All about Frankie & Ray

Jo Dunsmuir and one of her many beautiful quilts.

Jo Dunsmuir is the multi-talented woman behind Frankie & Ray, her shop for sewing and quilting patterns and handmade clothes. We’re proud to stock her eminently wearable, breezy patterns, perfect for bringing a little colour into your handmade wardrobe or turning a wee snippet of woven fabric into nifty knickers! We caught up with Jo not long ago to learn more about how she got started, what she thinks about fashion and handcraft, and how to make a nice pizza.

Newtown House: Please tell us how you got started with Frankie & Ray ... and what was the work you were doing before you started it? How old were you when you learnt to sew, and quilt, and knit? Have you always had a wide creative streak?

Jo Dunsmuir: Frankie & Ray was born in the early 2000s by accident. I was a librarian by profession but was looking to indulge in something a little more creative and was completing a Diploma of Interior Decoration as a part-time student. I met and made friends with a fellow crafter, and it was Pia’s idea to try our hand at selling some of our makes on a shared stall at one of the handmade markets that were emerging around Melbourne at that time, and so with some moderate success at our first outing, away I went on this journey.

I couldn’t nominate an exact age when I learnt to sew and knit, but knitting definitely came first courtesy of my German-born Oma (grandmother). I took to it like the proverbial duck to water, and I’ve knitted on and off for my whole life. I find it a mindful and meditative thing to do, and I love the ability to handknit a gift.

I did a certain amount of sewing with my Oma, but really I learnt the basics of dressmaking at secondary school, like many women of my generation. I’ll be honest, the motivation for sewing during my teens was to be able to have new clothes at a lesser cost than store-bought. It was a time when manufactured clothing wasn’t comparatively cheap like much of it is today, which meant for our family, store-bought was for special occasions, birthday or Christmas presents, otherwise you (or someone in your family) made your clothes.

I came back to dressmaking during my professional life as a research librarian for a business newspaper, where I admired, but couldn’t afford, the beautiful suits and fabrics of the financial district uniform on my salary.

It was during this time I really honed my skills on making tailored clothing, and started to gain a deeper understanding of how garments are constructed – which led to playing around with drafting my own simple patterns. Beautiful quality fabrics were easily available at this time around Melbourne, from Clegs, from a few retailers who traded at the Queen Victoria Market, and from the haberdashery department downstairs at David Jones, amongst others. (I still have a coat I made from a mustard Italian wool gabardine purchased for a scary amount of money at the time from DJ’s.) It’s really encouraging to see this niche for good quality dressmaking fabrics being filled again by quilt/patchwork stores, but also by some specialty retailers.

Quilting has come only fairly recently, and my first quilt was made as a way to put some sizeable scraps of Liberty Tana lawn cotton from my dressmaking to good use.

My first quilt was cut with scissors, pinned and sewn haphazardly, and hand-quilted very wonkily. I often wish I could return to blissful ignorance to the ‘imperfections’ of that first quilt.

As for a wide creative streak, I’ve never thought of myself like that, but I am always keen to try something new. The excitement of learning a new skill is thrilling... or not. And that’s the beauty of trying things out. I’ve been longing to try ceramics and drawing/painting. 

NH: How challenging was it for you starting out? And where does the name Frankie & Ray come from?

JD: I began with accessories, including scarves and fabric belts, and some more homewares and decorator items (cushions, tea cosies etc), but it was inevitable that I moved towards clothing, because I’ve always loved clothes, and I really love beautiful fabric. 

Because Frankie & Ray truly began as a sideline hobby, I didn’t chase growth, or have a business plan, or even consider marketing. I really just followed my nose and it has absolutely grown in a very haphazard and unplanned way.  

The name comes from our two much loved pets of the time – Frankie, our incredibly beautiful, clever, and charismatic rescue Siamese cat, named after Frank Sinatra for her amazing blue eyes, and Ray, our first pet greyhound, who was a reject racing dog, and responsible for my becoming a crazy greyhound lady. Both are sadly no longer with us, but live on through the business name. 

