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.

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.

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