Saturday, November 22, 2008

B is for Bohus, Revisited

BohuslabelI’m breaking with my established pattern and the usual sequencing of the alphabet by looking back at one of my first posts and updating it. I suspect that once I’ve finished the abecedarium (extended with typographical symbols, of course), I will probably revisit several letters, but this one has asserted itself as a priority. I wrote last January about Bohus Stickning, and have finally had the very great pleasure of experiencing Susanna Hansson’s Bohus Stickning class (courtesy of Stitches East, held in Baltimore earlier this month). I am now acutely aware of how much more there is to say on the subject and how much I need to correct in my earlier post. Susanna’s class was so wonderful and there is much to report on it alone, so this post will be less a result of musing on general research and more an appreciation for a really gratifying learning experience. I’m going to try not to repeat myself, so if you’re interested in a general history of the Bohus Stickning collective, please read my earlier post or one of the many, many excellent online pieces listed at the end of this post.

Everyone’s Blue Shimmer
wristlets, in progress
Susanna distributed an incredible set of handouts that she had developed over years of perfecting this workshop. The handouts included a very thorough, annotated bibliography, a terrific pattern, and some nice geo-historical information. Her class project, a pair of wristlets, was an ideal way to appreciate the tiny Bohus gauge, the genius of its color combinations, and the lovely visual effect of its knit-purl changes. Solveig Gustaffson of SOLsilke has recreated Bohus-worthy yarns—50% angora/50% wool, dyed to match the five delicate and very particular original colors. So yes, the yarn for this project came to Baltimore via Seattle, all the way from Sweden (and before that, Denmark, where it was spun), and how divine it is! The pattern derives from part of the quintessential, iconic Bohus Stickning design, Blue Shimmer (Blå Skimmer in Swedish), by Anna-Lisa Mannheimer-Lunn. There are some lovely pictures of Blue Shimmer wristlets, hats, and sweaters on Flickr.

Blue Shimmer wristlets, completed.
Blue Shimmer
design by Anna-Lisa Mannheimer-Lunn in 1947.
As we progressed through the class, the delicate yarns seemed to float into the emerging wristlets, and Susanna edified us with information about the Bohus Stickning collective, its fearless leader, its cultural place in mid-century Sweden, and how all those factors were borne out in the sweaters. Her digital slide show was fabulous—full of remarkable, unpublished discoveries about how people (women themselves and gift-giving fathers & husbands) in America and Sweden acquired their original Bohus Stickning garments, and the place the sweaters have had in their lives ever since. And although it’s hard to settle on one highlight out of so many that day, seeing the selection of vintage sweaters Susanna brought from her collection was certainly it.

Vintage Bohus Stickning sweaters from the collection of Susanna Hansson. Top right design is The New Azalea, 1963, by Kerstin Olsson, and lower design is Aquamarine (also by Olsson, also 1963).
In fact, a major component of the learning process was an archaeological exercise that Susanna had developed to encourage her students to really examine the structure and techniques in all her vintage sweaters, hats, scarves, and gloves. We were given conservation-safe gloves for handling the fragile garments, which gave an added sense of their worth and historical value. A series of questions challenged us to tease out histories for each of them.

Seeing and “uncovering” the real Bohus sweaters (with Susanna’s guidance, of course) was a remarkable experience on so many levels. It gave me such a palpable sense of the Bohus Stickning collective and its relationship to Swedish (and global) history.
Kerstin Olsson, Myrtle, 1967.
It emerged during the war years as a response to dire economic conditions, but came into its own during the heady years of Western excess in the 1950s and 1960s. The sweaters were worn tight and tucked in; the favorites of movie stars and people in the limelight, and fashionistas with very exacting standards who could afford the high prices that went towards paying rural knitters, dyers, wool sorters, and yes, the designers, too. The high prices also meant that women who were lucky enough to acquire Bohus Stickning sweaters really cherished them and valued their gorgeous designs and fine craftsmanship.

A blue version of Kerstin Olsson’s
design, The Egg, ca. 1963-65.

Lessons Learned
In the murky land of “before this class,” I had set up a pretty firm mental distinction between Bohus, the technique, and Bohus Stickning, the cultural phenomenon. Susanna, however, did not seem to want to distinguish them. As a firm believer in the precepts set forth by the great Emma Jacobsson, founder and doyenne of Bohus Stickning, Susanna made an excellent case for maintaining the very high standards of the one and only true Bohus: knit at 9 stitches to the inch in angora/wool and after patterns developed by the six designers of Bohus (namely: Emma Jacobsson, Vera Bjurström, Anna-Lisa Mannheimer Lunn, Annika Malmström-Bladini, Karin Ivarsson, and Kerstin Olsson). Perhaps I’m reading too much into Susanna’s ideological stance, but I think there’s something to the concept. Jacobsson worked assiduously to protect both the Bohus Stickning style and the products of the Bohus Stickning cooperative. Diluting the fineness, exquisite color sensibilities, and incredibly high standards does a disservice to the rich legacy left us by the talented designers and knitters of Bohuslän. A garment designed and knit with a similar combination of knit and purl stitches at a more forgiving gauge is beautiful on its own merits, it just isn’t right to call it a Bohus. We should probably find a different name all together for the technique.

