Persian Poppies with Brandon Mably

Last weekend, I gave up tickets to see Jack Johnson. Tickets that were a very special and sweet surprise for my birthday from 黃厚巽… I know, I hang my head in shame… but I had to, in order to attend Urban Yarn‘s presentation of Kaffe Fassett at the University Golf Club.

Over 200 Vancouver fans of Kaffe and Brandon came out on Friday evening to listen to Kaffe speak about inspiration and creativity and colour in every media from knitting to patchwork to needlepoint (omg, Cabbages and Roses) to mosaics. Everyone has the same story… Kaffe has been a great inspiration to me since I started knitting in the 80’s. Yes, I was in elementary school at the time and really, they were some of the only interesting knitting books available at the library. Each page spilled over with colour and complicated intarsia designs and I just thought to myself, “Well, someday maybe.”

Brandon Mably
Brandon reviewing the completed swatches for our Persian Poppies workshop held at the University Golf Club

So, when Urban Yarns mentioned that Kaffe’s studio manager and knitwear designer, Brandon Mably was going to be teaching the Persian Poppies workshop, I jumped at the chance. Also held at the University Golf Club, a group of about 30 knitters gathered on Sunday morning (at what one student exclaimed to be the “Church of Knitting”) and explored colour in a unexpected new way.

The concept was very simple. Each student was asked to bring 12 colours — six light and six dark — in any combination. We were given a chart for the poppy, 33 stitches across, and started knitting with a “medium” colour. Then with the different colours, we cut arms-length pieces and tied them together in sequence to create a “magic ball” — kind of like making your own rough-cut variegated yarn. So we each made a light- and a dark-coloured magic ball. Then continuing on, whichever ball that original “medium” colour was included in, that’s what we knit with for the background. So, for some their medium colour was more dark, so they had dark backgrounds and light poppies. Mine was the other way around and Brandon reassuringly said it would look great — like animal print, so I knit on. So as one colour ends and you move into the next colour in both the foreground and the background, the different and random points at which the colours change is how this piece build depth and interest and becomes so engaging to look at.

Persian Poppies: Swatch Front
You need to stand back for the full effect. Go ahead and take a couple steps back from your monitor… no worries, I’ll wait.
Swatch Backside
Untidy backside of the swatch. Shoulda coulda woulda knit in those tails.

The technique seemed a little unconventional, but maybe that’s because I read too many old school Fair Isle books? Brandon explained that this particular design was knit as “Fair Isle” while most of their other designs are knit in Intarsia. In no other design do they encourage these knots in the magic ball, but I think the strength of this particular design is that it results in the juxtaposition of colours that you might never otherwise think of putting together and therefore pushing your own limitations in colour selection and design. Accordingly, technique is not as essential here. What’s essential is that you open yourself up to the unexpected results you will get from your knitting.

My understanding was always that Fair Isle is a stranded technique with no “float” being longer than 7 stitches. In this chart, there are spans of over 12 stitches in a single colour, so Brandon said, if we didn’t know the technique he was going to talk about, to just knit on with huge long floats in the back. Minutes later, he demonstrated the actual technique of “tacking down” the floating yarn with every other stitch. If you look at the backside of the swatch, that’s what gives it the pebbled look on the back. Every other stitch is tying down the carried yarn. Genius! And it provides an easy way to tack down those pesky yarn tails too. Double genius!

Persian Poppies: Complete Swatches
All the complete swatches from the workshop, viewed in natural daylight

A few things that I took away from my few days spent in the wisdom and experience of Kaffe and Brandon:

  • Take time to pin your work up on a neutral (tea-stained?!) background and stand back to view it in natural light. You need this space in order to fully judge and appreciate your work. Brandon was constantly taking our work away from us and walking back four or five feet so that we could see. He says, “If you’re working with it in your lap, you’re working blind.”
  • Limitations are necessary for creativity. While we think that endless options provide us with greater choice and the ability to make better decisions, in fact, the more options we have, the less creative thinking we do. It’s the absence of options that pushes us beyond our current thinking. Kaffe talked about moving to grey, grey London and having to “conjure” (love that word) colour from all the greyness… and he found it in gardens (very apparent in his work).
  • It’s all about colour. Not so much about the technique. Both these men are self-taught artists, with no formal training in colour theory, but they live, breathe and have built careers on their innate, gifted sense of colour. It doesn’t matter what medium they are working in. Brandon says he knits purely to put colours together. And while I see them both taking photos, notes, and observations in order to push their own abilities, I think it’s something anyone can do to improve their own colour sense — take time to really observe, appreciate and turn something over in your mind. What colours are in a grain of rice? How many shades of green in a blade of grass?

Anina from the shop was so sweet as to gift Brandon a skein of my yarn and, after the workshop, I had a great opportunity to meet Brandon personally. I’m typically tongue-tied in person, so these momentous occasions are embued with excitement and elation but also laced with a bit of deer-in-the-headlights panic. I think many knitters, including myself, are very appreciative that Urban Yarns and the Cloth Shop came together to bring these events to Vancouver. The last time Brandon and Kaffe were here was 17 years ago and if all goes well, it won’t be another 17 before they return.

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