knitwear and cultural relativism

toastsweater

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.

Finishing touches

cb

So my final yoke is DONE! I couldn’t resist showing you a peek while it is blocking on the dress form. This one has been so interesting both to design and to produce and I am really very pleased with the end result.

Just the finishing touches to go now – some ribbon to cover the facings and some buttons that will pick up the orange in the yoke.

buttons

I know some folk hate finishing but it is honestly one of my favourite parts of making a garment – I feel that taking time over the details is a way of really relishing the completion of one’s work.

knitter-producers and knitter-consumers

body
(This is a body and sleeves, knitted up on her machine by Ella Gordon, onto which I’m about to hand-knit a colourwork yoke. Hundreds of thousands of such garments were – and indeed still are – made in like manner in Shetland and elsewhere.)

Thanks so much for your comments on the previous post. As so often, you have given me pause for thought. Some of you have written privately to me that you felt my post unfairly dismissed not just the Munrospun kits, but by implication, the women who made things from them. I can only apologise, and assure you that this was not my intention. These kits undoubtedly enabled many knitters – women with multiple demands on their time, who enjoyed straightforward knitting – to create and wear a lovely hand-made colourwork item. As I said in the previous post, acts of making are always to be applauded, and there are certainly many things to applaud about the way that these kits, so often bought as gifts, lent ordinary knitters all over the world access to Shetland and Scottish yarns and designs. I also have absolutely nothing against the pieced construction of the kit, against knitting back and forth, or against plain stockinette (which really is probably my favourite kind of evening knitting). However, I do readily concede that my first thoughts about the kit were with the knitter-producer behind it, rather than the knitter-consumer to whom it was addressed.

I’ve spent the past few weeks carefully trying to think about yokes from a Shetland perspective. I have examined lots of archive material, looked at knitting, photographs of knitting, personal pattern books and commercial, printed patterns. I’ve conversed with knitters who, over the past half century have differing personal experiences of producing hand-knitted yokes for market. I’ve spoken to Shetland friends about their memories of yoke-wearing and knitting, and I have seen contemporary Shetland women, young and old, of all shapes and sizes, who are wearing Fairisle yokes again. The familiar tree and star designs, hand-knitted onto machined bodies, first so popular in the 1960s are, once more, everywhere in Shetland, and, I think, are clearly gaining fashionable ground farther afield as well. (PLEASE BEAR IN MIND: if you ever find yourself in a shop on the street in Lerwick, looking at a lovely hand-knitted item, it is always worth asking how, and how much, the knitter has been paid for their work. If you don’t get a straight answer, please don’t buy the item). Anyway, I suppose my first thought, upon opening the Munrospun kit, was of the person who knitted that yoke, of how many similar yokes they would have knit, and of the colourwork yoke itself as, by this point in the 70s, a standardised item produced for a ready market – a market of makers, or those interested in making, but an emphatically commercial market nonetheless. Looking at the kit, I also felt that it seemed to mark a definitive moment in the story of the hand-knit yoke: the height of its popularity, but also the turning point of its decline. (It is certainly the case that by the late 70s, hand-knitted yokes were beginning to be seen as old-fashioned, negatively preppy, or just staid, and that hand-knitting itself went into severe decline over the course of the decade that followed). None of this is meant in any way to dismiss the women who made themselves lovely Munrospun cardigans and jumpers, and these kits were certainly enjoyed, both in the making and in the wearing, by many, many knitters. But I do feel the analogy that some of you drew with boxed cake mixes – products that similarly became popularly available in this era – is moot: such mixes certainly offered a speedy, accessible, and in some senses, empowering alternative to baking from scratch, but no one would argue the cakes tasted better.

So that’s how my thoughts have been unravelling this morning. I want to sincerely apologise to any of you who felt affronted by the previous post, and to thank all of you for your comments, whose lively debate and multiple perspectives really make this blog what it is, and always act as a prompt to me to try to see the bigger picture.

Thankyou

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.

. . .to meet a yoke hero

wild_apple

I have been excited about this for weeks – and can’t quite believe that tomorrow I am going to Göteborg to meet with Kerstin Olsson. For those of you who don’t know, Olsson was one of the group of talented and accomplished women who designed for Bohus Stickning, and the Wild Apple (above) is perhaps her most familiar and admired yoke design – indeed, it is a design that to many, including myself, seems iconic of the Bohus aesthetic itself. The Wild Apple is the only piece of knitting that, from a photograph only, moved me to tears when I first encountered it a few years ago. I still find the design breathtaking and really inimitably beautiful and who would have thought that, seven years after seeing a picture of this incredible yoke, I would be going to Sweden to meet its designer in person! I will be spending several days there, and will also be traveling up the coast to visit the Bohuslans museum. Ye gods!

Thankyou all so much for your wonderful comments and messages in response to my last post. I have been really moved by many of your memories, and am so grateful those who have shared ideas, suggestions, and information. There is so much food for thought in what you say, and for those who have written to me, if I haven’t yet responded by email, I shall do so shortly when I return from Sweden.

I have been particularly interested to read your remarks about fit and sizing, and I certainly spent a long time musing on such matters myself before and during work on these designs. Though many may feel that a yoke is never for them, I have aimed to ensure that several different kinds of yoke, involving several different sorts of shaping, are represented in the collection. In the book you’ll find deep yokes, shallow yokes, colourful yokes, single colour yokes, boat necked yokes, scoop necked yokes, yokes shaped with short rows, yokes involving colourwork, cables or beads. . . . would you like a teaser?

frosty6

. . . that’s Mel pouring me a cup of tea at the lovely Courtyard Cafe in Fintry where we held today’s photoshoot for a couple of the designs.

See you soon!

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! .

fruition

westhighlandevening

This is the view from the top of our lane yesterday evening. The large hulking hill to the right is Ben Lomond, with the Arrochar “Alps”, including the Cobbler, to the left. The weather continues to be amazing. Everything is coming to fruition. My tomatoes are ripening.

tomatoes

I am impressed with my peppers, also grown from seed. . .

peppers

. . .and I am cutting courgettes and sweet peas every day. The sweet peas grow more luminous and psychedelic. Each day I cut a bloom that seems more wildly neon than the day before.

sweetpea

I planted several different cultivars, but am totally useless at keeping tabs on what’s what, so I’m afraid I have no idea of their names…

Meanwhile, inside, things are coming to fruition too as I now have seven completed YOKE designs. Numbers eight and nine are on the needles, which just leaves number ten for the collection to be complete. I’ve been steadily charting and grading and writing patterns, and Mel and I have been knitting away since April. It is extremely satisfying seeing the collection really coming together now, and to look at the group of distinctive garments hanging in my studio, all of which sort of feel like me. Another exciting phase of the project is about to begin, as I am soon to start working on, and writing about, some different regional styles and practices of YOKE knitting since the 1940s. I’ll say more about this aspect of the book shortly, but for now I’d better finish knitting this sleeve. . . Hope you all have a lovely weekend!

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