Designer Dialogue: Woolly Thoughts

Happy weekending my fine fiber folk! The podcast will resume next weekend . . . right now I am up to my eyeballs in work prep and travel–I think you all know how that goes! I am very pleased to offer an excellent Designer Dialogue for you in the meantime. This weekend’s feature is Steve Plummer and Pat Ashforth–the Woolly Thoughts team! If you have not yet seen their amazing geometric patterns, you are in for a treat. I was off searching Ravelry for interesting afghans and again and again their patterns came to the top of the list. So, what’s a knitter to do? Get in touch, of course! Steve was kind enough to send along some email correspondence that I will share with you below. But first, please enjoy these images courtesy of Woolly Thoughts. And let us know what inspires you in the comments below!


If you would like to see Steve and Pat’s illusion knits, you MUST check out their videos of the knitted objects available here.

What is your background, both mathematical and knit-related?
My wife and I wrote our first book together long before we were married and consequently retain our different surnames, she is Pat Ashforth and I am Steve Plummer. Together we make up the Woolly Thoughts design team. Pat is trained in maths and English and I am trained in maths and art. We have both been mathematics teachers of 11 to 16 year olds and met, almost twenty five years ago, in a school in Luton, England. We are both geometers rather than algebraists and have a keen interest in shapes and how they fit together and in answering mathematical questions through geometric means. Pat was also a prolific knitter but did not follow traditional knitting patterns and together we developed ideas about fitting together mathematically correct garter stitch shapes to form garments. When I left the school, to become a Head of Mathematics, we decided we had enough ideas to put them together in our first book Woolly Thoughts and I taught myself to knit, from Pat’s written instructions, so that I had enough understanding of the craft to illustrate those written instructions. The ideas in this book were noted by the Brown Sheep yarn company in America who asked us to create an afghan for them. In creating this afghan we found that the larger scale we were working to allowed us to put far more mathematical ideas into a wall hanging than we had previously been able to put into a garment. We have rarely, since that time, again looked at producing knitted garments and have become best known for our design and production of large scale knitted or crocheted mathematical wall hangings initially created for use within our mathematics classrooms to engender discussion, particularly with children who had poor English skills. We even have a number of our pieces of work in The Science Museum in London as part of their mathematical collection.

Since we retired from teaching we spend much of our time seeking mathematical ideas to develop as designs for wall hangings or artefacts and continuing to question our design process. Part of this questioning led Pat to look at shadow knitting, or illusion knitting, and we, very quickly, formed the opinion that explanations and charting processes for this technique forced the position where only very basic, almost primitive, images could be created. Our inquisitive nature, love of designing and mathematical grasp of charting and visualisation in three dimensions along with our abhorrence of badly written or planned patterns led us to experiment with and develop the charting process. We used our experience of writing knitting patterns for none knitters to provide charts and instructions for illusion knitting that could be used effectively by all no matter what their experience of knitting had previously been.

So, what exactly is illusion knitting, and how does it work?
Illusion knitting relies on the fact that ridges of garter stitch and ridges of stocking stitch in knitting have different properties. Garter stitch ridges stand forward further than stocking stitch and this allows you to create a design that changes its appearance dependent on the angle of viewing. In illusion knitting two colours of yarn are used to create alternate ridges of knitting, a dark coloured ridge followed by a light coloured ridge. Areas of dark or light can be brought into the foreground, when the piece is viewed at an angle, by using garter stitch for that particular part of a ridge and stocking stitch for that portion of the preceding ridge. When the piece is viewed from directly in front only stripes of colour should be seen. Our maths and my maths/art background allowed us to develop the charting process for this technique to the point where I can create far more complex images than have previously been possible, incorporating not just areas of dark and light but also areas of various levels of intermediate shading.

How have you developed your illusion knits since you started?
Our developing of the charting process has provided a major breakthrough in the production of illusion knits in that it is now possible to create pieces that are not simply silhouettes.

Can you tell us a little bit about the process of turning an image into a chart?
To create a complex illusion knit I, first of all, decide on an image to use. The smallest detail that I want to show within this image must be, at least, one stitch across and this smallest detail therefore determines the scale of the completed piece. After determining the scale I put a square grid over the image, each square on the grid representing one stitch and each row of squares representing one row of knitting. I now “look through” the grid and decide on areas of dark or light that I need to see and colour in squares on the grid in the appropriate dark or light colour. When I have completed this process all coloured in squares are knit stitches and all squares that are not coloured are purled stitches when I come to knitting the piece. I do use a computer to draw these charts on, but it is very important to note that it is not the computer that draws the charts. It would be possible to draw the charts by hand using tracing paper but a computer drawing package that allows different layers to be created and then turned off or on is far more convenient for this process.

