Curators’ Colloquium on Knitted Textiles 2021

Written by Roslyn Chapman and Lin Gardner

We had planned to hold the Curators’ Colloquium in a university seminar room with a small audience of museum and collection professionals during the autumn of 2020. However, a worldwide pandemic, and the restrictions which accompanied it, meant the event had to be cancelled and rescheduled.

Due to restrictions, we decided to move the event online and open it up to anyone who might be interested in the conservation, storage, display, and interpretation of knitted textiles. We did not anticipate the extraordinary response that the event would generate.

An audience of almost 400 from 38 countries – including Canada, Chile, China, Egypt, India, Israel, Japan, Kenya, the Philippines, and Rwanda – joined us. Although the majority of the audience came from the UK, there were also audience members from almost every country in Europe; several countries in S. America; 37 states in the US.; and 6 states in Australia.

In total, we had audience members from every continent except Antarctica. We are still overwhelmed by this response and look forward to hosting another event in the near future – we hope you will be able to join us again.

Due to the popularity of the event, and for those who were unable to attend, the following is a brief overview of the sessions. There were also a number of resources mentioned and these have also been included at the end.

Details of the programme, speakers and presentations are available on our event listing.

Session 1: Acquisition, Identity, and Interpretation

The Challenges of a ‘Living’ Knitwear Collection

Carol Christiansen, Curator & Community Museums Officer, Shetland Museum and Archives

Screenshot of online talk by Carol Christiansen, Shetland Museum and Archives at the Curators' Colloquium, 2021 showing archival material related to garment in collection (copyright Shetland Museum and Archives)
Archival material related to garment in collection (© Shetland Museum and Archives)

After giving an overview of Shetland Museum’s collection and the projects she is currently working on, Carol spoke about her experiences and methods working with a collection that comes directly and specifically from the culture it was, and still is, produced in. She discussed three interlinking themes: working with a collection of two halves; a change to collecting approach; and managing access to the collection. Discussing the ‘two halves’ of her collection – knitwear made by Shetlanders for export and knitwear made by Shetlanders for Shetlanders – she highlighted the layers of traceability, identity and emotional investment associated with each.

Screenshot of online talk by Carol Christiansen, Shetland Museum and Archives at the Curators' Colloquium, 2021 showing examples of knitted textiles and garments from the museum collection (copyright Shetland Museum and Archives)
Examples of knitted textiles and garments from the museum collection (© Shetland Museum and Archives)

Her changing approach to collecting now includes damaged and lesser quality garments to better understand: all skillsets, including those of children; the reach of Shetland knitwear; the reality of women’s lives, as knitters; and consumers of their own knitting. Carol finished with a discussion of the responsibilities of recording and working with personal and family information from donors. Highlighting what it is to have a living collection and what that means to the community today, she discussed the responsibilities the museum has for knitters in the past whose pieces are in the collection but noted that we all have responsibilities, not just curators but researchers and publishers of this information.

Scottish and European Knitted Textiles at National Museums Scotland: Collecting, interpretation and display

Helen Wyld, Senior Curator, National Museum of Scotland

Screenshot of online talk by Helen Wyld, National Museums Scotland at the Curators' Colloquium, 2021 showing examples of archaeological knitted textiles in the NMS collection (copyright National Museums Scotland)
Examples of archaeological knitted textiles in the NMS collection (© National Museums Scotland)

Helen spoke about the history of knitting in the NMS collection, what is happening now and a tantalising glimpse of where they might be going with it in the future. Using a wide array of examples from the collection, Helen noted that their items are not always collected specifically because they are knitting, but rather as part of the wider dress and textile collection. Although mainly held in the European dress collection in a range of both hand knitted and machine knitted items from the 17th century to present, knitting has found its way into various parts of the museum.

