class but was dubious about creating my own woven plaid crochet project.  Full disclosure: I was a plaid fanatic in high school (perhaps because I never wore a Catholic school uniform like my cousins? or maybe it was just the grunge years?), but I have never had much success with crocheting plaids – they always come out messy, or skimpy looking.  I am also not down with fringe, so that fringe finish on crocheted plaids never really wowed me.

I was very excited to see that Jenny would be in New York City teaching, but even her pedigree as a designer didn’t completely convince me that she could actually teach me to make attractive and full looking crocheted plaids in three hours.  Let’s be honest – some people are great designers and some people are great teachers, and only a few are both.  Luckily for me, Jenny is one of those few!

Jenny opened the class by sharing some historical details about Scottish tartans.  She has designed about 200 crochet patterns that feature the plaids of various clans.  The project for the class was based on the Fire Department, City of New York (FDNY) Emerald Society Pipe Band plaid, which was a very nice local touch.  Making the mesh base was simple enough, and Jenny provided me (and the rest of the class, of course) with a few tips for joining colors and keeping our ends tidy.

The mesh I made in class.

Jenny also has a great sense of humor.  She kept the class lively by sharing anecdotes and tips.  She also admonished us, “You have to check with Jenny before ripping out!” and “Don’t point out your mistakes!”  She also told us that she has never made a gauge swatch (egads!  It’s like designer sacrilege!).

Finally, with mesh complete, we were ready to start weaving.

The Tartan Weaver.

Jenny introduced us to the Tartan Weaver, a great tool that makes weaving much easier and faster.  Her method uses chains rather than strips of yarn for weaving, and she also shared quite a few tips for sizing and weaving the ends of the woven chains.

Doesn’t this look look great? My first four woven chain strips, completed in class.

I left the class feeling pretty good.  Finally, a plaid project that is neat looking and where the woven strips actually fit into the mesh!  I decided to order two of Jenny’s books, The Tartan Rug and U.S.A. and Canadian Plaid Afghans, from her website.  I’m particularly looking forward to the Black Watch pattern, since that has always been my favorite plaid.

I’ve made a bit of progress since class.  I made another mesh and all of my green chains and my white chains.

I still have to make my black and blue chains.

After the two meshes are woven, I plan to join them and make a small, decorative pillow.  Thanks, Jenny King, for teaching me how to make plaids that don’t suck!

For more Year of Projects posts, check out When Did I Become a Knitter.

Edited to add: Lion Brand Yarn Studio updated their blog with a slide show of pictures from the Crochet Masters weekend.  You can see me in picture 15 from the night of the book signing (I’m crocheting in the second row in the picture with a blue top), in picture 31 (to the left of Margaret Hubert in her Freeform class picture), and in picture 37 (as the last student on the left side).

…and, a little shopping

I didn’t use the recommended Lion Brand yarns for my project.  As I mentioned, I’ve cut back on buying acrylic yarn, and the Lion Brand Yarn Studio was out of Lion Wool when I bought the supplies for the class.  I ended up using an old skein of Bernat Lana I had laying around the house and some Patons Classic Wool in the recommended colors purchased at Michaels.

I felt a bit guilty since I know that the main reason the Lion Brand Yarn Studio offers over 100 classes per month is to sell yarn.  So I decided to go shopping in the store and spend about as much as I would have spent on buying the yarn there.  I bought two skeins of LB Collection Superwash Merino.

Cayenne and Spring Leaf.

And I decided to test out this sweater stone.

Hopefully, this will rescue my beloved scrapghan, which suffered a terrible pilling fate when accidentally washed with a ripped comforter.

To find more blogs participating in Blogtoberfest 2011, visit Tinnie Girl.  For Blogtoberfest 2011 giveaways, visit Curly Pops.

Interview with Renate Kirkpatrick, book review, and week of giveaways kick off!

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Today I’m pleased to feature an interview with Renate Kirkpatrick, the fiber artist, teacher, and author living in the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia, as my 100th blog post!  I first discovered Renate’s work through the Tunisian Crochet group on Ravelry.  The moderators posted the names of several Tunisian crochet books on the group page, and I saw Renate’s Crochet Techniques listed.  I decided to take a chance and order it on Amazon since the description sounded delightful.  (You can read my review of the book as part of my comparative review of the 20+ crochet stitch guides in my collection here.)  Since then, I’ve seen more of Renate’s work on her blog, her Flickr photostream, her Facebook page, and her Ravelry designer page.  I particularly love her recent pictures of her crocheted metallic vest on Flickr.

