De-colonizing and Fair Isle knitting.

Keep Abortion Legal sweater by Lisa Anne Auerbach

I just read several knitting books and several anti-colonial books at the same time, and I have all these new ideas about my own knitting. As happens when you read different topics at the same time, I found where they overlap and connect. An example.

From Michael Pearson’s Traditional Knitting: Aran, Fair Isle and fisher ganseys, 1984.

Pages 121-2.

[The Shetland Islands] lie to the north east of Britain and are in fact closer to Norway than mainland Scotland. … The inhabitants owe their heritage to the Norsemen who settled there in the 8th and 9th centuries, living under the patronage of Norway for over 500 years before the influx of Scottish mainlanders in the 13th century. Norse influence then began to fade and ended with the sale of the islands in 1496 by Norway to the Scottish Crown.

From this date right through to the present day the history of the inhabitants has been one of ruthless exploitation— by the Stuart family till 1615 and then by the splitting up of the islands into estates run by rich immigrant Churchmen and landowners…

The two knitting traditions that had the most resonance for me were Cowichan sweaters and Fair Isle knitting, both affected by Scottish colonialism. The more I read about Scottish history, the more it seems like Scotland has been a volcano of settlers for hundreds of years. They can’t stay home. Why? I continue to read. I want to know more about how I ended up here, descended from at least five different Scottish settler families on Coast Salish territories.

But. Ideas I got from this round of reading.

  • Folk knitting history is patchy and there are many versions of events and stories.
  • Reading books by American and British people mostly involves serious denial about colonization of any kind. It’s almost a relief to read books about North American genocide, because at least the destruction is presented as destruction. I read one book about Fair Isle knitting that presented Norway’s sale of Fair Isle to Scotland as simply a “reflection of the fact that the island was by then more Scottish than Norse.” OK, author, but how did that happen?
  • Knitting has labour politics as well as the more discussed gender roles. I hadn’t thought much before about the history of underpaid cottage industries where poor people knit clothes for rich people, for peanuts per hour. It is still basically impossible to make a living wage selling hand knitting. Like gardening, it’s one of those subsistence activities that middle class people dabble in for leisure. Not sure what to do with that right now.
  • Again, being a folk art, patterns and ideas spread whenever one crafter meets another (or even a craft). It sounds like Cowichan spinners and weavers were keen to pick up knitting from European settlers and missionaries, just as crafters. But also, English style knitting (yarn in the receiving hand) was taught in residential schools as a “civilizing” domestic skill, sometimes to produce items the school sold for profit. I want to find out how Turkish style knitting (with the yarn around the back of the neck) ended up in the Andes, when by the time of colonization I think Iberians were knitting in continental style (yarn in the loading hand). So far I haven’t found a resource that has both crafty knowledge and awareness of colonialism.

More from Michael Pearson.

Page 128.

Because of the natural tendency to identify with areas within reach, British knitters have usually assumed that Fair Isle was the place where two-colour knitting was invented.

I don’t know how natural that is. It does seem to be part of British and maybe European culture, to assume cultural dominance or sameness. Do non-Euro people have a history of that too? Assuming that everything was invented nearby just because it’s here now? (Two colour knitting, as far as I have been able to find out, first turned up in Turkey and Egypt, then spread via trade routes to Baltic and Nordic Europe.)

Old men knitting, a gap, then young men knitting

Flickr photo

I posted a few photos of knitting ideas this week, and when I was thinking about what to post to round on the week’s set, I got to thinking about men knitting.

Several times, I’ve had old white men come up to me while I’m knitting (or especially the few times Galen has been knitting in public), and they’ve talked about how they used to knit, or about how all their sailor or fisherman coworkers used to knit their own socks, hats and sweaters. People in my grandparents’ generation. Pretty much the exact dudes in that photo. The middle one is knitting. Can you tell? That’s my usual move, knitting while everybody else drinks beer.

My gramma, who has been my main knitting tutor other than books, is totally unphased about men knitting. She seems to find it normal and expected, which strikes me as odd since knitting is now cast as such a gendered activity, as a feminine art to be reclaimed and valued, as something our grandmothers did. When guys knit now, it’s celebrated as a happy transgression similar to chicks fixing cars. I should ask my grandparents about this, see if they remember a break when western or North American men stopped knitting.

