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Sunbursts, trees and stars, reindeer and snowflakes, mutable landscapes of blended color. In vivid hues or in natural sheep shades, figural or geometric in design, the yoke sweaters of the North Atlantic are distinctive and enduring. The story of their creation in the 20th century is one of enterprise and canny marketing as knitters leveraged traditional skills to make ends meet in a rapidly changing and newly global economy.

The Icelandic lopapeysa, the Scandinavian and Shetland yokes, and the sweaters of the Bohus Stickning cooperative in Sweden may all have their roots in a Greenlandic ornamental accessory called the nuilarmiut that has nothing to do with knitting — it’s an element of traditional formalwear made of glass beads that cover the shoulders and bust in a large collar of brightly patterned geometric designs. The nuilarmiut’s appearance in a 1930 Danish film and, later, on members of the Danish royal family seems to have inspired several Scandinavian knitwear designers to imitate the effect in wool. Three of the earliest known circular yoke patterns bore the name “Eskimo,” suggesting their common inspiration. In the 1940s, the Bohus Stickning company in Sweden made the yoke sweater a mid-century status symbol. The designers’ innovative and masterful color play broke entirely with traditional motifs and methods to create subtly shifting forms and juxtaposed hues, all rendered at extremely fine gauge in luxurious angora-blend yarns. Bohus sweaters were worn by royalty and cultural icons — and commanded prices to match. The knitters’ earnings supported many families during an economically difficult time. Cottage industries in Shetland and Iceland were also quick to capitalize on the international taste for yokes, channeling their potent knitting histories to create garments that became lucrative exports more accessible to the average pocket book.

The strategic position of the patterning on a circular yoke serves two purposes. The designs ring the throat and shoulders like jewelry, drawing attention to the face. The plain body and sleeves heighten this effect while slyly achieving a second end: all that unadorned fabric is easy and relatively speedy knitting. In the case of the famous Shetland yokes, many of which featured tree and star designs borrowed from neighboring Norway, the jumper bodies and sleeves were knit by machine and then passed to the handknitters for the colorwork portion. The sweaters could then be completed at a cracking pace to achieve a successful commercial scale, and the knitters could develop one beautiful variation after another by skillfully shading both the background and foreground colors. The Bohus sweaters were always knit entirely by hand, but even at 8 or 9 stitches to the inch, the plain bodies allowed the most accomplished knitters to complete a couture garment in just a few weeks. Icelandic production knitters still work by hand, but take advantage of their native sheep’s long-stapled fleeces to work at a loose large gauge that supports strong geometric motifs and rapid sweater completion.

Yokes have climbed to the height of fashion, plunged into outmoded fustiness, and ascended once again in recent decades. Across the North Atlantic, a resurgence of admiration for these powerful symbols of national identity has led younger generations to embrace them. Knitters around the world have been quick to appreciate the joy of crafting yokes; a basic circular yoke is one of the most foolproof sweaters to knit, and the possibilities for elaboration are endless.

Brooklyn Tweed pays homage to the bold beauty and variety of yoke designs in five sweaters and two accessories that tip the cap to history, but hew to modern fit principles and allow each designer to explore original ideas. In these pages you’ll find seamless construction (both bottom up and top down), stranded colorwork, cabled texture, and even a wink at classic cartoons. Welcome to BT Yokes.

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Ganseys. Guernseys. Jerseys. Whatever name they’re given, the seaman’s sweaters of the British Isles are iconic. Knit to wear like iron and to shield their wearers from bitter onslaughts of wind and seawater, cleverly engineered with innovative features that maximized their durability and comfort, and patterned to sing proudly of love and skill, these garments number among the great achievements of knitting history.

