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.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

T is for Turkey

IMG_4864T is for Turkey, and as far as I’m concerned, there simply is no other T imaginable. This post has been a long time coming, but I don’t mean for its lengthiness to be a way of making up for my silence. I have very close, fond feelings about this remarkable country, and there is just so much to write! I spent seven formative years there as a child, beginning with my family’s first stay when I was four. We were delighted to return twelve years later, and ever since, Turkey has been in my experience and imagination the dream place of color: peerless hospitality, indescribably delicious fruit (and food in general, really), dreamy poppy fields, otherworldly landscapes, and a perpetual harvest of delightful and magnificent textiles made by talented, inspired artists.

Oya, private collection
Turkish textiles are simply extraordinary—sumptuous, exquisite, complex—as is very well known. Turkish textile culture is a rich, rich field. Its legendary carpets (my favorites are the red & blue Uşak carpets) are widely celebrated and naturally, sought after, but its trove of textiles only begins with those wooly piles. Take the needle-crocheted edgings (oya) on cotton scarves—so delicately wrought—and oh, say, the phenomenal knit stockings that arise from a venerable and tantalizing heritage. Of course there are countless other textile genres practiced in Turkey, and I’ll try to touch on a few, but the knitting is just so compelling, it’s hard to make room for everything.

Glass boncuks
In knitting this “page” for the letter
T (top left), I tried to choose from a few traditional motifs offered in Betsy Harrell’s book (see below). Although Turkish knitting designs are often vertically arrayed on stockings, I made a sampler of horizontal tiers. Each band features a different traditional knitting motif (bottom to top: latticework, hooks, nightingale’s eyes, then two series of charms against the evil eye). The upper registers feature large and small boncuk (pronounced “bon-juke”) symbols. To digress for a moment into another Turkish handmade craft, the boncuk is a talisman that guards against the evil eye. Usually made of glass in shades of blue, yellow, and white, the boncuk is ubiquitous in Turkey, and a must-have for any truck driver or tourist.

Turkish towel
As one of the world’s foremost exporters of cotton textiles (also the most scrumptious nuts, fruits, and olives) and a country that boasts two sheep for every five people, I suppose it’s not surprising that textiles should be so important in Turkey. Turkish carpets and kilims are legendary, of course, as is the “Turkish Towel” (the real Turkish towel is actually linen, often embroidered with gold or silver threads and delicate floral designs). Other significant Turkish textile types include metallic-embroidered velvet, woven silk from Bursa (a western city that has been famous for its silk manufacture since the 16th century), bright-colored, striped satin from Gaziantep, felted shepherds’ capes, cicims (another form of weaving), and so many others.

Turkish stockings from near Bayşehir. Private collection.
Fortunately, Turkish sheep and goat herding is alive and well, and the country now boasts about 27 million sheep and 7 million goats. Among the many artifacts that arise from Anatolia is the Turkish-style drop-spindle. Nomads throughout the country still use it, and it is now gaining popularity in the west as a spinning tool. This month’s Kurban Bayramı, the festival of the sacrifice, is the most significant Islamic festival in this largely secular country. During the four (or five) day celebration, families who are able purchase sheep for slaughter. They have an enormous feast from the meat and distribute any extra to the poor. Traditionally, the sheep’s wool and hide would also be shared with the poor. The feast re-enacts Abraham’s sacrifice of a lamb (a fortuitous substitute for his son, Isaac), and is one of the most important religious holidays in the Turkish calendar. The sheep that graze across most of the Anatolian plains and highlands are fat-tailed red and white Karamans. They are hardy, and produce excellent wool . . . for carpets. For knitting, it’s still a bit rough on the fingers, but quite sturdy.
Turkish knitter in Anamur. I took this by sticking my camera lens into my binoculars.
Many parts of the country—particularly the north and east—experience extreme temperatures, and the climate can be very, very cold in the winter months. Over the centuries, a vibrant knitting culture has developed in which stockings have emerged as the most interesting and practical feature. And although knit stockings are generally considered a traditional folk craft, plenty of knitting still takes place in metropolitan Istanbul as well as in distant Anatolian villages and even in the last remaining nomadic tents. The last time I was in Turkey, which was admittedly in the middle of a very hot summer, I saw only one person knitting, and that was from a distance.

