Failing To Succeed – An Expert Guide

Well, I don’t know about you, but this has definitely been one of my weeks to fail. The force of jetlag was strong, but I tried to ease myself back into sewing with a make-up bag, using this tutorial. I’ve used it before, but had total brain fail around the boxed corners. I now have a make-up bag with diagonal corners. Failure number one. I tried to photograph this failure, but winter days led to blurred, grey photos. Failure number two.

Ultimate Shift Dress Neon ii

Not A Failure

Then I cut out and sewed a third Ultimate Shift dress. Tried it on. Too tight! So tight that the back seam ripped as I took it off. Third fail. Tried to photograph the ripped seam, but poor light hit again. Fourth fail.

By this stage, I was actually failing to blog about my failures. Fifth fail.


Failure is a theme I’ve often discussed here, but it can’t be emphasised enough. If you choose to create, you choose to fail. It’s always going to be part of the process, and a wise person builds failure into their business model, their hobby and their life.

We’re agreed then? I must be very wise indeed. So wise that I’d never actually share a blurred photo of a disastrous make. I mean, that would make me … a failure?


Please tell me you’ve had more success this week. Actually, scrap that. I want to hear about your failures!

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Toast Never Tasted Better

red stripey sock

I type this propped up in bed. There may or may not be a plate of toast beside me. I’m at the end of an exhilarating but exhausting week. I was in New York with work and – back up the truck! – never even made it to Mood Fabrics. I did manage to pop into Paron, but left empty handed. Maybe I need to hand in my Sewing Blogger badge.

paron fabrics

I did some sock knitting, and met up with a couple of sewing friends – Noble and Daughter and Oonaballoona. And yes, I count them as friends, even if we’re separated by the Atlantic.

line starts here

On the Sunday, I squeezed in a craft fair. Craft is big business in the States. I felt a pang of fondness for the church jumble sales of my youth.

It was an odd time to be travelling. The events in Paris unfolded the night before I set off for Heathrow. One very deserted airport, let me tell you. But it turns out that knitters aren’t yet enemies of the civilised world, so I was allowed to knit on the plane. Just a woman staring at her lap, letting the world slide by, stitch by gradual stitch.

It’s good to be back home. Don’t you find that the best meal after a trip away is toast made in your own toaster? Preferably eaten in bed. And if I sound maudlin, that’s because I am. I’m in a state of suspended animation.

Ella comes home tomorrow…

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Meeting Makers – The Author


I first met author, Catherine Johnson, when the two of us jumped into a cab together on our way to a conference. As Catherine chatted, I was secretly eyeing up her Fair Isle cardigan. ‘Did you make that?’ She had.

I learnt that Catherine creates the most incredible Fair Isle sweaters and cardigans, as well as being an award-winning author. When her novel, Sawbones, was nominated for the Carnegie earlier this year, I decided it was time to ask Catherine the ultimate burning question. Had she ever steeked?


Hi Catherine. Thanks so much for joining us today. Can you tell us a little about your childhood in London. Was learning to knit part of that?

C: I grew up in North London. I had a lovely childhood I think, very ordinary. My mum was a teacher and dad was a tailor. He made all his own suits. I sewed my own clothes before I knitted, although it being punk these clothes mostly consisted of skirts made out of pillowcases…

I can’t really remember learning to knit. I’m sure my mum taught me, but it wasn’t until I was 18 and at art school on a foundation course that I really started knitting seriously. It was a course skewed at graphic artists and I remember knitting a lot of typography.

Then I sort of went knitting mad. One of my student jobs was knitting up pieces for the designer Patricia Roberts – she was big in the early 80s. All those bobbles did drive me nuts. Then I had a stall selling Fair Isle tammies under the Westway on Portobello Road. I used four needles and knitted as I walked to college. The needles were quite expensive – cost 15 quid a time. That was a lot in 1981. Knitting needles were also great for self defence on the tube. If anyone sat too close double enders usually put them off. I also remember being followed a couple of times and thinking how glad I was my knitting was there ready if I needed it.

Then for my thesis I chose to write about The Invention Of Tradition – which in my case leant heavily on traditional knitting – I was at St Martins’ School of Art studying film but I did actually go to Fair Isle and talk to knitters while I stayed at The Bird Observatory.

I’ve knitted everything I think except very complicated lace. Just not a fan. I’ve done Vogue tube dresses in 2 ply black mohair, cables galore, a 1920s monochrome swimsuit (I know), hats, scarves, gloves, socks innumerable jumpers and cardigans for babies and otherwise.

My most recent big successes have been two ganseys, knitted without seams and with double thickness welts. They’re both Staithes rather than anything more complicated but they look lovely and have lasted really well.

catherine johnson author

How do you think the craft of knitting compliments your creative writing process?

C: I think writing is a lot like knitting – screenplays more than books for me. I’m rewriting a screenplay now and it’s a lot like seeing you’ve dropped some stitches just above the rib and having to go back, trying to leave everything that’s good intact, but completely re knitting up whole sections.