 

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Myths about ganseys abound — photographic evidence doesn’t support the romantic notion that towns and families had their own exclusive patterns, for instance. Fishermen were among the most mobile people in Europe, always in and out of ports all over the North Sea, which gave knitters plenty of opportunity to admire and copy distinctive patterns. And it wasn’t just men who followed the herring migrations. Girls who gutted and packed the fish wore ganseys, too, with short sleeves to bare their arms for the messy work. The lasses often skipped the familiar navy and black yarn in favor of macaron hues of peach, raspberry, lemon, and pistachio. Knitters didn’t just make ganseys for themselves or for family members, either. A cottage industry that endured until the 1930s sprang up, and women could earn much-needed supplemental income by hand-knitting ganseys for sale.

 

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Most ganseys shared a set of common features. They were knit in the round to the underarms, and then the squared-off fronts and backs were completed working flat to create a drop shoulder. They were made of sturdy 5-ply wool and knit at a gauge of 8 stitches per inch to achieve the densest possible fabric. Ganseys seem to have begun as plain warm underwear, but they were often exposed to view as hardworking wearers stripped off outergarments, and by the mid-19th century knitters were beginning to add texture and design by incorporating purl stitches. Diamonds, stars, welts, and other geometric forms often embellished the upper torso and sometimes the upper sleeves. Simple rope cables and pictorial anchors, hearts, crosses, and Tree of Life motifs imbued the ganseys with symbolism. The most beautiful sweaters were worn for Sunday best.

 

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Ganseys were also marked by novel construction that maximized their lifespan as working garments. Diamond-shaped underarm gussets allowed greater freedom of movement and reduced stress on the fabric. Many ganseys had shoulder straps worked in ribbing for further elasticity. A variety of inventive cast-ons reinforced wear-prone hems and cuffs. This attention to quality and lasting sturdiness has allowed a great many historical ganseys to survive in excellent condition. Although few knitters today are willing to invest the time and effort required to produce an authentic gansey, we are all fortunate to be able to learn from the innovations and high standards established in these garments.

Our recent collection — Brooklyn Tweed Ganseys — pays homage to the gansey tradition in five sweaters and three accessories that may not take you to sea, but will inject trim nautical style into your wardrobe. We took them to a lonely stretch of Oregon coast for a photoshoot to hark back to their origins, but their clean, contemporary shapes will make them equally at home in the city if your working environment is a desk rather than a dock. Like the originals, these new designs bespeak knitterly pride in a smart detail or a well-chosen technique. We hope you’ll enjoy the challenge of shaping an unusual neckline or trying a new cable as you make these garments your own.

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Our shoot for BT Fall 14 took place in Red Hook, Brooklyn – the perfect backdrop for our fisherman-inspired knitwear. We wrote a bit about the neighborhood in our lookbook feature, and shot a companion video piece to go along with the article which we’re sharing today! The footage serves as a sort of visual journal of our own experience there – and sought to capture the character of Red Hook today. We’ve reposted the article below, too– hope you enjoy!

Nineteenth-century engravings show Red Hook, Brooklyn as a blunt spade of land bristling with steeples and smokestacks, a lively, hardworking neighborhood south of the Brooklyn Bridge pulsing with human energy and industry. A hundred years ago, Red Hook was the busiest freight port in the world, handling all the goods being shipped down the Erie Canal and then beyond.

Today many of its handsome brick factory buildings and warehouses stand empty; the local shipping industry withered on the vine in the 1960s, bypassed by new patterns of global trade. The subway doesn’t run here, eighty percent of the residents don’t own cars, and the only ferry service to Manhattan belongs to the new and controversial IKEA. The point of land once prized for its strategic location at the gates of one of the world’s great cities became so isolated that few visitors or even residents of more affluent parts of Brooklyn ever set foot here. Underserved by city government, burdened with environmental waste from elsewhere, wracked by decades of poverty and its attendant scourges, half-drowned by Hurricane Sandy, Red Hook is now muscling back up toward the sun.

