Here in Indiana, we should already be seeing glimpses of spring by now, but alas… This winter has been especially cold and snowy, so we are all anxiously awaiting warmer weather. I typically schedule my ewes to lamb when the grass will be ready to graze, so they should start to arrive in mid-April. While we await their arrival, I posted a video of the lambs from last year. Nothing brings warmth and cheer quite like bouncing, joyful lambs—enjoy!
We left Shetland and took the short flight to Bergen in western Norway on Midsummer’s Eve. Our hotel was near the university, which has a fantastic museum with a number of knitted artifacts on exhibit. I was surprised to see a few of them were pieces I had studied closely in some of my favourite knitting books, and I greeted them like old friends. (Like the sweater on page 14 of Susanne Pagoldh’s Nordic Knitting.) The museum’s permanent collection includes the earliest knitted fragment found in Norway to date. I was rapturous when I saw that it was included in the current exhibit. The fragment has been dated to the early sixteenth century. Translating the placard, I learned that it is knit in stockinette stitch using 2-ply wool, which was plied S (left). It appears to be fulled and is about 10 sts to the inch. The fragment was discovered during excavation in Bergen’s historic Bryggen area, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Since Bergen was a historically important trading port, determining whether this piece originated in Norway is difficult. I can’t share a picture of this lovely artifact, but here are some images from Bergen. Click on any image to open the gallery.
I spent a blissful day at the Norsk Folkemuseum once we arrived in Oslo. Months before the trip, I arranged to visit the collections at the museum and selected a number of artifacts that I would like to see. When I arrived at the museum on a bright, sunny morning, I was met by the collections manager, Heidi.
Here is an example of the artifacts I was so very lucky to see. You can find these gloves (and more) on the digitaltmuseum.no database, and they are currently part of a new knitting exhibit at the Folkemuseum. These fingervanter (gloves) (NF.1901-0502AB) are particularly fine and well-preserved examples of fulled and embroidered handcoverings from the Telemark region. They were added to the museum collection in 1901. They are woolen—knitted and intensely fulled, with added cuffs of fulled cloth.
Do these gloves set your heart racing, too? One of the reasons I wanted to take a closer look at this particular pair is that there appeared to be several types of woolen embroidery thread used, and that is indeed the case. The elaborate Telemark-style patterns on the back of the hand are done with matte, 3 (or more) ply yarn, and the embroidered initials are done with a silky, 2-ply yarn. Itching to make your own? I wrote an article for the summer 2014 issue of Spin-Off about these yarns, their history, and how to spin your own. In the meantime, allow me to show you my favourite corner of the internet.
I’m happy to announce my upcoming webinar: How to Make Dorset Buttons. Join me on February 20, 2014 at 1pm EST.
These special buttons have a fascinating history. For three hundred years, intricately patterned buttons were produced in Dorset, England. Most often, these small, soft buttons were made by wrapping linen thread around a wire ring. With the invention of machine-made buttons in the mid-nineteenth century, the Dorset button industry all but disappeared.
I’m excited to share tips and tricks for making beautiful buttons using both traditional materials and modern knitting yarns in this live presentation.
I’ve also included a knitting pattern that incorporates Dorset buttons to get your creativity flowing. The Gold Hill Cowl combines a straight-forward lace pattern with my favourite one-row buttonhole—a great way to show off your button-making skills!
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’m excited to announce my upcoming Interweave webinar!
The 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.
Once 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.
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 email@example.com.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” –Marcel Proust
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!
While 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.
The 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.
The last few weeks of my life have been full of bouncing, baby lambs. Here are a few of my favourite pictures so far: