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 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!

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.