We were delighted to speak with Irish crochet designer Aoibhe Ni Shuilleabhain. With a focus on Tunisian crochet, Aoibhe creates beautiful, ethereal shawls evocative of romantic Ireland. We talk to Aoibhe about when she learned Tunisian crochet and what her future plans are.
When did you first learn to crochet, and who taught you?
Oh, that will be my Mam, when I was about 10 or so. She’d taught me to knit before that and I loved it, and cross stitch and all sorts of other fibre arts that she taught me too, but then one winter she took to making gigantic granny square blankets. I have such fond memories of her, me, my little sister, and our dog all tangled up in whatever blanket Mam was making at the time. Just heads and limbs everywhere. Every time she had to turn the blanket to work along a new side, we’d all have to leave and resettle. It was so snuggly and cosy and I immediately fell in love with crochet from then on. It always brings up wonderful memories.
How did you make the transition to Tunisian crochet?
Accidentally? I’m honestly not entirely sure. I do remember, in my teens, seeing someone in a pattern book solve the problem of the gaps between taller stitches in crochet by attaching the stitches along their sides as well as the top and bottom, and they called them “Linked” stitches, very sensibly. I filed this interesting info away in my head and didn’t think about it for many years until a knitting friend taught me how to make basic knitted lace. Then suddenly, something sparked in my head, and I haven’t looked back. It truly was my Eureka moment.
What about Tunisian crochet appeals to you the most?
I think for me the thing I love most is that it is full of restrictions, unlike regular, traditional crochet. The fact that it works up into a perfect grid means that any texture you want to add tends to come with a set of rules you have to negotiate around. If you want to add an eyelet, you have to decrease somewhere else, unless you are OK with your row getting taller, for instance. It’s like conducting an orchestra, I think. Each pattern is a puzzle that I have to solve, and I love that.
When did you first start designing your own pieces?
From the first moment I picked up yarn, I have been designing to some extent. I can’t say any of seven-year-old me’s “patterns” are worthy of publishing, but I’ve always been the type of person to, creatively at least, likes to forge my own path. Because I prefer to design than to follow a pattern, and because, for my formative years I was a good, long car trip from any library or source of pattern books, I ended up having to make up my own stuff. That habit was formalised as the recession hit, however. Upon losing my graphic design job, I fell back on my first love and began to focus on it more professionally.
Can you tell us a little about your design process?
The more I ponder this question, the less able I am to answer it, I find. It’s mostly instinct, I think. I find all the inspiration I need in the ebb and flow of stitches, and as I said, my designs tend to come from the compromises therein. So, I start off half asleep, most of the time, and into my head pops a basic shape, a geometric jigsaw of sorts. I scribble it down on the notepad I keep by my bed, and in the morning if it still makes sense, I’ll file it away till I find a yarn I want to work with. Then it’s a question of feeling my way through the shapes by making small swatches. I have literally no mind’s eye, so imagining a design fully complete is not something I can do. Until I have it in my hands I won’t know if it will work. At this point, I dive in and see what happens.
We’ve spoken to designers like Stephen West, Erica Knight and Ruth McKeon about their inspiration. For most of them, it’s their surroundings that appears to be their main inspiration, is that the same with you?
I wish it was. That sounds so romantic! And considering where I get to live, you’d think it’d be the same for me, but nope! For me, it is truly all geometry, trial, error and a pinch of luck. I can create more design opportunities for myself by pondering all the ways possible to stick triangles together than I can while gazing at a beautiful landscape or ancient structure. I’ve even had inspiration for a shawl while absent-mindedly stroking my dog, Rosie’s ear. The arc my thumb made across her fur set off an idea that became my next pattern (still unnamed).
You have designed quite a collection of shawls – what appeals to you about shawls in particular?
