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Interview with Sharon Miller

Little did we know that a decade or so ago, when many were bemoaning the loss of traditional skills, in Devon, UK an expert knitter was researching and preparing a comprehensive compendium of traditional knitting techniques that would not only spark interest in the craft, but would create an international revival in knitting Shetland Lace. Here's that story, in Sharon Miller's own words:


KBTH: What would you like us to know about your knitting history -- teachers, mentors, favorite projects, etc?

SHARON: Very fond of Richard Rutt and James Norbury he was an early researcher and charted of Shetland lace patterns, Also of course, Sarah Don and Gladys Amedro, and without doubt all the lace knitting originators of Shetland who were some amazing women Betty Mouatt for one (I'll get you all googling!!)

KBTH: What first sparked your intererest in Shetland lace knitting.

SHARON: Having our baby in the 1980s when knitting patterns and yarn in local wool shops were dire to my traditionalist eyes, I've always had a love of the antique inherited from my mother, who had an extensive collection of early magazines for Ladies, and had also saved many old knitting mags from being thrown away in the 60s.

KBTH: At what point did you consider writing a comprehensive work about the Shetland lace tradition?

SHARON: When the penny dropped at how easy charting Shetland Lace was and how representative originally only intended as a recipe collection of Centres, Borders and Edgings. Like all things, kept getting bigger as I found out more interesting stuff (well, it was to me!). Really was helped by my borrowing my husband's computer and him showing me how to do the programmes, couldn't have been done pre-computer days!

KBTH: How did you go about your research for your book?

SHARON: By researching through public Library and following relevant Bibliography leads.

KBTH: Were you able to interact with any knitters on Shetland?

SHARON: Yes, they 'OKed' and amended my 'history' and gave permission for me to use an edging.

KBTH: I have the impression that you did all your own handknitting for the book -- am I correct?

SHARON: Yes, and that too, for More HK, other than antique/vintage pieces.

KBTH: How long did it take you to write it?

SHARON: 4/5 years.

KBTH: In addition to being a good writer, you seem particularly good at math, or "maths" as you would say. Are you a former math teacher?

SHARON: No and Yes, I taught 5-7 year olds for 9 years, so have taught lots of basic maths. Also, I'm the daughter of a furniture shopkeeper who thought maths and times tables important and wisely bribed us to learn them!

KBTH: I admire the generous way you have provided resources for knitters on your website, and I admire your participation in the "Heirloom Lace" group. It goes well beyond just marketing. What's your philosophy about interacting with those of us who aspire to work your designs?

SHARON: Thank you!! We are all here on this earth to learn from and help each other. We're all human too, and make mistakes, I regret I've added to the pile but have learnt that only real grown ups can say sorry and mean it all the time. On the other hand, 'perfect' work would never get done to the same extent, and I wouldn't dare try attempting it!

KBTH: Would you comment on how knitting from charts has revolutionized lace knitting?

SHARON: Well, it revolutionized it for me and I believe it radically encourages knitters when you can see the relationship between the charted lace and the work in your hands even non-knitting teenage lads can see where you are in a pattern, something not even we can do as knitters form the written record!!!!

KBTH: Did the revitalized interest in Shetland lace knitting surprise you, or did you know it was there all along, just waiting to be tweaked?

SHARON: I always said it would 'go like a rocket' or 'sink like a stone' I was just pleased it was the former. At the time it didn't seem too promising, I just wanted to write a book that would answer the questions that had been in my head as I'd taken up the craft.

KBTH: Do you wear the lovely shawls you make?

SHARON: Yes.

KBTH: What's your favorite fiber?

SHARON: Pure wool, preferably of Shetland content for the traditional pieces, then silk; love mohair mixes too.

KBTH: What do you consider essential tools for lace knitting, other than the needles, of course?

SHARON: TVJ, Paper and pen, lengths of contrast thread for marking up areas of knitting, pattern chart, calculator.

KBTH: What would an "Official Sharon Miller Circular Needle" be like, in terms of points, joins, cable, etc?

SHARON: Short, slightly curved (or curvable) to suit - arms, very smooth tapered joins (no bumps, or worse, cracks) possibly available in bamboo as well as a smooth metal. Cable/flex shouldn't ever get twirly!

KBTH: What do you consider the three techniques most essential to good lace knitting?

SHARON: Casting on, evenness of sts, even stitch performance (so \O looks similar to O/), grafting, or really good even stretchy casting off.

KBTH: Have we discovered the universe of lace motifs, or might there be more?

SHARON: No, never, patterns are truly as diverse as kaleidoscope patterns or snowflakes.

KBTH: Have you tried the Shetland belt knitting method? If so, what was the result?

SHARON: Yes, but am so used to circs that although undoubtedly could be speedier with 'wires', I got flurried over how to perform pattern sts and went back to old favourite pair of circs. Scared too at thought of sts getting off needle, knew there'd be workarounds, but still not for me.

KBTH: Do you have any advice for working with extremely fine yarns, such as your new Gossamer Merino?

SHARON: Work with what you are comfortable with and 'fine down' with finer yarns and needles. Have 2 pieces of knitting on the go of similar thicknesses, one with thicker yarn and easier than the other, so that you can switch from 'task/challenge' piece to 'easy/ relaxing' piece. Take time, after all, it took time to learn to knit by practicing, same again here. This will be covered in More HK.

KBTH: Is there anything you can reveal about your second book?

SHARON: Well, it's about half finished, I've done most of the projects, some of the general, design and history, about half way through the lace. It's going to be much more of a teaching book than the first and it's definitely going to be my last in depth work it's a follow-on from HK, so it'll assume the reader knows the basics pretty well and wants to know more of the techniques and workarounds that I use, I'm enjoying it more because I can concentrate on the pretty stuff. As it's being done at my pace, it does mean I have only a vague target date for its completion, it'll be out when it's ready and I'm as happy as I can be with it.

KBTH: In your research, do you sometimes "deconstruct" a piece of old lace, or work from photos of old lace to recover a pattern? How do you approach it?

SHARON: Yes, I've mentally deconstructed every piece I see to one level or another, it gets intriguing. By using magnification, and trial knitting again and again till what I've got resembles the original as much as I want. This can take months! I've only recently 'cracked' a simple pattern that had me baffled for several years that I've never seen done only a few sts by a few rows, but the combinations and the charting were confusing, then I realised it must involve extra sts!

KBTH: What is the project of which you are the most proud?

SHARON: Possibly the Princess Shawl, that one proved to me that I could master and meet the original knitting standards and techniques to the level I wanted to achieve. It will be book 2 (I hope!)

KBTH: Have you had a lace disaster?

SHARON: Again the Princess, foolishly, I'd made the centre in an old batch of DMC Cordonnet crochet cotton only to find new batches totally different shade EEEEK. Solved that by making borders and edgings in new dye lot, then boiling finished shawl with a drop of bleach to get over all even shade, had done this with trial sample beforehand so knew this would work. (Still remember my son's disbelief when he asked what was in the saucepan, only to have me answer one of my shawls - poor thing had been brought up on 'don't touch!' and 'that's very fragile'! So mum boiling to death a shawl was for him a moment he doubted my sanity and that thought was written large in his face!)


Our thanks to Sharon Miller for participating in our event, and I have it on the best authority that the knitters on Shetland have the utmost respect for her work! Please be sure to visit Sharon's Heirloom Knitting site