The Secret Language of Mittens


, , ,

These mittens were in the collection of a first-generation Norwegian American who's family originated in Selbu, an area of Norway famous for its mittens and gloves. Photo used with permission Vesterheim Norwegian American Musuem, Decorah, Iowa. Photo: Kate Larson.

These mittens were in the collection of a first-generation American whose family originated in Selbu, an area of Norway famous for its mittens and gloves. Photo used with permission: Vesterheim Norwegian-American Musuem, Decorah, Iowa. Photo: Kate Larson.

During the nineteenth century, Norway, like much of the world, was rapidly changing. In 1814, Norway declared its independence (officially dissolving the union with Sweden in 1905). By the 1830s, Norwegians were migrating to North America by the thousands in search of new opportunities. Many of these immigrants took small cultural mementos, like mittens, with them as they forged new and unknown paths. And some of those mittens that were carried across the sea by boat in wooden trunks eventually made their way into the collections of some wonderful museums, such as the Nordic Heritage Musuem in Seattle, Washington, and Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa. 

I am fascinated by the immigrant experience—the process of interpreting a new culture, bringing some traditions forward and leaving others behind. Being particularly interested in material culture and textiles, I find collections of letters written by immigrants especially useful. In Solveig Zempel’s wonderful book, In Their Own Words: Letters from Norwegian Immigrants, you can read about Berta Serina Kingestad, a single mother who settled in Illinois. In an 1889 letter home to Norway, Berta asked her family to send her black wool which she could spin with white American wool on a borrowed spinning wheel. She hoped to knit new woolens for her baby, Sven. Berta’s letters were the inspiration for one of my recent knitting patterns, Mittens for Sven. This stranded baby mitten pattern is included in Baby Knits From Around the World, a collection of patterns edited by Kari Cornell and published by Creative Publishing International.

BabyKnits cover

Seeking Autumn


With the first hints of turning leaves in the air, I start to relax. The smell of autumn is a welcome reminder that the long, busy days of summer and early fall on the farm do draw to a close. The farm has been a flurry of activity this year. We built a new barn for the sheep this spring and have been renovating fields and pastures. The lambs born this spring, which you can see here, are growing and are also enjoying the cool evenings.

This is what I usually get when I try to take pictures of the lambs.

This is what I usually get when I try to take pictures of the lambs. Here is Erlend, who is refusing to stand three feet away from the camera and strike a charming pose.

Gerald is much more calm and kind than his namesake.

Gerald is a more calm and peaceful fellow than his namesake in Women in Love.

Due to the pasture renovations, most of the sheep are in the new barn this fall. It is big and airy and sunny, but they would much rather be out of doors. Luckily for them, we have a bumper-crop of Giant Ragweed this year. In the evenings, I drag a dozen of the six-foot weeds into the barn, to the great pleasure of the captive flock.

Gerald and his friends are out in a separate pasture and are enjoying the cool evenings.

Sheep Sept13-002

My dad and grandfather renovating a pasture.

We are trying a variety of new forages in this pasture renovation. My dad is a Research Fellow at IUPUI as well as a farmer, so these on-farm trials are the result of much study and thought—as you might expect! This field was the first cleared on the farm toward the end of the 1800s—a bit late for this area in Indiana. Sitting adjacent to the house and barns, it has always been used for the farm’s horses. I found a horseshoe that was turned up by the tillage. My grandfather said, based on the shape, that it probably belonged to a horse my great-grandfather Urbane called New Deal. This seeder was one of Urbane’s purchases and the owner’s manual, which is still tucked inside a toolbox attached to the hitch, has detailed instructions on how to connect it to a team of horses. It was very sophisticated when new, and still does a great job. It makes a distinctive, antique sound when in use, mostly due to chains that drag on the soil surface to partially cover the seeds.

More to come.

Renewed and revived. The sheep will enjoy the fruits of this effort next spring.