Screenshot of online talk by Helen Wyld, National Museums Scotland at the Curators' Colloquium, 2021 showing an example of knitwear from the European Dress collection (copyright National Museums Scotland)
Example of knitwear from the European Dress collection (© National Museums Scotland)

From archaeological knitted textiles and reproductions for display (Gunnister Man and Arnish Moor) to knitted items in the World Cultures department and the Science and Technology collection, other curators are also responsible for knitted items, making curating knitting at NMS a collaborative effort. Helen also spoke of the Pringle exhibition held at the NMS and the Fashion and Style Gallery. This gallery contains a number of knitted items including Fair Isle appearing in two different contexts, one in relation to global fashion and one in relation to Scottish manufacture. Finally, Helen spoke about looking to the future of the collection and the possibility of redesigning the Museum of Scotland at some point with some new and exciting acquisitions.

Session 2: Care and Conservation

The Care and Conservation of Knit Collections

Frances Lennard, Centre for Textile Conservation and Technical Art History, University of Glasgow

Frances began by briefly describing the post-graduate conservation course and the valuable relationships the department had formed with small museums and collections. These relationships allowed students to gain a real-life experience of conservation treatments and an understanding of how textiles were stored, displayed, and interpreted. She added that deciding on the best course of treatment for a textile was the most important skill that students could acquire.

Frances acknowledged that knitted textiles pose additional challenges to conservators because they can stretch and unravel, which has an impact on the choice of treatment. She explained that in some cases woven or knitted patches are used to support damaged or lost areas, whilst in other cases Swiss darning techniques are used. She explained how conservators had used a looping stitch technique to stabilise small holes in a knitted dance costume, which allowed it to be mounted on a mannequin in a pose that conveyed the dynamism of movement.

Screenshot of online talk by Frances Lennard, University of Glasgow at the Curators' Colloquium, 2021 showing treatment of Sanquhar glove by postgraduate student, Harriet Perkins
Treatment of Sanquhar glove by postgraduate student, Harriet Perkins
Screenshot of online talk by Frances Lennard, University of Glasgow at the Curators' Colloquium, 2021 showing experiments with digital printing by Thordis Baldursdóttir
Experiments with digital printing by Thordis Baldursdóttir

In another example the inherent stretch of woven fabric cut on the bias was used to infill the damaged area of a Sanquhar glove. And conservators also experimented with the use of a digitally printed support fabric to replicate the distinctive stitch pattern of the knitted object. However, Frances stressed that the job of a conservator is to stabilise objects for preservation and interpretation, and that all conservation treatments must remain visible to ensure that the history of an object is neither disguised nor compromised.

Session 3: Interpretation and Display – Conventional and Digital

Colour Revolution: Bernat Klein and the post-war market for handknitting

Lisa Mason, Assistant Curator, National Museums of Scotland

Screenshot of online talk by Lisa Mason, National Museums Scotland at the Curators' Colloquium, 2021 illustrating the Bernat Klein collection (copyright National Museums Scotland)
Bernat Klein collection (© National Museums Scotland)

Lisa spoke about one specific collection held in NMS: the Bernat Klein Collection which contains about 4000 objects, including garments, textiles, and design development material. Lisa noted the collection was rich in terms of material evidence, but scant in terms of business records. Lisa provided a comprehensive personal and professional background to Klein’s life highlighting his creativity after starting his own company in the Scottish Borders producing woven fabrics, tweeds and space-dyed yarns. Klein also launched his own range of knitting yarns and Margaret Klein devised a series of knitting patterns to showcase these new yarns. Lisa then discussed how handknitting became integral to Bernat Klein’s fashion business alongside couture fabrics, home dressmaking and ready to wear fashion.

Screenshot of online talk by Lisa Mason, National Museums Scotland at the Curators' Colloquium, 2021 showing kits of knitting wools and woven fabric, Bernat Klein (copyright National Museums Scotland)
Kits of knitting wools and woven fabric, Bernat Klein (© National Museums Scotland)

She also highlighted the thus far overlooked role of Bernat Klein’s wife Margaret as a knitwear designer and creative collaborator. Klein’s mail order ready to wear catalogues included handknitted garments in Bernat’s signature colourful yarns, designed by Margaret which were handknitted by outworkers across Scotland. Finally, Lisa spoke of her current work in developing a retrospective about Klein’s work and legacy scheduled for 2022, using the exhibition to highlight the multifaceted nature of Klein’s career and ongoing legacy. The exhibition will include Klein’s ready to wear and handknitting brand and crucially will provide a long overdue opportunity to highlight Margaret Klein’s role as a creative force.

