I don’t know about you, but I am extremely excited about Tate Modern’s Sonia Delaunay retrospective, which opens in a couple of months. I’ve long had a thing for Delaunay’s work, but have never had the opportunity to see much of her work in person, particularly her textiles. I wrote an editorial feature about the significance of her work a couple of years ago for the Rowan Magazine, and it seemed a good moment to reproduce it here.
Today, modern art and fashion seem familiarly hand-in-glove. Patricia Field uses the work of Keith Haring to define her version of New York style; Yayoi Kusama collaborates with Louis Vuitton to create novel polka-dotted accessories; Phillip Lim appropriates the art of Roy Lichtenstein to lend his latest collection graphic edge. This contemporary fashion / art symbiosis is at its most obvious — perhaps at its most simple — in Lisa Perry’s recent work. Perry is a fashionable art collector as much as a fashion designer, and in her Madison Avenue store — its bright space-age interior echoing the set-design of Kubrick’s 2001 — you’ll find sharp, neatly-cut shift dresses decorated with the work of Jeff Koons or Ellsworth Kelly. Perry treats the dress as a blank canvas upon which the work of her favourite artists might be showcased. Her work is frequently lauded as “new-mod” or “futuristic” for its minimal lines, its optimism, its bold use of colour, and, of course, for its explicit grandstanding of the works of modern art that she most admires. But Perry’s modernist dress of the future also has a past.
Rewind to 1911. A woman sits in a Paris apartment, stitching a quilt for her son. She selects disparate scraps of cloth, placing blocks and stripes and chevrons of coloured fabric in jarring, daring juxtaposition. The high-contrast result is bold and pleasing to her. She looks around at her apartment, its dark and fussy decoration, its heavy, ornate furniture. Something must be done. Little by little, she embarks upon the radical re-design of the spaces in which she lives. The walls are simply rendered, the furniture is replaced by minimal, modern pieces, and the rooms are gradually transformed into a series of blank planes that seem to wait to be enlivened. The woman continues to cut and stitch, to paint and to embroider. A set of curtains here, a pair of cushions there. Upon the wall, she daubs and hangs a canvas of interlocking discs lit up with incadescence. Turning to her own garb, she adopts loose, unstructured clothing, counteracting her garments’ economy of line with bold, swirling, surface colour. The woman’s world is now awash with dynamic hues and her lived environment — clothes, furnishings, paintings, decorative objects – have all become part of the same wild collage. This woman is Sonia Delaunay, whose distinctive aesthetic and many talents made her central to the development of modernist fashion design.
Born in Ukraine, and educated in St Petersburg, Sonia Terk’s background was privileged, and her education wide-ranging. She excelled in mathematics, needlework and painting, debuting her talents in the latter with a solo show in Paris in 1908. It was in Paris that she met Robert Delaunay — one of the early Cubist group of artists interested in transforming contemporary theories of colour. While Robert’s canvases explored new ways of making colour itself the subject of art, Sonia brought her own sense of colour to life in a perhaps far bolder and more extensive way, moving beyond fine art to household textiles, theatre, poetry, film, print, interior design, commercial illustration and, of course, fashion.
Delaunay’s early approach to colour was exemplified in La Prose du Transsibérien, a 1913 collaboration with Swiss poet, Blaise Cendrars. Over the unfolding pages of this spectacular book-object, (published at some considerable expense by Cendrars himself) text and colour were brought together in a unique relationship. Cendrars’ words, and Delaunay’s colours intermingle, collide, wrap around each other. Delaunay was not merely illustrating Cendrars’ text, nor was she developing what might be regarded as a simple dialogue between text and image. Rather, her contribution to La Prose du Transsibérien was to enable colour to become a creative participant in the poetry itself. Delaunay’s rhythmic swirls and splotches produce alternate dissonance and harmony, dynamism and movement, traveling across and around, up and down the page, as Cendrars’ narrator takes an uneasy journey through the conflict and chaos of revolutionary Russia. In the final section, text and image are jointly illuminated with energy as the narrator arrives in Paris, with its bustling streets, new technologies, and iconic constructs — most notably the Eiffel Tower, which announces itself joyously in Delaunay’s brilliant blocks of colour. Each printed copy of La Prose du Transsibérien was contained in a wrapper declaring itself to be “the first simultaneous book,” neither text nor artwork, but an object that demanded to be seen and read at the same time. Cendrars and Delaunay had together painted a picture of words, and written a poetry of colour.
