A Visit with Alice Starmore
Photographs by Jade Starmore except where otherwise noted.
Alice behind the scenes on the Glamourie shoot. Photograph by Rachel Keenan.
Alice Starmore is one of our greatest handknit designers, with more than three decades of work that is unlike any other.
It is epic. It is fearless. It is intricate and subtle and extravagant and wild. There is nothing that Alice Starmore won’t try—she is willing to use complex techniques, stunning colorwork, and construction that no other designer will attempt. Her new book, Glamourie, created in partnership with her daughter Jade Starmore, is astonishing proof of her imagination let loose.
Let me tell you about this extraordinary woman. If she is new to you, you are in for such a joyride.
I met Alice Starmore in 2008. Standing at the edge of a crowd at an event, I gazed in awe as she demonstrated steeking on a large wrap in shades of blue. Without fear and without securing the edges with crochet or sewing, she simply cut the knitting. This was an alien technique to me then, terrifying.
I had heard of Alice and even had a couple of her books (The Celtic Collection and Tudor Roses) which I loved to read but was never quite brave enough to start a project from.
Back then, I was about to become the editor of The Knitter and was doing everything I could to improve my knitting techniques. Thanks to Alice and her inspiring talk, I persevered with Fair Isle, which is now my favorite technique and one that I often teach.
Close to Nature
Alice Starmore has long lived in the Outer Hebrides, in a gorgeous croft that overlooks the sea. I visited her a couple of years ago when I was on holiday in Lewis.
The Outer Hebrides is a collection of islands off the western coast of Scotland. The landscape across the largest islands, Lewis and Harris, features extensive moorlands, craggy mountains, and white beaches where the sea is so blue you’d think you were in the Mediterranean. The people are welcoming, and whenever you walk through the villages, you hear the clatter of weaving looms. This is the land of the legendary Harris Tweed that can be woven only in the homes of local crofters to achieve its official certification.
Alice’s 2018 pedigree Highland calves, Seamus and Ruaridh of Broad Bay.
On her parcel of land, Alice breeds pedigree Highland cattle—a couple each year. She invited me to see these Highland beauties up close. The matriarch, Ishbel, gave me a good sniffing and decided I wasn’t a threat, so she allowed me near the two calves who are probably the sweetest I have ever seen, with their forelock ringlets that make them look like teddy bears.
The view over the croft from the house and studio. Photograph by Rachel Keenan.
Alice behind the scenes on the Glamourie shoot.
Alice is wedded to her landscape. The passing of the seasons, the changing light, the flora and fauna that surround her all inform and inspire her designs and the colors of her yarns. “Nature never fails you—it’s where my soul is. If you work with nature and know the landscape, there is endless inspiration,” she says. “The island of Lewis has so many different ecosystems. Summer and autumn on the moorland are very special, with colors that shift in the light.”
Discovering Her Path
In 1975, Alice began designing, having moved back to Lewis, the island where she was born, with her husband. Handknitting was high fashion, and the collection she took to London sold well, but finding people to knit the designs was a bit problematic. The dichotomy she faced was that yes, there was demand, but the fees she could offer knitters were not great. Alice is very ethical—she didn’t want to exploit her knitters.
Alice modeling her first collection in 1975. Photograph by Noel Evans.
Shortly after, she was awarded a Winston Churchill Fellowship that allowed her to travel around Scandinavia to understand how these countries managed to sustain a thriving craft community.
She quickly realized that selling sweaters was not what she wanted to do, because consumers simply wouldn’t pay the price for a jumper that would give a knitter a living wage. She decided to teach and pass on her skills by designing garments and accessories that knitters could enjoy. In fact, that lies at the heart of her designing. “Every moment spent knitting is a very precious moment,” she explains. Her designs are all created to excite and entice us, for us to learn and achieve something new and beautiful.