New Azalea, by Kerstin Olsson, 1963.
My big, huge, disappointment of the day was that a number of my best photographs of Susanna’s extraordinary vintage Bohus Stickning collection were corrupted. I had borrowed a nice camera for the weekend, and really should have spent some more time setting it up for the big moment, but I was too excited by the prospect of so much yarn and learning. However...perhaps this photographic tragedy is a sign from God that I must get myself out to Minneapolis for the event of the season: the opening of “Radiant Knits: The Bohus Tradition” in January.

(Linked) ad for the Radiant Knits exhibition, opening January 23, 2009, at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis, and sponsored by the Minnesota Knitters’ Guild
Yes, that’s right: there will be a Bohus exhibition in my very own country, featuring many pieces from Susanna’s extraordinary collection, sponsored by the Minnesota Knitters’ Guild, and mounted at the American Swedish Institute. The opening weekend in January will bring together Bohus re-creator Solveig Gustafsson, foremost teacher of Bohus Stickning Susanna Hansson, filmmaker Kjell Andersson (and his film, “Bohus Knitting – From Relief Work to World Success”), original Bohus designer Kerstin Olsson, and American dyer and Bohus yarn producer Mary Jo Burke. In addition to her tantalizing description of the exhibition, Susanna let it be known that Solveig Gustafsson is likely to release some new kits expressly for the exhibition, including (possibly, it must be said!) New Azalea, which was my favorite of all the scrumptious sweaters Susanna brought to Baltimore, and will certainly top my queue when it’s available as a kit.

Yarn for the Gray Mist sweater, newly arrived from SOLsilke in Sweden
Earlier this week, the makings for my very own Bohus sweater arrived from Sweden, on the very same day as an invitation to the opening of the exhibition in Minneapolis. Bohus Boon Day! I shouldn’t have photographed the yarn at all, because it’s really a gift for me, destined for a place under the Christmas tree. I shouldn’t have, I shouldn’t have, but how could I possibly not open this box with all its promise and check to see that its contents were all in order? The pattern is called Gray Mist, designed by Kerstin Olsson in the early 1960s, and inspired by a Paris fashion show that featured subtle, graded tones. Olsson designed several “mists,” each with a slightly different hue: Gray Mist, Green Mist, Brown Mist, and Gold Mist. The main color in Gray Mist is a dark gray—not quite charcoal, but with a slight tendency toward green. The other colors tend toward blues and one is decidedly periwinkle. But how could I possibly know all of this, having merely glanced at the contents of the box? What a delicious prospect for Boxing Day.

News Flash:
Bohus Gray Mist
Gray Mist underway
The new kits that Solveig Gustafsson has created for the exhibition, Radiant Knits, are now available via the American Swedish Institute’s online shop, Shop Swedish. Newly re-created designs include: Gothic Window (in blue and pink), Blue, Red & Turquoise Light(s), Rime Frost, and New Azalea, in addition to other wonders: Blue Shimmer, Swan, Large Lace Collar, Green & Gray Mist(s), Forest Darkness, Green Meadow, and Wild Apple. I believe Gold, Scilla, Blue Flower, the Egg, Sago & Red Palm(s), and Yellow & Rose Lace Collar(s) are only available via SOLsilke.

Fox News 9 coverage: “Historic Swede Sweaters on Display”

Slice of a Bohus Stickning design with live stitches showing the yarn’s angora content.

More, more, more

Radiant Knits Exhibition Information
The “come hither” package.

Other Blog Posts about Susanna Hansson’s Bohus Stickning Class
A few choice pieces from Susanna Hansson’s extraordinary collection.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

R is for Red Letters

DSC_0032Lively, assertive, challenging, alluring, frightening, gorgeous, shocking. Red is all that and so much more. So utterly central, this primary of primary colors contradicts and unifies, attracts and repels, radiates and absorbs. It symbolizes life and death, transgressions and sanctity, luck and doom. It’s virtually impossible to feel ambivalent about red. You either love it or you hate it. I love it, and I hope you do, too.

IMG_7562Red letters represent red’s contradictory personae particularly well. On the one hand, they signify providence and joyful anticipation, but on the other, they stand for punishment and shame. “Red letter days” are important days, full of promise. The term derives from the red ink used to mark saints’ days on liturgical calendars. Embellishing a religious text with red letters (notes, marginal symbols, above all, directions to the pious) is rubrication, from the Latin rubricare, which means “to color red.” The term, miniature, did not originally mean small. It simply described illustrations for devotional texts. In fact, it actually meant red picture. The word miniature derives from minium (also Latin), a kind of red lead that was widely used to color ink drawings.

DSC01534Shift slightly from red letters in a general sense to scarlet letters, and the meaning changes entirely. Hawthorne famously titled his story after the letter A that Puritan magistrates used to punish adulterers in the Massachusetts colony under the strict rule of the Mathers and their ilk. Apparently, they also commanded burglars to wear Bs, drunkards to wear Ds, rogues to wear Rs, thieves to wear Ts (branded into the skin—if you’re really into that stuff, James A. Cox of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation has written quite a bit about it). I hope my R doesn’t brand me a rogue (can women be rogues?)! I prefer to think of it as a celebratory portent of some exciting day in the future.

