Just over a year ago, Anna Dalvi asked us to dye yarn for 2 shawls for her new book Ancient Egypt in Lace and Color from Cooperative Press. In June at TNNA, I got to see all of the shawls in person and was completely blown away. Ancient Egypt in Lace and Color includes 12 shawl designs, introducing us to colour and its importance to the ancient Egyptian culture and as an integral part of design. I asked Anna to talk to us about her inspiration and design process.
What drew you to Ancient Egypt as inspiration for this book?
I have always enjoyed myths and fairy tales, and enjoy designing shawls that tell a story.
When I was younger, I read a lot of books with various mythology, and I enjoyed most of them. Ancient Egypt has always seemed so exotic. The imagery is rich with pyramids, deserts, floods and wildlife. The gods and mythical creatures range from almost human-looking, to gods like Anubis with a jackal head, and then there are the demons with forms as complicated as Ammit (head of a crocodile, torso of a leopard and the rear of a hippopotamus). I figured there had to be a lot of good stories to tell there. And then there are the beautiful rich colours used in the ancient egyptian art.
I’m really interested in what inspires designers and how they get from the initial flash of an idea to the finished design. How do your designs start? Do you see the finished piece in your mind? Does it come in bits and pieces? How does that happen for you?
It depends on the design. Often I’m aiming for an overall image and then add details piece by piece.
For example, I was reading the story of Ra and Apep. In ancient Egyptian mythology, Ra was the sun god. His job was to carry the sun disk across the sky each day. And each night, Ra would travel through the underworld to return to the east. Apep was a demon from the underworld who tried to capture and eat the sun each night.
So first of all I decided that I wanted it to be a circular shawl that looked like the sun. The second step was to find the yarn to go with my sun-shawl. I remember asking you for your yellows and then to narrow it down to a good sunshine yellow. What the Hay? (MCN Lace) fit the bill perfectly – a happy, warm sunshine yellow. I then decided that the light should be radiating out from the centre of the shawl. The first three sections of the shawl is basically three different sizes of a 12-pointed star, growing outwards. The next section has the sun-beams radiating from the centre star. And then finally the edging brings us back to the 12-pointed star, which looks a little bit like how a child would draw a sun.
Nefertari came about differently. I was reading about the symbolic meaning of the colour black in ancient Egypt. Just as in modern, western civilization, black was a symbol of death (and also fertility and life). Queen Nefertari was the patroness of the necropolis in Thebes, and she was known as “the Mistress of the Sky”. Coupling these four ideas, black – death – necropolis – mistress of the sky, lead me design a black shawl with wispy, lacy wings for the mistress of the sky. Wings make me thing of feathers, so I was looking for feather motifs, and decided to let my feathers grow larger the closer to the edge of the wings they got.
How much does a design change from the first idea to the finished product?
It depends. But the first idea is usually fairly vague, and then I hone in on the details. I usually chart the entire project before I start knitting, and then make adjustments/corrections as I knit. It often works out well, but of course there are times when it doesn’t and I end up ripping out tens of thousands of stitches. Those times I wish I wasn’t so math oriented – it’s depressing to count how many stitches are ripped out. But I can’t help myself – I have to know.
Your designs truly reflect the inspiration behind them. Knitting them and even just looking at the finished shawl is like reading a story. How do you do that?
I really like to design shawls that tell a story. That way, even when it’s finished, it’s a fun conversation piece. I’ve designed a number of shawls based on various fairy tales and myths and even folk songs, and I like to capture the essence of the story in the shawl. I often read the stories a number of times before I sit down to tell the story in lace, and then I try to incorporate the elements that speak to me.
Sometimes the connection can be an obvious one – like designing a sun shawl inspired by the story of Ra and Apep. And sometimes the connection is more obscure – like when I designed Ali Baba and made the shawl in the shape of half an octagon, that is four narrow triangles. The reason was that when Ali Baba’s brother was captured by the thieves, he was quartered. Yes, fairy tales can be rather gruesome. While I was not about to design a very graphically violent shawl based on such images, having the story influence the shaping of the shawl was a fun little “secret”, known by the knitter but not necessarily the observer.
How important is colour choice to you in your patterns? Is it an integral part of the design process?
My designs very often start with a colour, or a yarn in a particular colour. I look at the colour and then associate to what I see. I then take that association and try to incorporate it into the main theme of the design. For me, that often means that blue makes me think of water, green of foliage, etc. But blue can also be the sky. Or cornflowers. Or blue eyes. Once I’ve settled on a theme I look for a story that I can tell with my shawl design, such as the Nefertari shawl mentioned earlier.
In the Ancient Egypt book, you talk about the importance of colour. Tell us a little about what we’ll find out in the book.
One of the things that really clinched Ancient Egypt as the theme for this book was that I found out that in the Old Kingdom (third millennium BCD), there were six main colours used in the arts. And each of them had a very symbolic meaning. Painting something in a particular colour would give a clue to its nature. So my curiosity was piqued, and I set off to research the meanings of each of the colours. I then decided that it would be fun to design two shawls in each colour and have the associations bounded by what the ancient Egyptian meaning of the colour was. So instead of designing green shawls with tree motifs, I found that the land of the blessed dead was known as the Fields of Malachite. So one of the green shawls in the book was designed with that image in mind.
What’s next for you?
I’m planning a collection of patterns inspired by Norse myths, gods and heroes. And I’m also working on a number of new double-knitting designs. Both lace and double-knitting are means to telling a story, but the end result is of course quite different.
Anna will be running a KAL in her Ravelry group for Nefertari from Ancient Egypt in Lace and Color. Want to join in and knit in the same yarn? We will be posting an update of Merino Silk 4 ply Sock on Thursday September 20 at 2 pm right here. We’re also taking custom orders for the yarn for this outstanding shawl. Email orders AT indigodragonfly.ca to place an order.
To win a copy of Ancient Egypt in Lace and Color (ebook), leave a comment on this post. We’ll draw for the winner on September 25 at noon (Eastern) using a random number generator. One comment per person please! 🙂