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INHERITING FROM ELIZABETH ZIMMERMANN
BY MEG SWANSEN
I am the youngest of Arnold and Elizabeth Zimmermann's three children. One evening when I was about seven, my mother divided a large sheet of paper into three vertical columns; she wrote one of our names at the top of each column. The paper was then passed around to each of us in turn, and we were to write down — one item at a time — whatever family artifacts we wished to inherit. Being so young, it didn't occur to me to put down the Things of Great Value that belonged to my family (as my brother and sister were doing). My very first choice was the dictionary. It was a grand dictionary — too large for me to lift — and it lived on its own lectern in the living room. The words look it up were frequently spoken at our house.
My choice was not based on a forward flash of intuition that my future as a teacher, writer, and publisher would be so entwined with words. Rather, with both my parents being multilingual, words were important, and the dictionary was revered. Like most families, we had our own invented words, and even an entire "cat language" we spoke to our cats (this having been acquired by my mother from her father).
Besides the dictionary, I inherited a tome of knowledge directly from my mother. We wrote each other silly letters in our made-up language and characters. Through her, I have memorized countless poems (both proper and inane). We also shared a passion for knitting, which gradually evolved from Elizabeth Zimmermann, Ltd., into Schoolhouse Press, a business that the two of us operated together with my husband, Chris — and which today is run by our son, Cully, and his wife, Michelle.
My mother taught me how to knit when I was about four. We lived in New Hope, Pennsylvania. My memory of it is quite vivid: We were on the back porch overlooking the Delaware River, and I sat on her lap. She had her arms around me, guiding my hands through the moves. I was pleased and proud, and I knitted sporadically over the next decade. Being first-generation Americans, we had no relatives in the United States, so we sent and received Christmas presents to and from various family members in Germany and the United Kingdom. The first actual "project" I can remember was a scarf I knitted for my auntie Pete when I was about six or seven, back and forth in garter stitch — but with a series of short rows around the back of the neck to form a horseshoe curve. I had no idea what I was doing; I just followed my mother's verbal instructions. (Barbara G. Walker had not yet invented "Short Rows and Wrapping.")
During the decades with my mum, I inherited tips, tricks, ideas, and innovations through our knitting failures and triumphs. As I got older, we occasionally disagreed on a technique — like her idea to knit both strands together when joining in a new skein. Aargh! No. Leave two tails and darn them in later. Actually, that may have been when I taught myself to spit-splice.
I also absorbed Elizabeth's philosophical attitude toward knitting and life, which resonates through all her books: You are the boss of your knitting and can do what you like; there is no "wrong" in knitting as long as you are pleased with the results. In her first book, Knitting Without Tears, she wrote, "Now comes what I perhaps inflatedly call my philosophy of knitting. Like many philosophies, it is hard to express in a few words. Its main tenets are enjoyment and satisfaction, accompanied by thrift, inventiveness, an appearance of industry, and, above all, resourcefulness."
When you are obsessed by wool and knitting for as long as my mother was, you are bound to accumulate an impressive stash; not only masses of wool and needles, but books, tools, and other accoutrements of knitting. Included in her cache were swatches, fragments of knitting, abandoned projects, a sweater body with no sleeves, a single sleeve with no body, and even some unidentifiable artifacts still on their needles, for which there was no explanation. All these items were stashed throughout a vast collection of knitting bags, baskets, drawers, shelves, boxes, and bins.
Of equal (or perhaps more) importance are Elizabeth's journals, which contain notes, directions, charts, and sketches; some are complete, but many are just a shell of an idea, like a few bones of a skeleton. Can a knitting archaeologist build an entire garment from these sketchy clues? Some of the journals are overflowing with extra pages paper-clipped or held in by rubber bands. We also found stacks of loose papers: typed or handwritten pages, charts on graph paper, drawings, or hieroglyphic directions on the backs of envelopes or on hotel notepads. A knitting journal can be a fascinating chronicle of a knitter's life, where ideas, observations, failed attempts, and successful garments are all recorded unexpurgated; it becomes a stash of knowledge and a reflection of the author's creative mind.
One of my favorite finds is Fune Feat, her design for garter-stitch slippers. The idea was sketched and notated on a small memo pad from my father's office. As I knitted what may have been the very first pair of these slippers (I never saw this concept realized by Elizabeth), I didn't understand all the short rows across the middle of the foot until I was finished. Ah yes; to keep the sides from flopping out. It is a brilliant bit of knitted sculpture.
Elizabeth's archive is extensive. We are still unearthing things that, upon reading and/or comprehending what she was driving at, bring her back into the present day. Along with everything mentioned above, there are stacks of scrapbooks, plus correspondence with Barbara G. Walker, Kaffe Fassett, Gladys Thompson, and other designers and authors, many of whom Elizabeth both inspired and supported as they made their own way in this business. We have come upon a slew of drafts and published manuscripts, letters to and from publishers, notebooks of ideas, plus several accountants' ledgers filled with the minutiae of Elizabeth's early mail-order business records. I may even still have the thousands of file cards we kept, one for each of our customers, with every order recorded on the card as it was shipped.
