Quillworking at the National Museum of the American Indian

Surface decorating with porcupine quills is a beautiful and challenging technique that has been practiced in North America since at least 1300 AD.  While the oldest known example of quillwork has been found on a pair of moccasins, it has been used extensively on clothing, birch boxes, knife handles, tack, furniture, and just about anything that can be wrapped, punctured, or have a hide strip sewn into it.  Quillwork can sometimes be mistaken for beadwork, and it is truly amazing to see the transformation that a skillful worker can render with this stiff, pointy modified hairs.  In fact, much of beadwork styles that have come to represent classic Plains Indians aesthetics actually grew out of a quillwork tradition that predated the availability of the now prevalent glass bead introduced by Europeans.


Natural dyes clockwise from 1:00: indigo, cochineal alkaline, neutral, and acidic, Osage orange, yellow dock root, wolf moss, and copper acetate.

Quillwork styles vary greatly from the floral, curvilinear styles of the Eastern Woodlands, partially inspired by embroidery taught by French nuns, to the bold, geometric, and fully covered bands and plaits found throughout the Plains.  Colors too vary, with early dyes consisting of what was locally available such as shocking yellow wolf moss and orange bloodroot, to trade dyes brought by Europeans which introduced indigo blues, copper greens, and cochineal reds.  The advent of aniline dyes in the 1850s allowed for spectacularly cheerful colors such as magenta and teal, although unfortunately these early synthetics are severely faded and in some cases have gone completely white.  Azo dyes, which followed, were a little more light fast, and today some artists prefer to use drug store acid dyes such as Rit.

Quillworking is not easy business, and it is no surprise that beadworking took over with its immediacy, although it too requires skill and patience.  The first step, acquiring quills, takes some courage.  Some prefer to work from the hide of a killed porcupine, these days often relying on road kill for supplies, while others collect them from living animals.  Collecting from live animals requires a bit of moxy, and techniques range from tossing a blanket over the animal and pulling quills left behind in the textile, to holding it upside down by the tail and pulling off quills.  Porcupine quills are barbed like fish hooks, and once they go in one direction, sometimes the only thing to do is to push them out the other side.  Ouch.


At the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of the American Indian, where I have begun a two-year Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship in Textile Conservation we had the fortunate experience of inviting the conservator and quillworker Nancy Fonicello to our labs to teach us techniques in making and conserving some of the quillwork in our collection.  She brought with her a bin of quills pulled from a fresh hide, which we separated from the guard hairs and fur, sorted, cleaned, dyed, and worked into our own quillwork samplers.  We experimented with different dyes and techniques, and learned so much by doing as well as gaining a new appreciation for the mind-blowingly incredible work done by people in the past.  In some cultures, such as the Blackfeet, quillwork was considered a sacred art and performed only by the initiated.  While many cultures across the northern half of the continent practiced quillwork, it was overwhelmingly done by women.


Undyed quills with some residual guard hairs in the mix

Nancy shared her vast knowledge and skill with us throughout the consultation.  We dyed quills with materials that likely were used pre-contact, such as wolf moss Letharia vulipina, a chartreuse lichens that grows it the Pacific Northwest and produces a similar color, as well as Osage orange (Malcura pomifera) bark, and yellow dock (Rumex crispus) root.  The basic dye method, which used no mordants although may have in the past, if only as a result of leaching from copper or iron pots, was to bring the dyestuff to a boil in distilled water, strain, add the cleaned quills, and heat just below a simmer.  Times varied, but it is important not to boil the quills.  For some unknown reason, these yellow dyes created quills that were a bit stiff and stubborn to work with, even after soaking.

Experiments with wild grape produced an amazing color but no fastness onto the quills.  We did not use any mordants on our dyes, and achieved incredible colors on all but the grape juice.  Perhaps grapes require further processing such as fermentation or mordanting with metal salts or tannins.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

We also dyed quills with cochineal, native to the Americas but actually introduced via Europeans through a large trade loop.  By manipulating the pH of the dye bath, oranges (acidic) to purples (basic) could be achieved.


