Slow Fashion October, take two

Slow Fashion October 2016

If there’s one thing I learned from the incredible experience that was Slow Fashion October last year (barely glimpsed in the pics above), it’s that it’s an even more complicated conversation than I realized — and I knew it was complicated! But it is, plainly, a hard one to talk about. It’s hard even to say what “slow fashion” is, as it’s different for every person. I don’t think it’s at all important to agree on either a definition or a list of shoulds or musts or don’ts. What’s important is having the big messy beautiful discussion — right out in public — and getting each other thinking. So, difficult or not, bring it on! I couldn’t be more excited for season two.

Last year I set up a framework of loose weekly themes to give the discussion a tiny bit of structure (Small, Loved, Worn and Known). I liked the theme approach, and think you all did too, but I feel like they were so loose that some of what seemed obvious to me actually seemed non-existent to others. Such as the fact that the conversation is not just about handmade — it’s about all the ways (and reasons!) we can approach a slow-fashion wardrobe. When I first created the @slowfashionoctober Instagram account last year and had to reduce the idea to one sentence for the profile, I wrote:

A celebration of the small-batch, handmade, second-hand, well-loved, long-worn, known-origins wardrobe.

I thought that was pretty good! And I still think looking at it from all of those angles is key. So for this year’s themes, I’m making them slightly more specific to (what I see as) the primary facets of slow fashion. Here goes:

Week 1, Oct 1-9: INTRODUCTIONS
Who are you, and what does slow fashion mean to you. What got you started thinking about it — people, books, films, etc. Are your concerns environmental, humanitarian, financial? Most important: How does your thinking factor into your life and closet. Also, any special plans or projects for Slotober, and what are you hoping to get out of it?

Week 2, Oct 10-16: LONG-WORN
How can we make the most of the clothes already on the planet — from taking care of and mending and wearing things longer, to thrifting, swapping, heirlooms, hand-me-downs, alterations and refashioning.

Week 3, Oct 17-23: HANDMADE
How do you understand your style, choose projects well, advance your skills, get the right fit, and keep things interesting and long-lasting at the same time. What are your go-to patterns and most successful garments. How do you avoid mindless acquisition of yarn and fabric, or making “too much.” How do you make time and space for making — and why?

Week 4, Oct 24-31: KNOWN ORIGINS
Good (especially good and affordable) sources of yarn and fabric with traceable origins. And for the things we buy, favorite sources: from small-batch designer-producers to fashion companies trying to do the right thing in a transparent way.

Two issues came up in the past few days’ discussion on IG that I especially want to encourage anyone with knowledge or advice to weigh in on along the way: 1) the challenge of kids and fast fashion, and 2) plus-size options, both in terms of patterns and ready-to-wear.

So, just like last year, this is a framework that you can choose to use or ignore as you like, but it’s here if it’s helpful. I think this year I’m also going to post regular (daily?) questions along the way that you can either respond to in the comments or use as a prompt for a post of your own. Maybe you respond to one a week or maybe all of them — totally and completely up to you.

There is no right or expected way to participate — chime in wherever and however and as frequently or infrequently as suits you. If you’re posting on your blog, use pingbacks or leave links in the comments on my posts here so people can see what you’re writing. On social media, use hashtag #slowfashionoctober to contribute and follow along. And I hope you’ll also strike up the conversation in your 3-dimensional world throughout the month.

The most important thing I can emphasize is this isn’t about judgment. We all have different opinions and resources and time and wishes and skills — we are each on our own path. Like I said at the start of this post, what matters is just to be talking and thinking about it, and doing whatever is desirable and possible for you.

I can’t wait to hear from you!

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PREVIOUSLY: Slow Fashion October 2015

Pictured are some of the contributions from last year that got highlighted in the @slowfashionoctober feed: top left, top right, middle left, middle right, bottom left, bottom right

Swatch of the Month: The lopapeysa trail

EDITOR’S NOTE: All I’m gonna say about Jess’s column this month is it’s so beautiful I can’t even stand it. Iceland 2017 or bust—
—Karen

Swatch of the Month: The lopapeysa trail

One of the great ironies of my twenties is that I went to Iceland before I was a knitter. I knitted a little bit – mostly hats and fingerless gloves and things like that – but didn’t know anything about Iceland’s knitting history, its iconic yoke sweaters, the fuzzy skeins of lopi. But when yarn is being sold in grocery stores and sheep are everywhere you look, you quickly get the idea that understanding knitting’s place in Iceland is central to understanding the country itself.

