Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Knitting Peace exhibition at the Army Museum, Stockholm

Stockholm's Army Museum seems at first thought an unlikely place to hold an exhibition about knitting. Beyond the Home Front knitters of World War II, can yarn really be a way of stopping bombs? The current exhibition Knitting Peace by Cirkus Cirkör proposes craft as a means to quell conflict. This ambitious show combines several works: installations of knitted objects sent in by participants; tableaux featuring Cirkus Cirkör and their performers; and an exhibition about craftivism, activism x craft. Though slightly inconsistent in the material that it presented, the overall theme was that through knitting, one can harness the potential to utilise inner peace to subdue our personal capacity for violence.

The exhibition is in a fantastic space: several rooms under the eaves of a wing of the museum, each leading off a central corridor. One is invited to stroll through and browse, with huge lengths of knitting entangled with barbed wire suspended above. The exhibition opens with a short film of one of Cirkus Cirkör’s shows, a wonderful acrobatic piece whereby knitting is integral to the scenography. This is striking use of the craft that really explores the boundaries of knitted fabric, done out in maximum with hugely thick thread and massive stitches. Set pieces were highly sculptural and embodied movement, perfectly suited to use in a circus.

Upon leaving this room, the visitor is introduced to the main scope of the rest of the exhibition, which was a collaborative project. Cirkus Cirkör put out a call for pieces of white knitting to be sent in that considered the question, 'Is it possible to knit peace?' Participants donated a range of objects, from elaborate shawls to toys and patches of white, and all were labelled with a luggage tag explaining their thoughts on how knitting creates peace. These objects were displayed on the walls of the exhibition rooms, and arranged into tableaux such as a dining table and teatime set. Finally, the third theme was craftivism, which suggests a context for the installation. A photographic display of yarn bombing and public textile art around the world was included as the backdrop to some of the rooms. These tableaux and props were humorous and fun, again utilising medium of knitting as a form of sculpture, and taking it out of its usual, more domestic context. However, the installation rooms did not really reinforce the circus acts hinted at, and seemed more to be a way of displaying the donated objects.

The craftivism exhibition included some truly exciting pieces, but the photographic reproductions were rather small, and did not do the work justice. The sheer mass of the white knitted donations took over the exhibition, and although all contained personal messages, they did not successfully unite in pushing a thesis; they were highly individual, and not really political. Which is rather odd, considering they were in a museum dedicated to war. The textile artists featured who combined activism with their medium created some of the most provocative and thought-provoking pieces in the exhibition, such as Lisa Anne Auerbach's Body Count Mittens. The knitting workshops at Farsta refugee camps also seemed like a lovely idea, to create cold-weather garments together and create a sense of community. However, these projects were displayed on very small placards in a corner at the back of the exhibition. It is a real shame that they weren't given more prominence.

Overall, I feel the exhibition was too ambitious in scope. It did not really succeed in arguing its thesis: that knitting can bring peace. Or perhaps the kind of peace specified was not clear enough. Inner peace can certainly arise through knitting, as studies on the meditative qualities of craft attest. But the peace gained here seems far removed from a warzone, and in its location of the Army Museum, and the context of war, knitting as peacegiver seems rather vapid; as evidenced by the hyperreality of a knitted net smothering a tank in the museum's entrance place. This idealistic sense of what peace could be makes the most sense in the room featuring a knitted take-over of John Lennon and Yoko Ono's bed-in.

I would have liked the exhibition to be far more insightful, and to share more personal stories of craft and transformation. To be more effective, it should have made us question our privileged Western/Northern European lives far more and at the very least find stories from those caught in the cross-fire, not just those of us living far away in safety. Attacks on refugee camps by far right groups are a major threat to Sweden's peace, alongside its cultural sensibility of justice, democracy and fair-play. Can knitting help solve that problem? I'm not really so sure.

Knitting Peace runs at Armé Museum, Stockholm until 30 November.
Click here for more information.