A Spinner’s Guide to Colorwork Knitting

I’m excited to announce my upcoming Interweave webinar!

Sp_ColorworkKnittingWebinar-403The webinar format is really interesting, and I have had a wonderfully creative time thinking about how to use this medium to its best advantage. The webinar experience goes like this: I create a powerpoint presentation chock-full of images and descriptions of how I spin the yarns for different types of knitted fabrics. Then on August 30, 2013, I give the presentation live to an online audience of participants. I’ll cover:

  • Fiber preparation, spinning draws, and plying.
  • Colorwork knitting in Shetland, Norway, and Estonia.
  • Swatching, blocking, and finishing.
  • And an introduction to my design process–how I combined the elements above to create some of my favourite textiles.

IMG_3257Once I have gone through my slides, participants ask questions through the moderator, Laura. It is a live event, so we are able to have a conversation and I can answer questions directly. After the presentation, the audience members receive a digital copy of the webinar along with a handout I have provided. The entire presentation will then be available for download in the Interweave Store after that.

I really think that this format can be a great tool for sharing this type of information. I can link easily to resources, museum collections, and videos. I can provide high-resolution images of textiles that everyone can see as I discuss them, rather than handing them around a classroom. Every teaching platform has its advantages, and I think this is a good fit for exploring spinning for colorwork knitting. I hope you can join us! Check out Spinning Daily for more details.Rossetti fix2

 UPDATE: This webinar is now past, but you can still download a recording. Visit the Interweave Store for details. It is basically the same experience as the watching the live event, without the opportunity to ask me questions during the presentation. You can, however send any questions my way at

Part Second: Where sheep watch the sea.



This is the second of a three part story about my recent trip to Scotland, Shetland, and Norway.


I’ve read a fair number of essays about a traveler’s first impressions of the Shetland Isles. Many of these begin, quite reasonably, with the surprise one experiences in suddenly popping out of a cloud in a tiny tossing plane and seeing jewel-green islands crisscrossed by stone walls directly below. Once on the ground, there is the usual bustle of luggage gathering, car hiring, and map pointing. But my first trip to Shetland truly began in Scalloway, looking out towards the sea. It was here that I stopped moving long enough to experience the place—the Shetland that endures through ages and empires. When traveling, that moment of first meeting always reminds me of the stillness that is cultivated in Buddhist meditation between the intake of breath and its release. In stillness, we can feel the pulse of history. Scalloway, as the capitol of the Shetland Isles until 1708, is an appropriate place to begin.



I was keenly interested to see what the sheep of the Shetland Isles would look like. I have seen Shetland sheep in many areas of the United States and elsewhere in the United Kingdom, but not in the place that gives them their name. The sheep I saw in traveling from the southern tip of the mainland to the most northerly tip of Shetland, and island called Unst, varied as widely as I had imagined. I also had a chance to talk to a number of people about the sheep in Shetland and how they have changed over time. For a fairly small land mass (less than half the size of the state of Rhode Island) it has a varied terrain and complex geology. It makes sense that rocky grazing areas exposed to the raw weather that comes off the sea would require hardy sheep if those sheep are not only to survive, but produce offspring. In areas that are better protected from the elements and where supplemental feed might be provided at times, sheep that are more delicate can produce spring lambs and a fleece to be shorn around Midsummer.


Fleece at the Woolbroker’s. Lerwick, Shetland.

Shetland sheep have a wide range of fleece types. Fleeces can vary not only from animal to animal, but can also differ substantially from nose to tail. To make matters more complicated, even this inconsistency is inconsistent! This is one of the reasons that many people around the world are so intrigued and devoted to these very special sheep. It was heartening to hear from the Shetlanders themselves how they feel about the sheep that are so ever-present in their lives. There are sheep almost everywhere you turn in Shetland. They are found grazing along the roadsides, speckling the green hills as far as one can see, and (my favourite) resting on rocky outcrops gazing placidly out to sea.


