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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.)
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.
- By Hook, By Hand by Beth Cameron, I even swapped a knitted doll for one of her little crocheted cuties. (UC comment: Check out Beth’s recent blog post with pictures of Fiona’s dolls here.)
- Dot Pebbles (with the help of her creator Claire Garland), especially her blog.
- Jess Brown, who makes very simple cloth dolls that I could never make myself, but I really want one.
- One of my Ravelry fans started this gorgeous blog, An Experiment in Knitted Dolls.
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.