Cochineal with acidic (left to basic (right) dye bath

To achieve greens, we tried out some copper experiments.  There seem to be two methods to achieving the lovely turquoises and teals produced by copper, via acid or base.  We started with the acidic method, which involved simply leaving apple cider vinegar in a copper pot for a little over a week until a really lovely (but toxic) copper acetate solution developed.  Next the quills were added and heated, then let to cool and sit for another day or so.  The results were truly lovely, and some of the quills that looked a bit worse for wear dried into a fabulous range of colors.  The quills took distinctively different colors, from seafoam to teal, which may have been a result of oxidation (quills at the top of the pool), heat (quills at the bottom of the pool), or natural variation within the quills themselves.

Tests with urine were a little more lackluster.  This may have been our fault- instead of obtaining a large amount of urine and boiling it down (ick), we simply chucked some quills in the urine in a copper pot.  Little boy pee is apparently the best, and ours was just from one bladder-full, so not much volume.  Some thing the age has something to do with lack of hormones or purity, but it may just be that boys are easier to aim and small children might be easiest to control.  Our results were a much grayer blue-green.

Working with quills is not easy.  They must be soaked before worked, but not for too long or their structural integrity is compromised.  Some stitches require the quills, which are tubular, to be snipped at each end and flattened, while others must be carefully worked without crushing.  Typically quills are stitched onto brain-tanned hide, which is essential as it has a strong fiber structure that is lacking in modern chrome-tanned leather, or coiled around rawhide, hair, or fringe.  Looms are also used, and resemble today’s bead looms, which were adapted from quill looms.  Quilled hide bands can then be stitched onto clothing.  If a garment wears out, the quillwork band can be removed and added to a new one. The styles and techniques of quillworking are vast, and much of the traditional knowledge has been lost.  Only a few guides exist, and most of what is known today has been learned by studying objects rather than through passed-down knowledge.  There are not many active quillworkers today, and many are not of Native descent.

Learning about quillwork was endlessly interesting and I look forward to honing my skill.  Additionally, the process underscored how important it is to understand how something is made in order to fully appreciate its conservation needs.  Many of the treatments that Nancy has done rely on her deep understanding of techniques and impeccable skill at working with quills.  She is able to work safely and effectively on damaged quillwork, and always ensures that any added material is either removable or recognizable, and never removes any original material.  In this way she restores beauty to a fragile art form without compromising its integrity.  I look forward to using some of her techniques on objects that I will be working on during my time at NMAI and beyond.

In time, I also hope to share some basic quillworking stitches with you all on this blog as well.

Alkanet Root Dyeing

Alkanet dye is derived from the root of the Alkanna tinctoria plant, a lovely but unassuming plant with periwinkle flowers typical of other members of the Borage family.  Other names include anchusa, from the Greek anchousa, to paint, and its Latin name tinctoria similarly suggests its long history as a dye plant in Europe.  In India, where it is more commonly used in cooking, it is called Ratan Jot.  The colour produced ranges from wine reds to greyish blues, and has been used to dye plants, colour curries, stain woods, and ease the symptoms of leprosy.

The main colour compound is alkannin, which can range from red to violet depending on acidity.  It does not appear to be one of the most important historic dyes, although it has clearly been in some use.  This may be due to issues with lightfastness.  While orchil dyes also produce a purple that is notoriously prone to light fading, the colour it produces is more dramatic and vibrant, which may have been another point against the use of alkanet in the past.  Due to the questionable light fastness, I will not be offering fibres dyed with this yarn in my Etsy shop, and would encourage others to do the same.


Alkanet dye is not particularly soluble in water, and for best results an alcohol extraction is required.  I did this by filling a jar up with 100g of the chopped, dried roots that I purchased from George Weil and covering with really cheap vodka.  I left this for two months in a dark place, out of laziness rather than determination.

Dye should then be strained and enough water added so that the wool can move about in the dye pot.  I have to note that due to mental frailty caused by jetlag, I did not strain the fibres and for some cockamamie reason chucked it all in the pot together.  Do not do this unless you want to be picking out pieces of root from your wool for the rest of your days on this planet.


