Alison Crowther-Smith

Archive for March, 2014

Design Weekend – The First Design Is In!

Monday, March 31st, 2014

This is the shawl that Tilly knitted after attending the Design Weekend just over a week ago:

Tilly's shawl 1


This is a full circle shawl, knitted in a combination of Fine Lace and Kidsilk Haze, sometimes held together, sometimes fading the colours in and out, sometimes using the yarn single.  It is beaded until the lace border is reached.

Tilly's shawl 2


I provided each participant with a choice of two story-boards and design  briefs.  Tilly chose to design for the brief that asked the student to design a shawl, wrap or scarf, and I specified the yarns that they could use, the beads, and the ‘feel’ of the design.  For this board the ‘feel’ was clean, vintage-chic, under-stated glamour, wearable retro-art.

Tilly’s design is lovely.  It ticks all the boxes, but mainly, it pleased Tilly.  Because each student also had, within the brief I set, to draw upon her own inspirational themes.  Tilly chose to draw upon the sea-scapes of her native England, the east coast wideness of sky and sea and shore; her family sail, and so she also wanted to capture the move and dynamic of sails.

Now, ‘learning’ to design is not an easy thing to do, or to deliver.  This is NOT an intensive, technically driven, C&G style experience.  For one thing, it only lasts for two days.  But it does provide an aspiring knitting designer – be it for pattern adaption purposes, or to design your own, unique accessories, from ‘scratch’ – with a framework to start from.  It also, hopefully, provides a degree of space, time and crucially, I suspect, confidence to take these steps.

Is the way I design the ‘right’ way?  No, but there is no such thing.  I am not trained in banging out sweater after cardigan.  My approach is driven by organic, questing ideas.  The creativity comes first.  But, it is underpinned, as all successful designs are, by A Lot of techie swatching, pencil-sucking, testing and changing things.  That is what I aim to deliver, on my own Design events.

Perhaps, at its basic level, it could be called guided design.  But it does lead to independent, confident, bold designers, who have permission to think their own ideas are valuable and beautiful; and who will gift themselves the time and space and repetitive process of designing for themselves.

I am very proud of Tilly’s design, as I was of all the participants.  The ideas that people have, as I saw when I looked at the output from last week, when they are challenged and nurtured, astound me.  You all have that spark, you know.

Next year – this, of course, seems inconceivable, but it’s already BST, and soon it will be time to decide on all the courses for 2015 – I think I may offer different options.  I liked the fairly ‘open’ brief that gave my students some boundaries, but also a lot of space.  This worked well, especially if me saying:  ‘off you go, design whatever you like!’ just leads to white noise in your head.  So I think this idea will stay, but alongside that, (and maybe over a separate weekend), I will offer the option to design something very much more specific.


Knitting As Therapy; Workshop News

Thursday, March 27th, 2014

The news recently told us some stuff I am *sure* we didn’t know.

Knitting can reduce stress and lift depression.  No shizzle, Sherlock!  OK.  Maybe not Transalvanian lace wrangling (with neeps), steeking a Martian Moebius, or whatever stitching craze is sweeping the Ravs, but just, you know, regular, happy knitting.  A bit of lace, a bit of colour, a lot of repetition.  Soothing.  Comforting.  Rewarding.

Yep.  We know this because Someone has conducted A Study.  It’s also been in the Mail On-Line so it must be right.  As usual, poor old SJP is dragged up to prove that knitting is hot with les celebs, plus a man I do not know and also someone unpronounceable, again, unknown to me.

I have offered loads of universities access to my knitting workshops, so they can observe the stress reduction in progress.  So far, no takers.  But just so you are aware, next time you are here, chez Millington et moi, some dudes in white lab coats, with a bunch of iPads (that’s what science dudes have now, instead of clip-boards) might have rocked up and be observing us, de-stressing and being up-lifted.  Or, knitting, as I call it.

I have blogged before about knitting as therapy.  For myself, it’s been a life companion, from whom I have no intention of consciously uncoupling.  (If you do not get that reference, you really do need to get up to speed with the incredibly sad-making celebrity blog-arrhea that is the outpouring of Ms G Paltrow’s site, Goop.  No.  In fact, don’t bother.  It will only make you really angry).

Knitting has seen me through many dark days, even weeks or months, if I am honest.  Last year included a lengthy gloomy episode, with bonus stress and anxiety thrown in.  This is now, happily, all over.  In fact, 2014 looks like kicking 2013’s sorry arse right back where it belongs.  However, as the last few months of 2013 (or ‘that total thunder-twat of a year’, as it is affectionately known here), ticked endlessly by, I knitted on.  I had to!  I was teaching, and I had been commissioned to knit stuff, and so on.

