Heather Nolan takes knitwear inspiration from Newfoundland's landscapes
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Heather Nolan takes knitwear inspiration from Newfoundland's landscapes

Jul 20, 2023

"I think sheep are the most beautiful creatures on the planet."

Heather Nolan is passionate about wool in all its forms. With Oileánach Knits, the St. John's novelist and poet has added knitwear designer to their list of creative enterprises. Nolan's designs, sold on Ravelry, include patterns for sweaters in nine gender-neutral sizes, plus socks, hats, scarves and mittens.

"I try to be timeless with colour choices," Nolan explains. "My intention with the sweaters is to be heritage pieces that can be passed on for generations. I want them to be classic-looking so that the colour of them won't go out of style."

Nolan is "very passionate about sustainable knitwear and sustainable yarn use," they say.

Through its photographs and storytelling, Oileánach Knits (pronounced "oh-LAWN-ick," according to their Instagram post) has a distinctively organic esthetic.

"Wool is one of the best sustainable fibres we have access to because it's naturally regenerating," says Nolan.

As for yarn choices, Nolan likes to keep it close to home.

"People have gotten far too obsessed with merino. And merino sheep come from Portugal and Spain, and they're built for that temperature zone," says Nolan, who prefers rustic wool from sheep whose natural environments are similar to the climate of Newfoundland and Labrador.

"A lot hardier sheep come from the northern areas, and we should be wearing that kind of wool," they say. "We've lost a lot in not understanding specific breeds and the wool from specific breeds."

For Nolan, sustainability is about more than a long-lasting piece of knitwear; it's also about the people who keep sheep in northern regions like Scotland and Nordic European countries.

"There are so many breeds of sheep with gorgeous wool, we just need to know how to treat it properly and how to spin it properly to create the right kind of wool for that breed."

Knitting didn't click right away for Nolan. It took an ADHD diagnosis and a pandemic for them to become an avid knitter.

"When I got diagnosed with ADHD, I went out and bought a knitting book, thinking I wanted to learn patience through slow practices."

They knit their first sweater during the pandemic lockdowns.

"It was a total mess, the sweater came out really wonky. But the next sweater was better."

Although the first outcome wasn't to their satisfaction, the process triggered Nolan's creative spark.

"By the time I had finished knitting that first sweater, I had gone out and bought craft paper and coloured pencils and was designing my own patterns."

Designing knitwear patterns and scaling them to multiple sizes must require above-average math skills, right?

"I was terrible at math," Nolan says with a laugh. "The algebra math that is required to get from a swatch to a stitch count, that happened to be taught by the one math teacher I ever liked in high school."

Nolan also credits the influence of family members.

"My dad is building stuff all the time. There's always little building plans etched into napkins around the house."

Nolan's sister would apply her professional engineering skills to make clothing.

"She used to design her clothes and sew them, but based on architectural models, not on sewing patterns."

To ensure their knitwear designs work in all sizes, Nolan has relied on the contributions of test knitters. "It's cool to get to see people from all over the world joining in my test knits," they say.

Through Patreon, Ravelry, Instagram and YouTube, Nolan has made personal connections with fellow lovers of the craft and has become "great friends" with some of their test knitters.

"People who do test knits regularly, they're wonderful."

The test knitters take a new pattern, knit the product in a designated size and provide feedback so the designer can make any necessary revisions or clarifications to the pattern.

"They pick up on things that I would overlook, just writing it out myself."

Despite asserting that they're "not a very colourful person," Nolan reveals that their love for wool has extended from knitting to dyeing. They started by experimenting with solar dyeing, an eco-friendly, sustainable process that relies on UV light rather than metals as a fixative.

The local climate brought Nolan's efforts to minimal success.

"I tried [solar dyeing] two years in a row in the summer, and we just didn't get enough sun to solar dye anything."

After switching to more conventional dyeing processes, Nolan started exploring dyeing possibilities with local plants. In June, they participated in an artist residency with Union House Arts in Bonavista.

"I wanted to try experimenting with different things that there wasn't any real research on yet, on whether or not they can dye."

Nolan's love for Newfoundland's nature and landscape emerged in their colour work, making dyes from lichens, seaweed and yarrow.

"I came up with a natural blue! It's one of the hardest colours to make on the colour wheel."

What's next for Oileánach Knits? Nolan has their sights on Bonavista, with the goal of opening a yarn and knitwear shop in 2024. In the immediate future, their designs will be available at a pop-up knitwear sale at Tvål in St. John's on Sept. 9-10.

For the long term, Nolan's dream is to produce wool from the source.

"When I move to Bonavista, I'm going to start my own fibre flock."

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Freelance contributor

Lynette Adams is a freelance writer based in St. John's.

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