Karen Templer: Going behind The Fringe Association

Karen Templer

Karen Templer

Karen Templer came to knitting as a fully fledged adult, but the craft grabbed her straightaway and has quickly turned into far more than a pastime. If you subscribe to our newsletter, or follow us on Instagram, you’ll know we often refer to Karen’s beautiful website, Fringe Association, for all manner of reasons - because she champions, lives and breathes slow fashion, because she regularly hosts exiting make-alongs that include sewing, knitting and crochet, because she is incredibly generous about everything she’s learned along the way, and because she has a wonderful magpie eye that gathers and takes notice of beauty everywhere. And that’s not to start on the range of wonderful tools she offers in her online shop, Fringe Supply Co - a range that includes the cult-status Fringe Field Bag for taking your needlework outside with you. (Check out the latest edition of the Field Bag, a collaboration with print artist Jen Hewett, if you're curious.)

One of Karen’s initiatives is the #Summer of Basics, in which she encourages makers to think about stocking their wardrobe with three basic pieces over the three (Northern Hemisphere) summer months of June, July and August. Here in the Antipodes, though, we see no reason why we can’t hop on this delightful bandwagon. It may be winter, but there are still basics that are required! Jumpers, merino tops, trousers, warm skirts, socks, beanies - the list goes on and on. (Here's: more about the SoB.) Here's what's happened on our own #SummerofBasicsAntipodesStyle,

This is a long way of saying we’ve been long-distance fans of Karen for a long time, so we were thrilled when she said yes to a wee interview. Enjoy.

How did you come to start Fringe Association? What was the journey that brought you to opening up the shop, and starting the website?

I learned to knit in October 2011, when I was living in Berkeley and working the tech world in San Francisco. I was taught by friends while we were visiting Nashville, and thought they were the only people I knew who knitted. So I started the blog, which came to be known as Fringe Association, two months later, and it was a way to keep in touch with them and document this incredible new addiction and hopefully make some knitting friends. I pretty quickly started brainstorming (read: fantasising) about the yarn store of my dreams, which didn’t seem to exist in the real world, and in the course of all that imagining came the idea for the webshop, Fringe Supply Co, which launched as an online pop-up shop for the holidays in 2012.

How has your thinking evolved over the last five-plus years you've been in business?

In too many ways to begin to articulate! My thinking evolves every single day — about what I’m doing and why, what kind of business I want Fringe to be, what kinds of clothes I want to make for myself. Blogging and owning a small business are both a nonstop growth experience.

Do you think people are growing in their understanding of slow fashion, and the need to consider how their clothes are made, and to consider making their own? Are you starting to see evidence of a shift?

Absolutely, yes. When I first started knitting, which got me interested in sewing again (not having done so for a few years), there was definitely a conversation happening among a lot of really thoughtful, tuned-in people, but you had to sort of pick up on it and tune in yourself. Maybe it’s just because of the community I’ve embedded myself in, but now I feel like it would be very difficult to be a DIY clothes-maker, on the Internet in any way, and not be exposed to the issues and concerns at hand.

And beyond the DIY community, there are so many more brands (or sub-brands) being formed around slow fashion and sustainability, discussions happening in magazines and on public radio, and so on. I get catalogs in my mailbox now from sustainable-fashion companies, and that was not happening even five years ago. I’ve even read articles about the demise of high-street fashion brands wherein the journalist will cite a rise in consumer awareness and demand for transparency as among the many reasons a fast-fashion brand might be struggling. It’s definitely gaining so much traction and being amplified all over the place.

What surprises you about your business, and about the kind of responses you get to your work on the website?

I remember seeing Kellie Pickler, former American Idol runner-up at the time, guest-hosting on The View one day (several years ago) and when she came out onto the stage and the crowd cheered, she mused out loud, mostly to herself, “Crazy to think people find ya interesting.” And I think of that a lot. It’s pretty amazing to have people show up every day wondering what you’re thinking about or making or selling. I take it really, really seriously, especially with the shop. I never want to sell anyone anything they don’t find beautiful or useful, or that’s disappointing in any way, so I am incredibly choosy and have extremely high standards, because it’s a pretty astonishing thing to have people have that kind of trust in you.

Like many of your regular readers, I was riveted by the discussion of gansey sweaters [link: https://fringeassociation.com/2018/04/17/what-i-know-about-gansey-origins-with-deb-gillanders/] on the blog recently - why do you think stories like that strike such a chord with people? 

