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Sirkka Könönen, textile artist: "the most mysterious window display on Liisankatu"

There is little to be found about Finnish knitwear designer Sirkka Könönen. She is an enigma, an anachronism among the publicity-savvy modern fashion designers and artists. Nevertheless, reticent Ms. Könönen is a cult figure in Finnish textile design world and beyond. Woody Allen, Bill Clinton, Carlos Santana and many other celebrities purchased her colorful sweaters.

I came across the pictures of Sirkka Könönen’s sweaters on Pinterest. Könönen’s designs were mislabeled as Fair Isle knitting, but they had a distinct mark of Scandinavian knitting infused by the designer’s personal vision.

While looking at the designs by Sirkka Könönen, I understood a lot about her as an artist and a person: she had a heightened sense of color, a love of native animals and plants, a concern about conservation, a commitment to quality. Her sense of humor was quirky, that of an intraverted person. Also, there was deep commitment to the Northern European knitting tradition.

I trawled the net in hope to find something about her. The catch was meager. There was no a sleek website. No social media presence. Google pulled out a short, dry article in Finnish Wiki. Sirkka Könönen was not a publicity hound: that much became clear.
And then… I found her obituary in Helsingin Sanomat newspaper which appeared in 2018. The photo in the article dated back to 1999 and the text was obstructed by the nagging request to subscribe.

One of two articles in Helsingin Sanomat dedicated to Sirkka Könönen in 2018, after her death.
(There were many older articles about the artist in the same newspaper,
but it took an effort to unearth a listing of headlines in English.)

I also found the article on the website of Finnish Folk Art Museum describing the recent commemorative exhibition, which was informative, but had no pictures.

Who was elusive Sirkka Könönen?

The picture of her that I put together from the scraps of information is incomplete, but my impression of her formed by looking at her designs was not completely off mark.
The most important thing about Sirkka Könönen is this: she clearly said with her work what she was important to her.

The beginning

Sirkka Könönen, age 20,
with a puppy she received as a wedding gift.
1967

Sirkka Könönen was born in 1947. The only child. Unremarkable Finnish childhood. Good student. Good with hands. Loved to draw. Trained to be a cartographer. Married at 20. By 23 she was a mother of two girls.

She started her studies at Institute of Industrial Arts in Helsinki at 25. Her specialty was Product and Environmental Planning. It is only after two-year apprenticeship at Handcrafts Association and Marimekko she started seriously getting into textile design.

While still in school, Sirkka started her first studio in 1979 and ran it until 1983. She made woolen rugs and sweaters.

Sirkka’s sweaters in the early 80s were very traditional Nordic affairs: traditional shape, colorful bands across chest, round sleeves and bottom.

Side note on Finnish design…

The craft studios were booming in the early 80s in Finland. It provided much needed self-employment for the young designers. Finland aimed to be a designing nation. It placed premium on education, high craftsmanship and original design. A nation of mere 5.5 million, 0.07% of the world population, produced a remarkable number of designers in the 20th century.

… back to the story….

On steps of beautiful Villa Puuvilla, where Sirkka had her home and studio between 1983 and 1986. The Villa stood in the middle of the park by the sea. It was shared by 6-7 members of the artistic association.

Sirkka’s lucky break came in the early 80s. Savonlinna Opera Festival allowed her to sell her sweaters and rugs.
In 1986 she bought an apartment on Liisankatu in Helsinki and took a retail space right under her apartment.
The business was launched.

The artist’s vision

This is my conjecture, but it might be correct: Kaffee Fassett’s designs for hand-knitting influenced Sirkka Könönen as a textile artist in the 1980s-90s.

Side note on Kaffee Fassett…

California-born artist Kaffee Fassett was a self-taught knitter, unconstrained by any knitting tradition that female knitters inherit from grandmas.
When he published his first color work patterns in British Vogue Knitting, he was blissfully unaware that Fair Isle knitting tradition existed. He just made up designs on the go. Imaginative and energetic, he used his painter’s approach to hand-knitting. A sweater or a coat became a canvas for a large, bright image. The first printing (40,000 copies) of his book Glorious Knits sold fast. The book was a revelation to both – hand-knitters and knitwear designers that there is different type of sweater design: large and bold shapes, bright colors.

… back to the story…

Fassett was a decade older and already designed knitwear for Missioni, when Sirkka, fresh out of college, sat up her first studio.
At one time, they both designed for Rowan, but Könönen’s cooperation with Rowan was much shorter. She wanted to do her own thing with her much richer range of colors.
If Sirkka Könönen might have borrowed the idea to use large patterns in garments from Kaffee Fassett, no one can claim that she also borrowed the themes and the sense of color. Those were uniquely hers.

The colors on her sweaters are the very colors you see in the summer countryside. They are never overly bright or too fashionable. The color transitions and contracts are nuanced. Some of her sweaters had 40 colors. In the beginning of her career as a textile artist, she died yarn herself in her bathroom, since no yarn manufacturer offered so many shades.

Her imagery was Finnish countryside. Fir trees, clumps of grass, unfurling fern shoots, modest pansies, berries, sun, sliver of moon, shards of aurora borealis. There is also Finnish fauna: moose, grouse, trout, lynx, bears and foxes. Sirkka especially loved foxes.

The images of foxes appeared over and over on her machine- and hand-knit sweaters.

The last side note: the fox

Almost all European children read The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. On one of the planets the little prince befriended the fox. The time came for the little prince to go back to his planet and the little fox said:

“Here is my secret. It’s quite simple: One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.”

… back to the story….

Like many shy people, she had special connection to the animals. She told that they need protection from the humans.
“They are beings with a soul, that think in their own way.”

There is one more important feature of Sirkka Könönen’s designs, which caused many critics call her creations “utilitarian”.
Regardless of trends in artwear, Sirkka designed her clothes after tried-and-true traditional shapes. She believed that the clothing must be functional, beautiful, of high quality and above today’s fashion. Reducing waste caused by over-consumption was a part of Sirkka’s mission as an artist.

The business of making art sweaters

Sirkka Könönen designed her knitwear, but there was the business of making them. Here is how the designer organized the production in the 1990s.

Sirkka in her studio, 1990s

Unlike the majority of hot designers of the 80-90s, Könönen maintained the network of up to 50 home-based knitters all over Finland. The most of the sweaters were machine-knit. Some knitters cooperated with Könönen for over 20 years. The studio employed also several weaving apprentices to make rugs.

Sirkka’s permanent yarn supplier Pirkanmaan Kotityö was also Finnish. The supplier was capable to die yarns into multitude of shades that the designer wanted. Pirkanmaan Kotityö still sells the sweater and rug kits with Sirkka’s designs on its website.

Sirkka was a hands-on business owner who oversaw every aspect of production. The only part that she outsourced was paperwork, of course.

At one of the European exhibitions, 90s

Könönen never hired any publicity or marketing gurus. She was indifferent to so-called “web presence”. In early 90s she received many prizes at home and abroad for her work. The celebrities and nobodies found her shop in Helsinki. The commissions came in. It was enough: Sirkka Könönen was not obsessed with market share, lucrative contracts from big retailers or the latest technology. She was about making wearable art.

A note from Sirkka’s American customer written as a blog comment in 2012:

I was in Helsinki about 5 yrs ago and found Sirkka’s shop. I purchased a sweater from her and would have loved to be able to purchase more when I returned home. It was very difficult communicating with her via email, as she had to wait for her daughter to translate and respond. There were also issues with making payment, as she did not take credit cards…I had to make arrangements to wire via a banking routing process.

Sirkka’s shop on Liisankatu : “In the middle of all design hype, this place is just out of this world. “

One of the visitor’s called her shop “the fairy’s house”. It was not a usual slick boutique. To start with, it did not have a sign.

The shop was a reflection of her personality and quirky sense of humor. Here is the word for it – eccentric.

Sirkka loved collecting. That is, collecting stuff.
She felt sad that so many beautiful and well-made objects are useless. She made trips to the dumps and peaked into garbage bins. The salvaged oddities filled the shop, her apartment and her country cottage.
There was always an internal conflict between the impulse to rescue and recycle unwanted things and the desire for space and sparsity.
When the things crowded her too much, she gave them away or sold them in her shop. She also made interior designs from the found objects.

I’ve never been to Sirkka’s shop, but this short review by Jedrzej R says a lot:


“Sirkka Kononen shop is full of beautiful handcrafts and fantastic colors. The artist lives above the shop, so you should call her number (displayed on the door, the number in google is not working) in case you want her to open for you. Great magical place”

Beyond 1990s

I was not able to find much about about Sirkka Könönen’s later carrier except that she started designing… cakes in the 2000s.
“Everything that people can throw away I take: colorful plastic bottles, old toys and used plastic bags,” – Sirkka said. They all ended up in… cakes.
Each cake sculpture has a name and a message.

Sirkka’s cakes were displayed next to her sweaters at the indoor fair.

P.S.

The last two postings on Helsinki’s page dedicated to the shop was from Sirkka’s daughter. She announced that the shop is selling the remainder of stock and the fixtures and that Craft Museum of Finland plans the retrospective of her works in 2019/2020.

One of Instagram posts dedicated to the memory of Sirkka said:

End of an era – the final hours of the final sale at the workshop of textile artist Sirkka Könönen who always had the most mysterious window display on Liisankatu 

Sirkka Könönen, 1993.

