Complex Costume Swatching
Experimentation is the key to the role of a designer; it is the only way to produce original creative work. It is the most exciting part of the job and the time and effort expended is worthwhile on every level. As well as exploring ideas that can be interpreted in innumerable original ways for future design, it is a constant reminder that there are always new things to learn. This feeds the desire to keep creating anew. Working with the best quality wool available, from fleece to finished yarn, brings endless opportunity for creativity.
The main purpose of Glamourie was to show knitters what can be achieved by exploring ideas without any boundaries. Jade’s magical stories and the wildlife of our Hebridean home were the source. My Hebridean yarn, in the complex shades I created from the landscape, was the medium I used throughout. From this base, all began to take form by way of intense experimentation, which sometimes included taking radically different approaches to the inventive process.
The Mountain Hare is a case in point. Instead of sketching or painting the garment idea first, I decided to start by embroidering a hare on a felted swatch which I then subtly shaded by needle-felting some of the dyed-in-the wool fleece. This focused my mind on every aspect I was considering in the one small swatch: the shape of the hare which Jade’s story compelled me to imagine leaping through the cosmos; the hare’s pelt translated into soft felted fabric; the colours, stitches and images I might use to convey the magic of the story and the habitat of the hare; the nature, weight and behaviour of the felted knitting; the size of the piece before and after felting; the degree of felting I should employ.
I am very lucky to have observed the elusive mountain hares in their habitat throughout my life and I have depicted them in other work (e.g. The Witch of Ròineabhal from my Mamba exhibition) so my embroidered hare came straight from my mind’s eye as I cut up pieces of yarn and placed the outline directly on to the felted knitting. Whilst doing this I thought about the costume in terms of shape. I decided to focus the embroidery on panels at the centre front and back of a fitted body, and then further decided on a softly curving peplum and hemline to echo the curves the animal makes as it leaps. The hare’s hind legs are a very prominent feature – powerful and rounded at the hip and narrow at the lower leg joint. I translated this into the shape of the sleeve.
I then made some more small experimental pieces; it was important to establish the results of various degrees of felting for the different parts of the costume. The embroidered centre back and front panels required a firm finish, and I wanted the side body panels and the sleeves to be lightly felted and more flexible. I also made another swatch for further experiment with embroidered shapes and colours and for working out how to size a vertical buttonhole into the knitting before felting. I didn’t want to cut the felted knitting into the various fitted shapes – my personal challenge was to see if I could accurately work out how to knit and shape every piece and then felt each one to the degree required to end up with precisely the correct final dimensions. This process was physically and mentally laborious but it was also very exciting. To counterpoint the exactitude of the exercise I finally worked the embroidery in freeform with no drawing or plan whatsoever, and stopped when it seemed just right to do so.
Before picking up my knitting needles, I was clear in my mind that the sea anemone costume should be true to the creature, its habitat and the character in Jade’s story: a red dress of a curvy, columnar shape with a neckline depicting tentacles. The tentacles came first as I had just completed the Raven costume and designs. I thought if I felted a feather by rolling it in my hands then I could achieve the perfect shape and firmness for a tentacle, and so the feathers led simply and directly to the anemone’s tentacles. While knitting them I shaded from one tone of red to another, in order to give a sense of translucency. The felted feather in a larger form also became the little knitting needle sheath for the Cailleach costume. So this illustrates how one small experiment can lead to a whole variety of different articles.
The upper body of the dress was worked in a pattern of vertical textured panels that required the creation of a charted pattern design. This entailed much swatching, both to test and finalise the pattern and also to establish the tension for the curving fitted body. I worked embroidery in Poppy on the main Sea Anemone colour, to echo the shaded tentacles and to add further texture to the body of the dress.
The lower body was knitted from side to side and shaped to follow the line of the hips, thighs and ankles and then flare out at the base. Consequently, the row tension was a vital issue with all of the shaping done with short rows at various points throughout the piece. I planned to work some self-coloured embroidery on the back flares of the hemline so I experimented with that on one of the swatches. I also made a variety of experimental pieces which became seaweeds, nets, starfish and mermaids purse accessories. These pieces are fun to make and a very quick and satisfying way to learn new ways of working with small amounts of yarn.
I started this costume with the headpiece simply because if I was to make a successful Lapwing costume then it had to feature a knitted rendition of its extraordinary tall crest, which curves up in a sweeping arc from its beautiful smooth, round head. This knitted crest had to be felted to within the limits of what the piece could take in order to stand up to such a height. I had my doubts as to the feasibility of the exercise, but the great thing about small experiments is that they are always worth a try. The cap itself was to be small, close-fitting, smooth and unobtrusive and so in this case my swatch was the whole cap itself, since it was so quick to make. If it didn’t work first time then I would use that as a basis for perfecting the final piece. Happily it worked first time. I made a simple lightly-felted feather shape to cover where the crest meets the cap and to give a smooth transition from crest to cap that accurately depicts the shape of the bird’s head in profile.
I assembled colours to match those of the bird and the flowering machair of their summer habitat. Then I made an embroidered sheath swatch to play around with my colour ideas before deciding on the final palette. I limited the embroidery to simple curving lines that would accentuate the rounded shapes of the smaller garment pieces. I wanted the costume shape to convey the rounded aspects of the bird. I then decided that the decorative elements would be composed of knitted and felted flowers, leaves and curving stems which I appliquéed in place after the garment was made. This allowed me to be free and flexible about how much decoration to add in order to complete the costume.