The Interview

Renate Kirkpatrick

Underground Crafter (UC): How did you first learn to crochet?

Renate: To be honest, I really don’t remember… I do recall, as a child, sitting with a neighbour as she crocheted slippers and how thrilled I was when she gave me my very own pair… perhaps something subliminal going on there.  My grandmother and great grandmother were both wonderful crocheters/knitters, and I have a box filled with their beautiful works that I treasure, but I never knew them so perhaps there’s a bit of genetics going on too.  I think I made my first granny square in my mid-teens.  (UC comment: I also treasure my grandmother’s beautiful work, some of which you can see in this post.)

Renate made this felted, hand dyed, freeform hat with beads for the 2011 Alice Springs Beanie Festival.

(UC comment: For more info about the Beanie Festival, an event where Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal artists share their work and culture together, visit the website here.)

UC: What inspired you to start designing?

Renate: Family, friends, students… Family members and friends would ask me to make this or that and I’d write it down as I went so not to forget.  Students asking for more than just sampler squares.  The sheer challenge of coming up with a pattern idea and writing it down.

 

Renate’s second book.

UC: I recently bought a copy of Bring Colour to Crochet: 64 Multi-Coloured Squares.  What was the design process like for this book?  How did that compare to the process for your other two books?

Renate: My first two books, Freeform Crochet and Beyond: Bags, Cushions, Hats, Scarves and More (Milner Craft Series) and Crochet Techniques, came about through tragedy.  The local craft shop where I was teaching was destroyed by fire, along with all my sampler rugs (afghans) and the many freeform examples I had on display.  Luckily, I still had all the patterns.  I put together book proposals and submitted them to a number of publishers.  About 6 months later, Sally Milner Publishers contacted me for 2 books and so it began.  I like to think that Bring Colour to Crochet: 64 Multi-Coloured Squares sits somewhere between the first two.  My hope is that the traditionalists and freeformers alike will be challenged and inspired by the variety of colour incorporations and also the many novel stitches that make up this 64 pattern sampler.

 

Renate’s Metamorphosis freeform cushion cover includes water soluble fabric, machine and wet felted patches, felted beads, crochet motifs, and glass bead embellishments.

UC: What first inspired you to teach crochet?

Renate: The desire to help and share.  I was teaching Papermaking and Hooked Rag Rugging at said local craft store when I was asked if I’d like to teach some basic crochet as well.  Not one to do things by halves, I decided that once the students had a grasp of the basics they might want to try their hand at something more challenging to continue on – and so, the first sampler rug was born (Classic in Crochet Techniques).  From there it was a matter of staying a step or two in front of these enthusiastic ladies and with each crochet technique explored (Tunisian, double-ended, in the round, Jacquard), a new sampler was created as a teaching tool and goal setter.  (UC comment: My students keep me on my toes too, and definitely inspire me to learn new techniques and advance my skills.)

As a teacher, there is nothing more satisfying than having a student come to class lacking confidence and leaving excited and believing they can do it.

UC: Has teaching crochet impacted your own personal crafting?

Renate: Absolutely… The very fact that I was asked to teach the basics propelled me forward to research and explore.  Without my students asking “What’s next?”, I would never have learnt what I know today or achieved half as much.  It was a student who first introduced me to freeform, which has become my passion and the creative joy of my life.

Renate’s Scribbler purse.

UC: Where do you generally find your creative inspiration?

Renate: It’s always so cliché but nevertheless true, the Natural World and all that that encompasses – colour, texture, and form.  What can I say?  I’m an Australian; our colours are over-the-top, vivid, bright; our textures tactile; and our forms bold.  It’s more than enough to keep me inspired for a very long time.  I blogged about this very theme some time ago.

UC: What is your favorite crochet book in your collection (besides your own, of course)?

Renate: I think I may have more craft books and magazines than the local library, but can’t say I refer to one more than another.  I do like to crawl the opportunity shops for old, old, patterns and books but so do others, or so it seems, because they’re very hard to come by now.

Renate’s Sideshow Alley shawl.

UC: Do you have any favorite crafting blogs or websites you’d like to share?

Renate: Ravelry is probably my most favorite site.  It brings together so many different people and ideas.  I’ve met so many interesting, passionate craftspeople that I feel quite at home and the mind boggles with all the exciting things happening in the yarn world.

