Brilliant women

Hello! I’m back again after a fantastic (and productive) couple of weeks research. I’ve had an amazing time in Sweden and Shetland, but what has really stood out to me about this past fortnight is the number of brilliant women whose company and conversation I’ve enjoyed. It has been a very long time since I’ve been this sociable, and I’ve returned home feeling really inspired and energised by all of the brilliant women with whom I’ve been able to spend time. So a big thanks to:

kirstensstudio
Kerstin Olsson.

It was an incredible privilege to meet Kerstin, who is a truly lovely and incredibly talented individual. I was barely able to contain my excitement during a visit to her studio, in which I got to see her original swatches, personal collection of Bohus material, and the superb works of watercolour and textile art she’s produced over the past decades. In all respects, Kerstin and her work are massively inspiring. The following day Kerstin took me to the Röhsska Museum, where we had tremendous fun exploring their important collection of Bohus knitting. I learnt so much from Kerstin that day, and together we also discovered a swatch, which meant that we were able to identify a “mystery” design, that’s remained previously unidentified among the Bohus garments in Meg Swansen‘s collection.

graranden

(Meg’s mystery Bohus sweater is Grå Randen, a pre-1947 design by Anna-Lisa Mannheimer Lunn)

In my former academic life, as well as my present independent one, I’ve spent many happy days in many different archives. But I count this day with Kerstin in the Röhsska Museum as the highlight of my research career. For when does one have an opportunity to explore an archive with the very person whose work one is researching? And the fact that person is someone whose warmth and generosity means I feel I can count her as a friend makes it even more special. It was a once-in-a-lifetime day. Thankyou so much, Kerstin.

vinterfiske
(Carl Gustaf Bernahardson, Vinterfiske, Bohusläns Museum)

At the Bohusläns Museum I was made to feel immediately at home by Anna-Lena Segestam Macfie and Ann-Marie Brockman. Before I arrived in Sweden, Anna-Lena’s help was invaluable in making connections and tracking things down. While I was in Bohuslän she kindly took time to introduce me to the Museum’s wonderful collections – among which I discovered not only incredible textiles but the work of my new favourite folk artist, Carl Gustaf Bernhardson. With Anna-Lena and Ann-Marie I also visited nearby Gustafsberg, where I was in eighteenth-century heaven, and “took” the water from an historic well.

gustafsberg
(Gustafsberg)

It was the first time I’d visited this part of Sweden, and I found Bohuslän to be an exceptionally beautiful and interesting place – reminscent in some respects of Shetland. I am already making plans for a longer visit.

jennysyokes
(Jenny’s yokes)

In Shetland I spent a lovely few days working in the very convivial atmosphere of the Museum store. Jenny Murray not only helped me with my work, hunting down a very elusive jumper that I was interested in seeing, but kindly brought in her personal collection of yokes to show me. And thanks too to Laurie Goodlad, who lent me a costume, so I could join her and Jenny at their lunchtime swim at Clickimin.

ellainarchives
(Ella in the archives)

Ella Gordon came along to the museum store to join me in my labours as a yoke detective. Ella is a skilled machine knitter as well as a hand-knitter, and not only does her matchless knowledge of Jamieson & Smith shade cards mean that she can usefully identify particular yarn colours in their many different incarnations over the past few decades, but she is able to “read” the garment construction of machined / hand-knitted Shetland yokes in a way that I cannot. I am so grateful for her help.

crofthooseswatch
(a crofthoose swatch from Ella’s machine)

Ella also introduced me to machine knitting, which for me was very exciting and very interesting, and perhaps more like hand-knitting than I’d imagined. Together, we are producing a hybrid Shetland yoke (with Ella machining the body and me hand-knitting the yoke) and you’ll be able to read more about this process and its history in my book.

sandraandella

Sandra Manson (pictured here with Ella in my all-time favourite yarn shop and general wool haven) is someone whose wit and warmth I often miss when I’ve not seen her for a while. Do keep your eye out for the genius designs that Sandra’s recently produced for the Campaign For Wool’s Wool Ride this October.

shettimes
(from the Shetland Times)

Finally, I got to talk yokes with Shetland friends old and new: Misa Hay, Donna Smith, Louise Scollay, and Hazel Tindall. Thanks to Donna, Louise and Hazel for sharing thoughts, photographs and objects which have really helped to shape up my ideas, and to Misa for enthusiastic discussion of the pleasures of growing ones own tatties. As many of you may know, Hazel is about to release a wonderful and much-anticipated film to which I’m sure lots of you are looking forward. I am lucky enough to have a review copy in my hot little hands, and will tell you more about it another time!

hazel

Thanks so much to all of these brilliant women, in Sweden and in Shetland, for sharing their company, conversation, inspiration and expertise. Now I’m ready to sit down and write the final part of my book.