I just think we’re all so disconnected from everything — we’ve collectively lost our sense of history and origins, and we outsource everything. We live in a world where we don’t know where our food comes from, how our clothes are made, how to fix anything for ourselves (be it engine trouble or a hole in a sock). When you knit, you’re not only taking back the making of your sweaters or whatever, knowing at least where these things come from, you also kind of can’t help but be aware of the fact that you’re participating in this incredibly long tradition, this thing that has been passed along from one knitter to another for centuries, being improved upon and reimagined all along the way. And then when you find out there’s also this whole other level of history to it — that types of sweaters or mittens or stitch patterns or techniques aren’t random; they come from specific people and places and have evolved or been lost in whatever ways — it just adds a whole extra level of fascination and connection to what you’re doing. A sweater you’ve seen all your life and never thought anything about suddenly has all these layers of history and meaning.

One of Karen's many brilliant tricks is to document her seasonal wardrobes, both as a way to spot gaps that might need filling and to pull together new looks for the months ahead.

Some people might look at your website and wonder, why is it important for people to chronicle their own journeys on the slow fashion road, and in such detail? And why does it resonate with people? (I know the answer I'd give if asked, but I'm curious to hear yours.)

I’d actually love hear your answer! I enjoy documenting things — whether it’s how I shaped a raglan or how my thinking about my closet was shaped — and I enjoy reading how other people document what they do. I learn from other people’s triumphs and mistakes and points of view, and I hope people can take something away from mine. I don’t always know what I think (or what I think I think) until I’ve written it down and had it challenged by someone else. It’s all part of the growth experience!

How do you keep yourself motivated and organised - you have the same 24 hours as all of us, but you do seem to accomplish quite a lot in your days and weeks!

Oh, gosh. I have at least two full-time jobs, right?, and the only way I know to do them is to do them — to just keep going! People ask me all the time how I manage to write a blog post every weekday and my answer is that if I didn’t do it every day — like showering and eating and breathing — I wouldn’t be able to do it at all. It just has to be part of my routine. And I know it does seem like I get a lot done, and I do — by necessity — but what I see from where I sit is all of the things that don’t get done every day, because every single to-do list is inherently insurmountable. But that’s just the nature of owning a small business. You have to be willing to show up every day knowing your to-do list is going to beat you, but that you’ll be back again tomorrow giving it your all! I mean, you basically have to be a crazy person — a highly organised crazy person — which I apparently am.

What would people be surprised to know about you?

That I know anything about Kellie Pickler or The View? I don’t know — I’m a polymath and a reasonably complex individual, but on the Internet I think I might appear to be just some lady who is obsessed with clothes. In real life, I’ll talk to you about books, current events, religion, gardening, pop culture. Would people be surprised to know I’m more interesting than I appear? lol

What's your absolute favourite garment in your closet? And what are you most looking forward to making next?

Generally my favourite thing in my closet is whatever I finished most recently, so right at this moment it is the Elizabeth Suzann half-finished sample-sale jacket I just turned into the best vest imaginable. And what I’m most looking forward to is whatever is in the pipeline that is the most challenging, or makes me the most nervous. For Summer of Basics this year, I think I’m going to make a pair of proper pyjamas — you know, with the piping and everything? Maybe even in a slippery fabric! And I’m pretty nervous and excited about all of that.

Thanks, Karen - we really appreciated your generosity and can't wait to see how your #SummerofBasics projects turn out! All photos by Karen Templer.

A notebook like Karen's can be invaluable if you're wanting to document, and plan, your wardrobe.

A notebook like Karen's can be invaluable if you're wanting to document, and plan, your wardrobe.

What Nell knits

Nell Ziroli - wise counsel, fibre whisperer

Nell Ziroli is a knitwear designer, knitting instructor, and all-around knitting inspiration.

If you follow Mason-Dixon Knitting, you’ll see that she frequently pops up there with a wonderful, beautifully finished garment or an inspired take on a design that has captured a lot of attention.

See, for example, the variant she made on Kate Davies’ wildly popular Carbeth jumper. Nell continued the ribbing from the cuffs up the arm, and the result of this simple change (which is complex to execute - ask how I know) made for a lovely variant on an instant classic pattern. In Mason-Dixon’s Lounge, where knitters gather virtually to talk turkey about patterns, design, and any challenges (oh, there are always plenty of those), Nell works tirelessly to provide tips and support.

Nell's Carbeth - a genius modification

A lifelong knitter, Nell lives in American state of Virginia, where she shares a house with her youngest daughter. When she’s not working on her own projects, she finishes other people’s (I like to imagine her as a knitterly version of a country doctor), and regularly takes on an even trickier challenge - fixing treasured (but possibly over-loved) knitted dolls. 

You can find her patterns including the elegant Roger cardigan (an example of which is here) and her latest summer stripy design in linen (Liminal) and lots more on Ravelry and on her website.

Tell us a bit about yourself: family, work, where you live, and the things you like to do when you’re not at work.

Well, I’ve been knitting for over 50 years.

Details matter to Nell - like the Liberty fabric pocket she sewed into this Roger cardigan.