I dyed 155 grams of my handspun organic merino wool, which put me at about 65% WOF using all of the dye extracted from 100g of root.  I mordanted the wool in the bath with alum, using one heaping tablespoon of alum and cream of tartar.  As I’ve previously mentioned, volume is not my preferred method, but for the time being I lack a scale.


I diluted the dye liquor 1:3 with water, which with all the root pieces, was really not enough space to achieve an even dye.  I was worried about too much dilution, as I wanted a strong purple.  This, along with the debris, resulted in an uneven colour, which is admittedly not unpleasant.

I warmed the dye and kept just below a simmer for 45 minutes.  The deep purple colour did not start to develop until about a half hour in, up until which point it was a light, dull, blueish grey.  Mixing seemed to help.  As an aside, I wonder if there is some indigotin present in the root, as I noticed a change from purple to yellow as I decanted leftover liquor, which is typical of the oxidation reaction that occurs during indigo vat dyeing.

The yarn was pulled out, left to cool, and rinsed as per the usual procedure.

As mentioned, the skein was unevenly dyed, with some areas being more blueish and others more red.  In spots where a piece of root became imbedded into the wool, there was often a red stain.  It should knit up quite nicely, although there is still a smell about it that I can’t quite get behind.

Exhaust Dyeing

With the remaining, now strained liquor, I decided to see what would happen from an exhaust dye.  Using a portion of some self-striping yarn I was making, and had previously dyed a portion of with madder, placed part of a skein of organic merino wool into the leftover dye.  I followed the above procedure.

It is clear that alkanet gives most of its colour the first time around, and I only achieved a slightly purple light grey that I will likely dye over.


Self striping organic merino wool dyed with madder (red) and alkanet (grey). Alum mordant.


  • Poor lightfastness
  • Best extracted with alcohol
  • Lovely range of violets to dusty periwinkle with alum, more blackish greys with iron
  • Do not boil
  • Keep below simmer for 30-60 minutes
  • Good colour requires 60-150% WOF
  • Poor exhaust results


Note: WOF refers to weight of fibre, which is the amount (g) of dye/mordant/additive per weight (g) of fibre used.  Madder at 100% WOF would mean 100g of root for 100g of fibre, while 50% WOF means 50g madder root for 100g of fibre.

Things That Madder: Dyeing with Rubia tinctorum Roots


Madder (Rubia tinctorum), as a natural dye, has been around since at least 3,000 BCE. It, along with the usually cooler, more magenta insect dye cochineal, is responsible for most of the reds in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East before the invention of synthetics, and it held its ground into the 20th century. It’s the main component of the famous Turkey Red, coveted for its bright colour and supposed superior light fastness on the notoriously tricky to dye cotton fabrics.   The recipe was important enough to be kept a secret, although it slowly trickled through from Asia to Europe, where it became an important industry here in Glasgow by the 19th century. Although several compounds produce the orangey-pinks to scarlets, alizarin is the most prominent, of which a synthetic version was developed in 1826.

My recent bout of tonsillitis provided a great chance to play around with madder I had lying around. I started with 300g of spun wool fibre, consisting of wool, although one skein had a combination of 68 grams of wool and 15 grams of soysilk. The breeds were blue-faced Leicester (BFL), and organic merino, both of which are considered luxury breeds for their softness, lustre, and warmth.   The BFL, sourced from the UK, had a much creamier colour, while the organic merino was very pure white.


I used an alum mordant, and opted for an imperial/volume ratio of 4 tablespoons alum, 4 tablespoons cream of tartar, and 4 gallons of water per pound wool. I generally prefer weight as it is more accurate, but a scale was not available. C’est la vie. With 300g of fibre, that worked out to 3 tablespoons each and about 3 gallons of water, but let’s be honest, I didn’t measure the latter.


I added my pre-soaked, pre-scoured yarn to a bath of hot water with the above measured ingredients, already dissolved. This was brought up to a simmer slowly then simmered for about 30 additional minutes. Apparently the “natural” soysilk had been dyed a cream colour, and it turned the skein it was spun into a pleasant pale pink.

