When I initially discovered the captivating knitting patterns of Vancouver-based textile artist and knitwear designer Caitlin Ffrench, a glorious thrill vibrated throughout my soul, and my fingers itched madly for needles, yarn, and an immediate opportunity to try my own hand at her stitchy, witchy designs. While I like to think that up until that point I had knit up some lovely things (is it weird to compliment your own work? I mean, they did turn out rather nicely!) I had never before seen knitting patterns reflecting my own beliefs and imaginative fancies–those of myth, magic, and the beauty found in the wind and tides and the light of the moon.
The natural world is a huge inspiration to Caitlin, and “slow fashion” and “wildcrafting” aren’t just buzz words with which to pepper her Instagram and fascinate followers. Her connectedness to the world in which she lives is the unbreakable thread that runs throughout the rich, earthy fabric of her craft, and her dedication to this connection is undeniably apparent in her passions and practices. See for yourself in our interview to follow, in which we discuss the origins of her art, her relationship with the land, and the deep magics found in both wearing handmade adornments and laying one’s self bare.
I understand that you initially attempted learning to knit at your Oma’s knee when you were a child (and she told you that you were really bad at it!) You picked it up again in your late teens on the way to a punk show, and then again, when you were thrown into the thick of it with a new job at a yarn store? You’re obviously very persistent! What is it about this craft of sticks and strings that appealed so much to your persistence and will to learn? What advice do you have for those who wish to begin wielding the needles, themselves?
My Oma was a very sweet lady, but took knitting very seriously. Looking back i’m glad she didn’t get me hooked as a child- I was too busy ripping around the mountainside and riding my bike to stay still. Trying knitting again on the way to the punk show was alright. I got the hang of it a little more, but almost instantly put my needles down and forgot about it.
It was when a friend opened a yarn store and gave me a job that it really stuck. After the first day of work I figured that I was way over my head and decided to start taking on newer and harder projects every chance I could. When customers would come in with questions about their patterns I was able to help them ‘see’ the pattern by drawing and breaking down the patterns for them- I have a Fine Arts degree in sculpture and my brain likes to work three dimensionally. That’s when I started writing my own patterns. I put them out on Ravelry for free and they were simple–but they worked! When I decided to learn how to write triangle shawls with lace, I knit 4 patterns that other people wrote in 5 days. To the non-knitters please note: that is a hell of a lot of knitting in 5 days. But I learned the inner working of lace!
I think my persistence in sticking with knitting came from the slow meditation it gave me. It isn’t easy at first, but if you’ve got a willingness to keep going (and to rip back your mistakes) you’ll be fine. It was the perfect thing to take up for me because it is portable and I’ve been able to knit without looking at my hands for years now, so I can knit at shows and on transit.
A few nights ago I was at a Propagandhi concert working on a shawl and I got a lot of funny looks from the ‘dude’ guys at the show. But that’s part of the magic of knitting in public–breaking down people’s ideas of who the knitters are. I’m not a little old lady. I’m 6 feet tall with blue hair and a lot of tattoos.
You are very passionate about the “Slow Fashion” movement; designing, creating, and buying garments to encourage slow production schedules, fair wages, lower carbon footprints, and (ideally) zero waste. With regard to slow fashion and making the least possible amount of impact on the land as designer, you have previously spoken to the difference between “landscape” and “landbase”; the former, relegating yourself to the role of a passive viewer, and the latter wherein you are an active human being, where you live. Can you speak to how this viewpoint informs your practices?
The idea of Slow Fashion was first introduced to me as a child. My mother made most of our clothing and the rest were hand-me-downs from my cousins and sister. I grew up on a farm in the middle of nowhere, and ‘Slow Fashion’ wasn’t a hip thing in the 80’s, it was just what you did on the farm. My Oma survived WW2 and from then on always used everything to it’s full potential and didn’t waste anything. She passed that onto my Mother and myself.
