Never one to stay still, Jill Jones of Jillybean Yarns is the inspiring individual behind many wonderful designs, knitted and otherwise. Brimming with natural talent, Jill has also worked hard her entire life and, as such, has plenty of stories to share. We caught up with her from rural Somerset, where she currently lives with her three dogs (Lace, Tweed and Feather), 25 hens, cockerel and twelve adorable guinea pigs. Jill also has four children. In her own words: “I think I am addicted to chaos…”
When did you first become interested in knitting?
Growing up, our house was constantly full of overseas students and people of various nationalities. I remember one girl in particular; she was knitting a complex colourwork sweater, just making it up as she went along. I was intrigued by the beautiful colours. She was German and we couldn’t really communicate, but I think my interest, rather than actual knitting, started with her. I was busy with horses and dogs and guinea pigs so I never really sat still long enough to pick up needles. I was a bit of a wild child…
When I was 20 and expecting my first child, I finally decided to copy some knitting. These first attempts did not go well but I persevered and knitted a pair of dungarees for my daughter. I just made them up. I developed my own way of knitting. This was how I continued, just knitting till I got the right shape, adding colour as and when. I cannot remember how I got the wool to begin with, but eventually I found a yarn shop (the only knitting shop I had seen) that sold a brand called Phildar, so I used that!
Your creative journey has taken lots of exciting turns. How did things start off and what happened next?
We had very little money and I had to try to clothe and feed my two children. I was given a bank loan to buy a knitting machine, but that really stretched resources, so I had to make it pay. Mary of Walcot Woollies (now Up To Seven) had set up business in Walcot Street in Bath making and selling adult knitwear. She needed outworkers and so I became one; I was quick and knitted at night. The children still remember the sound of the machine, and, to this day, the sound sends them to sleep!
I soon became proficient and was taken on by the sisters who ran the Bath and Bristol Machine Knitting Centres; I would sell every type of machine and demonstrate and teach machine-knitting. When they decided to sell the business they offered it to me, but I had another baby on the way and we couldn’t afford to take the risk. By now I was designing and hosting knitwear parties and taking orders from these events. Among my customers were Princess Anne’s lady in waiting, one of the Bonham Carters and the actress Jane Seymour.
A bit later, with two more children to look after, I realised my inability to follow or understand a knitting pattern was going to be a problem, so I did a City & Guilds course in Fashion Design. I finished this in record time, inadvertently improving my sewing skills hugely along the way. My lovely tutor, with whom I am still friends, thought I should do a degree in fashion and textiles. I didn’t really take her seriously, so she arranged a meeting with the Head of Foundation Art at Trowbridge College. I couldn’t let her down so I went and the Head offered me an unconditional place on the spot. I then decided he was just being nice so I made an independent appointment for the foundation course in Bath. They also offered me an unconditional place on the spot!
During my two years on the Bath foundation course I worked weekends to pay for childcare (I also won a grant) and cooked the meals for the week on Sunday night. This course led to a degree in Fine Art at UWE and an MA in printmaking. I won several awards for my art during this time and sold work to tutors throughout. In order to pay for the MA I applied to QEST [Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust that supports British craftsmanship]. The interview was terrifying – Buckingham Palace and a room full of important people. I didn’t know they didn’t fund further education or printmaking at that time. I showed them my work anyway, but left despondent. But I got the grant! I went on to enter competitions and RHS shows where I won the Silver Gilt Lindley medal. I also had work accepted for the RA summer show.
After all this success, why did you return to knitting?
I needed to calm my schedule down. I was showing in London every month and teaching all around the country, while still managing my home and kids. Knitting was an oasis. I knitted a navy blue sweater for my eldest daughter and remembered how much I missed textiles. Thus began the slippery road back into textiles again!
I would go to Get Knitted in Brislington where I was soon taken on as staff for my unconventional approach to colour and making. It was here that I finally had to learn to read a knitting pattern. Oh the tears! I had three degrees, yet still couldn’t make head nor tail of this extraordinary language and the rules. Me and knitting patterns have had an uneasy ride ever since! As for crochet...
During my six years at the shop I learned how to hand-dye. Jenny from Fyberspates was my inspiration. I played with colour and the yarn sold. So I did more. My favourite fibre is wool and I prefer British. The farmers around us couldn’t sell their fleece and were burning it. So I took it and had it spun by an independent spinner in Lancashire. I’m not sure if he’s still going, but we experimented and it worked! When the business grew, I used the Natural Fibre Company in Cornwall who I had got to know at the shows. So that’s how Jillybean Yarns came into being.
Things cooled off when my first granddaughter got cancer and my focus and priorities changed overnight. These years have been the toughest and most challenging of my life. After two years of treatment she developed Type 1 diabetes, so trickiness factored in.
What did you decide to do next?
Having got out of the dyeing market because of the aforementioned reasons, I felt able to reinvent myself. There are so many dyers out there now, it seems a little saturated, so I didn’t want to get back into just dyeing wool. I had a couple of machines and some cones of yarn. I wanted to use up the yarn, and, as the dye lots didn’t match, I knitted boxy cardigans and then hand-dyed them [currently in stock at Tribe Yarns in Richmond]. So there I was off on another journey! I also printed some of them, which is not as easy as it sounds, but because, after all, I am a printmaker, I just played until I got it right.
What is it about colour that drives you? And how much do you break the rules?
I adore colour. Every day has a colour. Every sentiment, every mood, every person. I see the world in colour. I dye to have fun. I believe that clothes should be fun and joyous. Every colour goes with every colour. What makes the difference is proportion. That’s all. Be brave. I do understand all about colour theory, but rules are there to be broken. There are no colours that cannot be combined, ever. It’s just about proportion and shape. There are so many serious issues out there, let’s have fun with our expressions. That’s what I did, and other people liked them too… including Stephen West!
Why did you first decide to knit by machine, and would you recommend it to a hand-knitter?
For me the machine has always been work. It does some jobs well, but it can take away the joy of creating intimately. Would I recommend it? If you want to try then do it! It can be quick, it can also be limited and frustrating. I’m not a passionate machine-knitter and choose to hand-knit the things I love. I think it's because I don’t like the distance between me and the fabric. But machines have their uses and when things go well it’s great!
How have you seen the yarn industry change over the years?
The beautiful array of yarns available now excel all the yarns that existed before. The range and variety are just incredible. I still confess to loving Shetland yarn though! It’s just so friendly, non-fussy and obliging. I’ve seen companies such as Rowan grow, change hands and develop. All sorts of smaller businesses have grown and found their niche too. It’s all so exciting. Also, things have almost seemed to come full circle in attitude. Sustainability, consideration for the environment and others, kindness, respect and all these aspects are changing the textile industry for the better in my view.
What are you making at the moment?
I am learning to crochet as I want a crocheted lobster (you should see my bathroom!). So I am learning. I love it! I made Toft’s CAL Pascal the Mandarin Duck recently and I am so happy with him. He’s not perfect, but he has character. So this is my current passion. Also, I am knitting some socks, as well as my second Ama Sweater, but not quite as the pattern states!