In the last year or so, my Stephen West appreciation has been growing. It goes without saying that his patterns are remarkably creative. His public persona is loud and colorful and screams for attention, just like his designs. He seems to mix colors and fibers with reckless abandon. Especially working in fashion for years, I feel like I trained my tastes away from that aesthetic. Now that I’m a mom and a committed knitter, my natural inclination to embrace those color and texture explosions is returning to me – and it feels so good!
A few months ago one of our knitters mentioned to me that she’d met this “interesting fellow” was “wearing this amazing cape with all sorts of colors.” When she described this man further, it was clear she was talking about Stephen West. The conversation that followed brought Stephen West, all of his designs and his interesting public persona to the front of my mind. In that time since, I’ve been reading his patterns and all of the projects associated with them and casting on my own Stephen West project. Feeling more and more into his designs, I can’t help but share my appreciation for his knitting-world contributions!
I decided to cast-on a Vertics Unite. The pattern describes it as a “geometric shawl exploration” with various pieces put together like a puzzle. Pattern pics include lots of hand-dyes for all of the pieces making it look really complex… but it’s not. This shawl is knit in garter stitch throughout; pieces are shaped simply with increases and decreases. Simple slip stitch edges keep everything clean and tidy, and it’s all wrapped up nicely at the end with an i-cord border.
Looking at projects from this pattern, they range from being crazy color explosions to subtle and sophisticated palettes. West’s samples and Ravelry user @innaparita are great examples of a louder take on this pattern. Meanwhile, @babaganoush and @espacetricot’s versions strongly influenced my own color choices. The pattern calls for a fingering-weight yarn, but you can see that knitters have played with yarn weight, making shawls with a bigger size (and thicker yarn) or more drape to their fabrics (perhaps using a lace-weight). I opted to make mine in Shibui’s Birch, but that was only because at the time we didn’t have a wide range of colors in Brooklyn Tweed’s Peerie. @babaghanoush’s version is knit up in Brooklyn Tweed’s Vale – another lovely option. Of course, hand-dyes are an obvious choice, whether you look to Tosh Merino Light, La Jolla, Squishy or some combination of the three.
The Briochevron Scarf/Cowl has been in my favorites for a long time. I particularly like the way this pattern is written. West uses clear language to describe the brioche stitches and gives wonderful tips about reading your work (so you can easily keep track of where you are in the pattern)! An i-cord cast-on and bind-off give you beautiful finished edges. Use a dk or worsted weight yarn for this project. While I like the simplicity of using just two contrasting colors for this project, I like how West’s sample of the moebius cowl uses various colors (striped throughout) for the “contrast color.” I’d want to embrace some bold colors here, using Kokon’s Merino DK, Madeline Tosh Vintage or Malabrigo’s Rios to start. I think it might even be fun to mix these yarns with other solids like Shelter, Arbor, Shepherd’s Wool or SimpliWorsted.
One thing I love about West’s brioche patterns is that he always references Nancy Marchant’s knitting instruction. She is the Grande Dame of Brioche, and his reverence of her contribution makes me respect him all that much more. He makes us think he’s gone off the rails with his brioche knitting, but he’s firmly anchored to the foundation of it.
Cablage has risen to the top of my queue as the hat I most want to knit. Cablage? It’s a collage of cables, of course! West couples a bulky yarn (Brooklyn Tweed’s Quarry) with a fingering (something bright like La Jolla or Tosh Merino Light!) and knits up all of these cables in a tight, warm cap. I love his suggestion of using an aran-weight yarn if you want a more relaxed fabric. Experienced knitters know this by intuition, but he writes his patterns and spells it out for those of us who don’t have that wealth of experience under our belts.
Penguono is a daring project that deserves discussion. This incredible short-sleeved jacket is presented in his pattern as a cacophony of colors and textures. I particularly love the writing of this pattern. He encourages you to “start with yarns from your curated collection” of yarn (ie your stash) and reminds you to “remember that when you use what you have you deserve to buy more yarn.” He recommends using lofty wools that will keep this piece light (again, spelling things out for those of us with less experience) as this piece uses a lot of yarn. Penguono is sized according to the weight of yarn you use. Correctly achieving gauge, a small will use a fingering weight yarn, a medium a dk-weight yarn and so on. The pics in the pattern reflect the work of someone who is absolutely creative, an artist and someone who has a superb intuition for how colors and fibers dance together.
That said, it’s a lot of fun to take a look at the work of other knitters. West’s version of Penguono is loud and daring. Take a look at @napagal’s monochrome version to see how chic and tailored this piece is. There are a few other projects I’ve pictured above that let you see this piece in less dramatic proportions, looking like a more tailored garment. I think these examples reveal how clever West is in his construction. As much as I love West’s color explosions, I would want to make my own up using Brooklyn Tweed’s Loft (or Arbor, or Shelter… depending on your size).
By the way, one of my favorite things about this pattern is that West states “I imagine if a penguin were to wear a woolly kimono-esque jacket in my dream world, it would look something like this, a Penguono!” What is not to love about that imagination?
West’s clever construction isn’t unique to Penguono. A new-ish pattern called Diagonal Drift is another example of this talent. This scarf is made up with garter stripes and short row shaping. Unique parallelogram shapes make for a long, biased shape. The fact that West sampled this in solid yarns let you see the interesting shaping more clearly than you can with hand-dyes. It’s eye-catching but still hangs on to a traditional aesthetic. This 6 color piece allows you to come up with unexpected color combinations that still really work. I would knit up this beautiful scarf in Arbor and give it to my husband, or in Kokon Merino DK and keep it for myself. It could also be interesting in Criative DK or even Cascade’s Ultra Pima!
West is a prolific designer and there’s a lot more to see in his designs. If you’re a fearless knitter who loves color, he’s probably in your queue already. If you’re not, I think you should take another look. There’s something really special about his construction and his designs. I think the barrage of color in his designs (while super fun!) hides the thoughtfulness of his designs. His puts the most daring and flamboyant version of his designs out there, but there’s a way to bring any aesthetic to his pieces.