This was back in 2012, shortly after the country’s financial crisis, and that striking yoked sweater known as a lopapeysa seemed to be the uniform for all Icelanders — a source of national pride and identity. Ragga Eiríksdóttir (raggaknits on Ravelry) was interviewed during the recovery about just that, saying that following the collapse in 2008, “suddenly everyone started to knit Icelandic sweaters like crazy” as both a return to their roots and as backlash against the banking and globalization that had seemingly brought the country to this place. This isn’t just a casual observation – Ístex, the country’s biggest wool manufacturer, is now producing twice the amount of wool yarn as it did nearly 10 years ago. This quote from Árni Árnason in The Reykjavik Grapevine sums it up well:

It resembles the country’s rugged nature and reminds us of the history of farming and fishing when it provided its wearer with a vital shield from the disastrous weather one can encounter in the wild. Furthermore it appeals greatly to the disillusioned and globalised 21st Century traveller. It’s as close as one can get to the source without shovelling shit in a sheepfold.

This resurgence in knitting had me wondering (like with the Aran sweater from last month’s post) about the origins of the lopapeysa. As you drive through the country, sheep are clustered in nearly every valley and mountainside. They seem as ancient and integral to the landscape as the moss or the waterfalls. Surely, I thought, Icelanders have been knitting for centuries, right? But the recent digging on Arans gave me pause before assuming that the iconic sweater had been around for just as long.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF ICELAND

Vikings began arriving to Iceland between 870 and 930 CE, first settling in what is now Reykjavík and then moving on to settle the remaining arable pockets of countryside. In 930 CE, the Alþingi (pronounced “Althing”) formed to regulate the Icelandic Commonwealth, the oldest national parliament in the world. Leaders from across the island met at Þingvellir (pronounced “Thingvellir”), a huge rift valley that marks the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the meeting between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. It’s now a national park, just a short drive northeast from Reykjavík, and is stunning and awe-inspiring to see in person.

By any measures, life has never been easy on Iceland. When it was first settled, the North Atlantic was in the middle of the Medieval Warm Period, when temperatures were warmer than usual – a period that lasted until about 1250 when Iceland fell into the Little Ice Age until the mid-19th century. Within the first few hundred years of Vikings’ arrival, the country transformed from a lushly wooded landscape to arctic desert – mostly due to deforestation, overgrazing by cattle and sheep, and farmers pushing the land to the brink of what’s possible to survive.

After the Icelandic Commonwealth fell apart in the 13th century, the island was controlled by a mix of outside powers – the Norwegian Empire, the Kalmar Union (a united Norway, Denmark and Sweden), and later Denmark. For centuries, Iceland was one of the poorest countries in Europe. It was ravaged by two outbreaks of the Black Death in the 15th century; a smallpox epidemic in the 18th century; and continuous natural disasters and volcanic eruptions made survival a constant struggle.

But through it all, Icelanders remained committed to their history and identity. The sagas and eddas, written in the 9th, 10th and early 11th centuries, are some of the greatest accomplishments in world literature. They detail the history and genealogy of early Icelandic settlers and many Icelanders can trace their family lineage back to figures in these stories. The literacy rate is near-universal and has been since the end of the 18th century, and I remember speaking with an Icelander while I was there who credited this high literacy rate with Iceland’s ability to rise out of poverty in the 20th century. During and after World War II, the country prospered substantially, driven by the industrialization of the fishing industry and the Marshall Plan, receiving more aid per capita than any other country in Europe. In 1944, they gained independence from Denmark.

I’m telling you this not because it’s related to knitting, but because it’s central to understanding who Icelanders are. They have been living for centuries in one of the most remote and unforgiving landscapes in the world, and have somehow risen above those odds to become one of the most prosperous, highly educated, creative and independent people of anywhere. These are some of the qualities that I admire most in Iceland and its people, and ones that I see come through in their knitting.

Swatch of the Month: The lopapeysa trail

KNITTING ON ICELAND

When the Vikings first arrived, they brought sheep with them. Bred in near-total isolation for centuries, Icelandic sheep have become one of the purest livestock populations in the world. Icelanders have relied on them for centuries for meat, milk and fiber (and still do), but now the rest of the world knows them primarily for their fleece. Their fleeces are dramatically double-coated. The outer coat, called tog, which has a mohair-like quality, is most suitable for outerwear. The inner coat, called þel (pronounced “thel”) is fine and incredibly soft. These two fibers can be spun separately, but they’re often spun together.