References

The trail of information crumbs lead me from Marketta Luutonen’s wonderful article Handmade Memories to the slim volume by the same author published in 1999 by AKATIIMI. The book is mostly in Finnish, its title in English is Nature’s Yarns: A Portrait of Textile Artist Sirkka Könönen and Her Knitwear. I found the only copy on the website for the Finnish used books. I cannibalized the most of the pictures on this blog from this book.
Nothing else could be found in a print form. The web contained bits and pieces here and there.

Finnougoria III cap: moving further from the traditional patterns.

This is the third version of the cap I designed using the principle of traditional Finno-Ugric textiles. It looks more like an Art Deco cap, my daughter told me.

My friend Emma modeled the cap. It looked good on her: she has a smaller head and the shorter version fit her just right. So I gave the cap to her. She is an outdoor type and will find the cap handy.


We photographed in Fort Foster Park in Kittery, Maine. The park has been reopened for the locals just 2 days ago. The sky promised a rain. The wind was unkindly cool. The surroundings were pearly gray. In sum, not a cheerful day. But in the park by the ocean we could forget what was out there: people in masks, lines to the stores, take-out only restaurants, empty store fronts… We tried to have a good and creative day, regardless of the circumstances.

“What day is it?”
” It is today,” squeaked Piglet.
“My favorite day,” said Pooh
– A. A. Milne

But you are not reading this article because you need to know what we did. You are here because of the cap.

This cap is very similar to the previous 2 versions in Finnougoria series. See Finnougoria I : it has all the technical details. I used different yarns of approximately equal thickness for this cap just like I do for all my colorwork caps.

The diagram below has two starting points (I knit bottom up): one is smaller version (just like on the photos) and another is for the deeper version.

Finnougoria II: the cap inspired by diagonal Finno-Ugric patterns

The diagonal patterns based on Finno-Ugric textile traditions offer such a great opportunities for the designers. Here is another cap with instructions. For the community use.

Finnougoria II cap

I worked out some technical kinks from the previous version of the cap with the diagonal patterns.

This version reminds even less the patterns of traditional Finnish or Komi hand-knit items. I extrapolated the new design from the previous one. And the previous one I derived from the traditional Komi patterns.

I used the traditional patters as a framework to extend the existing ways of making things. This is the most wonderful and robust thing about any folk tradition: it can be extended.

The instructions (tension, material choice, construction, etc.) are the same as for the cap Finnougoria I.

Knitting diagram

On the left side there are stitches marked as LAST STITCHES IN ROW. They are there to prevent the unsightly jog.

Finnougoria I: the cap with Finno-Ugric diagonal patterns

The Finno-Ugric diagonal patterns are beautiful and can be worked into a cap design. This post has a free pattern for the readers of my blog.

The charm of the diagonal patterns

I learned a lot about the diagonal patterns when researching the history of the Komi knitting. Komi is the large territory of the Russian North. The research resulted in several posts about the history of this knitting tradition. The posts have many examples of patterns and items made with these patterns by the Komi women.

Traditional Komi socks, rare photo from the 1980s.
Photo: Nina Fileeva. Ms. Fileeva made many lyrical photographs of the northern craftspeople in the 1980s.

The diagonal patterns can be expanded, contracted and interlocked in all directions. They can grow one from another without loosing their shared internal rhythm. Several patterns locked together create a fabric that look breathtakingly complex, but, in reality, it is easy to knit.

The flow of Finno-Ugric patterns reminds me the lines from the poem:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.

T.S. Eliot, from Burnt Norton

Diagonal patterns and sizing

Enough of poetry. Back to knitting.
Here is a bit of nasty news: these beautiful interlocking diagonal patterns do not lend themselves easily to sizing. The stitch count in a pattern repeat should be divisible by 6. It means that you must reduce the item size minimum by 6 stitches – 3 in the beginning of the first pattern repeat and 3 at the end of the last pattern repeat. This is a LOT. Plus, there is a need to deal with a jog.

The design of this cap calls for 180 stitches (6 repeats of a 30-stitch pattern).
If you need to change the sizing, you can do it in other ways than reducing/increasing stitch count:
– use smaller/bigger needle size
– mix thicker and thinner yarns
– use thicker yarn for an inner layer (You will understand what I mean by ‘inner layer’ a bit later, when we get to Overview)
– make full inner layer instead of a partial one.
– replace several bottom rows with ribbing
In sum, design your own strategy to modify the size without changing the stitch count.

Project Overview

It took me several tries to get this cap right, so the pictures below are from TWO last versions of Finnougoria I cap.

Size: 59-60cm
Gage: 2.5cm x 2.5cm = apx 9 stiches x 11 rows

Completed version #1
and incomplete version #2 (final)

You can choose your method of construction to adjust the size.
I would assume here that you follow my way of making the hat.

The hat is knit bottom-up, without ribbing, but with double-layering on the bottom.
I used Judy’s Magic cast on to start a double layer.
Cast on 180 stitches on each needle. Put a marker every 30 stitches in both layers.
Two layers – the inner and the outer – are knit separately in opposite directions from the cast-on rows. While you knit one layer on shorter circular needles, the other layer rests on longer circular needle or moved onto a string of waste yarn.
I used #2 USA needles to knit the outer later, and #1 USA for the inner layer.

I started with knitting the inner layer first

After the inner layer is about 17 rows and the outer layer is 18 rows, fold the fabric and transfer all the stitches onto one #2 USA needle. The next row: continue, carefully knitting each inner and outer stitch together.

The crown is formed by reducing stitches in the beginning and end of pattern.

Both layer are ready to be joined
Joining the layers
The inside of the completed Version #2 cap.

Choice of yarns

I like mixing yarns. For this project I used “fluffy” mixed yarn for the white color and smooth yarn for the red.

Experiment – use different yarns!
The yarns are described below, in Version #1
The yarns of different textures made the fabric more interesting.
(Photo of Version #1)
Outer layerInner layer
Version #1
Red:
Claudia Hand Painted Yarns, ADDICTIONS, Fingering Weight,
100% fine merino ~35 g
White: two yarns mixed
Plymouth Baby Alpaca, Lace Weight
Kid mohair, Lace Weight ~30g
Plymouth Baby Alpaca, Lace Weight, doubled ~15g
Version #2 (final, as shown on model)
Red:
Cascade Heritage, Fingering Weight
85% merino 15% mulberry silk, ~25 g
White:
Rowan Alpaca Classic, DK weight
60% alpaca, 40% cotton ~25g
Plymouth Baby Alpaca, Lace Weight, doubled ~15g

One of the Facebook group members recommended brand Rauma Finull, because the red yarn of this brand does not bleed.

Tools

Circular needles:
#2 USA 36in. or 48in. (optional)
#2 USA 24in.
#1 USA 24in.

Double-pointed needles (if you do not know how to use magic loop):
#2

Markers: 12

Diagram

Important note: the pattern is free for the hand-knitters, but it is not for commercial use or mass production.

2 diagrams: the bottom and the crown.
The diagram shows 30-stitch pattern repeat. As your recall there are 6 repeats, 30 stitches each. The leftmost 31st stitch on the diagram is the last stitch of the last pattern repeat to fix the jog.
The rest of the important comments are right on the diagram.

Postscript

Let me know how your cap turns out.
While posting the pictures of this cap in FB groups, I found out something interesting about the items with red-and-white with diagonal patterns from the fellow knitters.
It looks like at the turn of the 20th century the sweaters, cardigans and caps in this style were very popular in Finland and the neighboring Russian territory on the shores of the White Sea called Pomorye. Pomorye was a melting pot, because it has the important old Russian sea port of Arkhangelsk. The Pomors – that what the inhabitants of the area were called – were a mix of the Komi, Hanty, Mansy, Finns, Russians and other ethic groups.
But this is the story for the later post.

Clothes circa 1906 from real color photos: Middle Asia along the Silk Road

Rare color photographs from the Silk Road taken in 1906 – 1910.

The photographer Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky, an offspring of the Russian nobility and an enthusiast of color photos and movies, took color photographs in Samarkhand and Bukhara between 1906 and 1910. Both cities are ancient Middle-Asian centers and were major stops on Silk Road. These photographs were a part of very large photographic project that documented the different corners of the vast Russian Empire. Among the hundreds of scenic photos, there were several portraits of the local inhabitants from the different layers of the society. It is very interesting to see what they wore.

Before you look through the pictures, I should remind you that they are real color photographs.

After the revolution in Russia Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky found his way to United States. He never stopped working on inventing better technology for colored photography and movies.

Kurmy

Beyond the loom: fiber as sculpture (Exhibition)

“Beyond the loom” was an exhibition within the large exhibition of women’s art “Women Take the Floor” in Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Visited in January 2020. It featured the groundbreaking fiber works from the 1950s to 2000s by female artists. Inspirational.

In the 1960s and 70s, a number of pioneering women in America radically redefined textiles as modern art. Coopting a medium traditionally associated with women’s work and domesticity, these artists boldly broke free from the constraints of the loom to create large-scale, sculptural weavings that engaged with movements such as Minimalism and Abstraction. This “fiber revolution” sprang from a new philosophical emphasis on structure in textile art, as well as revived interest in tapestry weaving and the brilliance of the ancient Peruvian textiles.