“Simultaneous” was a word that Delaunay applied to much of her work — paintings, illustrations, printed textiles, and embroideries. The word “simultaneous” referred primarily to her particular take on hue (in which contrasts co-exist, lending images and fabrics movement and multiplicity), but extended beyond this to describe her collaborative and often multidisciplinary methods of working. Delaunay’s exuberant idea of the “simultaneous” meant that she might regard the making of a dress, a dance, a poem, a painting, a hat, a melody, a film, a building or a bookbinding — as part of the same energetic creative process. While other artists of her generation struggled with disciplinary boundaries, she happily ignored the distinctions that were assumed to exist between fine and applied art, or indeed between art, craft, and commercial design. Certainly, her distinctive brio as artist and designer derives from her confident handling of so many different media. “For me” she wrote:
“there was no gap between my painting and what is called my decorative work . . . I never considered the ‘minor arts’ to be artistically frustrating: on the contrary, it was an extension of my art, it showed me new ways while using the same method.”
After the dark days of the First World War (which the Delaunays spent in exile in Portugal and Spain), Paris began to reinvent itself anew as the quintessential modernist city. The world seemed to suddenly spring to life with energy and rhythm: electricity, mass production, jazz. Delaunay’s work chimed with the moment, its new sense of optimism, its dynamism, its bright variety and contrast. She began a series of productive collaborations with like-minded artists in a wide range of fields. She was commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev to create costumes for the Ballets Russes, produced robes poemes with Tristan Tszara, and worked with film makers Rene le Somptier and Marcel L’Herbier on costume and set design. Delaunay developed a particular interest in dance, becoming fascinated by the relationship between the body and the textiles that clothed it. For someone who regarded “colour as the skin of the world” it seemed obvious that dress might become a sort of mobile, dynamic tattoo. Delaunay’s friend Blaise Cendrars, celebrated the effect of her clothing in his famous poem On her Dress she has a Body, and Delaunay herself regarded the wearing of “simultaneous” clothing as a sort of physical performance. She and Robert sported her brilliant simultaneous outfits at Parisian balls and cultural events, attracting considerable attention from their contemporaries. This idea of dress as performative, wearable art, resonated with many modernist movements, including the constructivists, surrealists, and of course the futurists (who made clothing central to their manifestos).
Delaunay, in garments of her own design.
Delaunay began to receive commissions, and swiftly rose to prominence as a commercial textile designer. She was just as confident in the world of fashion as she was in that of fine art, declaring herself incredibly frustrated with the trends that had dominated the 1910s, condemning the hobble skirt (“the skirt is not adapted to walking, but walking to the skirt, which is nonsense”) and what she saw as the pointless “multiplied refinements” of Art Nouveau. Like Chanel, she favoured a total economy of line and garments in which form clearly followed function. “Dress,” wrote Delaunay, “must be adapted to the necessities of daily life, to the movements which it dictates.” Her modern customers were clearly in agreement. In Paris, Baudelaire’s male flaneur had transformed into the female flapper: women were cutting their hair, wearing dresses they could dance in, and adopting the mode garçonne. Delaunay was keen to design modern clothes for modern women, clothes with a purpose and function to the fore. Her simultaneous fashions were meant to move with the body that moved in them. She designed hats to drive in; skirts to dance in; swimsuits to swim in; thick coats and wraps in which to swathe the body during a brisk Winter’s walk. Her bold garments, in which the female body was animated by the colours and rhythms of the modern city, had found their moment, and were the surprise hit of the 1925 Paris exposition.
“How natural it will be,” Robert Delaunay enthused of Sonia’s newly popular designs:
“to see a woman get out of a sleek new car, her appearance answering to the modernised interior of her home, which is also shaking off its old, dusty cornices to rediscover simple, pure lines. [Sonia Delaunay’s simultaneous fashions] are responsive to the painting, to the architecture of modern life, to the bodies of cars, to the beautiful and original forms of airplanes — in short, to the aspirations of this active, modern age which has forged a style intimately related to its incredibly fast and intense life. [Sonia Delaunay] creates fabrics that are oriented to an era yet to come.”
Delaunay suddenly found her talents in great demand, and was celebrated everywhere by fashion writers and cultural commentators as the designer of the “dress of the future.”
What was it about Delaunay’s simultaneous fashions that made them feel so modern, so very future-oriented, in the 1920s? First, of course, is her particular use of colour. At a first glance, her palettes seem to be almost abandoned, alive with multiple, wild hues, but on closer examination one sees that they are in fact almost minimalist — generally limited to three or four shades plus neutrals. She tends to use vivid contrasts, and a little tonal shading, in signature arrangements of chevrons and swirling discs. In Delaunay’s “simultaneous” outfits, it is these chevrons and zig-zags — sometimes printed, sometimes rendered in dense, embroidered satin stitch — that are key to creating the undulating, almost prismatic effect of movement from her carefully-chosen palettes. Her shapes have rhythm, but they are also freed by a lack of strict regularity (Delaunay often became irritated with those who suggested her designs were ‘geometric’ as she felt this reduced their vitality and individuality to a sort of painting-by-numbers.)