 

A detail from Renate’s Sideshow Alley shawl.

 

UC: (Insert question here: Feel free to share anything that I haven’t asked about that you would like to talk about related to creativity, crochet, designing, new projects, teaching, etc.)

Renate: As I look back over the years and remember how crochet/knitting, indeed many older crafts, were considered out-dated, redundant, and doddery, I’m delighted to see their revival and the enthusiasm in which they are being embraced all ’round the world.

Lastly, and at the risk of repeating myself because I say this so often, I’m an avid believer in “the doing.”  How often do you hear, “Oh, but I’m not the least bit creative…”  I still maintain that everyone harbours some creativity within them and it comes to life through “the doing.”  Talent is one thing but not nearly enough.  Without “the doing,” how will the talent ever awaken and come to fruition?  A good old Aussie saying, “You’ll never know unless you give it a go…”

Well said, Renate!  Thank you so much for stopping in for an interview today.  And now on to the book review…

Book Review

Since I enjoyed Crochet Techniques (Milner Craft Series) so much, I decided to pick up Renate’s Bring Colour to Crochet: 64 Multi-Coloured Squares.  (You can check out a great picture of the completed sampler here.)

My version actually has a different cover, since I ordered it through the Crafter’s Choice book club.

The book starts with an introduction that includes illustrated stitch instructions, a stitch symbol key, and some helpful tips for weaving in ends since the patterns require frequent color changes.  Renate also includes directions for edging and joining the squares in the beginning section.  As with Crochet Techniques, stitch abbreviations throughout the book use Australian/UK terms with US terms in parentheses.

I use stitch samplers as a teaching tool a lot, so I really appreciate the book’s concept.  Each sampler square is photographed individually and each square uses two to five colors.  The squares are organized into 13 groups (Basic Stripes; Spikes; Shells: Zigzags; Reliefs; Ripples; Chains; Mosaics; Clusters and Bobbles; Afghans; Variable Stripes; Novelty Squares; and Bricks and Boxes) which makes it easier to find them later. Since the entire sampler uses the same five colors, there is a very coordinated appearance to the book.  If you have several stitch guides, you may recognize some of the stitches in Renate’s squares, but often the colors are introduced to new effect.  My personal favorite stitches are Square 25, 31, 32, 34, and 43.

On the other hand, if you are not fond of Renate’s color palette, you can obviously substitute yarns, but that topic isn’t specifically addressed.  There isn’t any pattern difficulty rating listed, so it would be hard for someone new to crochet or pattern reading to have a sense of the comparative difficulty of the patterns.  You can tell from reading the book that Renate as a teacher is relatively laid back about gauge (tension) and she suggests that you use a hook and yarn that you are comfortable with.  However, I know from personal experience that when I was still relatively new to pattern reading, I had great difficulty getting my squares made from Jan Eaton’s 200 Crochet Blocks for Blankets, Throws, and Afghans: Crochet Squares to Mix and Match to be the same size.  I think some beginners might need more explanation of gauge, yarn substitution, and hook sizes if they were working up a full sampler from Renate’s book without having her physically present as a teacher :).

Overall, I really like the sampler format.  I found quite a few stitches that I hadn’t seen elsewhere, or which were reinvented through the use of color.  I enjoyed Renate’s relaxed style compared to some books which can make me feel like the Crochet Police are looking over my shoulder.  However, if you are the type of crocheter who likes to follow the pattern exactly in terms of gauge, color choices, etc., you may find that Renate is not “strict” enough for you.  I recommend the book to crocheters looking for some new stitches, who enjoy making afghans and rugs, and/or who are afraid of color and would like a friendly teacher to walk them through some explorations.  The book may be too challenging for most beginners to work their way through (though an adventurous beginner would have a lot of fun experimenting with the book).  In my Amazon review, I gave the book 4 out of 5 stars.

The Giveaway

Today’s giveaway kicks off my week of giveaways in celebration of my 100th blog post, which you have just read!  Yay!

Today’s prize is The Crochet Lite Crochet Hooks-Size I 5.5mm.

This hook is brand new in the package and includes batteries.  In addition to having a comfort grip, this hook lights up, so you can work on that stitch sampler afghan in the wee hours of the night :).  It has an on/off switch to protect battery life.  I have never used the Crochet Lite hooks but it seems like a cool idea :).