Jackie Fee, the reigning diva of the Sweater Workshop

Jackie is a role model for those of us aspiring to grow up and fill the room with elegance…and she knits ;).  Best known for her classic book, The Sweater Workshop, she appeals to fans because of her enthusiasm, practicality, quick smile and well earned knowledge in sweater design.  Jackie spends her summers across the Bay from Fiber College on picturesque Deer Isle surrounded by pink granite, pointy firs, idyllic villages and wide spans of pebbly beaches.  When she’s not knitting, she’s spinning and we are so happy that she’ll be coming to us on Friday to teach Designing Sweaters from Handspun a repeat offering of last year’s popular class.  sweaterworkshop

We asked Jackie to answer our interview questions and this is what she sent:

1. Inspiration for my work comes from a passion to share w/knitters easier, simpler methods of achieving knitting techniques and from what I conceive to be a need to correct common, but misguided instructions. This forceful urge is the result of having knit one sweater in pieces as a college freshman and the culmination of the 30-year search that ensued to perfect the method of achieving seamless garments – a technique that dates back to the 17th century. Piecemeal construction came to be the norm in the late 1800’s when close-fitting clothing was the custom and consequently most all written knitting patterns to this day separate the sweater parts – front, back, sleeves, and, in some instances, even collars, pockets and trims – a method which can be disappointing, discouraging and disillusioning for would-be knitters.

The other motivating factor was the need to successfully work with my own handspun yarns that were not creating “happy” fabrics working to anothers prescribed gauge. Discovering Elizabeth Zimmermann’s book, Knitting Without Tears, and obtaining her very kind permission to adapt her EPS (Elizabeth’s Percentage System) to my Gauge Page was liberating and offers knitters the choice of deciding their own gauge to achieve their own desired fabrics. My mantra to them is, “You are not knitting a sweater – you are knitting a fabric in the shape of a sweater!” And that sweater can be of any size in a variety of styles.

2.  I feel very confident leading a class as I have been doing so for some 30 years conducting workshops, giving lectures, and teaching classes, including at the Rhode Island School of Design Continuing Education, both before and after the book’s publication – the 1st edition with Interweave Press from 1983 to 2000 and the 2nd edition with DownEast Books from 2002 til the present –  has provided me the opportunity to encounter knitter’s stumbling blocks both with oral and printed directions and therefore I have been able to foresee problem areas and to be very specific in my wording. Working alone by the book, many knitters have written me to remark, “I can hear you talking to me. I feel that you are standing over my shoulder.” And so I feel by fully and carefully explaining techniques that it has been very definitely worth the time to do so.

3. If I do encounter a problem and the sweater sample is not working up as envisioned, I do start again with a better understanding of how and why the glitch occurred and rethink it through to a plan b solution, or sometimes even a plan c.

4. My advice to knitters is to take a project step-by-step – to not read ahead – and especially for The Sweater Workshop Book. If a passage creates doubt, to reread the section slowly and calmly and most always whatever one needs to know is right there on the page. This approach usually brings a ‘Eureka” moment when the words make sense and the knitter has a great feeling of accomplishment!

5. The questions I would like to ask my students, and many times I do not have to ask as they readily volunteer the information is: what in knitting directions do you find puzzling?; can you suggest wording that would help to clarify the situation?; do you prefer to follow charts/graphs or the written word?; what items do you most like to knit?; do you knit for yourself, for others, for charity?;  when did you start knitting?; when/where do you knit?; and lastly, WHY do you knit??? Can you imagine NOT knitting?

