Sunday, November 14, 2010

U is for Union Pearl

his is my namesake post-my opportunity to write about what “Unionpearl” means. I hope you won’t mind the reflexiveness of it, but as you might imagine, it is rather central to this abecedarium; my pearl and purl. First and foremost, and this won’t be a big surprise, Union Pearl is the name of a font-a metal font. And my perfect focus for typography and knitting because it invokes elements of both.

The Font

Union Pearl was the first English display typeface, designed to be used for fancies-headings and words of distinction. It is thought to have been cast by the somewhat obscure but very English Grover type foundry in London. The first known example of its appearance in print was in 1708, and its name ostensibly referred to a double pearl of gigantic proportions. The letters were large (double pica-22 points) and designed with open, round nodules that bear some resemblance to pearls. Although it’s hard to imagine it now, at the time it stood out in print as luxurious and ostentatious-perhaps not quite so over the top as the oversized union pearl, but it certainly added flourish. The great typographer and printing historian Stanley Morrison reminded us that the font’s name echoed the “Acts of Union,” which united Scotland and England in 1707. Benjamin Franklin owned a font of Union Pearl for his press, but no one has found proof that he actually used it. Perhaps it didn’t quite match his “Poor Richard” alter ego. To my knowledge, this font has never been digitized, so it is not available electronically...yet.

My husband and I are lucky enough to own our own metal font of Union Pearl, one of the first we purchased for our newly-acquired Chandler & Price Pilot press in anticipation of our wedding. It appeared on the cover of the program for the ceremony, and was a lovely way to celebrate our own union. My husband had read both Morrison’s and John Lane’s articles about the font and did a fair amount of research trying to find someone who was willing to part with the letters. Luckily, a generous printer did furnish us with the metal type that has been our favorite ever since. We named our venture the Ampersand Press, anticipating the “and” we later became.1


The term union, applied to a pearl, was by the early eighteenth century a standard way to refer to a very large pearl of very great value, worn only by the very rich or very royal. Perhaps (and this is just my own conjecture), there is a connection to the Unionidae freshwater mussel family, parts of which are often used as the nucleus in regular (marine) pearl production. One of the early references to a union pearl was in Pliny the Elder, who wrote of Cleopatra’s bet with Marc Antony over who could consume the most costly meal. Her flagrant consumption (and he meant that literally) of “an union” dissolved in vinegar, won the contest. Antony may have lost the wager, but I’m sure his meal tasted much better. The cover of Stacy Shiff’s new biography of Cleopatra is a representation of the famous beauty with pearls scattered through her hair and wearing a pearl necklace and earrings (recently reviewed in the New Yorker).

You have surely noted that the address for this blog doesn’t in fact include the word, pearl. And, as I’m sure you’ve realized, it puns on the homophones pearl and purl and celebrates both the fanciful, ornate, embellished pearl and the humble purl. Indeed, purl and pearl enjoy entwined roots. The Oxford English Dictionary gives us ten different definitions for purl as pearl, beginning in the fourteenth century. Spelling in English was not standardized until the early nineteenth century, but it is clear that embroiderers, lace makers, and yes, knitters, all used the term for aspects of needlework ranging from metallic wire flourishes to the crevice between ribs. Embroidered purls-and lace purls, for that matter-most often appear as ornamental edging. Think of a ribbon that has a decorative edge of tiny bumps, in which a few of the weft threads extend beyond the selvedge in a regular pattern. Sewn purls also create decorative edging. Sew a line of small stitches very close to an edge, then draw the thread quite tightly, and it will form a series of tiny puckers-a decorative border of pearl shapes.