View from the sixteenth-century laird’s house at Jarlshof looking towards Sumburgh Head, the southern point of the Shetland Isles. Learn more about the 4,ooo years of human history excavated at the mind-blowing Jarlshof archeological site here.

Shearing season had only just begun when we visited the Woolbroker’s, known to knitters as Jamieson & Smith. Oliver, who is described as “top wool man” and manager at J & S, gave us a tour through the wool sorting facility in Lerwick. Then, of course, we made our way to the yarn shop and were never seen again. No, not really. We did re-emerge, as it was time for tea and scones, but we returned a number of times through the course of the week.

Jamieson and Smith

Jamieson and Smith. Center: Kathy Peoples, Deb Totten, and myself. Right: Deb chatting with the lovely ladies of J & S, Ella and Sandra.

Shetland's 2013 wool clip begins to arrive at the Woolbroker's (Jamieson and Smith) to be sorted.

Shetland’s 2013 wool clip begins to arrive at the Woolbroker’s (Jamieson and Smith) to be sorted.

One of Elizabeth Johnston's beautiful handspun hats that I am smitten to call my very own.

One of Elizabeth Johnston’s beautiful handspun hats that I am smitten to call my very own.

I also had the opportunity to spend time with two Shetlanders well-known in the knitting world. Early in my visit, I was able to spend a day with spinner and knitter Elizabeth Johnston. I have never been able to catch her when she teaches at John C. Campbell Folk School, so I was excited to meet her in Shetland.  Elizabeth welcomed us to her home for an unforgettable day filled with wool and many cups of tea. Elizabeth knits traditional Shetland pieces, from haps (warm shawls, often square) to jumpers (sweaters or pullovers), using her handspun. She uses the full range of natural color that the Shetland sheep are known for and also uses natural dye stuffs to produce brilliant, complex shades. Visit Elizabeth’s website to learn more about her work. She does take commissions, so you too can have a Shetland treasure!


Hazel at home, holding one of the first garments she knit as a child.

Hazel Tindall is also known far and wide for her tremendous textile skills. She is not only one of the world’s fastest knitters, but is a lovely person as well! You can see Hazel knitting here and here. Hazel is active on Ravelry and Facebook, but has also recently launched a website where you can find her beautiful knitting patterns and blog. She also had several of her patterns included in A Legacy of Shetland Lace, which was written by members of the Shetland Guild of Spinners, Knitters, Weavers, and Dyers.

Shetland is so vibrant and complex, I can only just begin to tease out the threads of cultural identities amid the vastness of human history. And so I simply must return, soon. But for the time being, I was off to Norway… Stay tuned.


Peats cut and piled for drying.

To learn more:
Shetland Museum and Archives
Myth and Materiality in a Woman’s World by Lynn Abrams
Shetland Arts and Crafts Trail

Part First: The traveller returneth.

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”  -Marcel Proust


This is the first of three posts about my 2013 trip to Scotland, Shetland, and Norway.

For me, one of life’s greatest joys is in revisiting corners of the world I have previously explored. This has always struck me as a bit of a paradox. Travel—seeking new landscapes and horizons—plays an important role in my life, but retracing my footsteps is an almost sacred undertaking. To return to a place that has a life of its own in my absence and to think over the changes in myself since my last visit is an intense journey in and of itself. One such place for me is Edinburgh, Scotland. When I was working on my undergraduate degree at Purdue, I had the opportunity to study for a year at Lancaster University in the north of England. I loved taking the train up to Edinburgh on weekend trips, usually staying at Castle Rock Hostel. I have been back to visit Edinburgh several times since, always finding new corners to explore along with my old favourites. I’ve only just returned from an adventure that started in Edinburgh before heading to the Shetland Isles and Norway with my traveling friends Susan Markle and Kathy Peoples. We met up with Deb Totten once we arrived in Shetland. Traveling with fellow spinners and knitters is great. I never have to explain why visiting a woolen mill or off-the-track heritage center is of the utmost importance!



