Barb looks to the folk traditions of northern and eastern Europe for her intricate designs
We chat with this creative Canadian designer
BARB BROWN, from Alberta in Canada, loves to create socks, bags, and other accessories influenced by folk textiles, and patterns inspired by the handknits of her Shetland-born great-grandmother. We chatted with Barb about her knitting life.
Who inspired you to take up knitting?
“I grew up surrounded by women who knitted - it was just one more job women did. I started to learn when I was around four years old, and sold my first hat when I was 12. It was around the same time that I began being interested in the history of my family, especially my great-grandmother Jeremina who came from the Shetland Islands. She emigrated to Canada in 1885, with her spinning wheel. My family still owned (and wore) sweaters she had made from her hand-spun.”
Do you have a favourite artist, writer, poet or musician who inspires you?
“Roberta Murray is an artist who has inspired me from the first day I met her. At the time, she was a spinning teacher. She also knitted, and painted her finished projects. She wove. She loved photography, and took it up as an art form. We often talked about art, and women’s work, and the economics of it all. We were discussing my designs, and she said, “Something like what you’ve done needs to be paid for, and it should be well paid for”. Somehow, coming from her, it was like a huge kick in the pants! It gave me the courage to send off my first design submission.”
Which designer has most inspired you?
“Elizabeth Zimmermann, hands down. Until I discovered her books, I felt guilty when I changed a pattern! Her Knitting
Workshop changed all that. It was as if I had been given a licence to change things, and received a degree in designing. It literally set me free to express myself with yarn.”
Tell us about the colours, landscapes or architecture that inspire your design work.
“Inspiration is everywhere. Right now, for example, I have ideas I’m working on… a shawl inspired by a painting of Paris in the rain; a wrap inspired by a dream I had of dancers on a hilltop in a thunderstorm; a coatigan in Icelandic lopi inspired by old embroidery patterns; a heavy, sturdy, outdoor sweater in a Cowichan style with Ukrainian Easter Egg patterns.”
What is your favourite knitting book?
“I think it would have to be Knitting in the
Nordic Tradition by Vibeke Lind. It always inspires me to try something new, and to play with the technique and see if I can make it different. Knitting is a living thing. If we don’t grow it, and make it our own, it becomes static and boring.”
Which design from your portfolio are you most proud of, or is most special to you?
‘The first is ‘Roadsidea’. I saw some nature-dyed wool from Elderberry Yarns, and I had a vision of the socks I wanted to design with it, almost as if they were hanging in the air above the yarn. I’ve experienced this before, but these had a stitch I’d never seen!”
“The other is ‘Seraglio’. I grew up surrounded by strong women who fought hard to be treated as equals. Over the past 10 years, there have been attempts to erode the rights we’ve achieved, and it has both angered and frightened me. I wanted to design something that spoke of my feelings. The bottom motif shows earrings and butterflies representing the luxuries behind the Seraglio walls; the middle portion symbolizes the lattice, the screen between women and the outside world; and at the top are the hooks, representing how difficult it is to get out once a woman agrees to go in. The sparkling yarn is the beautiful, exciting world beyond.”
Are there any techniques or traditions you’d like to explore further?
Lately, I’ve been playing around with the traditional zigzag patterned mittens from Rovaniemi, Finland, and the Roositud technique from Estonia. I have an idea that involves both, and is inspired by one of my favourite Ukrainian Easter egg designs. I’m not sure where it’s all going to take me!”
1 Like many of Barb’s designs, ‘Seraglio’ has a story behind it 3 Barb’s great-grandmother, Jeremina Colvin, taught knitting to the Cowichan people 3 Barb finds inspiration in Vibeke Lind’s book 4 She admires the art of Roberta Murray
‘Eve River’ is a design from The Knitter Issue 117