Yarn merchant in the Kürkçü Han in Istanbul; lighting cotton yarn to show that it burns (and is thus natural fiber).
The figure that I’ve seen cited (although I have no idea of its source) is that about 80% of Turkish women know how to knit. There are also plenty of Turkish men who knit, but it’s unclear what percentage. There’s apparently an older gentleman (Ibrahim bey) who spends a fair amount of time knitting at the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, making and selling hats. Most of the yarns commercially available in Turkey are acrylic or cotton, for which Turkey is so well known. But that’s beginning to change. Nako yarns, owned by the Ormo company, produces some natural fiber and luxury yarns that had until recently been quite difficult to find in Turkey. Here’s a classic and oddly addictive video (judging by the oversized sweaters, looks to be ca. 1985) from the Ormo company about their yarns, from factory to runway.

Through Ravelry, I became familiar with the work of Katya Güler, who lives in Izmir and designs beautiful slippers that incorporate traditional motifs into stylish new adaptations. Her Alabora slipper, for instance, features a topsy-turvy (i.e., reversible) motif on a delicate, foot-hugging slipper. In fact, the traditional design is probably a pair of mirrored boncuks.

Entrance to the Kürkçü Han, Istanbul. A touristy water carrier obligingly passed the entrance as I was taking the picture.
In the heart of old Istanbul, the Kürkçü Han, a structure built several hundred years ago as the furrier market, now houses what amounts to a mall entirely filled with yarn.
Inside the Kürkçü Han, Istanbul. Video.

A two-story market built around a large courtyard, it seems to overspill with skeins beyond number. If you’d like directions, the All Tangled-up blog will get you right there from the Grand Bazaar. It is an experience not to be missed! I took a short video from a second story balcony, but it’s very hard to capture the vibrant Kürkçü Han spirit.

In this very rich land of textiles, where knitting is so common, and a robust and complex knitting tradition underlies a thriving yarn culture, you’d expect to find plenty of literature devoted to the history of Turkish knitting. Instead, textile literature is curiously silent on the subject. I haven’t done much research on Turkish publications, but in English, there are really only three books devoted to Turkish knitting.

IMG_5034Kenan Özbel’s book, Türk köylü çorapları, was first published in 1976. Fortunately, it was translated into English and published as Knitted Stockings from Turkish Villages (Istanbul: Türkiye Iş Bankası Cultural Publications, 1981). Özbel apparently spent a lifetime scouring the countryside, collecting textiles of all kinds. He wrote many booklets about various aspects of his research and collection, including a small pamphlet on knitting in 1945, and another (translated into French, ca. 1967) on Turkish peasant socks and stockings. Since these are so rare, it’s been hard to lay hands on copies, but they are out there. Özbel records a number of patterns, naming each one, as well as many folk traditions related to stocking creation and use. He states, for instance, that traditional knitters used symbols to communicate their marital status, hopes for the future, invoke good luck talismans, and generally draw upon a large stock of pictograms to communicate through socks. In fact, Özbel begins his book with a quite striking assertion: “[Stocking] motifs and colours are like the silent language or unreadable inscriptions of a forgotten alphabet.” Although he doesn’t discuss how he did his research (Did he interview knitters? Did he interview weavers and find graphic similarities in knit stockings? Were these symbols widely used in certain regions and unknown in others?), he traveled widely and acquired wonderful examples from across the country for at least forty years. During that time (1930s through 1970s), there were still many knitters keeping traditions alive and actively passing on their knowledge.

IMG_4891Betsy Harrell’s Anatolian Knitting Designs: Sivas Stockings Collected in an Istanbul Shantytown (Istanbul: Redhouse Press, 1981), was written by an American woman who lived in Istanbul. She interviewed many women from Sivas (apparently a hotbed of knitting) and other places in Eastern Anatolia who had migrated to Istanbul with their local knitting traditions intact. She collected patterns, stories, and legends, and brought them together in a wonderful book published by the Redhouse Press, famous for its Turkish-English dictionaries, and the foremost publisher of English books in Turkey. She had read Özbel’s work, and tested out a few of the theories he put forward by interviewing modern, city knitters about the designs they named and demonstrated for her. She discovered that many of them had only vague notions about what the symbols meant. Still, they were able to help her record, chart, and identify dozens of designs, and to discuss customs in which stockings at that time still played a central role (as trousseau elements; as gifts; as preferred color schemes). She also posed the tricky, but fascinating question: do knit motifs emerge from carpet and kilim designs? The answer was yes, but only from the finer rugs.