The word lopi simply refers to roving, but Icelandic knitters realized that they could knit with lopi instead of spun yarn to create a light but durable sweater. Traditional lopi can be found in a plate or disk, called a plötulopi , which is harder to find outside Iceland. Most commercially-available lopi is a lightly spun yarn that can be found in aran, bulky and superbulky weight.

The oldest piece of knitting found in Iceland is a mitten excavated at the Stora Borg farm in southern Iceland, dated to early 16th century, but written sources about knitting suggest it’s likely been around much longer. All people knitted, both men and women, and children were taught to knit very young. Everyone was expected to complete knitting tasks that were equal to their age and ability. For women, that might be a pair of socks each day, and for kids, a pair of mittens each week. Other objects have been found on other farms across Iceland too, but as you may suspect, the lopapeysa is not one of them. The story of that iconic garment is a much more recent one.

THE LOPAPEYSA

There are a few things that unite all lopapeysas. First, they’re always knit in lopi, usually a bulky weight. Second, there’s usually no shaping, so most designs are unisex. Lastly, there’s a unified pattern or design sweeping across the yoke.

As for the origins of the sweater, there are a few theories. But maybe the most convincing theory (and also most surprising – for me, anyway), suggests that the yoke pattern was inspired by the Greenlandic nuilarmiut. I had never heard of this garment before, but after a quick Google image search, you’ll see the connection. A nuilarmiut is an intricate, brightly-colored beaded yoke that’s part of a traditional Greenlandic woman’s costume for an important ceremony, such as a wedding or national holiday, and has become a powerful symbol of Greenlander identity.

Greenland and Iceland share a long history, shaped in part by their close geographic proximity but also their history of Danish rule. Laurie Bertram, a history professor at the University of Toronto, writes that the nuilarmiut/lopapeysa connection was likely fostered by a 20th-century Norwegian land claim campaign and handknitting revival movements in both Iceland and Norway. She then points to Kate Davies and Harpa Hreinsdóttir’s book Yokes for more of the history.

Davies writes that a Norwegian knitter and activist named Annichen Sibbern Bøhn drafted the first knitting pattern using the nuilarmiut as inspiration around 1929, basing her pattern on the beaded collar depicted in George Schnéevoigt film, Eskimo. (Davies writes about this a bit on her blog if you want to see photos.) Annichen named her pattern Eskimo, and combined the structure of the circularly-knit Norwegian sweater with the patterning of the Greenlandic nuilarmiut. Annichen was a pretty rad woman – she spent 1927 traveling around Norway and documenting traditional knitting patterns, which were compiled in her landmark book, Norsk Strikkemonstre. During WWII, she and her husband were active in the Norwegian Resistance. If you’re interested in learning more about her, you can check out a PDF of an article that Terri Shea wrote for Piecework Magazine here, and thanks to Terri, now order Annichen’s reprinted book here.

Davies and Hreinsdóttir argue that the adoption of a Greenlandic pattern by a Norwegian woman was a political act, a deliberate stance of independence in response to a scramble between Norway and Denmark over Greenlandic resources and territory at the time. The pattern was published in several magazines and eventually spread to Iceland, where Hreinsdóttir suggests that the pattern and its roots took on new meaning for Icelandic knitters. Following Iceland’s independence in the 1940s and the Cod Wars of the ’50s and ’70s, the lopapeysa — a hard-wearing sweater made from Icelandic lopi — symbolized Iceland’s independence from foreign powers. The sweater took on a life of its own and went on to become a cornerstone of the Icelandic handknitting and tourism industry and the icon we know today.

Swatch of the Month: The lopapeysa trail

THE SWATCH

Knitting with lopi was obvious for this swatch, but the design options were seemingly limitless! I picked up a copy of Védís Jónsdóttir’s book Knitting with Icelandic Wool from my local library for some pattern inspiration, and was struck by the tree design in Jóhanna Hjaltadóttir’s pattern Ár trésins. It was originally published in the 1960s or ’70s, but the design looks geometric and fresh, as if it could be designed today.

I’m also not sure how this happened, but I had never knit with lopi before! It’s light, lofty and knits up super fast. It’s also pretty affordable compared with other bulky yarns (under $10 per skein), which is great if you’re going to make a big, cozy colorwork sweater with it. Since the colorwork yoke of any lopapeysa is worked in the round, I knit the swatch in the round as well.
—Jess Schreibstein

Swatch of the Month: The lopapeysa trail

Yarn: Álafosslopi in Black, Light Grey Heather and White
Needles: US9/5.5mm metal needles
Gauge: 16.5 stitches / 18 rows = 4 inches in colorwork pattern, below

ME T H O D

For the colorwork chart, please see Védís Jónsdóttir’s Knitting with Icelandic Wool.