Madder Dyeing

Dye Preparation

Following from Gwen Fereday’s instructions from Natural Dyes (2003, British Museum Press), I took my 100g powdered madder from George Weil and slowly added water to make a paste. I used hot water, although in retrospect I wonder if I should have used cold. This looked like brownie batter, and it was very difficult not to eat. I transferred the paste to a metal pot with the help of a silicone spatula, and added about a litre of cold water.


This was placed on low heat and brought to a low simmer. Fereday warns not to boil, as this will give a more yellow, dull red. She didn’t say how long to do this for, but at 20 minutes bubbles were just starting to percolate and the whole mixture was very red, so I turned off the heat but left it on the burner to continue to do its magic for another 10 minutes before removing to cool.


Again following Fereday’s recipe, I diluted the dyebath to enough liquid to cover my fibres, brought slowly to a simmer for one hour, and then kept at or just below a simmer for an additional hour, making sure never to boil. The main dyepot had 150 grams of fibre in it, and I scooped out about a cup or two for dip dyeing skeins in an ombre and self-striping technique.

preparing dye liquor: madder root powder in the dyepot

self-striping dye with madder

Afterwards, I lifted the wool out with tongs, let cool, and rinsed thoroughly, making sure not to wring or felt the fibres.  Because the root was powdered, rinsing took quite a while.  Skeins were squeezed in a towel and hung to dry.

after dyeing with madder, ready to rinse

The results were a bright, rich orange-red, and even the soysilk was dyed, which was a surprise since this is a cellulosic fibre.

wool and soysilk dyed with madder and alum mordant

Before dyeing, I wrapped one of the skeins cotton twine at regular intervals in order to create a resist dye technique. It worked quite well, and I am now considering if and what I want to overdye with. I will also be contemplating what other dyes to use on my ombre and self-striping skeins. I have alkanet, weld, and a reduced indigo/pomegranate, so I’m looking at purple, yellow, or blue-green. My vote is for alkanet, but that requires some preparation, most likely alcohol extraction.

I froze my remaining exhaust dye liquor, which wasn’t huge in volume at this point, for later experimentation should I chose do go for it.

Two of these skeins are available here and here at my shop, Quercus Fibers.



Dyeing with Annatto- Orange You Glad I Hate Cheesy Puns?


Annatto is most commonly used today to dye foods rather than textiles. In fact, it is responsible for the classic orange colour in American cheddar cheeses, and that bright hue can also be applied to textile fibres.

Bixa orellana, known as annatto in English (roucou in French, and orlean in German and Dutch), is native to Central America. It has historically been used as a dye in the Americas, with evidence of its use spanning back to ancient Peruvian graves.  It entered the European market at the close of the 16th century. It never became an economically important dye, however, although it did have home use. While easy to use, annatto is not particularly lightfast, and like orcein dyes, has a history of being outlawed by dyer’s guilds.

The main chromatophoric (coloured) chemical component of annatto is bixin, which is isolated from the small fruits of the tropical shrub. Depending on the concentration, mordant, textile makeup, and length of dye, the colour can range from orange to red. One such colour, typically used on silk, was known as aurora or morning red, and evokes the brilliance that can be obtained.

IMG_0031Dye Experiment

Always wanting to try my own hand at things, I took it upon myself to dye some blue-faced Leicester (BFL) wool yarn that I had previously spun on my handy top whorl drop spindle. I used whole annatto seeds and an alum mordant. While annatto can be used as a direct dye, that is one without the chemical binder known as a mordant, it is possible that the use of alum can provide a more even distribution and better colourfastness. It also appears that annatto, like many dyes, was fermented before use in the past, but I believe my seeds were simply dried.

Recipe and Procedure

2 skeins BFL handspun yarn, totalling 160 g, mordanted with 15% weight of fibre (WOF) alum and 8% WOF cream of tartar (done by these methods).
100 g whole annatto seeds
Tap water (unknown pH, from a soft water source)


First, I brought 100g of whole annatto seeds in water up to a gentle simmer. After just over an hour of hovering between 90-100°C, I let it cool slightly and strained the seeds out. I returned the dye liquor to the bath, added enough water to fully cover my yarn, and added two skeins of still-wet alum mordanted fibre.


