Round the World in Knitted Objects, Online Colloquium 15 October 2021

Helen Kempton, MLitt Student Dress and Textile Histories

When Dr Adelheid Rasche reappeared with an interior photo of a seventeenth-century knitted silk jacket, the excitement was palpable – even through Zoom. Rasche had been inundated with technical questions about the construction of this garment from the hundreds of participants in this week’s ‘Round the World in Knitted Objects’ Colloquium. Listeners, who, like the presenters, came from across the globe.

One of the joys of the Zoom format is the ability for a worldwide audience to combine their knowledge and skills, whether that knowledge has been gained informally through craft practice or family storytelling, or formally through museum and university training. Professor Marina Moskowitz’s tour of the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection held by the University of Winconsin-Madison was already fascinating, but discovering that one of the gloves she showcased was donated by a participant’s Aunt added an unexpected personal touch. These conversations spoke also to the nature of twenty-first century museum and collection practices. Objects are now often understood as having an ongoing story intertwined with their history – a story which develops as the cultural understanding of the public who views it shifts and changes.

Slide from presentation by Marina Moskowitz used as illustration for blog about International Colloquium 2021
Opening of presentation by Prof Marina Moskowitz. (Image used by permission of Marina Moskowitz)

The questions which led to Dr Rasche’s behind-the-scenes search for an interior photo have also inspired her to look more closely at the range of knitted garments within the Germanisches Nationalmuseum collection. Similarly, Professor Moskowitz quickly updated her slides with the gauge (a term which describes how dense knitted stitches are) of some of her examples. It was delightful to see how every presenter embraced interactions with the audience, facilitated by our hosts – Professor Lynn Abrams, Dr Sally Tuckett, Dr Roslyn Chapman, Dr Lin Gardner and Dr Carol Christiansen from the Fleece to Fashion Project.

Dr Winani Thebele from the Botswana National Museum began the colloquium with a reflection on the culture of knitting within Botswana. As Botswana’s history of knitting is relatively recent, this was an interesting place for the presentations to start. How does a craft practice develop in an already-mechanised world? Dr Thebele highlighted the importance of Brigades – a sort of colonial domestic trade school – in the development of knitting practice in the country, as well as the influences of bordering Zimbabwe and South Africa in different districts.

Items from the collection of the Botswana National Museum, Gaborone (Image used by permission of Winani Thebele)

We moved from Africa to Scandinavia with Ásdís Jóelsdóttir from the University of Iceland describing the history of the Icelandic Lopapeysa sweater. Lopapeysa feature a circular yoke with designs created by stranded colourwork and are knit from unspun Icelandic wool called Lopi. The use of unspun wool was unique to Iceland, and created very warm sweaters which can be knitted quickly – as fast as 10-15 hours for a medium-sized adult sweater. Jóelsdóttir ended her presentation by discussing her part in the Designation of Origin status which was given to íslensk lopapeysa last year.

Garments designed by Bára Þórarinsdóttir for Álafoss, 1972 used as illustration in blog about International Colloquium. Image use by permission of Ásdís Jóelsdóttir
Garments designed by Bára Þórarinsdóttir for Álafoss, c.1972 (Image courtesy of Ásdís Jóelsdóttir)

Glynis Jones from the Museum of Applied and Arts and Sciences in Sydney, Australia, then presented a pre-recorded talk on the designs and artistic background of Australian knitwear designer Jenny Kee. Jones’ discussion was unique for its focus on a singular modern designer, representing yet another approach to knitted textiles in museums. A highlight from Jones’ talk was the examples of Kee’s ‘Blinky Bill’ intarsia-knit sweater as worn by Diana, Princess of Wales. After the Princess was photographed wearing it, Kee designed a simpler version which could be produced to match the then overwhelming demand.

Slide from presentation by Glynis Johns used as illustration for blog about International Colloquium 2021
Design and garments by Jenny Kee from the collection of the Powerhouse Museum, MAAS, Sydney (Image used by permission of Glynis Johns)

Dr Adelheid Rasche then took us back to the European continent and to historical garments for an investigation of a knitted silk jacket in the ‘Polish Jacket’ style, from the seventeenth century. The blue and metallic thread jacket is one of three from the Germanisches Nationalmuseum’s collection and was probably worn informally, based on inventories and the lack of pictorial evidence for this type of garment. A highlight from this talk was the hand-drawn construction diagrams Dr Rasche had found in the collections of the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, in Fribourg, Switzerland.

Slide of 17th c. knitted jacket used as illustration for blog about International Colloquium 2021
Early seventeenth-century knitted silk jacket from the collection of the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremburg. (Image used by permission of Adelheid Rasche)

Finally, Professor Marina Moskowitz and her colleague Sam Comerford took the audience on a live tour through a variety of knitted garments from the University of Wisconsin-Madison collections. Many of these garments came from a 1930s grand tour of the Americas conducted by one of the founders of the original collection, Helen Louise Allen. Bags from Guatemala, hats from Peru and Bolivia, mitts from Wisconsin and a cowl from Alaska all spoke to the impacts of immigration and colonization on knitting culture in the Americas.

Guatemalan knitted bags with woven handles from the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection, held by the University of Wisconsin. (Image used by permission of Marina Moskowitz)

For Speaker biographies, please visit our International Colloquium event page