From the introduction to the exhibition

Anni Albers (1899-1994), Dotted Weaving, 1959

I think [weaving] is the closest to architecture, because it is a building up out of a single element – building a whole out of single elements

Anni Albers
Wool, compound weave

Sheila Hicks (born 1934), Linen facets (1988)

Lenore Tawney (1907-2007),
The Fountain of Word and Water (1963)

Water is fertilizing and water is dissolving and water is cleansing and water is life-giving… Water is thrilling.

Lenore Tawney
Knotted linen

Olga de Amaral (born 1932), Strata II (2007)

In the 1980s Olga de Amaral began to experiment with gold and silver leaf, connecting her work in fiber with a long history of indigenous Colombian metalwork artists.

From the exhibit description
Linen plain weave, gesso, acrylic and gold leaf

Ruth Asawa (1926-2013), Untitled (1952)
Kay Sekimachi (born 1926), Amiyase V (1956)

Everything has its limitations, and fiber does… and of course the loom has many limitations. I love working within limitations.

Kay Sekimachi
Foreground: work by Kay Sekimachi.
Woven nylon 6 monofilament

Sheila Hicks (born 1934), Bamian (1968)

All of the threads are actors on stage and none of them are hidden. They’re all part of the oevre

Sheila Hicks
Wool and acrylic yarn, wrapped

Judy Becker’s Magic Cast On beyond socks: good bye, ribbing!

I envisioned the pattern on my Komi vests to start right away at the bottom, without ribbing. Ribbing is a necessary evil of every knit garment: it keeps edges from curling up. The goal was to kiss good-bye to ribbing.

I wanted the pattern start from the very edge of the garment without ribbing, that keeps edge from curling up.
Judy’s Magic Cast On which I found in my trusty little book Cast On, Bind Off by Leslie Ann Bestor was just the technique that accommodated my design.

General instructions

Judy’s Magic Cast On is used mostly in knitting sock toes. It looks very neat and truly invisible. There are many YouTube videos, but here Judy explains herself.
I will go directly to the design idea.

Basic recipe for bottom-up sweater/vest on circular needles

Overview: The idea works for garments knit bottom up.
You create a counter-tension of two fabrics knit in opposite directions from the cast-on rows without adding too much bulk.
First you knit up and down, fold the fabric, gather the stitches onto another pair of needles and knit together. Continue knitting the garment in a round, as usual.
Press the fold when the garment is done.

Needed: 3 circular needles of your project size, 2 longer and 1 can be shorter. Some quantity of thinner (sports or baby weight) yarn in addition to your project yarn.

  1. Cast on necessary number of stitches using 1 shorter and 1 longer set of needles.
    If your item requires 220 stitches then each needle should end up with 220 stitches. The direction of knitting on one needle will go up and on another – down.
  2. Before knitting, look attentively which side the yarn twists are on. The twists should end up on purl side.
  3. Knit “up” several rows in stranded color work. (I knitted 5).
  4. Knit “down” with a thin and dense yarn fewer rows. (I knitted 4.)
  5. Fold fabric and transfer stitches to the third needle: one stitch from one needle, one stitch from another needle.
  6. Continue the pattern on color work side, carefully knitting each stitch together. Inside fabric should remain as invisible as possible.

The finished edge looks a bit puffy. Carefully press the fold when the project is finished. Avoid stretching the edge.
Here is what I ended up with:

Thin inside band does not add bulk, but provides sufficient counter-tension to prevent curling.

If Judy’s Magic Cast On worked for socks and a vest edge and socks, it should work for mittens. My next idea was to knit two-sided mittens: one side – of fine angora, another side – of sock yarn. The success did not come cheap. It took 3 tries to get it somewhat right. Two sided mittens is a fancy idea that you do not have to follow, but the idea of using Judy’s Magic Cast On to knit mitten tips produces beautiful round shape.

The tips of the mittens: you can see Judy’s Magic Cast On, I hope. The outside of the mittens is Debbie Bliss’s angora. The palm side is a fine sock yarn from Peru.

Meanwhile… Let’s return to my Komi vest: the edge obediently stays down!

Komi Knitting VI: reviving the heritage

The dark 1990s after the collapse of the USSR were over. The 21st century brought the renewed interest to the traditional arts in the Republic of Komi. The last article in the series is about the modern knitwear artists exploring the rich opportunities of their Komi heritage.

All posts exploring the art and history of Komi Color Knitting.

The attitudes of the Komis towards their ancient heritage radically changed in the early 2000s. Now the Komi language is a mandatory discipline in schools. The newspapers, magazines, websites are published in Komi.

The heirloom socks donated to one of the the ethnographic museums
Republic of Komi on Russian map

There is tremendous interest and support for the traditional folk art, including color knitting. The Center for Education In Folk Arts in Syktyvkar is a lively place where the adults and children are receiving quality instruction in the native arts and crafts.

The Komi women from all walks of life sign up for knitting master classes in impressive numbers. It has become popular among the young to wear legwarmers knit with traditional geometric Komi patterns. The textile artists specializing in traditional Komi knitting are becoming celebrities of sorts.

Three artists featured here have different directions, but one thing in common: they learned the traditional Komi knitting with diagonal geometric patterns from their peasant grandmothers and returned to it in mature years.

Zinaida Mayorova: a retiree turns into a well-known artist

Zinaida Mayorova with her creations

Ms. Mayorova was born in 1953. Her family is from Sysola region of Komi. As a child she noticed a pair of beautiful mittens made by her grandmother in the early years of the 20th century. They were stored in the family heirloom chest. She paid no mind to the old-fashioned mittens then. Many knitters of her generation knitted in a homogenized style borrowed from the Western and Eastern Europe.

After retiring in the early 2000s, Ms. Mayorova had plenty of time on her hands and the idea for a project struck her. She remembered the grandma’s mittens and embarked on serious study of the knitting traditions of her native Sysola.
Her research was a truly scientific undertaking: at her own expense she traveled hundreds of miles to study the old knitted objects in to Ethnographic Museum in St. Petersburg.

The underlying theme of Ms. Mayorova’s work is the preservation of the tradition, however, she enlarged the palette of colors and projects beyond the traditional.

Currently she teaches the master classes, conducts presentations on traditions of Sysola knitting and occasionally does commissioned work.

Watch the segment for FinnougoroVidenie. You might not understand the language, but it shows Ms. Mayorova’s work. You can also see the 100-year-old mittens knitted by her grandmother. Ms. Mayorova explains that in the old days the mittens did not have ribbing because there were worn with complimentary wrist warmers.

Galina Ogorodnikova: the dynasty of folk artists

Galina Ogorodnikova inherited her talent as a textile artist from her grandmother, a peasant woman from Pechora region. When Galina was about 10, she coveted a pair of store-bought mittens. Her grandmother Maria told her that she was quite capable to make the mittens herself. And this is what she did.

Ms. Ogorodnikova’s family moved to Pechora in 1963. She worked as a cook in the rural daycare center. The skills inherited from the grandma Maria came handy: she made clothes for her children. They were not only practical objects made out of necessity, they were products of artistic imagination.

Ms. Ogorodnikova’s career as a folk artist started with macrame. She turned to the traditional Komi color knitting in the mid 1990s when she had already won multiple competition awards for her works in other techniques.

Her designs integrate the traditional Komi knitting patterns, folk costume and the modern knitwear trends. It takes the artist between 1 to 3 years to develop and to execute the larger projects.

Galina Ogorodnikova was awarded the title of The Master of Russian Folk Arts (it is a very approximate equivalent of Living National Treasure in Japan.).

Aside from being a talented textile artist, Ms. Ogorodnikova has a special knack for teaching others, especially children. She taught her daughter Oksana (a well-known folk artist) and her granddaughter Yaroslava. Currently she is a faculty member at The Center for Education In Folk Arts in Syktyvkar .

Galina Ogorodnikova with her granddaughter Yaroslava Malinova at the opening of the personal exhibition at Komi National Gallery. October, 2019.
Photo from the VK post of Шондiбан

Granddaughter Yaroslava Malinova is also an artist and a teacher in her own right. Her first pair of mittens she made at the age of 5 under her grandmother’s direction.

Svetlana Turova: a founder of the socially responsible enterprise

Svetlana Turova is in her 40s. She belongs to the generation that came into age during the wild and dark 1990s.
Like Ms. Mayorova and Ms. Ogorodnikova, Svetlana learned knitting from her Komi grandmother. She become a skillful knitter by age of 15 and, while in school, knitted for extra income.

Svetlana Turova at the business expo with the products of her studio .
Photo from New Business website

In 2007 Svetlana Turova came up with an idea of a socially responsible enterprise that produces machine-knit items with traditional Komi patterns.

She worked as an upper-level manager in the distribution company when she sensed that the company was likely to fold during the next financial crisis in Russia. She started to think of what to do next. Svetlana hand-knitted several toys that her grandmother taught her to make long time ago, took several vacation days and traveled to the Moscow exhibition of folk art. Her toys won a prize. Svetlana understood that she was onto something with her knitting.

As a woman with a solid business and legal background (Svetlana has a degree in law), she understood three things from the very start:

  • Her knitting studio must be a legal business to qualify for grants, loans and tax breaks. (Many entrepreneurs in Russia prefer to operate in a “gray zone” due to byzantine tax code and scant legal protection.)
  • There is a revival of ethnic pride among the Komi people. Her studio might become a trend-setter among the young to wear the clothing with the traditional Komi patterns.
  • Hand-knitting is not the way to make living. It is too expensive for the young people. It is hard to produce on larger scale.