My husband and I have always had pets, and we liked the idea of being able to offer a home to a greyhound from an industry that breeds thousands of dogs every year, many of whom are destroyed for lack of speed, or injury, or disinclination to ‘chase’. The breed has got under our skin, as it has for all adoptive owners, and we now have Henry, our second. 

Beginning at the time I did feels like a bit of a blessing, as the whole handcraft / makers movement was just beginning to experience a popular resurgence. Many makers I met at that time were new graduates from creative studies with a fresh take on old handcraft skills, and the market scene in Melbourne provided us with the perfect place to get our products to the public, and our names out there. I think this coincided with the beginning of the age of the internet ... blogging was kind of big back then, and the ability to sell online really enabled many makers to reach customers that would never have been able to find us otherwise.

NH: You've got a range of offerings through Frankie & Ray – gorgeeous handmade clothes, sewing patterns – but you also teach. What aspects do you enjoy most? And what's the one big message you'd want to give people who are trying to get started in these skills? 

JD: I love everything I do and consider myself very lucky indeed. What’s that old saying, if you find something to do that you enjoy, you’ll never work a day in your life? For me, I’m very lucky to balance my hands on making garments for sale with teaching and pattern-making. 

If I can pass on some skills, and some hints and tips on process and technique, and have a good time while doing it, then that’s perfect. I get a lot of satisfaction from seeing women go home from a workshop with a garment ready to wear, and the confidence to make more.

There’s a lot of emphasis out there on skills that are quite difficult to master. If you’re just beginning learning to sew, set your sights on something simple and achievable. When you’ve had some practice and a few successful makes under your belt, you’ll be ready and confident to move on to more complicated techniques. 

Never stop persisting. Failing is learning. Ask for help / advice. Practice makes perfect!

The Friday Shirt in a lovely coral linen

The Friday Shirt in a lovely coral linen

NH: How do you spend your days, these days?

JD: My days begin with a walk with our greyhound Henry and my husband, followed by breakfast and a quick(ish) scroll of my social media (read Instagram...I’m no fan of Facebook). Then I try to deal with any household chores that might need attention before packing orders and doing a run into town (6km to Apollo Bay) to the post office. Only then do I start in my workroom, which is downstairs in our house. That might be sewing, or it could be getting patterns ready for dispatch. If I’m struck with inspiration for something new, that inspiration often comes when I’m actually sewing. I work in quiet (no music or podcasts), and the act of working with my hands often allows ideas to present themselves. If it’s a promising idea I usually have to drop everything to try it out.

NH: What inspires you? And which aspects of your work do you most enjoy? And how do you power through the less-fun parts? 

JD: I don’t pay much attention to trends. I’m still very influenced by the minimalist fashion of the 1990s – my collection of Vogue patterns included many from Cavin Klein, Donna Karan, and Issey Miyake. Very often it will be a fabric that will inform what I make with it. What I mean by that is; that I buy fabric with no plans for it, so it may arrive and have to wait a while in my stash before I know exactly what I want to make with it. 

Trends are unavoidable, even in the handmade world, but I try my hardest to steer well clear. I believe clothes should be comfortable, made from the best quality natural fibres I can find for the job, and should last more than a single season. But perhaps most importantly, I want my garments to be able to be worn as part of everyday dressing. I don’t make anything I wouldn’t want to wear myself. Anything new has to find a place in my own wardrobe for fit, comfort, and style before I go any further with something.

I most enjoy the part of the process when a design becomes as good as I can make it, and the making itself becomes like second nature, when I no longer have to think too hard about what step comes next. Equal to that enjoyment is taking delivery of fabric that is better than I’ve expected. I’ve had deliveries that make me gasp with pleasure. There’s nothing quite like that feeling of not being able to wait to start sewing with those ones.

The Calendar Dress pattern makes a nifty shirt, too.

The Calendar Dress pattern makes a nifty shirt, too.

