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