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.
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: