by Helen Martin
Although she says she “came to it really late”, Tin Shed Yarns business owner Fiona MacBride has been seriously knitting for 10 years, specialising for the last five in beautifully delicate lace cowls, stoles and baby shawls, made from local wool she has finely spun on her electric wheel.
For Fiona, knitting and spinning are both an art and a means of cultural expression, something she had a hankering to do from a young child. Growing up in the small English village of Lymm she learned to sew and crochet, but there was no knitting in her household. “There was a real social divide on it in England and handknitting was looked down upon in my family. They thought that if you had any class you bought everything from Jaeger,” she says.
The family emigrated to New Zealand when Fiona was 14. At Auckland University studying for a BA in the 1980s she admired the beautiful Aran and polo necked jerseys she saw the students wearing, resolved that one day she’d learn the art of kitting. She learned to spin after time away from teaching to look after her sick son gave her the space to take a few classes. From there she taught herself to knit from books, then the internet. “I was always interested in knitting in the traditional way. I knitted for my kids at first and what I loved about traditional knitting is that you can go back to it and change it, so as they grew I unravelled the bottom of their jerseys and made them bigger. I had to learn the language of traditional knitting and through the Handweavers and Spinners Guild I got to know some teachers and overseas authors of books on the renewal of the traditional style. For example, guru Elizabeth Zimmermann, the hand knitting teacher and designer who revolutionized the modern practice of knitting, was a big influence. She used to run knitting camps for women in the U.S.and insisted knitters use real wool.”
In the 90s Fiona became a dealer for Ashford spinning wheels and weaving equipment, running her business Artisanz from home in One Tree Hill, until the family shifted to Waiheke, where she became very involved as a director in local theatre productions and a teacher at the local high school. Her last shift was to Helensville. Tin Shed Yarns is the one-woman enterprise through which Fiona makes her hand spun wooland hand knitted garments at home. Through Facebook she has connected with local sheep owners who give her their spare fleeces. “I label the fleeces,” she says, “that way people who buy wool ora garment from me know what farm the wool’s from. There was a time when the Guild encouraged us to go for breeds, like Perendales and Corriedales, but I changed tack when I realised any sheep can have a gorgeous fleece if it’s hand raised. Sheep off lifestyle blocks tend to be happier because there are fewer of them and they’ve been fussed over.”
Because she likes to see artistry in knitting Fiona creates her own patterns, using a software programme, which she gives away to people who buy her wool. “I like to break the rules and I’m always experimenting.,” she says. “Once you get the neckline and sleeves right you can just enjoy the rest.” She designs in the tradition of knitting in the Orkney Islands, an archipelago off the north eastern coast of Scotland where Fiona’s mother’s ancestors once lived, the Shetlands to the northeast of there and the Aran Islands on the west coast of Ireland. She also likes to use the stitches and rich patterns favoured in Latvian and Lithuanian work.
There are hours and hours of work in preparing wool, spinning it (it takes Fiona a day to spin and ply 100 grams) and then knitting it - feather stitch, fan stitch and basket weave are favourites – but Fiona’s in it for the long haul. On spinning days she’s out in her tin shed from 9am till 4pm, singing along to Mozart, getting lost in her work. “When I get up in the morning I can’t wait to get out here. I’m obsessed by it,” she says. Fiona is happy to do teaching and talks, has an excellent Facebook page (Tin Shed Yarns) and takes part in Arts in the Ville over Labour Weekend. Her next step is to aim for the tourist market.
There are things Fiona says she dislikes about Helensville - landlords who see the place as a rental-income only, the drug scene and high rents forcing people to deal drugs to make ends meet. She’s still wild about the ASB bank’s closure and she thinks that, while local representation on Auckland Council has improved in responsiveness, Parakai and Helensville always feel neglected and low on the list. On the positive side of the ledger, Fiona like the place for its strong community, where locals are straightforward and generous and ready to step up and help. She loves the way the people of the Mt Tabor Trust are “absorbed gently into the town” and says that services like The Women’s Centre are a great example of how local initiatives are taken to meet a need.