What is a steek?

helenstoutbusta1950
(Helen Stout, knitting in the round, Busta, 1950. Courtesy Shetland Museum and Archives).

I have recently received a number of messages prefaced with this very question, and I thought that this rather basic introductory essay I wrote about knitting in the round, and steeking, might form a useful addition to my series of posts and tutorials about steeks for those who are curious. The essay is an edited version of a piece that was first published in the Rowan Magazine. Many thanks to the Shetland Museum and Archives for allowing me to reproduce details of garments in their collection.

————————
knittingmadonna Bertram of Minden, “Knitting Madonna”, (detail of Annunciation from the right wing of the Buxtehude Altar) 1400-1410.

There really is no “right” or “wrong” way to knit: different styles suit different individuals, and a wide variety of methods and techniques exist to match an equally wide variety of garments and fabric types. Yet knitting is a community with its own particular trends and followings, and like any other community, notions of “either / or” divide it. Do you knit English or Continental? Top-down, or bottom up? Do you work back-and-forth, or in-the-round? Such questions of technique — of the “best” stretchy cast-off method; of the “right” way to strand the yarn in colourwork — can transform a bunch of friendly knitters into fiercely opposing camps, each with its own passionate adherents. And there is perhaps no technical opposition more fundamental, or more divisive, than that which is perceived to exist between knitting back-and-forth and knitting in-the-round.

The standard arguments of the two camps go as follows:

The back-and-forth faction insists:

1. I like a sleek well-fitted garment. Knitting back and forth allows a garment to be carefully shaped using the best tailoring techniques.
2. The torso is composed of curves and lumps of differing proportions. Tailored pieces create the best lines to accommodate these complicated shapes.
3. In the beginning was the sewing needle. Early humans fitted the first garments to the body by stitching pieces of animal skin together with seams. It must be right.
4. The pattern writers of knitting’s ‘golden age’ created beautiful vintage garments designed to be knit in pieces, back and forth. They knew what they were on about.
5. Flat knitting follows industry standards of garment construction and pattern design. Fashion knows best.


Against which the in-the-round faction counters:

1. I hate sewing seams and finishing. Knitting in the round involves little or no finishing.
2. The torso is basically a tube, supplied with two smaller, narrower tubes. Therefore all sweaters should be knit in tubular fashion.
3. The beginnings of knitting were circular. Medieval paintings depicted the Virgin Mary knitting in the round. It must be right.
4. Folk knitters all over the world have knitted socks and ganseys in the round for centuries. They knew what they were on about.
5. Elizabeth Zimmermann once designed a seamless yoked sweater which was violated by editors ‘translating’ it into back-and-forth instructions. EZ knew best.

While these two positions may seem intractably opposed, in fact, there are elements of truth in both. Though back-and-forth knitting has certainly dominated the standard lexicon of commercial knitting patterns since the 1920s, instructions for many items (socks, gloves, hats) have habitually been written to be knit in the round. And while the knitters of Estonia and Shetland, Norway and the Faroe Islands have produced in-the-round garments for centuries, these women were also talented seamstresses who used sophisticated tailoring techniques to add shape, structure and decoration to their knitted ganseys and jackets. Today, despite the strong antipathy that one method or another can arouse among some knitters, there is more interplay than ever between methods associated with knitting back-and-forth and knitting in-the-round. Commercial patterns are increasingly written to accommodate many different techniques of flat and circular knitting, while knowledge of aspects of both methods — of the speed and ease of knitting in-the-round or of the structure and clean finish of knitting back-and-forth — lends knitters the freedom to modify the construction of garments in ways that best suit them. One such technique — which enables an in-the-round jumper to be easily transformed into a flat cardigan–is the practice that is known as steeking. Because steeking involves taking scissors to one’s creations, it strikes fear into the heart of many knitters. But this technique, common to all Northern knitting traditions, is much simpler to work than many knitters imagine.

