Frances Bell

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The tea cosy that taught me – a story about knitting and learning

Saartje bootees

Saartje bootees


Berry hat






I am a fairly unprolific knitter who loves knitting. I do knit repeats of things I have knitted before, like the berry hat and Saartje bootees that I have knitted for many babies of those connected to me.

But what I really like in a new knitting project is a challenge, that it pushes me to learn new things. My most recently completed project is a the very lovely “I’m a little Teapot” tea cosy designed by June Dickinson of Simply Shetland. Here is the finished article in use today.

Cosied tea and biscuits

Cosied tea and biscuits

I discovered the pattern through my Twitter friend, a great knitter, @glittrgirl who tweeted her finished teacosy last year.   I was also attracted by the promise from the pattern that it’s “a good small project for learning Fair Isle knitting and steeking”.  Steeking – what a fabulous word – I wanted some of that even though I didn’t know what it was.  Having had a slightly disastrous Fair Isle experience earlier, I wanted to make a fresh start and learn to do it better with the authentic yarn .

Steeking is a scary knitting concept as it involves cutting vertically through knitting – I can imagine knitters wincing if this is the first time they have heard of it – I know I did. Steeking is the strange twin of knitting in the round, a wonderful technique done using circular or sets of double-pointed needles that enables you to knit a tube with no seams. That works well for hats and socks but in sweaters, we need slits for our arms to go through, or in tea cosies, slits for the spout and handle of the tea pot. Here’s how Eunny Jang explains it:

In practice, setting, knitting, and slicing a steek is just a handy way to knit an entire sweater in the round by creating a bridge of waste stitches wherever a separation would be, i.e. between front and back for an armhole, or between the right and left sides of the neck, or all the way up the front of a cardigan.

I started the project in December, and it’s fair to say there have been ups and downs. I made several mistakes with the Fair Isle for the lettering. Eventually, after many froggings (ripping back to the error) I completed the basic knitting. I added the corrugated rib to the bottom of the cosy, and the Shale lace to the top, then I knitted the iCord drawstring. Now there was nothing left to do but to steek – I had to cut this knitting that had taken me months – it was terrifying!  I had knitted the cosy in the recommended Shetland Spindrift, a ‘sticky’ yarn that I was promised would not unravel when I cut it.

Here is my unsteeked teacosy.

Teacosy - before steeking

Teacosy – before steeking

Fortunately @glittrgirl was at hand, she gave me a Skype tutorial in seeking that was one part technical information to nine parts confidence-building. I didn’t follow the pattern exactly – I just went with a cobbled together approach that we came up with.  And then we had a nice juicy gossip about ed tech stuff.

So now, there was nothing else for it – I had to steek. I did ….. and all went well. The last steps were to knit around the turned back and stitched steeks; to finish off the lettering, as per the pattern; and also to correct my errors that I only spotted  later. Can you spot them?

Where are the errors?

Where are the errors?

So how do I feel now that it’s finished?

First, I feel a massive sense of achievement – despite all of the mistakes and ripping back, I have produced a thing of beauty and no-one except me will be aware of the mistakes and recoveries.  They will see, as I do, a delightful tea cosy, that will be used in lovely social situations involving tea, and possibly cakes and biscuits.

So that’s one product but what about learning?

I have learned to do Fair Isle knitting better than I could do before. I have learned to steek. I have learned to do knitting in the round with the two-circulars method.

But the more important learning for me is the possibility of recovery from mistakes; that doing the knitting and making mistakes can be pleasurable; that the learning in a project can hinge on mistakes;  that the fragile and imperfect beauty of the end product can eclipse the mistakes; and that those enjoying the tea and admiring the cosy that kept it warm for the second cup won’t be a bit bothered about the mistakes.

What does that have to tell us about the experiences of learners in formal educational contexts?  Can they call on more experienced others to help them through scary challenges? Do they feel safe to embrace mistakes and believe that they can recover from them? Are they proud of what they produce?

cosyFair IsleknitknittinglearningteaTwitter

francesbell • May 8, 2015

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  1. glittrgirl May 8, 2015 - 8:25 pm Reply

    Inspirational post and beautiful finished tea cosy! Well done. The bit you missed out is about how the knitting conversations, the confidence building, the mutual encouragement centred on the materiality of making, brings people together, and builds relationships through shared experience. Knit working. It’s the way forward.

  2. francesbell May 8, 2015 - 9:06 pm Reply

    Thanks Suzanne – I love it when people re-direct my attention. Centering on the materiality of making – that is so powerful. I am now thinking about the materiality of making in different contexts- wow!!

  3. sheilmcn May 8, 2015 - 9:28 pm Reply

    Love the tea cosy and the learning journey Frances

  4. Alyson Indrunas May 9, 2015 - 12:28 am Reply

    Reblogged this on Spoke & Hub.

  5. Chrissi Nerantzi May 9, 2015 - 6:25 pm Reply

    Hi Frances,

    Lovely piece and so much creativity.

    I remember when we were occasionally travelling together to work for a short while and you showed me some of your creations.

    You ask us about finding the error. I engaged with your story holistically (wasn’t looking for errors). For me it was more about the ideas and learning your shared through making, which I feel is very rich.

    Your last words about the power of making are so true.

    Looking forward to your next creations


  6. Chrissi Nerantzi May 9, 2015 - 6:27 pm Reply

    … recovering from mistakes is not always easy as often we feel that we are judged… even when we are not… do we make it hard for ourselves? Just wondering. Thank you for making me think about this too, Frances.

  7. francesbell May 9, 2015 - 6:35 pm Reply

    Thanks Chrissi. I probably didn’t express it very well but I was trying to get across the idea of learning to love our mistakes as they could remind us of how we learned. That learning is an activity where we have permission to get things wrong. I am imagining a learning culture where making and recovering from mistakes is seen as social and positive not shameful.

  8. Chrissi Nerantzi May 10, 2015 - 5:17 pm Reply

    Agree 200% with you Frances. But as you say a supportive culture is needed. How can this be created? What are the vital ingredients? I am making loads of mistakes and the more we do the more mistakes we make. A person who is in-active hasn’t got this opportunity… but is also safe(r)… what are the implications?


  9. francesbell May 10, 2015 - 5:39 pm Reply

    I haven’t any simple answers Chrissi but I am trying to think of any learning activities that in any way correspond to my tea cosy experience. Gordon Fletcher and I set a group project where Masters students worked over about 6 weeks to make something (changed each year) but could be say social media strategy with proof of concept web site. This was followed by two weeks of group reflection with an individual reflective report at the end. The intention was to credit learning from reflection not just from the group product achieved. It was challenging to support this, particularly with students who were unused to identifying things that they might have done better and honestly reflecting on what they might do differently the next time. However, we did have some success. I have to say it was small group and scaling support to a large class could be difficult, I think.
    I always think that focus on the process to see what you learn as you go along is valuable. It sometimes seemed like I had to market the idea of the value of process learning for the future to students and that could only start to happen once they trusted me. As Suzanne said, the conversations and mutual encouragement around making are good.

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