Designing: modern Woodland Art Deco Fair Isle Cardigan

I’m sharpening my teeth on an interesting design problem. It has to do with knitting but don’t fear, non-knitter, it has more to do with shapes and Art Deco patterns. I think you’ll like this post, even if I use knitwear to illustrate my design progress.

Fair Isle is the traditional knitwear from the Fair Isles off the coast of Scotland. It consists of stranded colourwork where in each row two colours are alternated every few stitches. Between rows the colours you use can change but not ín the row you are working on.

This is the typical traditional Fair Isle look:

picture from, the site with all things about the island.

Modern interpretations play with colour and motives. Still clearly wit the stacking of horizontal bands and the use of two colours in any row.

Yfsnow’s Ivy League Vest by Eunny Jang and PoofyBirdy’s wonderful vegetable interpretation of the same design.

The geometric repetition in horizontal bands is part of the tradition. I’ll probably wander away from this a bit and technically I shouldn’t call it Fair Isle anymore. “Stranded knitting” would be better.
There’s also a rich tradition of stranded knitting in the north of Europe.

Having done with the introduction, let me now present you with the interesting design problem I am trying to solve. These are the constraints:

  1. each row has to have two colours at most. (otherwise: yarn spaghetti + not enough index fingers to keep them apart)
  2. one colour needs to be knit no more than 4 or 5 stitches at a time. (otherwise the other colour forms a long strand at the back of the work and you easily snag on it when you put on the garment. Also tension troubles.)

There. You’re now an expert on Fair Isle Theory. Now help me design a cardigan. Here are the goals:

  1. woodland themed
  2. no traditional Fair Isle motives, they are just too fiddly to my taste. And I don’t like geometrics much anyway.
  3. timeless design
  4. interesting colour contrasts, flattering to my mid-to-high contrast face

This is the yarn I have. Lovely 100% wool from a small spinning factory in Estonia. They’ve been in business for nearly a 100 years. That European region has rich knitting and yarn traditions. It’s lovely to support them.

Some of it is high contrast, some of it low. And I shouldn’t wear orange near my face.

I want squirrels. And owls. Hedgehogs. Oak leaves.
But I don’t want a childish cardigan. It has to be mature, adult and stylish. No ’80s teddy bear sweater. Or the famous x-mas sweaters:

Usually a Fair Isle pattern chooses one pattern and keeps repeating it all around the sweater. But you don’t have to. You can change the pattern depending on where you are in the sweater:

Saint Olav and His Men Cardigan (ravelry pattern page) by Cynthia Wasner. Not particular my style… but you get the idea.

You can use large overall patterns:

Rauma baby 054-5 by Rauma Designs
(this would look unflattering on a grown woman who has curves and who moves during the day)

Or you can use small shapes and scatter them around freestyle:

I like this, this is a fun way of knitting. (But this will mix the colours visually, dampening them both. Imagine a sweater full of these crawlies…it would be both tiresome and colourwise boring to look at.)

Another idea is to use some overall pattern and put different content in each slot.
pattern Squirrel Sweater for Baby (model 11) by Tone Takle and Lise Kolstad. This red knitting and the photo are by PhairIsle
(A whole sweater full of this is a childish but as an idea it works)

I like this design for overall structure:

Kyllene by Kirsten M. Jensen
It has some of that timeless style feel to it. I could easily fill some of the slots with a stylized squirrel instead of a stylized tree.
But a body full of diamond shapes…. I’m not convinced yet.

By now you’ve noticed I don’t want my cardigan to look very dated in a decade or two. No Bill Cosby sweater for me please. (hilarious site, with all the designs)

So I reckoned I’d look at the Art Deco era for inspiration, to find that overall structure. It provides stylistic interpretations of the highly recognizable (and thus dated) patterns of the Jugendstil/ Art Nouveau era. More on that later.

So I want a modern interpretation of the colour shapes you can make with this knitting technique. I love bolder shapes but the no-more-than-5-stitches-in-1-colour demands some serious designing inventiveness to make that happen. Like was done with that small cats pattern.
This is where my love for blockprinting comes in handy. Designing with only two colours and suggesting shapes and silhouettes using contrasts, without actually drawing lines, that’s all printing fun, baby!

Knitters join into this fun too:

Autumn Fire Mittens by Jouni Riihelä and Leena Riihelä. I have this very kit!

These are modern Finnish mitten designs by Riihivilla, a small one woman company, which sells yarn and mitten kits with yarn and pattern. All yarn is Finnsheep. All colours come from plants and fungi and Leena shares her knowledge and experience freely. These colours have much more depth then factory dyes. Visit her shop here: Riihivilla.

I love how the dark and the light colours are changed in horizontal bands while the overall design flows on, vertically. You see the trees even though the stem internally changes from the darkest to the lightest colour. There’s some cunning use of contrast going on here! Worth studying.

Another inspiration is this design by Angela McHardy from etsyshop Clovaknits:

She alternates the colours in broad bands and uses the background colours in smart ways. The coloured zigzags lie on top of the white background. But in the coloured bands it’s the black that lies on top.
I particularly like how the black ventures out a bit into the first white band that borders it, at the owl’s “toes”. This could be used more, letting the lines of the animal get into the second main colour. (My main colours are white and dark red brown. The other colours will be the accents.)
This is really intelligent stranded knitting design, I am wildly inspired by it! By the designing methods that is, the design of the cushion itself runs the risk of being dated in a couple of years I think.

When you google images for “art deco patterns” lots of horizontal organizes pattern pop up. Be it wall paper, decals or fabric. Waves, fans, circles, swirls. Enough that will hold a stylized squirrel in.

But I don’t want a stamp repeated all over the body of this cardigan. I think it doesn’t look good.What I want is an overall pattern with some variation in it.

I have found two nice examples of what I mean:

I think this one is by Adolphe Mouron Cassandre, a famous designer from the very era. He designed the YSL logo. I got the picture from c20thgraphicdesign

The other one I found is this one:
This is a bronze tile by Arizona Hot Dots

Both have a vertical alinement. With horizontal accents, placed randomly. These accents could be substituted for woodland creatures. Using the design habits from the owl cushion with the colours bands from Clovaknits. Alternating colours, mindfull of their contrast working, like the Autumn Fire Mittens from Riihivilla.

I’m thinking… and I haven’t even designed my version of a squirrel yet!


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