yowesonrock
(my Rams and Yowes design is “steeked”)


The etymology of the “steek”

The word ‘steek’ has its root in the general Middle English verb ‘steken’ meaning to shut or fasten. By the Eighteenth Century, ‘steek’ was a term common to Shetland, Scots and Northern English dialects and, while it might be used in reference to a closed gate, door, or mouth, it was most often associated with needlework or knitting. In Scots, the verb, ‘to steek’ meant to sew, darn, or knit:

“Wull ee steek this slittin oxter afore it geets ony woare?”
Will you stitch this fraying underarm before it gets any worse?

Or, when used as a noun, the word ‘steek’ simply meant ‘stitch’.
“For want of a steek a shoe may be tint”
For want of a stitch, a shoe may be lost

While in some parts of Scotland and Shetland the word “steeking” still primarily means to stitch or close, in contemporary knitting parlance, the word has mutated and morphed to signify the opposite: that is, for most knitters, steeking now means to cut open, rather than to fasten shut. Thus, in pattern books that have been produced over the past thirty years or so, one finds the word “steek” being used in reference to what, in sewing, is commonly called a seam allowance (a few stitches that are worked additionally to the main pattern). Put simply, then, for today’s knitters, a “steek” is a bridge of extra stitches, connecting two separate pieces of knitted fabric, enabling them to be worked swiftly in the round. Preparing, reinforcing, and then cutting open this seam allowance (the practice now commonly known as “steeking”) transforms the tube back into flat pieces.

Why use steeks?

Steeks can be inserted into any kind of knitted fabric, but their most common application is perhaps in knitting a cardigan using the Fair Isle method of stranded colourwork. This is because carrying and purling two shades of yarn can prove tricky: many knitters find that the purl stitches create significant differences in their tension, or are much slower and more cumbersome to work. But if a steek is cast on in the places where the knitting would have to be divided to be worked back and forth — namely, at the cardigan’s centre front opening, and sleeves — the knitter can work the entire garment in the round, without purling, all the way from hem to shoulders. When the steeks are cut open, the extra cast-on stitches act just like seam allowances around which the knitter can pick up stitches to create button bands and sleeves.

But don’t steeks unravel?

Knitted fabric certainly likes to unravel, but it does so horizontally. Steek stitches are cut on the vertical, making them far less likely to do so. As anyone who has pulled back their knitting will know, wool is also a very ‘sticky’ fibre which likes to retain its shape. If one is knitting with a pure-wool or majority-wool yarn then it is very easy to work a steek simply because the stitches ‘want’ to hold their shape rather than to unravel. That said, because the cut edges of the steek are generally used to pick up a sleeve or edging afterwards, it is useful to reinforce them before cutting to help them deal with any strain they might take afterwards. Steeks can be prepared, reinforced and finished in a wide variety of ways. Taking a look at the interiors of a range of historic and contemporary cardigans that have been knitted in the round, before being “steeked” open, illustrates just how different steeks can be.

three
(Shetland Museum and Archives)

This image shows the front button bands of a 1920s cardigan knit in several natural shades of Shetland wool. The band has been worked in corrugated rib; buttonholes have been cut vertically into the band; and machine stitching has been used to attach a reinforcing grosgrain ribbon to the inside. . .

4
(Shetland Museum and Archives)

. . . here you see the grosgrain button-band reinforcement from the inside, and, to its left, the raw edges of a steek, which has been cut open, and folded back to the inside of the garment, away from the bands. The steek has not been reinforced, or stitched down: because the natural Shetland wool is very ‘sticky’ and has a tendency to felt, the knitter has trusted to the natural action of wear, and, over time, the steek edges have slightly felted together and adhered to the inside of the cardigan. Leaving steek edges ‘raw’ and allowing for felting in this way is a common feature of many Shetland hand-knitted garments, such as yoked cardigans that are still produced and sold today.