But Delaunay’s simultaneous fashions were also modern, and modernist, in their use of fabric as a plane. Among her contemporaries in couture, her designs were perhaps definitively planar, two-dimensional, in their treatment of material. While other designers (Fortuny; Vionnet) were exploring innovative three-dimensional sculptural techniques of pleating and cutting, Delaunay saw her simply-shaped designs as flat surfaces waiting to be animated by rhythm and colour. (She later described herself as “incapable of sculpting”). The straight-up-and-down shift dress was, then, her ideal blank canvas, and its simple, unobtrusive lines perfectly suited to being transformed by her into a walking work of art. In this sense, her work has much in common with the Bauhaus treatment of planes and surfaces (indeed Walter Gropius was a friend of Delaunay’s, and a great admirer of her interiors).
Delaunay had her own vision for fashion’s new direction. Designers should not be tempted, she wrote, to take “inspiration derived from the past” but must instead “grapp[le] with the subject as if everything begins anew each day.” The work of artists would achieve popular currency, and be properly valued; collaborations with technologists would make beautiful, quality design accessible, affordable and wearable by all, and through improved mass production, fashion would at last “democratise itself, and this democratisation can only be beneficial since it will raise the general standards of the industry.” “The future of fashion is very clear to me,” she wrote with characteristic confidence.
Delaunay was speaking, of course, with the familiar optimism of the 1920s. Her perspective (as much as her bold aesthetic) is recognisably modernist in its faith in new technology, its wonder at the potential of mass production, and its belief in a better future. Things appeared rather less bright and hopeful over the next few decades, as the world was shaken by economic collapse, horrific war, and its grim aftermath. Delaunay closed the fashion end of her business, continued to paint, and worked closely with the Amsterdam firm, Metz & Co producing innovative surface designs for textiles. She began to explore the potential of the square, and professed admiration for the work of Piet Mondrian.
Not until the 1960s did Western culture feel an optimism, an energy, a hope for the future comparable with that of the milieu Delaunay had inhabited forty years previously. And how did fashion mark this moment? With a straight up-and-down shift dress whose simple lines were enlivened with a bright and striking work of modern art.
By the late 1950s, mod girls, frustrated with the era’s fashions, began to stitch up their own simple shift dresses — dresses in which they could dance to the rhythms of jazz and soul. Designers such as André Courrèges took their cue from the street — raising hems, and radically simplifying the line with the elimination of bust and waist in a manner obviously reminiscent of the 1920s. The season following the first appearance of Courrèges’ angular mini dresses, Yves Saint Laurent debuted a collection whose show-stopping garment was a shift dress boldy emblazoned with a painting he identified as Piet Mondrian’s number 81. Yves Saint Laurent famously declared himself as “a failed painter,” but like much of his work, this dress was certainly suggestive of aesthetic innovation rather than deficiency. Situated at the intersections of art, fashion, and popular culture, it spoke powerfully to the moment. By 1965, largely because of photographic reproductions, the work of Mondrian was so instantly recognisable that it had become iconic. In a canny move, YSL, in effect appropriated that iconic status for his dress which, when it appeared on the cover of Vogue in 1965, created an international sensation. It was hailed by Harper’s Bazaar as “the dress of tomorrow” and within weeks, printers and cutters were hard at work creating copycat Mondrian shift dresses for everyone, at every price point. The YSL ‘originals’ cost around £1800, and were fashioned from high-quality wool jersey. Each coloured block and line was painstakingly cut and individually stitched to create a bold streamlined patchwork. But by 1966, cotton or rayon dresses featuring a Mondrian-esque design printed directly onto the fabric were circulating on the streets of London for between £37 and £60. Then, in a shift that anticipates some of the complexities of the art-fashion nexus today, the popular currency of the YSL dress began to reflect back on the commercial value of the work that had inspired it. As iconic fashion borrowed from iconic art, so art capitalised on fashion as Mondrian’s work began to circulate for astronomical sums on the US art market.