The flip side are the days I simply don’t feel like sewing but have stock to make. The beginning of the spring / summer season is always a bit daunting. For example, right now I have lots of new fabric, my designs for the season are well-formed and ready, but I have hours of sewing ahead of me to make stock. My motivation is always that I know how good I’ll feel when I have a reasonable amount of stock in hand. There’s only one way to get to that point, and that’s to do the work!

NH: Businesses like yours are very inspiring for people who are hoping to embrace the ideals of slow fashion – either by making their own clothes or by buying one-off, handmade garments. Can you tell us a bit about your approach to slow fashion, and perhaps a bit about the change you hope to see as a result of people starting to really grab hold of these concepts?

JD: Slow fashion is such a new concept, but I’m encouraged that people are working to make more considered clothing purchases or make their own garments as a way to counter the ‘churn’ of the modern fashion industry. My personal philosophy is to make every garment in my wardrobe work hard for as long as possible. I imagine I have a bigger wardrobe of clothes than most people, but every single garment in there must be worn, even if it’s only occasionally. I own clothes (some bought, some I’ve made) that are up to 20 years old. If you love it, wear it, pay no attention to trends, and keep your favourites. If you do succumb to a current must-have trend, then continue to wear that garment the next year, or repurpose the fabric it was made from.

By sewing their own clothing, I hope that people realise the effort that goes into garment construction – that ultimately everything is handmade, even in a factory environment, and therefore the value we as consumers place on garments needs to reflect and respect that.

I’d like to see clothing more treasured and enjoyed, that it’s good for more than a few wears, or even a single season. Once it’s done with, perhaps it might be re-used as rags, or cut up for quilting or other handcraft, or donated to charity or friends if it’s still in good condition.

NH: What is ahead for Frankie & Ray? 

JD: Your guess is as good as mine! I’ve never made plans, but I am still enjoying the ride! I am trying to slow down a little bit after many years of being lucky to be in this micro business. Sewing is a physical job, and I do hanker after a little more time to indulge in some other pursuits like gardening and cooking, and maybe learning some new hand skills. Travel is always high on my list of wants.

Quilts feature in the family caravan, too.

NH: Tell us a bit about your trip last year to Europe. It looked fantastic. How long was it in the planning, and what inspired your choice of destination?

JD: Oh, Italy! We loved every single minute of it. We began to plan in earnest about a year ago, but we’ve wanted to go for a long time. My husband bought me a book for my 40th birthday (quite a few years ago!) called Salute!by Gail and Kevin Donovan, Simon Griffiths and Robert Castellani. Part cookbook, part travel book, it sparked a real desire to travel to Italy. I used to work with a woman whose family emigrated to Australia from Malta, so we’d always wanted to go there also. When we realised Malta is so close to Sicily, it was an easy decision to add it to our travel plan. I’m so glad we did because for a tiny country Malta packs a big punch. 

We began our journey in Zurich, which we loved, travelled by train through the Alps, and travelled Italy from north to south, ending in Malta. We made a decision to avoid some of the better-known destinations, which I have no regrets about. I’ve been asked which were my favourite things / places, and I cannot nominate one place over another. It was all fabulous. One highlight was being able to meet with my lovely friend (and talented knit designer) Anna Maltz and her husband, who travelled from London to meet us for a long weekend in Sorrento.

With Henry the Handsome, the family’s rescued greyhound.

NH: Tell us about your favourite meal – and perhaps if you are willing please share a favourite recipe! 

JD: I love to eat, so to pick one favourite is almost impossible! In Italy, one of my favourite meals was a kind of antipasto picnic we shared with Anna and her husband. We visited one of the many ‘salumeria & macellaria’ (delicatessen) stores in Sorrento and bought a selection of cold meats, cheeses, bread, a few vegetables in oil and some olives. A bottle or two of wine, we took it all back to our hotel and set up on one of the tables on the terrace overlooking the Bay of Naples.