Red Hook Circa 1875

 

Wanting a nautical backdrop for this collection of fishermen’s sweaters, the Brooklyn Tweed team headed for Red Hook’s wharves and tiny beachfront. We couldn’t stop shooting photos of picturesque brickwork and peeling paint, faded advertisements and weatherworn doorways, maritime relics, fresh flowers pertly adorning a few windowboxes, street art and bright graffiti replacing decay. The mood of this place, its admixture of struggle and pride, hard times and hope, moved us deeply.

Lines that once secured great oceangoing ships lie rotting in the sun and salt air, neatly coiled by longshoremen who honored their work even on the last day of the job. That haunting sense of dignity pervades this corner of Brooklyn, and it spoke to our ideals as a company. America is full of Red Hooks. All across this land are towns that boomed on manufacturing, places where people invented and made useful things, forges of change that drew people from all over the world to work and live and invent anew.

Brooklyn Docks 1916

Too many of those towns have fallen into decline, their industries gutted by cheaper competition. Brooklyn Tweed went into the business of making 100% American yarn because we wanted to participate in the revitalization of proud manufacturing traditions as well as contribute to a crafting renaissance. Working alongside other young businesses and in partnership with a remaining few that have survived for centuries, we hope to lift and energize local industries. Small as our impact might be in the face of colossal challenges, we can be part of a rising tide to reinvest in local resources and skills. The grit and passion of Red Hook’s community leaders inspires us and reminds us what’s possible when we commit to doing business in a way that creates work and boosts artistry in our country.

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Today, guest author Sarah Pope shares some special tips on making the most of knitting for little ones – we hope you enjoy!

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Reveling in the delights of the new BT Kids’ collection, my mind went right to casting on—Berenice for my daughter in Blanket Fort or Postcard! Arlo in Hayloft or Button Jar for my son!—I expect many of us dove straight into fantasies of seeing our own little ones at play in those beautiful garments. Some of us may even have experienced an alarming itch to produce or “borrow” a child just for the pleasure of knitting these designs. But even though I have a pair of recipients at the ready, I’m going to take a moment for some savvy planning, because knitting for kids is an investment of time and capital and also something of a gamble.

Saavy Knitting for Kids

 

Children are notoriously fickle giftees. The garment may be too hot. It may be too scratchy. It may be the wrong color—some kids let their favorites box the compass, while others remain faithful to purple or green for years at a time. The older they get, the more many children tend to fall in line with trends amongst peer groups. A child’s willingness to wear handknits may be utterly squelched for a few years if popular fashions have strayed in another direction.

The fact is, gifting a handmade item always means letting it go. It may be cherished or abandoned to the thrift shop. You’ve had the pleasure of the crafting it; this must be enough. But there are some clever moves you can make to position your handknits for a happy ending.

The best tactic I know is to involve the child herself in the planning and execution of the knitting. Let her hold the hank of yarn to her neck and judge the itch factor. A worsted-weight sweater may simply prove too warm for an active child in a temperate climate, so talk with her about the garments she likes to wear and make notes on their properties. She’ll probably be frank about style preferences.

Savvy Knitting for Kids

You’ll need to accept that a kid may not want to wear what you’d most like to knit. If your youngster lives in hooded sweatshirts, you’ll probably have to make him a plain zippered cardigan with a hood. It may bore you to tears, and your reward will be to see it dropped at the muddy sideline of the soccer pitch. But if your sweater receives this shockingly offhand treatment, you can pat yourself on the back. It has passed muster; the child has adopted it into his wardrobe and made it his own.

If the child is close by and old enough to learn, why not let him actually knit on his sweater during a plain stockinette section? Most children become deeply invested in things they’ve had a hand in making and will be proud to point to their wool-clad tummies and announce, “I knitted this part right here.” If they’re too young to knit, let them help wind the yarn, or give them a none-too-precious ball from your stash and some blunt needles to stab at it as they make believe they’re knitting alongside you.

