Craft was a lifeline during my hospital stays, says Cork-based knitwear designer

It’s over 12 years since Evin Bail O’Keeffe moved to Cork. CHRIS DUNNE catches up with the knitwear designer, craft blogger and author about life and work
Craft was a lifeline during my hospital stays, says Cork-based knitwear designer
Evin Bail O’Keeffe who moved to Cork 12 years ago.

IT seems it never rains in California, but Evin Bail O’Keeffe, who relocated to Cork with her husband in 2008, knows that in Ireland, it pours. Man, it pours!

“We arrived in Cork with six suit-cases!” says Evin.

“I call Cork my home now. The schools are amazing. The place is amazing.”

Evin, mum to Liam and Aidan, has many strings to her bow — a knitwear designer, a popular craft blogger, a trained librarian and an author. She laughs about the couple’s choice to move from the Silicone Valley to Leeside.

“It’s always sunny where we used to live,” says Evin, who has published her latest book, Ultraviolet Knits. She has also written Bake Knit and Sew, a Recipe and Craft book and co-authored These Islands, Knits From Ireland.

“It rained in California maybe four days a year. So we kind of thought it would be nice to go somewhere with weather; so we came here!” They weren’t disappointed.

“We love the weather, the people, the local shops, and especially the English Market. It was a whole new adventure.

“I love West Cork too and I have fond memories of visiting Ballyvourney where my ancestors hailed from.”

And it was a new lease of life for Evin who was diagnosed with an auto-immune condition as a child.

Evin Bail O’Keeffe with one of her scarfs.
Evin Bail O’Keeffe with one of her scarfs.

“I suffer from primary immune deficiency which impairs the immune system,” says Evin.

“I’m not athletic and I could never do sports; so crafts were an outlet for me growing up.

“I am also asthmatic and I could be subject to chronic infections if I caught a cold. So I was vulnerable during the pandemic, only going out on four occasions in the first 60 days. I went to the Post Office, to the GP and I made two trips to the pharmacy. My husband did the weekly shop. Kind neighbours dropped essentials like milk in between.”

Evin was vigilant.

“There is only one of me,” she says.

“I am the only mother to my kids.”

And she was hands-on.

“A lot of things were coloured on that weren’t meant to be coloured on!” she says.

Evin loves living in Cork and believes her health has improved. She suffers from primary immune deficiency.
Evin loves living in Cork and believes her health has improved. She suffers from primary immune deficiency.

Living in Cork proved to be a tonic for Evin.

“My health has improved considerably since we moved to Cork. I don’t have to have hospital visits every month,” she says.

“Our move was good timing. You can’t imagine the wonderful freedom and the opportunities that it brought.”

The butcher, the baker, and Iago, the pasta maker, provide the Bail O’Keeffe household with fresh food to eat every day.

“The wonderful fresh air and the fresh locally-produced food are some of the many factors that make living in Cork so great,” says Evin.

“I don’t eat any processed food, and that has made a difference to my health.

“I buy the groceries at the English Market. I love O’Flynns sausages!”

She had a job to source them in the beginning.

“I was wandering down alley-ways trying to find the English Market! I walk everywhere.”

It was another adventure.

“That’s for sure!” says Evin.

But she is crafty.

Evin showcasing her craftwork.
Evin showcasing her craftwork.

“Both my grandmothers instilled a sense of craftiness and creativity in me,” says Evin.

“They also instilled resourcefulness in me and I think that has made me a good crafter in some ways and a handy person.”

The women in Evin’s family were resourceful and resilient.

“As a child, I remember my nanny knitting and crocheting and I always remember my mother knitting. I have lots of much-loved hand-made heirlooms handed down from both my grandmothers. Watching them knitting and do intricate needle-work fascinated me. I loved it.

“One of my son’s favourite blankets was crocheted by his great-grandmother. He loves wiggling his toes through the holes!” Evin spread the love around. “I was in hospital for so much time when I was younger, I would bring craft supplies and go around to the different kids in the hospital ward and teach them different things.”

Evin, realising there was lots of strings attached to moving to a new home and moving to a new country, used her resourcefulness and her creativity to make new friends.

“I had no friends,” she explains.

“I thought, I can’t join a sports league. I used to play tennis in college but I had no coordination!”