The fact that shawls fit everyone, no matter their dimensions, for one thing. I love seeing men and women wrapped in my designs, so being fairly unisex is appealing, too. But mostly it is the fact that shawls don’t need to conform to certain shapes. They can be long, broad, they can curve in a thousand different ways, they can curl and swirl and I get to play with the stitches a lot more as a result. It feels a little like magic sometimes. Plus, I have to admit, I adore the fact that blocking a shawl is an absolute thrill. Getting to see, finally, what all my work and mathematics and inspiration have begotten is truly the best bit. I’ve had more than my fair share of “Oh! I did not think it’d look like this… cool!” moments.
How do you see your designing evolve over the next few years?
The last few years have been tough for me, financially, and as a result, I have found my inspiration take a tumble, too. I design better when I feel safe when I have the time to try, and experiment, and toss away anything that’s just not working. I hope the next few years will see my family’s finances stabilise, and with it, I predict a bit of an explosion in my ability to design. Maybe a book in print? Maybe I’ll finally take the leap into Tunisian colourwork as an element of a few designs? Maybe there’ll be more mixed media like the phone cosy in this issue. I’m not sure. But I do know that I will continue designing til my fingers fall off.
You say your design motto is “just because I can crochet it, doesn’t mean I should”. What do you mean by this?
Crochet is such a young craft, and so, so versatile, it’s easy to forget sometimes that in my zeal to invent new techniques, the finished product must also look appealing and be doable. It’s also possible to make, literally any shape in crochet. But there are some items out there that simply do not need crochet covers. Toilet rolls come to mind.
What designers are you inspired by?
Oddly enough, there are not may lace designers on my list. Nor are there many crocheters either. I try to stay away from my peers’ work if possible, in case I inadvertently pick up one of their ideas and run with it. So, I feel far comfier admiring the knitted colourwork of Kieran Foley, for instance, and Kate Davies who I have adored ever since I met her in person I also have great respect for Carol Feller’s skill and work ethic. I have met all three, and can’t sing their praises highly enough as both kind, lovely people as well as designers.
Do you have a favourite medium you like to work with?
I tend to test patterns in DK weight yarn, but then design in fingering weight or lace weight once I’ve ironed out the kinks. For me, softness is key since no-one will want to wrap scratchy yarn around their neck, but I try to include a little silk in any yarn I choose so that the lace will both block and hold its open shape once worn. So, anything Merino/Silk will have my attention, for sure.
You also teach people to crochet and to Tunisian crochet. Do you get a sense of achievement from teaching someone a new craft?
If I had a second motto, it’d be “The only thing I love more than making crochet, is making crocheters!”. I adore teaching people. I live for that moment when the penny drops, and I see a sense of pride in my student. There is nothing more life-affirming than seeing someone’s enthusiasm for a creative endeavour blossom like that. I also love when my students make mistakes, invent stitches they didn’t know exist, or find ways of using what I have taught them in ways I wouldn’t have considered. I find the whole process very gratifying, and I think they do too.
Can you tell us a little bit about the new book of designs you’re working on? What can we expect?
Well, Legendary Shawls II is my fourth ebook of Tunisian lace shawls and is the sequel to Legendary Shawls. Both collections will have a total of eight shawl patterns, varying from easy to challenging, and include all the instructions and charts you need, even if you’ve never embarked on any Tunisian crochet before. I’ve added lots of helpful YouTube links to videos of myself explaining and demonstrating many of the techniques and trickier bits, too. LSII is on its 4th of eight patterns right now, and I’m releasing them as I design them. So, anyone who picks up a currently discounted copy will have instant access to all the released patterns so far and will be pleasantly surprised with notifications whenever a new pattern is added to their library. I like to think of myself as a pattern fairy in that regards. All my patterns are also available on Ravelry individually, but, of course, buying the collection as a whole represents a gigantic saving, so it’s worth having a snoop around and seeing if you like the look of several patterns before buying anything.
Cerise: Anansi, Gold: De Danann, Blue: Freyja, Fullshot, Grey: Guinevere, Brown: Venus and
Light Pink: Pax all courtesy of www.halfadreamaway.com
Green: Macha and Grey: Nuada courtesy of www.cottagenotebook.ie