Stirling13_1While staying in Edinburgh, we took a day to make the very easy trip to Stirling Castle. Again, this was a journey I have made a number of times before. When I was at Uni in 2000, an Historic Scotland guide mentioned to me that some of the castle apartments were due to be renovated to look as they would have during the time of James V. When I visited in 2004, the apartments were not yet open to the public, but the first of an epic series of tapestries had been completed and was on view. A tapestry studio had recently been constructed within the castle walls where weavers from the College of West Dean were working away on a new tapestry. This was about the time I was beginning to find my place in the textile world and watching the weaver sitting at the tapestry, the way that she interacted with the fabric as her fingers danced through the warp threads, made a lasting impression. She, as weaver and creator, had an intense relationship with the tapestry. And yet the tapestry would go on to have a life of its own, lasting far beyond that of its human creators.


Walking from the main courtyard and out through what might have been an earlier main entrance into the castle, you can see a row of low stone buildings. At the end is the Tapestry Studio.

© Crown Copyright reproduced courtesy of Historic Scotland.

“The unicorn is killed and brought to the castle.” Tapestry woven for Historic Scotland by College of West Dean, London. Wool, pearl cotton. © Crown Copyright reproduced courtesy of Historic Scotland.

Stirling13_4The Stirling Castle tapestry series has been an immense undertaking, taking two to four years for each of the seven works to be woven and a total budget of about £2 million. The College of West Dean in London was commissioned in 2001 to weave seven tapestries, recreating the Hunt of the Unicorn that is now in the collection of the Cloisters Museum in New York. These are not the same tapestries that would have hung in the Stirling Castle apartments, but researchers are confident that the royal household owned a similar series of tapestries during this time period. The unicorn, as a symbol of Christ, was a common subject for sixteenth and seventeenth century art. To learn more about the pieces and see fantastic, mind-blowing images of the original sixteenth century tapestries, check out the online collections at the Cloisters.


And then I was off to Shetland, where I met many sheep, touched many fleeces, and totally indulged myself with endless tea and biscuits… Check back for another installment next week.

Gifts of Springtime.

The last few weeks of my life have been full of bouncing, baby lambs. Here are a few of my favourite pictures so far:

Lambs_2 5_12_13

The lambs are about a week old and went out to pasture for the first time today. What an adventure! Here are Izzy’s twins, Erlend and Kristin.

Lambs_3 5_12_13

I’m not sure what is happening here, but I loved the picture!

Lambs_5 5_12_13

Tess is enjoying her first crack at motherhood. She has done very well!

Lambs_6 5_12_13

After all of the ewes and lambs had gone into the barn for the evening, I found this little one fast asleep in the grass. It was a very long day.

Lambs_1 5_12_13

New friends.


Ode to the Swatch

Swatch (swäch) = a sample piece or a collection of samples. (M-W)

Currently on exhibition in my studio…

For many knitters, acquiring a deep affection for the act of swatching can take some time. While we intellectually understand that our efforts are less likely to be fraught with false starts and needle changes if we take the time to make a sample, it can sometimes seem as if the swatch is simply standing between us and the bliss of casting-on.  Never an absolutist, I always keep a place in my work for projects where the planning process never interrupts the creative flow. I love the indulgence of diving into a project head-first at 2am with an artist’s abandon.

However, when I am spinning for specific knitting or crochet projects, I always swatch first. As handspinners, we can tweak a yarn in innumerable ways—drafting method, amount of twist in single and ply, number of plies, etc. I also often find that only half the work of swatching is in the actual creation of the swatch.  When I am planning a large project, I keep my samples and swatches with me as I move through the world to see how the colors interact in different types of light. I can carry them in my purse and see how the yarn holds up to wear. I also often pin my swatches on my studio wall where I will pass them often. I almost always end up changing things a bit and reswatching. My work improves through the process.