Swatch of the Month: The lopapeysa trail

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PREVIOUSLY in Swatch of the Month: Aran sweater legends

Wardrobe Planning: The new normal

Wardrobe Planning: The new normal

A funny thing happened on the way to a Fall wardrobe planning post: I realized I have a wardrobe to plan around! Two-and-a-half years after I emptied out my closet — moved cross-country to a new climate and culture, had my eyes opened ever wider to the ills of the fashion industry, advanced my knitting and sewing skills, lost and gradually found myself sartorially — I’ve reached a point of normalcy! I’m a person with a functional closet again.

I’m in the midst of a couple of different projects that require me to make outfits, in different contexts and ways. And it being September (albeit still mid-90s here, so who can tell) I thought perhaps I should start thinking about Fall wardrobe plans in conjunction with that. Every season I’ve done this here in the wake of the clean-out, it’s been about envisioning, sketching, queueing — scheming about what I could make (and how quickly) to fill in what was really one giant gap of a wardrobe. For a while there, I literally had nothing to wear.

The way my brain works, tackling these other projects got me wanting to actually inventory my closet, in the form of a photo of each and every garment. And as I started thinking about doing that, and actually doing that, it dawned on me that the panic of the past two years is a thing of the past. That I now have clothes again, and that they add up to a pretty high-functioning wardrobe. And not only that, but they’re largely handmade (full of pride), a little bit small-batch/local, a little bit long-owned well-worn treasures, and only a couple of recent additions come from the fast fashion world. I’d gotten so used to chipping away at this over the years that I didn’t even realize how far I’d come.

So what do you normally do when it comes to wardrobe planning? You look at what you have, think about ways to combine those things, consider a few new pieces to make/buy that will give you new options and freshen it all up a bit. And that’s where I’m at. A whole new normal, to be sure, but so blessedly, happily normal. Which means I’ll be putting together a whole new form of wardrobe-planning post for Fall.

You guys, every garment in the grid above, except for the jeans/pants, was made by me — and this isn’t even all of the handmades. I’m so grateful to so many people for the endless inspiration and encouragement. 

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PREVIOUSLY in Wardrobe Planning: Summer 2016 master plan

How to improve your knitting and FO photos

How to improve your knitting and FO photos

There are more how-to posts on the horizon in conjunction with the Top-Down Knitalong (how to knit an inset pocket, a folded hem, all sorts of neckbands … among the contenders). But I also get a lot of questions about photography — specifically how to take better knitting and FO photos — and since this year’s panelists happen to be superstars at it, I thought this would be a great chance to talk about it. So I’ve asked Brandi, Jess and Jen (who has a degree in the subject!) to share their 3 top tips that anyone can do to improve their photos, and I’m adding mine to the mix as well.

I feel like we, as a knitting community, deserve a huge pat on the back. When I was first on Instagram and Ravelry five years ago looking for knits and knitters, the photos were a long way from what you find these days. In many of them, you couldn’t even make out what it was a picture of! Smartphone cameras have improved tremendously, for one thing, but I also think a lot of us have discovered that part of the joy of knitting (and the knitting community) is sharing our work, and in discovering the joy of documenting things well, we’ve gotten a lot better at it! I know not every knitter (or sewer) cares about photos at all — which is obviously totally fine — but for those who do find it fun and interesting and are always on the lookout for ways to improve, here’s our advice. Not surprisingly, there’s a lot of overlap. ;)

. . . . .

KAREN TEMPLER (see @karentempler)
All I own is an iPhone, so every Instagram, blog, Ravelry and product photo I take is shot on my phone. The editing apps have gotten so good I don’t do much in Photoshop anymore. These days, I really like A Color Story (largely because it has an actual curves tool, hallelujah!) and always start there. If I use any of the filters, it’s usually either just Everyday, or a combination of Summer Day and Film Camera — and definitely dialed way down — but I always use the tools to adjust brightness and warmth and such (see below). If it’s a photo for the blog or shop, I might do a tiny bit more color correction in Photoshop. 

1) Focus. If you’re using a smartphone, wipe off your lense first — I promise there are fingerprints on it. Then focus or tap the screen so the camera is focusing on the right part of the image.

2) Side light. Make sure the light is actually falling on whatever you’re shooting, rather than your subject being backlit or in the shadows. And if at all possible, use side light not overhead light. If you’re taking pictures indoors, use the light coming in through a window. If shooting outdoors, do it in the morning or evening, when the sun is softer and lower in the sky. (If for some reason you have to shoot under an overhead/artificial light, make sure it’s not creating a big glare or hotspot in your photo, and adjust the color balance as noted below, to compensate for the yellowness of the light.)

3) Take 60 seconds to edit. By which I mean, take multiple photos/angles and see which is best. But also iPhone photos tend to be a little grey overall and a bit on the warm (yellow) side for my liking. So — whether you’re using the camera app’s built-in editing tools or IG’s tools or an editing app — at bare minimum, adjust sharpness, brightness and warmth. Playing around with even just those three sliders (or the curves tool in A Color Story) can mean a world of difference in your photos being clearer and brighter and the whites being whiter.

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How to improve your knitting and FO photos

BRANDI HARPER (see @purlBknit)
I use a Nikon D3100 that came with a 2-lens kit purchased from Costco and a Manfrotto 190 tripod. For self-portraiture, I use a camera remote snagged from Amazon. I always shoot on automatic mode and do my editing in Photoshop or iPhoto. I never use filters.

1) Lighting. All hail the sun! I only shoot in natural light, mostly right beside a window. When the sun is blazing, I use a white paper shade from Home Depot to filter and diffuse the light and decrease the appearance of harsh shadows. No flash ever. Rainy, cloudy days create amazingly moody photos with shades of grey; these images are my favorite!

2) Editing. I do all my editing on Photoshop CS6 keeping it really simple with the following: crop, brightness/contrast, sharpness, resize. Retouching I do in iPhoto since the tool is super user-friendly.

3) Composition and perspective. I love birds-eye view. You have to shoot right above the scene you want to photograph. When it comes to organizing tools and props, I aim for things organized neatly using right angles, no stacking, and space between every element. To this day, the best thing I ever did to improve a photo is to try and try again.

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How to improve your knitting and FO photos

JEN BEEMAN (see @jen_beeman)
For Instagram photos, I use my iPhone SE and edit in the Lightroom app and VSCO. For finished project photos, I use a Canon 6D with EF 24-105mm f/4L lens shooting RAW, and edit in Lightroom and Photoshop (if needed).

1) Lighting & Color Balance. I prefer natural light, always — bonus points if it’s directional because that will enable you to get really good highlights and shadows. These add depth and interest to your photos and will also really highlight the textures and stitch patterns of your knitting beautifully. I always correct the white balance and curves in the Lightroom App. This will help remove any color cast your photo might have (especially helpful if you can’t use natural light) and bring out depth in your photos. I prefer Lightroom because it syncs with my desktop version of Lightroom and because the white balance tool is really really good.

2) Composition. When photographing knitting I usually shoot from the top down or straight on. This is just personal preference because I like to remove any background noise or clutter so that the yarn or project is front and center. If you’re shooting across an object you have a background full of random information competing with the subject of your photo. I photograph a lot of projects on my front porch, but I crop out the scraggly bush to the side and shoot top down to avoid showcasing a street full of cars, since neither of those enhance the visual or add to the story of my knitting in any way. Also, like any self- respecting photo major, I take multiple shots of any photo ;)

3) Consistency. I try not to get too caught up in the consistency of my feed — if I take that too seriously I get stressed out, and that is not the point of Instagram! I prefer clean, natural, well- lit photos so I use a few filters in VSCO that enhance that look, but I always scale back the filter opacity to 50% or less. Sticking to the same few filters does add somewhat of a common thread to my photos and keeps my feed relatively cohesive.

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JESS SCHREIBSTEIN (see @thekitchenwitch)
I use iPhone about 99% of the time for my Instagram photos, but always take a photo with a Pentax K5 IIs for my finished garments. I find that the DSLR can get much better focus on stitch definition and color variation than an iPhone – obvious, but easy to dismiss. When formatting phone photos, I use VSCO, filter A6, then dial back the contrast. I used to have more fade on my photos, but got tired of that look – I prefer something that’s more saturated and true-to-life now. For DSLR photos, I use a combo of iPhoto and Pixelmator (a poor woman’s version of Photoshop).

1) Natural, indirect light. If there are any overhead lights, I turn them all off. They can add a weird yellowing or washed-out look to a final photo.

2. Focus on the knitting. I try to keep the photo focused on the object, the stitch pattern, or the yarn, and minimize any clutter in the shot unless it’s directly contextual or enhances the photo in some way.