Glorious Ganseys: A glance at the Scottish Fisheries Museum’s collection of fishermen’s jumpers with particular focus on “Knitting the Herring” and the creation of a National Database

Jen Gordon and Federica Papiccio, Assistant Curators, Scottish Fisheries Museum

Screenshot of online talk by Jen Gordon, Scottish Fisheries Museum at the Curators' Colloquium, 2021 showing women wearing Ganseys, photograph (copyright Scottish Fisheries Museum)
Women wearing Ganseys, photograph (© Scottish Fisheries Museum)

Jen began with an overview of the museum’s costume collection, which is recognised as one of Scotland’s Nationally Significant Collections. She then described a recent review of the collection to help establish priorities for acquisition, display, and storage. This thorough audit provided an opportunity to improve existing object descriptions and revealed the popularity of the museum’s collection of Ganseys. These hand-knitted and individually patterned garments were produced locally and worn by both men and women working in the herring industry. As well as being exhibited, Jen discussed how these garments provided a source of inspiration to designers and valuable material evidence of the community’s social history to researchers. Finally, Jen described how the collection of Ganseys, with the aid of an award, was sympathetically repacked to enable it to be stored more accessibly.

Screenshot of online talk by Federica Papiccio, Scottish Fisheries Museum at the Curators' Colloquium, 2021 illustrating the digitisation process used to create the 3D model of a Gansey (copyright Scottish Fisheries Museum)
Digitisation process used to create the 3D model of a Gansey (© Scottish Fisheries Museum)

Federica discussed the collaborative development of the Knitting the Herring project, which is a national database collating information about the Gansey. The online database will enable collectors, curators, and the general public to access information about these garments through a single portal. She described the stages involved in creating the database and the ways in which complex data was captured and eventually displayed. In addition to the database, Federica also described the creation of a 3D digital model of a Gansey. This model not only permits viewers to see the intricate stitch patterns in detail, it also allows them to look inside the garment – a view that is rarely afforded when garments are exhibited.

Closing Remarks: Marina Moskowitz

Marina closed the session by highlighting some of the key themes that had emerged during the event. She emphasised the value of considering both fashion history and textile history in relation to knitting, which often involves the simultaneous construction of textile and garment. She also noted the wonderful range of collections mentioned during the event and the many different categories under which knitting can be found. She stressed it was important to remember that the material artifact, which grounded study, could be discovered not only in fashion and textile departments but also in archaeology departments and collections of social history.

She also raised the question of what constitutes the history of knitting in collections. She noted how often the speakers had used other types of record – advertisements, photographs, oral histories, business records – to provide context.

And that really appeared to be an important theme, I think, running through everyone’s talks. The ability of those other types of artifacts to help us understand and to interpret the histories of knitting both for ourselves and the public.
Marina Moskowitz

She concluded by thinking of the future: the exciting new directions for research and the benefits digital technologies could bring to conservators, researchers, institutions, and the public.

Further Resources

Throughout the event speakers and audience members mentioned a variety of resources (other resources are also mentioned in the Q&A):

Publications

Ruhe, Stella:

  • Dutch Traditional Ganseys: Sweaters from 40 villages
  • Traditional Dutch Ganseys for Children: Over 40 sweaters to knit from 30 fishing villages
  • More Traditional Dutch Ganseys: 65 classic sweaters to knit from 55 fishing villages

[Scottish Fisheries Museum hope to have an exhibition of Stella Ruhe’s children’s ganseys in 2022.]

 

Rutter, Esther:

  • This Golden Fleece – A journey through Britain’s knitted history

Online Resources

For knitted items from collections in Orkney Museum, Shetland Museum and Museum nan Eilan included in an online exhibition, which forms part of the Between Islands project devised by An Lanntair in Stornoway, follow the links below: