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An Interview with Mason-Dixon Knitting, Part 1

Today, I’m talking to Kay Gardiner and Ann Shayne of Mason-Dixon Knitting, who have a new book coming out on September 16th. First, let me welcome you to Knitting Scholar. I’m honored to have you as my first guests!

  • We’re tickled to be here (wherever “here” is.)
    (Editor’s Note: That would be New Jersey.)

I’m looking forward to seeing your new book, Mason-Dixon Knitting: Outside the Lines. You hinted on your blog that there are items that not only are not square, but which have sleeves. Is this true, or just a nasty rumor? What can we expect?

  • Kay: Ann and I are responsible for some sleeves, all right, but the big sleeve-makers in this book are three of our contributors: Mary Neal Meador, Bonne Marie Burns and Mercedes Tarasovich-Clark. These women are on the cutting edge of putting sleeves on knits. They designed pieces that are both gorgeous to wear and fun to knit.
  • Ann: Yes, there are sleeves, but there is a little bit of everything in this book. We were shooting for a mix of projects that would give knitters something to make no matter what their mood: looking for adventure, in need of comfort knitting, on a quest for a little meditation, or in a hurry to crank out a present.

There were a number of patterns in your first book that practically took on lives of their own. The Ballband Dishcloth, for example, just exploded. Last time I checked, there were 3,277 projects for that pattern alone over at Ravelry. What project out of the new book do you think is most likely to explode in popularity like that?

  • Kay: We have no idea whatsoever. If we guessed we’d be wrong. As much as we love the Ballband ourselves, we never knew it would strike such a chord. The new book has some tasty snack items that may have that instant-gratification factor that the Ballband has, but I’m not even sure that that’s the reason people love the Ballband. It’s just….the Ballband!

How is this book most UNLIKE the first book? What do you think will be the biggest surprise?

  • Kay: If we told you the biggest surprise, it wouldn’t be a surprise anymore! In both books, we knit, and write about, things that are exciting to us right now, at the time we are putting the book together. It’s very organic. Nobody gave us a list of requirements for either book, which is what made the process so fun for us, both times. We just went whole hog with whatever was lighting our fire at the moment. I think some readers of the second book will be surprised that I am capable of knitting something requiring more memory than garter stitch. In truth, garter stitch was something that I rediscovered, like a whole new thing, after I had been knitting sweaters for years. This time Ann really went to town with Fair Isle, her life’s grand passion. (Her knitting life’s grand passion.) In both books, I think we are, consciously or unconsciously, trying to bring out the unexpected possibilities of types of knitting that people think they already know about.
  • Ann: I think this book is more populated than the first. We had an amazing time working with the models in this book, all of whom are friends and friends of friends and in one hairy case, a fleeting, anonymous encounter. All the clothes in this book required humans to model them, and we really enjoyed making that happen.

Do you have a favorite pattern? Or do you love them all equally?

  • Kay: I have a special fondness for the Margaret Sweater by Mary Neal Meador. It’s magical. It’s like something out of a fairy tale, it’s like a relic of another age, which you can also wear to the grocery store. I’m also soft in the head about homey/cozy/kitschy kitchen things, so I love the crazy oven mitts. They came to me in a vision. But if you ask me tomorrow, I’d likely pick other projects. I’m fickle.
  • Ann: I feel like my nine year old in the skateboard shop when he announces that he wants ALL the skateboards. I like all the projects a lot. We did a fair amount of culling as we went, so the final test for us was, in the end, a simple question of which patterns we loved the most. I’m already scheming up some hybrids that use one technique for another pattern in the book, so I’m to have some (lovely) (not creepy) Frankenstein moments in the coming weeks.

You mentioned in your first book that you’re not a fan of scarves as first projects, that “the insane euphoria of starting out tends to bog down once you start to get the hang of it, and the demoralizing second half of a scarf can suck the joy out of the whole idea.” I entirely agree with that (and it’s one of the reasons that I think I’ve completed exactly one scarf in my knitting career). But, if a scarf seems endless, isn’t an entire blanket even worse? It’s just as long, but a whole lot wider and presumably a lot more endless, but you have such gorgeous afghan patterns … can you explain that?

  • Kay: I think it’s a question of scale. Knitting something huge–something that is 10 scarves worth or more– feels like a mission to the North Pole. I get really excited about getting to the finish line. I also tend to use these large scale projects as something to center me and occupy my hands while I’m doing something tedious like a long subway ride.
  • Ann: Remember, the key here is “first project.” A scarf may be a bad first project, but man, once you get the fever, a blanket is not a problem. It’s simply more of that thing you love to do. And the blankets I’ve made really are daily treasures.

Do you have any tricks for getting a project past that “Even my knitting needles are bored” hump? Or do those projects get abandoned?