(My brief googling for pictures of men knitting turned up lots of men knitting within apparently conventional knitting roles in Peru — Andean male knitting traditions are well-known— as well as Turkey, plus net-makers all over the place. Only the young urban male knitters in North America had any kind of “breaking tradition” vibe happening. E.g., a drummer, a subway rider.)

I wonder if it has anything to do with different modes of transmitting knowledge. I’ve never seen any written knitting instructions or patterns geared to guys before the last few years (Knitting with Balls and the like). All the heaps of vintage commercial patterns I’ve seen are for the ladies. I would assume the knitting sailors and knitting workmen maybe learned it right from another person. I could also see job changes, mass production, world wars, and gendered income differences being involved in there.

I haven’t even tried to google this. It’s just going in a pile with other vague research topics that I casually keep an eye out for. Knitting grandfathers. Maybe I’ve got some.

Ruffly thing to knit

Knitted neck thing by LUBEE on craftster

My instinct is to knit up a weird costume/uniform and wear it every day. When I don’t instantly know the name of an article of clothing, I seem to interpret it as having some qualities of a costume. This is a ruff, I suppose. I feel it is festive.

Fancypants neck brace, a knitting pattern

knitted neck brace, ready to be stamped on a coin

The first neck brace scarf was so quick that I was inspired to make another one. Usually I’m all about elaborate crafts that involve at least a year of delayed gratification, which I think makes me very vulnerable to the finished-object high. More more more!

I probably could have stopped before adding the fuzzy ruffle thing, but I wanted to make it weird. My vision was jellyfishy, but unless jellyfishes have a European royal court I’m not sure that really comes through. More of a bizarro-Elizabethan neck brace.

Here’s a snapshot through a dirty mirror that shows the front, and also, incidentally, a quite accurate representation of my personal idea of what I look like.

knitted neck brace, dirty mirror, self image

The creature itself looks like this.

neck brace laid out

Some patterns for knitting one.

  • Knit a long triangle. The decreases don’t have to be evenly placed.
  • I used random-width welts to make the fabric firm enough to stand up. (Alternating stockinette and reverse stockinette stitch.)
  • The main piece used about 50g of worsted weight yarn (one thrifted ball), on 4.5mm needles.
  • The ruffle took a few yards of mohair-esque stuff (again, thrifted and unlabelled) on 5.5mm… could have used much fatter needles for an airier ruffle.
  • I tried it on to place the buttons (actually a long cufflink-thing made out of two pearl beads and some embroidery floss), and to mark the start and end of the ruffle.

knitted neck brace / hall of mirrors

Purple neck brace, a knitting pattern

heroic knitting moment

I made this neck warmer in one afternoon, with no counting. Hooray! It even ended up with half a Darth Vader collar that I like, and made a couple dents in my crafting stash. Time for heroic poses in the bathroom mirror.

I was remembering this tapered neckwarmer and this scarflink (scroll to Oct 27, 2002) while I knitted.

It looks like this on its own, if you want to make something similar.

knitted neck brace laid out

This pattern is such a non-pattern that I insist on writing it formally, because it is funny.


  • 100g (60m) of thick and thin wool
  • 12mm needles
  • 2 buttons and thread


CO 22 sts.

Work in garter stitch, decreasing one at each end of random rows (approximately every 4-6 rows), down to 2 sts. K2tog.

Pull yarn through remaining stitch and leave the tail hanging out as a fastener.

Weave in the cast on end.

Sew or tie the two buttons together to make a cuff-link type thing. Button it into the outside layer of the scarf and wrap the tail around it to fasten. (Move or flip the button at will.)

The end.

reversible buttons for a scarf

All the ingredients have stories. Past projects, hand-me-downs, gifts, inheritances. That feels good.

Paging… a doctor… of some kind…

Knitted doctor mask

I’ve been trying to figure out who to name this knitted doctor mask after. It seems like surely there is a doctor who presides over fashion with accidental political relevance, the way Dr. Freud presides over objects with accidental sexual inuendo. Perhaps I am confusing doctors with saints.

