Meet the Maker: Elizabeth Larsen Knitwear
The seed for Jan Appleton’s creative business Elizabeth Larsen Knitwear was sown when she moved to Wester Ross in the Scottish Highlands, bought a knitting machine and picked up the craft she had started in the 1980s before “life took over”. She found machine knitting was a great way to express her creativity and fulfil her capabilities – both things that had been missing before. Jan now creates knitwear for women influenced by the outstanding natural beauty of the Scottish Highlands and the colours, textures and landscape around her. We caught up with Jan to find out more about her beautiful knits and her latest collection inspired by the Torridon Hills.
Can you introduce yourself and describe what you do?
Hi, my name is Jan and I’m the person behind Elizabeth Larsen Knitwear. I like to design and make stylish but practical knitwear for women.
I came from a very creative family – if we wanted something we tended to make it.
Who is Elizabeth Larsen?
The name of my business was chosen because it’s a little part of me and it also reflects my style of knitwear. My maiden name is Janette Elizabeth Larsen. My father’s side of the family are from Norway and I wanted to celebrate my family’s heritage, hence Elizabeth Larsen.
Have you always been creative?
I came from a very creative family – if we wanted something we tended to make it. I remember as a child I helped my mum to make hobby horses. Like most women of that era, she had to be industrious in a way that worked around the family, so she had her own small creative business. As a teenager I liked to be different and made my own clothes. It’s funny now, but when I think back I thought I rocked at the school discos.
Little did I realise that at the age of 50 I would take up knitting again and find a new sense of joy with this lovely creative medium.
When did you first start knitting?
I’ve hand knitted as long as I can remember. My mum knitted and my mum’s mum knitted. It’s just what we did. In the 1980s I started to machine knit and I absolutely loved it – so much so that I went on every machine knitting course I could go on until I was the one doing the teaching. At the time I had two young children and they wore the results of my experiments and I still smile at the photos of the very 80s-style knitwear I made. I was also a member of a local craft guild and they were a great support, showcasing my work in Europe. So you could say my knitwear business started in the 1980s but due to changes in my personal life, ‘real life’ took over and my knitwear business had to go on the back burner. Little did I realise that at the age of 50 I would take it up again and find a new sense of joy with this lovely creative medium.
I felt that I wasn’t fulfilling my capabilities. I’d always carried on with hand knitting as a hobby and I found an urge to start machine knitting again.
What made you take it up again?
In 2010 my husband Mark and I moved to Wester Ross in the Highlands of Scotland. This was a pivotal time for me. It’s a very rural location, my nearest town being 73 miles away at Inverness. Work is sparse and seasonal and although I was working part-time for Mark’s graphic design business, I felt that I wasn’t fulfilling my capabilities. I’d always carried on with hand knitting as a hobby and I found an urge to start machine knitting again. I managed to purchase an old basic knitting machine. It wasn’t quite like riding a bike – I certainly didn’t start where I left off. But it soon clicked back into place and I found that I still loved it. It was a great way to express my creativity.
The seed was sown – I could possibly make a living from my knitwear again. Even though I started my knitwear business in 2015, it wasn’t until September of this year that it fully evolved into Elizabeth Larsen Knitwear thanks to all the lovely customers who encouraged me to develop my business. I can’t put into words how gratifying it is when people purchase something you’ve made, when there’s so much lovely knitwear out there.
My Gairloch Collection is influenced by the stockings made from home-spun wool by the women of Gairloch Parish to provide an additional income during the destitution years in the middle of the 19th Century.
Where do you look for inspiration?
I collect old and new knitting and textile books. I just love old stitch patterns and you’ll often find me trawling through these books for inspiration. I get great pleasure from reinventing an old pattern into a modern design, something women will wear today, like my Gairloch Collection which is influenced by an old Gairloch stocking pattern reproduced by Gairloch Heritage Museum. The stockings were made from home-spun wool by the women of Gairloch Parish to provide an additional income during the destitution years in the middle of the 19th Century. It’s quite a humbling experience to know that women today wear my Gairloch designs that were influenced by such sad circumstances.