3. Consistent look and feel. I like to think of my photos, especially on Instagram, as a constant and evolving series. I try not to get too caught up in “branding,” per se, because I feel like you can lose a lot of spontaneity and playfulness in photos that way. A visual voice will come through naturally, but it’s helpful to try to strike a similar color palette and tone in your approach so your photos all feel related as part of a cohesive story.

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Of course, the most important thing is to be yourself — to figure out how to have that come through in your photos. When it comes to props (or not), angles, and the look of your images and your feed, the best thing is to try stuff and see what you like. Once you get comfortable taking and editing photos on the most basic levels, you’ll find more freedom to play around and discover a style and look that works for you.

Please feel free to share your favorite tips in the comments — I know I, for one, always have more to learn!

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PREVIOUSLY in Top-Down Knitalong: WIP of the Week No.2 (and Elsewhere)

Swatch of the Month: August ’16 // Aran sweater legends

EDITOR’S NOTE: You all know how I feel about an Aran sweater, and can imagine how my heart raced when I first saw this swatch. This is another delicious post by Jess to occupy you today or this weekend, and we’ll be back next week with the Top-Down Knitalong kickoff! Woohoo, see you then—
—Karen

Swatch of the Month: August ’16 // Aran sweater legends

There’s one style of knitting that perhaps has an aura of myth above all others, one that even non-knitters know and admire. You know the one – the Aran sweater. Oceans of cream cables laden with symbols. Worn by fishermen on the Aran islands for thousands of years. Each sweater inscribed with unique motifs that could identify a fisherman’s drowned body after his ship was lost at sea.

Funny thing about those legends – they’re not true.

THE HISTORY

When we talk about “Aran sweaters,” we’re talking about the heavily cabled, cream-colored sweaters that hail from the Aran Islands, a cluster of three islands in Galway Bay off the coast of Ireland, named Inishmore, Inishmaan and Inisheer. Their cliffs jut dramatically into the Atlantic Ocean and the rocky soil doesn’t make for fertile farming, but tenacious men, women and monks have called these islands “home” for hundreds of years. It’s a land full of pagan myths and history. Do a quick search online for photos – it’s magical and  gorgeous.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Aran islanders’ lives were incredibly hard. They subsisted on simple crops like potatoes, and kept pigs and cows along with sheep for wool. Surprisingly, they didn’t make their living off of fishing – while the islanders were experienced fishermen, they weren’t able to afford boats large enough to take full advantage of the nearby fisheries. By the turn of the century, islanders were reliant on exporting kelp to the chemical industry for fertilizer for most of their income. Famine, crop failure and poverty were a persistent reality. 

And guess what? Up until the early 1900s, there is no historical record of what we now call Aran sweaters. In fact, the only evidence of knitting on the islands is of wool stockings.

THE MYTHS

In 1936, a man named Heinz Edgar Kiewe stepped into a Dublin shop and happened upon a sweater. It was a striking cream pullover with a center panel of braided cables and an intricate combination of zigzags, twisted stitches and moss stitch framing the center braids. A photograph of the sweater was later published in Mary Thomas’s Book of Knitting Patterns (1943), the first book ever to publish an image of an Aran sweater.

Kiewe, a Prussian-born, self-styled anthropologist, is responsible for much of the resulting international fame of the Aran sweater, as well as the fables surrounding it. He later went on to write books like The Sacred History of Knitting (1971) in which he makes dubious claims about the history and origins of the Aran sweater and its cable motifs. In one such claim, he argues that a figure in The Book of Kells (circa 800 CE) is wearing a knitted catsuit, and therefore the Aran sweater has clearly been around since that time period. Taking a closer look at the image, it’s easy to see that the heavily-stylized figure could be wearing a woven outfit, a knitted outfit, or no outfit at all.

Another pervasive myth is that the Aran sweater was made for and worn primarily by fishermen. In fact, there is no evidence that the Aran sweater was ever a traditional fisherman’s garment at all! All photographic evidence points to Aran fishermen wearing ganseys that were likely bought on the mainland and produced by contract knitters in Britain — ganseys being thinner, seamless garments with underarm gussets for movement, and decorative knit-purl patterning contained to the upper portion of the sweater. What the earliest photo evidence of Aran sweaters shows, according to Deirdre McQuillen in her compact history The Aran Sweater, is that the heavily patterned white sweater may well have gotten its start as a communion sweater for children.

As for the story that the Aran sweater was used to identify a dead fisherman? This fabrication likely arose from playwright J.M. Synge. In his play, Riders to the Sea, a drowned man is identified by the dropped stitches in one of his stockings.

