Sunday, 3 June 2012

Iceni mitts

So, following on from the last post about Lavenham Blue yarn, here's what it inspired me to do:- 
"In stature she was very tall, in appearance most terrifying, in the glance of her eye most fierce, and her voice was harsh; a great mass of the tawniest hair fell to her hips; around her neck was a great golden torq; she wore a tunic of divers colours over which a thick mantle was fastened with a brooch; and on her hands were blue wool mitts of studded ropes, through which her fingers pointed out the direction of her foe. This was her invariable attire."
The quote above was written by Cassius Dio, a Roman commentator - well, all except the bit about the mitts. I made that up!* I just loved the fanciful idea that Boudica, Queen of the Iceni, would have knitted her own gloves in Lavenham Blue DK, possibly at the camp fire, relaxing after a hard day in battle. We actually know very little of her life but we do know that knitting was unfortunately not around in the 1st Century - the earliest records of knitting are from the middle ages. However, the Celts of the iron age were skilful textiles craftpeople: evidence of spinning, dyeing, weaving (including intricate multi-coloured checks and tartans)and tablet weaving have all been found, while their iron-working ancestors were the original inventors of chainmail. Surely someone at the time was trying to create fabrics from a single strand of wool? I'm intending to continue my research into the textiles techniques utilised by contemporaries of Boudica, so watch this space ...

Boudica, Colchester
by Jonathan Clarke

But back to my Iceni mitts design. Boudica lived during the Roman occupation of Britain. Following the death of her husband the Iceni King, after which her daughters were raped and she was tortured and humiliated, she led a revolt which resulted in the burning of Colchester, London and St Albans, and thousands of deaths including her own. Obviously there was more to it than that (for in-depth analysis of this  "Barbarian Spring" in a rap style, you could watch Horrible Histories), but I digress!

Inspired by "what Boudica would wear," I decided that a vengeful Celtic Queen with a spear in one hand and a long chariot drive ahead of her would most likely need a pair of fingerless mitts. I liked the idea of a gauntlet shape, to fit snuggly up the arm, and I also wanted cables to symbolise Celtic interlaced designs.

Iceni mitts start with a cabled cuff ...

... then the sts for the hand
are picked up along one edge,
and the mitt is knitted in the round

The pattern is available in two sizes. I knitted the small size which measures 19cm (or 7.5in) around the palm, and two stocking stitch swatches, all out of one skein of Lavenham Blue DK. At 209m per skein, it is really good value for £10! It is spun from 100% Leicester Longwool and dyed with woad grown in Norfolk, home territory of the Iceni tribe. The mitts can, of course, be made in any yarn that knits to standard DK tension.

Iceni mitts by Anni Howard

Iceni Mitts pattern is now available for sale as a Ravelry download here.

Lavenham Blue DK is exclusive to  Cafe Knit - if you order online before midnight on June 5th 2012, enter the code CKJubilee at the checkout for a 15% discount on everything you buy!

*Actually, Cassius Dio may have made up his description of Boudica too - it was written more than a hundred years after her death. 

Friday, 1 June 2012

Lavenham Blue

I haven't written a yarn review on this blog before, but this yarn deserves a bit of wider coverage ... if only because I so love the concept! Local yarn shop. Local sheep. Local dye. Local history. If you like local, this yarn has it all.

Let's start with the shop. After running a successful internet business, last November Victoria Beech and her family moved from London to open Cafe Knit's first wool and coffee shop in picturesque, medieval Lavenham. Cafe Knit stocks a wonderful array of yarns and patterns, tools and buttons, and is also a place to sit and browse a knitting magazine (or newspaper) over a leisurely latte and cake. :D

As you first enter Lavenham you can't fail to notice the timber-framed buildings which were built when the town was at the centre of the textile trade. By 1524 it was one of the wealthiest places in Britain because it exported as far as Russia and the Middle East. Its most renowned cloth was Lavenham Blue (or Blewes) Broadcloth, a plain, heavy wool fabric, measuring 28yd 28in long by 5ft 3in wide, and dyed blue with woad.

And so to the yarn ... 

