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Pom Shanty – an artisan machine knitter

I feel I’m still really learning. It’s been 4 years, but I’ve been on my machine everyday, without fail.

Learning to knit: My mother taught me to knit when I was about 8 years old.  She was widowed at 50 (I was 5) and we moved from a very rural area of New Zealand up to Auckland so she could get work.  She spent a lot of time in the garden which didn’t interest me at the time, whereas I really liked making things and crafting.  She was one of those knitters who could watch TV and knit without looking down at what she was doing.  I used to watch her knit all the time, she made me, beautiful fair-isle cardigans with lovely patterns and I got to choose the colours of the wool. 

The other knitter in my life was my ‘grandmother’, Nanny Tao who was a Maori friend of my father’s who came to live with us.  She was a great crocheter and used to make these really lurid, multi-coloured ponchos – so there was always left over wool around.

My mother was so busy; teaching at school, then working in the garden so I didn’t really see her a lot.  One of the ways that we did spend some nice time together was when she taught me how to knit.  It was lovely to sit together on the sofa and learn.  She taught me how to cast on, how to do plain and to do purl.  I’d knit scarves for my dolls, as I liked adding in different colours.  Then she got me making things for my nieces and nephews.  I got to make lots of jumpers out of left over wool, simple ones with raglan sleeves.  She would be guiding me, helping me count the rows or follow the pattern and would sew the jumpers up. 

What do I knit? It wasn’t until I came to London that I started dabbling with knitting again, making hats for friends that were really terrible.  They would put it on and thank me, but then I’d never see them in it again.  I like knitting things that I can make quickly.  On thick needles with big wool.  When I became a mum, a friend suggested Morley College to me as she thought that I’d love machine knitting.  From there I did the Christmas business fair and I’ve been slowly working up to making and selling things and scratching a living.  I really like interfacing with people and I like making stuff to sell.  It’s a like a dream come true to be able to do something you enjoy doing as a job.  To be around other creatives, meeting other people who are into making.  I make accessories: beanies, berets, wristies, snoods and scarves.  I also want to start making simple boxy cardigans.

People put a lot of commissions for me to make things.  I love that people ask, it’s really sweet.  They’re not going to John Lewis and picking up something, they’re thinking about me when they ask me to make something for them, which is really lovely.

I’m really into intarsia, creating my own designs.  I look for inspiration from knitwear designers especially other accessory designers.  My ultimate dream is to knit the view of London I had from my old flat.  I found this software where you can pixelate a picture into a knitting pattern, but I’ll need to get a different machine to do it.  But that’s not happening anytime soon. 

What’s great about knitting? Knitting is cool; starting out with an idea, then working your way towards finishing something that is beautiful.  When I’m practicing a simple wristie I might put a pair in a post for someone I know.  It’s lovely to knit for other people and your friends.  Even my hats are welcome now, they’re much better, they’re no longer tight skull caps or cloches. There’s definitely a joy from other people’s enjoyment.

Now I have a studio in the spare room, whereas before I was in a part of our living room.  I’ve got my own space with dowels on the wall for the cones to go on, so it’s easy to swap the colours around and create an installation.  I don’t feel like an imposter anymore.  The first few years standing in the market I wasn’t sure if my stuff was good enough, despite the lovely comments.  I had this voice in my head that something would fall apart, or someone would notice that it was a bit amateur.  Now I feel like that my stuff is really nice, and people love it.  People walk over to the stall because something has caught their eye.  I can tell them that it’s handmade by me, it’s local.  I’ve just been through the menopause, there was a lot of doubt that came with that. There was a lot of doubt when I first became a mother.  So now I feel like I’m in a good spot, I feel great, I’m comfortable.

My Tension Square: There’s something about volume, why do one when you can do 3?  The pistachio merino 4ply wool is a simple stitch.  The colour reminded me of my mother, the 4 ply is something that she would use.  The linen was because of my grandmother, she used to use flax to make kits for Maori bags.  Then after I’d done that, the brown lamb’s wool is just me playing around.  It’s in a raw state, I didn’t felt it.  I just wanted to be part of something and not miss the opportunity so I ran to my studio.  If I’d intellectualised it I would have done a piece of Intarsia. 

I haven’t always done swatches but I do now, to get a sense of how much wool I might need and avoid waste.  I just had to redo all of my tension swatches because I have a new washing machine (that felts differently).  I will unravel if there is a mistake in something I’m selling, picking off the machine to make sure that it’s perfect.  Even though I have a clicker to count rows, I count as well to make sure that I change tension at the right point.

Magic Moments: I started making my daughter a little patchwork blanket for her when I was pregnant – all very tasteful in Debbie Bliss wool in nice colours that all went together.  When she was about 2 and it was too small for her, I took it apart and I incorporated those patches and starting crocheting around them in crazy colours.  Then I had this book called the knitters bible which showed you different stitches, so I started experimenting with basket weave, cables and star patterns and ended up making a humungous blanket.  Maybe she can take it with her to a festival one day.  I remember showing it to a friend but they were really taken aback, they have an art degree and were gently hinting that I need to have more colour control.  But my daughter absolutely loves it, it’s coming apart at some of the seams but she still wraps herself up in it.  It reminds me of a time when I was not feeling great, but it was great to be making something for her that I knew she would love, even if it was really garish. 

I’m not into shopping for new, I volunteer in a charity shop so I see the waste. Through lockdown I started looking at my boxes and boxes of swatches, things that I haven’t used for anything, I haven’t thrown anything out.  Maybe this ties back to my mother’s influence.  She was born in 1920 on a sheep farm so lived through the depression and was always switching off lights, putting on another cardigan or pair of socks.  I started using all these knitted pieces that had been gently felted, bits of knitted lace, rib, tuck as well as ordinary purl and plain.  I made a template of a fitted jumper, cut pieces out and used my overlocker to sew it all up.  It’s pretty ‘out there’ – quite ‘fashion student’. 

That’s something that I’d really like to get into.  I like the idea of using stuff that I have to make other things, maybe with a bit more colour control, to make a really fabulous thing that I’ve designed.   


Published by jencableart

Jen Cable is a mixed media textile artist who loves to draw attention to the outmoded, fabulous, awful and bizarre aspects of culture and everyday society

One thought on “Pom Shanty – an artisan machine knitter

  1. Really looking forward to reading about all the other knitters that are joining in with this. It’s such a great idea and it is a real privilege to be part of it.


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