September 28, 2010

Red Oak: Pattern Notes

I think that if you spend enough time doing anything, you develop a style and when you do your best work it is true to that style. I tend to focus on two things when I design. The first is shape. I like pieces with smooth, organic lines, and I generally prefer to have size and noticeable endpoints fall in less standard places - nothing radical, but I am more likely to choose a cap sleeve than a bracelet sleeve, and more likely to make a piece oversized or body-skimming than to give it the standard ease of around two inches. I like shape to influence the overall feel of a piece in an important but subtle way, and make it feel just a little different.

The Red Oak coat, Twist Collective, Fall 2010.

The second thing I like to do is to limit the number of stand-out details to as few as possible - one is ideal. The fewer details there are the more impact a single detail will have. This concept has come back to me again and again, and my favorite phrasing of it (well, ahem, paraphrasing probably) is that perfection is reached not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.

When a design isn't working, I look to these two factors to see if something needs to be changed. Is there too much going on? What needs to be taken out? Does the shape flow? If not, how can I change it to work with the details? Often this means omitting something that I really like - maybe even the element that I began with - but ultimately it is the process that makes the pieces I like the best work.

The shape for the Red Oak coat was inspired by a wonderful camel coat I bought in college that I wore for over a decade. It still hangs in the back of my closet waiting for the day that I mend the frayed-through lining and wear it again. It is that good. Red Oak differs from my old coat significantly but it retains the same spirit - refined and classic, but somehow casual. To reach the final shape I omitted many of the elements that made the original special to me - no hood, no pockets, no drawstring cinch at the waist (sounds funny, but it worked!), less ease. Instead of focusing the eye on shaping details, I settled on having a dramatic central motif running down the front panel, but slightly offset. I discovered the oak leaf and acorn stitch pattern that gave Red Oak its name in a Japanese stitch book years ago, but I have since learned that it was designed by Julie Weisenberger and originally appeared on a square in the popular Great American Afghan in 1996. The stitch pattern stayed in my mind, and when I began sketching the coat and realized that I wanted to use a stitch pattern to capture the same refined, classic-yet-casual feel as my old camel coat, I knew that the oak leaf stitch pattern, which was intricate and organic, yet with clean, clear lines, was perfect.


The oakleaf and acorn stitch pattern used in Red Oak was designed by Julie Weisenberger and originally appeared on a square in the popular Great American Afghan in 1996.

I didn't realize how perfect the oak leaves and acorns were when I drafted the proposal in February, but by the time I was knitting the sample in May the pattern had personal significance for me. My father passed away in late April, so I ended up spending late April and the first part of May in my childhood home in Virginia with my mom. I hadn't been back since my brother's memorial service over eight years ago because the memories were just too painful and the thought of facing our old life completely changed felt totally overwhelming to me. Surprisingly, it ended up being one of the easiest, and strangely happiest, of my visits there. My mother and I had a week to ourselves talking and pulling things together, and after that we had about a week and a half with Griffin there, too, making us laugh and reminding us that there was still life and that it was good.

Griffin gets in on the photoshoot.

During the week we had alone I spent nights working on the final calculations for the Red Oak coat, and then feverishly knitting it. Our house has a life and a personality of its own, and I often think of it as the fifth member of our family. My parents restored it themselves when we were kids, so we know the ins and outs of it more intimately than you might normally know a house. One of the house's defining characteristics is a fairly severe lean where a huge old oak tree's roots have lifted the foundation out of kilter. Our house is surrounded by old oaks, but the one pushing up the house is by far the largest and oldest. I'm not completely certain, but if two people were to stand on opposite sides of the tree and try to link hands, I don't think they could. When the oak goes, it is taking the house with it, and to me that feels right - the two are inseparable.

At night while I worked on Red Oak I could hear the sound of the trains down by the river, the crickets, and the rustling of the oak leaves. I cannot imagine more comforting sounds.

