Review: Norwegian Handknits: Heirloom Designs from Vesterheim Museum

I picked up a copy of Norwegian Handknits: Heirloom Designs from the Vesterheim Museum, by Sue Flanders and Janine Kosel, when I was downtown yesterday, browsing at A Room of One’s Own Books and Gifts. The bookstore is now in its new, expanded location on Gorham Street, and since it has merged with Avol’s Books, it now offers a wide selection of second-hand books, as well as new stock. There don’t seem to be too many second-hand knitting books, however, but this is unsurprising: most people buy knitting books to keep them on the shelf to refer to repeatedly, of course. I heeded the signs in the bookstore – “See it here, buy it here, keep us here” – and took away this lovely book to peruse in the coffee shop across the street.*

The book is a collection of patterns inspired by items in the collection of the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa. Vesterheim, which means “Western Home,” was the name given to the United States by Norwegian-American immigrants. One of the most striking aspects of the book (and, presumably, the museum) is the feelings of connectedness between the “old country” and the immigrant communities in Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin. These connections are most clear in historical photographs from the museum that are spread throughout the book, showing women in long dresses on skis, children sleeping under intricate blankets, and little boys making snowmen, wearing Norwegian mittens. Are these photos of Norway or the US? Hard to tell sometimes, until you look at the captions. I loved these photos, and I wish the authors had included even more of them.

The book also includes photos of the historical pieces that inspired the patterns, as well as photos of finished objects and full-colour charts for knitting multi-colour designs. The lace patterns are not charted, but only written out. I can’t read lace charts, and I am, in fact, quite bad at knitting lace no matter how the pattern is written, despite the best efforts of chart-fans like Scottish knitting designer Ysolda Teague, who has written a handy tutorial entitled “Using Charts Even if You Hate Them. If you like knitting lace from charts, you might have to make your own charts for the few lace patterns in this book, which include a triangular garter-stitch shawl with lace edge that might just be at my skill-level for lace.

But, as you might expect, lace is not really the main player in a book about Norwegian knitting, and I really bought this book because I love love love to knit complicated mittens. Recent projects for lucky mitten-recipients include a pair of Kalev’s Mittens, from another excellent book, Folk Knitting in Estonia, by Nancy Bush, and Northman Mittens, a pattern by David Schulz. And this new book did not disappoint! There are mitten patterns ranging from a very simple pair of mittens in the style of Sami clothing, knit in bulky Lopi Icelandic yarn, to a fairly complicated pair of women’s mittens, knit in fine yarn with a snowflake pattern on the hands and another charted pattern of roses on the cuffs. I learned a few things about Norwegian mitten design as well. Some parts of the country favour asymmetrical designs, such as the rose pattern, while in some areas, the patterns are always mirror-images, such as the Selbu rose, which I usually see as a star or snowflake (picture of a Selbu rose mitten, below, by larskflem on Flickr) Selbu.

While I am very tempted by the more complex Daddy Long-Legs Mittens, winter is coming soon enough, so I think I will start by making Flower Mittens, with a Cross-Country Ski Hat to (almost) match. The hat reminds me of a hat my twin sister bought last winter in Tallin, Estonia, from the “Wall of Knitting.” This wall in Tallin, (pictured below by hilde h on Flickr), where women sell all kinds of sweaters and other knitted goods, is definitely on my lifelong “knitting tourism” list (which just keeps getting longer every year, by the way). Warm clothes all over

Until I can pay a visit there, and to other places in Scandinavia, books like this one will have to keep me going. Luckily, I have tons and tons of fine-gauge wool yarn, bought for me by various understanding family members on trips to Denmark, Iceland and Sweden. I was also pleased to see several patterns that were designed for yarns made by Blackberry Ridge Woollen Mill, in Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, which is close to Madison. It’s rare to find designers using their yarn, which comes in numerous rich colours, and is really hard-wearing. Wisconsin knitters, take note!

I do recommend this book, particularly if you enjoy knitting mittens. Several of the online reviews I have read (warning: don’t read Amazon reviews if you don’t want to get grumpy) have complained about the fact that it contains only two sweater patterns. First of all, the sweater pattern that is included is definitely something I have never seen before: it’s an adult-sized two-colour sweater, and a simplified child’s variation, in an interesting “Voss” pattern based on a headscarf in the Vesterheim museum, that has a striking neckline with four different diamond motifs, and an all-over two-colour pattern on the body that consists of diagonal lines mirrored around the central line descending from the neckline pattern.

Second of all, the writers point out that two-colour “ski sweaters” are actually a fairly late addition to traditional Norwegian knitting, having become prominent only at the beginning of the 20th century. It seems that, in much the same way that we consider fair-isle knitting “old-fashioned”, despite the fact that it really only became popular in the 1920s and 30s, Norwegian sweaters might be more the result of marketing than of tradition, and the motifs, colours and patterns are actually more complex.

Thirdly, it seems that the authors designed the book to display not only the variety of the knitted items that are found in the Vesterheim collection, but also to appeal to knitters at a range of skill levels, and to be a tool for everyone to learn new techniques. Beyond the creativity and math necessary to place two-colour patterns on a sweater, I actually don’t find the techniques of Norwegian sweaters to be particularly interesting, and I would have been disappointed to buy a book that consisted primarily of numerous colour charts that could be applied to the standard formula for these sweaters, which can be summarized easily as 1. knit a tube 2. knit two more tubes for sleeves 3. Cut the first tube, attach a tube, repeat 4. Knit another small tube for a neckband. So I am quite pleased that the authors decided instead to devote space to techniques like needle felting, creating various kinds of braid for straps and decoration, and to creating items in a variety of shapes, gauges and levels of complexity.

I am of two minds about the authors’ decisions about the use of space in the book, however. They include several recipes in sidebars, for example. I’m unlikely to try these specialties, many of them baked goods that require the use of special pans and equipment, and while I like reading recipes for interest’s sake, I feel the space could have been better used to include larger photos, both of historical scenes and of the final knitted garments. The charts, in contrast to the photos, are as big as they could make them, although I expect I will have to do some creative photocopying for some of the more intricate charts.

Reading this book, I was reminded a little too much of the economics of producing a full-colour, illustrated hardcover book: it’s tough to figure out how much space to devote to written instructions, versus photos, versus charts, versus contextual information, and to know how to create a knitting book that is both useful and affordable, especially when costs have to take technical editing and test-knitting into account. I find this aspect of knitting publishing particularly interesting, since I assume that publishers are aware that they are competing with the booming market in downloadable PDF patterns, which can be resized and reprinted by users without any extra expenditure on the part of the publisher, who is now often the designer herself.** So, I sympathize, and I’m willing to be forgiving as I squint at a few photos. I still think the book is a great value and an important collection of historical information, which I don’t think I have the expertise to critique. I’m sure it will make many readers more interested in the Vesterheim Museum and in the Norwegian immigrant experience more generally, and it’s lovely to have the chance to reflect on the experience of these immigrants and knitters with a real book in my hand, rather than staring at a computer screen. A more unfortunate flaw, however, is the fact that the patterns in this book were published with quite a few errors: errata are available here. I have read that newer printings of the book have been corrected, but I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for errors in charts and instructions as I go along.

When I was considering buying this book, rather than simply getting it out of the library, I had to remind myself that the money you spend on a knitting book covers many hours and hours of enjoyment: there’s the first few hours, looking over your new purchase, preferably with hot drink in hand, the minutes here and there you spend double-checking patterns and planning, and then the many hours, with the book at hand, knitting the lovely things it contains. So, in other words, don’t be cheap – buy nice knitting books! Especially at your local independent bookstore! The same authors have recently published Swedish Handknits: a Collection of Heirloom Designs, with designs inspired by items in the collection of the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis, Minnesota. With Kari Cornell, they have also collaborated on two other collections: Knitting Socks from Around the World and Knitting Socks and Mittens from Around the World. All three books are now definitely going on hold at the library!

* Yes, unemployment has its perks.
** It occurs to me that many of the same problems of size, formatting, expense and usability come into play when thinking about books about maps, and I’ve been mulling over similar digital vs. print questions as I prepare to write a review of Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline, by Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton. Watch this space!

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