Knitting for children—like pretty much every other aspect of life with them—involves ceding a certain amount of creative control. That can be hard for those of us with strong creative visions. (If I can’t sell my almost-four-year-old on the idea of Berenice, I’m just going to quietly cast it on for myself, in Shelter rather than Loft.) But seeing what strikes her in the collection, watching her form her own taste, is part of the fun of knitting for her. If I can produce something she really loves, my happy ending will be to listen to her bragging at preschool, “My mama made this for me!”

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Amirisu released their fourth issue last week, which highlights Brooklyn Tweed as the magazine’s featured brand. We had a lot of fun working with Amirisu, contributing both design and written content throughout the issue. If you aren’t familiar with this online publication, it is the passion project of a Tokyo-based knitting/editing duo whose shared goal is furthering the online knitting culture in Japan. The magazine’s content is presented in both Japanese and English.

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Last Fall, editor Meri Tanaka interviewed me about US-yarn production and my history as a designer. Within the article I talk a bit about how I got my start developing  and manufacturing yarns, as well as my start as a knitter. See pages 50-57 for the full article (excerpts shown below).

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I also contributed a short written piece for the magazine entitled “Elizabeth For Beginners”. Though Elizabeth Zimmermann is a national icon to us American knitters, Amirisu informed me that her work is not well-known in Japan and requested I contribute a piece that would act as a sort of gateway to EZ’s work. Within the article I give a very brief version of Elizabeth’s story and suggest some of her most beloved patterns for folks who are just discovering her work (pages 68-71).

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Last but not least – patterns and yarn! Brooklyn Tweed’s own Michele Wang and Leila Raabe contributed designs to the collection using BT yarns. Michele’s Tsubasa Top is a fun, spring-ready pullover worked in Shelter (color Blanket Fort) with arrowhead lace panels and dolman-style cap sleeves. Leila’s Preble Hat is worked in Shelter (color Snowbound) and features a woven texture pattern and twisted-stitch cable insertion. Both patterns can be downloaded directly from Amirisu (pattern info is also available on Ravelry).

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Tsubasa by Michele Wang | Preble by Leila Raabe.

A big thank you to the editors of Amirisu for featuring our work throughout the issue!

– Jared

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The BT Winter 14 lookbook featured our first knitting-inspired essay.  Writer Sarah Pope of Portland, OR, penned this beautiful piece about the passage of knitting from one generation to the next. In case you missed it, I’m re-posting the essay below. I hope you enjoy! – Jared

Winter Words

Essay by Sarah Pope; Images by Jared Flood

Knitters’ history begins in the cold, with mornings of snapping frost, fire in the hearth, breath smoking in the chill air, fingers numbly fumbling through the first chores of the day. Animals tamed and tended meant warmth in our ancestral crofts—wool on the doorstep to spin and fashion into cloth that might mantle the thin flame of our human heat. Knitting meant and still means a measure of comfort against the musts of the winter outdoors: ice to break on the water trough, firewood to split, nets to haul from the winter waves, provisions to fetch home.

Personal knitting histories tend to spring from the cold months, too. Winter is the time to gather the clan, to snug loved ones closer, to wrap them in family lore and craft. We light the long dark with stories and music, with cider and soup and bread hot and fragrant from the oven, with candles on the windowsills, with color wherever we can find it—plucked from the hedges, forced from winter-blooming bulbs, wound into bright balls and heaped in a basket beside a favorite chair. Winter is the time to draw an eager child into the lap, to curl her fingers around the smooth wooden needles, to guide those first clumsy thrusts of tip through loop and catch and coax and whoops! try again.