Lavenham Blue DK
Victoria told me "As soon as we became more aware of Lavenham and its rich wool history, it was one of my ambitions to recreate Lavenham Blue yarn, as it was Lavenham Blue Broad Cloth that brought the village such wealth back in the 1500s. The response so far to the yarn has been brilliant, I think people love the idea of this yarn that is steeped in history!!!"

The yarn is from Marion Knights at Stoneweaving, an active member of the Lavenham Guild of Spinners, Dyers and Weavers and uses fleece from Leicester Longwool sheep. The flock belong to Jo and Mark Tavernor of Apple Tree Cottage in Felsham, only about 8 miles from Lavenham, and as well as using the fibres in her work, Marion also helps out at lambing and shearing time. Lavenham Longwools are  on the rare Breeds Survival Trust Category 2 endangered list, which means there are only between 300 to 500 left, and the gene pool is so low that breeding programmes have to be carefully worked out to prevent inbreeding. 

A Leicester Longwool sheep

Look at that fleece! How gorgeous is this sheep?

In the middle ages, woad was the go-to dye for blue, until it was gradually replaced by imported indigo from Asia - although woad is more colour-fast, indigo produces a deeper shade than woad. The Celtic Iceni tribe (Boudica was their Queen), used the blue dye obtained from woad leaves to paint swirling patterns and religious symbols on their skin prior to going into battle. With its mildly antiseptic properties it probably gave some protection against minor wounds, but it also scared their opponents, the Romans. (In Scotland the Picts also painted themselves with woad - the word 'pict' means 'painted' in the Celtic language.) The woad used in Cafe Knit's Lavenham Blue was grown in Norfolk, home of Boudica and the Iceni tribe.

These are my 'before and after' stocking stitch swatches - the 'after' swatch is on top in the photo. After blocking, the tension stayed at 22 stitches and 30 rows to 10cm (very satisfying). Although my fingers became pale blue while knitting, no dye came out of the swatch in the washing process. It washed out of my fingers easily though - phew! When knitting it felt a little rougher than I would have expected, but after washing the swatch was softer and slightly fluffier than before - I'm very pleased with the result. I also know it felts up really well, as I saw a felted bag in the Cafe Knit shop when I visited. Get the feeling this yarn will be a regular addition to my stash, especially now there is a 2Ply version too! :D

If you are tempted to buy Lavenham Blue DK, or the 2Ply version, Cafe Knit is offering a 15% discount on all purchases in store or online from now until midnight on Tuesday 5th June 2012. Simply mention the offer in the shop or use the following discount code at the checkout: CKJubilee

The next installment of this blog will be published to coincide with my new design, Iceni Mitts. I'm sure Boudica would have worn mitts in Lavenham Blue ... if knitting had been invented in the first century! Here is a taster ...

  • The website of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust can be found here.
  • A fact sheet about Leicester Longwool sheep from by the RBST can be found here and information from the Leicester Longwool Sheepbreeders Association here.
  • Marion Knights was featured in an article in the East Anglian Daily Times magazine which can be seen here.
  • The Apple Tree Cottage website is here - (warning for veggies - the farm sells meat from rare breed animals)
  • For woad dyeing information and to buy woad, visit Woad-inc.
  • More information about the wool trade in Suffolk and the east of England through history can be found here.

Friday, 25 May 2012


I've always been intrigued by Celtic patterns - the wonderful interlacing knots found in the borders of illuminated manuscripts such as the Book of Kells, or on stone crosses. One step on from "taking a line for a walk," they use plaits and braids with soft lines and curves, strictly ordered geometrics with a sense of spontaneity and vibrancy, and they seamlessly integrate strange animals, birds and letterforms into a background of pattern and endless threads.

My Celtica headband design, published this month in Knit Now magazine, was inspired by the pattern above. Look carefully and you will soon be able to unravel its constituent parts - 4 quite separate strands are woven together in a strictly over-and-under sequence. As soon as I had decided to try to recreate this pattern in knitting I knew I would be working with i-cords, but the challenges were firstly to get the separate lengths right in relation to each other, so that the knot was neither too tight, nor too loose and floppy, and then to expand the knitting out from the centre panel into bands to fit around the head. 