Much of my current work is handspun color-stranded knitting. (Color-stranding is when more than one yarn is used to knit a row and yarns are used alternately to create a graphic pattern.) Swatching is a necessity, so I often make the swatch itself a project. Fingerless mitts are a great way to test a yarn and pattern combination. I published this fingerless mitts pattern in the spring 2013 issue of Spin-Off Magazine.

SpinOff Swatch Mitts image-001

Swatch Mitts from Spin-Off Magazine Spring 2013. Photo: Joe Coca. Swatch Mitts on Ravelry.

I often use this pattern in my spinning and knitting workshops. For the sample mitts shown in the magazine, I used five colors of 2-ply fingering weight Shetland yarn.


Color-stranded knitting motifs (graphic pattern) usually fall into one of three categories: strong horizontal movement, strong vertical movement, or strong diagonal movement (all-over pattern). I used all three in the Swatch Mitts pattern so one color sequence can be sampled in three types of motifs:

A color sequence in color stranded knitting will sometimes complement one type of motif while obscuring another. These mitts use a strong color change between brown and black. Color changes in stranded knitting are horizontal, along the knitted row. The horizontal motif in this pattern compliments the color change. The color change from brown to black does not complement the vertical and diagonal motifs as well. But, who is to say that a slightly obscured motif in a larger pattern isn’t what you want? Try it yourself and see what happens!

Sunsets and Sweaters on Kihnu Island.


, , ,

Estonia 330-002In 2011, I had the good fortune to be part of a textile tour of Estonia led by Nancy Bush. I had traveled a fair swath of Europe and the UK previously–as far south as Crete and as far north as the enigmatic Old Man of Wick at the northern tip of Scotland–but the Baltic region was a totally new adventure. My friend Susan Markle and I also spent several days in Helsinki, Finland, to complete our three-week Finno-Ugrian expedition. We arrived in early June, so the weather was beautiful. It was sunny and warm nearly every day. The lilacs were blooming in every direction, and I learned that in Estonia, “white nights” near the summer solstice means that the golden sunset lingers through until morning.

Each day was packed with unforgettable food, new friends, and vivid textiles. The most memorable part of the trip for me was our time on Kihnu, a small island that lies not far off the southeast coast of Estonia in the Bay of Riga. We stayed at the Tolli Turismitalu, where I slept in a traditional log barn with a thatched roof. It was perfect. I didn’t sleep much while I was there, as I watched the sun not quite set over the bay only a few hundred feet away.

Estonia 326-001

When we were not biking, we travelled by truck. Perfect for all the beautiful sunny weather.

Estonia 350-002

My wonderful friend Susan Markle knitting in Kihnu Roosi’s front garden.

DSCN2310-001Kihnu has a unique men’s sweater tradition. The Kihnu Troi, as the sweater is called, is knit using the color-stranding technique in white on a dark background. Indigo-dyed blue was typically used in the past. Black, brown, and occasionally green are used, with black being the most common color of the modern Troi sweaters that I have seen in shops and displays in Estonia. Many sweaters also incorporate red bands into the hem, cuffs, and neck edge, which is believed to help protect the wearer from danger. When the sweaters were newly knit, they were worn to weddings and special events. As the sweater aged, it was used as a work garment and is often associated with the island’s fishermen.

While in Estonia, I eagerly searched out every Troi I could find. With Nancy’s help, I was able to get a close look at three older examples in museum collections. I love looking inside old sweaters. One of my favourite Troi sweaters had armholes cut into the body and sleeves sewn in place with fine handspun linen instead of wool. From the ferry returning me to Helsinki, I watched Estonia fade into the distance. I pulled out my needles and began swatching and sketching a Troi sweater, incorporating all that I had learned in the past weeks–and here it is!!

My husband, Olaf, looking very northern European in my handknit Troi. I used Elemental Affects fingering weight yarn.

My husband, Olaf, looking very northern European in my handknit Troi. I used Elemental Affects fingering weight yarn on a US #2 needle.