The road was not easy for Svetlana Turova. Her first studio, started in 2008, failed. Her husband was supportive but a bit skeptical. The well-wishers advised her to produce underwear instead of sweaters. But Svetlana persevered. She had a mission: “I want the world to know that Komi stands for beautiful. Komi is cool.”

With a patchwork financing from grants for socially responsible enterprises, public fundraising, interest-free loans and the help from the local authorities, Svetlana Turova reopened her studio Югыд арт (Yugyd Art with better knitting machines. She traveled to Finland to learn from the 200-year-old Saami family business.

The logo of Svetlana Turova’s studio.
It reads “Yugyd-Art: genuine Northern sweaters”

In 2016-2018 Svetlana Turova and her husband, who joined her in her enterprise, moved to the village. They build the complex with a studio space and living quarters to accommodate a new branch of their business – knitting tourism. The knitters from Moscow, St. Petersburg, Germany and other places have already booked the first available time slots. (If you are interested in spending a few days in beautiful Russian North, click on logo above.)

New headquarters of Svetlana Turova’s studio in the village 40 miles from the city.
It is build in style of traditional Komi dwelling.
Photo from New Business website

Aside from running the business, Svetlana still teaches classes for hand-knitters dedicated to the art of traditional Komi knitting.

References

The most of the material came from hours of trawling the Russian-language sites for bits and pieces of information. I tried my best to attribute the photos that I borrowed for this post. My apologies for the incorrect attributions.
In case if you decide to google the artists presented in this blog, here are the spellings of their names in Cyrillic:

Zinaida Mayorova: Зинаида Майорова
Galina Ogorodnikova: Галина Огородникова
Yaroslava Malinova: Ярослава Малинова
Svetlana Turova: Светлана Турова

Komi spells in Cyrillic as: Коми

Komi knitting V: difficult decades

The history of any folk craft is closely connected to the history of the people. The period from the 1920s to the turn of the 21st century was difficult for the Komi and its craft – colorwork knitting. This is the fifth post about the distinct tradition of the Komi, the ethnic minority of the Russian North.

Otto von Bismarck said approximately the following: “The romantics think up revolutions, the fanatics execute revolutions and the bastards are the only beneficiaries of revolutions.” In summary, the losers are the people.

The revolution in Russia in 1917 known as October Revolution did little for the Komi people and their cultural heritage, knitting included. With land so rich in forests, oil, gas, coal, minerals, the Komi would fared as splendidly as their cousins, the Finns. (Finland is a former poor province of the Russian Empire. The Komi and the Finns are both of Finno-Ugric language group). Finland miraculously gained independence from the Soviet Russia in 1919. Never looked back to the days when they were a part of the Empire.

The Bolshevik government, always long on Marxist-Leninist ideology and always short on sound management, started with massive forceful expropriations of “surplus” grain from the peasants. The resisting peasants were severely punished.

In the 1920s the struggling Soviet state levvied exorbitant taxes on peasants.
In the land of the Komi, the farming was always a game of chance. Now it was a bad business. The Komi peasants started reducing plantings and cattle herds. It is better to have no “surplus” than to give away the products of difficult labor to the outsiders whose language many of them did not even understand.

The peasants surrender their “surplus” to the state.
You can clearly see the representatives of the new power accompanying the peasants.
A banner with some Marxist-Leninist nonsense lies in the first cart.
Village Kupros, Perm region, 1920s

In the late 1920s the Soviet state came up with yet another brilliant idea to suck every drop of wealth from the countryside: collectivization. In a nutshell, it was a state-run serfdom which lasted until 1974, when the peasants could obtain internal identification documents and move away.

The collectivization proceeded like this: brigades of brainwashed city youth accompanied by the foot soldiers of the internal security forces went to villages and forcefully organized the peasants into collective farms (kolkhoz). All private farm land became a kolkhoz property along with tools, cattle, planting material and, sometimes, personal belongings. The kolkhozniks could not move anywhere. The better-off peasants, so called kulaks (tight fists), were treated with unimaginable cruelty: all of their property was confiscated in favor of kolhoz. The kulak‘s daughter remembers the 1920s-early 1930s*:

… in 1929 the authorities ordered my father to turn in all the grain. He turned it in. What did they do in the spring? In the spring of 1930 they came and ordered him to plant several acres. But he did not have any seed to plant. He gave up all of it in the fall. He refused to plant. They sentenced him to 2 years in Solikamsk prison. He served the whole sentence.
After the father was imprisoned in May of 1930, the internal security people came to our house and evicted us from our own home. No other shelter was offered. They took our home. Our tools and cattle became the property of the kolkhoz. As we were told later, all our personal belongings and household items were laid out in front of the house. Some was sold to benefit the kolkhoz, the rest was given away to whoever wanted it.

The mother had nowhere to go, she was illiterate [in those years many rural Komis were illiterate and did not speak Russian – E. ]. She had three children: my sister was born in 1927, I was born in 1928 and another baby girl was born in 1930. Three kids, ages 3, 2 and 1 and no home. She wandered from village to village and begged for handouts. She was forbidden to leave the area.
The villagers gave her shelter and food in exchange for some work.
Here she knitted mittens and socks, there she helped to pile logs or to dig potatoes or to gather hay.
That’s how we lived until the father returned from the prison.

That’s some story with knitting in it. Not a cozy kind.

The “celebration” of the 16th anniversary of the Great October Revolution.
The attendance of the kolkhozniks at the ideological events was mandatory.
Village Kupros, Perm region. 1933.
This was the hungry year.

The collectivization produced meager results in Komi. The hunger started in mid-30s. To add an insult to injury, the late 30s the Komi ASSR became the home for numerous GULAG labor camps. The impoverished kolkhoz peasants, men and women alike, frequently found a slightly better pay working in logging, construction and mining, sometimes – alongside the prisoners.

Some collective farms that specialized in logging setup knitting groups, but the production was stifled by wool and dye shortages. A woman produced only 15 or so pairs of mittens a year. Compare it with 1,500 pairs that the merchants purchased for resale from the women of just one small cluster of the Komi villages in the late 19th century.

Later the ethnographic researchers wrote that the Komi knitted items from the 1930s-40s were rather unimaginative affairs made of poor quality yarn with addition of cotton wool. There were many re-knits from the older, worn-out pieces. The artifacts of the tragic history, not of the folk art.

The women carry two full buckets of water on a wooden bow hung across shoulders. Like 100 years before they were born. Possibly there was electricity in this village, but definitely no indoor plumbing.
Komi village, possibly late 40s-mid 60s.

When the war started in 1941, the able-bodied Komi men were drafted into the Army. The weight of men’s work fell onto women’s shoulders. The overworked, underfed Komi women knit mittens with two fingers for soldiers. But the output was small. It was not a good time and place for fancy diagonal patterns, really.

After the war more of the same: shortage of men, poor pay for hard work in kolkhoz. The alcoholism, predominantly among the rural Komi men, was rampant during the Soviet era. The men died young.

But something different was afoot for the children of these long-suffering women: double-sided effect of Russification. The schooling was in Russian. All the official business was in Russian. The Russian dominance suffocated the traditional culture of the Komis. But the Komi youth that came of age in 1950s-60s, being fluent in Russian, started to slip out into cities as college students, nannies and industrial laborers in the cities. The girls left in larger numbers: there were few places in the USSR that could be more desperate for a young woman from a Northern Russian village than her own home. A The girls wanted to leave all of it behind, funny colorful socks and mittens including. The ethnic socks would make them to stand out in the city, when they wanted to blend in, to be the Russians.

The tradition of Komi knitting was dying.

Two Komi ethnographers, Lyubov’ Gribova and Galina Klimova, documented the textile and knitting heritage of their people in the 1960-70s. It was a race against the indifference and oblivion. Not a single book on Komi stranded knitting for general audience was published during the Soviet era.

One of the few remaining traditional knitters. 1976.
To the left, by window: a box made of birch bark.
The birch bark products were a part of the Komi traditional crafts.
From the collection of National Museum of Republic of Komi.

Ms. Klimova summarized the words of the elderly master-knitters how the things were in her 1978 thesis**:

The elderly people said that before, 50 or so years ago, almost every woman knew stranded color work knitting, then the times came when they forgot about it. Now quite a few started doing it again. Long ago the women knitted in a similar artistic style, when now the young and the old knit differently. The elderly women knit the squiggles their mothers and grandmothers taught them, but the younger ones frequently knit the patterns borrowed elsewhere.

The “borrowed pattern” in question is famous Selbu star. It is likely that the Komi knitters gleaned it from the knitting instructions and books published in Latvia and Estonia. Two Baltic countries, occupied by the USSR during the WWII, stubbornly published more quality books on knitting than the whole of the Soviet Russia. Many books had mandatory Russian editions as a part of the Russification campaign in the Baltic states. Hence the Russification had another, very unintended consequence: the traditional Baltic and Nordic patterns traveled into knitting of the ethnic minorities of the Russian North.

