Today I'm talking to Rachel Illsley of Unwind Knitwear. Just a stone's throw from Tangled Yarn over the Pennines, Rachel has been designing and self-publishing knitting patterns since 2018. Her latest design, Runestone Wrap, was released today!
Tell us a bit about yourself?
Hi, I'm Rachel, the designer behind Unwind Knitwear. I live in a rural town in North Yorkshire with my husband, two daughters (aged seven and three) and two new additions to our family: sibling kittens, Milo and Luna.
How did you learn to knit?
In my early twenties, I can remember wanting a hobby for the evenings, something to keep my hands busy and thinking that knitting seemed like something I would enjoy. The only knitter I knew was my grandma, and the next time I saw her, I asked her to teach me the basics. I remember feeling very clumsy and awkward, trying to knit. At one point, I managed to drop both needles to the floor, leaving me slightly panicked, grasping a bunch of live stitches in my hands! After Grandma's initial training, my next source of learning was via the Internet, without which I doubt I would have persevered. How did people manage in the days before Youtube tutorials?!
How did you get into knitwear design? Is this your full-time job?
Early on as a knitter, I felt very frustrated when trying to follow knitting patterns because I disliked blindly following instructions and didn't understand the "why" behind the knitting instructions. This frustration led to a desire to understand the mechanics of knitwear construction so that I could work from knitting patterns from a more informed perspective and, hopefully, customise knits to better suit my style and fit preferences. From there, it was a relatively small jump to start designing my own garments and accessories. For around five years, I explored designing as a hobby whilst also working full time as a Primary School teacher.
After having my second daughter, I took a break from working as a teacher to be at home with my daughters before they started school. While I absolutely loved being at home with my two daughters, I also discovered that I missed the mental challenge of work pretty quickly. Knitwear design offered the mental challenge I was missing. It was something I could fit around full-time childcare relatively easily. Hence Unwind Knitwear was born. Designs I created during nap times and evenings when I wasn't being 'Mum'. Soon I was hooked on the combination of the creative outlet of design, the mental challenge of grading and pattern writing and the connection to a world beyond the demands of early motherhood.
Now, I work on Unwind Knitwear part-time, when my youngest daughter attends Nursery, and from September 2021, when she starts school full-time, knitwear design will be my full-time job. I don't mind admitting that I'm pretty proud of what Unwind Knitwear has become in the past couple of years.
Tell us about your new shawl design, Runestone Wrap?
Sometimes I have an idea for a design. I seek out yarn to suit the design; other times, I am approached by a yarn company to design something with a specific yarn. In the Runestone Wrap case, Michelle of Kokon Yarns approached me with an idea for a delicately geometric shawl using her Merino / Linen base. I am always drawn to geometric shapes, patterns and textures, and Michelle's muted colourways are stunning, so this was a perfect collaboration for me. The yarn very much determined the final design. Although I knew I wanted to create geometric shapes and textures within the wrap - extensive swatching determined precisely how that would be made. I combined with experimenting with different needle sizes to achieve the desired drape, to show off the yarn at its absolute best.
Kokon Merino Linen has been a joy to work with. The yarn is incredibly soft and has some slight variation in the strands' thickness that adds a lovely, natural quality to it. The Runestone Wrap sample has been worked in three colours. Still, it is also possible to complete the wrap using one or two colours instead. Yardages for all three options are included within the pattern. I have to admit I quite fancy a one-colour version for myself.
Do you have a favourite knitting technique that you couldn't live without?
My favourite knitting technique is probably stranded knitting with two colours. For me, this technique's creative possibilities are endless, and there's something incredibly motivating about seeing a colourwork pattern emerging. Just one more round…!
There are so many amazingly talented designers out there right now – it's a great time to be a knitter. I think the designers I admire the most are those who bring their individuality to their designs or experiment with unusual constructions or techniques. I'm pretty obsessed with Aleks Byrd and her Roosimine designs right now.
What else can we see from you in 2021?
I like to create a mix of statement pieces and versatile wardrobe basics in my design work. This year, I will be continuing to explore how music can inspire knitwear design in terms of statement pieces.
My Einaudi Collection, which started last Autumn with Nightbook and Burning, will gain another design this year. I am planning to start a second collection based on another composer's work.
These designs are all colourwork sweaters – possibly my favourite thing to design – a joy to knit and eye-catching stunners to wear. I love to balance those designs with versatile wardrobe basics, like my Transcend and Undulated sweaters, so you can expect more of that this year too.
If you were stranded on a desert island, what three luxury items would you take with you?
Pre Covid, I was the kind of person who loved to travel to new places but always missed home when I was away.
I am a real home-comforts person, so I am experiencing mild anxiety at the thought of having to choose only three things from my home to take with me….
If I must, I will say my coffee machine (under the pretence that this desert island is supplied with electricity) because I have a considerable caffeine addiction. My skincare products – especially sunscreen! – because I am slightly fanatical about skincare and, of course, my yarn stash to keep busy with. Each of those items is more than one thing, so I'm pretty sure I've cheated on that question…
Where can people find your designs?
My designs are currently available on Ravelry, and sneak peeks of my latest work can be found on Instagram; you can find me as @unwind_knitwear. A website for Unwind Knitwear is another goal for 2021, so watch this space!
Runestone Wrap & Kokon Merino Linen
Runestone Wrap is available now to purchase from Rachel's Ravelry Store. Rachel knit her shawl in Moon (MC), Ice (CC) and Rose Gold (CC). Here are few more ideas on colours combinations you might like to try.