Bohus Stickning “Guld” design (detail)
About the “U”

I wanted to make my knitted U an investigation of the purled pearl, and was inspired by the most luxurious and complex purl stitches I have seen, in Bohus Stickning. I first laid eyes on Bohus design in an article by Margaret Bruzelius; Knitting Around the World, from Threads, which was illustrated with pictures of vintage Bohus Stickning sweaters, several owned by the great Elizabeth Zimmermann. Her Bohus Yoke Sweater was an ode to the Swedish Knitting cooperative and its amazing designers. Zimmermann also wrote about the charm of the Bohus purl in the March section of her Knitting Almanac. Bohus Stickning revealed to me the purl stitch as a sophisticated design feature, rather than merely as a background ingredient. So my knitted accompaniment also celebrates the purl stitch in a very faint, very distant echo of Bohus Stickning-style purl stitchery. Bohus designers discovered a long time ago that there’s no better way to draw out the beauty of the purl stitch than with a nice, fuzzy angora. They wisely used a wool-angora blend to allow the colors to mingle, but still retain integrity. But I threw aside subtlety for 100% angora in seven different colors on a background of 30% angora. I was trying to mimic the metal font itself in shades of gray and black. The yarn was so voluptuous that I had to trim it a bit so that it could be “read.”

About the printing project

I wanted to print something that makes judicious use of the English font, Union Pearl, while celebrating an English knitter of epic stature who sang the praises of the purl stitch. Who else but Elizabeth Zimmermann, whose centennial year we knitters around the globe now celebrate? She taught us all to love the garter stitch and its bumpy purls, and gave us so many pithy, but warm confidences. Here is the one I love the best: “Really, all you need to become a good knitter are wool, needles, hands, and slightly below-average intelligence. Of course, superior intelligence, such as yours and mine, is an advantage.” Everyone who reads her work feels as if he or she were having a personal, intimate conversation with a generous friend over tea and yarn. “EZ” gives you her personal assurance that all challenges can be met with ease, and in reading her, you have no doubt she is absolutely right. Discovering Knitting Without Tears has been a milestone moment for countless knitters, including me, and it continues to open doors nearly forty years after its publication.

This is a small letterpress keepsake-two colors of oil-based ink printed on watercolor paper. It went through several iterations as I changed my mind and, well, how shall I say? made a few mistakes along the way. Letterpress is fine, detailed work-much more time-consuming than can be imagined-especially for a novice like me. But I relish the opportunity to summon Gutenberg and delve into this centuries-old process. From the selection and arrangement of tiny pieces of metal (for which I now, alas, require reading glasses), to their careful placement in a rectangular format (somehow jammed together, somehow kept in place vertically and horizontally), to their inking & printing in the press machine-it is all a wonder.

Union Pearl’s “U” (photo reversed horizontally for easier reading)

(what is a colophon?)

This keepsake was printed in the cool, autumnal days of 2010 on 140 pound Rives watercolor paper in a very limited edition. It celebrates Union Pearl through its sparing employment in capital form (witness: the “R” in Really, and the “E” and “Z” in EZ’s name). Art Ribbon Border (designed by the American Type Founders and cast by the Dale Guild, which, like Union Pearl, has not been digitized) ornaments the text. 12 pt. text fonts include both Centaur, designed by Bruce Rogers after Nicolas Jenson’s fifteenth-century Venetian typefaces, and which first appeared in print in 1915, and Arrighi, designed by Frederic Warde in 1925 after the letterforms of the sixteenth-century Italian scribe and typographer, Ludovico degli Arrighi. The latter two fonts, fortunately, are available electronically from our friends at Adobe. You won’t find the name "Arrighi," however. It is packaged with Centaur as its italic form.

Art Ribbon Border

Type Pearls


Pearl Pearls

Purl Pearls

Miscellaneous Pearl
  • "Union Pearl" is also the name of a British cargo ship operated by Union Transport, Ltd. All the ships in its fleet have names that begin with "Union."

1Stanley Morrison wrote about Union Pearl in a much cited article in The Fleuron. Stanley Morison, “Decorated Types” The Fleuron, Vol. VI (1928), pp. 109, 111. Further evidence has since come to light to correct some of Morrison’s initial assertions. According to John A. Lane, who did remarkable research on the history of Union Pearl, its first known use in print was in The Observator 24-28 January, 1708. It appeared in an ad, “Scriptographia.” John A. Lane, “The Origins of Union Pearl” Matrix 12 (1992): 125-133. In 1992, when Lane published his article in the ultra-deluxe letterpress(ed) annual Matrix, fonts of Union Pearl could still be bought from the Stephenson Blake type foundry.