Inspired by Bohus Stickning


Exciting news! Judith MacKenzie and I will be offering a workshop at The Tradingpost in Pendleton, Indiana on April 26-28th, 2013. I am really looking forward to it! If you have any questions about the workshop, email me at To register for the workshop, see Susan Markle’s contact info at the end of this post.

Larson Bohus2


Inspired by Bohus Stickning

Spinning and knitting a treasured textile.
With Judith MacKenzie and Kate Larson.

The fine, hand knit garments produced by the Swedish Bohus Stickning workshop are truly unforgettable. The workshop’s fleet of rural knitters produced couture pieces for shops in Paris with a distinctive texture created by combining fine wool and wool angora blends in an abundance of shades with well placed purl stitches and subtle color shifts. Join Judith MacKenzie and Kate Larson as they explore the history, techniques, and possibilities of the Bohus Stickning style. Working with a variety of fibers, you will not only learn how to spin for the gauge and texture of Bohus yarns, but finishing techniques to bring out the vitality and character of the fiber. The stranded knitting style used for Bohus Stickning differs from other traditions in many ways. We will talk about knitting with more than two colors per row, managing floats, reading charts, and more. With this workshop’s tips and techniques in hand, you can go on to spin and knit your own Bohus-inspired piece.  If you can spin a continuous yarn and both knit and purl, join us for a fun weekend exploring color and fiber!

Skill Level: All levels welcome. If you can spin a continuous yarn and both knit and purl, join us for a fun weekend exploring color and fiber!

Supplies: Spinning: Wheel in working order and its parts; extra bobbins; lazy kate; handcards; niddy noddy. Knitting: sets of 5 DPNs in US#0, 1, and 2; stitch markers; scissors; other needle notions you typically use. Optional: DPNs in US#00 or 000. Some needles will be available to purchase.

Workshop will be held April 26-28 in Pendleton, Indiana. Conact Susan at 765-778-3331 or e-mail to register or if you have questions.


Common Dress


Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans & Fashion 1840-1900. Joan Severa. Kent State University Press 1995.

I have a fairly short list of things without which my life would be greatly diminished–such as sheep, tea, travel, textiles, and books (not necessarily in that order.) The very best is when more than one not-to-be-without item can be found in one place. Tea drinking sheep, perhaps not. Historical textile books with a unique perspective on material culture, yes! I found Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans & Fashion 1840-1900 at my wonderful local library branch, Kennedy Library in Muncie, IN.

In looking at old photographs, I always have a great awareness of how much information is held within the photo–and how much of that information is inaccessable to me. A full understanding of the broad historical context of the sitter, in addition to the minutia of daily life and dress, is needed to truly unlock the secrets of an old daguerreotype. There are certainly aspects that are always left unknown. Did the sitter borrow clothing or wear her own? Did the photographer rearrange her shawl or does she typically wear it as photographed? But how a sleeve is cut or a bonnet trimmed can tell us so much about the social context and personality of the sitter. One of my favourite photos from the book is by photographer Charles Van Schaick (pg. 513.) The image is of a Norwegian couple in La Crosse, Wisconsin, walking along a storefront surrounded by town life. The woman strides out ahead of her husband with a sure step and gives the camera a level gaze. On her manner of dress, Severa shares “The entire costume has an ‘Old Country’ flavor not in its cut and fashion but in how it is worn. For one thing, she wears the mannish hat in an uncompromising manner, without any trimming whatsoever, which, in the New World, certainly marks its wearer as ‘different.'” I would love to have met this uncompromising, un-corseted woman.

Dressed 2

Book is broken in to sections covering each decade from 1840-1900.

This book is like having costume expert Joan Severa sitting with you, looking over photos and filling in the gaps. I have learned so much and have not gotten through half of this tome of nearly 600 pages. So, if you have requested this book at the Muncie Public Library, you will just have to wait a while longer–I’m not done yet!


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 111 other followers