An exotic pigeon inspired this handspun, knitted shawl

Bath Time by Sue Demetriou (MadMaxDog)) on
Bath Time by Sue Demetriou

Last year our local Guelph Guild of Handweavers and Spinners presented a show at Greenwood Quiltery‘s gallery, featuring fibre crafts inspired by images (paintings or photographs). When I saw this photo of a Nicobar pigeon by Sue Demetriou, I knew what I wanted to do.

Fibre for Nicobar feather shawlI set out to create a handspun, woven item with fibre inspired by the bird’s plumage. At Ontario Handspinning Seminar last June I had an opportunity to purchase the fibre I wanted to blend, shown here (counter-clockwise from top): a variety of hand-dyed tussa silk, more blue tussa silk, black nylon, dyed firestar (a shiny nylon) in shades of blue, green and violet, dyed black Corriedale wool (which would be the primary fibre from the yarn), purple Corriedale and charcoal grey alpaca. In addition I would use some more fibre not shown here including purple and brown merino mill ends and dyed green Border Leicester locks.

So I had my fibre. The problem was, I had only recently begun learning to spin and hardly knew what to do with it. I spent most of the summer practicing technique. By the time the gallery show began to loom on the time horizon in the fall, I realized i had undertaken too challenging a project for a beginner. My Nicobar pigeon went to roost.

Speed ahead to our guild’s January spinners’ meeting, when Kit Fisher gave a workshop on combining fibre with a hackle. Read that post to find out more about hackles, but essentially it is a giant, deadly comb. My partner has a hackle but I had never used it before. I realized it was an ideal tool for creating a heterogeneous blend of diverse fibres.

Meanwhile, I had joined the guild’s lace study group to gain some experience knitting lace. While looking around for a project to undertake, I remembered the Nicobar pigeon and decided to interpret it via knitting rather than weaving. Ultimately I selected Kitman Figueroa’s peacock shawlette pattern because it suggested feathers and the upper reverse stockinette section would show off the variegated iridescence of the yarn.

I set about blending the fibre to produce this dizzed roving, so-called because it is pulled off the hackle using a small tool called a diz, essentially a small concave disc with a hole in it.

Dizzed roving for Nicobar pigeon shawl

Next step was to spin and ply the fibre. I created a two-ply, which is well suited to lace. I could have created much finer yarn for more delicate lacework, but I am naturally inclined to spin chunkier and funkier. This was also somewhat dictated by the properties of my main fibre, the Corriedale wool. The yarn turned out a fingering weight, about 15 wraps per inch.

Skein of yarn for Nicobar pigeon shawl

I finished spinning in late February and began knitting.

First few rows of the Nicobar pigeon shawl

This was a challenge but also lots of fun. With lacework like this you have to pay attention and count stitches constantly. Mistakes were made. Tinking (unknitting) lace, especially dark thread like this, is difficult and results in more mistakes that need to be corrected, a diabolical domino effect. I taught myself how to compensate and hide errors rather than go back and repair them. These improvisations do not affect the look of the finished shawl. I can only see one of them, and only because I know where to look closely.

I finished knitting in early May. Here is how the shawl looked unblocked.

Unblocked Nicobar pigeon shawl

Washing and blocking is the process that evens and shapes a knitted or woven item. With open lacework it involves rigorous stretching to open up the pattern. This can be done using pins on a sheet or towel on the floor, but there are better alternatives.

Matthew Hesson-McInnis of Hyphen Boy Designs has developed a technique involving PVC pipe, paperclips and elastics. The beauty of this approach is that it provides excellent tension and allows you to place a large blocked item against a wall so it will not take up half the living room floor. He calls this the BDSM of knitting. I had seen Matthew demonstrate it at the 2012 Men’s Spring Knitting Retreat, when my partner blocked a shawl this way. I signed up for the workshop at the 2013 retreat, which occurred this past weekend.

The approach works best for scalloped or pointed edges. To prevent the blocking cord from distorting the straight top edge, Danny crocheted a temporary edge for me using waste yarn to provide eyelets. This was completed ahead of the weekend. When I arrived at Easton Mountain Retreat Center, Matthew gave me the cord, which I threaded through each of the lace tails and the provisional eyelets.

Several other knitters had brought shawls for the workshop. On Saturday afternoon we soaked our work, then took turns working as a team to hook our projects onto the frames. Matthew had designed each frame to fit the individual project. Here he is (right) working on my shawl, assisted by Tony Bellville (who was spying—he didn’t bring any lace of his own). It shows how the paperclips and elastics create an easy tie between the pipe and blocking cord. The loose crochet across the top is also visible.

Matthew Hesson-McInnis demonstrates the BDSM of knitting

Here I am (right) with Danny holding the blocked shawl (photo by Steve Rosenblum).

Blocked shawl by Steve Rosenblum

In the background are two other blocked pieces on different shaped frames. This technique works well for circular shawls, rectangles and right-angled triangles. It is more difficult for other shapes. One I particularly loved was this exquisite Queen of Heaven lace shawl knitted by Vincent Ricci Jr.

Queen of Heaven lace shawl by Vince

Now I am back home. I have decided to keep and wear this delicate shawl as a souvenir of community. It came from an inspired idea of my own, but so much went into it from my local guild and the men’s knitting retreat. This is one of my first large handspun projects and my most detailed lacework to date. What a satisfying journey it has been.

Completed Nicobar pigeon shawl 1

Completed Nicobar pigeon shawl 2

17 thoughts on “An exotic pigeon inspired this handspun, knitted shawl

  1. Van – this is phenomenally beautiful! I crochet & have done some intricate work, but this… and spinning such amazing yarn!

    Hats off to you and your fellow knitters & spinners!

  2. Astonishing work. Indeed it is satisfying when you persevered and came up with something this intricate. I can’t see a single error, but then people say the same about my egg designs, whereas I can see all the flaws: this wavering line, that blotch, etc. Own worst critic, that’s me. 🙂 Anyhow, congratulations are in order!

  3. Van, I so enjoyed seeing this project described from start to finish, and I’m particularly fond of how stunningly handsome you looked wearing it! I am so glad that you decided to keep it, as it suits you so perfectly! xoxo

    1. Thank you, John. I’m so glad I had a chance to show off the shawl at the retreat!

  4. Congratulations on this gorgeous shawl! Beautiful spinning, beautiful yarn, beautiful shawl. Awesome!

  5. Thanks for showing us this brilliant blocking idea and your lovely shawl, of course! What is the circular shawl sitting on to raise it off the ground?

    1. Barb, they’re chair-like things designed for sitting on the floor. The back support makes a rigid triangle so we used them as stands. This big octagon had a problem: it started to buckle when we stood it upright, so we had to lay it flat instead. Another solution would be to provide cross-braces, which is exactly what Matthew did with the other large octagon visible in the background of the previous photo. Thanks for dropping by!

  6. Your shawl is beautiful Van. Thank you for sharing the story of it’s creation. You make me wish I could do something so useful and yet magical with my own hands.

    Guess I’ll have to satisfy myself with cooking, baking & gardening for now!

    1. Thank you, Toni. Cooking, baking & gardening are more useful and can also be magical, too. But I understand the urge to create something beautiful and enduring. Words and photography can do that. For me, fibre crafts are more akin to photography because they facilitate nonverbal expression. Don’t worry, you are making beauty.

  7. Beautiful work!! Thank you so much for letting me look over your shoulder as you designed and produced a beautiful shawl!!

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