In a way, YSL’s Mondrian dress achieved Sonia Delaunay’s modernist vision of the popularisation of art, and the democratisation of fashion (though Delaunay would have probably preferred it if this had been accomplished through high-end mass production techniques rather than copies of ever-diminishing quality). The Mondrian dress also carried clear echoes of Delaunay’s work in its sharp cut, its simple lines, its striking use of colour, and, of course, in the treatment of the garment as canvas. In an interview of 1968, Delaunay dismissed YSL’s Mondrian dress as “society entertainment, circus, promotion,” but also grumpily conceded its evident debt to her work “clever people have made hundreds of millions from my idea.” So was Sonia Delaunay, 1920s designer of the colourful, radical “dress of the future,” the first mod? We might certainly remember her vim and originality when contemplating the rather more obvious — some might even say calculated — work of contemporary designers like Lisa Perry.
This piece was first published as an editorial feature in Rowan Magazine 53 (2013)
Shari Benstock, Women of the Left Bank (1986)
Jacques Demase, Sonia Delaunay: Fashion and Fabrics (1976)
Adam Geczy and Vicki Karaminas, eds, Fashion and Art (2012)
Matilda McQuaid and Susan Brown, eds, Colour Moves: Art and Fashion by Sonia Delaunay (2011)
Christopher Wilk, ed., Modernism: Designing a New World (2006).
We enjoyed a tasty January 25th supper last night, and thought you might like to hear our friend Ivor addressing the haggis in wonted fashion. The text of Burn’s poem is below, for those who are interested. Apologies for my shaky camerawork.
Address to a Haggis
Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o’ the pudding-race!
Aboon them a’ ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm :
Weel are ye wordy o’a grace
As lang’s my arm.
The groaning trencher there ye fill,
Your hurdies like a distant hill,
Your pin wad help to mend a mill
In time o’need,
While thro’ your pores the dews distil
Like amber bead.
His knife see rustic Labour dight,
An’ cut you up wi’ ready sleight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like ony ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Then, horn for horn, they stretch an’ strive:
Deil tak the hindmost! on they drive,
Till a’ their weel-swall’d kytes belyve
Are bent like drums;
Then auld Guidman, maist like to rive,
Is there that owre his French ragout
Or olio that wad staw a sow,
Or fricassee wad make her spew
Wi’ perfect sconner,
Looks down wi’ sneering, scornfu’ view
On sic a dinner?
Poor devil! see him owre his trash,
As feckless as wither’d rash,
His spindle shank, a guid whip-lash;
His nieve a nit;
Thro’ bloody bog or field to dash,
O how unfit!
But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread.
Clap in his walie nieve a blade,
He’ll mak it whissle;
An’ legs an’ arms, an’ heads will sned,
Like taps o’ thrissle.
Ye Pow’rs, wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o’ fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies;
But, if ye wish her gratefu’ prayer
Gie her a haggis!
Today I want to share with you a conversation I recently had with Margret Linda Gunnlaugsdóttir and Ásdís Birgisdóttir – two of Iceland’s most important and influential designers of hand-knits. I knew of Ásdís and Linda’s work with the 1990s Icelandic magazine Lopi & Band, and was fascinated with their designs, which seemed really distinctive and innovative. I was particularly interested in Ásdís’s innovations with integrated yoke shaping (a design technique I was experimenting with at the time) and from Hélène‘s website I learned that, together with Linda, she’d recently revived the magazine. As designers working across several decades I felt that Ásdís and Linda’s perspective on hand-knitting in Iceland was sure to be incredibly interesting, so I got in touch with them while I was working on Yokes, with hope of including an interview in the book. What with one thing and another (largely my own very tight publication deadlines) we didn’t get a chance to include our conversation, but I’m really happy to be able to bring it to you here instead. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Ásdís and Linda’s work, might I suggest that you nip over to Lopi & Band (you can view the site in English, Danish or Icelandic) and then come right back here to read what they have to say.
KD: Hi Ásdis and Linda! Could you start by telling us when and how you both learned to knit?
Ásdis: I learned to knit at an early age, when I was about 4 years old, with my mother and grandmother. In Iceland children generally learn to knit in school from the age of 8 but my family (mother, grandmother and aunt) are professional textile enthusiasts, so knitting, sewing, spinning and weaving were always present in my childhood.
Linda: I learned knitting techniques in school when I was 8 years old because it was mandatory for girls to learn how to knit.
(four-year-old Ásdís, learning to knit with her mother)
KD: Were the women (and men) in your family members knitters or craftspeople? Do any of your family members knit now?