Several scholars have spent time with this material over the past ten years. In 2006, Molly Greenfield, a graduate student in textiles at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, curated an exhibit of some of the archive as part of her thesis work. The exhibit, titled New School Knitting: The Influence of Elizabeth Zimmermann and Schoolhouse Press, was well executed, and I spoke at the filledto-capacity opening event. In 2009, Kathryn Parks, an undergraduate student in history at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire, and her professor Colleen McFarland visited Schoolhouse Press and spent time examining sweaters and documents as they researched for their in-depth article in Wisconsin Magazine of History, Winter 2011/2012, with a photo of Elizabeth on the cover: Stitch by Stitch: The Life and Legacy of Elizabeth Zimmermann. The Wisconsin Historical Society was stunned by the onslaught of knitters ordering copies, and they quickly had to reprint that issue. Most recently, Lily Marsh spent several weeks over two summers with Elizabeth's works as she completed her dissertation at Purdue University. Other scholars have expressed interest in bringing the archive material to light. Though we do not know its eventual destiny, we are exploring ideas to make at least some of the archive accessible to knitters.
Elizabeth Zimmermann's remarkably unique approach to knitting was not inherited by me alone. It was delivered to innumerable knitters over many decades — both in person and in written form — through her frequent workshops, many knitting books, TV programs, and videos, as well as her semiannual publications, Newsletter and Wool Gathering. Elizabeth's "family" and "heirs" include all who read and are swayed by her words to this day.
When I was a kid, my mother's dear friend and knitting buddy was our neighbor Ruth. Our fenced backyards were adjacent. Since the two of them visited each other so frequently, my father and Ruth's husband, Frederick, teamed up to build a stile over the fence, which enabled Ruth and Elizabeth to zip back and forth with ease.
Decades later, when Ruth died, Elizabeth lamented deeply. My mum later told me how she had wished for something of Ruth's to hold — a knitting needle, book, pen, thimble — something relatively mundane that Ruth had cherished. With Ruth's family in mourning, it was impossible to hint (much less ask outright) for some small memento and, sadly, none was ever forthcoming.
I remembered that conversation clearly when my mother died, and the following summer I sorted through scores of her small knitted garments, some items still on the needles, bits of ribbing, the start of a sock, a single mitten or glove, a test Moebius twist, a bit of I-cord, and numerous Aran swatches. From this assortment, I put one article into each of sixty-five new bags and tied them with wool. Then all the bags went into a large burlap wool sack, which I took to our Oft-Timers' Knitting Camp.
I told the campers my mother's story about Ruth and that I imagined many of them felt the same way about Elizabeth. Most of them had been coming annually since the early years (beginning in 1974) and were doted upon by my mother. Over the next few days, during Show-and-Tell, each knitter was asked to reach into the sack — with eyes closed — for a tangible remembrance of their friend and teacher. The campers were touched and delighted, many going so far as to frame their "inheritance."
The most treasured feature of my mother's stash is her collection of finished garments: prototypes of her designs for sweaters, shawls, coats, jackets, baby things, endless caps, socks, mittens, and blankets. Many of the articles are missing from the collection, as Elizabeth was generous about sending her knitted pieces to friends, and to family overseas. The things that remained in her stash are now merged with my own, and together they live in a cedar-lined room.
For many decades before, all sweaters lived in large wooden boxes made by my husband, Chris. They were airtight and lined with eastern red cedar. In 2006, when my son, Cully, designed a new office/ warehouse building down the hill from my schoolhouse, I requested a Sweater Room. It is in the middle of the building, and the walls are covered with eastern red cedar shelves. This is a wonderful solution to the issue of stash storage and preservation. All of our finished garments are within easy reach, and we often turn to them for inspiration or for solutions to technical difficulties. Like my mother, I keep my current stash at home all around me, and once a design is finished and published, it goes into the Sweater Room.
Elizabeth's philosophy of openness and dissemination of information is one I continue, and because of this, some of her garments travel to and from our annual Knitting Camps for participants to examine and scrutinize for their innovation and ingenuity.
They are especially treasured because her knitted garments represent love. Indeed, although Elizabeth's works were designed and knitted as tangible representations of the explorations of a brilliantly creative mind, they still serve as comforting, warm, functional garments for those she loved. I can trace the growth of our children by the successively larger sweaters their grandmother knitted for them. Those same sweaters have been worn again by the great-grandchildren she never met.
Elizabeth Zimmermann's stash lives on: both the physical garments that I inherited and, more importantly and enduringly, her transformative ideas, which she has bequeathed to all knitters.
STASHERS: WHO THE HECK ARE WE? A PEEK AT THE NUMBERS, LOOKING FOR ANSWERS
BY LELA NARGI
Wherever there are knitters, there are, inevitably, stashers — those of us who accumulate great numbers of balls of fiber for reasons ranging from incidental ("Oops, I bought more pashmina than I needed for that cardigan") to slightly deranged ("That skein of Knit Collage Gypsy Garden was literally calling my name as I walked into the shop, so I had to buy it. In triplicate. In all ten colorways"). One species of stasher will inevitably look askance at the others, certain their reasons fall more into the category of "reasons" than others (insert eyeroll and scornful pffffft here). But is there more that binds us than separates us? Can math provide a counterpoint to answers that rely solely on illogical emotion? With the help of the online fiber-craft community Ravelry, I rustled up some numbers to see if they would lend any clarity to the matter.