Pizza is a highlight throughout Italy – I think the secret is really good handmade dough, buffalo mozzarella, and a simple (and very sparing) topping of just one or two great quality ingredients.

I set out to eat gelato every single day – and I think I managed pretty well. The flavours are so much more diverse than what is generally available here in Australia. Like liquorice, and some particularly Italian flavours like fior de latte, which translates to ‘flower of milk’...a delicate cream like flavour, and another I had called profumo di Sorrento – ‘perfume of Sorrento’ – which was a mixed citrus flavour. Delicious!

With Italian pizza in mind, this is the recipe we use for pizza dough taken from Karen Martini’s book, Where the Heart Is.

Basic Pizza Dough.

400g plain flour

100g fine semolina

2 teaspoons table salt

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 teaspoons (7g) dried yeast

Combine flour, semolina and salt in a bowl. Mix water, oil and yeast in a small bowl and stir to dissolve yeast. Pour water mixture into flour and mix until combined, and knead on a lightly floured surface for about 15 minutes until the dough is smooth and elastic, but still quite wet and sticky.

Place dough in a lightly oiled bowl. Cover with plastic film and rest in a warm place for about 30 minutes, or until dough has doubled in size. 

Makes enough for 4 pizzas.

NH: Finally, what is one thing about you that might surprise people?

JD: I am truly, totally, dreadfully disorganised when it comes to my paperwork. My income tax returns are always late!


All photos courtesy Jo Dunsmuir

It's a community thing

Helga’s Wool and Honey: a stunner

Helga’s Wool and Honey: a stunner

Yesterday we took a slice of Newtown House to Prefab’s festive Christmas market. We had a blast talking with people and watching them respond to our unique offering - cast-iron cookware, glasses, table linens, copper pans, knives - and yarn? And sewing patterns? YES we say, we are about the homemade and the handmade.

We walk in both worlds - proudly sourcing homewares made with care and helping people who want to share in the home crafts of knitting and sewing while supporting independent yarn producers and pattern makers.

It’s probably safe to say that there isn’t a copper pan community, or a linen tea towel community, in the same way there’s a knitting and sewing community. And what a community it is. Fibre folk are just different. 

Recent months have brought this home to us in so many ways. Much of the year has been spent with Nick facing up to a cancer diagnosis and the resulting surgery and months of chemotherapy. We’re nearly to the end of this hard slog, just in time for Christmas. For obvious reasons we have put our focus, and limited time and energy, into things close to home. So, developments here in Newtown House land have been slower than we’d have hoped.

It’s also meant I’ve had to do something I am so loathe to do. I asked for help. With a slow knitting output at the best of times, there was no way I was keeping up with my internal wish-list of samples knit up in the beautiful wools we stock. They’re unusual for New Zealand, which means it’s even more important to us that people can see, and touch, and understand, the qualities of these yarns. I’m also keen to sew up some sample garments from the patterns we stock, but again - limited time!

Setting up…tubs of yarny goodness in hiding.

Setting up…tubs of yarny goodness in hiding.

We all know there’s nothing like seeing yarns, and fabric, and garments, in real life. Pixels can only tell you so much, and they are absolutely silent on how things will feel against your skin, and how the yarn will go through your needles. 

So I emailed my knitterly friends and asked: Would you mind helping me with some shop samples? I was so embarrassed to do this - it was like admitting defeat. And I almost cried at the responses. YES. YES with enthusiasm, even. Everyone was in agreement that not only should these be shop samples, but they should be things that we could wear

These magical things happened:

  • A day before the Christmas market, at Knitting Ladies Lunch, Helga was doing a show and tell of the beautiful Wool and Honey jersey you see here. She had just finished it, using Tukuwool she’d bought from us just a few weeks earlier. It is utterly, glowingly gorgeous. She handed it over the table, along with a pair of socks she’d made from Rosa Pomar’s Mondim. Take them, she said. I protested. Come on, she said, summer’s coming. Keep them until after the Unwind knitting retreat in Dunedin, in March. I won’t need them until then! Put them in the shop, take them to shows, do whatever you want. People need to see what it’s all about. So the jersey and the socks went to the Saturday market with us and had pride of place with the yarn we’d brought. As I told Helga later, I could have easily sold her jersey at least five times. But as knitters know, this kind of thing is priceless.