After a low simmer for about an hour, I was dissatisfied with the depth of colour, despite having read that a 1:2 dyestuff to fibre weight was adequate. I decided to grind up the annatto berries, place them in a pantyhose foot, and return them to the dye bath with the yarn. While this may have contributed to unevenness of colour, I found it to create a much deeper shade. I tried to gently turn the fibres throughout the process, but still ended up with darker areas. Which looks nice, so no worries there.

I let the dye liquor and yarn barely simmer for about three hours, then killed the heat and let the yarn sit for another 4 hours, turning occasionally.

Afterwards, I did the usual rinsing, adding a small amount of soap to the rinse to encourage out any excess dye.

Exhaust bath


Not wanting to waste anything, and curious about the result, I did a cold exhaust dip dye on another 80g skein of handspun BFL. This was a simple procedure, which just involved taking the remaining liquor, pouring it into a pickle jar, and placing one end of a dampened alum mordanted skein (15% WOF alum 8% WOF cream of tartar) in it. I left it for about 10 hours before removing and rinsing.


The colour is pretty lovely, and in the future if I dye with annatto I will grind the seeds up right off the bat to ensure that more of the bixin is released into the dye liquor. My main concerns, however, are about light fastness, which unfortunately I only discovered after my dyeing was already underway.


First dye bath with annatto and alum mordant

The exhaust bath created a pleasant, if very mild creamy orange. I will play around with this skein more and see what colourway I can come up with.


Exhaust dye cold bath (alum mordant)

Sources and Further Reading

Maiwa Guide to Natural Dyes http://maiwahandprints.blogspot.co.uk/p/guide-to-natural-dyes.html

Grackle & Sun: Dye Day #1 Results: Annatto Seeds https://grackleandsun.wordpress.com/2012/07/09/dye-day-1-results-annatto-seeds/

Hofenk de Graaf, J. A. Natural Dyestuffs: Origin, Chemical Constitution, Identification. International Council of Museums Committee for Conservation (ICOM CC) September 15-19 1969, Amsterdam: Central Research Laboratory for Objects of Art and Science

Bobbin Lace

IMG_2902Bobbin lace has been a serious bucket list textile technique of mine. Unlike tatting, filet, crochet, and needle lace, which rely on a single thread worked in a series of knots and loops, bobbin lace is created from a series of threads that interweave around each other. Think a cross between macramé and weaving. These threads are wound around small bobbins, traditionally made out of wood or bone but now commonly of plastic, giving the technique its name.

17th century bobbin lace collar

Portrait of a Lady. French School, Early 17th century. Oil on Panel Christies (www.christies.com)

Bobbin lace seemed to gain popularity in the early 17th century as an edging for collars, cuffs, and gloves. While larger panels of bobbin lace can be made, the technique lends itself particularly well to long borders. Different styles of lace eventually developed, originally named for the place where they were first made but later simply donated a particular aesthetic. Bobbin lace, like many other lace-making techniques, began its demise in the 1870s when machine lace was introduced.

I embarked on my bobbin lace journey earlier this month, when my starter kit package fiiiiinally arrived. It consisted of the necessary tools to get started: a covered “pillow” (cloth-covered foam block), pins, cotton thread, 5 pairs of bobbins, a pricker, and a small instruction booklet. I combined the first few projects to make a little sampler of the stitches.

Bobbin lace is mainly constructed of variations of two stitches, Half and Whole, to produce a variety of textures from the woven Cloth Stitch to the pretty octagon net of Torchon Ground. The challenge lies in keeping straight what each bobbin is doing, and preventing a catastrophic disaster that would tangle them all together. I confess to making a mistake or two in these first projects, but hopefully you won’t spot them.

The lace is constructed from a pricking, which is essentially a pattern with little holes in it to indicate where to place your pins. Thread is wound around bobbins in pairs, which are worked downward and secured with pins.

Making a bobbin lace pricking

Making a bobbin lace pricking

In-progress bobbin lace.  Yes those are clothes pins!  I ran out of proper bobbins.

In-progress bobbin lace. Yes those are clothes pins! I ran out of proper bobbins.