The days – weeks – of industrious design and knitting, plus to a much lesser extent, other work that I often engage in to prove to myself how much I love knitting, and also, to buy wool – kept my, often fairly fragile mental balance, let’s be honest, just this side of the rocking, drooling and giving up end of the spectrum.

I wasn’t depressed.  Well, I probably was, a bit, but only because of the real problem.  I was afraid.  Anxiety and fear are my constant companions.  But right now, I have sprinted ahead of them for a bit.   I could create, win, and then break my own world record in The Worrying Olympics.  Year after year.  I don’t know why I am like this, but there we are.  I do know why I have blue eyes (technically, more grey than blue but whatevs).  I know why I have (had) kind of sandy coloured hair and masses of freckles.  Latter still with me, I wish they’d sod off.

But why is my nature so wracked with this flaw?  That’s a rhetorical question, but if you do happen to know, and can suggest a cure, I will knit you anything you like (sub-clause: not you, intarsia).  To be fair, I did have some actual stuff to be afraid about.  It wasn’t my usual bog-standard irrational fear, of the kind that I am more used to dealing with.  But anyway, on days when I could hardly function, eat much, go out except to run – I knitted.  And right after I started knitting, the therapy kind of kicked in.

Some months after this first began, I feel much MUCH better.  Issues have been resolved, solutions have been identified and executed.  New pastures have been explored, even inhabited and made to feel all homey and safe, with throws and cushions.  Now, when I look back some interesting facts occur to me.  One, when I look at the patterns that I designed and knitted during this roughly three month period, I do recall the emotions and feelings that I experienced then, but in a muted, tonal form; and with a great sense of relief, I find that they feel a bit academic.  Happily, the knitting is not tainted with the feelings from which it was created.  In fact, I am much more fond of these designs than any others that I have created because I – and this is a physical feeling, not so much an emotion – sense how the making of them pulled me back up.

Two, and I have no idea how this is the case, because at the time, I felt that each day was an eternity, and each day, as this was October initially, grew longer and also literally darker, but now, that entire few month period appears to me to have passed in some fast-forward time frame.  The only freeze-frame moments feature either an especially tense moment (‘tense’ is a euphemism, obvs), OR a knitting breakthrough.  Otherwise, perhaps with nature’s kindly veil-drawing habit, the worst of it now seems to have happened perhaps to someone else, and also, to have been very brief, though neither of these is true, of course.  It’s fanciful, I know.  I know I was there.  I have the knitting, the audio book bills and the mental scars to prove it.  And yet, it seems to feature some other person.

And three, making bargains with the Knitting Gods totes works.  That would be, for example:

Me:  if I can design this, write the pattern and knit it twice in 5 days, everything will be OK, right?

(Also) Me, but playing the part of the Knitting God(s):  yep.

(5 days later…)

Me:  OK, I didn’t *quite* do that task, but IF I can do it in the next 2 days, it’ll all be cool, yeah?

(Also) Me, but playing the part of the Knitting God(s):  yes.  But…this is the last extension to your Knitting God Bargain, OK?

It works, people, it works.  Try it.  You’re welcome!

Now – Workshops!

There are a lot of new events on the site that I added about a fortnight ago, but the thing is, due, I assume, to all other knitting workshops in the UK being cancelled, all the 2014 events are now full, except for 2 places on the Half Moon Shawl course in June.  I also added a day for January 2015 and this has 4 spaces left.  If you want to come on any of my courses, please email me as I do get cancellations from time to time and I will be very happy to add you to my Special List.  Also, if enough folks indicate that they’d have liked to attend a specific course, I will certainly try and run a repeat.


Workshop Loyalty Scheme 2014

Monday, March 17th, 2014

Court Cottage Workshop Room – Ready for the Day!

Eleven valued customers have just qualified to choose £20 of Rowan yarns from me!


This is my 2014 Workshop Loyalty Scheme, details of which you can see here.

If you have attended, or book to attend, three workshops or more with me here at Court Cottage in 2014, you too will qualify.  I have back-dated the plan to January and it ends in November with the Christmas Workshop.  By November, I will have run ten events here, including the two-day Design Weekend, which is more than the last three years.  I have run more events because of the limited numbers I can take – seven or eight is my maximum – and I want to enable more people who might like to come, to be able to do so.

