Your Yarn Story: Julia Billings of Woollenflower

Your Yarn Story: Julia Billings of Woollenflower

I've been following a lovely Instagram account for well over a year now, it's called Woollenflower and it is full of beautiful images of nature, tweed pouches and the adventures of it's owner, Julia Billings. I don't remember exactly how I came across her account but I remember listening to an interview she did with A Playful Day last summer and I fell in love with what Julia was creating even more.

If you haven't discovered Woollenflower yet, you're in for a treat. Julia collects vintage tweed from charity shops, from friends cleaning out their grandmother's closets or wherever she comes across it and instead of discarding these beautiful old jackets, trousers and skirts she turns them into functional notions pouches. Pouches with a long history and a wonderful story. I am thus far the proud owner of two of these pouches - why two? because I couldn't resist, they are beautiful.

I was really excited when I met Julia at Unravel back in February and even more excited when she said "Yes!" to doing a Pop-Up shop and teaching some classes in the shop. Julia is also generously sharing her yarn story with us on the blog today, so here you go:

Q: What is currently on your needles? Or on your machine - or both?
A: I'm on the final stretch of Carrie Bostick Hoge's Leigh Tee using Marr Haven, a very beautiful, minimally processed aran-weight yarn in a natural shade of oatmeal-grey. Sadly this farm is no longer producing its wonderful yarn but a friend gave me three precious skeins last year and I've been hoarding them while I looked for the right project... I had in my head a completely plain t-shirt to highlight its pebbly texture and natural variations in colour but was a bit stumped on how to get what I wanted with only three skeins. So this cropped, sleeveless design is perfect! It looks like I'll actually have some left over so I might actually pick the cast-on stitches up and work down to make it bit longer but otherwise it's looking like it will work out well for a snuggly autumn layer!

Q: When did you start knitting? Who taught you?
A: Although I did a lot of craft as a kid and my mum was a great knitter, I only asked her to teach me how to knit when I was in my early thirties. I was studying and working in horticulture and also learning to spin so it made sense to learn how to knit to use up my handspun and to keep myself warm while working outside! I got right into it straight away and my spinning soon fell by the wayside, just because of time and wanting to knit more things than I could spin for. I haven't stopped since then and am still pretty obsessed by trying different techniques- like many knitters in the Ravelry community, I'm mostly self-taught but I've been lucky enough to learn from some really talented people and find that the small, unexpected tricks passed on in classes are what keep me growing as a knitter!

Q: What do you enjoy most about knitting? What keeps you coming back to the craft?
A: I really enjoy the soothing movement of working the needles at the end of the day but it's definitely the yarn that keeps me knitting! I love the tactile aspect of it, the way a yarn runs through my fingers as I work, and also the pleasure of seeing the individual stitches become fabric as the knitting grows- I definitely spend a bit too much time stopping to admire it! I suppose that my introduction to yarn through spinning led to a preference for minimally-processed yarns and a keen interest in how and where a yarn is made, where the fibre in it came from- that doesn't mean that I only use local yarns but I definitely look for producers who know how to get the best out of the raw materials they have.

Q: Do you have a favorite thing to knit?
A: I've always been a pretty pragmatic knitter and love making cosy jumpers and cardigans, especially since we moved from Australia to Scotland last year as there is much more need for them here! But it's been a learning curve, mostly in choosing the right patterns as garments are a big commitment in time and materials and I've made quite a few that were really interesting to make but that just never made it into rotation- I love them as finished objects but just don't find a way to wear them. This is especially true of a few colourwork projects which is so sad- such a lot of time, energy and passion invested in something that doesn't get worn! So I've learnt that, for me, garments need to be interesting enough to keep me going but also wearable. Sometimes that wearability is just about colour or it might be about shape or keeping the textures and details simple but there are some designers who really hit the spot for me with a great combination of practicality and interesting and inventive details- Amy Christoffers, Marianne Isager, Gudrun Johnston, Anna Maltz, Jared Flood, Julie Hoover...
Of course, you always need a bit of frivolous knitting and things like hats and shawls are a lovely way to get a bit more colour and texture in! And are much less of an investment if the FO doesn't work out to be something I'd wear- most of my knitted gifts are experiments that then get passed on ; )

Q: What is the last project you completed?
A: Scalene by Nadia Cretin-Lechenne from the latest Brooklyn Tweed Wool People. I made it as a sample using my plant-dyed yarns- one strand of a fine kid-mohair/ silk and one strand of a light fingering alpaca/ silk/ linen in two different colours. I love working like this and wanted to show how holding two strands of different textures and colours can create an interesting third texture and colour. 


