I had the pleasure of a trip to visit Felicity (Felix) Ford at Knitsonik HQ a couple of weeks back. We are making mischievous plans for next year, and after lunch we decided to go for a walk before I headed back to Frome. By complete happenstance, Felix’s route took us through the campus of the University of Reading, so we made an abrupt change of plans and went to visit the Chemistry and Pharmacy department, which is home to a double helix staircase. A double helix staircase is one where two spiral staircases are stacked so that there are two spiral paths which do not meet each other. In the case of the staircase at the Reading Chemistry Department, the two paths are used to make a one-way system, with an up side and a down side. It can be quite tricky to photograph these staircases in a way that shows the double helix. Hopefully the photo above gives you a flavour, as you can see the top section of both paths – the up side is to the right and the down to the left.
I had been explaining our helical knitting project to Felix as we walked, so it was brilliant to be able to show her the 3D structure of helical knitting in the form of the staircase. There was something ridiculously joyful about the coming together of so many strands of my interests… chemistry, knitting, helices, all in one place. I had been looking for an attributed photograph of this staircase online without any luck, but now I have my own! I haven’t been able to find out who designed these stairs and Reading is a ubiquitous word in pattern naming, so sadly these marvellous stairs are unrecognised in our Something New to Learn About Helical Knitting ebook. If more information comes to light, perhaps I can name a future helical design after them. I certainly have a good few more helical knitting designs in mind…
In the end I named the patterns in Something New to Learn About Helical Knitting as follows:
Bramante Cowl and Mittens
With the exception of Bramante, each of those names relates to a double or triple helix staircase. I decided to include Bramante, named for Donato Bramante, since his 1505 helical staircase (shown above) at the Belvedere Palace of the Vatican inspired a number of future double helix staircases. His design was unusual in that it’s a sloped helical passage with no actual steps. It allowed people and animals to ascend and descend easily. It’s a really beautiful thing, and I hope one day to visit it myself.
Next up is the Witney Cowl, which will be published next Tuesday. It’s named for the double helix staircase at St Editha’s Church in Tamworth, UK. Both the church and Tamworth Heritage Trust were very generous in answering my questions about their unusual staircase. The Heritage Trust have kindly allowed me to share with you this wonderful illustration of the stairs, which shows clearly how two spirals can sit intertwined, and the two people won’t cross paths. I’m not sure why their church came to have this clever staircase, but a similar staircase at All Saint’s Church in Pontefract is speculated to have allowed bell-ringers to enter the bell tower from outside the church without disturbing the service taking place inside, whilst also having access to the bell tower and rood screen from inside the church. St Editha’s was rebuilt following a fire in 1345, and the rebuilding was overseen by Dean Baldwin de Witney, for whom my cowl is now named.
One of the world’s most famous double helix staircases is that at the Chateau de Chambord in the Loire valley, France. The design is attributed to Domenico da Cortona with input from Leonardo da Vinci, and features windows in the central axis of the stairs, allowing people on different routes to see each other, but never cross paths. Cortona is thus the name of the third cowl in the collection, since da Vinci is already used in a number of patterns.
During the “Sack of Rome” in 1527, Pope Clement VII took refuge in Orvieto, Italy and he commissioned Antonio da Sangallo the Younger to construct a well that would allow water supply in the case of a siege. Sangallo was inspired by the 1505 Bramante staircase in the Vatican, took the idea of a sloped helical passage, and constructed a double helix version at the Pozzo di San Patrizio. This allowed a one-way system for pack animals to ascend and descend the 53m of the well, without any traffic problems. My Sangallo Cowl will be released with chapter 3 of Something New to Learn About Helical Knitting, and features a cables worked with a helical background.
The last pair of patterns in Something New to Learn About Helical Knitting use more than two spirals of stitches, so I was thrilled to discover a couple of triple helix staircases after which I could name the patterns! The first is the Grand Shaft at Western Heights in Dover, UK. This is a triple helix staircase, designed by Brigadier-General William Twiss who was Commanding Engineer of the Southern District in the early 1800s. He proposed a triple helix staircase to allow the descent (or indeed retreat) of large numbers of troops simultaneously from the barracks at Western Heights down to the town below. This was during the Napoleonic wars, and he considered it to be the “shortest and securest communication with the town”. There are a number of great images of the stairs over at the Dover Western Heights Preservation Society website. The Twiss Cowls include full instructions for working a triple helix of stitches, as well as 4, 5 and 6-round helical stripe patterns.
Our final design is the Andrade cowl, which features my most helical design to date. The name was inspired by this stunning triple helix staircase at the Galician People’s Museum in Santiago de Compostella, Spain (Museo do Pobo Galego). The staircase was designed by Domingo de Andrade and the three spiral pathways each lead to different floors of the museum. It is a breathtaking piece of architecture.
In the course of my exploration of these architectural oddities I’ve found a good number more, so hopefully I’ll have pattern names for a while to come!
In the meantime, if you fancy exploring helical knitting in more depth, you can purchase Something New to Learn About Helical Knitting via our website or Ravelry, where it costs £13.99. Chapter 2 will be delivered on Tuesday, with the remaining two chapters coming fortnightly after that. The eBook contains lots of photo tutorials, hints and tips, and will eventually contain 7 patterns plus some bonus content. It also gives you access to a 10% discount code for use in our online shop, and you’ll find the code in the Welcome Pack pdf (valid until 27th November 2018 and not valid in conjunction with any other offer).
Happy (helical) knitting!