I’m so happy that designer and author Donna Druchunas has agreed to post about the inspiration for her new book Ethnic Knitting Exploration: Lithuania, Iceland, and Ireland. Her take on knitting and history is fascinating and is colored by family ties, a deep passion for knowing how things begin, and a strong sense of empowering women. Take it away, Donna!
Hi Amy, thanks for being part of my blog tour! Today I’d like to talk a bit about why I love historical knitting techniques so much, and why I want to share them with knitters everywhere.
I’m not a traditionalist, in the sense that I don’t think old knitting techniques are better than new ones and I don’t disdain couture fashion, or even outlandish design. I love designers like Nicky Epstein and Annie Modesitt who have such a flair for the flamboyant and whose designs would be at home on New York and Paris runways. I love innovation and experimentation and I really enjoy being inspired by designers who take knitting in new directions, like Debbie New, in her book Unexpected Knitting and Norah Gaughan in Knitting Nature.
I don’t think life was better in the good old days when women had to spend every waking hour spinning yarn and thread to make clothing, bed linens, and curtains. Although life may have seemed quaint and simple in times past, it was laborious and dangerous. Without so many simple things that we take for granted, such as safety razors, antibiotics, and tetanus shots, small injuries could quickly lead to serious illness and even death. So I’m a fan of modernity, science, and technology. I’m so glad there are machines to make my sheets and curtains and blue-jeans! I’m also a sci-fi geek who loves thinking about the amazing possibilities that lie in the future.
So why do I focus on old techniques and designs? Why do my personal knitting adventures take me to the past? I’m not sure I have a logical explanation.
When I look around my house, I find that I surround myself with old things. My grandmother’s wine glasses, my grandfather’s pots and pans, pictures that were passed down to me from family members. My home is warmed with afghans made by my mother-in-law and grandmother. I have so many, I’ve yet to make one myself. I wear sweaters my mother and grandmother made more often than I wear garments that I made myself. And I adorn myself with amber beads passed down to me from a great grandmother and rings, earrings, and pendants that belonged to family members who are now gone. Something in my makeup ties me to the past, even though I am very glad to live in the present, and I look forward to the future.
When I read about knitting, I find that I am most attracted to books and articles about the past. I wonder how someone figured out that a purl stitch is really a knit stitch made from the wrong side of the fabric. Who first thought of crossing stitches and knitting them out of order to form a cable pattern? How on earth did Victorian knitters design such elaborate lace projects without charting them? Why did women in times past knit elaborate garments, often at fine gauges that we would never consider today, to be hidden beneath layers of woven clothing and worn as underwear? Why did they spend so much time on simple accessories like socks and mittens, also knitting them at fine gauges and often with detailed colorwork or lace patterning, when they had so much other manual labor to do? I wonder what life was like for these women, who lived and died before my grandparents and great grandparents were born, when life was very rigid and social codes were strict. How could they find any joy or fulfillment living under such constrained conditions and with so much work to do? What would I have become if I had lived then?
By writing about and teaching traditional knitting techniques, I feel like I am giving immortality and meaning to the lives of so many amazing but anonymous women who have not been honored by history. Women have always held society and families together, we have been the glue that holds things together (behind every strong man is a strong woman, as they say), we have fought against slavery and for freedom and civil rights, even when we were not allowed to vote ourselves. In my small way, I feel like my work is honoring women’s work and women’s contributions to society that have so often been ignored and belittled by those in power, by those writing the history books, by those who decided what was “important.” Even today, women are still not honored or respected in many cultures around the globe, often including our own. I cant’ help thinking of George W. Bush signing an anti-abortion bill into law, surrounded by a cadre of old white men, all grinning from ear to ear, successful (for the moment) in maintaining one degree of male power over women. And this makes me want to do whatever I can to support, honor, and strengthen the position of women today, so these things do not continue to happen in the future. The women of the past may not have agreed with my progressive values, but I hope they realized that their lives and work were worthy of attention and honor and that they were — and are — important to society in many, many ways.
I suppose I look to both the past and the future for my inspiration, both in knitting and in life. In the future I see possibility. In the past I see possibility as well. The possibility to overcome oppression. The possibility to create change. The possibility to embrace diversity and opportunity. We’ve come a long way, baby! But there’s still a long way to go. Maybe knitting can help us get there.