Q& A with Lynne Barr, Author of Knitting New Scarves (Fall, 2007)
(Note: To see a gallery of images from this book, click here.)
When people begin to knit, they often start with a scarf. As an experienced knitter, what made you decide to revisit the scarf in such depth?
This book isn’t actually a revisit for me. I’d never knit a scarf before. I found it very liberating knitting scarves because they don’t require fitting, measuring, or sizing as sweaters or socks do. It allowed me to concentrate simply on a knitting technique and how it could be applied to achieve a certain form.
Which scarves in Knitting New Scarves did you design first? How did the design process evolve?
The scarf I designed first was ZigZag. It was knit applying the Intarsia technique, which is an odd way to start. It is more of an optically graphic design rather than pictorial. I’m not sure if the design process evolved for me in the way that you mean it. I’m not a linear thinker. I don’t think about a beginning and an end. Information stored in my brain is often retrieved concatenated with other stuff that didn’t originally belong with it.
In Knitting New Scarves you introduce a variety of innovative techniques that, as far as we know, have never been published before. How did you come up with these techniques?
Function and technique often follow form. If there’s a shape I want to achieve I try different ways to get there. The Aria scarf was not a clear thought. I was exploring forms and created something that resembled seaweed. Sometimes it requires working in a new way, but often it’s utilizing an already existing technique for a different purpose. I hope people find something new here and it sparks their creativity.
What was the most challenging part of the process of writing Knitting New Scarves? What was the most fun?
Documenting what I was doing was the most challenging part of the writing process. I had to stop knitting and put my needles down to write out the pattern. Another challenging part was writing introductions for each scarf after all the designing and technical editing was completed. It forced me to describe the design process.
The most fun part had to be when Joelle Hoverson from Purl, a yarn shop in Soho, filled my suitcase with the most gorgeous yarns to experiment with. Originally, I wasn’t thinking about working with new, colorful yarns. I was only thinking about forms and designs. But playing with the yarns added a wonderful tactile part to the experience. It was great to see how the yarns reacted differently to each other. I look at yarns differently since working on this book.
Which scarf in your collection did you find most challenging to design and why?
Drifting Pleats was most challenging to design because it uses double-pointed needles in a very unconventional way and doesn’t include specific stitch counts. I had to rely on feeling the momentum as I knit. If the pattern had been written with line by line instructions that included stitch counts for every row, the pattern would have been too long and appeared much more daunting than it really is. In retrospect, it really wasn’t that difficult a scarf to knit.
How and when did you learn to knit? Have you always enjoyed devising your own ways to achieve your goals in knitting?
My grandmother tried to teach me to knit when I was around eight years old. But I didn’t want to learn it so nothing really stuck. I picked up knitting for myself at eighteen years old and started with a plain light blue pullover. I remember cutting a picture out of a magazine, taking it to a yarn shop and asking one of the ladies there if I could knit it with some changes. She was obliging and helpful, but the end product was not what I had hoped it would be. I didn’t like having to depend on someone else so I started to work things out for myself. But I think my personality has always been independent. One of the comments on my kindergarten report cards says, “Lynne is the only one who initiates and carries out her own ideas.” I think the independence part stayed with me.
What do you like most about knitting and designing? What do you find most challenging about knitting and designing?
I like the freedom to do whatever I want to do the most. It only feels challenging when trying to tailor an idea and conform it into a finished item for different people.
You wrote in the introduction of Knitting New Scarves that you hope this book inspires knitters to play with patterns and to discover new connections. How do you suggest knitters jump-start this process?
First, know that you are going to rip something out from the beginning, so start small, like the size of a swatch, and don’t hate ripping. Cast on around 20 stitches, look at the cast on and say, “I’m going to discover something for myself.”
Now, if you are stuck, think repetition. Do a row like K1, P1, or K4, P4, or K3, P1 across. Then see how you can manipulate those stitches to create something interesting. It’s repetition in an organized way that allows me to see a potential pattern. Stick rib division and combining stitches (two techniques described in Knitting New Scarves) in there and I believe you’ll discover something. I couldn’t tell you how much I rip out, but I know it’s a lot. I’m not trying to end up with a finished product when I work out stitch patterns or develop a shape. This step is all about discovery and gives the knitter permission to mess up.
You have experience teaching knitting to beginners. In what ways does leading workshops differ from teaching knitting from a book? What has it taught you as a knitter?
Knitting is a very visual craft. It is so much easier to learn knitting by being in the presence of a knitter, especially if you don’t know what it’s supposed to look like. Yet learning from a book forces knitters to analyze their work and to really look at what they are doing, but that’s if they don’t become discouraged. Of course, it all depends on personality. When I taught machine knitting in Haiti, the beginners would just sit there and watch me work for five minutes. Then they would motion for me to move from the knitting machine so they could practice. There was never an exchange of words. They just relied on their senses. This has taught me to look at things with a different point of view.
You have said knitting mishaps are not often mistakes but rather an opportunity to create something new. Were any of the scarves in Knitting New Scarves born from mishaps?
I don’t think any of the scarves were born of mishaps, just misses. I didn’t always get the shape I wanted, but was sometimes satisfied with the result anyway. One of my favorite scarves, Twisted, is a miss.
Beginning knitters spend so much time trying not to drop a stitch, or twist a stitch, or bring the yarn over a needle instead of between them. Eventually, they find that all these things they worked hard to avoid are sometimes desirable in knitting—twisted-stitch patterns, drop-stitch patterns with that ladder effect, and all the yarnovers in lace.