Max Alexander's woolly moths
Knitting designer and artist Max Alexander explains how her humble woolly moths have sent her career soaring.
Max Alexander, creator of Max’s World, started designing jewellery for knitters in May 2009. However her yearning to work with wool, even during the trickier summer months, led to a growing obsession with knitted creatures. Her busy Knitting Octopus pattern was an instant hit and is still her most popular to date. Since turning her needles in the direction of the humble moth, which she creates from a corner of her living room in her London flat, they have been flying off the shelves. We caught up with her in the spring of 2016 to ask how it all came about.
Tell us a little bit about when you started knitting. Who taught you?
I started knitting nearly 10 years ago when my mum gave me a pair of knitting needles and yarn for my twentieth birthday. I taught myself to knit from books and online tutorials and the first thing I made was a very hole-y scarf! I soon learnt to fix my mistakes. I’m quite prone to errors so I’ve always loved that you can just unravel your work and start again.
Your beautiful knitted moths have been a huge hit around the world. Where did you get the idea to create them?
In early 2014 a friend suggested I knit a Rosy Maple Moth. He’d seen my octopus and a salamander I’d made, and as he is a massive moth fan, said he thought a moth would look good. Until then I had no idea moths could be so beautiful. The Rosy Maple is a bright pink and yellow moth, and I kept discovering moths that I knew would look wonderful in knit form. Previously, I’d always thought of moths as tiny beige things that would eat my wool! Who knew how varied they could be, as opposed to butterflies which everyone knows are colourful and fancy. The first one I made was the Squeaking Silkmoth, partly because I thought the name was lovely and partly because I already had the orangey and brown colours needed!
They look amazing. Are they difficult to knit?
Yes, they can be. Especially the ones with a lot of colours. I’ve had up to eight strands a row and I sometimes spend more time untangling than I do knitting. I make a chart and adjust it as I go along but you have to pay close attention to every stitch to make sure the left and right wings match. The multi-coloured Automeris Io was probably the most difficult so far. To get it to look right, I had to combine intarsia and stranded knitting.
Do you have any plans to create more moths? It seems you could go on forever…
Yes, I have a very long list of moths I want to knit! I keep coming across more and more amazing species with incredible patterns on their wings. I really love the challenge of knitting more complex designs. I loved making Tiger Moths and have made three different types so far. Their stripy bodies are really satisfying to knit for some reason. I’m also interested in knitting extinct moths to highlight the loss of creatures you wouldn’t necessarily think of as being endangered. One of the most spectacular moths I’ve made was the Urania Sloanus, which sadly became extinct in the early 1900s. I studied images of museum specimens to create that one but ideally I like to use images of moths in their natural habitats.
Do you have any plans to expand this idea to other insects?
I’ve started a folder of other bugs that I’d like to knit. It has a few beetles and spiders in it so far. I’ve definitely got something to move on to if I get bored of moths. I’ll probably do some butterflies too as I’ve already had a few requests.
We’ve noticed a real movement of craft artists recreating insects in knitting, sewing, crochet and multimedia. Were you inspired by anyone?
I made a giant moth out of a moth-eaten shawl which I darned back together and used tiny moths to fill the holes. I was definitely influenced by the visible mending work of textile artists Celia Pym and Tom Of Holland for that piece. I’m also inspired by the innovative designs of Felt Mistress aka Louise Evans, particularly her gorgeously vivid felt beetles.
What’s the feedback been on your moths?
Very positive. Not long after I started making them I was offered an exhibition at Prick Your Finger, a yarn store in London that regularly shows the work of textile artists. It gave me an incentive to create lots of different species, all of which were knitted using 100% Shetland Wool. I framed them and labelled them with their common and scientific names so it had the atmosphere of a natural history museum. I really enjoyed showing them as a collection. People were interested to find out about the different moths and it was exciting to sell some of them. It feels like a huge compliment when someone wants to have something you’ve made in their home.
Social media is such a big player when it comes to promoting your crafts. Do you find time to post online?
Hardly any time at all but it can be useful when I need to put information online immediately. I post a lot more on Instagram as I prefer pictures to words, plus it is much quicker!
What other knitted items do you sell in your shop?
Handmade knitting, crochet and craft-themed jewellery. I spend a lot of my time making miniature knitting needles and balls of yarn. The mini knitting earrings are always very popular. I also sell greetings cards of the moths and other knitted creatures including The Knitting Octopus (below). He’s one of my most well-known designs and I also have the pattern for sale so people can knit their own.
Where do you create your knitted moths?
I design and knit all my moths at a desk in the corner of my living room, although I’m considering moving my work into a studio before my yarn takes over the entire flat. My boyfriend Jon has been very tolerant to the mess so far but I don’t want to push my luck! I’m always listening to or watching something while I work. I alternate between Radio 6 Music and Netflix. I enjoy trashy entertaining American series, as long as they don’t require too much attention! Once I tried watching a really tense drama and the more anxious I became, the tighter and tinier my knitting became, so I had to start all over again!
Have you had any other careers?
I’ve been selling my work for nearly seven years, which I’ve done alongside a variety of part time and freelance work. I also do a bit of web design, install exhibitions and work in a gorgeous yarn shop – which I totally love.
How did your animation work come about?
I started experimenting with knitted stop motion animations whilst doing a sculpture degree at Camberwell College of Arts. I ended up using them as music videos for friends’ bands. I also did a three month course in stop motion animation with Aardman Animation in Bristol. It was really cool to use the same type of puppets they use for all the Wallace & Gromit films. I’d like to do more animations at some point in the future, but it’s a very slow process and requires a lot more space than I have right now.
So what’s in the pipeline next for Max’s World? Are there any books on the cards?
I love taking my work out into the big wide world and meeting other crafty people in the process. This year I’ve been to the I Knit Fandango in London, Yarn in the City and Yarndale, and some of my moths were displayed in Scotland at the Winter Warmth exhibition at The Park Gallery in Falkirk. If my moths increase in popularity, I may do more art and craft fairs that aren’t so focused on knitting and see what happens. I would like to write a book at some point but there are no immediate plans. There’s so much I want to make right now, I don’t know when I’d find time to actually write about it all!
As well spending her working life thinking about yarn, Sarah designs knitting patterns in her spare time, too!