The girl on the left wears the mittens of the simplest generic pattern.
From family photos of Natalia Zakharova
Hanti-Mansyisk, 1970s

Ms. Klimova’s essay on Komi color work knitting, written in a language as dry as a biscuit, had a wistful concluding paragraph. She worried that the lively and useful craft will become nothing but a bunch of artifacts in the local museum.

The unique knitting tradition of Komi was dying in the USSR, but, as it turned out, it outlived the empire and came back. The story of its rebirth is in the next post.

The heirloom socks from the Usin region donated to the local museum.

References

All the materials for this post came from the publications in Russian.

*The kulak’s daughter’s story is a translation of Ms. Pikuleva’s childhood memories from the article Collectivization in Kama region: violence without restraint by M. A. Ivanova (Иванова М. А. КОЛЛЕКТИВИЗАЦИЯ В ПРИКАМЬЕ: насилие без границ) on website Мемориал, dedicated the victims of the repressions and collectivization. Very instructive reading for those Russians who are missing the old good Soviet times.

Some information about the 20th century history of the Komis came from Y. Shabayev’s article The Land of Abu or Permyak the Salty Ears. ( Ю.П. Шабаев, ЗЕМЛЯ «АБУ» И «ПЕРМЯК СОЛЕНЫ УШИ»)

**The ethnographic works by Lyubov’ Gribova and Galina Klimova are mentioned in Reference to the previous post.

“Komi” hat with ear-flaps

The diagonal patterns of Finno-Ugric textiles inspired the hat with ear-flaps. This is the last project of the year and the most challenging. I share design ideas in this post.

For about a year and a half I fiddled with the idea of a hat with ear-flaps. A “couture look” was my lofty goal:
– ear-flaps should be one with a hat
– a large-scale pattern should flow from the ear-flap tips to the top as if the hat is if it is custom-cut from a whole piece of cloth
– combination of contrasting and gradient colors

This was a technically ambitious project. Perfect to finish the year but a bit difficult to write about.

I will break up the post into two parts. Something to share with textile artists of every level.
The part about choosing yarns, patterns and colors is for all levels of aspiring knitwear artists. The brief instructions how to shape ear-flaps are for the technically sophisticated.

The cozy hat with Finno-Ugric diagonal patterns.
Bottom-up knitting.

Techniques used

  • Judy’s Magic Invisible Cast-on (to knit the inner and outer layers. The knitting goes in both directions. The cast-on becomes a fold line. There are plenty good YouTube videos about this technique – look up!)
  • Short rows, Japanese style (to create ear-flaps. I found instructions online as well.)
  • Stranded color work knitting (optional)
  • To prevent curling, the bottom of the hat is knit into two opposite directions from the cast-on row. There will be 7-8 cm (or 3 in) of double-layering over the ears and forehead.

Yarns, patterns and colors

Choosing yarns

Creative mix of different yarns – fluffy angora and smooth merino – produces a wonderful “watercolor washout” effect.

Background:
Forrest Green,
Dark Orange
angora-merino blendrated for #5-7 needles1 skein each.
1/2 skein of Dark Orange left
Foreground:
Medium blue,
Bright blue
Light blue
merinorated for #4 needles1 1/2 skeins from Katia Ombre gradient set

Choosing needle size

Ignore the recommended needle size on the label if you are making a hat. The fabric should be dense, but thin. It should retain the shape and to shield from the cold. I used #2 needles – a much smaller size than recommended.

Ideas for patterns and colors

I adopted the traditional Finno-Ugric textile patterns ( See the previous post about Komi textile patterns) as a basis for design. The diagonal patterns come in wide variety of sizes, but all of them are all based on a rudimentary 6×6 pattern.
The background colors are contrasting and of the same intensity (Forrest Green, Dark Orange).
The foreground colors are gradient of the same color (blue).
Change one color at a time to achieve the harmonious transitions.
The number of rows for each color combination should be a multiple of 6 (or close to it):

BackgroundForegroundRows knitted
Forrest GreenDark blue (not the best combo, alas…)apx 12 rows
Forrest Green Medium blue apx 36 rows
Forrest Green Light blue 6 rows
Dark OrangeLight blueapx 24 rows
Dark OrangeMedium blue6 rows
Forrest GreenMedium blueapx 18 rows
The diagonal Finno-Ugoric patterns used for the hat

Ear-flaps: very brief instructions

I must be honest….


1) It is easier if you can knit with either hand: there is no need to turn over the fabric. This is how I knit, but the ear-flaps are doable without a trick of ambidexterity. Just skip the stranded colorwork at the bottom edge of the hat.

Below are several earlier models with ear-flaps: the hats look just fine without all-over stranded colorwork.

Simple version of the hat with ear-flaps.
This plain model looks lovely: the ear-flaps are made of light-green angora and the body is of soft gray alpaca.

2) Try to practice with some junk yarn until you get the technique that is just right for you. The first experiments – especially with my brief written instructions – might not be promising. Mine were not. It took me quite a while to get the technique straight.

3) Planning is a key to success.

I created a diagram of the whole hat, marking not only front and back middle stitches, but also the beginning and the end of each ear-flap and the ear-flap centers.

Well, caveat emptor is stated…

Now back to the brief instructions…


The same instructions apply to knitting both layers of the hat. The double-layer part of the hat is about 7-8cm (3 in.) over the forehead.
From that point, the layers are joined.

The knitting of the inner and outer layers of the hat goes in opposite directions from the Judy’s Magic Invisible Cast-on row.

Use Judy’s Magic Invisible Cast-on (plenty of how-to videos on YouTube). The cast-on will become the folding line for the layers.

Use thinner yarn for the inner layer. I chose the combination of angora (baby blue, over the ears) and very thin wool-silk yarn for the rest of the inner layer. Both colors fit the color scheme of the outer stranded colorwork.

Cast-on: Judy’s Magic Invisible Cast.
The close-up of the cast-on. Note the tiny knots: they should end up inside the fold of two layers.

Place markers: back, front and mark the ears. Especially – the center of each ear-flap. It is critical for symmetry. Use odd number of stitches for ear-flaps: 1 central stitch makes things easier to track.

For inner and outer layer repeat the same procedure (with your minor personal adjustments, of course.)

Knit the whole first row in a round. Knit 2 stitches together 3-4 stitches before and after the center of each potential ear-flap.

Shaping an ear-flap with short rows

The picture is worth a thousand words. It shows how to shape the left ear-flap with ever-increasing short rows. The right ear is a mirror image of the left.

Instructions for shaping left ear-flap.

Note that you cast 12 stitches more than required: it is for controlling excess fabric from short rows.

The outer and inner layers are knit in more or less identical fashion: after shaping of ear-flaps is done, knit in a round 7-8 in (3 cm).

Both inner and outer layers are done. This is the bottom edge of the hat.
It looks like a tube with two triangular sacks sticking out. The sacks will flatten during blocking.

Now is the easy part: fold the layers along the cast-on line, transfer the stitches from both layers onto one round needle (one stitch for the inner layer, one stitch from the outer layer, one stitch for the inner layer, one stitch from the outer layer… until all on one needle). Knit together.

Continue knitting in a round into whatever shape you choose.

My version came out like on the picture below.
I wonder what yours will look like… Keep on creating!

Komi knitting III: treasure trove of textile designs

The redwork textile patterns of the Finno-Ugric people is a great source for designing knitwear patterns. This is the third post about the Komi knitting and its history.

Besides being skilled knitters, the Komi women were also imaginative weavers. The patterns on their towels, table cloths, belts and shirts are of the same diagonal geometric shapes as seen in their knitted objects, but the compositions are more sophisticated.

First: the postscript to Komi Knitting II

I had the most interesting exchange on Facebook with Johanna P. from Finland.

She posted several pictures with sweaters. I’m taking a liberty to republish the photos with Johanna’s descriptions. The items are excellent illustrations of the Finno-Ugric textile tradition, but they are not the products of the traditional Komi knitting.

The resident of the Archangelsk area, early 20th century.
Archangelsk was a major Russian port and had close ties with both – Europe and the land of Komi. The population of Archangelsk was a wild mix of the Russian outcasts and explorers and the native Finno-Ugric tribes.
The sweater collected from the White Sea shore (Archangelsk area, to the north of the Komi) in 1911.
National Museum of Finland
The design based on Finno-Ugric textile patterns. Circa 1986.

… now back to topic – the Komi textiles

I found several diagrams in the ethnographic book. The patterns are copied from the original textiles and belts of the Perm region of the Komi Republic.

Combination of several designs for the vest

The diagonal patterns of the Komi are very predictable and easy to combine into large-scale intricate borders and all-over patterns. Charlene Schurch’s book Mostly Mittens: Traditional Knitting Patterns from Russia’s Komi People (see my previous post) explains the principle of the Komi patterns.
For my vest featured above, I combined a couple of border patterns from for the socks and the pattern with a stylized female figure called Bereginya (Mother Protector) found on 19th-century towel pattern from Perm region of the Komi Respublic.

Komi knitting II: a brief introduction

Colorful knitting of the Komi is little known beyond Russia, very much unlike Fair Isle knitting. But it is spectacular. It allows endless creative variations. This is the second post about the Komi knitting and its history.

The Komi

Brief overview of the colorful knitting of the Komi people of the Russian North. I will write about the Komi textile art and the history of the Komi people in later posts.