Also what I like about knitting is that you get a finished thing quite quickly, and you don’t have to think to hard. You start you knit, you finish, you wear it. None of this faffing about with covers and titles.

Although there is a lot of counting!

What advice would you give to anyone who is about to attempt Fair Isle knitting for the first time?

C: It is SO much easier than it looks! I think is you have a visual memory for pattern you can get into it so you don’t have to look at the guide, you just knit the shapes you need. Also proper traditional Fair Isle hardly ever has more than two colours at once. It always looks much more impressive than it actually is!

Also if you make a mistake you are being traditional. Knitters used to say that if a jumper was perfect, the devil would come up from hell and claim it, and the wearer for his own.

A lot of my readers are book lovers as well as creators. Can you tell us a bit about the novels you’ve written?


C: I don’t think I have written a book with knitting in it. My last two books have both been historical though. The Curious Tale of The Lady Caraboo came out in the summer, and is based on a true story, that of Mary Wilcox, a cobblers daughter who passed herself off as a South Sea princess in England in 1817. I’ve played with a truth a little no doubt like Mary herself. I’ve had some lovely reviews and the book is sort of about the nature of love and truth and identity. Race and Class and … haven’t you ever wanted to completely disappear?

Sawbones, which came out in 2013, won me a prize! The Young Quills Award for best historical novel. It’s completely different to Caraboo, more of a romp, a gory romp with occasional 18th century surgery and bodysnatching but a romp nonetheless. It’s set in 1792, the story of Ezra McAdam, apprentice to London’s premier anatomist surgeon who can read a corpse just as well as any newspaper. When Magician’s assistant Loveday Finch asks him to find out if her father was murdered, Ezra uncovers a plot to overthrow an Empire….

That’s all fascinating, Catherine, but my burning question is … have you ever steeked?!

C: You know what – no! Never. Done sleeves down from shoulders and up from rib. Done all sorts of things, even wore a knitting belt with holes for your double ended pointy needles but never ever steeked!

Thanks so much, Catherine. I love the image of your student self strolling down the street, knitting with four double pointed needles. 

If you’re looking for Fair Isle inspiration I suggest you visit here, and for a picture of the full terror of steeking visit here. Have you done Fair Isle knitting? Is Catherine right to say it’s easier than it looks?

For more from the Meeting Makers series:

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The Made Up Initiative Smashes £3000!


A quick and heartwarming update today, readers. A couple of weekends ago, there was a Sew Brum meet up. As part of the day, a raffle was planned with some amazing prizes. The organiser, English Girl At Home, suggested that all funds raised could go towards the Made Up Initiative. A kind offer that I greedily accepted!

But how much could they possibly raise on the day? £554, that’s how much!

With this significant donation, our sewing friends in the Midlands have helped us smash past the £3000 fundraising mark in support of the National Literacy Trust. Our Justgiving page shows £3170.51. Three times our original goal, which makes us three times as brilliant.

By Gum By Golly CollageAs people gathered in Birmingham, I was with other sewing friends in London. By Gum By Golly was in town and it felt only polite to take her to Goldhawk Road, where we bought fabric and drank prosecco. It was a great day, made even sweeter when I realised how much money we had raised for the Made Up Initiative.

Thank you, my Sew Brum friends! Next year, I may have to join you and buy a raffle ticket or ten.

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A Very Modified Cardigan

Debbie Bliss Collage

This is the Cable and Lace Cardigan from the Debbie Bliss Mia pattern book, knitted in Marine wool. The eagle-eyed amongst you may spot one key modification. Can you see? Stare hard. Yes, I knitted it as a jumper!

I was concerned about the springy wool making a button band strain across my chest. After all, in the pattern book, it was straining across the chest of a willowy model. What hope did I have? So I changed strategy. It isn’t difficult to amend a cardigan to become a jumper, especially when the front and back are knitted to exactly the same dimensions, bar the neckline shaping.

I initially felt a bit sniffy about the short sleeves, but they make this the perfect jumper for wearing into the office or layering with my grey cashmere granddad cardigan. I love the slight boxiness of the sleeve heads, which give it a touch of the 1940s. Once you start Googling 1940s knitting patterns, you realise there are some real cuties out there. Have you ever knitted one?

I worked hard to raise my game on this make. I used a long tail cast on to give the hem a neat, non-bobbly edge:

knitted hem

And I turned to several Youtube videos (here and here) in order to seam my make. On previous creations, my seams have been clumsy verging on ugly. Which is a shame, when a person invests months into knitting a piece of clothing. It turns out that proper seaming is easy, once you know how.

Below left, a garter stitch seam in progress. Bottom right is the finished seam. 

