There’s intarsia, and there’s Sylvia Watts-Cherry intarsia.
Consider, for example, the question of a certain button band.
For Sylvia, a cardigan with a Nubian queen on it can’t have a plain old button band interrupting the face.
So her iconic design—a true showstopper—includes a proper intarsia button band: a dozen colors carefully knitted to continue the pattern.
You know: just another bit of knitting.
Nobody is having more fun with knitting than Sylvia Watts-Cherry—she’s got a million ideas and a wall full of yarn. Stand back, people.
She is fearless in her designs. Her background in science and math gives her a comfort level with complexity and detail. She’ll combine cables and intarsia. Embellishment and texture. Anything is possible in Sylvia’s world.
She has been knitting since she was eight, growing up in Aberdeen, Scotland. Her long career culminated in running a busy tutoring company. It was only when she sold her business a few years ago to retire that knitting became her all-consuming new career.
From the sound of it, this is a very busy retirement.
What Inspires Her?
You can see a variety of influences running through Sylvia’s designs.
It was at an exhibition of African textiles in London that she decided she wanted to try to recreate some of what she saw—she is totally fascinated with African fabrics, culture, and history, drawing from her Nigerian family heritage.
For Nubian Queen, her idea began with a length of fabric from Africa featuring the head of a woman.
“Around Christmas 2018,” she says, “I started playing with a pattern. I found this fabric I absolutely loved. Found it at a craft festival in London. That’s how the Nubian Queen started.” She wanted a figure recognizable as a Black woman with a headscarf and vibrant colors.
“I was going to New York for Vogue Knitting Live, and I just wanted something a little bit bigger than some plain jumper. I was going to a place that’s big and loud. I just did it for the trip.
“Everybody went mad on Instagram. I just wasn’t prepared—I didn’t expect to be recognized. It was so overwhelming. I thought I’d just knitted a cardigan. I wanted something I could take off, because it was going to be hot.”
See? That button band was all about practicality!
This dazzling design set Sylvia Watts-Cherry on her new path as a knitwear designer.
The final Nubian Queen pattern is a pullover, which is a merciful thing for those of us who haven’t quite mastered the intarsia button band.
For another knitting festival, Sylvia wanted to celebrate a typical African village.
A coat of many colors—and creatures and people.
“It’s not a particular place, though people ask me about that,” she says. “I just put in elements of market life, people walking to market, villages, boats, animals. You never have animals living that close, but it’s fine for the sweater.”
The design wraps around the whole coat.
It was a challenge, to be sure, to make the design flow across the front. It embodies what Sylvia is all about: “Design happens as you go along. It’s not static. As I knit, I modify it and change things around.”
Such an easy intarsia button band on this one!
Will we see Village Life as a pattern? “No!” she laughs. “Some things you just have to knit for the pleasure of it. For me that was a bit of fun.”
Part of the Warm Hands book, edited by Jeanette Sloan and Kate Davies, Amaka celebrates symbols and colors of traditional African textiles. The playfulness of Sylvia’s interpretation is on full display here.
In the MDK Shop
Sylvia is a child of Scotland, growing up in Aberdeen, and traditional cables and knit-purl textures are another facet of Sylvia’s work.
Living now in Hertfordshire, north of London, you can hear the nostalgia in her voice as she talks about a favorite design, her Caledonia jumper.
Cables worked into argyle. Beautiful.
“Caledonia is quite an emotional one for me,” she says. “The pattern started at the Edinburgh Yarn Festival. I came across a yarn, Fibre Co. Lore, and the idea came straight to me. It needed to be about the Highlands of Scotland, the kind of garment that would be happy there. It came from being in Scotland. And when it came to naming it, it just made me feel like home, growing up in Aberdeen.”
Modeled by one of her daughters. up top is her other daughter modeling Nubian Queen. (They’re twins!)
“When it first came out, one of the knitters following me sent me the song ‘Caledonia,’ and it was about going home, and that feeling. I played it for the whole day and cried the whole day. That one is like home. Feels very much like being young again and growing up, with the hills in Scotland.”
How She Works
“Designing is quite an emotional thing for me,” Sylvia says. “I have to feel the yarn and then I have to feel the design, otherwise I can’t connect with it.”
Getting outside is a balm to her. “I walk every day, tend to go out with the sun, 7:30 in the morning. I love being out when there aren’t many people. Go out in the woods, get the fresh air, reflect, relax, and that’s when I do a lot of my thinking and design work. When I’m stuck, I go for a walk.”
When she sees people knitting her designs, Sylvia is thrilled. “I love responding to messages. I feel it’s an honor for someone to make something that’s come out of your head. I’m so excited when somebody makes something. For me, it’s still a hoot. I get so excited. I love to see the interpretation. It’s an honor. I get a buzz from it.”
Advice for Intarsia Knitters
As a teacher of intarsia, Sylvia is pro tangle! “I actually don’t use bobbins. When I’m teaching it, I teach how to make the yarn butterflies and how to hold the bobbins if they want to use the bobbins. But the real secret is to free the yarn.”
Take a Class with Sylvia
One silver lining of the lockdown is that we can all take a class from Sylvia so easily.
Thursday, February 4, 12:30-2:30 pm Eastern: Intarsia in the Round at Knit + Escape. Sign up here.
Saturday, February 13, 10:00-noon Eastern: Beginner’s Journey into Intarsia at Virtual Knitting Live. Register here.
Sunday, February 14, 10:00-noon Eastern: Journey into Intarsia in the Round at Virtual Knitting Live, register here.
See all of Sylvia’s designs on Ravelry, right here.
Finally . . .
Here’s “Caledonia,” the song by Dougie MacLean that Sylvia talks about. Fair warning: it is as tender a song as you’ll find.