Interview: Lauren O’Farrell Stitches London, Battles Cancer with Yarn, and Commands a Giant Squid
I’m thrilled to feature one of my knitting heros on the blog today! Lauren O’Farrell is knitting up a storm in the great city of London, and her daring feats with needles and yarn are truly a force to be reckoned with.
Lauren wears many wooly hats, including president of Stitch London, yarn graffiti artist (allegedly), and she has just written a book! Stitch London: 20 kooky ways to knit the city and more is full of patterns for knitted characters, wearables, and other practical and sometimes silly projects all inspired by you-know-where.
I met Lauren in person last year when I teamed up with her to knit pigeons in London with the awesome knitters of Stitch London. It was a blast! Her new book has me wistful for that day of knitting in her magnificent city, and the book seemed like the perfect excuse to pick Lauren’s brain about her life as a Londoner and knitting maverick.
Read the interview after the jump!
Anna: Congratulations on your new book! What made you want to write a pattern book centered around a place (the city of London) instead of a type of project or particular technique?
Lauren: Thank you! I’m far too excited about this book. It’s really a mix of my three great loves: writing, knitting and London. Since I learned to knit it has always amused me to think of my favourite city as knitty. At my Stitch London group we get so many knitting tourists (you being one of them last year!) and there are Stitch Londoners in 52 countries around the world. People’s love of London seems boundless. So a squishy stitched London made perfect sense to me. Stitch London is my yarn-flavoured love letter to the city and a woolly wave to those who love London too.
Anna: You have all kinds of projects in your book, from three-dimensional buildings to book covers to a picnic blanket. Is your design process really different for these different types of projects? Are some more mathematical and some more improvised?
Lauren: I would liken my design process to running headlong into a huge pile of crazy coloured yarn and wrestling with a pair of knitting needles in the middle of it. There will be much exasperated sighing and some mild swearing for a while and then suddenly a kooky little knit I’m proud of is hatched and it’s all worth it.
The main idea behind all my patterns is that they’re as easy to knit as I can make them. I’m not the most accomplished knitter in terms of ‘normal knits’. I’ve *lowers voice to conspiratorial whisper* never knit a jumper in my life. Well, except for once but that was a jumper for a piglet that was one-week old and was modelling for a greeting card. So I don’t tend to think in terms of big complicated projects. I want to knit something quick, cute and characterful. I also really want to encourage people to make their own versions of my patterns. As I say in the book, once you cast it on “It’s your knitting,” so I love when people go crazy with it. There are ‘All Change’ sections in every pattern to encourage just that.
Anna: You include a pattern for a really cute fox in your new book. I had no idea there were wild foxes living in London! Have you ever actually encountered one?
Lauren: We have all manner of wildlife in London but foxes are one of my favourites. They’re quite the urban resident these days and I wanted to celebrate them as they have quite a bad reputation for ripping open rubbish bags and barking in the darkness at 4am. Seeing a fox in the late-night London darkness gives you that magical storybook shiver. It’s a lovely thing to meet one late at night when the streets are empty and you’re on your way home.
They often stop mid-prowl, gaze back at you for a minute or two and then continue on their way. It’s always exciting to see one. They are everywhere though, I once caught one sneaking through my catflap once at home though. The cats were not amused.
Anna: You organize Stitch London, a huge group of knitters in London that you helped found in 2005 and that (I think) has no equivalent in any other city. What do you think has made the group such a success over the years?
Lauren: Stitch London the group is a bit of a woolly Godzilla. We’ve gone from 3 knitters to over 11000 worldwide in the 6 years I’ve been running it. It boggles my mind sometimes to think what would happen if we all got together. The group’s success comes from the group’s members I think. It’s all held together with the newsletters I write and a fair bit of crazy organisation on my part, but without the people it would just be my words rattling about in the ether.
What’s lovely about the group is that everyone is so friendly and welcoming to new members, either online or offline. We never turn a new member away and we’ve become multicraft over the years. People now crochet, cross stitch and spin at our groups. Our Stitch Sages, volunteers who teach people to knit for free once a month, are amazingly generous. They teach for nothing but the love of the knit. I’m so proud to have created an opportunity for people to meet, learn, make friends and eat large amounts of cake. It’s totally worth all the hard work.
