Should We Be Wearing More Shawls? 17 Questions for Knitter-Designer Stephen West

published Mar 27, 2017
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(Image credit: Alexandra Feo. Makeup by Alexandra Feo)

A few weeks ago, my sister-in-law sent me a link to Stephen West‘s “Wannasheep” video, his knitting-themed cover of the Spice Girls’ 1996 classic. (“Slam your skein down and wind it all around.”)

(The “LAMB” freeze-frame doesn’t do it justice, in my opinion.)

I was already a fan of West’s equally wonderful and sometimes bizarre knitting designs, popular all over the world, so I emailed to see if he’d answer a few questions about what he’s currently up to. (Quick answer: His latest book, Westknits Bestknits, came out in September 2016, and his Marled Magic Mystery Shawl Knitalong project is currently in full swing — join along here.)

(Image credit: Ravelry)

Where are you right now?

I’m in Iceland, land of sheep and wool!

(Image credit: Stephen West)

I know (via the internet) that you’re from Tulsa, Oklahoma, and I’ve read that you got into knitting while at the University of Illinois. How did you get from Illinois to Amsterdam?

I studied dance at the University of Illinois in Champaign Urbana and heard about an amazing choreography program at the arts school in Amsterdam, so I sent in my application and auditioned for the program. I got in, so I quickly got my things together and moved to Amsterdam with two suitcases, one filled with yarn and knits and the other with clothes and personal belongings. I didn’t know anybody in Amsterdam, but it turned into the most inspirational adventure, and now I’m part of an amazing yarn store called Stephen & Penelope in the center of the city.

(Image credit: Alexandra Feo)

What are you currently working on?

I just released my newest mystery shawl KAL [knitalong], where thousands of knitters come together from all around the world to knit my shawl pattern. I love seeing all the colorful variations unfold. Each piece is very different because the project is designed to use your leftover yarn or yarn from your stash. I’m releasing several new patterns this month! Check out my Ravelry page to see all my latest work!

When do you feel most alive?

I feel most alive when I receive a new box of Hedgehog Fibres yarn in the mail. I’m addicted to color and I love planning new projects!

(Image credit: Stephen West)

Do you usually knit alone or with friends?

I usually knit alone and I love knitting in public places and cafes. I will often meet with other obsessed knitter friends in whatever city I’m in.

What’s the strangest material you’ve knit with?

There are these awesome fiber guys in Belgium called Bart & Francis, and they make some wild yarns. My favorite is their mohair coated in latex.

Who are some of your favorite knitters, designers and yarn-makers?

My favorite designer is Walter van Beirendonck. He’s a Belgian fashion designer, and his collections always transport me to a vibrant fantasy world filled with color and imagination. I knit a lot with Hedgehog Fibres from Cork, Ireland. Their speckled yarns and color aesthetic speak to my yarn-loving soul. There are so many amazing knitters out there, and I’m lucky to meet many of them when I travel.

(Image credit: Stephen West)

What’s your home like?

Currently, I’m a knitting knomad, so home is where the yarn is and I’m always traveling with a suitcase filled with yarn. I often visit Reykjavik and I often hang out at Reykjavik Roasters or KEX to relax, knit and people watch. I lived in Amsterdam for six years, and it was a very beautiful city to inspire my knitting projects. I would often knit at Koko cafe or Droog Design, and I like exploring the Jordaan neighborhood, which is filled with cozy cafes and vintage shops.

What’s your personal yarn stash situation?

I knit furiously, so I work through a lot of my yarn, but I’m also a yarn collector. It seems to stick to me like velcro wherever I go. I always travel with a suitcase full of yarn and projects, and I keep some of my emergency yarn collection at my mom’s house. I try not to hold onto yarn for too long, so my projects are getting bigger and more colorful to use as many colors and yarns as I can! If it doesn’t inspire me, there’s no sense in having it around for several years.

Not a question, but I can’t wait to knit your eyeball shawl.

(Image credit: Stephen West)
(Image credit: Stephen West)

I want to the world covered in Eyeball Shawls! That design took me a whole month to create as I knit and re-knit it trying to figure out the shape. It was so rewarding when the construction finally worked out.

What’s something memorable you’ve been sent through the internet? Like fan mail, or similar?

Occasionally someone will send a photo of their kid dressed up in full Westknits gear. My designs are super colorful and I dress like a big baby most of the time, so naturally kids love the knits and fun videos on YouTube. It makes me so happy to see families bonding through their knitting or dressing up in crazy colors.

How did the “Wannasheep” video come to be?

I love Iceland and the infectious energy of the Spice Girls, so it felt very appropriate to film a new music video in Spliceland. My friends Kyli and Stevie flew from New York to Iceland to film our newest music video in the streets and parking lots of Reykjavik. There are mountains, waterfalls and glaciers coming in the next video!

(Image credit: Stephen West)

How can people better incorporate shawls into their lives/routines?

Everyone needs a big pile of shawls! You can wear them anywhere, anytime. They’re perfect for chilly evenings, and I love meeting new people that appreciate the colors. Shawls are always a colorful magnet to meet and interact with people. I like that shawls don’t have to be a specific size or fit a certain way. They’re canvases for experimenting and playing with shape and color fascinations, so they’re a visual representation of your personality.

Would you mind taking a selfie to show how you look answering these questions? (No pressure!)

(Image credit: Stephen West)

It’s chilly in Iceland, so I’ve been wearing my matchy marled sweater and leggings all the time!

Do you have any knitting-disaster stories that you can share?

I went through a phase in college where I just felted everything that didn’t fit. I learned a lot about gauge swatching. Now I rarely gauge swatch, but I just make fabrics where the gauge isn’t as important. I improvise and design on the needles most of the time so as long as I like how the fabric feels, that’s good enough for me.

(Image credit: Alexandra Feo)

Do you have any suggestions for new ways to approach your local yarn store (LYS)? Ways to make the experience feel fresh and different?

Film a music video with your friends in your LYS! I sometimes like to challenge myself to work with a color that scares me, or try to incorporate a color choice I normally wouldn’t make. It makes shopping more fun, so you don’t walk out with same exact shade of blue every time.

What’s something you hadn’t anticipated about running a yarn store?

My friend Malia is the main owner and operator at Stephen & Penelope. She has grown the business from being an online webshop (about seven or eight years ago) to, now, a beautiful location in the center of Amsterdam. I have so much more respect for business owners, especially yarn shops. There are so many tasks and jobs that need to happen that most people don’t see.

A last bit of knitting advice?

More is more, and less is a bore. If you’re not feeling a certain color combination, that means you need to add 10 more colors. Knit with your favorite colors and yarns that inspire you now. Don’t save the best for last, because who knows how long that yarn might sit in your stash.

And a parting photo of a current work in progress?

I’m working on a new Marled Magic sweater design!

(Image credit: Stephen West)
(Image credit: Stephen West)

Stephen West’s latest book, Westknits Bestknits, is available now. West is also on Ravelry and Instagram.