This is how I began—the first of three beginnings before the craft caught my heart and clutched it for good—nestled against my grandmother in her blue chair in a house on a hill in the Connecticut woods, the winter I was nine. Granny was not the knitting grandmother of popular imagination, all ample lap and sugar cookies beyond the pointy sticks. She had no permanent wave, no gold-plated baubles, no lipstick or sweater sets or collection of porcelain angels. Granny was boldly original. She was devoted to modern design. She’d been to art school with the Eameses and Eero Saarinen and Harry Bertoia. Her house itself was a sculpture, a constellation of brightly painted pods cantilevered off a knoll and connected by sloping corrugated tunnels with carpet runners the orange of kabocha squash. She was fearless and opinionated about color—about everything, really. Her knitting bespoke her taste for clean shapes and simple but effective construction—garter-stitch Jaeger jackets for my grandfather, fine-gauge vests with Aran patterning, cross-front sweaters for her newborn grandchildren (orange for the girls, never pink), whole families of densely knit overmitts with vertical stripes. New England raised, Granny knew the worth of knitting as necessary protection against the elements. But her craft always served her family in taking to the frozen outdoors for pleasure, too.

The Connecticut winter was a revelation to a child born to the drizzly evergreen of the coastal Northwest. I saw snow on skiing trips and in rare flurries deemed menacing enough to close school and commerce on our little island, so the very fact of it on the ground kindled in me a holiday high-heartedness. The bare trees were sky-raking sculptures with names that delighted my tongue—pignut, butternut, shagbark, mockernut, hornbeam, chinkapin—and if I watched patiently from the great glass alcove I might spy wild turkeys, deer, a fox, even a bobcat going about the business of survival amongst them.  Flashes of scarlet and sky blue lit the woods—a cardinal, a jay, outlandishly vivid birds we didn’t have at home. Such wonders demanded bundling into woolen layers and bounding out for a closer look. We tramped through the snow-covered garden, following the tracks of the turkeys and the dainty prints of the deer. Granny had appointed herself caretaker of every tree in the village, so we made the rounds to the venerable giants she watched for signs of disease and the tender saplings that might need insulation around the roots. Best of all, we followed the old railroad to the base of the slope where the ski jumpers came hurtling off Satre Hill, melding with the sky, soaring motionless as albatrosses and then touching gracefully down.

Back indoors, we hung mittens and hats sodden from snowballs to drip on the flagstones. We warmed ourselves with tea and a crackling fire. And Granny brought forth a ball of russet wool and a short pair of wooden straights and beckoned me near. Her hands were surprisingly sturdy for a small woman’s—hands that had raced sailboats and driven army trucks and turned numberless spadesful of double-dug garden earth—and now they deftly tensioned the yarn around my fingers and led my hands through the slow dance of finger tips and needle tips that dipped up loop after loop, each cunningly interlocked with its neighbor. Each day of our visit I worked a few more rows, finally producing a wobbly quadrangle of tipsy stitches, and then a second in cadet blue, this time with a purl side and fewer beginner’s singularities. Granny sewed up my little swatches, cinched the ends, and stuffed them with white fluff—a pair of soft toys for my kittens.

This winter day it is as if that first ball of wool has rolled out of my grandmother’s chair and across the floor, across the country, across twenty-five years. I take my small daughter into my lap. My mouth is full of her curls as I cast on twenty stitches of good rustic sheep’s wool. She cannot wait patiently for her try; her little fingers pull more working yarn from the cake we wound together, dart out to touch the needle as it ducks amongst the strands. Her questions tumble and frisk like spring lambs. I anchor the new row with a few stitches, and then with her native confidence she takes the needles. Her grip is natural, neither tight nor tentative. We take in turns the work of needle holder and wool thrower so she doesn’t have to coordinate all the motions. We begin a swatch. As my new knitter grows dexterous enough to manage the needles alone, this scrap of fabric will grow into a richly cabled pullover for her father. It will warm him when he takes her to school on his bicycle on frosty mornings. Perhaps I’ll knit a matching one in miniature. It will take all winter, but we know how to make the most of the season.

 

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Sarah Pope is a writer, knitter, and wool lover based in Portland, Oregon. She logs her knitting adventures at whistlinggirlknits.com.


 

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