The Komi are one of the numerous Russia’s ethnic minorities. Their language belongs to the Finno-Ugric group. The better-known languages in this group are Hungarian, Finnish and Estonian. There are total 24 Finno-Ugric languages, mostly spoken in the Northern regions of Europe and Asia.
About 300,000 Komi people are currently living within Russian borders, in The Komi Republic. Theirs is the land of forests, severely cold winters and short, bright summers, when a surprise frost in July is not a rarity.

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100 years ago the most of the Komi people lived in small villages. The modern Komi prefer the life other than the poverty and hardship of the countryside.

Komi colorwork knitting

The Komi women traditionally knitted only knee-high socks and mittens. Infrequently – gloves. By word “traditionally” I mean at the turn of the 20th century.

The patterns were always diagonal and geometric. Symmetric and asymmetric. Stars and flowers were rarely used.

In spite of its visual intricacy, the patterns are easy to knit without constantly consulting a chart.
2 rows of color changes every 1,3,5 stitches. Every third row – color changes every 3 stitches. Like a Mandelbrot set, a Komi pattern can expand into something complex over 24 rows or more, or to form something simple over a border of 5 or 7 rows.

Very little was published about the art of Komi knitting in the USSR or in Russia.
The most authoritative work is a doctoral thesis by ethnographer Galina Klimova, based on her research in the Komi villages in the 1968-1978.

Klimova’s thesis was published as a book The Ornamental Knitting of The Komi People in Russian. It is a mind-numbing reading, but the sins of dry language, historic omissions and all other sins that Ms. Klimova committed on this Earth must be forgiven to her for her careful and detailed illustrations. She saved the vanishing heritage of the people for the 21st century: today the traditional knitting is popular again and the modern Komi women are learning it by the illustrations in her book.

Below are several color plates from Ms. Klimova’s book. The mittens are obvious. The rectangular shapes are top parts of the socks.

Luckily for the English-speaking audience, Charlene Schurch wrote Mostly Mittens: Traditional Knitting Patterns from Russia’s Komi People (1998).
The designs and the choice of wool in the book closely follow the Komi tradition.
The designer’s only liberty was the inclusion of her lovely hat designs. (Remember, the Komi women knitted only mittens and socks.)

Below are the plates with traditional sock patterns. In my next post I will give a brief overview of the Komi weaving. It uses the same diagonal patterns, but of more intricate design.

Komi knitting I: an accidental discovery

I stumbled into little known knitting tradition of the Komi people after making my first tunic from Alice Starmore’s Fishermen’s Sweaters and designing my own vest. The diagonal patterns of the Komi socks and mittens mesmerized me.

In the previous post I featured the vest of my own design inspired by the Komi knitting.

One of my first projects was a pattern called Baltic from Fishermen’s Sweaters by Alice Starmore. I wanted to make something that honors my roots from the Baltic shore.

Alice Starmore wrote in the introduction to her pattern that she could not find any fishermen’s sweaters from the Baltic regions except the one Estonian sweater in the Finnish museum. She based the pattern on that sweater executed in a yarn of lovely gray shades. Starmore’s book was published in 1993. This was the decade when very little was known about the knitting traditions of the former USSR.

After I finished the Baltic sweater, I knew that knitting according to someone’s instructions is not my forte. I love to design my own things.

For my next project, I googled Russian redwork embroidery. There were plenty of images on internet. Beautiful and suitable for knitting.

The woven towel from Perm region of Russia

The modified weaving pattern from a towel end was just right for the vest.
The vest has a few interesting technical features. I will write about them in detail in another post.

I abandoned the rule of using same type of yarn in stranded color work. A mix of fluffy Katia Alpaca-Silk (doubled) and a gradient set called Katia Ombre (sports weight).
It is a pity that Katia Alpaca-Silk is discontinued, but to my knowledge, there is compatible yarn under label Drops.

The swatch for my vest.

The combination of thicker, fluffier yarn and thinner, smoother yarn allowed me to use larger needles ( #7 US). The vest turned out to be of right thickness and went reasonably fast.

Komi vest inside out.
I did not use steeking for neck and arm openings. The technique is not suitable for very soft yarns knit on larger needles.
Also, one has to catch floats every 3 stitches.

I noticed something during my searches, which turned a pattern selection into an amateur science project: many diagonal geometric textile patterns posted online were captioned as Perm region of Russia. Perm is a city in the Republic of Komi, a federal territory within Russia. The native population there was not Russian.

A little more research yielded an intriguing story of the ancient textile tradition which is little known to the world: Komi stranded color work knitting and Komi weaving.

What became clear from my amateur research that the attractive diagonal geometric patterns in hand-knitting that we think of as Estonian or Latvian or Russian might have been borrowed from the Komi people, who live to the west of the Urals Mountains. The Estonians, the Finns and the Komis are of the same Finno-Ugric ethnic group and they live on neighboring territories. The Komis adopted the technique of knitting earlier than their cousins. It came from their Asian neighbors.

The Republic of Komi on the map of Russia

The search for Komi knitting books brought only one result, but a lot of other fascinating materials. The history of the Komi and their knitting is a testimony how much the fate and heritage of a small ethnic group depends on twists and turns of the history. It is the story well worth telling.

In the next several posts, I will write about the light and dark periods of the Komi knitting.

Knitting a vest: all in one piece and no ribbing

Just in time for the winter! I made another vest for myself. This time I tried two ideas: smooth transitions of colors and patterns and to do away with traditional steeking and ribbing. Colorwork patterns from the traditional Komi textiles.

I love the diagonal patterns of the Komi textiles. They are easy to combine together: one pattern flows into another creating visually intricate fabric.
Also, gradient and contrasting colors add liveliness.
My vest looks complicated, but with a few design tricks it is not complicated at all. I jotted down here a few ideas for you, my fellow knitting artists, to use in your projects.

Side note
The Komi people live in the Russian North. Alas, the Komi textile art is not well-known beyond the Russian borders. I will dedicate my future blogs to the fascinating story of their colorwork knitting tradition, meanwhile, I recommend Charlene Schurch’s Mostly Mittens: Traditional Knitting Patterns from Russia’s Komi People to explore the fascinating geometry of the Komi folk art.

Materials and tools

I do not buy “sweater quantities”. The experiments with yarns of different weights and textures procured somewhere as odd lots at bargain prices are far more interesting. It is also a good thing for Mother Earth.
For this vest I used light gray Katia merino/silk (doubled), a set of Katia Ombre (blues), sock-weight red wool with a lost label from Savers, leftovers of recycled angora yarn (oranges and yellows) and good old Cascade 220 for the hem borders.

Because I combined thicker and softer yarn with thinner and firmer yarns, I was able to use larger needles (#7). Such combination did not make my vest bulky or shapeless.

if you decide to repeat the experiment with mixing yarns, Katia merino/silk (now discontinued) can be replaced by the yarn produced under the label Drops. Drops offers more interesting range of colors.

As to Katial Ombre, it can be replaced by any other label that produces gradient yarns in Sports or sock weight.

Design challenge

The goal was to design a true single-piece garment without ribbing and without steeking (steeking is not suitable for soft yarns. The delicate yarns do not “stick” well like famouse Shetland wool. The cut edges will droop miserably).

The vest is knit on round needles bottom up. From the arm holes it is continued in flat knitting up to the shoulder seams.

The true design challenge was to get rid of ribbing round arm holes and neckline. Here is my solution: at the tip of the neckline and round the armholes I created 6 stitches out of 3. Those 6 stitches are knit in reversible style: knitting with gray yarn, purling with periwinkle yarn. The reduction of the stitches under the arm and around the neckline was with the 4th stitch from the edge, if you are looking at the right side of the fabric. That stitch was always of the same color: it creates a nice line round the openings.
When the vest was complete, I ran a string through the tube formed by reversible knitting to prevent excessive stretching.

Another small, but important technical trick: I inserted a short row near the shoulder seam to accommodate shoulder slope.

Here is how the edges of the vest look from the wrong side:

The wrong side of the Komi vest

Pithy “how-to” instructions

I publish here only the technical drawing and the color chart of the vest.
Note that I’m of a very generous size, so adjust the stitch and row counts according to your size.

If you decide to use the color chart below, remember the important task of centering the repeats of Bereginya pattern ( a stylized female figure ) along the hem. Bereginya means Mother-Protector in old Slavic languages.
Alice Starmore wrote the best instructions on centering and adjusting the border patterns in her books Fair Isle Knitting and Charts for Color Knitting. I recommend highly these two books if you are into stranded-color knitting.
By the way: the diagonal patterns of the Komi textiles are great for decreasing or increasing to fit a desirable size.

Bereginya border is 24 st X 18 rows. The leftmost strip of 12 st is the reduction of the pattern.
The repeat chart for “squiggles” is marked on the top of the pattern by dotted line.

Thank you for reading. I hope, you got a creative idea or two!

Iris Apfel: “Color rules!”

Iris Apfel became a mega-star of American fashion when she was over 80. You might call her style “over-the-top”, but it is undeniable: Iris has Style.

The Ainu of Japan.
Photo by Fosco Maraini, 1940s

If your are in the camp of those who think that Iris’ taste is over-the-top, look though ethnographic photos of the late 19th-early 20th century from the different parts of the world. The folk clothes are of bright colors with elaborate headdresses and sizable jewelry. Iris did not invent her style in vacuum: she borrowed and synthesized what she saw.

