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Author Interview: Nicki Merrall

31 January 21 interview: Kate Hewett

We catch up with Nicki Merrall to talk lockdown, knitting and her new book, Fair Isle

What influenced you to write your book?
I am fascinated by Fair Isle knitting. The patterns used and the use of colour combination to create something that is more than the sum of its parts. The techniques of stranded colourwork are used across the countries of northern Europe, but the distinctive style developed in Fair Isle and Shetland is recognised worldwide.

Which writers are you reading? Have any of them influenced this book?
I love a knitting book to inspire me, to teach me new techniques and to look at something differently. I enjoyed being  left with an urge to play with ideas and to create something new. Designers whose books I read often include Alice Starmore, Norah Gaughan and Alison Ellen. They are knowledgeable, have distinctive design styles and make me excited about the possibilities of pattern, texture and construction in knitted fabrics.

With respect to my book, Alice Starmore has had the most influence. She uses stranded colourwork techniques to create stunning knitwear that clearly has its origin in Fair Isle knitting.

Has the lockdown impacted you, in terms of your writing or reading?
I had a bit more time to think and read during the lockdown. I’ve been reading a variety of books about different aspects of slow living.

Claire Wellesley-Smith writes about mindful making in Slow Stitch: Mindful and Contemplative Textile Art. She runs long-term community projects which are focused on using hand-stitch to improve the wellbeing and mental health of participants.

I run a weekly textile group at Headway Nottingham. When we started these sessions our hope was that the repetitive actions of knitting or stitching would help develop and strengthen new neural pathways. We cannot prove whether this is the case. However, in common with the participants of Claire’s projects, the members of my group find the process of making and using rhythmic movements very relaxing.

I have also been reading The Wild Remedy by Emma Mitchell which appeals because I have loved botany since helping my father on his allotment as a child. Emma draws on the flora and fauna that she sees on her walks; Claire’s groups often grow dye plants to use in their stitching projects. I’m thinking about how I can incorporate my love of nature into my practice, beyond using colour schemes inspired by seasons or landscapes.

What sort of research do you undertake?
I have been teaching Fair Isle knitting techniques for many years, so I was familiar with the general history of knitting in Fair Isle and Shetland, but needed to clarify details. I looked at a lot of items in museum collections to see how Fair Isle knitting evolved over time, as well as to establish what was not or could not be known. It was interesting to see how the use of colour changed over time, as well as when different patterns or styles of garment were introduced.

Shetland knitters use a variety of methods for holding the two yarns required for Fair Isle knitting. I usually use one method, so I did a lot of practical research in order to explain clearly how to do each technique using the different methods.

What would you like readers to take away from your latest book, upon reading it?
Fair Isle knitting is easier than it looks. Knitters new to this style of knitting can start with a simple project using a few colours and techniques and easy to remember patterns. Then, with each new project, knitters can add more colours, more techniques and more complex patterns. There really is something for all knitters to try.

Likewise, if knitters are interested in creating their own designs, there are simple steps they can take to get started, both with developing their own colour schemes and creating patterns.

Fair Isle knitting is easier than it looks. Knitters new to this style of knitting can start with a simple project using a few colours and techniques and easy to remember patterns

Can you talk about the relationship between the cover art and the title?
Fair Isle Knitting and Design covers how to knit using Fair Isle techniques and how to create your own Fair Isle-style projects. The cover photo reflects this by showing one of the projects from the book together with a swatch for alternative possible colour combinations for that project.

I saw on your Website that you teach knitting and other skills. Can you say how this intertwined with your book?
Much of my book was influenced by my teaching experience. From the outset I knew that I wanted to organise the projects so that each project increases in difficulty on the last. This might be by using more advanced techniques or more colours or more complex patterns. I wanted knitters, new to Fair Isle knitting, to be able to develop their skills by working through the projects. This also means that there are projects suitable for knitters with different experiences of Fair Isle knitting.

I also teach colour theory through practical activities. I was keen to cover colour theoretically (which means how to describe one colour compared to another) and then show how to use this with respect to Fair Isle knitting. I really enjoy playing with colour and I would love other knitters to develop the confidence that they can do so too!

What are your future plans?
As it is not possible for me to do face-to-face teaching for the foreseeable future, I am developing online workshops and courses covering knitting, crochet and colour techniques.

Fair Isle Knitting and Design is available to buy now

Nicki Merrall website

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