It is impossible to have too many hats. I won’t leave the house without one. I have hats for fancy occasions, hats for everyday, hats for messing around in boats, hats for sitting in the garden, hats I wear when I’m grumpy, and hats I wear when I’m happy. Very often, people assume that this means I will wear any kind of hat. I will not. I am rather fussy about my hats. I take my hats very seriously. The Owl Service Hat was something I’ve been thinking about and planning for quite a while.
Last summer I went to see an exhibition of magical books in the Bodleian and saw many wondercrump things. A facsimile of the Aleitheometer from His Dark Materials. The Six Signs of power made for Susan Cooper by her husband. Some old manuscripts about demonology and spells. And, tucked into a dark corner, one of the dinner plates that inspired Alan Garner’s The Owl Service.
I don’t know if you’ve read the book. You should. It’s brilliant and bloody scary. The book reprises the story of Lleu Llaw Gyfees, Gronw, and Blodeuwedd from the Mabinogion. As well as being full of difficult names, the story is complicated. Lleu is unable to marry a human wife and so has a magician make him a wife out of flowers. She is beautiful but, like many beautiful things in legends, not very sensible. She has an affair with Lleu’s best friend, Gronw. The two men, jealous and enraged, kill one another and Blodeuwedd is cursed for her infidelity and turned into an owl. In Alan Garner’s book, the valley is haunted by the legend, a story that is ‘still happening’ in each generation. The story, like the pattern on the plates that inspired it, is complicated, shifting, hard to pin down. And even Alison, the character who is possessed by Blodeuwedd has to be reminded which she really is:
‘“You’ve got it back to front, you silly gubbins. She’s not owls. She’s flowers. Flowers. Flowers, Ali.” He stroked her forehead. “You’re not birds. You’re flowers. You’ve never been anything else. Not owls. Flowers…”‘ (Alan Garner, The Owl Service, (1967), p.155)
It’s plain that only a great effort of concentration can help distinguish the harmless flowers from the demonic owls.
So when I saw the plate I was mesmerised. The design was so obviously flowers and then at the next moment could never have been anything but flowers….like one of those magic eye puzzles where you can see the old lady or the young lady but not both at the same time. Because the old lady IS the young lady and the flowers ARE owls. And I knew I wanted to make it – to make a pattern that was owls and flowers and both at once.
I spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to make with the pattern…it had to be something round for the pattern to work. Maybe the yoke of a jumper or a semi-circular shawl? On the end I decided to make something that was the same size as the original dinner plates. Because that’s the sort of logic that appeals to me.
And I wanted to make it out of yarn the same colours as the book cover. Because that’s another sort of logic that appeals to me. I used Malabrigo Worsted Chapel Stone for the Main Colour and Malabrigo Rios Teal Feathers for the contrast colour. I think they are a pretty good match.
So the plan for The Owl Service Hat was born. I printed out a photograph of the Owl Service plates and traced over them (I simplified the pattern a lot because I am not mad enough to make something with a 120 stitch pattern repeat). And I made a chart based on the pattern with this fabulous and handy website.
The chart looks like an owl by itself (and looks even more like an owl if you stand on your head) but once the patterns are joined up in the round the wings touch and make the outline of a flower with soft, rounded petals.
I used the chart for a hat but I think it’s pretty adaptable – you could omit the decreases and use the chart for a cowl or a pair of socks or something completely different if that takes your fancy. I might try some owl socks in an idle week.
Once I’d settled on the design it didn’t take very long to make, about half a week’s worth of commutes. The finished hat is something between a tam and a beret with a sort of lazy-fair isle vibe. I used one of the dinner plates from my Dragon Aunt’s dinner service as a blocking template and, once I’d managed to stuff the hat in there it worked beautifully. I’d totally recommend it. Though if you have a small head or less hair than I do, maybe a soup plate would make more sense…
You can download the pattern here: The Owl Service Hat