Wednesday, February 11, 2009
Wednesday Wonders #6: Alice Starmore
I think it’s time to talk about one of my more controversial early knitting influences, whom I have never met (nor do I expect to!). Nonetheless, the work of Alice Starmore has had deep and long-lasting influence on my understanding of knitting as an art, as well as a craft. And just looking at her work, reading articles about the creative aspects of her life, and learning about her have enriched my creativity and sense of adventure.
In case you have never heard of her, Starmore was a very influential knitter in the 1980s and early 1990s. This was at a time when people were very interested in ethnic patterns, especially those from the British Isles and Ireland (note: don’t tell an Irish person they are British unless you are looking to enjoy a nice, long history lesson—trust me, someone who was married to an Irishman for 14 years). Starmore, who lives on the Isle of Lewis, a place full of rocks, sheep, and apparently wool mills and printing presses, wrote and photographed numerous large, beautiful books of patterns at this time. She dealt with Aran patterns, Fair Isle techniques and fishermen’s sweaters of various traditions. Just what I wanted as a chilly Floridian stuck in Illinois!
I devoured her books, loving all the history, explanations of techniques and endless charts and motifs that you could use in your own creations. I loved that you didn’t have to just knit the patterns in the photographs—you could figure out your own unique creation once you read all of her helpful hints and instructions. Admittedly, the gorgeous settings for the photos often distracted me. I’ve felt an overwhelming affection for some vague “Celtic Homeland” my entire life, even though my background is only partially from there (I also have felt a kinship with Japan since I was a tiny child, and I am not at all Japanese). Starmore’s books (and all the other wonderful books on ganseys, Arans and such that came out at this time) really soothed my inner Brighid (Celtic goddess of spinning, poetry and the hearth).
I bought graph paper and designed my own Fair Isle sweaters, hoping that my color selections would be as beautiful as hers. Well, they weren’t. And of course they weren’t. In my 20s I did not have much “spare” cash, no local yarn shop, and few mail order resources. I couldn’t get the right yarn! So, I made to with mill ends I bought at a place called the Yarn Barn (there are LOTS of places called the Yarn Barn, I know) in Columbus, Ohio. I bought all these huge cones of rough, scratchy wool, probably from making rugs. But I knit them into some of the warmest sweaters possible. And I wore them in Illinois winters! Now they sit on a shelf, waiting for me to go on an Arctic cruise or something, other than the time I drug them out to photograph them for Ravelry (as seen on this blog post!). I also made a few really nice Arans, one of which went away with its recipient, and I seem to have never received copies of the photos I recently took of the other.
Thank goodness Starmore encouraged creativity and doing your own thing. I had to knit at a much larger gauge than she did, but I felt empowered to create. It got me through some lean times. It’s funny that, now that I can buy the right yarn, the only Celtic thing I’ve made in the last few years is a Faroese-style shawl made from genuine Shetland wool yarn, from the Jamieseon & Smith mill.
Now, I know there’s a downside to Alice Starmore. Knitters are very sad that her books have gone out of print and she will not share the copyright and that there have been other supply issues that had some folks in a tizzy at one time(that’s a gross over generalization of a longer story that you can read one viewpoint on here, as long as you bear in mind that there is more than one side to every story). However, there is good news! Alice Starmore’s Book of Fair Isle Knitting is going to be reprinted in the fall!
This is really good news, considering that her Aran Knitting book’s lowest price on Amazon is $225. Let’s hope more of her great ideas become more widely available soon, so the current generation of knitters who love beautiful colors and textures can learn from this amazingly talented woman. There’s certainly a popular demand. I know I spend a lot of time wishing I’d had more money during the years those books were coming out, so I’d have them all!
Starmore’s been doing more interviews for knitting magazines and sharing more new patterns in the last year or so (you can find out about some of these on her website, linked below). I’m hoping that some of the litigation, complaints and discord is over and that we can look forward to more great ideas and beautiful images from her--I don't know about her, but I hate spending my creative time on “business” stuff--which is no doubt why I don't run a yarn shop or publish patterns! She is now doing “fine arts” (I guess that means things that are not “crafts”) and publishes books and distributes yarn. So, she’s been busy! I am just glad that she had the time, knitting and photography skills, and patience to share so much with the rest of us during what was a bit of a long drought in knitting popularity.
More on Alice Starmore
Alice Starmore website
Virtual Yarns (get her yarn here)
Books on Amazon.com
Bio on Wikipedia (not much there)
The Alice Chronicles: story of why people were upset with her