6. I’m an avid collector of old knitting books, needles, and knittings – these articles that find their way to antique shows, flea market tables and into auction box lots as their original owners have long since gone and left them behind for others to study and admire. I have a small trunk full of needles in all their forms and some that tell a story – the red/white/blue needles that were produced for wartime Red Cross knitting for the troops, old circular metal needles w/impossible rough connectors, early plastic needles from creamy white Balene to dark tortoise shell looks and those very, very fine double-points for working stockings at 8 to 10 stitches to the inch. And the finished products themselves, many of those old, and mended cotton stockings, some everyday plain, some lacy for Sunday best; to lace trimmed bodices, bloomers, petticoats, hats, caps, bonnets, mittens, wristers, and very special items, pin cushions, doilies  – all cherished for their workmanship. One of the little hats is to be featured in my article in the 2010 issue of Pieceworks Magazine. In addition, Pieceworks featured my interpretation of How to Knit Two Socks at Once – One Inside the Other in the Jan/Feb 2009 issue based on an article in a 1918 Needlecraft magazine and in the upcoming November issue will be my instructions for a replication of The Brewster Stocking from the collection at the Pilgrim Museum.

7. My favorite color is lavender – to me it has the same remarkable attributes as the herb – it imparts a sense of calmness, serenity, and peacefulness. Thus, working with yarns of lavender shadings is relaxingan d the sweaters become successful favorites to be worn and shared as examples in classes.  I do have to mention also an affinity for the natural shades of creams, browns and grays that I select for my handspun projects.

A peek in my closet, or sweater chests, would reveal a definite love of the colors in the tail end of a rainbow.

8. I feel I have to answer this question, but in reverse. I was taught to knit in Girl Scouts, age 12, by a leader who started me in on Spiral Socks on 4 double-pointed needles. Whether by design or happenstance, this beginning was to portend my knitting future. To me, it was a brilliant move to start on double-points and from then until the age of 18 it was socks and more socks until those needles became an extension of my fingers. The Spiral design of Knit 4, Purl 4, was a very important aspect of the project as the PURL stitch was given EQUAL billing, IMMEDIATELY, with the Knit Stitch – it was not something that was mentioned and taught 3 weeks down the road by saying, “Oh, by the way, in this craft called knitting, there is another stitch, the purl stitch “ and some knitters hate it forever, as they do double-points.

So, I feel I was taught the correct way and spent years trying to find a way to produce seamless, instantly wearable sweaters to imitate the construction of those seamless socks.

9. My favorite tool is essentially a non-tool as I prefer to use my hands and knees in place of a swift and ballwinder. I tend to avoid millspun yarns that are packaged in balls. Since I began spinning my own yarns, I found I enjoyed handling fleece in all its stages as it becomes a two-ply yarn, and therefore I favor commercial yarn in skeins so that it can easily be washed and balled before use – if it is going to shrink, it will shrink; if it is going to bleed, it will bleed and thus losing its spinning oils, it will fluff to its proper diameter. Inspiration for a garment often comes from this handling of the yarn itself. As I wind it into soft balls from its circle around my knees,, it gets to talk to me as it passes through my hands and I follow its lead as to appropriate needle size and can visualize the fabric/garment it wants to become.

10. What I like best about what I do is the knitters response to my effort to make knitting enjoyable, satisfying and FUN. As a graduate of Bridgewater

State College with a Bachelor’s Degree in Elementary Education, I have been trained to simplify explanations and this trait has followed with me as I switched from teaching youngsters to teaching adults. I enjoy thinking of the very best, and clearest, way to present a subject which was my purpose in designing The Sweater Sampler, the first section of the Sweater Workshop Book. Rather than have knitters work and practice techniques in separate blocks of work, The Sweater Sampler connects the various stitch combinations and thus knitters can see/feel how they relate to one another and gain a better understanding of the knitted fabric. To hear knitters tell me, “I have learned so much working the Sweater Sampler” is proof that I accomplished my goal. And after they have worked their first sweater on their own, without following a pattern, and I hear the words, “For the first time I have knit a sweater that fits me”, I am truly heartened and gratified.

11. When I say that a sample garment has turned out really well, I mean that it has proved the point I was trying to make – that my objective, be it the overall construction, the pattern detail, the application of a Sampler technique, is clearly visible and can be explained at a future lecture or workshop for knitters to add to their own design ideas.

2 thoughts on “Jackie Fee, the reigning diva of the Sweater Workshop

  1. Pingback: Draft #1 of the Scheduled Demonstrations « Fiber College on Penobscot Bay

  2. Pingback: An interview with Jackie you all might enjoy - « Knitthyself's Blog

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