Meet the Maker: Svetlana Ponkin
From the Alton Mill to the One of a Kind Show, this knitter’s up-sized pieces are wowing collectors.
When Alton Mill artisan Svetlana Ponkin works with her customary 10-pound skeins of supersized yarn, she has to consider ergonomics – each skein is about the size of a huge watermelon. If she’s knitting, say, a chunky scarf, she’ll often take a seat as she manipulates the huge wooden knitting needles, which look like two cucumbers attached by a length of hose. The yarn, which is more than an inch and a half in diameter, streams off to her right.
But if she’s making a large throw blanket, she stands, using her hands to create a chain of loose, apple-sized stitches that will form one side of the piece. She also abandons the needles, she explains as she demonstrates the process in the Alton Mill Arts Centre’s Rare Threads boutique, which she manages and where she stocks her wares. With the chain laid out in front of her, she takes the length of wool attached to the skein, pinches a loop between her thumb and forefinger, then pulls it through the final loop of the chain. Working back along the chain, she does the same in each loop, creating a new row of loops as the foundation for the next row, fashioned by repeating the process.
Svetlana, who now lives in Orangeville, has been knitting and crocheting since she was eight years old in London, Ontario. “My granny taught me when I was a little girl,” she says with a laugh. “Russian-Ukrainian background, you know.” As a child, she made only simple things, but loved working with yarn. When she hit a beginner snag, she recalls asking, “Babushka, how do I fix this?” And her granny would call her Kroshka, which means “little one,” take the piece and show her how to let out a few stitches and correct her mistake.
As time passed she put down her knitting needles and crochet hooks. She worked as a dental assistant for about 13 years before stepping away, taking some time off, and then hankering to dig back into her artsy roots. “What really got me back into it was a girlfriend saying, ‘I’ve never knitted or crocheted and I want to learn. Like, right now,’” says Svetlana, who was a ready teacher.
That was about 15 years ago. Gradually she got back into the craft – eventually in this literally big way. “When I saw this mega-chunky yarn I thought, What a cool concept,” she says. “I wanted to make something super-luxurious, high quality.” And that meant using merino wool, an all-natural, super-soft yarn that’s moisture-wicking and biodegradable to boot. She and her husband, Richard, spent about a year trying to track down a wholesale supplier in Europe (she is mum about the exact location).
She debuted her first pieces just a few months after the first skein arrived – throw blankets, baby blankets, shawls, scarves, cowls, bed scarves, dog beds and area rugs – at the 2019 One of a Kind Winter Show in Toronto. They were a hit. Now her creations are folded in vibrant stacks of yellow, lavender, red, grey and cream on the shelves of Rare Threads. A book of yarn ends shows the array of 46 colours available for custom orders. And, ever the teacher, Svetlana offers group lessons – akin to painting parties, with vibrant wool subbing in as the medium.
Svetlana’s own learning curve has been steep, a result, she says, of taking her cues from the unusual raw material. “Because the yarn I’m using is so chunky, I have to make up my own patterns.” She reserves one skein for testing various stitches and patterns, and creates several prototypes before she commits to making an item.
She has heard from customers, petite women especially, that they love her scarves and capes but just can’t pull off the volume. So Svetlana offers a line of quarter-weight pieces for which she divides a skein into four and rewinds each quarter into a new skein. She finds this also allows her to play with different patterns.
Up next is a cheerful concept – she wants to mix different coloured quarter-skeins into “unicorn yarn.” She also has her sights set on making an extra-long, open sweater with a couple of knit daisies on the front and a chain of them snaking down the back. She’s still deciding whether the flowers will be stitched in or knit separately and attached. Svetlana follows other artists online and is keeping an eye out for ways to make the daisies come to life. Like all her new creations, the sweater has been knitted in her mind over and over again. “I’m always looking for inspiration,” she says. “There are lots of aha moments.”
Svetlana’s knits can also be found at Svetlanascreations.com and range in price from about $67 for a cowl to about $1,800 for a king-sized blanket.
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