So here it is - the Celtica headband (I love this photo!) Knitted in Debbie Bliss Donegal Luxury Tweed Aran, it could of course be knitted in any aran weight yarn, and only takes about 50g.

photo by Tim Bradley for Practical Publishing

Celtic art is laced with symbolism  - for instance, the Celts thought that the intricate knotwork designs would protect against the evil eye! I can't verify that claim, of course ... but do you really want to risk it by not making yourself a Celtica headband? :D

You can find out more information on Ravelry, here:- 

Knit Now magazine issue 9 is out in shops on May 31st, or can be ordered direct from the publisher, here:-

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Mugs and more!

DH is such a sweetie, buying me this lovely sheepy mug while we were out today. He certainly knows what I like. 


We were visiting The Cheap Shop, in Tiptree, Essex, which is NOT cheap (if anyone knows how it got its name please let me know), but is a fantastic little yarn, fabric, haberdashery and art supplies store. Quite an Aladdin's cave.

In the end I didn't buy anything, what with being spoilt for choice and DH's claustrophobia (as I said, it is LITTLE), but will certainly be going back for the Debbie Bliss Rialto Lace, and more. I was impressed to see some Texere yarn and inspiration packs nestling away in a corner - when I lived in Yorkshire, the Texere mill was within lunchtime walking distance of where I worked, and another Aladdin's cave, only BIGGER, stocking more fibres and yarns a textile mug like me could ever dream of. Texere, how I miss you, so I've photographed a ball of your to-dye-for Airedale Aran pretending to be the froth in my coffee!

Sunday, 1 January 2012


Sometimes I am amazed that I have been fairly successful at doing something I love - knitting. I've been really lucky in that I only ever made one decision about my career - I wrote a spec letter at just the right time - and the rest has just flowed on from there, like a strand running through my life. I graduated in the 80's with a degree in textiles, after creating yarns for my final show. My first job out of college was at Wendy Wools in Yorkshire (the company that received the letter) where I joined a team of designers as a trainee. It was boomtime in the knitting industry - fashion items included mohair jackets for winter and drop stitch cotton tops for summer. We produced 40 designs each season, and baby outfits and specials in between. 

What a brilliant job it was. I was involved in choosing yarns and shade ranges, writing design briefs, creating and commissioning designs, writing and checking instructions, liaising with printers and arranging photoshoots. And what a lot I learnt about how to create a design that knitters wanted to knit. How to write clear instructions. How to choose the right yarn for the design.

I've been a knit designer for so long that some of my rookie designs have since come back into fashion! Batwings, entrelac, snoods? I was there the first time around. 

Since then I have freelanced for various yarn companies, usually under the company name, so if you have knitted from a Tivoli, Wendy, Jarol, King Cole or Cygnet pattern, there is a chance that it is one of mine. I have copies of all my patterns of course, and one day aim to create a digital record, for posterity. In the meantime, here is just a small selection:-

And more recently I have been designing for UK knitting magazines. You will find my stuff in Yarn Forward, Knit, Knit Today, Knitting and the brilliant new publication, Knit Now. My Mum is a proud collector of these, although she is struggling to differentiate between all the "knit" magazine titles. My latest design is on the front cover of Knit - so cool!

I've also started to upload patterns to  Ravelry, which is a wonderful world-wide knitting community. I'm fascinated by why certain designs are more popular than others - my Preppie scarf, for instance, has been downloaded by at least one person in the world (and some days by lots of people) every day for the last 18 months. I'm not really surprised by its success though - it's easy to knit, a bit quirky, and it's free!

Things have changed a lot over the years. When I first started designing there wasn't a computer in the department, but now I use my computer all the time - it is an essential tool for a knit designer in the 21st century. I can create charts and diagrams (in Illustrator), organise and manipulate digital photographs (in Photoshop), design the layout of my patterns (in InDesign or even in Word) and publish them online within seconds where potentially the whole world could see them. How exciting is that? 

But I still sketch my ideas with a pencil, on paper! And of course, I still love to knit in the traditional way, with needles - I've never really got to grips with knitting machines. The craft of knitting is my relaxation, and creativity is my life. 

Occasionally I wonder if all these experiences might make me an expert but mostly I am amazed at how much I still have to learn about knitting. Every yarn, every stitch, every garment shape adds a new dimension to the creative process and a new problem to solve. I begin each new design with a fresh eye, or a fresh sense of wonder at the infinite possibilities of a strand of yarn. 

Anni X