On the Nature of Workbaskets

The fibery queue: half-finished handspun hap (shawl), flax strick from Joanne Hall, dyed cotton sliver from Chasing Rainbows, and some of my hand-dyed yarn.
The fibery queue: half-finished handspun hap (shawl), flax strick from Glimakra, dyed cotton sliver from Chasing Rainbows, and some of my hand-dyed yarn.

I adore works in progress—especially of the textile variety. Bits of half-embroidered cloth poking out of a workbasket or unblocked lace laid aside in a knitting bag have so much potential. They have always seemed wonderful to me, lying in their suspended state waiting for the maker’s return.This love of unfinished work is something that I’ve been thinking about this summer.

While I was teaching at the Michigan League of Handweavers Conference in early June, I was able spend a bit of time with several instructors I had not met before—such a pleasure! One of the most memorable moments for me was when weaver, dyer, and designer Mary Sue Fenner introduced us to some of the garments she was making using other people’s abandoned projects. The very idea struck me in such a visceral way that I nearly lept out of my chair. I had been walking around the edges of these ideas in my head for years, and Mary Sue’s work gave me a nudge to consider what is special about the sometimes messy journey between cast-on and bind-off.

Over the last ten years or so, I’ve found that teaching knitting and spinning is as much about helping people navigate the learning process as it is about explaining technique. When a panicked knitter hands me needles with the first four inches of her or his very first sweater, the problem isn’t just a dropped stitch, or too many stitches, or a twisted cast-on. We are also coming up against our expectations of ourselves, our disappointments and frustrations, the visions of ourselves creating something beautiful that have for the moment been obscured. There is nothing that gives me more pleasure than smoothing out that path, one dropped stitch at a time.

Much of my own work is done on deadlines and in semi-secret for publication, and I get out of the habit of sharing my not-so-secret work as it is happening. So, I thought I would start doing just that. I consider it such a privilege to share in the journey from raw materials to finished textile with so many of you, and I’ll welcome you to share a bit of mine.

Designer's detritus.
Designer’s detritus.

Gudrun Jumper

I purchased this fiber from Betty at Little Shop of Spinning in Fort Wayne, Indiana, several years ago. It is a blend of grey wool (something like Shetland, it seems) and Tunis, which was dyed bright yellow. When the two were blended into a roving, the result was a heathered spring green and grey effect. I loved it! I spun it using a woolen draw (long draw) and plied it into a soft 3-ply yarn. Then I fulled the yarn (as in, I shocked it with hot and cold water and agitated it a bit). It was slow to full, so I wasn’t in danger of felting it overmuch. The final yarn will be a nice balance of durability and loft that I wouldn’t have achieved if I had simply added more twist to the fibers.

I’m making a fall jumper (sweater) with a few mirrored cables and a squarish neck. At least that is the plan right now—wish me luck!

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.

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

The pattern was published in Knitting Sweaters from Around the World (Voyageur Press, 2012.)
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.