  • Kay: I sometimes put things aside for a while if my enthusiasm lags, or more likely, if I get swept up in a new project. (This happens all the time, and for me it’s part of the joy of knitting–the Next Great Knit is always just around the corner.) This happens sometimes when I’m working on a huge blanket. It will get stalled when I can’t figure out what the next color should be, or it’s time to figure out how to lay out 80 squares. But when I find it again, or it needs to be finished for somebody’s wedding or something, it suddenly seems fresh again. It’s like, hey look! Somebody has left me a whole blanket that’s ALMOST DONE. When I was working on my “Buncha Squares” blanket, an entire year passed between finishing the squares and sewing it together. Then I got so excited about bordering it and seeing it done. I couldn’t believe I had let it languish for so long, but the truth is that during that year I just didn’t feel the love for those squares. I had lost the idea of what I originally was so excited about.
  • Ann: In my opinion, the trick is to have at least a dozen projects going at once. Whatever bag of knitting is nearest is what I’m working on. And because there are so many bags lying around, I’m never knitting on one thing for too long.

Book number one had a lot of fun, beautiful color combinations, and the zigzag rug you gave us a glimpse of last month implies that the new book will have just as many. Are you always adventurous with colors? Or just with household items like dishcloths and blankets?

  • Kay: I love all colors, including navy blue and charcoal grey. I wouldn’t say I dress that colorfully, but I don’t shy away from color. Life is too short. If it’s pretty, wear it. Especially if it’s a jacket. Never enough jackets!
  • Ann: I tend to like murky colors, or no color at all. I find the subtlety of dark colors really beautiful. But I’m the one who picked out the zigzag rug colors, so you never know when a color binge is going to hit. By the way, I’m knitting a lipstick red version of the Yank coat in our book. I am going to look like the British are coming.

Obviously, you’re both designing for the book—what makes Kay’s patterns different from Ann’s?

  • Kay: We’re different people. Our tastes overlap a lot–quilts, old textiles that smell funky–but they also diverge a lot. The fact that Ann likes something can make me give it another look; I’m curious to know what she thinks is so great about it. She’s very persuasive that way. It’s a conversation that just keeps going–“what are you knitting?” Someday, I’m going to cast on an Alice Starmore design. Ann has a lot to answer for!
  • Ann: There is a definite wool/cotton divide in what we do. Kay’s fondness/obsession/unholy love of cotton and linen informs a lot of what she cooks up. I never met a wool I didn’t like. I mean, ever. It cannot be too scratchy, too lanoliny, too sheepy. Unless, I mean, it’s still on the sheep. I do have my limits.

What part of designing gives you biggest surge of adrenalin? Finding the right yarn? The colors? Seeing the finished product?

  • Kay: For me the greatest excitement is the moment I come across the inspiration: the painting at the exhibit I didn’t want to go to/the chic woman in the coffee shop/the boy on the skateboard. That moment when you think, “I’m going to KNIT THAT,” whatever it is. I start thinking about how to interpret that thing in knitting, what yarn, how to translate some detail visually, in the vocabulary of knitted stitches. I love that flow state. I also get quite a lot of satisfaction from writing directions in a straightforward way. This is a deeply nerdy thing. One of our projects has six tables, one for each size. I’m going to be remembered for those tables. They are my legacy.
  • Ann: That moment of inspiration really is addicting. It seems to happen for me when a number of elements percolate for a while–a certain yarn, a color idea, a silhouette–then they merge into something that seems like a good idea. Of course, a good idea doesn’t always result in a good project. And that can be painful and humbling. In a low-stakes sort of way, which is what is so great about knitting. It doesn’t work? Move on!

Okay … we’re going to take a break here so Kay and Ann can get some coffee and get some knitting done. (Because, unless they really are superhuman, they need both hands to type like the rest of us.)

Part two is coming up!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Chris September 9, 2008, 8:39 pm

    That was great fun! Looking forward to part two. (And I just added a link to this post to my post for tomorrow.)

    Chris’s last blog post..In which Jeanne and I meet a famous author

  • Riki September 9, 2008, 9:12 pm

    Thanks! This is a great interview and confirms my ‘luv’ of these two remarkable and gifted ladies!

  • Kim September 10, 2008, 10:01 am

    Awesome!!! What an excellent interview. I’m usually on the fence about buing a new knitting book until I actually see it in person, but after reading this interview I want this book the minute it’s available! Thanks

  • Melanie September 10, 2008, 3:03 pm

    What a terrific interview! I am eagerly awaiting this book (and I was one of the people who went on a Ballband binge after reading the first one.)

  • Carrie K September 10, 2008, 6:47 pm

    Great interview and I can’t wait for the book to come out! I jumped on the ballband bandwagon myself and saw a whole lot of those baby bibs.

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