I went to textile school for a year in the middle of getting my degree where I learned the art of making cloth, dyeing, spinning, weaving, and clothing construction. My professors were amazing women who took great care in teaching the magic of cloth, and this was the first place I connected my magic with cloth. Standing around cauldrons of plants boiling to extract color and learning the history of how these methods came to us was what I took away with me with the most passion. That is where I started my natural dye journey.
It was in natural dyes that I connected my political beliefs in defending the land with my fine art practice. This is where I honed my thoughts on landscape vs. landbase. In a landscape we are observing the world around us, but with a sense of disconnect. In recognizing the landbase around us we are acknowledging that we are only one small part of this world, and that we are connected with the water supply, animals and plants in our area, and that the land is something we need to protect.
I wildcraft natural dyes from my landbase and use them to make color on cloth, but also paints and inks. I am mindful in my wildcrafting practice, and know that without respect for my landbase I am doing harm to it. Some rules I hold myself to while wildcrafting are:
– I never take the first of a plant that I find. It may be the last in that area, so I walk past it and look for more. (If you take the first, it may be the last!)
– Before I do more than a very small harvest of an area I spend a season going to visit it and watching how it progresses. If the next year it looks healthier than the last, I know I can harvest a little more. I have some spots i’ve been wildcrafting from for 7 or 8 years and they are flourishing.
– I remember to give thanks to the plant and to the area I take it from. Either bringing water to the plants in the hot summer months, or removing garbage from the area. These are acts of service that give great thanks.
There’s a witching thread that runs through all of your patterns, tying everything together on both an aesthetic and thematic level–altar cloths, shawls, hoods, and cowls, referencing time and tides, cycles of life and death, divinity, and the magic of the natural world–can share how your beliefs have shaped and inspired your work?
I started integrating my pagan beliefs into my knitting practice a few years after I started designing. It seemed strange that I had divorced my beliefs from my handwork, and when I actively connected them my work became much more real to me. I started working with my friend Amanda of Brutally Beautiful Photography around the same time, and her amazing photo work speaks to my beliefs perfectly. Amanda encourages my practice to push farther into the world of magic.
She is also game for adventuring in the forest at all hours to find the perfect light. We have integrated ourselves into each others work in a symbiotic way, where she takes the stunning photographs that accompany my patterns and I model for her in her photographic practice. I’m willing to stand naked in the rain for her to get the perfect shot anytime.
Your newest book of knitting patterns, Wheel, and its pictorial companion, Sabbat, are dedicated to “those who find beauty in change” and takes inspiration from the changing seasons, and the Wheel of the Year. I’d love to hear how how this concept developed and how you incorporated seasonal elements, motifs, and traditions into the individual patterns.
These books were a hard project for me. They incorporate my knitted work, my magic practice, my writing, and my own film photography together and this scared the hell out of me. It was a way of really laying myself bare to the world. The four knitted works are for the four seasons- Ostara, Litha, Mabon, and Yule. Each of these giant lace works reflects it’s own season, and for each work I wrote a companion work about my own traditions to mark the seasons changing. This project started small in the way that I thought it was going to be a single book that was just the patterns- but incorporating my writing and photos was a good move. It feels real.
All of the photographs for Sabat were shot on film in the California Redwoods; the deeply profound beauty of this location is astonishing– can you share how these patterns called out for the singular backdrop of these woods? And why the decision to shoot on film (some of it expired or no longer in production), as opposed to digital?
The California Redwoods are a place of worship. This project had so much to do with my traditions that it made sense to go to a place that holds my heart so deeply. I had visited these stands of trees a number of times before- but they give something new every time. This trip started with me attending the Northwest Magic Conference in Portland. I had driven to Portland with my Partner (Arlin) and he continued on to Redding California on the train with his bicycle. After the conference I headed out to the coast and spent a few nights camping alone while making my way to the Avenue of the Giants in California. During this time Arlin rode his bike though the mountains and met up with me. We’ve been partners for over 12 years and we hadn’t done solo camping trips since then, so we took this chance to adventure alone.
To shoot the work on film seemed second nature. Arlin and I both shoot film in our artistic practices already, and film holds a deep magic.