Currently I live in coastal Virginia, and I have three beautiful daughters and two grandsons. My youngest daughter Haley and I still share a home. She is quite helpful with this work - she tests some of my patterns and has taught me all I know about photography. My middle daughter, Melissa, and her darling boys also live in Virginia, but still too many hours away. My oldest daughter, Christi, is way, way out on the West Coast. They’re all wonderful women who I’m very proud of.  

Walking is one of my favourite things to do - I love to keep an eye on what’s growing, who’s living in the trees, and I’m on the lookout for quirky architectural things.  

Tell us a little about your knitting - when did you learn, who taught you, favourite projects. What draws you to knitting? Why do you think it's important to keep practicing these skills? 

My mother taught me to knit when I was eight or so. Somehow, with all of the moves we made, she managed to save two of my early knitting projects - a cover for my Girl Scout “Sit-Upon”, made with Red Heart “Mexicana,” and a funky little drawstring bag.  

Actually my family is/was very creative. My grandfather was an architect, both grandmothers had various crafts going, and my dad built delicate balsa and tissue paper airplanes that he would fly. So I’ve always been surrounded by makers.

In the ’70’s I had a pair of Levi’s cargo pants, which I fully embroidered, that I wish I’d kept - or at least documented. They were amazing.

I can’t imagine not knitting. And this is a great time to be a knitter! There are so many temptations; choices in yarn and designs and not to mention technique! 

Wrapped in Cables, an elegant scarf pattern

Do you do other work apart from NellKnits?

Yes, I do! I have a part-time office job that is not at all related to knitting (however, knitting does occur there when it’s not busy). There’s also remote work for Mason-Dixon Knitting, moderating a few of their project forums and answering direct knitting questions.

I work at my local yarn shop, Baa Baa Sheep, one day a week, and teach there a few times a week, too. I also do finishing, assembling, blocking and loving on other people’s work through the shop (and through the mail).

Also, people send me Blabla knit animals to repair. Life is always interesting.

What does the online world / social media bring to this creative party? Do you think it has helped to spark people's interests in what's possible? 

I love the connection of social media, the backstories, trials and triumphs and sometimes intimate views of people that you admire (hey, they’re just like me!) and I think that it may cause people to take a closer look at what is beautiful and interesting immediately around them.  

To be creative is such a strong desire and need for so many people, and although it may sometimes seem that there is a bombardment of ideas and projects, social media allows you to view many examples of a similar design or concept, which may allow you to make the best choice of how to proceed with it.

Is there a possible downside in seeing too much "perfection" in people's feeds?

(Over) curation - it’s preciously inspiring, yet frequently an impossible goal.

Do you have a favourite knitting pattern? (One of yours or someone else's!) 

That’s a tricky question. I think I’ll have to say that the amazing Baby Surprise Jacket is an architectural marvel to knit. Elizabeth Zimmerman would have been an incredible person to have spent some time with.

As a longtime teacher of knitting, what are some common traps you see people fall into? Common mistakes? What's one thing people could do to really lift their game? (As in, pockets! Or good finishing skills!) 

The biggest trap is that students often think that they should get all of this now, and quickly. Keep it simple and pay attention to the details. I love little things that click and I appreciate symmetry.

Finally, a note: When Nell generously agreed to answer our questions, we also asked her to share a recipe and to suggest other people who might be keen to share their stories with us. It’s a “recipe” (very bad pun) we’re hoping to make a regular feature here at Newtown House, so if you know someone you think would fit the bill, let us know at hello@newtownhouse.co.nz

Betsy’s Scones

I love to cook - meals are generally simple with minimal ingredients. However, I love these in every variation.

You will need:

2 cups (280g) flour

2 tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp baking soda

1 to 3 Tbsp sugar, brown or white, depending on your preference and your additions

pinch of salt

5 Tbsp (70g) butter, cold

3/4 cup (170ml) buttermilk

Instructions: Stir dry ingredients together. Dry add-ins can be stirred in here. Cut or grate in butter.

Stir in buttermilk. Wet add-ins can be stirred into the buttermilk. Turn onto a floured surface. (I just plop it onto the baking sheet.)

Pat into a circle, and cut into sixths or eighths. Or top with seasoned fruit, fold in half and pat again; cut into six wedges.

Bake at 425 degrees F (220 degrees Celsius) for 12 - 15 minutes.

A few add-in ideas :

  • Lemon zest + blueberries
  • Sliced peaches with a few drops of almond extract
  • Grated or diced apples + cinnamon
  • Nuts
  • Cheese + smoked paprika or cayenne 
  • Orange zest + pistachios

Garthenor wool: Traceable from sheep to skein

he organic wool company Garthenor was born in the 1990s on the King family farm in the Cambrian Mountains of Mid Wales. In the early days Sally King spun the wool herself from the family’s own Ryeland, Shetland, Herdwick and Manx Loaghtan sheep - that is, until demand for their certified organic and undyed yarn began to outstrip supply.

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