Where do you get the inspiration for your designs?
Many of the people who I teach to create their own illusion knits choose images that are special to them. The image might be of a child, a parent or a favoured pet. All of these images will have a strong personal relevance but may not have particular relevance to others. For display purposes I tend to look for images that are very recognisable to a wide audience so famous paintings or people provide me with my inspiration. The Mona Lisa, the works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti or images of Albert Einstein or The Beatles are good examples of the type of image I look for.

What is the most challenging part of creating an illusion knit?
The charting of a piece is by far the most challenging part of the process. It takes perseverance, time and an amount of “three dimensional awareness.” Each chart takes me, on average, about 100 hours to produce and I will test knit the piece as I go, refining the chart as necessary to ensure that the completed piece does exactly what I want it to do. The hand knitting itself will again take me, on average, about another 100 hours but this is partly because I knit rather slowly. The knitting itself uses only the most basic stitches to create garter stitch or stocking stitch ridges so even though the knitting itself, purely because of the size of most of the pieces, takes an extended amount of time it is by far the easiest part of the process and can be accomplished with success by even the most novice of knitters.

How can illusion knitting be integrated into other types of knitting, such as garments or accessories?
It is likely that illusion knitting has developed from the use of the varying heights of garter stitch and stocking stitch ridges to provide a change of texture on the surface of a garment and this change of texture itself providing a change of colour or shading as the garment moves in front of you. We tend to call this shadow knitting, there is no evidence of an actual image. For an illusion knit image to be used on a garment, then, the ridges of knitting need to be vertical if the image is to be viewed from the side. The ridges of knitting for an illusion panel would therefore not be in the traditional direction of such ridges which would tend to be horizontal. Using an illusion knit within a garment therefore simply requires a little more planning. Scale is also a problem with illusion knits. The smallest detail you wish to show needs to be, at least, one stitch across. This smallest detail therefore determines the size in stitches of the completed piece. If this size happens to be bigger than you wish for incorporation into a garment then that illusion becomes impossible.

Tell us about some of the exhibitions you’ve been involved with.
We do have work in the Science Museum in London as part of their mathematical collect, a piece at Puzzling World in Wanaka, New Zealand and many pieces in exhibits at Ripleys Entertainment “Believe It Or Not” venues around the world. For us though this remains a hobby and we tend not to self-promote on a serious scale. Exhibitions of our work therefore tend to be small in scale and restricted to local libraries and galleries.

Do you have a favorite illusion knit that you’ve created?
The work of the Pre-Raphaelites has always inspired me. The faces, expressions and poses tend to lend themselves well to this illusion knit process. My favourite illusion knit design has always been one that I based on the piece “Proserpine” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Where do you think your passion for illusion knitting will take you in the future?
As well as continuing to create my own complex illusion knit wall hangings I spend much of my time helping others to create their own illusion knit designs from images that are special to them. This broadcasting of the process via the internet is what I would like to develop further in the future, creating videos and tutorials to help people succeed with their own designs.

How can people find out more about illusion knitting and Woolly Thoughts?
Further insights into and photographs of our mathematical work can be found by following this link to our Woolly Thoughts web-site…

…and on our illusion knitting here.

The patterns for all of our pieces can be found by accessing the order form from the Woolly Thoughts web-site.

* * *

Thanks so much Steve!

I love meeting new people (and sheep!): if you are an indie dyer, a hand spinner, a shepherdess, a small flock owner, a mill operator, or a wool trader, I would love to feature your work on this site. Please get in touch via email or Ravelry by clicking the “About” tab (above)

This entry was posted in afghan, blanket, community, illusion knitting, interview, knitting, knitting math, patterns, shadow knitting, unexpected, Wooly Thoughts. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Designer Dialogue: Woolly Thoughts

  1. madgeface says:

    I love Wooly Thoughts! I have a few of their books and also made a baby blanket based on the Penrose pattern. They’re active in their Ravelry group and very helpful and informative!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. itwasjudith says:

    This was a very interesting post, thanks for it!
    I went off to their sites and got lost in the magic… such interesting things and ideas. I wish there was one book with all of them in it 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I am just reading this great interview – wow, my jaw is dropping at all the beautiful work showcased here. I had no idea that illusion knitting was a possible thing! The translation of images into stitches sounds like meticulous and labor intensive work, but the results are incredible. Thanks for sharing this intriguing interview. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Alina says:

    I always admired the combination of graphic designs and knitting! I remember how when i only started crocheting I found this amazing artists who creates stunning crochet portraits and was so inspired by it!

    Liked by 1 person

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