Does living in the Scottish Highlands influence your work?
I’m blessed to live in an area of outstanding natural beauty, a place I like to explore on foot. I constantly find inspiration from the colours and the textures of the landscape around me, from the rugged mountains, with their glorious lichens, to the soft white sands and aqua sea. You’ll often find me taking photos of the minutest details on rocks, trees, bracken and the shapes the sea leaves behind on the beach. All these are precious sources of inspiration for me.
I constantly find inspiration from the colours and the textures of the landscape around me.
Who are your heroes of craft?
Living in such a beautiful but often hostile environment appeals a lot to creative people: artists, poets, designers and more. There are some amazing people here who are not just talented but make a living from their craft. They’re my heroes, doing something they love and living in an area that’s logistically not easy.
I managed to purchase an old basic knitting machine. It wasn’t quite like riding a bike – I certainly didn’t start where I left off. But it soon clicked back into place and I found that I still loved it.
Can you tell us about your making process?
It’s normally a whisper of an idea while I’m out and about, walking in the mountains or strolling on the beach. The start of a design just pops into my head. I always carry a notebook because my idea can disappear as quickly as it comes. If it’s a colour or texture I’ve seen in the landscape, I’ll take a photo. It’s only when I get home to my work room that I can start to experiment with my idea. It normally starts with colours and then I decide how I’m going to create the textures. This could be with a certain yarn or a mix of yarns or manipulating the stitches. I use a variety of yarns from wool spun in Scotland to manmade fibres spun in Europe to get the result I want – the important thing for me is the quality of the yarn and the end result the yarn will create, being texture or drape.
Once I’ve picked my yarns, I’ll do my tension swatches and, dependant on the yarn, there will be different finishing techniques before I can measure my swatch. This is where I have to be patient as I’m itching to get a finished result, to see if my idea works. Once the measurements are completed, I can then go on to knit my prototype and this is the moment of joy or sheer frustration – many ideas have to evolve to become a workable collection.
Having a work room is great, it means I can (and do!) leave it in a creative mess.
Tell us about your studio – where is it, what does it look like and what’s in it?
I’m lucky to have a dedicated room in my house as my work room. My work also creeps into other rooms though, in fact there probably aren’t many rooms without some form of knitting going on. Having a work room is great, it means I can (and do!) leave it in a creative mess. I’ve got walls full of yarn and what a pleasure that is to look at. I have a few knitting machines now but only have two set up permanently in my work room. I’ve also got a work table, with a knitting machine, blocking board, a very well used steam generator iron on it, lots of shelves with my patterns, books and bits and bobs that might come in handy for future designs, and my computer, where I spend my time when I’m not knitting – I would be lost without it. I also have lots of photos of my family in my work room – happy moments caught on camera. My workroom is a really positive place for me to spend my time in.
I’ve got walls full of yarn and what a pleasure that is to look at.
What does craft mean to you?
Craft is extremely important to me – it’s been a happy part of my life. I find knitting quite therapeutic, even the noise of my knitting machine gives me pleasure. I like to learn new crafts too and recently I’ve started to make my own buttons as I’ve struggled to find ones in colours and sizes that match my knitwear – it’s such great fun. I also like to be an advocate for crafts and promote other creative businesses where I live in Wester Ross through Handmade in Wester Ross. We need to support and look after each other, particularly traditional craft skills. I’d hate to see them disappear.
My Christmas present to myself is time out to take my ideas off paper and on to the knitting machine.
What are you looking forward to this Christmas?
This may sound rather sad and probably a little selfish but I’m so excited about Christmas – all my orders will be completed and I’ll have no more events until the New Year and that means I can start experimenting with my knits again. I’ve got a few ideas that need to be tried and, like most creative businesses, the joy is the designing and experimenting. That’s my Christmas present to myself: time out to take my ideas off paper and on to the knitting machine. Bliss. And, of course, having some quality time with my family.
Enjoy 10% off Elizabeth Larsen Knitwear with the code FOLKSY – only valid for a limited time