The Books Begin to Flow
In 1985, Alice travelled to the United States to attend the Knitting Guild of America’s first convention. She took some yarn, 3.25mm needles, and her trusty knitting belt, and wowed the delegates who were gobsmacked especially when she showed them how to steek. At that show, a publisher persuaded her to write a book called Fair Isle Knitting. One of the most important works for knitters, it covers some of the history of the technique with loads of inspiration and encouragement for all abilities.
Jane Seymour from front cover of Tudor Roses, 2013 edition.
Anne Boleyn, from Tudor Roses, 2013 edition.
Many wonderful books followed, seminal works that define both Alice’s design progression and our journey with her through technique, pattern, and color: Scandinavian Knitwear (1981); Knitting from the British Islands (1982); Children’s Knitting from Many Lands (1983); Alice Starmore’s Book of Fair Isle Knitting (1988 and 2010); Sweaters for Men (1988); The Celtic Collection (1992); Charts for Colour Knitting (1992 and 2009); Fishermen’s Sweaters (1993); Celtic Needlepoint (1994); Aran Knitting (1997 and 2010); Tudor Roses (1998 and 2013). The complete list of works is here.
Cromarty knotwork design from The Celtic Collection (1992). Photograph by Mike Bunn.
The expanded 2010 edition of Aran Knitting.
Eala Bhan shaped knotwork design from Aran Knitting, 2010 edition.
Alice says, “The Celtic Collection (1992) was the first time Celtic-style art and especially Celtic knotwork was interpreted in knitting. The book sold over 200,000 copies, and I am very happy that it became the impetus for what could be now described as a knitting ‘genre.’ One of the main objectives I had in Aran Knitting (as well as in workshops I taught all over the United States since 1986) was to provide knitters with the means to design their own cabled and Celtic style designs.”
Eriskay from Fishermen’s Sweaters (1993).
Detail of Eriskay showing Alice’s star motif which she designed as a reference to her married name Starmore.
Detail of the Cape Cod gansey from Fishermen’s Sweaters showing Alice’s shell motif.
Alice wrote Fishermen’s Sweaters (1993) after several years of teaching knitters about the construction and design of fishing ganseys which is the knitting tradition that she comes from. The book was the first to provide full instructions for knitting designs with gansey construction from start to finish.
Catching the Color
Peigi design for Virtual Yarns, based on one of Alice’s swatches in her Book of Fair Isle Knitting.
Oregon Autumn Cardigan for Virtual Yarns.
The motifs Alice incorporates into her Fair Isle designs make her patterns instantly recognizable and are mostly nontraditional, coming from the sinuous and organic forms she sees all around her. This is part of what makes her unique, as she explains: “I love to create, and I never stop seeing something new. First I do a drawing, and that can often suggest colors and patterns to me.”
Color has a fundamental effect on pattern, and she likes to play with it, but it doesn’t always work. “You have to be prepared to fail. A design doesn’t just come in an instant—you have to work at it, not overthink it,” she says. Alice’s advice if you are thinking of trying out new colors or changing a colorway: “People do get anxious when they are working with color. Try to stop thinking and don’t make a final decision while you are still knitting. If it doesn’t work just, try it again.”
Alba jumper from The Celtic Collection (1992) and Dunadd knotwork wrap for Virtual Yarns.
The other magic ingredient is her yarn, launched in 2001, available from her website, Virtual Yarns, which is now the focus of her work. Alice describes her Hebridean 2ply as the “heart of the range.” It has an extraordinary palette of heathered hues.
The subtlety of color in Virtual Yarns Hebridean 2ply is astonishing.
You can pick up a hank of any of the 36 shades, place it next to another, and right there you have harmony. This alchemy is another example of her attention to detail. By looking at the colors of nature around her, she devised a master palette of 200 base shades. “First you have to start with the best quality fleece,” she says. “Getting the color balance right for each shade is hard—the proportions are so important to getting the best mix, as is making sure the blend isn’t overprocessed.”
Hebridean 2ply in Pebble Beach and Corncake.
Once Alice had her base colors, she took small amounts and blended them by hand, so she could show the spinner exactly what she wanted before the commercial spinning began. The shade Pebble Beach contains more than 27 different colors to create just the color Alice was looking for. With this palette, she has the shades she needs for her designs and can work with them in a painterly way.