  • Another friend said of course I could have the things she’d made using our wool for shows. 

  • People also offered to knit things from scratch. Which then turned into very jolly conversations about patterns, and yarn, and Knitting Schemes. These kinds of talks are just the BEST.

  • Sue said, let’s do some more socks. Not for me, I said, looking at the ground: I’ve got big feet. (One reason I have never made a pair of socks!) What came back was basically, bollocks, put your foot on a ruler and we will make it work. 

  • At lunch I handed Sue a skein of Biches et Bûches Le Gros Lambswool for her to make a hat. Less than 24 hours later she was at the market with a nearly finished hat, the Antler from Tincanknits. She pulled it out of her bag and we popped it onto Nick’s head to check whether she could start the crown decreases. Yes, it was time. It’s probably blocking now. Who am I kidding, it was probably blocking an hour later.

  • Another friend popped by our stand and said she was looking forward to what I’m now calling Project Shoppe Sample. When I thanked her, she looked at me with a smile and said, “Honestly, it’s just nice to be able to help.” I almost cried again. (I’d like to blame the exhaustion or too much coffee or both, but.)

So where does this leave us? It’s oft repeated life advice, and perhaps because of this it’s become trite, but I believe we forget it at our peril: People like to help. Don’t be afraid to ask for it. And if you’re a knitter, it won’t be long until you’re swimming in the handknits — figuratively and literally, you will be buoyed up by wool. It’s just one of the many things that makes this community such a special one, and one we’re so grateful to be a part of.


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:] 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.

Our #SummerofBasics, Antipodes style

We’re in the last month of #SummerofBasics - or as I am calling it, #SummerofBasics, Antipodes Style - and I’ve not finished one garment.

If you’re not familiar with the Summer of Basics, it’s a superb online challenge developed by the ever-creative Karen Templer, who we profile here, in which people commit to making three basics over the three North American summer months - June, July and September. “Basics” is defined by the maker - if polka dots are your idea of basic, so be it. I’d be right there with you.

So whilst I haven’t finished a thing, I do have the following underway:

It's gone a lot of places, this Anker's cardigan

It's gone a lot of places, this Anker's cardigan

My Anker’s Cardigan, knitting up in Garthenor No2, with just one and a half sleeves to go. I opportunistically found some lovely ribbon for the button band the other day, but still need to source buttons. I am thinking this will be a very jolly moment indeed. I’d be stoked to finish by the end of August. This may actually be possible.

The star-crossed plaid Camber dress from Merchant and Mills. I’ve decided it actually needs to be underlined to both give it a bit more body and to ensure it’s not entirely see-through.* This is what happened: Once I’d actually cut into the fabric and studied it carefully, I realised it was far too lightweight (and sheer!) to be worn without a slip or unlined. If ever there was a fabric face-palm moment, that was it. Sheer plaid - who would’ve thought that was a thing? And yet, I am so in love with this pattern that I’m just going to plow on because it will be, if nothing else, great practice at getting all of Carolyn Denham’s clever construction techniques down. Camber dress No1 was not nearly enough.

Another LB pullover from the fab Tara Viggo (@papertheory) in lovely striped merino - just the thing for the last few weeks of winter. It has been cut out and only needs to be sewn up. Getting to the fabric shop for some cotton tape to stabilise the seams took another week of the precious 12 in the SoB, but such is life. Stable seams more important than droopy knits - lesson learnt from my first LB pullover in a heavy woollen knit, where a bit of interfacing would’ve helped firm up the turtleneck. Rookie mistake!

So, not much progress then.


