Wednesday, August 23, 2006

It got me thinking

I read far, far too many patterns yesterday on the Garnstudio website, and what I got to thinking about is how very different American and Norwegian knitting patterns are.

I have been thinking about this ever since I became a knitter. See, I've been a knitter since February 2005. But my Gran? She was a hard-core Norwegian knitter, and she died in 1993.

She was in her garden puttering around when she had a stroke. Though she didn't die instantly, she likely never knew what hit her.

So anyway. When I was a kid we had these Norwegian mittens, which I must find a picture of and post, that were white with black Selbu stars on them and snowflakes on the palm. Mom made those - by finding a pair Gran made and writing out the chart stitch by stitch on graph paper. Then she knitted them. No pattern. Stranded Norwegian knitting, and that was her only pattern.

So the thing is, I wanted to incorporate some of this fearlessness into my own knitting as soon as I felt like I knew what I was doing enough to be let loose on my own. Part of it is the generality of patterns - "knit for 7 inches, then knit the heel" is what a Norwegian pattern is more likely to say, while an American knitter is more likely to give you row-by-row instructions for turning the heel instead of telling you just to knit over the gaps. I'm not quite there, but if you notice, I do tend to post pattern things that say "increase here and here every other row x times, then blah" and I don't really get specific.

I would like to think this is in my blood, but it really isn't. It's a desire to be like Mom and Gran in my knitting, to carry on their legacy of figuring the darn thing out myself rather than having to carry a 15-page sock pattern around in my bag.

Gran stored all these things in her head - how to crochet an angel for the Christmas tree, how to make gravy, how to make a pot of coffee without a coffee measure. She taught me how to peel potatoes with a knife without cutting myself. She drank green tea by the gallon. She was diminutive - I think I was taller than her by the time I reached sixth grade - with dark brown hair, grey eyes and pale skin. Her voice was singsong, punctuated by "ya" every few sentences, and there was a musical quality to the pacing of her speech - Mom has it too, and occasionally I do.

I wish I had her knitting needles, because whenever I get into a sticky project I try to get into her head and think about how to solve it. I think for this reason alone I adore Elizabeth Zimmermann - because she is this kind of practical, sensible knitter. Because of them, I worked out a way to do arch shaping for socks on my own - and then (a miracle) I looked at the VK sock pattern to check my work and realized I was not far off at all except for the number of stitches to leave in the center.

So these Drops patterns say things like "knit in stockinette stitch till work matches the diagram" or "decrease four stitches at each end of the work three times" - wha? how?

They leave you to work it out. Like the Knitty article says, they assume you know what a decrease is and how to use it.

I think American knitters should know more of this. I have to work out a picture in my mind to get what a skpsso does even though I know it's a left-leaning decrease. I don't think in terms of knitting terms yet.

But why am I afraid to tackle one of these patterns as my first?

Because I would want my Gran to stand with me and show me how to make gravy, that's why. So maybe for a second sweater I will knit one in her honor.


Anonymous Anne said...

I love the Garnstudio patterns. When I first picked up my pointy sticks after about 15 years off (I'd been totally demoralised by a pattern for a baggy Rowan sweater entirely knitted in seed stitch) I knitted a Garnstudio sweater for my (then) 3 year old. It was something of a rite of passage, not least since the pattern was in Norwegian (it was before they'd translated so many of them). I enjoyed being treated like a "grown up" by the pattern, even if I was still puzzled once I'd managed to translate it. The sweater is far from perfect, but it works, and he loves it. Oh, and I'm still knitting...

3:01 AM  
Anonymous beverly said...

A really lovely, evocative post. Thanks for blending memoir and knitting so well.

6:56 AM  
Blogger Devorah said...

I miss your grandma! Thanks for bringing her to life for us. There is a Drops baby sweater on one of my sets of needles right now and I like the way the pattern is written.

6:58 AM  
Blogger Jinjifore said...

I've got a couple of Dale books lying around that I never managed to make anything from before Boo outgrew the sizes. Well, and before I could save the $$$ to buy the yarn to knit the things from the book. But I pored over the instructions, and, like you, realized that American patterns are a different animal than their Scandanavian counterparts. There was a section in the front to explain how Norwegians read and wrote patterns, and I had to burn some new neural pathways to wrap my head around it. But they were useful pathways, and I found myself wishing that American patterns gave knitters a bit more flexibility and credit for brains.

10:57 AM  
Blogger Peg said...

I just finished a shrug knit with Garnstudio Angora/Tweed. It knit up beautifully, but knitting with black pants on and I look like I had been savaged by an angora cat.
On my blog, you can see another Garnstudio yarn to knit another shrug. I must check out their patterns. I would love to knit Norweigan mittens, but have you checked out Lene's mittens at She is living in Lapland and her work is truly beautiful, but perhaps you already know her blog!
I loved my grandma and she taught me to knit! I hope I am as nice a grandma to my GDs as mine was to me.

12:24 PM  
Blogger Peevish said...

Your Gran sounds like a very cool woman. I think knitting a sweater in her honour is a very sweet idea.

5:14 PM  
Blogger Bev said...

"Because I would want my Gran to stand with me and show me how to make gravy, that's why. "

I can TOTALLY identify with grandma taught me to knit (and sew, and crochet and tat, etc., etc.) and I still miss getting to show her what I've been able to accomplish. She's been gone since the early 1970's.

When I grew my hair long in the 70's I wanted to french braid it and couldn't figure it out....I had one of the most vivid dreams of my life where my grandma came and taught me how to do the braiding and when I woke up, I knew how.

Maybe your Gran will come to you and help you out!

5:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello, I am from Czech Republic and I think the "assuming that you know how to do it" is widespread allover Europe. when the boundaries opened after the fall of communism, we were all shocked by Western cookbooks, which were written as if for idiots (as we called it. But I say - please keep doing it! If I want to cook foreign food with untraditional technique or learn how to knit cables without Grandma, I will be more than happy for detailed instructions. But I do have to smile when reading your article...


2:55 PM  

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