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.
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.
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.
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!
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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
- Cheese + smoked paprika or cayenne
- Orange zest + pistachios