We’ve had a scary challenge on the health front here at the House, which we talked about a bit in our newsletter the other week. The gist is: we are OK, but life is all about doing what’s doable in the moment these days. Sometimes that means just dreaming about all the things that will be done when life gets a bit easier. Sometimes it means half an hour snatched to knit away on the endless sleeves of the cardigan, or stealing some time to trace out a pattern, write a blog post, bake some cookies, go for a run, tend to a sourdough loaf. It’s a stressful time, for sure, and we are so grateful for the kindness of family and friends.

It’s a time full of learnings, some of them even really funny. For example, every knitter knows that if you’re going to be spending time at hospital, you better have your knitting with you. But it’s been interesting for this lifelong book lover to learn that sometimes - when you’re really pretty scared, for example, and you don’t know what’s going to happen next - it is impossible to “get lost in a book”. I’ve learnt that I need to do something with my hands instead, something diverting and attention-taking. Funny to learn something so essential now I’m in my fifth decade.

Plaid Camber dress on the cutting room floor - aka the hallway. Plaid, and virtually sheer. How did I miss that?!

Plaid Camber dress on the cutting room floor - aka the hallway. Plaid, and virtually sheer. How did I miss that?!

So all in all, so far it’s not really been the wildly creative Summer of Basics we’d anticipated. Instead, I’m dubbing this year’s version the Summer of Getting Back to Basics. To going slow, doing what can be done, and being OK with that. Sometimes it’s very hard to do this, with social media parading an endless array of beautiful distractions produced by people with talent to burn, and seemingly ample time to lovingly document their journeys. I really enjoy looking at what all of you geniuses of the domestic arts do, but that is very much not our reality at the moment.

But I’m committed nonetheless to building a wardrobe of my own, halting though my progress sometimes is, because the rewards are so many and so manifold. They include:

Inspiration: We’re so fortunate to be living in a moment where it’s possible to be on this journey as part of a global community of makers and menders. There is so much creativity on show, and there are so many generous teachers who’ve taken the time to share their knowledge. (As a counterpoint, I don’t have to look too far back to remember me and the old Singer set up in my bedroom in the early 1990s. Just me and a sewing pattern, my fabric of choice and a hell of a lot of uncertainty. No, my mother did not really sew, nor did the significant women or men in my life. There was no help at hand, and there was no Internet. There was the Fabric Store, and there were Books, and there was Mail-Order Fabric. Does anyone else remember those days?)

Being conscious about consumption: There are plenty of garments in the world. We’re awash in them. Like most people I’m not immune to the siren’s call of beautifully made new clothes. But to make your own is one way to say “no” to an industry that would have us just buy more and more and more, with no regard to the impact the fashion industry has on people and the planet. Buying local is another way. As long as I’ve lived in New Zealand I’ve tried to buy close to home - along with our own making, we need local designers and manufacturers, and one way to support that is to vote with your feet, and your dollars.

Beauty: Let’s be honest, from as early as I can remember my eye has been drawn to the fabric, the fibre, the colour, the drape, the shape, the beauty of well-made clothes. That’s why I studied art history, that’s why I love fashion, and that’s one of the reasons I have, over most of my life and to varying degrees of success, tried to make my own clothes. Now I’m older I don’t feel the need to put that practice aside for something more “sensible” - to be able to do this is luxury to me these days.

So I’ve just lengthened out the SoB plans to last me the rest of the year. They include:

A project for Actual Summer

A project for Actual Summer

A Willow Tank: This week we wandered down to a jewel of a local fabric store, Stitchbird Fabrics. They stock more than a few lovely bolts of Nani Iro and I was keen to have a look - you know, just in case something might leap out. (Surprise: something did.) So I picked up enough pink gorgeousness to make a Willow Tank, along with the paper pattern, which I’ve been keen to try. It’ll be a great basic for actual summer, and it will be a brightly coloured joy to work on through this winter and spring. Because I will have to make a toile before I’m cutting into that!

A Nuuk jersey: I’ve chosen some of our beautiful Beiroa (No 409, which knits up into the most beautiful beigey, browny, creamy fabric) for this and have started swatching just for fun. I know it’ll feel wonderful on the hands and (bonus!) may come together relatively quickly! And it will be a marvellous basic over lots of things.