5
6
(Shetland Museum and Archives)

Here, a steek has been cut to create the cardigan front opening, and the raw edges have been trimmed back, bound over, and secured to the inside with blue blanket stitch.

7
8
(personal collection)

Here we also see the front and interior of a button band, illustrating a different and rather more laborious method of securing raw steek edges to the inside of a cardigan. The knitter has either created a wound steek (by winding both strands of working yarn round her needle several times) or a dropped steek (in which the steek bridge is knitted and unravelled). Both methods create a giant ladder of strands, and, when the knitting is complete, the knitter cuts this ladder in two, creating a series of ends, which are then individually woven in to the back of the work. A button band has then been picked up from the edge of the wound steek, and worked in moss stitch. The careful finishing of the steek has made the edges of this 1930s garment extremely neat and durable. (For more on this method, see Tom of Holland’s excellent tutorial on the “knotted steek” )

ursula

ursulainside

My own designs use similar techniques of steeking and reinforcing as these earlier garments. Above is a detail of my Ursula design. As you can see, a crocheted steek has been worked, a button band has been picked up along the steek edge, and a ribbon reinforcement has then been hand-sewn to the inside. Rather than leaving the steek edges raw, the crochet reinforcement has been carefully removed, and the steek edges lightly hand-stitched down to the inside.

blaithin

blaithininside

Meanwhile, in my Bláithín , design, a ‘sandwich’ edging is worked to cover and enclose a crocheted steek, securing the cut edges, and rendering them completely invisible.

As we can see from these examples, there are a wide variety of ways to cut and finish a steek. And, because shaping can easily be worked around a seam allowance, steeking is a technique that can be used to knit just about any garment or object. Steeks easily lend themselves to the creation of tea-cosies and blankets, dog jackets and tank tops. Once you are able to cut up knitted fabric without fear, you really can make just about anything.

Want to learn how to work a crocheted steek, or steek “sandwich”? Find the rest of my steeking tutorials here! .

Great Tapestry of Scotland 93-123

94
Panel 94: Hill and Adamson The silver herrings and striped petticoats of the Newhaven fisherwoman.

In the comments on yesterday’s post, Heather linked to an interesting take on the “when is a tapestry not a tapestry” question from a tapestry weaver who strongly objects to the misappropriation of the term in reference to non-woven textiles. I am often struck by how textiles, more than other disciplines, seems prone to practices of woeful mis-naming, and the piece raises many moot points, particularly in relation to the gender associations of the terms “tapestry” and “embroidery.” I suppose this is what I was hinting towards yesterday in suggesting that the term “tapestry” has, in the popular imagination, a public, narrative dimension, that the word “embroidery” does not. It is certainly very sad that this is so, and the linguistic perceptions and politics of these terms in contemporary discourse seem to me quite difficult to unravel. But whether or not the nomenclature of the “Great Tapestry” has a masculine ring, one could certainly never criticise this project for its masculine bias. Women formed the majority of the talented stitchers, and not only are women represented everywhere in the tapestry, but individual panels are used to proudly celebrate the ordinary work of Scottish women in a way that is all too rarely seen in public contexts. A few weeks ago I climbed the Wallace Monument with my dad (who is a Wallace on his mother’s side, and is known by everyone as “Wal”). Half way up the tower we discovered the “hall of heroes” – a sterile space filled with the equally sterile busts of dead white men. While this room commemorates the achievements of Scotland’s philosophical, scientific, military, and literary blokes, there is not a single woman in sight. I scoured the information panels, and finally found Jane Carlyle, who received the briefest of mentions in relation to her husband. Jane and I were the only women in the room, and I wonder if she would have felt as irritated as I did. A wee girl, with a burgeoning interest in Scottish history, might find little in that room with which to identify, while her brother might be reinforced in his tacit belief that only men do important things. One of the many functions of the Great Tapestry of Scotland, it seems to me, is as an educational resource and thank goodness that the project exuberantly and thoughtfully celebrates the important work of Scotland’s women authors, political activists, washerwomen, fisher-lassies, and knitters, and places that work in a public context, alongside more familiar “masculine” achievements.

On with some highlights.

96
Panel 96: A Caithness School I am alawys drawn to the neeps. By the 1850s, through pioneering rural education practices, Caithness (and Berwickshire) literacy rates were the highest in Great Britain.

