Hats, knitting, and going off the gird
You might be tempted to think that hats are a boring knit or that they’re just easy, beginner projects. I think that way sometimes, but Woolly Wormhead is always there to show me how I’ve missed the boat. I met WW a couple of years ago when I was teaching in the UK and ever since then I’ve been following her designs and her life as she posts on Twitter as @WoollyWormhead. I’ve learned a lot about the possibilities of hats, and on the cover of her latest book, Classic Woolly Toppers, I’ve found a pattern to make a hat very similar to one I was drooling over but neglected to purchase on my last trip to Europe. Please join me in welcoming Woolly Wormhead as we discuss knitting, design, and life.
DD: Hi W! Welcome. We’ve been talking a bit about going off the grid, since I moved to rural Vermont and am trying to be less of a consumer and more of a producer. You live a very unconventional lifestyle, can you tell us a little bit about that?
WW: We’re travellers, and we spend our time living between places. Our winter base is in Italy, where we live in a converted double decker bus! It’s a pretty large space and makes a good home – there are more windows in our bus than there is in my Dad’s house – so much natural light! We’re not entirely off the grid; we still use mains water and electricity, although we are very mindful of usage and wastage. We don’t have an indoor bathroom, or a microwave or a tumble dryer or a deep freezer. Our only source of heating is a basic woodburner stove downstairs. There’s a lot of things we don’t have because we don’t need them; we prefer to live simply and more manually. Living like this puts us in touch more with our environment… I love being able to hear the rain on the roof of the bus or take the clothes off the line, having been dried in the fresh air and sunshine.
DD: What made you decide to live such an unusual life? Or did you just stumble onto your way of life?
WW: It’s not something that you drift into easily, most people come to this lifestyle through knowing someone else. Communities like ours are small and intimate; on your own you wouldn’t know where to find groups like ours, let alone walk in as strangers! There’s some political unrest towards groups like ours in Europe, mostly due to misconceptions about alternative lifestyles and how they differ from the established settled communities, and everyone feels safer in small groups connected through family or friendship.
I came to this lifestyle through my partner, and he came to it through his parents; he was bought up this way. It’s a way of life that’s always fascinated me and seemed the most natural progression. I am much, much happier living like this than I ever was in a house or flat (apartment).
All that said, it’s entirely possible to live a life similar ours within a house, given enough space and resources. Living consciously isn’t restricted to those who live outside of society; I’d love nothing more than to see ‘green’ and ethical living become the norm.
DD: You’ve written some very interesting blog posts about the emotional energy required to handle the public side of what we do. So many knitting designers are introverts, and we love spending our time at home designing, knitting, and writing. And yet we also have to teach, work at trade shows, and be very public with our business in order to be profitable. How do you handle switching back and forth between these “personalities”?
WW: In a previous life I was a school teacher, teaching art and textiles. To be able to cope at a job like that you learn to create a persona, a character of sorts, that allows you to project yourself whilst still keep a part of you private. It’s much the same here, although I feel it’s getting harder and harder… one of the reasons why being an independent designer works is that it allows the knitter to get closer to the creator; it becomes more personal and relationships develop, which lead to interest and trust, which in turn leads to more sales and/or success, and that makes it harder to keep some things private. In this instance, I’ve found honesty is the way to go – just simply saying that things are difficult or that time off is needed creates understanding rather than trying to front things up and struggle through, which can erode trust.
DD: How on earth does someone make a living designing Hat patterns for hand knitters?
WW: Not easily!
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what works for me, for my business. Having a large back catalogue helps a great deal, as those trickles of sales all add up. I’m a great believer in maintaining rights to a design – it doesn’t matter if a publisher has first rights and the pattern is a slow seller once the initial flurry is over and rights have reverted back – all those small amounts add up. I’ve also found specialising in one area works for me; Hats are my passion and this becomes visible.
A lot of designers teach also, and whilst I do some, I’m not keen to make teaching part of my business. Having been a full time teacher once, I’d rather not burn myself out again! I teach maybe 5 or 6 workshops a year at the most?
DD: Your designs are so creative, with a combination of unique and original styles, classics, and trendy designs. Where do you get your inspiration from and how are you able to keep coming up with new designs for Hats?
WW: Hats provide an infinity of possible designs – by nature of their shape, or the shape of the head, Hats can be constructed in so many different ways! And structure is my driving force; surface decoration is secondary when I work out designs – how it’s constructed, it’s form, how it maintains that form through fabric density etc etc and are key factors. Stitch patterns are selected on their ability to support or enhance the structure, rather than for aesthetic reasons.
Inspiration comes from many places… architecture, natural forms, in particular succulent plants and sea creatures such as anemones. I’m fascinated how patterns repeat within nature.
DD: What’s your all-time favorite yarn for knitting Hats, and why?
WW: That’s a tough one! I love the woolliness of Cascade 220 – it’s such a workhorse yarn and never lets me down. I enjoy most wool yarns, although find that very springy yarns don’t work as well when it comes to Hats…. a good Hat wants to have a warm, soft fibre.
DD: What about needles? Are you a DPN knitter, a 2 circulars fan, or magic loop aficionado?
WW: DPNs always use to be my tools of choice, but these days my interchangeables are taking over. I don’t get on with magic loop but am pretty comfortable with 2 circulars when working a crown shaping… where possible though, I’ll stick to a single circular of the right size.
DD: Since you’re on the road a lot, and you don’t have a lot of storage space, I’m assuming you’ve put together a space-saving collection of tools. What is in your knitting tool kit and your stash?
WW: My interchangeables are the most important things! I keep all of my tips in a tidy roll I made, which currently holds around 30 sets of tips. My cables are kept in a small zipped case and the last piece of kit is a small case containing all other odd pieces like tapestry needles, tape measure, folding scissors, stitch markers etc.
My stash is relatively small. Everything is stored in compression roll bags to save on space and keep bugs out. I don’t really have a personal stash, it’s pretty much work only, and it gets cleared out on a regular basis as yarns become discontinued and so on.
DD: How can people keep in touch with you and find out what’s new?
WW: The best way to keep in touch is to follow my blog! http://www.woollywormhead.com/blog/
The are a few new projects on the horizon – including a collection of sculptural Hats. There are always new Hats on the go around here
DD: Thanks so much for sharing with us and giving us a glimpse into your life. Now, I’m off to Rhinebeck to find some yarn to make that Camden Cap!