Swatch of the Month: August ’16 // Aran sweater legends

THE TRUTH, ACCORDING TO ALICE STARMORE

At this point, it’s worth noting that the strongest argument I’ve found for the origin of the Aran sweater is from Alice Starmore’s book, Aran Knitting. I read several other chapters regarding Aran sweaters in classics like Patterns for Guernseys, Jerseys and Arans by Gladys Thompson; A History of Hand Knitting by Richard Rutt (also a key source for McQuillen); and Knitting in the Old Way by Priscilla A. Gibson-Roberts and Deborah Robson. None were as detailed and thorough as Starmore in digging into the history and questioning assumptions about the origins of the craft. Starmore, a revered Scottish knitting designer, clearly has an axe to grind against Kiewe and others who have perpetuated the Aran myths. The book is worthwhile for the gorgeous patterns alone, but it’s her thorough research into the history and dismantling of the fabrications that make it such a gem.

Starmore makes quick work of Kiewe’s crockpot history. But then she digs deeper, and actually visits the eleven Aran sweaters in the collection of the National Museum of Ireland. The true history of the Aran sweater, she argues, can be found right where it started – in the knitting itself. From this evidence, Starmore draws several conclusions about the construction, style and patterns of Aran sweaters. I have condensed and paraphrased some of her key findings here, but encourage you to check out her book for more detailed explanations.

First, the Aran sweater evolved from the traditional Scottish gansey. In 1891, the Congested Districts Board was established to help stimulate the economy on the Aran Islands, primarily with farming and fishing. Around the turn of the century, the Board brought in Scottish women, known as “herring lassies,” to help energize the fishing industry. These women were experts at gutting, filleting and packing fish, and were most numerous on the islands during World War I. And whenever they weren’t working or were taking a break, they were knitting. It’s most likely that Aran women learned Scottish gansey knitting techniques from these herring lassies.

As techniques for knitting sweaters didn’t arrive on the Aran Islands until the early 1900s, any claim that an Aran sweater “tradition” is hundreds of years old, and has been passed down generation to generation, rings false. As the hand knitting industry began to pick up in the 1930s, Starmore argues that the development of the sweater design and patterns became heavily influenced by commercial considerations – basically, what would sell to tourists. Some examples of this can be seen in the color choices, weight of the yarn, and designs of these sweaters. The earliest Aran sweaters that Starmore has identified were cream, red and navy, but she thinks that the classic white won out because it shows the stitches most clearly. Same goes for the heavy weight of yarn used, which create bold, striking patterns with the greatest visual impact. Lastly, the most dominant patterns in Aran sweaters have evolved from openwork patterns, chevrons, and delicate twisted stitches to ropes, braids, honeycombs, diamonds, moss stitch and bobbles – a combination of patterns, she argues, that won out because they were most marketable as masculine fishermen’s sweaters. Of course, these are her own conclusions, and it’s very possible that the common design elements of the Aran sweater evolved for a variety of additional unknown reasons.

So, what is an Aran sweater? Starmore defines it this way:

An Aran sweater is a hand knitted garment of flat construction, composed of vertical panels of cabled geometric patterns and textured stitches. On each piece of the sweater there is a central panel, flanked by symmetrically arranged side panels. The use of heavy, undyed cream wool is a classic – though not essential – component of the style.

Of course, when knitting your own Aran-inspired sweater, you can take any bit of this definition and follow it, discard it, or evolve it to make something that’s truly unique and your own.

Swatch of the Month: August ’16 // Aran sweater legends

THE SWATCH

When knitting a swatch for this month, I knew I wanted it to include two elements – the yarn must be a natural cream wool, and the knitting must include cables. Lots of cables. Beyond that, the possibilities for a classic Aran sweater are seemingly endless, as you can incorporate any variety of rope cables, braided cables, twisted stitches, bobbles and more into a pattern.

For my yarn, I chose one made with wool right in my backyard – Cestari’s Traditional 2 Ply Worsted, a heavy worsted-weight Columbia Targhee wool raised and spun in Virginia. During the trade show in June, I had the chance to meet Francis Chester, the owner of Cestari Sheep and Wool Company, and pet, squish and admire his 2-ply that I had heard only good things about. The yarn is a very sheepy wool – it’s minimally processed and has a high lanolin content, making it feel slightly waxy when you knit with it. And it’s hardworking. I’d imagine that anything knitted with it would last generations, and the fabric benefitted from a good soak to block and soften it. (I bought my skeins from Tolt Yarn and Wool.)

As for the cables, I’ve knit plenty before, including rope cables, honeycombs and twisted stitches. But I had never worked braided cables, so I decided to knit a swatch that included a group of them, as outlined in “Swatch 8” in Starmore’s book.

