Q&A with Robin Melanson
With each of the twenty-eight projects in Knitting New Mittens and Gloves you show us a fun, unexpected twist to familiar designs. Was it a challenge to create so many innovative patterns?
The challenge to create so many different and unusual patterns for gloves and mittens really works with the way I approach designing. I always try to produce inventive patterns that have a distinct difference from what has been done before but also make sense. In this case, I needed designs that would fit a human hand, and for which the instructions would proceed in a logical manner.
What are some of the techniques and embellishments that make your mitten and glove designs unique?
The main thing that helped me create unique designs for mittens and gloves is ignoring conventional patterns. For instance, most mittens and gloves sold in stores have ribbed cuffs, as do many knitting patterns. There’s a reason why—it keeps the draft out, and it keeps the items on your hands. However, I think that there are other functional ways to achieve this. So a lot of my patterns are ways I’ve skirted the “Thou shalt have a ribbed cuff” rule. In the Alternating Current pattern, the ribbed cuff buttons on afterward, over the mitten. The Ceangaltas pattern has an I-cord trim that morphs into a knot around the wrist. The Glaistig pattern has a ribbed cuff, but it’s worked sideways and buckles at the back of the hand.
You also included a lot of designs that are not strictly for outdoor, winter-weather situations; some of them work more like fashion accessories than utilitarian hand protectors.
I enjoyed breaking away from the traditional parameters. For Filigree, the fingerless gloves on the cover, I worked an easy mesh pattern in a slightly textured cotton yarn to create something that’s simultaneously strong, feminine, and eye-catching. For Gothic, my idea was to create a delicate accessory intended for indoor wearing, either casually or more formally (hence the sequins). There is precedence for this: For instance, in Norwegian folk costume there are examples of beaded pulsewarmers, cuffs worked in fancy patterns, and cotton gloves for weddings with or without fingers. There is also more modern precedence if you look at—dare I say it—80’s pop culture.
Many of the project names and embellishments for your designs are related to Celtic or Scandinavian literature and mythology. What is it about these traditions and handcrafts that appeal to you?
A lot of my inspiration comes from the pages of European early medieval literature and earlier saga and heroic cycles, a few favorites being The Táin (Irish), Beowulf (Anglo-Saxon) and Egil’s Saga (Icelandic). I love descriptive narrative, and things like the kenning, a descriptive phrase used in place of a noun (like saying “hoard-guardian” instead of “dragon”). I also love the descriptive scenes in these books. the Táin, there’s a chapter describing the mustering of Medb and Ailill’s army (they are gathering their forces so that they can go and steal a bull). The account of what each company wore, what weapons they carried, how their hair was arrayed, and what way they took to the battlefield goes on for seven pages. My brain processes details like these into different textures and colors. These tales might inspire me to add a tapestry-inspired motif, a band of colorwork inspired by an archaeological find, or soft ribbon to a glove pattern. It’s not so much that their handcrafts are described—metalwork is surely the most often-mentioned craft—it’s more that I like to transfer the wealth of detail to my own endeavors. The Tapisserie arm warmers were inspired by the lush detail of medieval tapestries and I thought it was wise to edge them with Latvian braid, one of my favorite knitted details.
How much do you improvise in your work? Do you always end up with the design you originally set out to create or does the pattern sometimes evolve as you knit?
The Brünnhilde gloves were designed on the needles. I had a sketch that reflected how I pictured it, but I didn’t chart out a pattern beforehand. I showed a friend the drawing afterwards and it frightened her. The outline had lines running everywhere. I would cast on and rework until I thought the pattern was meeting my expectations. The pattern may seem complex to some knitters but it will make sense once they start—every line of twisted stitches goes somewhere and does something. Also, I altered the original concept for the Negative Space mittens. My initial idea was to have ribbed cuffs; instead I decided to work an I-Cord bind-off to give the cuff edge more structure, which was then followed into a coiled I-Cord cuff.
Your Rusalka fingerless gloves are made from silk and SeaCell yarn, a new eco-friendly fiber derived from seaweed. What attracted you to this yarn and did you enjoy working with it?
The yarn smells delicious, a blend of ocean and salt. There’s a central theme in this pattern that is representative of the yarn. The colors, beading, and the name of the pattern are all details that suggest an image of the sea. This is one of the few times the idea didn’t come before the yarn.
What ideas did you keep in mind when selecting and pairing yarns for the different projects in this book?
I appreciate good material and pick yarns based on their qualities. Shetland wool is one of my favorites—it’s a strong, light yarn that won’t wear out easily. The Gretel mittens were knit in Icelandic wool for its weather-proof properties. You could dunk your hand in water wearing an Icelandic wool mitten and it would not get wet for some time. The water just beads on the surface. For Gothic, I used a lambswool/kid mohair blend—very soft and light, perfect for sensitive wrists. For Box Pleats, I used a cotton/viscose/silk blend yarn which has crisp stitch definition to show off the twisted stitch pattern. This yarn is composed of many thin plies with a hard twist, which is a definite advantage for a yarn with a high viscose content—it is not subject to the “shredding” that you get with softly-spun viscose. I have chosen the yarns for all the projects very carefully and with much thought to their properties and performance.
What project do you recommend for a knitter who is just beginning to read patterns?
I recommend the Alternating Current mittens. It’s an easy pattern to learn knitting in the round. There are a few different options for customizing these mittens. And if one were to chicken out on the grafting of the top, there’s always the fingerless version. I really like the idea of an interchangeable cuff. You could make a set of mittens to match your coat, then a different set of cuffs to coordinate with every hat and scarf you own.
Have any designs from the book become favorites in your wardrobe?
One of my favorites is the Brünnhilde gloves. I love how the twisted stitches merge and unmerge. I must mention Blackthorn—all during the writing of the book these were a favorite and they still are—the juxtaposition of the traditional Shetland wool with the “bondage” detail of the leather laces amuses me. I also like the pointy tip of the Negative Space mittens. The thumb gore increases and echoes the triangular shape of the mittens. I’ve also discovered that you can fold back the point quite easily (and it stays) if you need your fingers out. One of the most practical for cold weather are the Sheltie mittens. They’re nice and toasty for cold climates, and the mohair underlayer prevents snow from falling inside the mittens. The wool overlay keeps you warm even when the mittens are wet. I’m also quite partial to Filigree—I love the interesting mesh pattern, and they stretch to fit so it’s an easy knit with no shaping and very minimal finishing.