Q: Do you have an overall philosophy that guides your designing/making?
A: For me, it's simply balancing practical function with beauty and magic- I don't want to fill the world with stuff I don't need so I have to need and love what I make! That applies to the decision of both what to make and what to use to make it.  And I use the best materials I can afford... Life is too short.

Q: When did you first start making your beautiful pouches? What gave you the idea to reuse tweed for this?

A: My dad introduced my to the beauty of Harris Tweed years ago and, over the last five or so years, we started picking up HT jackets in charity shops- some old, some new but often worn-out and some really interesting and unusual tweeds as well as very generic patterns. In Australia, many men of my dad's generation did wear Harris Tweed and so it was a small but strong export market for the British industry- but now it's really only the urban hipster boys who know how to wear them! So they come up in charity shops much more often than you'd think.  We started unpicking them and wondering what to make with the thin strips we ended up with... Working in a yarn shop in Melbourne, I knew how few good knitting tool pouches were available and so, when my husband and I decided to move to Glasgow and I was accepted for the Edinburgh Yarn Festival, I thought that tool pouches would be a perfect thing to make for the festival!

Since arriving in Glasgow, I’ve learnt that Harris tweed jackets are (happily!) much treasured and worn here so, unlike in Melbourne, there are none to be found in charity shops. However, as more people have seen what I do, I've had many garments that belonged to family members passed on in trade for a pouch and I really enjoy that exchange! I also find lengths of vintage tweed (Harris or other) and buy HT offcuts from a upholsterer's workshop in Manchester. I love being able to breathe new life into worn-out or unloved jackets but I have to say that it is much easier to use lengths of fabric or scraps, rather than unpicking and working with sleeve and back pieces to get as much usable fabric as possible! But I  work with whatever configuration of materials I can get my hands on as it is the fabric itself that is the real joy for me. And I love that all of my pouches have a story in how and where I found them and I like passing that on to the new owner- it’s been so lovely to see people using them for both their tools and their small woolcraft projects!

Q: Where do you get inspiration from?

A: So many places! Plants are a big one for me; their shapes, colours and textures never stop surprising and astounding me. Traditional textiles, whether plant-dyed rugs, Harris Tweed with its combination of muted and mad colours or colourwork knitting from Fairisle, Scandinavia and the Baltic. Textures and patterns in architecture. And of course, talking with others about their craft!

Q: What is your current making crush? In other words, what are you desperate to start making or to use in your making process?
A: Knitwise, I'm really excited about the gansey I'm about to cast on- my own design and a hybrid of traditional technique and construction and modern shape. Lots of knitting but the textures are so amazing and fun to knit!

I'll be making a run of pouches for a friend's shop with a beautiful British tweed- it's hush-hush so no names yet but I can't wait to see how they look!

And I've just got back into dyeing with indigo- I learnt the basics a few years ago but I'm really keen to learn more and explore the intricacies of this beautiful dye.

Q: How has knitting effected your life? or What role does knitting play in your life?
A: It's taught me patience and determination, the importance of trusting my creative gut and following through and has built an entire community and work for me, both in Australia and here in Scotland... so I'd say it's had a huge influence! on my life! I'm so grateful that a pair of knitting needles and a ball of yarn has done all that for me.


If you'd like to come meet Julia in person, she'll be in the shop for the opening on the Pop-Up on Saturday 16th July where we'll have a special larger size of her Harris Tweed pouches on sale. She'll also be teaching two classes that day Darning you Knits and Steeking, both great additions to anyone's repertoire and spots are still available.

- Carmen

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