IMG_7528Red Dye
Alizarin, carmine, red ochre, vermilion...we have many natural and chemical reds at our disposal for dyeing, painting, tinting, and basically painting any town red (there’s a nice etymology for that phrase, by the way). But that wasn’t always the case. Although there were many natural elements that could tint fabrics red, most of them produced fugitive colors that faded quickly. The Mayans, however, discovered an excellent source for dye that produced a vivid, durable, red red: cochineal, still the gold standard for natural red dyes. The Spanish stole that state secret, but didn’t realize its full market potential for several decades, and when they did, cochineal husbandry became a Spanish state secret. It was eventually stolen by the French and English, but is still raised successfully using centuries-old traditions in Oaxaca, Mexico. The dye is derived from the Dactylopius coccus bug’s blood. The fussy insect feeds off of particular kinds of cactus that grow particularly well in Mexico, and are susceptible to cold and humidity. Once dried and crushed, the bug becomes a dye pellet.

DSC03920Cochineal’s vivid red was so remarkable, so sought-after that it drove major global markets, supported economies, and made red the ultimate symbol of power and wealth. The Spanish love of red easily traces back to its national pride in its control of the cochineal market during the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. Red was expensive and bold, a clear sign of power and panache. It is no accident that Cardinals began wearing red, rather than blue or purple in the fifteenth century (even before cochineal red was known in Europe). It seems incredible to conceive of a color economy, but red really did control financial markets.

dogwoodOf course cochineal wasn’t the first red dye. In Europe, other natural dyes included madder and kermes, a sort of cousin to cochineal—darker and more purplish. The madder dyers of Strasbourg, alarmed at the sudden popularity of blue, petitioned the builders of Strasburg Cathedral to make the devil’s skin blue in all the stained glass windows, so that church-goers would associate blue with evil, rather than red.

My favorite medieval use of red is in the six unicorn tapestries in Paris’s Musée Cluny. While one represents the whole series, the five others each illuminate one of the senses. The museum has created a special theatrical viewing room so that its visitors can properly take in the sequence and really experience this extraordinary work as the spectacle it was always meant to be. It seems incredible that the six tapestries should have been hidden for so long, only to be re-discovered by Georges Sand in 1844 in an obscure château.

Red has been a major component of most symbolic systems, traditional and theoretical. The great expressionist (theosophist, mystic) artist and theoretician Wassily Kandinsky articulated a theory for most colors, and red is no exception. He thought of red as “alive, restless, confidently striving towards a goal, glowing” and emanating a “manly maturity.” Its auditory equivalent, he proposed, was the “sound of a trumpet, strong, harsh,” as in a fanfare, or both the lower notes of a cello and the high, clear sound of a violin.

IMG_7504In China, red generally stands for luck, but when combined with letters (characters is more correct, I think), can also stand for death. Obituaries, apparently, are usually written in red ink. When a name appears in red, it signifies that the person has either died or that they have been disowned or shunned in some way.

InksThere are countless other symbolic associations with red, and if I started considering political associations, advertising uses, non-verbal signage, etc., I’d never get back to the needles! My knitted red letter R uses Shetland yarn and a modified Fair Isle technique (modified, because the floats are so long). I was trying to mimic the capitals of a manuscript Bâtarde “hand.” A French manuscript style in use from the late 13th to the mid-sixteenth century, Bâtarde hand was bastardized from the more laborious Gothic lettering into a cursive form, which was much faster to write. This particular hand was favored by the Burgundian court, and applied extensively in the creation of manuscript books. One of its distinctive features was that the scribe would change the pen angle several times during the execution of each letter so that the each letter contained both very thick and very thin strokes.

berriesI have longed planned to design a red and gray Fair Isle, in a sort of hommage to a familiar and favorite winter sight. There’s something about the winterberry tree that I find really, really compelling. It’s just now coming into its own. Maybe I love it so much because it is the only bit of color in January? I believe the horticultural name is Crataegus viridis, cultivar Winter King (a type of hawthorn). I find the combination of red and gray really compelling. Bold and muted, outspoken and understated, the two colors (and yes, I’m considering gray a color here) contrast one another beautifully.


booksRed Bib
  • Greenfield, Amy Butler. A Perfect Red. NY: HarperCollins, 2005.
  • Pleij, Herman (translated by Diane Webb). Colors Demonic and Divine: Shades of Meaning in the Middle Ages and After. NY: Columbia University Press, 2004.
  • Dekanare, François, and Bernard Guineau (translated by Sophie Hawkes). Colors: the Story of Dyes and Pigments. NY: Abrams, 2000.
  • Kandinsky, Wassily. Complete Writings. NY: DaCapo, 1994.
  • Erlande-Brandenburg, Alain. La dame à la licorne. Paris: Musée Cluny, 1979.
  • and for fun: Chevalier, Tracy. The Lady and the Unicorn. NY: Dutton, 2004.

  • IMG_7592Red Letters

    IMG_2536Unicorn Tapestry