Anyway, the room that I slept in as I worked on Red Oak was the one right next to the tree - you can touch it if you lean way out of the window. At night I could hear the sound of the trains down by the river, the crickets, and the rustling of the oak leaves. I cannot imagine more comforting sounds. We knitters often talk about the memories worked into our knitting. This coat has more of those than almost any other knit I can think of - rivaled only by husband's wedding sweater. I like to think there is a little piece of my dad in it, too. I wish he had lived to see it on the cover of Twist, just as I wish he had lived to see so many much more important things, not the least of which is Griffin toddling all over his house and garden. But I take comfort in the fact that he left the world just as he would have wanted, reading his morning paper in his house, under his oak trees, and I am grateful to have had the time that I did sitting under those trees knitting, laughing at my son with my mother, and thinking about him.

P.S. As Elli so astutely noticed, there is a photo with a little bit of the camel coat showing on my archive masthead. I don't have a full length photo, and didn't remember that I had any photos at all, so I didn't link to a picture. Although this just gives a little snippet of what it looks like, it's worth a peek if you are curious.

Posted by Julia at September 28, 2010 02:22 AM
In main


Your style is nice and you're right about those lines. I also like that you add some extra things in front that makes it look special.

Posted by: Provillus at October 4, 2010 03:47 AM

Wow. I have house guests at the moment, but couldn't wait more
time to at least comment. I am moved beyond words, of course.
And I feel Angela will someday "see" the house and the tree -
perhaps in book form. I relate to your staying here too - not in your room that was, in the final years shared with Sam - but in the guest room we called "Aunt Sally's room." (That's another antecdote folks.) Because, in order to write and see things more
clearly, the writer is wise to step back and remove themselves a
bit. It's the only way to get through the writing intact in some cases, in fact. Keep on. You are knitting two beautiful things
here. All dropped stitches can be picked up. And as you once
said, "You are more an architect of knitting. Your works hold
together and last." Indeed, they do. Indeed, they will.

Much love - Mom

Posted by: Grandee at October 2, 2010 02:10 PM

It is such a nice post, I will probably re-read it a few times and may be put it under favorites to read it when I need. Thank you.

Posted by: Beste at September 30, 2010 12:40 PM

love love love.

Posted by: Mary-Heather at September 29, 2010 05:36 PM

Great post for so many reasons :) And it makes me want to knit this great coat even more.

Posted by: Jen at September 29, 2010 05:04 PM

Beautiful story - it's wonderful to hear the meaning behind such a gorgeous knit. And hugs to you.

Posted by: Kate at September 29, 2010 09:22 AM

It's a beautiful stitch pattern (and coat) and a moving story. Even though your words created a picture of your house in my mind, I found myself wanting to see a photo of the house and the tree.

Posted by: Angela at September 29, 2010 07:00 AM

Beautiful and so precious. I wish I had the words to tell you how much your words here touched my heart. xoxo

Posted by: mel at September 29, 2010 05:17 AM

Truly beautiful design and thanks for sharing the process.

Posted by: Gudrun at September 29, 2010 04:06 AM

What a fantastic post. Is the camel coat the one you can see a little of in your blog header? Hugs!

Posted by: Elli at September 28, 2010 07:25 PM

A lovely post, Julia. I am almost done with the first sleeve, and can't wait to assemble the whole thing. I hope it looks half as good as yours. Your experience knitting the sweater is especially poignant to me, as my mom is about to get her last chemo treatment, and then moves on to radiation. I have been so conscious of the possibility that she will leave us some day. Feeling that fear so concretely - even though we expect her to make a full recovery - has been heavy on my heart. I am so glad to be able to knit a coat that you designed while I am going through this difficult time. Sending you lots of love . . .

Posted by: Jennifer at September 28, 2010 06:21 PM

beautiful post, julia! big hug from bolivia.. ;)

Posted by: andrea at September 28, 2010 05:58 PM

Thank you for sharing, what a beautiful post.

Posted by: Emilee at September 28, 2010 04:36 PM

I'm so glad to know these details as I embark on my own Red Oak :)

Posted by: jillian at September 28, 2010 03:04 PM