Monday, 11 April 2016

Little cable knee-highs

Finally, I'm able to share with you my first completed socks of 2016 - indeed, my first pair since 2009. I brought the yarn with me when I came to Stockholm, and cast on a few weeks after my arrival. The pattern is Little Cable Knee Highs by Purl Soho, my first time knitting toe-up socks and an absolute joy to make. Even so, I didn't quite anticipate how long it takes to knit a knee-high sock. I have pretty shapely calves, and the socks' stretching out in width has caused them to be reduced slightly in length: you can see they fall about an inch short of the bend of my knee. I was damned if I was going to me knitting them for any moment longer though, and cast off according to the pattern's measurements. Word of advice: don't let your first pair of socks be knee length. 

I struggled a bit with sock construction initially - I'd forgotten all the stages it involves in creating the heel: gusset, short row heel, then heel flap. For some reason, my slip-stitch heels turned out looking completely different from each other, and I have no idea why. I can live with that though. My favourite aspect of the socks, aside from the glorious colour they showcase, is the line of cables running up the back of the leg.

These socks have been a long time coming. I bought the yarn at the first Edinburgh Yarn Festival back in 2013. You can read about it over on my old blog archive. It's a hand-dyed merino sock yarn by Old Maiden Aunt. I always intended them to be knee-highs, but initially planned some elaborate, 18th Century-inspired stockings with gorgeous clock motifs on the ankles. Needless to say, I intimidated myself with these grand plans, and put off designing and making them for three years. In January, I decided that I didn't want to hoard the yarn any longer. It was better to knit a simpler pattern designed by someone else, than to procrastinate and never make the socks at all. I'm really glad that this glorious yarn is no longer sitting at the bottom of a drawer, guiltily stuffed in a plastic bag.

As I wrote in my last post on sock making, pure merino just isn't a hard-wearing yarn. Soft and beautiful as it is, it's not ideal for everyday socks. On my first outing, the heels already showed signs of wear, with rubbing and pilling on the fabric surface. Though I'd love to wear them all the time, I'll have to keep these socks for special occasions.

Lastly, I wanted to mention the wearing of handknitted socks. These are always much thicker than machine-knitted cotton socks. For someone with large and wide feet like myself, it is usually not possible to wear my handknitted socks with normal shoes. I long to be able to clack around in socks + wooden clogs or sweet mary janes, like I see others do on the Internet. But for me it's just not possible. I'm like Cinderella's ugly sister in the German versions of the tale: I'd have to cut off a toe, or a portion of my heel. This is how I style myself to overcome this problem: Dr Marten boots paired with a girly 1960s babydoll dress. Always a riot of pattern and colour, here's me looking most 'Scandi un-Cool' (trademark) by the waterside.

Outfit details:
Beret - vintage
1980s Cardigan - vintage
Scarf - vintage
1960s Dress - vintage
Bag - vintage
Wedgewood cameo necklace - vintage
Boots - Dr Martens, c.2013
Mittens - from Estonia
Socks - handknitted
Coat - Hobbs, c.2012

I will never, ever, ever look like a Stockholmer. Mad London style always. 

Have you made any socks recently?


Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Historical Socks at Nordiska Museet, Stockholm

All photos courtesy of Nordiska Museet. 

Once a month, during the Spring and Autumn, the Nordiska Museet hosts a Stickcafé (knitting café) in the museum restaurant. This free event is open to anyone who wishes to come for fika and knitting, and includes a lecture on an aspect of Swedish knitting from the museum collection. The talks are usually in Swedish, but luckily for me, the second Stickcafé that I went to featured an archive show-and-tell of historical socks. The curator was on hand to answer questions, and wearing white cotton gloves, we were free to handle and examine the socks at close hand. What an amazing opportunity!

The socks on display ranged from silk stockings made in Paris from the Regency era, folk patterned traditional Swedish socks, everyday socks for men and women, and even a few much-mended, rough and utilitarian house slippers. It was truly a broad selection, including socks from peasants as well as princesses. Unfortunately the lighting was very dim, but I was able to take photographs of some of my favourite pieces to share with you.

Cuff details
My favourite socks featured striking details on the cuffs, particularly in colourwork. It doesn't have to be complicated to be eye-catching though, and I also love the simple addition of two bright pink bands, and the garter stitch lace cuffs of the second photo.