Galen, in a heroic effort to work with my vague doctor-related presentiments, suggested Dr. Lagerfeld as the patron doctor of fashion. That’s as far as I’ve gotten. No, he isn’t really a doctor.

Free knitting pattern: cozy doctor mask

The mask is worked in stockinette stitch with a narrow garter stitch border, with garter stitch ear straps attached afterwards. The mask has decreasing short rows to shape the chin, and increasing short rows to shape the nose. It’s surprisingly warm and cozy to wear!

  • Gauge: 4.25 sts and 6 rows per inch
  • Needles: 4.5mm (or size to obtain gauge)
  • Yarn: under 25g of worsted weight
  • Size: adult (one size)

Row 1 (RS): sl 1, P2, K to last 3 sts, P3.
Row 2 (WS): sl 1, P to end.

These two rows make up the pattern (stockinette bordered by a 3-stitch garter border).

Main mask

Beginning at bottom edge, CO 30 sts.
Row 1 (RS): sl 1 knitwise, P to end.
Row 2 (begin short row shaping): sl 1 knitwise, P to last 3 sts, wrap and turn.
Row 3: K to last 3 sts, wrap and turn.
Row 4: P to last 4 sts, wrap and turn.
Row 5: K to last 4 sts, wrap and turn.
Continue in this fashion until you have wrapped a total of 5 sts on each side.
Row 12: P across (working wraps together with sts).
Row 13 (RS): work in pattern, working wraps together with sts.
Continue working in pattern for 12 more rows, except m1 inside each border on rows 15 and 23
Row 26 (WS): sl 1, P to last 7 sts, wrap and turn.
Row 27: K to last 7 sts, wrap and turn.
Row 28: P to previous wrap, P wrap together with st, wrap and turn.
Row 29: K to previous wrap, K wrap together with st, wrap and turn.
Continue in this fashion (keeping in pattern), until you have wrapped 5 sts on each side (the last wraps will be on the 3rd sts from the edges).
Row 36 (WS): P across.
Row 37 (RS): sl 1, P across.
Row 38: sl 1, P across.
Row 39: BO all sts purlwise.


Pick up 3 sts at top of left edge of mask. Work in garter stitch until strap is long enough to fit around ear. BO all sts. Sew end of strap to bottom of left edge of mask.

Repeat on right side of mask.


Weave in ends.

Tips and notes

The mask is pretty warm, and I think it would be a great alternative to a scarf. A face-warmer, rather than a neck-warmer. The obvious accessory would be matching gloves (ready for surgery!).

I can’t stop obsessing about the timeliness of a mask. It’s a disguise, in an era of paranoia about privacy and spying. It’s a gag, in an era of paranoia about censorship and secrecy. It’s a veil— one level more retro than burlesque. It’s kitschy like ninjas or pirates. It’s a surrogate beard for the ladies, since hipster facial hair doesn’t seem to be going away.

Three favourite recent masks:

Justin Timberlake in a bandit mask

Harajuku cosplayer on Flickr

Santos hoodie by Anticon

My head is full of plans for masks made of lace, eyelets, stripes, and checkers. Or tweed, for business situations.

Mini me

More photos from forgotten file directories. This is me, looking cute and androgynous in a bunny hat I knitted, in December 2002. I was 23. I look a lot younger— the soft (aka crap) focus probably helps. Everybody has baby skin in blurry photos.

I like this one, where I’m making a rabbit face.

Younger me, in a bunny hat

And this one, where I’m making a… stern rabbit face

Younger me, in a bunny hat

I taught myself to knit by inventing that hat, during a 40 hour bus ride to Winnipeg. I double-knit the ears on two straight needles, including the cables on the front and back. For any non-knitters reading this, that’s fucked up, that’s self-torture. When I think about how I learn, this is the project I think of: I don’t so much go for baby steps.

These photos are very funny to me— they might as well have been taken to document the dawn of the current era of me. I was about to be self-employed, living in the first apartment after deciding I only wanted to live in corner suites in Fairfield, addicted to knitting, and cultivating a potted jungle in my apartment. I stand by all those decisions! Way to go, stern bunny, for laying solid foundations.