Ásdis: Yes my mothers family background is farmers and craftspeople. My mother’s mother and sister (born 1898 and 1903) were a deep influence on my childhood with their handcrafts – knitting, sewing, and weaving. My maternal great-grandfather was a farmer and weaver for the farming community in the north of Iceland and his daughters (my grandmother and aunt) worked the wool, had it spun in the local spinning mill and plant-dyed it for futher use). Today I knit as well as my sister and my daughter (who is 12 years old).
Linda: My mother was an art teacher in primary school. She knew how to knit but I only remember one sweater that she knitted when she was ill and had to stay in bed for some time. My two daughters both knit quite a lot. I taught my eldest granddaughter to knit when she was 5 years old and very quickly she was able to knit with fairly complicated techniques such as double stranded and cable patterns. Today she is 13 and has taught her mother to knit, who then has then gone on to teach her friends to knit as well.
KD: Can you tell me about your education and interest in textiles, and how you both came to work in the Icelandic textile industry?
Ásdis: I studied textile art and design at the College of Arts and Crafts in Reykjavík, with a further year of project design focusing on working with Icelandic wool. Since 1991 when I graduated I started working professionally with the medium of hand-knitting. But from when I was in high school, I had hand-knitted sweaters and clothing for myself and family members, so knitting came very naturally to me as a way to express myself. The years around 1990 were difficult for the Icelandic textile industry, the export of wools had greatly decreased due to less demand from the international market. Many factories producing machine woven and machine knitted fabrics as well as carpets went bankrupt, and the machinery was sold abroad or sometimes simply sold for scrap metal. So during the ’90´s it was considered very out of date and unfashionable to work with Icelandic wool as a medium, either as an artist or designer. But in spite of this (indeed, perhaps because of it, as a form of reaction) there was a growth in the local handcrafts industry. Many rural craftspeople and galleries began making items for the tourist and travel industry, and were thankfully supported by government funding. The Handcrafts Association gained more members during this period, and The Crafts and Design Centre was also founded.
So, then I started designing on a regular basis but began as a freelance designer only. At the same time I began working for the Handcrafts Association as general manager of both the Association and its shop. There I worked from 1994-2008, managing the association (which is primarily a voluntary and amateur organisation founded on the goal of preserving old traditional Icelandic handcrafts and techniques and lending them a modern context). After a period of 14 years I was offered the position of manager for the Icelandic Textile Centre where I stayed for 3 years, working on many projects involving textile art and design. During this time I was also president of the Icelandic Textile Guild. Therefore my main work during these years was a managerial and organisational role within the field of Icelandic textiles, generating connections and projects with other Nordic countries. On the side, I worked as a freelance designer, creating small exclusive projects for magazines, private individuals and exhibitions.
Linda: In primrary school we were supposed to knit specific things with specific colours. I didn’t enjoy that, so I always got a bad grade in textile classes. But when I was a teenager in high school, I drew a pattern on grid paper in a maths class and showed it to my textile teacher who allowed me to knit a baby sweater with my pattern, and I haven’t stopped since. I then went on to study textile art and design at the College of Arts and Crafts in Reykjavík. At first I only designed items for my family. A yarn store owner saw a sweater I made from the yarn she had imported and insisted on getting the pattern to publish in a magazine. The woman who started Lopi & Band saw that issue and contacted me and asked me to design/work for her magazine, which I then did for many years to come.
(Ásdis and Linda!)
KD: I think the period when you both worked together in the magazine Lopi & Band – saw some very interesting changes in Icelandic knitting and design. I wonder if you could reflect on how you fee hand-knitting and design shifted in Iceland during this period? And how it has once again changed today, enabling the revival of your wonderful magazine and designs?
Ásdis: There have been highs and lows in the interest for knitting in Iceland. The years from 1980 to 1990 were a general low despite a certain interest in local hand-knitting (as we explained above). The magazine Lopi & Band was in many ways a optimistic project started by a local lady who was interested in knitting. Initially, the magazine was not particularly successful, and went between a number of editors, until it was finally bought by a small printer. The owner of the company hired Linda who quite successfully edited the magazine with mainly her own and some other designs (mine included). We became friends in 1994 when I began designing for her on a regular basis. By that time, the magazine had become quite popular, with some editions even selling out and being reprinted. Despite the flood of fleece materials and synthetic sweaters on the market, there was a sudden revival in hand-knitting. The patterns we produced in Lopi & Band were diverse and colorful, with fresh approaches to traditional sweater design. Unfortunately in 1997 the owner of the printing press died, his company was liquidated, and at that time Lopi & Band ceased production as well.