I recently added five new events.  You can see all the events here.  There are still spaces in June, September and October.  I do feel really lucky and very proud that so many of my customers come back for more workshops with us.  I have seen so many leaps and bounds of confidence and skill, in all of my customers, and I think that together, we have created a really special place to come and learn something new, enjoy a bit of gentle boundary-pushing, and meet other lovely people.

Teaching here at home was something I began almost 4 years ago.  I must say, I was filled with mild* anxiety about it when I first started, because, despite having taught for many years, over literally hundreds of events, I was opening up my house to people.  It felt much more personal.

Then Millington joined me.  It is very rare to have the focus of two knitting tutors for groups as small as seven or eight participants, but I think this is one of the elements that makes Court Cottage events special.  I was very lucky to meet Millington when we both worked at Rowan as freelance teachers and Design Consultants, and I am lucky to have her work with me still.

*may be an slight** understatement

**refer to * above

Over the 3 plus years of teaching here, I have always taught elsewhere, usually here in the West Country.  For me, these two experiences go hand-in-hand.  It is a very different (not better) experience, coming here for an event.  If you haven’t yet tried a Court Cottage Workshop, please do, because they really are unique and I love meeting new knitters too.

But to my very special cohort of regular attendees, new and long-standing alike:   this is a tangible way for me to say thank you.  So, enough with the schamltz – get choosing your yarn!

Workshops At Yarn Stores and Other Venues 2014

Sunday, March 16th, 2014

I appear to be teaching more than I have for some years.  This is A Good Thing.

In some instances, I am leaving the county and even going as far as Wales, The Cotswolds and even Cornwall.  Wow.

Anyway, you can see a list of some of the non-Court Cottage events here.  See you at some of these, I hope!

Retailers/organisers:  I am going to accept 2 or 3 more event bookings for 2014, in October and November, so if you think you might like an event with me at your gaff, get in touch!

New Courses at Court Cottage 2014/15

Saturday, March 15th, 2014

There is a new, freshly made batch of Court Cottage Workshops on the site this weekend.

View and book here.

There are still 2 places on the June 2014 Half Moon Day.

Then in September, there are two Moebius Days.  On the first, we will learn the real Moebius cast on and knit a lovely introductory level Moebius Cowl.  You may have already done this with me, I have now taught it to more people than I believed possible.  My work, however, is not yet done!  On the second day, which is the very next day, so you can make a weekend of it if you like, we will tackle Moving On:  making different Moebiuses.  You can attend both, or just one.  But to attend Moving On, you must have learned the cast on from me, or elsewhere, though we will be refreshing this skill as well, just in case you didn’t cast one on in a while.  If you fancy both, great!  I believe you can easily learn the basics and start your first Moebius and then next day, start another.

There is a Halloween workshop, which with amazing originality, I have placed in October.  BOO!

There there is A Knitted Christmas in mid-November.

And to cheer us all up after Christmas and New Year, there is a January 2015 Full Moon Shawl workshop.

I hope to see both familiar, and new faces at these events.  It’s very relaxed and informal here.  The emphasis is always on learning something new, not *too* taxing, but just enough to keep you moving on and adding new skills and experiences, whilst really enjoying a day of creativity, home-cooked food, luxury yarns, and great company.

I only added these yesterday and already there are a lot of bookings so head on over!

Something Added, Something Taken Away

Thursday, March 13th, 2014

In very exciting cave news, I have got a new pair of caving boots.  Caving usually happens in wellies.  I know. I didn’t believe it either.  Anyway, a good thick rubber sole and a reinforced toe section, such as you get with Etche wellies are ideal for safety and grip.  Not you, style:


The problem I have with my Etche wellies is that in order to get my foot in, wearing a wet-sock, I have to have my wellies a whole size and a half bigger than my usual size 5 shoes.  So my feet literally feel like they don’t belong to me.  I am, at best, a bit of a Bambi-on-ice down the caves, so this has been a real drawback.

Until I went caving last month in my old walking boots, not by choice but I had to lend my wellies to someone in the group, as they had forgotten theirs and mine fitted, plus I had some walking boots to use instead.  These are old boots that I leave in the car or the cave trug, and they have next to no useful tread left so the caving was a bit slippy, but the feel of the smaller shoe on my feet was great.