The exciting thing about this family of cables is that they become increasingly more complex as you move right to left. The two cables on the right are basic plaits, the first with four strands and the second with five. The center braid is identical to the second braid, but with a single purl stitch worked between each rope. Moving even further to the left, the next braid shows the knit stitches moving across the purl background by one stitch before crossing over each other. The final braid on the far left is the most complex, incorporating all of the crosses of the previous two braids. Overall, Starmore’s swatch was a fantastic study in braided cables, and one I’d highly recommend practicing to increase your understanding of cable construction.
—Jess Schreibstein

Yarn: Cestari Traditional 2 Ply Worsted in Natural
Needles: US7/4.5mm bamboo needles
Gauge: 22 stitches / 28 rows = 4 inches in braided cable pattern, below

Swatch of the Month: August ’16 // Aran sweater legends

M E T H O D

For the braided cable charts, please see Alice Starmore’s Aran Knitting

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Q for You: How do you clean your handknits?

Q for You: How do you clean your handknits?

I ran into a discussion on Instagram recently where people were expressing surprise at the notion of blocking a finished sweater (as opposed to just blocking individual parts before seaming), and I was so surprised at the surprise! I thought blocking a finished garment was standard practice, and I almost always do it. Even if I’ve blocked the parts before assembly, I still want the seams and bands and whatever else to have the benefit of a good soak and flat-dry. (If you’re not familiar with the blocking process, click here.)

I also hear from people here on the blog occasionally who say they’ve never blocked anything in their lives. And I’m not sure if it’s a semantic thing or a misunderstanding of some kind, but it leaves me wondering if they’re saying they never clean anything, or just that they do it some other way (dry clean?), or what exactly. So I’m sort of dying of curiosity!

While not every yarn on the planet should be submerged, most (if not all) natural fibers benefit hugely from a good soak, especially if it’s wool yarn and a lanolin-based wool soap. I’ve noted before that I don’t immediately block everything — hats and mitts in stitch patterns that don’t really need it might not get soaked until the first time they’re in need of a wash. And for me and my knits, routine cleaning doesn’t necessarily involve a soak. My O-Wool Balance garments go into the washer and the dryer! I think that yarn actually benefits from it. The 100% wool stuff very rarely needs anything in the way of cleaning, and when something does I often use a trick I learned from my friend Anie, which is to just toss it into the dryer (dry) for a few minutes while a load of wet laundry is tumbling, to give it a good steam. Works like a charm!

So that’s my Q for You today: How do you clean your handknit goods?

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Q for You: What’s the yarn you can’t resist?

Q for You: What's your yarn-buying weakness?

I have a weakness. A very clearly defined one. No matter how much I get bothered about the quantity of yarn in my house, no matter how many oaths I make about not buying yarn without a clear purpose and intent to cast on, no matter how close I am to throwing my entire stash in a few garbage bags and dropping them off at the center for creative reuse, when I’m faced with a certain type of yarn, I cannot stop myself from buying a sweater’s worth. What type is that, you ask? Small-batch, minimally processed, undyed medium grey yarn. Pictured above are the Sawkill Farm yarn I bought at Rhinebeck in October, Fancy Tiger’s all-Colorado Junegrass from their 10th anniversary celebration (which I didn’t get to go to — but I did get to buy the yarn online!), and Ysolda Teague’s Blend No.1, which I bought after petting it and her utterly perfect Polwarth* sweater in D.C.** They are not the same. The Sawkill is the most unusual blend of breeds; it’s sheepy and airy and farmy. The Junegrass is also farmy and delicious but also squishy and soft. (Sheep soft, not marshmallow soft.) And the Blend No.1 is sport weight, for pete’s sake! They’re as different as night and day.

If you factor in the salt-and-pepper Linen Quill that Purl Soho sent me and the darker grey Hole & Sons I bought from their second (and apparently last) batch, I have five grey sweaters in waiting. And I also genuinely believe I can come up with five sweaters as different from each other as these yarns are, and that there’s no such thing as too many grey sweaters. But clearly if I meet any more small-batch grey yarn in the near future (“but I’ll never have another shot at it!”) I need to remind myself there will always be another one and I have many at home.

So that’s my confession, and also my Q for You: What’s your yarn-buying weakness?

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*Seriously, y’all, that is the perfect sweater. The details are incredible.
**There are no shopping links for the four small-batch yarns discussed here because none of them are available for purchase. See what I mean?!?! I had to!

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