The revival of hand-knitting in Iceland is due in a large way to the economic crash in early October 2008. One consequence of the feeling of national tension and hopelessness was that that many people turned to knitting. I believe it was a form of self-help and self-sufficiency – a return to something real, in reaction to the artificial nature of the predicament we were in. It was also a way of expressing a certain kind of nationalism, an attachment to things that are distinctively Icelandic. For example an affluent lawyer friend of mine that had not touched her needles since high school, was suddenly maniacally knitting all her Christmas presents in 2008! Many others looked inwards towards our culture and heritage, which has affected so many things in our society since. Today, people are much more active in exploring Iceland, hiking and traveling inside the country than before. Also, textile artists and designers, such as Farmer’s Market and 66North, are using our heritage as inspiration for fashion and design .
From that time there has been a huge revival in knitting. I believe it has panned out a bit now, but is certainly still more apparent than it was pre- 2008 and is hopefully here to stay.
From 2009 on, there has been an increase in the market of knitting patterns and books in Icelandic, many are translated but a large number are Icelandic designs. Unfortunately the quality is in general not very good, as there is no distinction made by publishers between those that are producing designs and have a background in textiles and those that are hobby-ists which in my opinion directly reflects on the quality of the design work. There are just a few designers working in the field of hand-knitting that have such training, but fortunately Istex employed (c. 2000 – 2012) a very good designer (Vedis Jonsdottir) that took responsibility for their knitting patterns and colour palettes so the range of available knitting patterns and shades was at least above average.
We decided to jump in with so many others in 2011, and try our hand at marketing our own knitting magazine with the revival of Lopi & Band. The magazine has been very well received but unfortunately the market is rather small so we can not rely on it as a main source of income. But we do at least have an outlet for our passion for knitting design and have a measure of creative freedom and control over what designs we produce.
(Hringana – a design by Linda)
KD: My particular interest is yoked sweaters, and I’m fascinated in how they have been regarded, designed and marketed in Iceland, and how perceptions of them have changed. How do you think Icelandic perceptions of yoked sweaters have shifted over time?
Ásdis: The Icelandic traditional yoked sweater was designed for the market in the 1950´s. During that time my aforementioned grandmother was working for Íslensk Ull, a wholesale company that was working on promoting Icelandic Woollens. She was one of the individuals that developed and designed hand-knitted items for the commercial market, both for tourists in Iceland, and for Icelanders themselves.
The traditional yoked sweater gained immediate popularity as it has the very direct reference to Nordic patterns and designs as well as being extremely easy to make. When the final stitch is cast off you basically have a finished item. Quite early on, the yoke became a symbol of Icelandic woollen work and was quickly internationally know as such. Over the past few decades, countless catwalk collections have made reference to the Icelandic yoke sweater, either directly or indirectly.
The yoke sweater became one of the most important sales items in the Icelandic Handcrafts Centre from the time it opened in the 1960´s until it closed in 1997. Then, in the late ’90s, following the crash of the woollen market, it became very unfashionable amongst the general public in Iceland. But in recent years it has certainly become much more popular, partly because of some young designers, that have featured it in their collections, with their own modern twist. From the traditional rather bulky Lopapeysa (3 ply Lopi or Alafoss Lopi) yoke sweaters are now made of 2 or 1 ply Lett Lopi or Lopi Light and have become very fashionable among Icelanders of all ages.
In its early years of development in the 1950s, the yokes were mainly designed in natural colors and those shades still remain the most popular. But during the early 2000´s yokes began to appear in many different shades that had been dyed specifically for the Icelandic market and yokes are always popular with tourists in a range of pinks and light blues.
So the yoked sweater remains the most popular ‘Icelandic’ design, and we’ve certainly come across this in our design practice. We are often asked if we will design more of the “traditional” sort of yoke, but we find that the market has plenty of those and we prefer to show the consumer that it is also possible to make sweaters of traditional wool, with traditional colours, but in a variety of patterns and forms.
(Dagrenning – a design by Linda)
KD: Could you tell me more about how you feel the unique Icelandic landscape, with its equally unique history of wool and textiles, inspires you and your work?
Ásdis: The nature and the history of textiles in Iceland do inspire our work to a great extent. The ever-changing weather and the extreme versatility of the landscape offer endless means of inspiration. The exceptional colors of the Icelandic landscape are perhaps the most inspirational of all! Icelandic textile history, and particularly weaving and embroidery patterns, have inspired designs for both of us. Local techniques such as Icelandic intarsia knitting – which is knitted back and forth in garter stitch – has been an inspiration in one of my favorite designs.
Icelandic costume history, especially from the middle ages, has inspired me with both techniques and shaping. A exhibition I did played on designs and coloring from that period, the shaping nodded to medieval clothing while the wool was plant dyed either before or after the garment had been knitted up. My design Valkyrja draws on this inspiration.
