Wednesday, 4 April 2018

The Ground Elder Cardigan - part one of three

I designed this to wear at  Shetland Wool Week in autumn 2017. It caused quite a bit of interest and I received some lovely compliments from the local knitters whose expertise I value highly. It was suggested that this would be of wider interest  and I thought I would describe the story behind it to show that making a unique item is not too difficult and is very rewarding when complete. The yarn is Shetland jumper weight 2 ply (that knits as 4ply ) and comes from Shetland. All except the off white (original colour) is naturally dyed with ground elder from my garden in Norfolk.

Some background about me

I was an avid knitter having learnt to knit (and sew) from my mother before going to school. Attending a Girls Grammar school, I was firmly told by staff that  this was the sort of thing you kept for your spare time.  I was selected to do ‘science' for GCE as it was then, and therefore went onto a career in science involving chemistry. I did  carry  on with my textile interests in my spare time. We moved to Cheshire nearly 20 years ago and I joined Clwyd Guild. I was attracted to whole day meetings and workshops on Saturdays. It was here that I was introduced to natural dyeing and my life changed. So I became a scientific natural dyer. Since then I have increasingly used local dye plants and specialised in obtaining as many colours as I wanted from the same plant . You may have seen my apple dyed skeins in the Association National exhibition in 2016.

It was whilst  preparing to lead  a  natural dye workshop using plants from the hedgerow and garden  that I decided to do a demonstration set using ground elder  (the parts that are above the ground). Ground elder is a prolific plant in the garden we moved to when we returned to live in Norfolk in 2014. So I had a sample set of 6 colours.

Image of initial ground elder dyed skeins 

From left to right: Ground Elder on its own, plus copper, plus soda, plus iron, plus madder, plus indigo 


I had already designed and knitted a black and white fair isle Cardigan that  I wore at a previous Shetland wool week. This was machine knitted as I am rather a perfectionist and like a very professional finish. At the time I told the many people who commented that this was just a practice piece. I intended to knit another using a range of natural dyes and did this to get the fit and the pattern to my liking.  The motifs  are traditional Shetland fair isle patterns -many taken from Fair Isle Knitting Patterns by Mary Macgregor  (1) but other motifs were included too, including my initials! 

Image of my black and white cardigan. 

This cardigan was the pattern that I would use for the 'Ground Elder Cardigan'. However, I did not realise at the start how complex a task l had set myself. I needed to know how much yarn of each colour way I would need to dye. All the colours would be dyed initially with  Ground Elder, and all except the main colour would then be modified to get the remaining colours. Once I had my yarn initially dyed with Ground Elder there was no room for errors.

Initially I knitted a sample in some similar colours from my vast 'stash'. I intended to miss out the horizontal lines as I assumed they would be too dominant and not use the indigo dyed ground elder as I found this did not ‘go’ as well. In designing being able to be selective can  be very important. 

However, from the first sample I discovered that the horizontal lines were necessary in the design,  so what colour would I make them? More sampling and then tweaking of aspects of the design took several days until I had colour ways I was happy with. I was going to use 3 background colours: off white, ground elder and a lightened version of ground elder. In all I would be knitting with 8 different colour yarns. 

Image of samples 

Top row: initial sample with no horizontal demarcations, draft sample in ground elder colours, two further samples testing modifications

Bottom row: tension sample of the chosen motifs 

Now I only had 2  problems left :

  • dyeing these colours from ground elder
  • calculating how much of each colour I would need

I didn’t see the knitting or getting the fit right as problems as I already had the black and white cardigan.

I decided to work on the calculation. Initially I calculated how many stitches of each colour were in the sample of one repeat of the pattern - 24 stitches and 54 rows.  I then knitted a sample in one colour and worked out how much yarn that  took. So in a sample I thought I knew how much yarn would be needed of each colour - I was working in length and weight as a double check. Then reality struck, this was a completely flawed calculation. In fair isle a lot of yarn is carried between stitches and I had to allow for that.Many of the rows were single rows and so yarn would be left at the start and end of the rows. 

So I  knitted another sample using the same yarn but in different colours and thus this was more exact. By weighing the yarn at the end for each colour I would know the mass of each colour used in the sample. I could then estimate the number of small sample sized pieces  needed for the jacket and I would be there. I also took the weight of the sample-I was weighing and measuring everything I could!

My years as a scientist were not wasted, I knew I needed a double check.  I weighed the black and white cardigan which included 10 glass buttons which were quite heavy but which did not include so many ‘ends’ as I was only dealing with two colours. I estimated the proportion of the final weight of the sample that was each colour. I decided to add 20% to all final figures as I thought that would be ample but my husband said he didn’t want any last minute panics so I added 30% and  was confident I would also have enough over to knit the tension  square which was needed to set the  sizing for my 40 year old punchcard knitting machine, the Wool Week hat (2) and some other accessories.


1.There are several sources of fair Isle motifs that can be put together to make patterns. The height of the motif and the width are important considerations in planning. 

See for example: A Shetland Knitters Notebook Mary Smith, Chris Bunyan; Fair Isle Knitting Handbook Alice Starmore; Fair Isle Knitting Patterns Mary MacGregor, A Shetlander’s Fair Isle Graph Book Shetland Guild of Spinners, Knitters, Weavers and Dyers

2. Wool Week takes place for a week at the end of September each year in Shetland. It is a wonderful collection of events and draws people from around the world. Each year the SWW Patron devises a pattern which attendees are encouraged to wear and although there might be 400-600 people there, it is rare to see two hats that are identical. Look at to see the pattern for 2018 devised by Elizabeth Johnston (the wonderful lady who taught me to spin).


  1. Amazing! You do the same way I do with lace. But... yours is indeed significantly more difficult. I only have to work in one colour.
    I'm so impressed with your dyeing skills.
    On to read part 2!

  2. Thanks Monique, I just wish I had more hours in a day.....