Craft has always fascinated me because it's part of how we express our relationship to the world around us. As a knitter, I'm especially interested in the different styles and patterns of knitting around the world. So I'm delighted to host Donna Druchunas, award-winning author, whose new book, Ethnic Knitting Discovery: The Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, and the Andes, was just released by Nomad Press on my blog. Here's our conversation about how knitting reflects culture and place:
Susan: I'm fascinated by how art and craft express people's experiences of the places where they live and the other species that share those landscapes. So I'm curious about how the patterns you show in Ethnic Knitting Discovery relate to the landscapes and cultures they come from.
Donna: What's really interesting is trying to track the movement of knitting traditions around the globe. The knitting style used in the Andes is also used in Portugal and Turkey. Most knitting historians believe that the craft began in the Middle East and later travelled to Europe and then to the United Sates. Tracing the path of the Andean technique makes me wonder if it wasn't brought to Portugal (and Spain?) by the Moorish conquerers as they were spreading Islam into that region, and then brought to South America later by the conquistadors and Christian missionaries. A similar style is used in Greece, but I'm not sure how closely related the Greek technique is to these others.
There are also similar designs and techniques that have been used in Scandinavia and the Baltics; some Lithuanian mittens have patterns that closely resemble Turkish socks, and fisherman's sweaters with similar construction have been made in many different parts of Europe. Before printed patterns, it seems like knitters had no problem sharing their techniques and stitches generously, and styles and garment constructions spread around, often quite quickly.
S: For example, do any of the patterns depict native animals or plants? Or if they are more abstract patterns, are they derived from shapes of the landscape, plants and animals, or cultural practices?
D: Some regions use mostly geometric patterns, and others use pictorial patterns. In most regions, there are some historical meanings to the symbols, although modern knitters probably don't think about this much in their designs. For example: In the Andes, many of the knitting designs are based on plants and animals in the region. There is a coca leaf pattern that is incredibly popular, as well as designs of flowers, water, the sun, dogs, cats, lamas, snakes, and many other animals. In Norway, symbols are more geometric, but no less meaningful. There are many variations of crosses, for example, that carry Christian symbolism. Circles may represent fidelity, like a wedding ring; squares stand for the four corners of the earth; and triangles may symbolize the Christian trinity, female power, or the virgin Mary. Although less popular today, animals, plants, and people were commonly featured on Norwegian sweaters and mittens in the past. My book, Ethnic Knitting Discovery, merely covers the tip of the iceberg. Volumes could be written, and have been written, about the textiles traditions in each of these regions. I hope my readers will get excited by my introductions and do further explorations on their own.
S: Is the knitting of anyone culture or region in the book more reflective of its landscape and natural community than the other regions?
D: Not really. Although knitting techniques and designs spread throughout Europe and then to other parts of the world fairly quickly, people were still quite isolated before the invention of the automobile. It was quite common to be born and die without ever leaving your own village or traveling over ten miles from home. So designs became unique in each region. This is even true within a single nation. I focused on a particular region of Noway in my book, but other knitting traditions around the country were unique, although there are some similarities that tie together the whole Scandinavian region, and "leak" into the designs found in the surrounding areas. The combination of world travel by a few and isolation of the many is something that's difficult to imagine in the United States today where just about everyone travels at least to another part of this huge country every year for the holidays, a wedding, or a high school graduation. Such informal travel would have been unheard of even 100 years ago. My great grandparents came to the US from Russia and Lithuania, and I'm the first person in our family to have an inkling of desire to return for a visit, over a century later.
S: Do you think that craft is a reflection of our view of the world? Or simply a decorative abstraction?
D: I think it's different for everyone. Some people knit and crochet to keep their hands busy, following patterns that they buy at the local yarn shop or hobby store. Others use their craft to be a part of a community and to connect to other knitters today, and to those who lived in the past. In any case, crafting is always a very personal experience.
What craft is your passion? Does it express something about your ties to culture and place? Let us know what you think!