Bobbin lace in progress

Ready to be tied off and pins removed.

Hard work is rewarded!  This sample shows cloth stitch diamonds on a Torchon ground.

Hard work is rewarded! This sample shows cloth stitch diamonds on a Torchon ground.

After a little more practice, I would be delighted to provide a tutorial!

Further Reading

The Lace Guild – Great information on many forms of lacemaking

Kantcentrum – Really cool resource from Belgium lace centre.  Make digital bobbin lace or browse their lessons.

Natural Dyeing- Comparing Mordants

Natural dye tests with alum and iron on silk and wool

Synthetic dyes have only been around for about 150 years, which is relatively short in the timeline of textiles. Dyeing with plants, lichens, and insects has been practiced for at least 4,500 years. Although textiles are notoriously absent from the archaeological record, some conditions have allowed for the preservation of fabric that still retains evidence of being dyed. Early Iron Age bog finds from Northern Europe and woven textile scraps from the Hallstatt salt mines in Austria dating from as early as the Bronze Age show the use of natural dyes. In ancient Egypt, cloth from about 2500 BCE has been found to contain dyes, and additional records of dye recipes support the existence of the practice. It is likely that people had been experimenting with dyeing for much longer than this.

While the use of natural dyes is uncommon as a conservation technique due to their unpredictability, it is important to understand the process and its conservation implications. Dye fading, usually by light and UV, can erase or dramatically alter original colours in both natural and synthetic dyes. Seeing what an original colour may have looked like before time took its toll is informative, although it must be noted that the actual hue produced can be incredibly variable based on the species, origin, and growing conditions of the dye material as well as an almost infinite combination of dye processes and recipes that depend on concentration, impurities in water, temperature, dyeing times, and nearly any factor imaginable. Undertaking your own dye experiments certainly gives an appreciation for the expertise of dyers from the past!

Fabric is generally dyed by one of three processes: direct, mordant, or vat dyeing. Direct dyeing is the most straightforward, requiring only the fabric, water, and the dyestuff. Turmeric is a common example of this, although it should be noted that it has poor light-fastness, which means that it is likely to fade when exposed to any source of light, natural or artificial. Vat dyes, such as indigo and woad, rely on a more complex chemical process that allows a dye compound that is originally insoluble in water to chemically change and become attached to the fibre.

Mordants, from the French mordre, or “to bite,” are compounds that bind to both the fabric and dye compound, creating a bond strong enough to prevent the dye from being washed away and result in fading or loss. While these compounds are usually metal salts such as iron, tin, and alum, tannic acid has also been used.

The choice of mordant affects both the colour achieved and the strength of the fibre itself. Iron is what is called a “saddening” mordant, as it tends to produce colours that are duller, cooler, and darker than alum, even when the same dyestuff is used. It can be utilised to produce the somewhat elusive black. Unfortunately, iron mordants often cause weakness within the fibre. This can sometimes be seen in printed textiles and tapestries when only a certain colour such as black or yellow appears to have deteriorated.

Despite the impressive range of hues achieved in historic textiles, the number of dyes actually utilised is relatively small. For one of our last days of the term, we got the chance to play around with some of these dyes. In addition to dyeing cotton with indigo, we also carried out mordant dyeing with iron and alum on wool and silk. For reds, we tried the oft-used madder root and the insect dye cochineal. We also tried out old fustic for yellow and logwood, which was often used to produce a range of blues, purples, greys, and blacks.

Madder root

Dried madder root, used in dyeing oranges and reds.

The end result was an interesting comparison between mordants and materials. Side-by-side, it was easy to see the “saddening” effect of the iron mordant, which produced a more sombre set of colours than the cheerful red, yellow, and orange created by the alum mordanted fibres. The rich red and sunny orange produced from cochineal and madder on alum turned to a warm brown and blue-grey with iron. The silk, with its smooth and glossy surface lent a lustrous richness to the colours that was dampened by the rough surface of the wool fibres.