We shot my second knitting book on film in Iceland in 2016 (The Darkness Fell) so we had an idea of what we were getting ourselves into.
As a fellow knitter, I sometimes lose myself, trance-like, watching the rhythmic slip and slide of stitches from one needle to the other; from the initial cast-on, to the completion of each row to the next, I work my worries and frets, or my passions and adorations into the emerging pattern, and it becomes a spell of sorts, thoughtful magics building upon themselves as the piece grows and changes. Other times though, I sit with my knitting and binge an entire season of Hannibal, hardly paying attention at all to the knits and purls as I create them. I’d love to hear your thoughts as to the virtues of both–knitting with mindfulness and intent, as well as, the mindless stitchery that occurs when we’re say, engrossed in our murder husbands.
HA! Yes- you’ve struck it exactly. My direction of working depends on how open I am to putting myself and my magic into the work. Designing new work is when I do knitting spellwork, making sure to put good intentions into what I’m creating. Every stitch is an act of love.
But again- I do knit just to occupy my hands, and I do this a lot. Large swaths of stockinette mean that I’m binge watching something or out at a show. These are times to let my mind wander and to have my hands work.
How do you occupy your hands (and heart, and mind) you’re not writing up patterns and creating new knits?
-I make paint and ink from botanical and earth pigments, and I paint. I’ll be spending January in Iceland at a painting residency in Reykjavik working with my paints and photographs to complete a body of work.
-I write poetry and stories, but have only really started putting those into the world in the past short while. My most recent written work is called Collective Grief– an 8 page book with words about being orphaned and about the loss of a child.
-I try to be in the forest as much as possible. Arlin pushes me to hike farther, canoe to new places, and to experience new wilderness. We camp a lot year round.
-I read a lot. Both in real book form and in audiobook when I’m working- Fiction and Nonfiction both. [EDIT: we asked Caitlin for a handful of titles she might currently recommend, and she obliged!] Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer- “I’ve read this one a few times in the last year. It resonates with me so deeply. Her methods of seeing the world make perfect sense.” • Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach- “I listened to this audiobook while working recently. I had no idea about the rich history of cadavers!” • On Writing by Stephen King– “My friend and editor recommended this to me. This is such an important work for any writer.” • The Modern Natural Dyer by Kristine Vejar- “Hands down this is the book to read if you want to know about natural dyes. Kristine is a natural dye wizard, and so giving with her extensive knowledge.” • Teaching My Mother to Give Birth by Warsan Shire- “This poet broke something for me. She is whole and good and everything necessary to read.” • Sometimes a Wild God by Tom Hirons- “This is a short and quiet book. Meditative.” • Cold Moons by Magnus Sigurdsson- A book of poetry that was translated from Icelandic- “This one is a heart filled work.” • We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie- “A very important read. Especially in today’s political climate. ” • Anything by Kate Berwanger– “A poet from Seattle that has ripped my heart from my body so many times with her beautiful words.”
-And music- it holds a deep place in my heart. My taste in music bounces around to many genres- currently listening to Ólafur Arnalds all the time.
It seems you are always releasing new patterns! What are some of your current inspirations? What can we expect next from you?
Currently I’m inspired by grey and cold landscapes- I’m working on a whole new collection (between 10-13 pieces) I will be shooting these in Iceland this winter. This capsule is a gathering of draped wearables that will mimic the cold and surreal place that Iceland is. It will be my third time in Iceland- and it keeps drawing me back. When I fall in love with a place it feels like I leave a large piece of myself there- that hiraeth; a longing for a place that is more homesickness and grief and longing than anything else you’ve felt.
I also have a large gathering of new patterns that I will be shooting with Amanda of Brutally Beautiful Photography where we will be pushing the boundaries of what knitting ‘should’ look like. We are going to be pushing our collaborative work into larger scale installations in the forest. Amanda and I have a hell of a lot of magic to share with the world soon.
All photography by Brutally Beautiful Photography, except: photos taken from Iceland and photos from Caitlin’s new books.