So last week, I bought some Etche Canyoning boots:


I LOVE these boots so much!  They are an Etche wellie shoe, with a reinforced back to the heel and toe, but as you can see, they’re ankle boots so I can wear my usual foot size – in fact I got a 4.5 and then I went caving for eight hours last weekend in them.  A revelation!  A miracle!   They did not (and to be fair, the chap I bought them from did not promise this) make me an epic caver, possessed of profound skills, and quiet, calm courage.  But, they did make my feet feel like they belong to me and this, it turns out, is a massive bonus.  Who knew?

I miss the front-of-shin protection the long boots offer and I have a lump on my shin the size of a quail egg.  But I think children’s shin pads will sort that.  Oy, more kit…

Last weekend, we returned to the majestic caves of South Wales.  Oh, how I love these caves.  I also love the place we stay, the South Wales Caving Club.  Here is its Club House:

A row of former quarry cottages, now converted into a fantastic cave hut.  Hut?  It’s a palace.  Lots of bunk rooms, a family cottage area, a huge kitchen, a lovely big sitting room, a dining room – and look at The View!

Also, some of the best caves evah are in walking distance of this hut.  The first of these, this weekend, and new to me was a cave called Cwm Dwr.  Cwm Dwr is in the old quarry a few hundred meters from the hut.  Here is a link to the fantastic video that Dudley Caving Club made of their trip.  Our trip was very similar but we didn’t go to Diver’s Pitch.

The entrance is lovely, easy climb down a tube, another tube and a well-engineered drop/climb to the cave itself.  Shortly, you reach the CD crawl, which varies between easy hands-and-knees, and belly-down elbow-thrutching, but at no point is it a proper tight squeeze.  There is one low bit of passage, where yes, you are in close contact with both the gravel floor and low ceiling, but there is side room to really push and it’s very brief and easy.  The trick is to turn your head so your helmet goes easily and then keep shuffling.  I loved it!

I know there are challenges in this cave, such as the complex boulder choke, through which Flos and Will route-found with complete ease.  Here, the going is bendy rather than difficult, it’s quite a long boulder choke, and you are posting yourself in and out of small gaps, but it’s never super-tight or at all hard, it just makes you breathe a bit hard, as if you’d walked fast up a steep hill – at no point is it any more arduous that that.

Once you get through these two obstacles, the cave is your oyster.  There are huge walking passages, with many options.  We wanted to find the best way to the Main Route, which we did, with some deliberate deviations along the way to explore features, all of which were new to me.  At 2.5 hours, we had a drink of water and decided to head back, thinking well, it might take 2.5 hours to get out, and I am building stamina, so didn’t want to push it.  In fact, we rocked out in 1.5 hours and I was very sorry we cut it a bit short, but better safe than sorry.  I was thinking of the exit via the choke and the exit crawl – both of which were rapid and easy.

Four hours caving is nothing to a lot of people, but it’s a good trip for me.  There were no lengthy stops, no photos, no snacking.  I used to cave with energy gels in my pocket, because I got so scared and shaky and tired, but I just don’t need them now.

I had never been in CD which is the middle section of a huge linked series of caves called Ogof Ffynonn Ddu – OFD.  There is OFD 1, at the bottom, then in the middle is Cwm Dwr, then at the top of the hill, is, um – Top! Or sometimes called OFD 2.  These caves can be ‘done’ as through trips, one linking to the next though I think that route finding is a bit tricky and it might be a long trip, for me.  

The next day, we caved for four hours  in OFD 1, where we did the standard round trip, with a detour to the Waterfall Series. I have done the round trip once before.  I love this cave except for the first part, where you walk (or stumble and moan like the east wind) up the streamway for about a decade.  It’s sporting!  No, it’s not.  It’s a right pain, but there we are.  I don’t like it because the water is more than playful and I can’t see what I am doing.  The last time I did it, I hadn’t caved much so while the others ‘traversed’ as far as possible to avoid getting really wet, I waded through it.  This time, following Florence, I did the traversing thing too.  Kind of.  I was OK for the first bit then my legs seemed to shrink and I was alternately trapped on one wall or another, often leaning right over to place my hands on the wall opposite.  There are scaffolding poles across great big whirling pot holes, so these are not too bad, but the endless yomping  through the merry stream was just not my idea of fun.  This cave floods, by the way, so there is a step on the way in and if the water over this stone is higher than your foot (or it might be ankle, I am not sure), you don’t go on, or you go the other way.  I also clears of water fast so despite rain last week, it was OK.  It was lively though.