A Shakerag top. (The hilarious and talented Kay Gardiner knit one, and here's how she told the tale.) Because I realised I have four skeins of Jade Sapphire Sylph, a cashmere-linen yarn of much loveliness (and in the precise amount the pattern calls for), and this top would be a fantastic addition to the wardrobe. It's destiny.

A Box Pleat Dress from our new supplier, The Assembly Line. I have the perfect navy linen for this. No idea where I will find the time, but some things just need doing.

So who else is with me in turning the #SummerofBasicsAntipodesStyle into a long slide through spring and into our actual summer? I’ll be here working away, slowly, so feel free to join in!


*Giving the term “windowpane plaid” a whole new meaning! So it can be called The Windowpane Dress.

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

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

He bakes bread by the seashore

It’s no surprise that the Shelly Bay Baker is by the sea. Owner and sole baker Sam Forbes has an energy in the kitchen that is as relentless as the tide, and his enthusiasm for sourdough is as vast as the ocean itself.

Sam Forbes. Shelly Bay Baker

We caught up with Sam recently to get the story behind his craft and to learn where his passion for sourdough comes from. 

He rewinds us 16 years to when he was 11 years old and already earning his stripes in a commercial kitchen. OK, so at this stage he’s peeling potatoes and doing the menial stuff in small-town west Wales. But he’s there in the kitchen, absorbing the tastes, the aromas, the tension, the bonhomie and the buzz of creation. And then there is the cash. Pocket money on steroids. When you have eight siblings financial independence has to be a good thing.

He kept going, building his repertoire with formal training and practical experience, and at 16 he was a full time chef. For someone who was never all that enamoured with school, this was a vocation that returned much… and opened the door on the unique party lifestyle that the hospitality industry is infamous for.

But this kid is diligent - he’s not one to faff about wasting time or energy. A bit of travel that takes in Australia, and a year in Queenstown, provided a buffer before he established himself in London and the rarefied air of fine dining.

London was also where he got another taste of Kiwi style, when he met and married his partner Bryony. When time was up on her OE it was an easy call for them to come back to New Zealand in 2013. For her, it was to study medical anthropology, now at master's stage; for him, it was to continue his kitchen odyssey. 

Sam landed in Wellington and in a larder stocked to the brim with encouragement and opportunity. It was Miramar’s The Larder restaurant, run by Jacob Brown and Sarah Bullock – masters of hospitality on both sides of the kitchen counter. It was here in 2016 that the epiphany occurred. Sam was at university studying geology, environmental science and biology - just to prove he could do it. Keeping his hand in at The Larder meant baking the bread in the morning before heading off to study. This presented Sam with a ‘THIS IS IT’ moment. This is the way he’s going to do his own thing. Bread. Satisfying, comforting, healthy, wholesome bread. Sourdough bread.

What do I love about it? It’s about creating something. Those sacks of flour turn into loaves.

”It’s not so much about developing new recipes. It’s tinkering with the ones I have. They’re never the same really. It depends on the temperature of the day and humidity, you’re really dominated by the weather.
— Sam Forbes

Jacob and Sarah not only let Sam go with good grace, they loaned him half the money he needed to get set up.  But first it was off to the San Francisco Baking Institute run by Frenchman Michel Suas. His business helps bakers around the world with hands-on, real-world experience that combines modern technology with traditional artisan techniques. You can see a connection here – Michel was baking at 14.

Sam amplified the three-week Institute course with bakery work on both coasts, including New York, Vermont, San Diego and back to the sourdough capital of San Francisco (a thing that started when the French bought their sourdough baking skills to the Californian gold rush in the mid-1800’s).

Sam liberated a little piece of history when he uplifted an American starter for the trip home. (A little science: sourdough starters are a simple fermented mixture of flour and water that contain a colony of microorganisms including wild yeast and lactobacilli. A starter is what makes sourdough the more easily digested magic that it is compared to breads made with yeast or baking soda.)