Seaming Collage

It’s worth noting that I added 5cm to the length of this jumper, so if you don’t like the ultra-cropped look, I’d suggest doing the same. This wool definitely needed blocking, but the good news is that the colour doesn’t run at all.

blocked pieces

I struggled to find quite the right outfit to wear with this jumper. I love the Land Girls vibe, but I don’t often dress like a land girl. When I recently went out on a walk with Old Maps Man (super highly recommended), I teamed it with one of my several beloved Simplicity 2451 skirts. Because you can really see both skirt and jumper in the below photo!

walking in london

This jumper took me seven months to knit. I loved the process, but was braced for yet another knitted item that I never wore. Actually, I feel very proud of the improvement in my knitting this cable and lace represents.

For a cardigan, this makes a great jumper!

debbie bliss jumper

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The Drapey Knit Dress Roars

Drapey Knit Dress CollageThis is the Drapey Knit Dress that really doesn’t deserve to exist. Or I don’t deserve to have sewn it. First, I cut out a piece back to front. Then I burnt a hole with my iron. Twice, I had to go diving into the bin to rescue scraps of jersey. Twice, I was extremely lucky that there were scraps big enough.

Such adventures left me with a band hem, which I now like a lot. Both sleeve and body hems are sewn with a mink thread in a zig zag stitch. I do love a good zig zag stitch. Can’t remember the last time I bothered with my twin needle.

jersey hems

The dress pattern comes from Thrifty Stitcher‘s Fashion With Fabric. The ponte knit is from A One Fabrics on Goldhawk Road. It’s soft, warm and stable and at £6.50 a metre, worth every penny. I have the perfect dress for cosying up at home on a wet weekend, with Baileys fudge. Highly recommended recipe from Kate Doran’s Homemade Memories. Good job this dress is nice and roomy…


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A Is For Autumn, B Is For Backbone


Changing seasons, changing moods, changing makes. The foggy cloak of Autumn has finally descended here in the UK. I’m torn between relishing the cosy nights, resenting the dark mornings and enjoying the familiarity of routines now firmly established. Every year without fail, now is the time I start dreaming of bulky wool and quick knitting projects. So it’s a shame that my current knitting project is languishing in the No Man’s Land of Blocked Waiting To Be Pieced Together. These pieces of knitting have been pinned out for weeks now.

blocked pieces

I’m also considering a third sock knitting project. Should I embrace the magic loop technique? It scares me! I’m not even kidding. Maybe I should find my back bone and man up. Woman up. Knit up. Any advice for a weakling?

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Sewing A Colour Block Dress

Ultimate Shift Dress Neon ii

Want to sew and photograph a colour block shift dress? Oh, man! Say hello to Walthamstow market. After a six-hour Sunday morning sewing session I had an urgent appointment to meet friends. The reason? Er, James Bond Daniel Craig Spectre Hello Are You Kidding?

Which meant no daylight hours in which to photograph my latest make, unless we grabbed a quick snap before buying popcorn. So, now you guys know what my locale looks like. A lot different to when I first began blogging, that much I can tell you. Gentrification is travelling North East of London. Let’s just leave it at that, shall we?

Ultimate Shift Dress Neon

This is my second make of the Sew Over It Ultimate Shift Dress – and I love it! We entirely have TMOS to thank for this version. I was looking at some cheap synthetic crepe, and a certain conversation played out:

You don’t want that. You need to come and look at this Hobbs wool. And if you’re sewing with that, you should really consider this silk lining...

Combined with this, I had a sudden and strong vision for colour blocking. A little, not too much. With a matching button on the rear closing, this felt just right. What do you think?

orange wrist

My friends and I had long conversations about sleeve length. I was concerned about cold wrists, but then we chatted about the demands of statement jewellery and The Erotic Wrist. The erotic wrist?! Was this a new social media thing? Turns out that the Victorians had a thing about wrists. Shorter kid gloves, shrinking sleeve lengths… The nub of a wrist could be as erotic as the turn of an ankle. That’s educated friends for you.

As for James? He never disappoints. I’ll take my martini dirty…

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The Ingredients For A Breton Stripe

breton swatch ii

Something about the combination of a coloured stripe with a white one creates a clean and crisp look that will always endure. Dr Christine Boydell

Friends, I’m facing a dilemma. I’m preparing to knit a Breton inspired sweater with a boat neckline. I’ve bought a red and dark grey wool. But is the grey too grey?

The key to the breton stripe is a strong contrast colour and then a background neutral. Should my grey be paler, more neutral? When does a jumper stop being Breton and start becoming Dennis the Menace?

There’s a great The Pool article here on the history of Breton stripes and here is a totally exhaustive collection of Breton stripes. I also turned to some of my own reference books, but there wasn’t any definitive explanation of the aesthetic of the stripe. There’s lots of history out there, but not much design guidance.

What do you think? Is my grey too grey or am I in danger of over-analysing? Do I simply admit that this isn’t a Breton jumper any more?

breton swatch iii

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Claim The Clapper

clapper for video

Following my blog post on my three favourite sewing investments, reader Anne invited me to write a blog post on using a clapper. I decided to go one better with a short video. Enjoy my flat Northern vowels!

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