Jill Glenn meets Fiona Goble, author and craftswoman extraordinaire, and finds out about her latest projects
If the idea of earning your living by knitting appeals to you as a pleasant way of turning a domestic pastime into an easy, idle source of income, think again. There’s nothing easy about it. “I knitted for a total of 35 hours to get a project finished one weekend recently,” Fiona Goble tells me, in the bright, airy kitchen of her Chorleywood home. This is the room in which she does most of her work – the rooflight means that you can distinguish the colours of the yarns clearly, even on the darkest of days – and thus the heart of a needle-based creative business that is clearly very demanding indeed.
Fiona, 55, is best known for Knit Your Own Royal Wedding, published a couple of months before William and Kate’s big day in 2011. Not only did it tell you how to knit all the key players, including the Archbishop of Canterbury and the in-laws, but it even included a pattern for the Queen’s corgis. “That corgi was a nightmare,” she says. “The first one looked like a horse. It’s getting the scale right that’s the difficult thing.”
Originally conceived as ‘a bit of a joke’, the book caught the imagination of both the public and the media, although Fiona did have some criticism from those who though it disrespectful. Publisher Ivy Press was soon struggling to keep up with demand (50,000 copies were printed in the end, and Knit Your Own Royal Wedding was, briefly, Number One on Amazon, knocking Jamie Oliver off the top spot) and Fiona was feted across the globe. She recalls being slightly bemused by all the attention. “It just grew out of all proportion… Time Magazine interviewed me, I was on American early morning television… and within a week of publication there was an entire knitted set for sale on eBay”.
It’s not the career acclaim you’d expect for a woman with a degree in Politics, an MA in African-American and African-Caribbean Studies, and a background in advertising and copy-writing. When she’d finished studying, she worked mostly in the voluntary sector, for agencies with a generally charitable focus, but then changed direction in the late 90s and set up a business making woollen bags, cushions and throws. It was, ironically, too successful. Her son Louis, now 16, was barely a fortnight old when she went to a trade fair and took so many orders that she was forced to drive around the local area with the baby in the back of the car, looking for outworkers. Keeping up with demand made life very stressful – ‘hallucinatory”, she calls it – and she sold the business a couple of years later, scuttling back to politics. “It was a steady job, a regular income even if a small one.” She worked (“for a few years; I’m not good at staying at things”) for Labour MEP Eryl McNally as a Research Officer in an unconventional office set-up where her colleagues were generally 30 or 40 miles away, and she was left largely to her own devices. “It was a great job,” she says, but when it came to an end (after Eryl McNally decided not to stand for re-election) Fiona wanted something that she could do from home. Louis was growing up; she wanted to be around when he came in from school, to help with homework and have his friends to tea.
“I asked myself what I could do, and I thought – I can make things, and I can write,” she says. She’d been creative as a child; she and her sister were taught to sew and knit by their grandmother, a woman who was also skilled at crochet, weaving and lacemaking. Fiona had recently made some little fleece toys – “rabbits and bears, that sort of thing” – which had sold well at Louis’s school fête, so she assembled a few more, wrote down the patterns and sent off a proposal to a publisher…
…who said yes. Fleecie Pets was published in 2006, and Fiona has been producing at an astonishing rate ever since: four sewing books, eight or nine knitting books (the vagueness is hers) and two more on the go at the moment. There’s Cute and Easy Knitting for Cico Books (patterns for home accessories such as cosies and coathanger covers, doorstops and draught excluders, all with a retro feel), which is currently at proof stage – Fiona’s least favourite part of the process – and Sew Quick, Sew Easy (Ivy Press) for which she’s currently developing the designs.
She acknowledges that she’s “good on detail and fine motor skills,” but she’s modest about her success. In craft publishing, she explains, work is often commissioned from talented craftspeople who just can’t cope with schedules and deadlines, so “if you do what you say you’re going to do, when you say you’re going to do it, then you’re a step ahead.” Her first publication for Ivy Press, published in 2010, was Knitivity: Create your Own Christmas Scene, a project for which she was recommended when another knitter/designer couldn’t deliver.
Knitivity is perfectly in tune with the zeitgeist for all things domestic and nostalgic; like each of the books that has come since, it’s beautifully presented and easy to follow. It even tells the story along with the patterns. The baby in the manger, incidentally, bears surprisingly little resemblance to the one that Fiona has just created in honour of the imminent royal birth, although clearly comes from the same stable…
Designs are not recycled as such, but Fiona admits it’s easier to begin if you have an existing pattern… which is why she was both an obvious and a surprising choice to design a set of knitted Dutch Royals – De Oranjes – in advance of the recent abdication of Queen Beatrix. It proved challenging because she didn’t “know” the Dutch royal family so well, but it also led to one of her more unusual invitations – to appear on the Paul de Leeuw show (Dutch TV’s equivalent of Graham Norton) to explain the intricacies of the abdication to Michael Bublé, using her knitted dolls as props.
Most of her work has a cute factor… but last year she ‘explored her dark side’, as the publicity would have it, and branched out into Zombie dolls: eight gruesome characters that can be ripped apart and reassembled in over a thousand combinations (so long as your velcro can stand it). They’re both fascinating and repellent, and have been well-received by knitters and children of a gory persuasion.
Surprisingly, Fiona doesn’t regard herself as particularly good at knitting. “I’m quite slow,” she says, and she confesses that, much to her pattern checker’s horror, she doesn’t knit tension swatches. She loves choosing yarns, conceiving new ideas and working out how it’s all going to come together. Generally, she says, royal men are harder to design and knit than royal women because of the ceremonial regalia, so she was pleased to be able to create a more casual look for Prince William this year.
The scenes for Knitivity came easiest; by contrast The Twelve Knits of Christmas, with its partridge in a pear tree, its beautiful swans swimming and geese laying and its utterly wonderful drummers drumming, was hard, but she revels in the intricacies of the process. “Working out how to get the swan’s neck right… that took ages,” she says with a smile. There are always challenges, always little fiddly problems to solve. “It grows organically… a bit of designing, a little bit of knitting, some undoing…”
Fiona has literally hand-made her career, and it’s enviable to spend your life doing something that you love – but it’s certainly not easy. There’s a lot more to it than knit one, purl one…
pictures © Ivy Press • www.ivypress.co.uk
click to download the pattern for the royal couple and the new arrival