Glamourie: A New, Extraordinary Book
The panoramic cover of Glamourie, shot on Alice’s home island.
Alice’s latest book is a collaboration with her daughter Jade Starmore, who is a professional photographer and also an exceptional textile designer. Glamourie blends original stories, fantastical costumes, and beautiful garments and accessories to knit. From the introductions and notes on their work that they each have written that give such an interesting insight in to the project, to the breathtaking designs and scenery, Glamourie celebrates the landscape and life of the Outer Hebrides and the craft of knitting. It is a gift from the heart for knitters.
Some of Jade’s early designs emerged in Tudor Roses, and she has created her own designs ever since. Her photography skills capture the essence of Glamourie in a very special way.
Alice explains: “We inspire each other constantly, which is the most joyous part of working together. We come up with ideas, choose a theme, and we then discuss how we will make it a reality. For a book such as Glamourie we discuss as a family, the design of the book itself which is done quite literally, in-house. Then we work separately. One of the most enjoyable aspects of working this way is when we show each other what we have produced along the way as this invariably adds fuel to our fires.” Together they are an amazing ideas factory.
Creating without Boundaries
Glamourie began as a conversation on a trip to Chicago. The thought of the long journey home evolved into an idea for a book based on shape-shifting, which is a powerful part of their Gaelic cultural heritage. Which of us, when sitting in a departure lounge, hasn’t wished we could travel home in an instant?
Alice says, “I have a lasting impression of the time I spent on the moors in summertime as a child with family and friends. The evenings would often be spent telling Gaelic tales—exciting and frightening in equal measure. As a family, we have always loved literature, and Jade loved reading and also writing her own stories as a child.”
Alice and Jade decided on the creatures that they wanted to portray in the book, which they had observed in nature around them. Then Jade began to write the tales while Alice started to explore her creativity, to really test herself and see what she could create without boundaries.
“My brief within the central theme was to create knitted costumes that would illustrate Jade’s stories and be imbued with the essence of the creatures shape-shifted to a human form,” Alice says. Much in the tradition of theatrical catwalk designs, the costumes capture the characteristics of each animal and are an explosion of ideas of what one can do with knitting.
As Alice produced her costumes and designs, Jade styled them. She designed fabric from images created from the landscape, then designed and made the garments to be worn with the knitted pieces. ‘‘This working back and forth between each other is the essence of our collaboration.”
After this venting of creativity came the designs with instructions for knitters. Taking elements from the costumes, such as the feathers of the Raven, Alice has brought together a collection of beautifully wearable designs. I find it so inspiring to see the heights that knitting design can achieve and see it translated into a garment or accessory that is accessible to me. It makes me feel a part of Glamourie as I knit.
This amazing book took three years to complete. It wasn’t just the time it takes to craft the costumes with their thousands of stitches, all knitted by Alice apart from The Otter which was designed and knitted by Jade, but waiting for the right time of year for the beautiful shoots. “We wanted the designs to be in and a part of the landscape where they belong, so we shot them over three summers around the islands of Harris and Lewis,” Alice explains.
Lapwing design and collar.
The publication of Glamourie is just the start of the journey. When you visit Alice’s website, you will see the designs evolve. Taking elements from the book, Alice offers more ideas for knitters. The feathers of the Raven are translated into stunning collars as an idea for knitters to make their own. Designs are merged such as the Lapwing and the Raven to encourage knitters to push their own creativity. It is almost as if Alice and Jade have given us a workbook for our own explorations.
Alice elaborates: “I hope Glamourie will be seen as a celebration of what can be achieved with knitting which, after all is just one single thread and a pair of needles. I want to encourage knitters to use Glamourie as we continue to do—as a platform for exploration and for shifting shapes in anyway that personally suits them,” she says.
Alice Starmore remains one of our greatest hand knit designers, just as she has been for more than 30 years. “You have to be fearless and push the boundaries. That way you keep learning all the time. It’s what keeps me interested,” she concludes.