Dark Harbour Yarn: Nikki Jones' inspired local colour

James Whyte of Berhampore’s Baker Gramercy is a study in perpetual motion. You can find him Wednesday through Saturday behind the counter at his bakery doing everything from greeting customers to measuring dough to cutting sheets of croissant pastry with the greatest of precision.

Nikki is also a phenomenal knitter, turning out lovely cardigans, scarves, shawls, hats and other delights. We’ve got some examples in our gallery here, but you can see more on her page on Ravelry, a website by and for knitters and crocheters, where she’s known as DarkHarbour. Go have a look, and have a look at her Etsy shop, too - the virtual shelves are stocked full of wonders. If you were lucky enough to attend the giant fibre festival that is the New York Sheep & Wool Festival (aka Rhinebeck) in October, you could have caught Nikki's work at the Indie Untangled Rhinebeck Trunk Show. And if you're in Wellington in November, by all means call into the wonderful Holland Road Yarn Company, where Nikki's work is being featured as the Indie Dyer of the Month. Failing all that, just wander over to her Instagram account for an endless stream of inspiration (and the occasional charming beagle photo).

We wanted to hear more about Nikki’s creative process and how she’s built her business from the ground up - and in the process gained shoulders that would do a swimmer proud.

Newtown House: You're such a skilled knitter: Have you always knitted and been drawn to craft? Where did you get your love of fabrics and fibre, and where did you pick up the skills? What are the most enjoyable aspects of knitting for you - is it the technical challenge, the creative work of matching pattern / yarn / colour choice, or … ?

Nikki Jones: I’ve always made things, though for a long time they were pretty horrible! I try to think of that kindly, in a ‘learning your craft’ kind of way. My mother and grandmothers were all constant makers – so I grew up around people who had a project in hand every time they sat down. My grandma taught me to knit when I was 8; I managed a few rows of a hideous beige garter stitch doll’s scarf. I didn’t pick up the needles again ’til I was 26 and spent some time with my grandma, who taught me again – and it was a completely different experience.

I enjoy most aspects of knitting – especially the engineering parts; there’s lots of opportunities for problem solving. I’m also bloody stubborn, so am prepared to put a lot of time into researching the best ways to do a thing, or practicing a fiddly technique 'til I can tick it off the list.

I like that I can sit down with a wee swatch of knitted fabric, a calculator, pencil, and stitch dictionary and come up with something that will be a long-lasting garment. I also really like that there is always, always, more to learn. There are so many skilled craftswomen who are happy to share their skills and hand down their knowledge.

NH: How long have you had Dark Harbour Yarn? (And it's a great name: Where did that inspiration come from?)

NJ: I’ve always dyed yarn for my own use, but turned it into a business in 2014. I’m pretty big on considered products and branding, and thought about that a lot while I was walking the dog around the harbour in the mornings, often in the dark. Dark Harbour as a concept works well for me – I enjoy naming all the yarns along nautical and maritime themes. There’s a vast and interesting history, geography, and body of literature to explore. And customers have excellent yarn name suggestions, too – so naming them often feels like a community effort. We’ve come up with Luca Brasi (coppery brass), Budgie Smuggler (speckled wildness), Prepare to Be Boarded (very loud pink), Arthur Kill (deep navy), and dozens of others..

NH: What made you decide to go into business for yourself? What were you doing before that? What's the best thing about this kind of work, and what are the more challenging bits?

NJ: While I was getting Dark Harbour started, I was also working in strategy, policy and communications for NGOs, and that that was interesting and challenging, but I started to have health problems and could no longer commit to working regular office hours. It was with a great deal of sadness I had to give up that work. Being self-employed means I can work when I’m well, and put it on hold when I’m not. It’s clearly not an efficient way to actually grow a business, but my customers are very patient. While some dyers do pre-orders and clubs, I only ever sell yarn that I have dyed and have ready to post. That way there’s no chance of a health flare or any other issue that might impact customers.

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Dyeing is challenging physically. I’ve got shoulders like a swimmer now – wet wool is really heavy! And like any business where you have to hold stock, you need to manage your finances carefully.

NH: Tell us a little bit about your practice - where does the inspiration for yarn colours come from, and what are some of the challenges of turning that vision into a yarny reality?

NJ: Inspiration really is everywhere. I see stuff when I’m out walking and take pics (or occasionally follow someone wearing an amazing colour, for rather a while, so I can commit it to memory). Often I get fixated on a colour (like an eye-searing royal blue), and will make a dozen batches of slightly different versions ’til it’s just right.  

I like super-saturated colours, but dye can be a fickle mistress. So it’s often a balance of trying to make the ultimate colour, and making something that’s colourfast, repeatable and practical for customers.

NH: What are some of your favourite fibres to work with (or combos of fibres), and why?

NJ: I’m a big fan of silk blends – because silk is smooth and lustrous, they take colour like a dream. While the chemicals added to make most knitting merino into superwash (non-shrink) wool are probably not ideal, they mean that you can add layers and layers of dye, in a way you can’t with non-treated wools. But some of my favourite knitting yarns are those still resembling rustic, honest, sheep-smelling wool.

NH: What are some of your favourite patterns (either your own or those made by others), and are there some that you often suggest to show your yarns to best effect?

Nikki's design skills on show with this cardigan, knit in Kate Davies' Buachaille yarn with saturated colour pops of Nikki's own dyecraft

NJ: I have a big pile of 1930-'50s knitting patterns - that’s where most of my ideas come from. For garments, I’m a huge fan of Amy Herzog’s CustomFit software. By inputting your measurements and yarn information, it builds knitting patterns for the individual that fit beautifully. Then you can just add the design elements of the patterns you like. I’m also a huge fan of the Brooklyn Tweed patterns. The patterns are well-written and full of interesting little techniques and details.

NH: What's your latest crafting challenge - are there skills you are still trying to master, and what's drawing you to those things?

NJ: There are always new knitting skills to master – it’s one of the reasons I love it so. I have been doing some sewing, but I often find it very frustrating. My little brain thinks that because I’m reasonably accomplished at one craft, that should automatically transfer to another. Alas, no. I’d also like to know how to garden, but getting started seems a bit overwhelming. How do I even know what sort of soil I have to start with??

NH: Finally: sometimes it's a challenge to do what you love both in work and not-at-work - how to you manage that balance?

NJ: I think this is a constant struggle for work-at-home-creative types, especially if your job is strongly tied to your hobby. There’s not really any break from your job when your shop is in a corner of your dining room! It’s always very tempting to work on weekends or in the evening. I’m not sure I’ve got the balance right at the moment – but it’s all a process, right?