The streamway bit is totally worthwhile for the rest of the cave though.  There are challenges, such as two wire-traverses, where you clip yourself onto a rope or wire that has been bolted to the cave wall in places where there is a very narrow ledge to get along, over a big drop down, with maybe a bulge in the wall here and there.  I absolutely love doing these. An image, again from the Dudley Cave Club, of the start of one of the traverses in OFD1:

There is also a neat little traverse and a couple of quite nervy ‘bold steps’ in the Waterfall Series;  you can leave this part of the cave  by means of climbing (very fast as it’s wet through!) down the little waterfall itself.  I loved all this, and the bits I had done before, such as a shoot down a chimney, called by us, maybe not its real name, The Elephant’s Arse Hole.  Yep.  Try it.  You will see why.  It is fantastic fun, if you like your fun tinged with fear.  I do.  More boulder choking, some rolling, some crawling, some traversing, a neat climb up Low’s Chain, with the aid of, this time no ladder but 2 ropes and Will’s hand-jammer, which is actual MAGIC.  It makes you levitate up the climb with no effort whatsoever.

The cave is dramatic, moody, pretty and really good fun.  Here is a pretty bit, called The Bees Knees:

Yes, the bendy column looks just like a bee’s knee!  Clever cave.

There is also a huge chamber that looks like the lighting consultant whose last gig  was The Oscars and also Peter Pan’s Neverland, minced through the cave and sprinkled a bazillion little fairly lights and then added some Clinque body glitter powder.  I wanted to find you an image, and when I Goggled ‘sparkly chamber in OFD1’ images, I got (along with a fair bit of weirdness) this:

It’s me!  Caving on my birthday in June 2013, in the Mendips, and Will and Florence had brought surprise treats! I love that if you put in sparkly cave you get me.  My work is almost done.

I am also proud that my cave suit, now  2 years old, has just come back from cave suit ER where it went for reconstructive surgery as I had caved the arse out of it.  Not all the way through but I’d seriously worn the outer layer of bottom-canvas.  I like to think that this is because I am a frequent and energetic caver, and not because my default cave setting is on my bum.

So this week, in caving terms, I added a new pair of caving boots.  I also gained eight solid hours of caving  with few rests in the trips, over two days.  I was not tired.  I was not  scared.  I felt I had really changed.  OK, these things are relative and my starting base line is low.  But I am pleased and I am ready to try for the Swildon’s Sump 1 trip.  Gulp.

What have I lost?  About 2kgs!  All packed back on with a huge roast on Sunday!  But really, I did notice that something was missing.  Fear.  I have always, without fail, approached every single trip with a sense of high anxiety bordering on fear, often degenerating into actual fear, and sometimes tears.  This year, that has gone.  I feel elevated sense of awareness, apprehension at times, but I am not afraid.  Someone in my club once told me that the fear (I may not have said fear, I may have said anxiety, but it was fear) would pass but that it is good to retain a sense of caution.  I waited.  I caved.  I had breaks.  I went back.  The fear was still there, but the urge to see new caves was just strong enough for me to (usually) overcome the fear, just about.  But, perhaps with caving, as with so much in my life that I love and value and cherish, I am a late adopter and a late developer.

It’s going to come back at times, I know it is – and I think I will be more ready for it, but I did say that if caving kept being something so challenging that it made it very hard work, something to overcome rather than to love, I’d quit.  I just will not put myself through emotional torture just to prove some random and possibly irrelevant point.  But happily, and without me even noticing it, the dominance of fear has slipped away.

Something else has gone.  It is the pretty constant feeling that I had underground of this being odd, radically different to my norm, a sense of complete other-worldness.  I think this may have been a side effect of the fear.  Because I suddenly noticed, back in February actually, that I didn’t look at the cave entrance and think:  seriously?  I am going in there?  I just thought:  let’s get out of this wet gale force wind.  I didn’t think, whilst caving:  oh my God this is so weird, I am under the ground!  It just feels normal.  I still feel awed and amazed.  But I have slipped a little further into the world where to cave is (almost) as normal to me as it is to cycle or to run.

Who’d have thought it?  Certainly not me, and probably not the legions of patient, stoic and kind cavers who have got me this far, especially Florence and Will.  Not you, rude man who said to me recently that he should have brought a sharp stick along with him down the cave, to poke me with.  I know!  I *may* have had a sense of humour failure at that moment. It’d be like me (or you) saying to a knitter next to you at an event:  blimey, can’t you knit any faster than that!  you loser! No, we’d never even think it, let alone say it.  Well, mean sharp stick man, you won’t be getting any sparkly body dust at Christmas, that’s for sure.