The Hat from Hell

I have a small confession to make. In all honesty I’m not a natural-born knitter. The family tree weighs heavy on all branches with generations of wool-workers but the skill by-passed me….or so I thought.

Dad, big sister and Dana all wearing family made hand-knits, early 1970's.
Big sister, Dad and Dana all wearing family made hand-knits, early 1970’s.

Once upon a time, the school days of young Dana were happy and carefree. Inspiring teachers (mostly), forging new friendships and plenty time for creative play in makeshift dens out of adult sight. All very pure and idyllic really. My perfect day in the classroom would be doing art. Anything with paint, pipe-cleaners or polystyrene. But knitting was the one craft subject on the calendar that caused my fingers to freeze and a hard pellet of fear to form in my stomach.

At age 10 the regulations of curriculum stated that a practical garment had to be knitted. I chose a striped hat pattern in Papal purple and Arctic white – I’ve yet to see this pairing catch on as a significant colour trend. Weeks stretched into months and as my friends moved onto new craft projects of embroidered apron and patchwork bag I was still labouring with the Hat from Hell. I didn’t call it that back then as bad language didn’t exist in my 1977 world of innocence.

To my shame by the silver jubilee Summer I had abandoned all desire to complete the HFH but it was my patient Mum who finished it in her hospital bed whilst recovering from major surgery. I handed the pathetic, tight and twisted mass of acrylic over with glee, forever rid of the purple and white demon. My novice knitting career had ground to an abrupt halt and I was delighted. Where is the HFH now? Could be layered in pre-recycling landfill at the municipal dump or nestling on a charity shop shelf. I’ve done a rough drawing in case you spot it.

The Hat from Hell drawn from my imagination.
The Hat from Hell drawn from my imagination.

Cast forward ten years and I was planted at arts school in Aberdeen during the oil boom era. Not so innocent and living the student life of sporadic study, heavy duty socialising and intense nightshifts in the studio as project deadlines approached. One module focused on the knitting machine and I discovered my perfect solution to constructing a garment. Fast, flexible and endless options for making elaborate frou-frou outfits perfect for the late 1980’s style of head to toe exaggeration.

A competition loomed to allow textile students from throughout Scotland to showcase their flair for the ridiculous.   Yarn was donated by industry and although denied my original choice of cashmere I was happy with a fine combination of navy and beige lambswool (no purple/white combo this time!)

Influenced by a cleaner, sporty look I created a one-piece romper overprinted with thistle motifs and a pair of thigh length stockings to cover the bare flesh and modesty of the wearer. The grand finale was held in Edinburgh where you had to present your design to a judging panel in the morning followed by a catwalk show and awards ceremony in the evening.

Detail for the student Thistle Outfit, late 1980's
Detail for the student Thistle Outfit, late 1980’s

Competition was fierce yet friendly as it was a rare opportunity to meet other textile students and see their creative wares.   I recall one judge making the comment “You should really consider a career in the Industry” – I smiled and nodded but thought ‘no chance am I going to work for The Man’. My student headspace was cluttered with ideas of community activism and self-direction in the creative arts. I wore Doc Martens and denim, not Next formal.

The Thistle Outfit modelled in 2013 by Mairi for a fundraising fashion show. Photo by Anne C. Monk

With no expectations of winning I sat back and enjoyed the catwalk parade. The big prizes went to other colleges – well deserved from memory – but some miracle occurred and my outfit marched back onto the platform as a Highly Commended. My disbelieving jaw dropped open and the legs turned to mush as I was pushed onto the stage to accept the accolade. I still feel that moment and basking in glory on the minibus home. I may have had a tin of cheap lager to celebrate. But never worked with a machine knitting again.

Now whizz forward 30 years to 2017. I’ve helped establish a Mill that can spin magical yarns and I work with people who are Ace Knitters. Surely I can make it third time lucky and become a master of the art of knitting? What did I start with? Nothing requiring shape, arms, necks or any complicated actions. The answer – a cushion cover. I’ve made three now in a combination of colourways but latterly with with CALMADEO and SITH

There was a danger of growing comfortable with this level of skill and our home would mutate into Cushion World but my talented co-workers had other plans. With their encouragement and technical support I’m moving up the league and getting mentally prepared to tackle ‘Nuuk’ by Jonna Hietala using FRAS by Uist Wool.   I’ll keep you posted loyal readers….but it might take some time.


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