Once he got back home the dream took shape in 2017, when the Shelly Bay site unexpectedly popped up on Sharedspace. Americans Sharon Galeon and Midori Willoughby had started Wooden Spoon Boutique Freezery in 2011 and they had space to spare in the Bay. They thought a fellow artisan back from a visit to their homeland was the perfect culinary collaborator.

Making every dollar go as far as it could, Sam and Bryony mucked in to create the bakery in the Freezery building. Tracking down a series of leads was doubly rewarded when an ex-Pak 'n' Save oven was found for a good price and an industrial food mixer was thrown in for free. Bryony’s handyman family did the fitout, and the company logo was a family affair as well.

Then it was down to the business of baking. 

Sam is a machine in the kitchen. It’s just him. It’s his domain and he is the master. Looking like the lead in Jesus Christ Superstar he simply does not stop when we’re talking to him. Taking photographs is a dance class. His ‘work triangle’ is more like a hexagon and it’s well worn – bench for ingredients and tinkering with the recipe on the computer screen above, to the mixer to add flour, to the dough tubs that sit for 12-16 hours to lift and fold, to the whiteboard to record, to the bench, to the mixer to empty and clean, to the tubs to measure acidity. All the time scanning the thermometers for ambient temperature, because just one or two degrees either way will mean a change to production processes. Later it will be cranking up the oven – carefully so as to not blow out the three-phase power supply. Later still it will be milling grains and preparing ingredients for the next onslaught.

Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

That’s the way to churn through 750 kilograms of flour a week. That’s the way to bake a couple thousand loaves and bagels a week. And Sam reckons that’s the way to pay back your loans and be working for yourself and not The Man.

All it takes is working between 4am and 1pm for six days a week … and be at the market selling on the seventh. Thank goodness for Bryrony chipping in on market day too - especially training up other sellers so they can impart 'the knowledge'.

Originally there were no sales targets. Just bake. The plan was to supply the popular markets. Harbourside Market in town as well as Karori and Newtown in the suburbs supported the cause. But then demand for wholesale supply kicked in as well - to the likes of Peoples in Newtown, Havana Brothers, Maranui Cafe, Queen Sally’s Diamond Deli, Commonsense Organics, Milk Crate and others. It’s all proven Sam’s theory that there’s enough consumer demand for sourdough to support him and the others like Leeds Street, Baker Gramercy, Neville Chun and Catherine Adams, and that it's growing all the time.

Sam is also looking forward to his own version of the Shelly Bay development. He’s already pondering the possibility of a retail space on the site, as well as making the bakery even bigger and better.  He’s also recently had a fellow San Francisco Institute colleague with him helping to refine recipes and processes – including adopting the emerging modern bread philosophy of minimising handling. He’s already found ways to reduce production time and therefore make more bread in the same time. It sounds like he just grew another arm and leg.

But he’s also aware that small business is vulnerable. Anything can and does happen, as he was reminded on the eve of his short Christmas holiday. The last day’s baking was destroyed when the fridge malfunctioned. Sourdough that was being restrained at a cool 4 degrees was suddenly 20 degrees and busting out everywhere. Sam arrived at midnight to check and found the chaos. There was nothing to do but throw it all away. Eight rubbish bags of ruined dough is not something you put out for Santa.

Even then he was baking bread on the break, content to know it wasn’t going to be that flash when it’s coming out of holiday ovens and BBQ’s – but such is the joy of baking he’ll give it a go anyway. 

So how does he cope with the relentless effort and heat of the kitchen?

A nightly swim in the bracing waters just metres from the bakery is the tonic. It’s another reward for working in Shelly Bay, a place that feels a million miles from the urban centre in plain sight just over the water.

You can’t help but think that’s the secret that whets his appetite for success. 

You can find Sam and his bread at open-air markets and some food shops throughout Wellington. The best place to check for an up-to-date list is his website here.

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