Linda: When I quit as editor of the magazine Lopi & Band in 1997 I was part of a group that participated in a research project on Icelandic clothing from the period 1750-1850. The costumes we researched are part of the collection of the National museum of Iceland. During that period I made 4 costumes, replicating national costumes from the era. Through this I became interested in the life people lead so long ago. I then studied folklore at the University of Iceland and graduated with a BA degree. Of course the research and my studies appear in my designs to a degree.
(Peysufatapeysa – a design by Linda )
One of the replicas I made was of an old costume called Peysuföt (peysa = sweater, föt = clothing). Traditionally the sweater part of the costume was knitted on 1.5 mm needles and then felted! The sweater I made was a modernized replica of this original, but on 5mm needles. Since then I have used various inspirations such as turf walls and traditional embroidery patterns.
(Turf sweaters – designed by Linda )
Our most famous painter, Kjarval (1885-1972) has also inspired my designs.
(Linda’s Kjarval-inspired sweaters, including Fornar Slóðir )
. . . and I very much enjoy experimenting with shapes and patterns other than those of the traditional yoke.
(Hum – a design by Linda)
KD: What I find most interesting about your design work is how incredibly innovative it is, with beautiful, and sometimes unexpected uses of texture and shaping. I particularly admire your yoke designs – such as Fletta – in which the shaping does not interrupt the pattern, but remains continuous and integral to it. These continuous yokes are one of the real signatures of your work and to my mind are one of the most significant developments in yoke design over the past few decades. Can you tell me more about your development of these beautiful integrated patterns and how they came about?
Ásdis: When I started designing shortly after finishing the College of Arts and Crafts, my background in the handcrafts tradition ispired me to continue working with the yoke concept that had been so characteristic of the Icelandic woollen sweater. I wanted to do yoke patterns that had a different concept – the continuous pattern but not bands of pattern intercepted with single colored rows. The single colored rows have the function of incorporating the decreases in the yoke necessary for the shaping. I wanted to go the more difficult way … incorporating the decreases into the design for the pattern to flow from beginning to end. This means of course a greater challenge in the design with intricate math and drawing for the pattern to be continuous. The Fletta was one of my first designs and probably the most successful so far. I looked to the traditional Icelandic woodcarvings with their flow of latticework for inspiration.
With Fletta (a braid or “intertwining“) a lattice of pattern is on a background of the base colors of the sweater. With another design – Myrarfletta (bog braid) – the lattice itself becomes the multicolored surface for the play of colours (depicting the bright yellow and green mosses in the Icelandic interior growing around the small streams in the desert).
KD: I wonder if you could tell me about one of your favourite yoke designs, and why you feel it is special / important?
Ásdis: Fletta is my favorite design. I think it is one of the best results I had with the lattice work design, simple yet intricate and very eye catching. It offers a variety of possibilities with color combinations which makes it a very fluid design. I have had it made up to suit individuals coloring (often earthy natural colors), also in graphic color combinations and even bright colorful combinations. All seem to work and provide very different effects.
Linda: My favourite yoke design is the one I made from the Kjarval painting Fornar slóðir because it was challenging to capture the mood of the painting and transfer it to a pattern. And also because no one has done it before as far as I know.
KD: Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, Ásdis and Linda!
You can find out more about Lopi & Band here.
(Stallar – a design by Ásdis)
Have you been to Sanquhar? I am ashamed to say that I hadn’t — until Saturday.
At the workshop May MacCormick, who has knitted literally hundreds of pairs of Sanquhar gloves, was demonstrating her considerable skills.
I was particularly intrigued by the finger gussets, which, as I understand it, are a unique feature of these gloves.
My comrade-in-wool Tom of Holland, gave a great talk about Sanquhar patterns and the many different ways in which they have inspired him, from the creation of swiss-darned socks to pencil case patterns
Then over at the Tolbooth Museum we were introduced to many intriguing items from the collection. I particularly liked the selection of gloves that had been commissioned by a local cyclist to match her different outfits. She possessed gloves in Sanquhar patterns knitted in wonderful shades of russet and gold, and must have cut a very striking figure as she zipped about on her bike.
Her beautiful gloves were evidently much loved and used, as is apparent from their very visible mends.
One thing that particularly intrigues me about the Sanquhar story is the relationship between the local carpet industry, and domestic hand knitting.