IMG_4892The third and most recent book is byAnna Zilboorg. Fancy Feet: Traditional Knitting Patterns of Turkey. (Asheville, NC: Lark Books, 1994), and recently republished as Simply Socks. Zilboorg explores Traditional Turkish (“folk”) knitting in a short text, and offers a number of charts for designs that she found in specific regions in Turkey. She also explains the traditional construction method (including the toe-up construction, starting with the famous Turkish cast-on), so if you want to make Turkish socks, this is the best way to find out how! She includes 45 different basic patterns that represent a wide variety of styles, from pointy toe to pointy heel, and all the way up to a choice of decorative bind-offs.

I have a bit of a confession: even though I own this book and love it, I’ve always felt as if Turkish stockings were not something I should make. Maybe that’s because I’m not a sock knitter. I know, I know, I’m sort of defective in that way, and someday maybe I’ll see the light. Perhaps, too, I’ve had too much admiration for the real thing. But now I’m getting ready to forge ahead and see if I can tackle a pair.
Turkish slippers, courtesy of randomthreadsMore Turkish stockings, courtesy of randomthreads
Anna Zilboorg recently lectured on Turkish stockings at last summer’s much-anticipated Sock Summit, where she brought some lovely examples of Turkish-style stockings that she used in her book, as featured in photographs by Randomthreads (source: Flickr).

“a forgotten alphabet”
Kurdish angora goat
mohair stockings.
Private collection
Heel detail
Edging detailToe detail
Now I’d like to let the Turkish stockings speak for themselves in a sort of parade. I will probably add a few pictures over time as I raid my mother’s collection on my next visit. I’ll begin with the most extraordinary: these Kurdish beauties were lent to me by a dear friend who used to visit Turkey regularly for archaeological research. She bought them in northeast Turkey, where they were sold at an open market in Erzurum, and apparently came originally from shepherds in the hills. The fiber is natural mohair in two colors from angora goats, pulled from the bushes, then hand spun. The design is probably a modified horn pattern, with (quite typically) a simple striped pattern on the sole. Kenan Özbel calls these “fluffy stockings,” and offers a startling explanation for their fuzziness: “In order to achieve this fluffy effect the completed stocking is placed inside a warm loaf of bread straight from the oven, and this causes the short fibers to fluff up. This makes the stocking soft and helps to shed rain.” (Özbel, p. 16). I’m not kidding. That was a direct quotation.
Gaziantep stockingsInside out
In Gaziantep (in southeastern Turkey, near the Syrian border), I found these wonderful stockings, handknit from 100% karaman wool in all its delightful scratchiness. I bought them at a touristy little shop in the old market, full of antiqued (but probably not antique) copper and brass pots. The merchant used a pole to take them down from a line hung above the doorway, and was quite surprised that they were the only things in the store that interested me. These stockings showcase a number of traditional features, such as typically unfussy finishing details (colors pulled from row to row, tying of yarns, very little weaving in of ends), a series of beguiling designs, and pointy heels and toes. Neither Betsy Harrell nor Kenan Özbel include the distinctive, foot-like symbols in the middle rung in their lexicon of motifs, although they do appear (unidentified, alas) in one of Anna Zilboorg’s charts. So I’m still trying to work out what it means, and would appreciate any interpretations.

Sivas stockings in cotton & acrylic.
Private collection
Sivas stockings in cotton & acrylic.
Detail of turned-up hem to show
color stranding. Private collection.
Most of the regional museums in Turkey now have shops in their archaeological or ethnographical museums, and most of those shops sell local handicrafts, including knit stockings. This pair, which a friend of mine bought at the Sivas museum, were made from cotton and acrylic yarns, both of which are readily available in any Turkish yarn store (although 100% wool is not).

