Karie Westermann may not see herself as being a spokesperson for handknitters but her plain-speaking and thoughtful approach to the craft makes her a pivotal voice in the community. We caught up with Karie in the middle of her hectic workshop schedule when she had a few rest days in her adoptive home of Glasgow. Snuggled in a blanket and hugging a cup of tea she discussed her work, knitting politics and how putting work out there brings back so much more than expected.
“Oh that’s evil,” says Karie when posed with the option of giving up yarn or books for the rest of her life. “I think I would choose books because once you’ve read them, you can probably turn the fibres into yarn.” And while that may not be in the spirit of the question, it does sum up how sharp and quick-witted Karie is.
Add to this her advice to all aspiring textile designers: “if you don’t design anything then you are not a designer”, then you get a good idea of how much a breath of fresh air Karie is in a world of the perfectionism put out through social media.
“I used to date a guy back in my very silly 20s who was a writer and never wrote anything. Years later I would have people tell me they were a knitwear designer, I’d ask them what they’ve done and they’ll say ‘oh I’ve not designed anything yet’. So, I’ll always try to say in an encouraging way: you need to do it. You can’t say you are something if you don’t do it. But really it goes back to those silly 20s and that boy.
“I know it can be really scary but you miss out on the chance to share something with other people. One of the things I found doing what I do for a living is that you get a lot in return. I’ve had really personal stories from people like someone who used my pattern to knit for their dying mother-in-law or somebody telling me about her childhood and how a pattern brought back memories. You get so many things in return so if you don’t let go of all the fears and you don’t start making stuff, you miss out on a lot of things and a lot of experiences because people will take what you have made and give you something back in return.”
Karie’s blog is a great source of writing around the subject of knitting and what is happening for good and bad with the increase of slow craft. Not only does she see knitting as something bigger than just picking up needles and wool but she writes in a very careful and researched way which is authentic of her own voice.
“I stared blogging in 2001 and I’ve always been blogging. Knitting just started appearing on my blog and then took over my life. The blog now is just a continuation of what I started in 2001 and it is always how I’ve written.”
In particular, Karie has opened the discussion about the role of branding and lifestyle when it comes to knitting. Her post, written a year ago, addressed this question but it becomes increasingly apparent with the growth of Instagram and pinterest.
“I still think we need to work this out because there is so much marketing, so much consumerism and so much editing online. My life is not perfect, I bet your life is not perfect and we have all these struggles and then I scroll down through Instagram. Since I wrote that post I actually joined instagram and I do really enjoy it but I scroll through and I see these really edited photos and I wonder why is that brand so prominent?
“I am still really struggling with that encroachment of commercial interest in what I think is, for a lot of people, a reaction against commercialisation. I mean we want to talk slow fashion, we want to make stuff, we want to get away from going into the high street to buy a jumper and we want to do something else.
“However, I do think there is a limited amount of commercial interest. Maybe I just don’t see the commercial potential but knitting is never going to be craft beers or homemade burgers level.
“I really admire someone like Woolly Wormhead because she is exceptionally open and candid about the sacrifices she has to make constantly and the stress she experiences trying to make things work. She has been doing it for a very long time and it is still quite hard for her but it is inspiriting to see her so open. She is also really anti-brand to see herself not as a brand but a person and it is so nice to see, so refreshing.”
We find ourselves in a counter-culture, a slow protest against the over-arching fast fashion and disposable world in which we live. When I spoke to Karie, Trump had just been elected President of the United States and much like Brexit, there had been an emotional outpouring online from those who craft. It can seem strange for politics and knitting to be intertwined and it is an interesting situation where many liberal women are being vocal about politics in a space which has been carved out through craft.
“I do think we live in a bubble,” says Karie, “I teach a lot of workshops and meeting people who are much more traditional and slightly more conservative. I think it is because of social media that we live in a bubble but I do think it is political. I think it has something to do with the fact it is mostly women”
But it is through these workshops that Karie finds how knitting creates more than just a finished piece of work. Stories are told and shared, landscapes are understood. Even from how we learn to knit, there is a history passed down through generations.
Recently Karie created a workshop for Yarnporium in London where people looked to their own landscape, the micro-daily landscape such as the walk to work or part of their daily routine and to use this to express something in their knitting.
“I had a guy who was 17 years old and his mum had told him come to my workshop. He had just picked up yarn and needles three months ago, so he could knit, purl, cast on and cast off. At the end of the day he managed to start knitting a scarf which was him getting out of bed, going down the stairs, getting his breakfast and walking out of the door. For every step he took he purled on a row and it was just amazing.
“I also had a lady who was born in Ireland and we started talking about how she would navigate bogs. She knew if it was safe to step based on the colour so I asked her ‘how would you do that in a fair isle?’ and she realised she could design something. It was a very different workshop because there was no pattern and people had to approach it in a different way.
I talk to a lot of interesting people at workshops. I can teach them how to cast on, cast off or decrease and increase but in return I hear a lot of stories and discussions. Recently this lady in her 70s told me how she always struggled with lace and she got so angry with her lace project that she set it on fire.
“I find knitters inherently interesting because it takes something different to want to go out and make something because it is so easy to consume. So having that spark to want to make something and create something with your hands always makes me think there is something interesting about a person.”
Although perhaps most telling is the story of how Karie was taught as a continental knitter. Having been taught by her great-grandmother at the age of 4, the history of knitting within her family does pass down history like folk-lore.
“One of my favourite stories is that I am a continental knitter as taught by my great-grandmother but she was not raised as a continental knitter herself. Her mother was a thrower and they had a falling out some time in the 1930s so she swapped. As a consequence all future generations were taught how to knit continental as a sort of subtle revenge.”
We would like to thank Karie for allowing us to use her Byatt pattern for our December knitting box and for all the wonderful writing she has been doing throughout the years that has not only kept us entertained but also made us think about knitting as something more than a hobby.
Karie has a new book due out in April, you can find more information about it here.
You can follow @kariebookish on Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter.
Missed our December box? We have a few available here.