However, before we take a soul-searching sift through the stats about stashes and us stashers, let's first give some consideration to the word itself. Stash, the noun, entered our American English vernacular in 1914, with decidedly criminal overtones. Someone who stashed a stash was likely a thief, squirreling away stolen goods. You could also stash your stash in a stash — that is, hole the loot up in your hideout. Although it took only a few decades for stash to be sanitized of intimations of illegal activity, contemporary yarn stashers, when discussing their ... we'll call them collections ... can often feel as though they are confessing some wrongdoing, without any clear understanding of the nature of their crime.
What is it we fear we might be guilty of? Let's have a look.
It's hard to know for sure what percentage of all knitters are also stashers. We do know that a mere 5 percent of Ravelry's 6.6 million users (some 307,000 knitters, weavers, and crocheters total) are stashers — or rather, use Ravelry to publicly track (or admit to) their stash. The numbers seem to further indicate that the greatest American stashers, by a long shot, are Californian — almost double the next demographics, of New Yorkers, or Texans. The largest group of non-English-speaking stashers are German, followed by French, then a succession of Scandinavians.
As temperatures and humidity rise, the number of stashers drops precipitously, but they're still in evidence: there are two stashers each in Guam, American Samoa, and the Federated States of Micronesia. There's one each in an impressively diverse assemblage of international locales, including Niger, Côte d'Ivoire, the Maldives, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Liechtenstein, Vatican City, Kosovo, Bouvet Island, East Timor, Botswana, French Southern and Antarctic Lands, Vanuatu, Tonga, Kyrgyzstan, Aruba, Saint Lucia, Northern Mariana Islands, Heard and McDonald Islands, Sri Lanka, Togo, Tuvalu, New Caledonia, the Falkland Islands, the Seychelles, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, Tunisia, Niue, the Marshall Islands, Cuba, Madagascar, the British Virgin Islands, Haiti, and Albania. All by way of saying, pretty much anywhere in the world, if you run out of yarn and there is no local yarn store (LYS) available to you, chances are high that you'll find at least one human who can hook you up with a yarn fix.
Together, this very particular accumulation of Ravelry folk has more than 20,647,000 skeins of yarn logged into their virtual stashes. That averages out to more than sixty-eight skeins per person.
So far none of this sounds like the activity of nefarious masterminds, though.
Not if we assume that each one of these twenty million–plus skeins was come by legally (disappointingly, Ravelry doesn't track stolen skeins), either by purchase, gift or trade, or home-spinning. And not if we consider, too, that the aim of a stasher using the goods in his or her stash is to create hats — or mittens — or blankets — or socks, possibly with the further goal of giving them away as gifts. Yes, Ravelry stashers are sometimes looking to divest themselves of bits and pieces of their collections — some 53,000 of them are actively engaged in that pursuit as you read this. But on average, according to my inhouse sources at Ravelry, they are probably more interested in using the site's stash function in order to figure out which skeins to yank out in preparation for the next work in progress (WIP). Why go through your whole collection manually when you can see it all tidy online, alongside already-completed projects, in various colorways, stitched up by your knitting compatriots?
Excerpted from "A Stash of One's Own"
Copyright © 2017 Clara Parkes.
Excerpted by permission of Abrams Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Inheriting from Elizabeth Zimmermann, Meg Swansen, 11,
Stashers: Who the Heck Are We? A Peek at the Numbers, Looking for Answers, Lela Nargi, 19,
Triptych, Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, 25,
Without a Stash, Amy Herzog, 37,
The Life-Changing Magic of Keeping It All, Ann Shayne, 45,
Full Circle with the Traveling Stash, Gudrun Johnston, 49,
The Minimalist Speaks, Kay Gardiner, 57,
Library of Wool, Rachel Atkinson, 61,
Her Pretty String, Franklin Habit, 69,
Moving Yarn/Portable Stories, Anna Maltz, 79,
Fear Not, Sue Shankle, 89,
Yarn: A Love Story, Amy Christoffers, 97,
When It's Gone, It's Gone, Clara Parkes, 105,
Spinning Stash, Jillian Moreno, 115,
Stash-Changing Moments, Susan B. Anderson, 123,
Work in Progress, Lilith Green, 131,
Comfort Yarn, Rachael Herron, 137,
A Proper Stash, Kristine Vejar, 145,
On Giving, Eugene Wyatt, 153,
Knitting My Mother's Stash, Aimée Osbourn-Gille, 159,
Mark of the Hand, Mark on the Heart, Kim McBrien Evans, 165,
Stash Bypass, Adrienne Martini, 171,
A Stash of One's Own: Yarn as a Feminist Issue, Debbie Stoller, 177,
About the Contributors, 185,