Her outfits look odd to us because we have become Chanelized.
Our clothes is a sea of black and white, with some beige, burgundy, gray, navy and inoffensive pastels. Dull prints galore. Here and there small splashes of bright scarves meekly break the visual monotony.
Perhaps, the most of modern women do not even know what their favorite colors are.

Iris Apfel was never afraid of a bright color or a bold shape. In fact, as she grew older, she cared even less what people think of her style. She liked what she liked and she wore it.

Such freedom did not appear out of nowhere. Iris grew up with the mother who “worshiped at the altar of accessory”. As a young woman she tried her hand in interior decorating. The rest of her working life Iris and her husband of some 70 years ran the textile business, which specialized in reproduction of rare and antique fabrics. That’s substantial education in cloth and fashion.

Iris loves dressing up like very few women in our modern world care or dare. She quipped that dressing up was frequently the only fun part about going to parties.
The closets in her New York apartment were bigger than a bedroom in an average house. Iris had hard times partying with her finery. Many of her outfits were custom made, like a tiger-print set on the photo below, many are one-of-a-kind fight of fancy by fashion designers.

The habit of hoarding turned out to be a good thing, after all.
Several years ago Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC was preparing the exhibition of some famous fashion designer, but it fell through. Another exhibition had to fill the slot and on a very short notice. The Museum asked Iris Apfel whether she was willing to put her outfits on display. She agreed. The exhibition was a hit.
The rare bird of fashion spread her wings.

There are several underlying themes in Iris’ work. First, she teaches the importance of personal style. Second, she advocates on behalf of the women of a certain age and beyond in the youth-centered world of fashion. Third, our modern clothes are works of art fit for museum exhibitions. Textile exhibitions should not be only about historic costumes (clothes that nobody wears any more) or artwear (clothes that nobody is physically able to wear) .

In this post I published several pictures from the exhibit in the new wing Fashion and Design that opened in Peabody-Essex Museum in Salem, MA in September 2019.
Alice Apfel was an active participant of this project.

More about Iris Apfel

There is an excellent documentary about her ( Iris ). Trailer on Youtube.
At least three books have been published since her success in Metropolitan Museum, one of them is a lavish catalog of her earlier exhibition in PEM appropriately called Rare Bird of Fashion.

Aunt Dottie: the heritage of a humble New Hampshire knitter

Humble New Hampshire knitter made sweaters for her extended family. It became a collection lovingly preserved by her nephew. The collection reflects the hand-knitting trends of the 1970s-80s.

While taking a lunch walk, I saw the unusual exhibition in the hallways of the building in Portsmouth, NH: the walls hung with hand-knit colorful sweaters.
The nephew of the woman he calls aunt Dottie knitted over 70 sweaters for the family as Christmas gifts.
An individual sweater on display was not a work of art. Many are the replicas of commercial patterns. Some of aunt Dottie’s designs are lacking composition. The workmanship of some is not the best.
What counts here is the whole body of aunt Dottie’s work.
The messages and intentions that were knitted into the sweaters.
They reflect the ages and the interests of the giver and the recipients of the sweaters.
There is an interesting historical aspect of the exhibition: it reflects the American knitting aesthetics of the 1970s-80s. Large, bold patterns. Heavier yarn of bright, contrasting colors.

Еxperiments with medium-weight yarn in stranded knitting

The rule of stranded color knitting is to use finer, same weight yarn (sports or baby). But there was nobody to tell me this, so I bought a lot of medium weight yarn like Cascade 220. Now the goal is to knit myself out of this accidental stash. I experimented a bit. I hope, the results will be of benefit to you, too.

Warning: the swatches from the experiments looked hopeless first. The fabric was lumpy, with holes. The swatches must be blocked before one can see whether the idea has any merit.

Idea #1

To combine medium-weight, stiffer yarn with thinner, softer yarn. Like Cascade 220 (rated for #7-8 US needles) and Cascade Heritage merino/silk (rated for #1-3 US needles) using needle size that is an average of 2 recommended sizes.

Right swatch above, on #6 US needles: the fabric came out reasonably thin but stiff. Great for hats, jackets (worn without a coat over it) or coats. In sum, where an item must retain shape.
Left swatch above, on #7 US needs: the fabric came out thinner, as if it was knit with Cascade 220 alone. And it was much softer than Cascade 220 alone. Suitable for hats, heavier sweaters and coats.

Verdict:

  • The pattern should have more foreground color, i.e. more than 70% of stitches should be with thicker yarn.
  • In flat knitting: 2 edge stitches should be in foreground color to produce an even selvage.
  • Knitting is reasonably fast, because of the large needle size.
  • It is best to catch the floats every 3 stitches.

Idea #2

Use softer, fluffier yarn for background.

The swatch below holds a real promise. I used fluffier, softer medium-weight yarn for the background. The label is lost, but I would say it is alpaca or alpaca blend.
The experiment on #7 US needles yielded the swatch of perfect thinness, density and drape to make any object. Fluffy fibers of the background yarn nicely covered holes after blocking.

Background: medium-weight soft alpaca
Foreground: Cascade Heritage merino/silk.
Needles: #7 US

Idea #3

To mix even lighter, fluffier background yarn and stiffer foreground yarn that hold shape well.
Background: Katia Alpaca/Silk, rated for #4 US needles, 2 strands plied together. It has the softest hand. Knitting in a single strand is perfect for scarfs and shawls. Unfortunately, Katia Alpaca/Silk is discontinued, but there is an adequate substitute under label Drops.
Foreground: merino sports weight from Katia Ombre set.
Verdict:

  • The idea is a keeper! The best swatch in a batch: soft, but it will hold shape well
  • The background fluffy yarn creates an attractive halo over the pattern
  • The proportion of background to foreground yarn in a pattern can raised to 50-50.
The foreground and background yarns are 50-50 in the pattern.
Grey: Katia Alpaca/Silk Red: Katia Ombre merino sports weight
Needles: #7 US
The vest where idea #3 is applied.

The pattern is derived from the folk textile pattern of the Komi people.
Another post will be about the Komi knitting and the techniques used in this project later.

Scarf of many, many colors

Have many remnants of fine yarns? Here is the master recipe for the eye-catching scarf. it includes the concept of color change from the American weaver Richard Landis (see photos from the exhibit in Cooper-Hewitt Museum of design in References below) and Fibonacci numbers.

Inspirations

The inspiration behind the scarf was a wall hanging I saw in Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York City.

Nature’s design secret

Mother Nature programmed us from birth to find plants, especially flowers, beautiful. At the core of plant’s growth, arrangement of its petals and seeds is Fibonacci series.

Fibonacci numbers stack like this: starting with 2, the next number is the sum of the previous two:

1 + 2 = 3 2 + 3 = 5 3 + 5 = 8 8 + 5 = 13 13 + 8 = 21 etc. etc.

Fibonacci numbers have direct connection to Golden Angle and Golden Rule, two important design principles that the humans have been borrowing from Nature since the time immemorial. Some references about the natural patterns are in the section Literature below. Enough of science. Now let’s get to knitting.

Pattern

The pattern is simple – columns of rectangles.

It is the rectangle sizes, their spacing and color changes that give rhythm to this profusion of bright colors.

Each rectangle is the height of Fibonacci number – 5,8,13 rows.

Within each rectangle two complimentary colors (2+3), (3+5), (5+8) rows.

5 rows of background color separate the rows of rectangles. The width of rectangles is 3 stitches, separated by 3 stitches of background color.

The height of each row is picked rather randomly, but there are a few rules which do the trick.

Change only one color in any row. The next change of color – background or foreground – should be minimum 2 rows after.

Each two-tone rectangle is surrounded by “friendly” colors, i.e. background color, the colors of preceding and following rectangles should be in crisp harmony.

Vertically, as you knit, the color that ends the previous two-tone rectangle should begin the next rectangle of the same two tones. (aqua-blue, hunter-jade, blue-aqua, jade-hunter). This principle I stole from weaver Richard Landis.

To tie the colors together: repeat rectangles of a particular spectrum more often. I chose to repeat rectangles in range of dark green-apple green-chartreuse-yellow every other row. Mother Nature told us that green-yellow shades get along with many bright colors.

Materials, tools & technique

There are 22 colors in this scarf. It is 3 meters (9 ft) long.
The yarns were various luxury remnants: alpaca, wool-silk blend, thin kid mohair, angora. Anything you have for #1-3 US needles. It will all even out at the end!
For background colors I chose smooth yarns of subtler shade.
Kid mohair and angora gave a wonderful ‘haze’ to rectangles.

Technique: stranded color work, knitted flat. But the fabric resists any blocking and curls into a tube. So it to go with a flow: knit it as a tube.|
Needle size: #4 US

If I had to do it again…

… I would have knitted this scarf in a round, like a tube. It did not matter how many times I blocked it: it rolled back into a tube. No point to fight with physics.

That’s about it… Play with colorful yarns and Fibonacci numbers!

Now it is time to create your own pattern…

Here are a few examples of using Fibonacci numbers in pattern design. You can go from simple stripes to rectangles with as few as two colors.

References

Essay “Plant Numerology” in gorgeous book The Beauty of Numbers in Nature: Mathematical Patterns and Principles from the Natural World by Ian Stewart (The MIT Press) gave me the idea of using Fibonacci numbers.