It was interesting to be able to sense the weakness introduced by iron mordanting even on new fibres. The wool in particular seemed “fuzzier” than its alum counterpart, and it was easy to see how the fibres would be more prone to breakage. Despite some of the beautiful complex colours created by the iron mordant, this experiment has actually nudged me away from using iron in my personal dyeing, as I have concerns for the longevity of my products.

Although I have done some natural dyeing myself, each time is a learning process. Of the four mordant dyes, I had only ever used madder with alum, and actually achieved a much calmer red as compared to the bright orange that we got in the lab. That alone highlights what is so difficult but interesting about natural dyes. The unpredictable nature is both nerve-wracking and delightful. I am looking forward to using beautiful, rich cochineal and subtle logwood purple in future projects, as well as trying more overdyeing combinations.

For a little more dye history and chemistry:

Natural History Museum – Seeds of Trade

Encyclopaedia Britannica – Dye

Some more on natural dyeing:

Paradise City Homestead- Dyeing with Marigold. Although marigold isn’t an historically important dye, it does produce a beautiful, cheery golden yellow with alum on wool.

Knitting a Grocery Bag, Free Style

Net Knit Grocery BagYou can never have enough reusable shopping bags! I love making these- it’s so easy to do, and it’s a great way to us up whatever cotton you have lying around. Now that it costs 5p per shopping bag up here in the land of tea and biscuits, there’s an extra little incentive to make some of these up and stash them around.

This isn’t a pattern, per se, but a (hopefully easy) guide to get you to whip up some nice, useful net bags. In terms of material, you want something strong with low elasticity – that means cellulose, so go for cotton, ramie, linen, viscose, etc. I would suggest that if you go below a sport/4-ply weight to simply double up your yarn.

Sorry I can’t estimate yardage for you! I used some scraps and a ball of Rowan Siena 4 Ply cotton (50g 140m/153yds) for this. The body of my bag, excluding handles, measures about 13 x 12 inches (30 x 33cm) un-stretched.

Note your bag will expand 25-50% when full!


Cotton or other strong, low-elasticity yarn, any gauge (DK-chunky is best, double up finer yarns), 1-4 balls

Circular knitting needles, 30-60cm/ 9-16”, up to three sizes bigger than what your yarn would recommend.

Notes on Construction

This bag is simple to make. First just knit a rectangle, pick up all the edge stitches, then knit upwards in a net pattern.


Cast on enough stitches to get about 8”/ 20cm in stockinette. I started with 34 in the above bag.

Knit in stockinette for about 5”/12.5cm.

At the end of your last right side row, continue around the perimeter of the rectangle, picking up and knitting stitches. Pick up and knit 2 of every 3 on the sides, while picking up the same number of stitches cast on along the bottom.


Join circle, place marker and begin knitting in round.

The entire body is knit in net as follows:

Row 1: K2tog, YO*

Row 1: Knit

When the desired length is met (keeping in mind it can get pretty stretchy!), knit about 1”/2.5cm of k1 p1 rib.

Handle and Finishing

Bind off all but last 5-9 sts, depding on gauge and desired length of handle. Continue knitting these stitches in k1p1 rib until handle measures about 15”/38cm or desired length. Join to opposite side with kitchener or preferred stitch.

Weave in ends.

You may have noticed that this is leftover yarn from my cotton jumper!  This is the perfect kind of project for that.

Purl Bee Elisa’s Nest Tote – I have also made this tote. I found it a little awkward to use, but the i-cord edging/handle is a great idea.  I personally found the two handles to be a bit poorly placed, but maybe that’s just me!

Designing Garments: Tips, Techniques, and Personal Experiences


I have finally designed and knit something that turned out exactly how I wanted it to. How novel.

Designing my own knit garments has been an evolving process. The challenge for me is twofold- first creating a specific enough plan and design, down to all the details and measurements, and then following through by properly carrying out my own design. This may seem obvious, but it is more difficult to master than I thought! Often I draw a loose sketch of what I want and spend too little time planning my gage, measurements, where and when to increase or decrease, and how things will ultimately fit together. This results in a waste of time and materials when I either have to repeatedly undo a section as I revert trial and error as my main technique or end up with a product that I am unhappy with.