99
Panel 99: James Clerk Maxwell One of many occasions where I was struck by the wit and inventiveness of Andrew Crummy’s wonderful designs. The colourful waves of Maxwell’s beard capture his work on magnetism and electricity.

103
Panel 103: Shinty and Curling I was bowled over by the beauty and precision of the stitching on this panel, created by Susie Finlayson and Linda Jobson. Look at the tartan! The knitted hose! The herringbone woven jacket! The way the wrong side of the fabric is represented!

104
Panel 104: Scots in North America I love the figure of John Muir here – the very embodiment of the ideal of the national park.

105a
107b
107a
Panels 105 and 107: The Paisley pattern and Mill Working I found both of these panels incredibly beautiful and moving: the way the faces of the mill workers had been integrated into the famous Paisley pattern, the way the colours of the embroidery precisely echoed those of the Indian subcontinent in panel 92; the sense of energy and movement in the stitching and design . . . and, of course, the fact I was viewing these panels in a mill, in Paisley.

109
Panel 109: Workshop of the Empire I love the way that industry, labour, and the human figure are represented in this panel.

111
Panel 111: Kier Hardie who campaigned for women’s suffrage as well as worker’s rights.

113
Panel 113: The Discovery sails from Dundee One of the many things I loved about this panel was that the trades involved with the expedition were depicted and celebrated: flesher, tailor, cordiner, weaver, dyer, hammerman, bonnet maker, baker, glover.

115
Panel 115: The Isbister sisters Shetland knitters! Hurrah! One of my favourite panels.

123b
123a

Panel 123: Women get the vote. This panel was stitched by the Edinburgh members of Soroptimist International

Peerie Flooers kits

peeriescreenshot

A happy Beltane to you! It being the time of buds and flowers and new growth, I have today released kits of what is probably my most Spring-like design. Yes, Peerie Flooers is a woolly hat, but this is Scotland and a hat always comes in useful, whatever the season.

crown

I think the linchpin of this hat is shade FC 11. . .

fc11

This marvelous, quintessentially Spring-like green is one of two shades to have been recently re-released back into the Jamieson & Smith Jumper Weight palette. It is the colour of fresh leaves and new grass, and as soon as I saw it I knew it was the perfect shade to set off Peerie Flooers.
There are six other wonderful Jamieson and Smith shades in the hat, including 91 (egg-yolk yellow) and FC15 (a perfect forget-me-not blue).

peeriekitshades

. . .and the kit is all packaged up in my brand new tote bags, featuring hand-drawn illustrations of my designs by my comrade-in-wool, Felicity Ford, aka Felix.

bags1

This lovely sample of Peerie Flooers has been knitted by my Shetland buddy, Ella Gordon, who is also expertly modelling it here.

lookingup

Peerie Flooers
: the colours of Spring brought to you today by myself, Felix, Ella, and shade FC11.
peerieshades2

The kit is now up in the shop, and if you are interested in the tote bags alone, I’ve also made these available for sale.

bags2

Chris’ croft

chrisd

The Spring edition of 60 North is out! And its a great issue. Those of you who have my Colours of Shetland book may recall mention of my archeologist friend, Chris Dyer, whose knowledge and inspiration helped me to develop my ideas for my Scatness designs. Well, Chris recently started to raise his own Shetland sheep, and in a great feature he’s produced for the magazine, he talks about the challenges of preparing for and caring for his lovely Bressay flock. Chris is just one of those folk who should be crofting, and it made me so happy to read his piece – and his photographs make me want to be back in Shetland immediately! You might have already come across one of Chris’ fine ewes as the face of Shetland Wool Week. . .

shetlandewe

. . . and this edition of the magazine includes loads more knitterly inspiration too. There’s a Wool Week report from Tom of Holland, and another piece covering last year’s event from Edinburgh journalist, Susan Mansfield. This October’s Shetland Wool Week promises to be really exciting, and I’m very looking forward to seeing the full programme of events which I believe will be published shortly. I’ll be there as a punter this year, and am actually hoping to take a class or two.