Anna: On your website and in your book, you talk about how your fight against cancer a few years back is closely connected to your passion for knitting. Do you think there is something unique about knitting, compared to other crafts or hobbies, that makes it particularly therapeutic?
Lauren: I learned to knit to distract myself from the cancer treatment I was having. I was six-months into a my second lot of chemo for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma when we (two friends Laura and Georgia) formed the Stitch London group. There is certainly something calming about knitting (though try saying that to someone knitting a lace shawl with 5000 yarn overs and SSKs) and it’s a familiar friend. I sat through so many waiting room waits with my yarn and needles, feeling like I was in my own little woolly bubble of ‘everything will be fine’. Plus I always have pointy sticks on hand should the zombie apocalypse happen. How handy and reassuring is that?
Anna: You are rumored to be responsible for sneaky yarnbombings that are quite unlike other knit graffiti artists’ work. Without confirming or denying your activities, can you tell us which of the yarnbombings attributed to you is your favorite?
Lauren: If I were to be the infamous Deadly Knitshade of Knit the City it’d be hard to pick a favourite. Over here we call it ‘yarnstorming’ (a fluffy, creative and less destructive term in a city that has had quite enough of bombing), and if I had to pick a favourite of the ones people say I did then it’d have to be Plarchie. Plarchie is an 8-metre giant knitted squid, made from 160 plastic shopping bags, who was seen lolling on the lap of the Charles Darwin statue that sits in the middle of London’s Natural History Museum.
People are so taken with Plarchie he has his own Twitter and Facebook pages, and on average he gets two or three marriage proposals a month (seriously!). The London Phonebox Cosy was pretty splendiferous too, and I loved Knit the City’s first foray into storytelling, the 13-foot wide Web of Woe with over 40 screaming creatures trapped in it. See, very hard to pick a favourite! If it were my work that is… *coughs*
Anna: You visited NYC earlier this year and I think you made stops in many of the local yarn stores. Have you noticed some big differences between knitters on either side of the Atlantic?
Lauren: Oh how I fell in love with New York city and it’s knittingness. You guys have such cool shops, from the little Brooklyn shops (La Casita and Brooklyn General Store) to the pretty city ones (Purl Soho, Lion Brand Studio, Knitty City, Downtown Yarns and Loopy Mango), everyone was so welcoming, friendly and happy to chat to me about New York knitting life. I even got taken on a tour of some of the shops by the amazing Phyllis Howe who runs your Yarn Crawl (I need to come to that one year.) I would say the main difference is you have so many craft and yarn shops to choose from. Over here we have local shops and some central ones but you folks are spoilt for choice! Other than that you’re just as cool, creative and obsessed with cake as we are over here. I felt right at home.
Anna: When we met last year, you asked me what I tell people when they ask what I do for a living. I’d like to ask you the same thing.
Lauren: Ha! I did ask you that and now you’re asking me I have no idea. It’s really hard to pin it down when I do so many things. I knit (obviously), I write, I photograph, I build websites and self publish a newsletter, I run a small business, I organise events, I volunteer, I am rumoured to graffiti knit too… My business cards say Author • Graffiti Knitter • Fibre Artist (that graffiti knitter part must be some kind of misprint…) and my official Stitch London email says ‘Chief Woolly Godzilla Wrangler’. All in all I really can’t think of an all encompassing job title. I quite like ‘Evil Knitting Genius’ though.
Anna: Anything you can tell us about upcoming projects or maybe even books??
Lauren: Sooo many exciting things are happening next year. Right now I’m working on my next city Stitch book. You might be able to guess which city I’m knitting next and you know it rather well. It’s going to be just like Stitch London but with different coloured taxis and taller buildings. I’m really excited to be turning another city knitty.
I’m going to be working on more solo patterns for Ravelry too, and hopefully opening my own shop over at Whodunnknit. Plarchie will be appearing at all manner of events (he’s already booked for a Steampunk Christmas Party, would you believe?) and wooing more ladies.
Also London has the Olympics and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee next year, so expect some parts of London to be unexpectedly covered in yarn. But if anyone asks, you didn’t hear that from me…
Thank you so much, Lauren, for sharing your fascinating stories and your awesome take on knitting! I’m sure Stitch London is getting lots of love from knitters all over the world, and we can’t wait to see your next stitched city!
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