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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.