So put the kettle on, make yourself a cup of tea, download your copy of 60 North, and enjoy! (Its free!)

spring60north

Tenebrae

unstboat

I have more posts to come from Iceland, but today I wanted to briefly mention one of those interesting cross-connections which are one of the many reasons I enjoy writing this blog. During a trip to Shetland in September, 2012, I took this photograph of a boat moored near Norwick beach in Unst. I later included the photo in this blog post, where it was seen by Oxfordshire artist, Jim Kelso. Jim then contacted me to ask if he might produce a painting based on my photograph; I happily agreed, and his painting, Tenebrae, is below.

-1

Tenebrae recently sold, and by way of thanks, Jim has now made a donation in my name to Chest Heart, and Stroke, Scotland. You may remember that it was this charity that funded the home-support of a dedicated stroke nurse for me after I left hospital. The work they do in the community is really important, but often overlooked, and I am always happy to support them in whatever way I can.

Congratulations on your painting, Jim!

Ístex

alafoss

This is Álafoss — foss being Icelandic for waterfall. Álafoss is situated on the river Varmá in the small town of Mosfellsbær, a short bus ride from Reykjavik. In 1896, an enterprising farmer imported some machinery, and harnessed the power of Álafoss to operate it. From that day to this, Icelandic wool has always been processed in Mosfellsbær.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Ístex is an abbreviated form of Íslenskur Textiliðnaður (Icelandic Textile Industry). Ístex was formed in 1995 when the old Álafoss company was threatened, like so many other yarn-producing businesses at that time, with bankruptcy. The business was bought out by five employees, together with a group of sheep farmers, and the company now thrives under this associative structure (during our visit, we ran into one of the company directors, who still plays a very hands-on role in the mill’s daily operations). Ístex employs 50 people and is responsible for the purchasing and processing of 80% of Iceland’s annual wool clip directly from the nation’s farmers. I was very struck by the similarities with Shetland: my friends at Jamieson and Smith purchase around the same percentage of Shetland’s annual clip, and like Ístex, they also ensure that crofters are able to get a return on their wool whatever its quality. Both companies use the lower grades for products such as carpeting and insulation, so that nothing is wasted, while the finer grades are retained to be processed into hand-knitting yarns. Ístex sort and scour their wool in Blönduós, and all other processes are carried out vertically at Mosfellsbær – which is now the only yarn-producing mill in Iceland.

Under the guidance of Hulda Hákonardóttir, we were able to see many different stages of yarn production.

Dyeing . . .

dyedwool

and blending.

blending

The Scotch feed at the top right of this photo . . .

scotchfeed

. . . processes the roving to tape condensers, where sliver is then processed into unspun forms, such as plötulopi, which will be familiar to many knitters.

condensing

Other yarns, such as Álafoss lopi, Lett Lopi, and Einband, are then spun-up here . . .

spinning

. . . before being hanked, coned, or balled. While many of the processes and some of the machines at Ístex were familiar to me from other mill visits, I have never before seen a yarn-baller in action. Cones were transformed into neat packs of yarn with fascinating efficiency.

baller1
baller2
baller3
baller4
baller5

The end result. Yum.

melatalafoss

We learned a lot about Icelandic wool and its unique properties from Hulda, who also kindly showed us many of the different wool products that Ístex has developed over the past 19 years, from beautiful traditional blankets to contemporary neon yarns. And it has to be said that the tales you hear of Lopi being everywhere in Iceland are completely true: yarn really is available to buy in supermarkets, hardware stores, clothing shops, garages. You would certainly never be short of yarn for a project in Iceland. I was very struck by the number of people who said to us on our trip that “everyone is knitting”– a fact borne out by the fascinating statistic that Iceland has proportionately more Ravelry members than any other nation (1 in 10). Though we saw a handful of familiar imported yarns in one shop, its very clear that Iceland’s knitters are, by and large, knitting with Lopi: with the wonderful dual-coated light and airy fleeces that are grown by the nation’s resourceful and hardy sheep; that are shorn and sold by Iceland’s farmers; then sorted, scoured, dyed, and spun by Ístex in the mill at Mosfellsbær. I personally find this kind of readable continuity from sheep to sweater very inspiring.

traditionalicelandiclopiwool

Thankyou for a very enjoyable tour of the Ístex mill, Hulda!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 6,130 other followers