Tuesday, 22 October 2013

An interview with Nicki Merrall - up and coming knit designer

I first met Nicki at a City & Guilds gathering this past summer, after a visit to the Kaffe Fassett show at the Fashion and Textile Museum. She told me some of her story, of how she's making a change in career from scientist to textile artist. I'm sure it will provide a source of inspiration for other craftspeople or aspiring craftspeople out there and I'm pleased to be able to share more of it here, as Nicki kindly agreed to an interview. I've included a photo here of her 'Magic of the Circus' clutch bag, which is featured in the current issue (64) of 'The Knitter'.

Photograph (c) The Knitter and used for review purposes

There are some more photos of Nicki's work at the end of the interview, along with her contact details. So here we go:

1. What made you start out in life as a biologist? 
Strictly speaking, I wasn't a biologist, but a biochemist! My O-level maths teacher asked me what I wanted to study at university, and I probably shocked her with my reply, since I didn't actually know what a university was! I didn't know anyone who had been to university. Once she had explained, I think my first thought was something design-related, but my father wanted me to do "something that would lead to a proper job"! My maths teacher suggested that, since I didn't want to do maths, but had an aptitude for fine detail, I might like microbiology, genetics or biochemistry, so after much research I choose biochemistry, and I loved it! I worked in research for a few years, then moved back to the UK and became a biology teacher.

2. Where did the desire to become a knitwear designer come from?
I don't remember starting to design and make things; It's just something I've always done, and for me is part of life. Ironically, the one thing I could not do was knitting. Family members did try to teach me, but every time they looked away, I just got tied in knots! In my late teens, I decided that since I could sew, embroider and crochet I ought to be able to knit, so I borrowed a knitting book from the library. There was one sentence which solved my problem, "if you are left-handed" ... I am, and so I taught myself mirror knitting and knitting rapidly became a passion. Many years ago I joined a knitting group. Each month we had a theme: slip stitches, mitred squares, borders, and so on. We bought along stitch dictionaries and patterns, swapped ideas, taught each other and experimented. I really enjoyed switching and designing and became frustrated by having so many ideas and no time to develop them.

3. How are you making the transition from biologist to designer?
Initially, I went to workshops by well known knit designers, but eventually exhausted these. A neighbour, who was a lecturer at the local school of Art and Design, invited me to the MA exhibition there and suggested that I apply to do an MA. I had plenty of reasons why not: I hadn't done a foundation course, or a design degree, I hadn't even done O-level art, but the idea was planted, and the urge to change grew stronger. I discovered that Nottingham Trent University offered one year undergraduate courses to help people with design experience, but no formal qualifications progress to a Masters. The time was right for me career-wise, since I wanted to change jobs, but there were no more promoted posts that interested me. So I took the plunge and became a student again. I completed my Masters degree in 2012 and started to sell hand knit designs and teach hand knit and crochet in January 2013. Along side this, I'm working on a City & Guilds Hand Knit Textiles course which is great for filling in the gaps that occur when you've not taken the usual route.

4. Would you say that your earlier career influences your designs?
Not intentionally, but the influence is more subliminal! I've no doubt that had I done this straight from school, my approach and designs would have been very different. The strongest influence is in the approach to my Masters work. I had to learn to programme fully-computerised knitting machines, and since I wanted to make shapes and forms rather than garments, I had to work out how this might be done. My approach was methodical and scientific - effectively I carried out a series of experiments until I had sufficient knowledge to write programmes for the pieces I wanted to make.

5. Where do you find your starting points for designs - is there anything you are particularly influenced by?
Usually I'm influenced by something visual; that might be from nature, or art or textiles from another culture. I suppose this is where the biochemistry influences my design, since I have a visual knowledge of biochemical and microbiological forms. Once you start looking you see similar things in several unrelated sources, so one of my MA pieces uses tessellating hexagons, originally inspired by natural forms such as radiolarians, basalt columns and honeycombs, but also seen a lot in patchwork as well as Islamic art, the work of Gaudi and Owen Jones. I love visiting museums and art galleries, such The Victoria and Albert Museum, The Natural History Museum, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, the Burrell Collection and Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Whenever I travel I try to visit local museums; I loved the Ethnography and Arts Crafts Museum in Lviv - I couldn't understand a word, but was so inspired by the costume collection. I just wish I had taken more photos!

6. What's your favourite technique - cable, fairisle, intarsia for examples - and do you prefer hand or machine knit?
I love the physicality of hand knit; it is so relaxing to do. I love cables and Fair Isle; once you have mastered the techniques they are quite addictive! And I love the design possibilities of mitred polygons. In many ways hand knit is more versatile than machine knit; the main limitations are speed and the technical skills of the knitter. Machine knit has different limitations. Machines can use very fine yarns, and knit simple fabrics very quickly, but they soon slow down once colour changes, textural stitches or shaping are introduced, which is why so many mass-produced garments are very simple. To see the best of machine knit you do have to look at high-end designer garments. Industrial fully-computerised knitting machines can produce amazing fabrics because they can be programmed to use different techniques across a row, in the way that a skilled hand knitter might work. However just because one can programme a particular design, it does not follow that the machine will be able to knit it. The skill lies in knowing how to change the programme and adjust the machine settings. I like being able to use both hand and machine knit, since techniques from one inspire ideas in the other. My MA work started with hand knit techniques and moved to machine knit, which enabled me to quickly acquire a lot of knowledge. Now, I'm taking some of those ideas and using them in hand knit.

7. What are your favourite yarns to use? 
Most definitely natural fibres, particularly woolly ones. Hand knit is a sensual process, and I love the feel of wool, and the way it takes colour. And I really feel the cold, so I have to wear a lot of wool to keep warm. It took a long while for me to appreciate the qualities of the monofilament I used for my MA work; I tried really hard to find an alternative, but I wanted an ethereal look to the pieces, and for them to hold their own three-dimensional forms. Once I had worked out how to knit with it on a machine it was an obvious choice.

8. Do you have any favourite established knit designers and who are they? 
The first knit designer I heard of was Kaffe Fassett who inspired my love of colour knitting. Alice Starmore inspired a fascination with traditional hand knit techniques and Fair Isle design. Norah Gaughan influenced the starting point for my MA research. I stumbled across Unexpected Knitting by Debbie New, and was blown away by the quality and variety of her work which encourages me to design both garments and art pieces as well.

9. How did the pattern in The Knitter come about?
I was inspired by concentric shapes and layers in agate samples at The Natural History Museum The colours were surprisingly bright, so I sampled knitted hexagons and chevrons using a suitable Noro yarn. The colours and shapes made me think of the fun and spectacle of the circus, hence the name.

10. Where do you plan to take your knitting next?
I'm planning many more hand knit designs, both self-published and in magazines, as well as kits. I hope to do some hand knit art pieces, if only I could knit faster! I'd really love to develop my MA pieces further; I just need access to programming and knitting facilities to do this.

Nicki Merrall Artist, designer & tutor specialising in knit &; crochet
Website - www.nickimerrall.co.uk
Blog - www.nickimerrall.co.uk/beingknitterly/
Facebook - https://www.facebook.com/NickiMerrallDesigns
Pinterest - http://pinterest.com/beingknitterly/
Ravelry - www.ravelry.com/designers/nicki-merrall
Twitter - https://twitter.com/BeingKnitterly

Nicki's Twisted Cowl and Hat, both self-published handknitting patterns

Nicki's machine knit MA installation work 
Thanks so much Nicki and look forward to seeing how things develop.  You can see Nicki's work at a current exhibition in Leicester.

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