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Q&A With Kate Davies - Made In Scotland Series

Posted by James King on

For the latest in our Made in Scotland Q&A series, we spoke to somebody with an extremely inspiring story. Kate Davies has a really interesting background having gained a PHD in eighteenth-century history and working in academia before embarking on a publishing career as well as creating and selling her own designs.

Read on to learn more about Kate's incredible journey.

Please can you tell us a bit of your story and how you combined your passions to get to where you are today?

My route to running my own design business is somewhat unconventional! I worked as an academic in the field of eighteenth century history & literature until 2010, when I had a stroke (at the age of 36).

As I was unable to return to academic teaching, and as I had another passion for creating and designing knitwear, I began and built up my business by selling knitting patterns as digital downloads. Knitting and designing were absolutely crucial to my post-stroke recovery, and I was amazed and grateful that these activities I brought the additional benefit of financial support at a very difficult time.

Slowly, as I recovered from my stroke, I found I could combine my former historical interests, and my skills as a writer and educator, with my new direction in creating knitwear designs. I built up enough capital in the business to set myself up as a small publisher, and from scratch researched and produced books such as Colours of Shetland (2012), Yokes (2014) and The Book of Haps (2016). Yokes, for example, traces the origin and history of the yoked sweater from Greenland through Sweden and Shetland to Iceland and my original research into the history of this culturally significant garment sits alongside eleven of my own designs.

The business continued to grow, and in 2015 I was able to fulfil my dream of developing my own brand of Scottish knitting yarn to support my designs. Being able to combine my rather diverse skills and passions makes this a very fulfilling way to make a living. It was an odd and circuitous route to get here but I wouldn't want to be anywhere else!

What is a typical day like for you?

I'm sure that most small business owners will tell you that very few days are ever 'typical' - there's always something unexpected to deal with, from undelivered stock to a glitch on the VAT return!

I am an early riser, and tend to do administrative jobs in the morning, leaving afternoons for research, design work and pattern writing. In the evenings I'm constantly knitting, so really the working day starts around 6 and ends when I go to bed.

That said, I always set aside a couple of hours a day for exercise, which these days means swimming or taking a long walk with my dog, Bruce. Getting outside each day is really important to me, and its often when I'm walking that I get my best ideas.

Why is it important for you to use 100% Scottish wool yarn for your knitted designs?

Scottish wool is a fantastic and woefully underused local resource. I love buttery-soft merinos and cashmeres as much as anyone, but why not produce designs from yarn that's grown and raised right here by the animals that fill the landscape around me?

Why not create a beautiful garment whose very fibres are connected to the place in which I live and work, that won't pill, that will wear well, and which will, if properly cared for, last a lifetime? Why aren't more Scottish businesses using Scottish yarns rather than imported fibres? And why are so many Scottish places that call themselves 'wool centre' or 'wool mill' stocked with brightly coloured polyurethane fleeces - garments created from petrochemicals - rather than actual wool?

As you can probably tell, supporting my local wool industry is very important to me and my business.

Which of your designs are you most proud of and why?

I think I'd say Epistrophy. This design is a cardigan, with a yoke worked in two colours using the Fairisle technique. When you hand-knit a yoke, you can do so circularly and continuously, and what I like about this design is that I was able to carry that theme of continuity right through the colourwork, by making minor adjustments to a single graphic motif.

By carefully hiding the yoke shaping within the pattern, it becomes part of the design rather than interrupting it. The geometry was tricky to devise, but the design is still refreshingly simple in appearance. Knitters seem to enjoy making it, and it was recently sported by a presenter on Swedish TV! The cardigan's name comes from a tune by Theolonious Monk, which is based on the repetition and modification of a single musical motif (much like the yoke of my cardigan).

What makes the Scottish Highlands special?

The weather is what makes the Highlands special. Because of the fabled four seasons in one day, the skies and light change really rapidly - and the visual effect of these swift changes are is always interesting and often pretty incredible.

I've spent time in lots of other beautiful areas of the world - but I often find the light rather boring - in permanently warm and sunny places the light is very samey. In Scotland, as in other northern nations, there's this interesting combination of rapidly shifting light, with swiftly changing weather, which also lends the landscape its uniquely rich colours, from the luminous greens of May to the deep beautiful russets of October. It is an endlessly inspiring place to be.

What parts of the design process do you enjoy the most and which (if any) do you dislike?

I enjoy most elements of the design process - from the initial idea stage, through the knitting, to the joyful amazement of finally wearing something that had no previous existence, except in my imagination. I also really enjoy the mathematical jiggery pokery and puzzle solving of grading and pattern writing.

I do tend to lose patience when a sleeve cap with novel shaping doesn't quite work, and requires reknitting several times, but those small setbacks are all part of the technical experimentation that's necessary for good knitwear design.

Which other creative people in Scotland do you admire and why?

Scotland abounds with interesting creative folk, but those I most admire all seem to live and work in Shetland: from artist Ruth Brownlee to jewellery maker Helen Robertson, as well as talented knitwear designers such as Donna Smith, Ella Gordon and Hazel Tindall.

What are the biggest challenges that you face?

Reining in my ideas and cutting them down to manageable size is always a challenge.

You mentioned on your website that your husband is a great cook with a great knowledge of Scottish culinary history. What is your favourite Scottish recipe and why?

Tom says cranachan - which involves three of his favourite Scottish ingredients - oatmeal, whisky, and raspberries - a genuinely luxurious treat.

What other parts of Scotland do you love?

Shetland, and the Western Isles, particularly Islay (where Tom and I were married).

Apart from your beautiful local scenery, what inspires you to create?

Inspiration really is everywhere, and anything goes as far as I'm concerned. For example, a recent design (Funyin) was inspired by a piece of Hornsea pottery and another hat (Neep Heid) was inspired by the turnips growing in my garden.

What advice would you give to somebody who wanted to start their own creative business?

If you build it, they will will come.

A big thanks to Kate for this fantastic insight into her world. Please visit Kate's website to find out more about her work and you can also chat to her on Twitter.

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