But she had designs on making herself at home and making new friends.

“I thought, I have to meet new people; lets ‘join a craft group.”

She went to the pub.

“I went to The Chambers, which is a pub in Washington Street where a local knitting group met.”

She found her niche, feeling at home right away.

“It was such fun!” say Evin. “I made lots of new friends. Our knitting group still meets every week at the same time on Zoom. At the beginning we were a bit inconsistent, but we stating making sure of the right time for us. We do the exact same things except we have to make our own coffee!”

She got a little help from her friends learning to perfect the art of knitting.

“Yes. I was arty and crafty but I could just knit in purl and do one cast on and one cast off and I felt a little limited. It was a bit overwhelming at first.”

“I needed patience. I needed to know it all!”

Evin's latest book Ultraviolet Knits features 12 knitting patterns designed to bring out the best in UV-reflective hand-dyed wool yarn.
Evin's latest book Ultraviolet Knits features 12 knitting patterns designed to bring out the best in UV-reflective hand-dyed wool yarn.

She did her homework.

“I watched Mastercraft on BBC and I saw a lot of YouTube videos about knitting. I went out and bought myself a pair of 6mm knitting needles and pink chunky acrylic wool. I started knitting a scarf that got longer and wider that eventually turned into a rectangle! I’ve never looked back.”

Evin says knitting is stress-reducing and therapeutic.

“I firmly believe in the power of knitting,” she says.

With her creative mind thinking outside the box and outside of the knitting pattern, Evin became an accidental designer.

“I didn’t understand all the directions in the patterns at first,” she says.

“I thought, why do this, instead of this? I was designing before I knew I was designing.”

She got the hang of designing knitwear row by row.

“A bit like in life making mistakes and re-starting, I began making my own choices as I knitted, experimenting, creating alternative patterns, tweaking them as I went along,” says Evin. “I jumped in, trying something different.” She had the knitting bug that grew and grew.

“My first piece from my own pattern was a hat for my husband. He was going on a boat trip to Skellig with a friend of his.”

Evin looks after her friends.

“His friend had no hat, so I made him one as well! It took three attempts!

“Then I began making baby gifts for friends and family members,” adds Evin.

Her own pattern began to emerge.

“I used to see parents with babies in buggies and the blanket used to be wrapped around the child but it still trailed on the ground,” says Evin. “The blanket was much too big. I made a baby blanket especially for a buggy.

Another one of Evin's designs.
Another one of Evin's designs.

“You can take control and if something goes wrong, you can start over. If you screw up, there is no impact.”

I tell Evin I always associated knitting with older people or people who have retired.

“Well, I’m no spring chicken!” she jokes.

Gaining confidence, Evin found the courage to describe herself as a knitwear designer in 2013.

But as in the pattern of life, something unexpected was added to the mix.

“In 2011 I had a health scare while pregnant,” says Evin.

“Doctors found a tumour in my liver but could not operate at the time. Fortunately it was not cancerous. But when my son was 18 months old I was in hospital for a month and suffered liver failure.” It was a tough time for Evin, who had to down tools.

“I didn’t have my son. I couldn’t work. I could barely knit because I was in so much pain.” But her in-bred resilience and resourcefulness kicked in.

“It just kind of made me realise I have to follow my dreams.” She made a decision to write her first book when she recovered.

“Even if I was horrible at it, I had to try.” She wasn’t horrible at it.

Not only a successful published author, Evin set up her own independent publishing house, Anchor & Bee.

Her latest book, Ultraviolet Knits features 12 knitting patterns designed to bring out the best in UV-reflective hand-dyed wool yarn.

“It’s nice to challenge your comfort zone,” she says. “I saw there was a gap in the market for knitwear designs suitable for summer festivals.” What is her favourite knit in her wardrobe?

“I have a lot of shawls,” says Evin. “They are very practical and they provide their own sun screen.

“I love them for all occasions, and now barbecue season is here, shawls are the perfect accessory for those balmy evenings.” They are perfect come rain, hail or shine?

“Well, maybe not for rain!” says Evin laughing.

No doubt the ingenious knitwear designer will come up for a unique design for the Irish weather!

You can buy a copy of Ultraviolet Knits on https//anchornadbee.com/

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