Woven rugs and carpets, with geometric monochrome patterns similar to those that characterise the gloves, were created in the homes of Sanquhar folk. The gloves were knitted from the strong yarns used to weave these rugs, as well as from the drugget threads that were used in John McQueen’s Mill, a carpet and blanket manufacturer formerly situated in Crawick, near Sanquhar.
It was a day which brought much knitterly food for thought.
Thanks to the dedicated efforts of the folk at A’ The Airts, many exciting projects are underfoot: projects that will assure a bright future for the distinctive knitting styles of Sanquhar. I thought A’ the Airts was a very inspiring place: one of those exemplary, welcoming community arts centres which local folk really feel part of and proud of – and with reason. When you have an opportunity, I suggest you go and visit the centre and the Tolbooth Museum, and make sure you leave time to have lunch in the cafe, and enjoy some of Norma Simmon’s fantastic locally produced and home-cooked food.
Thanks to Glasgow University and A’the Airts for a great day.
One of the issues I’ve found myself thinking about an awful lot while writing my book is how knitwear “traditions” are never completely national or regional in origin, but are always interwoven and interconnected. Knitting is a fluid and mobile medium in so many senses, traveling around the ocean on the backs of seafaring men, copied and innovated upon by enterprising women. In 1953, a Norwegian designer working in London saw a photograph of the Danish Royal Family wearing Greenland national dress. Inspired by this photograph she went on to create the “Eskimo” sweater, now regarded as an icon of Norwegian knitwear design – but how ‘national’ a design could this sweater, in fact, be said to be? Equally, the large star motifs routinely described as “Shetland” or even “Fair Isle” are actually the legacy of Shetland’s important Norwegian connections during the second world war (when thousands of Norwegians escaped occupation on the Shetland Bus). As my research has progressed, I’ve come to realise that all of the national or regional knitting styles I’m interested in have a relatively short history, and all are connected, in one way or another, to each other. I have started to think it is more useful to speak of of a fluid set of Nordic regional textile practices rather than national “traditions” (many of which really are “invented traditions” in the sense that Hobsbawm and Ranger famously described).
And yet, something in me instinctively reacts when I see this sweater on Toast’s website, described as “Icelandic Fair Isle.” This sweater is knitted up in Irish yarn, produced in a non-specified EU location, and is marketed here in reference to two distinct regional textile “traditions,” associated with different kinds of wool, sheep breed, and terroir neither of which are those of Kilcarra (Donegal) tweed. To my eyes, this raglan garment with its large colourwork motifs is neither “Icelandic”, nor is it “Fair Isle”. I’m not even sure how “Irish” it could said to be either, and I feel in my gut that the fuzzy descriptors that are being used to sell it imply a certain amount of disrespect to the specificity of particular regional practices of textile production, knitting and design. But can I have it both ways? If I want to ditch narrow nationalist associations in favour of a more diverse and fluid and culturally relative idea of knitting and design, why does this sweater still inspire in me a sensation of mild offence?
I need to get to grips with this conundrum in order to write a conclusion for my book. Any of your thoughts will be much appreciated.
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:
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.
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Tom likes to run the Islay half marathon. Not only does this race take place in one of our favourite places, but the Islay half marathon is always a grand occasion, with wonderful local support. The Islay half marathon is also sponsored by Ardbeg. Ardbeg is one of Islay’s eight distilleries and the whisky it produces is Tom’s undoubted favourite of any usquebaugh. Ardbeg is very generous with its sponsorship: all competitors receive a wee dram or two at the end of the race, and there are a dizzying array of prizes, most of them whisky related. Tom is in no way a pot-hunter, but it is fair to say that the prospect of a tasty bottle of Ardbeg has certainly spurred him onward on each of the seven occasions he’s run this race.
Here’s the start of this year’s Islay half marathon.
. . . here’s Tom shortly after setting off:
. . . despite his recent appendix-related woes, and subsequent lack of training, he had a great run, finishing in 1 hour 25 minutes and coming in 3rd Veteran (that’s the third bloke over 40, in case you were wondering). We were agog at the prize giving: would the 3rd Veteran actually win a bottle of . . . Ardbeg?
Yes indeedy ! And not just any Ardbeg . . . Tom’s prize was a bottle of Uigeadail!
Uigeadail is named after the “dark and mysterious” loch which provides the Ardbeg distillery with its distinctive water. Tom is such a great fan of this whisky, and was so intrigued by this loch, that we actually took a pilgrimage on foot to it five years ago last winter. It was indeed dark. And mysterious. And very, very cold. Here is Tom at Loch Uigeadail in January 2009 . . .
. . . and here he is having imbibed several prize-winning drams of its namesake in August 2014.