Gaziantep fabric merchant in Gaziantep
Other textiles
The first Turkic stockings, according to Özbel, were felt (as demonstrated in the Pazyryk burials). As low-tech as knitting is, felt making from fleece is even lower tech, although it does take skill and a great deal of practice to make it properly. I think of Kazakhstan as a great modern center of felt making, but the craft is definitely still alive and well in Turkey. My favorite Turkish felt production is the shepherd’s kepenek, which is often translated as “cape.” In fact, it is a personal tent for shepherds to wear during long hours tending sheep and goats. There are some great examples here (the site is in Turkish, but the pictures speak for themselves) and here.

Two kinds of Gaziantep fabric, in Gaziantep
Although it has nothing to do with knitting, and is not even handmade, one of my favorite kinds of Turkish textiles is the bright-colored, satiny fabric produced in southeast Turkey. It is generally referred to as “Gaziantep” fabric, and I was delighted to buy some there last summer. It is used most often as a covering for shoes, but I also remember seeing Edwina of Absolutely Fabulous wearing it in one of her more outrageous costumes. Although I’m hoping to brush up on my sewing skills quickly enough to pull off a Thanksgiving table runner from Gaziantep fabric, it would also make a smashing lining for a knit jacket.


With all those wonderful models to learn from, I found myself a bit overwhelmed with the possibilities. But I wanted to come up with a smallish project that would at least appropriate some tiny aspect of what I had always loved about—and learned from—the splendors of Turkish textiles and knitting in particular.
My project: how could I not work with T and tea? Turks drink liters of tea every day, and it is such an integral part of daily life there that no transaction of any importance can possibly take place without an offer of tea. Tea symbolizes the legendary Turkish hospitality. Take my trip to the Kürkçü Han: before we were three steps in the doorway, the yarn merchant offered us çay (pronounced “chai”). In Turkey, it is served in small glasses on ceramic or metal saucers, and several lumps of sugar. No milk. No lemon. The tea comes from samovars, not from ceramic teapots, so my project is a foreigner’s take from the outset.

Tea in the Kürkçü Han, Istanbul
Think of it as a traveler’s impression of motifs, remixed into another idiom. I made this in ten separate pieces, beginning with the fun part: the exterior, of Isager wool 1—my new favorite yarn—at about 9 stitches to the inch. At that gauge, the finished pieces were quite thin, so I had to make some insulation. Three strands of unspun Icelandic works very well for extra padding, but it is rather strange to go from using 1.75 mm needles (outside) to 6.5 mm (inside). Although I did incorporate a traditional Turkish motif (lattice, also in the bottom register of my “T”), organized vertically, the overall design looks more plaid than Turkish lattice. I haven’t written this up as a pattern because I doubt anyone else would be daft enough to make all the little pieces necessary for this contraption.

Download pattern for miniature Turkish stocking (pdf, 645k)
Of course I couldn’t stop with that little bit of craziness, so I worked up a pattern for a miniature Turkish stocking (pdf, 645k), which I hope you’ll enjoy! It, too, is made from the Isager Wool 1, which is a great example of very fine, single (i.e., not plied) yarn, and somewhat analagous to (although lighter than) the traditional spun yarns that Turkish knitters have always used. The central design motif is based on a traditional pattern called “written charm, double,” which I have divided in half, vertically. It is also similar to a design called “walnut kernel.” Both patterns are charted in Betsy Harrell’s excellent book.


Handmade slippers from near Eskişehir, featuring a very typically Turkish carnation motif
Blog Postings
Boncuk seller in the Kapalı Carşı (Grand Bazaar), Istanbul

Turkish stockings in America on Christmas morning.


Needle-woven (?) strap or belt. Private collection.

Turkish Arts Bib

Thumb-sized, shelled pistachios at a market in Gaziantep. Wrapped in cotton Gaziantep fabric.
Background Reading

  • John Freely & Hilary Sumner-Boyd. Strolling Through Istanbul (Redhouse Press, 1972, but still in print from Taylor & Francis and others).
  • Irfan Orga. Portrait of a Turkish Family (English ed. 1950, but still in print from Inman Press).
  • Barbara Nadel mysteries set in contemporary Istanbul, especially Belshazzar’s Daughter (1999) and Harem (2003).
  • Jason Goodwin mysteries featuring Yashim, a eunuch detective, in 1830s Constantinople. Loved Janissary Tree and Snake Stone, and looking forward to reading Bellini Card. Be prepared to gain weight: the food sequences are very succulent.