Since she was 15 years old, Tara Carstensen has been watching Doctor Who and knitting Fourth Doctor scarves.
Like many Whovians, she intensely studied photographs and videos to create patterns for her early attempts, although she said the results were “crude and totally incorrect.” As her work began to improve, she received her first official BBC pattern from John Nathan Turner, producer of the series from 1980 to 1989.
By 2005, she begin studying the scarves even closer. She even had a chance to examine what she calls the “Shada” scarf (the pattern used in the famous episode from Season 17 that didn’t air until 1992), as well as the Season 18 variant scarf. From there, she begin to design patterns, find colors and yarn types, and create scarves that would be as close to accurate as any fan-made scarf available.
Today, many scarf knitters consider her the “go-to” site for the best patterns. They visit her site for pattern downloads of scarves from classic Who seasons 12 through 18, as well as the Shada scarf, a “blue variant,” and the Seventh Doctor’s sweater vest.
She also teaches knitting classes for those with some knitting experience at conventions throughout the country. Upcoming classes will be held at L.I. Who in Long Island in November, as well as at the world’s largest and longest-running fan-created Doctor Who convention, Gallifrey One, which is coming to Los Angeles in February 2015.
For American Doctor Who fans, the Fourth Doctor’s scarf is arguably the most popular and recognizable costume prop in the history of the show, but Carstensen said, from her experience, that it is primarily a U.S. Whovian obsession.
“In the UK, it has a bit of a negative connotation,” she said. “People who wear them are often branded as ‘nutters.’ I’ve worn a Who scarf several times in the UK and received a not-so-warm welcome among other Who fans.”
She said United Kingdom fans are warming up to the scarf today, as it is getting a little more love in its home nation. She feels the reason for the scarf’s American popularity likely comes from the Fourth Doctor being many American viewers’ first peek at the series.
“(In) the States, most people’s first Doctor was Tom Baker,” she said. “He had a seven-year run and PBS stations could often get a deal on it with other British shows. So, most people before the reboot in 2005 think of the scarf when they think of Doctor Who.”
Even the Doctor himself has taken notice of Carstensen’s work. Baker owns one of her scarves, as well as actress Daphne Ashbrook (Grace Holloway from the Eighth Doctor movie) and talk-show-host and proud Whovian Craig Ferguson, among other famous customers. The Seventh, Eighth, and Eleventh Doctors, Paul McGann, Sylvester McCoy, and Matt Smith, have also worn her scarves for convention photo ops.
“Well, of course, Tom Baker receiving one of my scarves was a high point,” she said. “When two of my scarves appeared on the same episode of The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson—one was Craig’s the other was Nerdist’s (Chris Hardwick)—that was another high point.”
It takes her about 40 hours to knit the “basic” Doctor Who scarf.
“I once cranked one out for a last-minute charity auction in a week,” she said, “but that was eight hours a day of knitting, every day, for a week.”
While scarves may be what she is best known for with crafters, her other favorite creations include a full-sized TARDIS some friends and her former husband built in 2008. The nine-foot-high, half-ton police box makes its home in her living room, but has traveled with her to conventions and events from Los Angeles to Atlanta, where thousands of people have gotten the chance to take their picture with it. It also has a webcam, working lights and sound effects, and has been known to play music. The TARDIS’s transportation of choice is her TARDIS Chase and Recovery Vehicle (aka THE TRV), a custom Toyota Tacoma she claims is run by a Gallifreyan Flux Capacitor “jiggery-pokeried” for her by the Tenth Doctor and Back to the Future’s Doc Brown.
She has other projects in the works, as well.
“I’m currently working on building a Dalek, “ she said. “I’m always collecting small TARDISes and I finally have my collection of TARDIS keys.”
Her autograph collection is another continual work in progress.
“I have a book I’ve been collecting Who autographs in for 30 years,” she said. “I have nine of the 13 actors who have played The Doctor sign it, plus close to a hundred companions, authors, directors, producers, and other people directly responsible for keeping the show going for 50 years in it, and it’s one of my most prized possessions.”
Carstensen encouraged knitters to not be afraid to tackle their own Fourth Doctor scarf and offers some words of advice for those reluctant to get started.
“Join a knitting group. Look in local coffee shops and libraries or start your own,” she said. “Ravelry.com is another great recourse, if there simply aren’t any other knitters in your area.”
She said setting reasonable goals helps as well.
“(Say to yourself) ‘Today, I’m gonna get through three stripes’ or ‘Today I’m going to sit down for an hour and knit,’” she suggested. “Once you’ve mastered the garter stitch, knitting can be quite relaxing, even a form of moving meditation. I read or watch TV while knitting. I also knit in the movie theater, in lines, anywhere I’m stuck waiting on something. It’s a great way to feel like you’re accomplishing something when all around you is chaos.”
She said the effort is certainly worth it when she sees how much people love the scarves.
“I know how happy they make people, and then they make people who see them being worn happy. So knitting one spreads a lotta happy around,” Carstensen said. “That gives me a great sense of accomplishment and makes me feel that I’m adding some random happiness to the world.”
To see more of Carstensen’s work or download her patterns, visit wittylittleknitter.com.