The wall-hangings of Richard Landis was on display in Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum in New York City. I took a few less than flattering pictures. Landis frequently uses sewing threads for his weaving.

Komi knitting IV: rooted in the Middle Ages

The brief history of the Komi and their knitting craft as it formed through 19th century and early 20th century, with remarkable old ethnographic photos.

When I read more about the Komi people, I understood that their history and the evolution of their knitting art are closely connected.
This post is about the knitting tradition of the old days, i.e. before the 1920s
Left: the exhibit from the National Museum of Komi.


Yes, your trained eye of a knitter has already spotted the magnificent socks.
Read on. There will be more interesting photos.

The oldest knitting tradition in Northern Europe

The Komi people live in the Autonomous Komi Republic in the North of Russia, west of the Urals mountains. The Urals are the division between Europe and Asia.
The ethnic minority is about 300,000 people now.

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In the early 2000s the archaeologists discovered the burial site on the territory of Perm Region of Komi. It is dated between 930-980.
The female remains had a fragment of knitted fabric on her leg.
This is the earliest known sample of knitting on the territory of Eastern Europe. It lead the scientists to the conclusion*:


The earliest European patterns of knitting come from the Finno-Ugric burials. The Finno-Ugrians, in particular, who inhabited the territory of the Perm region, could easily borrow the knitting skill from the Arabs, with whom they has strong economic ties. And most likely it was from the Finno-Ugrians and not from the Western Europe that the Russians adopted the skill.

The Komis: 100-150 years ago

Historically there have been two closely related Komi groups: the Zyrians (the actual Komis) and the Permyaks . The former group is more numerous, lived to the North and the latter lived to the South of the Komi region. The Zyrians never knew the serfdom (slavery imposed by the Russians), but the Permyaks were serfs of the Stroganov family from Russia until the 1860s.
Perhaps, the history determined the attitude of each group. The Zyrians were more energetic and entrepreneurial and, consequently, much better off. Many of them were literate. The Permyaks had less initiative and were poorer.

The large family of Zyrian Komis from village of Yeletz. It appears to be a well-off household. Ethnographic photos by Sergey Sergel 1906
The agricultural tools were rather primitive. In general, the peasants of Russia were well behind their European peasantry technologically.
Ethnographic photos by Sergey Sergel 1906
The family of the Zyrian Komis.
Ethnographic photos by Sergey Sergel 1906

The Komis spoke the language of the Finno-Ugric family, a cousin to the Estonian, Finnish, Hungarian and 19 other languages. It had nothing to do with the Russian, the dominant language of the Russian Empire.
It is worth to note that the Komis were the third of the Finno-Ugric tribes that acquired their own written language. It was created in the 14th century by the Russian Christian missionaries, who came to convert the Komis. From the 14th century on, the Russians population started to settle in the Komi lands – missionaries, traders, outcasts of the mainstream Russian Orthodox Christianity. Perhaps, it was through the settlers that the Russian women learned knitting from the Komis.

The raft-ship made of logs floating alone one of the Komi rivers towards the sea port.
Early 20th century.
The Komi taiga was a major source of the Komis’ livelihood. The region exported wood and furs well into 20th and 21st centuries.
The house of a well-off peasant, Perm region.The architecture is simple. It repeats though the Russian north: log cabins. A large brick oven stood in the middle of a house. This large house seem to have two ovens. The windows also traditionally opened outside.
Early 20th century.


The Komis lived in clusters of small villages.
Hunting, fishing, logging, herding deer and crafts were the predominant sources of income. The Komis adopted agriculture very late by historical standards: the soil is poor and the growing season is too short. The wheat did not fare well in these Northern lands, but the Komis planted rye, flax and root vegetables to supplement the gifts of the taiga (mushrooms, berries, game) and rivers (fish).

As far as knitting goes, the ornate Komi mittens and socks were in high demand in the 19th and early 20th century. The knitting was entirely women’s domain and provided a nice side income for families. The 1899 survey of craft occupations in Russia shown that among all crafts where women were employed, knitting was one of the best paid.

The Komi knitting technique was in a round on 5 double-pointed needles (spokes) . They practiced mostly stranded color work with addition of some ribbing.

The material was local sheep wool, with dog and cow wool added sometimes (the old photos show that the Komi cows were small and as hairy as dogs). Some quantities of camel and fine goat wool were exported into the region from other places.
The linen thread, locally produced, was also a common material for knitting and weaving.

In the 19th-early 20th century the Komis used mostly natural dyes. Here is the list of colors compiled by ethnographer Galina Klimova: red, dark red, blue, violet, periwinkle, green, dark raspberry, yellow, black. In the early 20th century the Komis started using aniline dyes for wool and linen. Ms. Klimova wistfully wrote that by mid-20th century the Komis largely lost the secrets of natural dyes.

The story of the Komi diagonal geometric motifs

Christian Orthodox missionary Stephan used the family pases to create the first Komi alphabet in the 15th century

In the Medieval times each Komi family used a simple composition of diagonal lines to mark its belongings – boats, pots, baskets.
Why diagonal lines? Making a horizontal or a vertical cut on an object might split its wood or birch bark. The mark was called pas. The sons derived their pases from their father’s by adding another diagonal line, circle or dot. Some craftsman with an artistic eye eventually noticed that several pases of his family repeated in a row make a pleasing ornament for a clay pot or a basket.

Over the centuries, pases almost completely lost their meaning as a family mark and became local decorative motifs. The weavers and knitters went further: they grew simple diagonal patterns into sophisticated compositions.**

The market place by the church in the ancient settlment Kupros. Early 20th century.
Note that the craftsmen decorated their cooking pots with diagonal geometric patterns.
Relevant to knitting: a set of 5 knitting needles dating back to mediaval times was found in the burial site near Kupros.

Meaning of shapes

Like in all other cultures, the stylized geometric shapes have meaning. The same applies to the Komi patterns.

Small sample of geometric figures with their traditional Komi interpretation:
woman, deer shepherd, man, deer, tree, fir tree, berry patches, young deer, hut, seagull, footprints of young animals, sun, fish and child.

The Komis’ real fashionistas: men!

The traditional Komi costume was very much like Russian costume, with the exception of knitted knee-high socks and mittens.
Men’s socks were really distinct. I looked through dozens and dozens of the early ethnic photographs from different regions of Russia and nowhere I found this uniquely Komi fashion: men in ornate socks. The fancier multi-color socks were for special days, 2-color socks were for daily use.

Two peasants in their usual clothes. Socks included, of course.
Early 1900s.
The ultimate Northern dandy. The guys has everything on: traditional socks, mittens and a wide hand-woven belt.
From album of Travels to North by N.A. Shabunin, 1906
Look at the boy of about 7 in the middle.
He wears a pair of extraordinary fine socks.
From the ethnographic collection of Sverdlov region

The women’s socks, alas, were nothing much to marvel at: very modest in color and with fewer patterns.

Much like in Irish aran knitting, the combination of patterns signaled which region, village and family the knitted socks or mittens belonged.

For themselves the Komi women knitted socks that were far, far less grand affairs.
Frequently – just stripes with an decorative band on the top.
Photos from the ethnographic expedition 1900-1910
The Komi mittens were ornate for both sexes.
Ethnographic photos by Sergey Sergel 1906

Knitting: women’s show of craftsmanship

The Komi girls became skillful knitters and weavers by the age of 14-15.
At this point, any girl’s goal was to create the evidence of her skills for her bridal ceremony: a dozen or so pairs of mittens to give to her future relatives, top parts of socks for her future husband (a foot part was finished after the wedding). The girls also wove textile pieces: towels with intricate borders, table cloths, belts.
The bride’s work was displayed for the wedding guests to see and to evaluate her craftsmanship.

Weaving a belt. The woven belts were an import part of the Komi costume. This is the only textile art that the Komi men partook.
Ethnographic photos by Sergey Sergel 1906
Pera, a hero of the Komi folklore.
His socks are of red, black, yellow and white wool.
Historically accurate color theme for Komi men’s socks.

Why you might not know about Komi knitting

The short answer: the tragic twists of the Russian history.

Ms. Klimova in her The Ornamental Textiles of The Komi People ***(1978) drops cryptic references:

The elderly people tell that before, about 50 years ago, almost every woman knitted in local ornamental style, but then the times came when the women forgot all about it…

or:

… in the 1930s-1940s the Komi stranded color knitting was almost abandoned…

Of course, in the 1970s USSR it was impossible for Ms. Klimova to write what she really knew about the fate of the the Komis and their knitting tradition in the 20th century.
Nowdays it is not a secret. I will write continue the story in my next post.

References

*Krysalova, N.B., Origin of knitting in Eastern Europe (On the first finding of a fragment of a knitted product in the Urals), Journal of Historical Archeology & Anthropological Sciences, Vol 2 Issue 1 – 2017

***The simplified summary of the theory by ethnographer Lyubov’ Gribova in the 1970s. Her works are published mostly in Russian: Грибова Л.С., Геометрический орнамент в народном искусстве коми, Декоративно-прикладное искусство народов коми, 1980

** *This book is a doctoral thesis published as a book only in Russian. It remains the most authoritative reference on subject of the traditional Komi knitting:
Галина Климова, Текстильный орнамент Коми, второе издание, Кудымар, Коми-Пермяцкое книжное издательство, 1995