This jumper is one of my success stories! I do confess to re-doing a few sections and altering my plan, but I am also happy with myself for doing so. Instead of just hoping that things would turn out in the end, I was a little more critical along the way and kept checking my measurements against my plan, my body, and a sweater of similar shape that I already owned.

I tried to draw upon what I already knew as a knitter, as well as incorporate details into the piece that would elevate it to something special. The sleeves are set-in cap sleeves with a picot edge, which is a technique I had used in the past. However, when faced with making a collar, I decided to try double-knitting, which I had never applied to that use before.   I think that it worked very successfully, as it reduced curling from stockinette stitch while providing a thicker fabric so that the collar had more substance and lay better against the body.

Double knit collar, showing underside in green

Double knit collar, showing underside in green

I cannot provide a full pattern to share, as my notes are a bit haphazard and I enjoy having an unique item, but I am happy to share my experiences and some tips and tricks if you embark on your own attempt at design.  For reference, this was knit in Rowan Sienna 4-ply, a discontinued mercerised cotton yarn.  Also, as a bonus I will be happy to give you the colourwork chart that I designed for this jumper for use in your own projects!

Screen Shot 2014-11-25 at 16.58.17


First off, make sure that your initial design is specific, down to the various measurements. It is certainly possible to make some changes along the way, but it if you want a garment that has a cohesive feel to it, start with a real plan. If you are going to make picot edge sleeves, do you want to picot the bottom or your jumper? It will be more difficult to make this happen later. What is the neckline or collar, and how does it relate to the overall design of the garment? Should sleeves be set in or raglan? Are you willing to spend the time doing some trigonometry to properly calculate your sleeve hole (armscye)? What ways does construction best enhance your design – top up or down, knit in round, pieces, darts, etc.?

I know it may seem like too much time spent doing the part that isn’t knitting, but it is really crucial! If all this is too much, perhaps start with a pattern that you know and modify it with colourwork or stitch, or try changing a detail like the sleeves or collar.


Choose your materials carefully, taking into consideration the fibre, spin, and weight and how it will enhance your design. Different fibres and spins have varying levels of sheen, elasticity, weight, warmth, and drape. If you choose poorly, or try to pick an option only because it is affordable, you may end up not even using the end product that you spent so much time on!

Check your gauge. No really, check your gauge. If you have any colourwork or different stitches, make sure to do a generous swatch up. I had to redo almost the entire back of this jumper because I failed to appreciate the amount that knit fabric tends to draw in during colourwork.

Techniques and Structure:

Decide before you start how exactly you will construct it. How many pieces do you need, and where do they connect? Should any stitches be left “live” and kitchener stitched or spliced, or should all edges be bound on and off? In colourwork, does intarsia or stranded fair-isle make more sense? If your design motifs are farther apart than an inch or two, I recommend intarsia, even if it may seem a little extra work. It will save you in the end!

Keep in mind as you go:

As you are making your garment, keep checking to ensure that your measurements match up. If possible, try it on at various stages. This can be done by loosely basting pieces together to give a true sense of how it will fit. If you have similarly shaped garments, try laying your knitting on top of it to see how it relates to that shape.

Be critical of your design and process. If you begin to encounter a problem, or foresee an element becoming an issue in the future, stop and think! Don’t waste your time working on something you’ll have to take out later just because you can’t be bothered to reconsider your design. If you do make changes, think those through as well, and don’t fail to take the proper time to work out all your calculations properly.  Remember to stay flexible with your project, be critical of your initial ideas, and be proud of your final product.

Good luck!

Good luck!

Want to go further? Here are some tools that will help you realise your design!


Armscye Calculator

The Knitting Fiend/Diet Diary: How to Design a Sleeve Cap

Helpful Books:

Vogue Knitting Stitchionary Volume One: Knit & Purl

Vogue Knitting Stitchionary Volume Two: Cables

Vogue Knitting Stitchionary Volume Three: Color Knitting

Knitwear Design Workshop: A Comprehensive Guide to Handknits

Disclaimer: I am an Amazon affiliate.  I recommend these books, but I do get a small fee if you buy them on Amazon.  Feel free to check out your library, independent, or used bookstore!