Stocking Clocks
A beautiful stocking detail that's simply lost today. In the top photo, the white socks are hand-embroidered, folk art style; the others are much finer stockings with elaborate clocks.

Purple socks, 1877

Monograms and printed branding
The printed labels help the archivist to date the stockings precisely. In the second photo, the pattern on the Parisian red and white stockings is printed, not knitted in. And I just adore the cross-stitch monogram below the white picot hem of the blue striped sock.

White and red stockings from Bon Marché in Paris, 1861

Monogrammed white stocking - 1854

Two-tone colour work
As amazing as elaborate, multi-coloured stranded folk knitting is, I'll always be drawn to clever uses of just two colours. Red and white is always a classic, and I love the colour blocking on the blue striped stockings, where the stripes would protrude over a boot.

Red and white socks - left 1810, right 1804; entered the collection in 1933

Blue striped socks - 1915

Dainty and everyday
There were many examples of very fine stockings for the upper classes, such as this stunning white cotton lace pair that was machine-knitted; and of course the lovely folk art stockings. But the museum also include examples of rough, everyday knitting. Although by comparison the slippers in the bottom photo are horrible and rather dirty, there's something very appealing about seeing examples of clothing that has really taken heavy wear. Not kept in a box, but battered by the feet, and darned again and again. You can really see the different lives that people have led through their footwear.
White lace socks, 1905

I regret not taking more careful notes about the dates of all of the my defence, it was a small and crowded room! Seeing the socks in the archive really showed me how little I know about knitting history, and how limited my knowledge of hosiery history is. or instance, did you know that the first knitting machines were developed as far back as the 16th Century? I didn't! This event was such a great way to discover more, and I'm very grateful to have stumbled upon it!

Many thanks to Nordiska Museet for allowing me to take and share these photos. 

Monday, 4 April 2016

Love and Marriage: ritual in an age beyond horse-powered carriages

Love and marriage, love and marriage

Go together like a horse and carriage
This I tell you brother, you can't have one without the other

Love and marriage, love and marriage

It's an institute you can't disparage
Ask the local gentry and they will say it's elementary

'Love and Marriage' lyrics by Sammy Cahn, 1955

The jaunty, catchy tune 'Love and Marriage' rollicks along in this Frank Sinatra recording, its rhythms mimicking the sounds of the trotting horses it references. The first time I heard this song was nearly 10 years ago, at my Saturday job stacking shelves in a bookshop, where I nearly fell off a ladder. It was so old-fashioned in its attitude and straight-forward declaratory lyrics, it was absurd. Peggy Lee's version is no more palatable. There's much to love about the 1950s, but the era's attitudes towards gender and social roles are not one of them.

And yet today, as three of my friends have recently gone through divorces whilst others continue to announce their knot-tying, I find myself wondering if we really have come as far as I thought from the institutionalisation of love within marriage. A large part of me has always wondered why people still get married in the 21st century, especially in the UK where the law now recognises 'common law' partners, at least when it comes to applying for things like grants and social benefits. But since I left university aged 21, every year I've seen a flurry of friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances get married - gay as well as straight couples, nonconformist as well as traditional.

The romantic concept of a soul mate for life has only recently been tied to the spouse; marriage has for centuries been a social transaction, trading on connections as well as the always-important dowry. Societies developed whereby people's individual lives have been lived according to politics, with little notion of choice. Considering the statistics on divorce, as well as the negative history of marriage as a direct form of social control, I have frequently found it very surprising that in our presumably more liberal and secular societies, so many people still choose to go through it. I am clearly not alone in this questioning; the queer dissent towards marriage looks to change society's bias towards favouring the married state to the detriment of singles, polyamorous and other configurations of love and families.

I grew up planning not my wedding day, but my lovely attic flat filled with books and travel mementoes - where I imagined I lived alone, at approximately age 35. I never dreamed of a husband, and it's surprising - considering how far the LGBTQ+ rights movements have come since I was a child - that this idea of a life is as unconventional as ever. It's not entirely a queer state, but singleness and spinsterdom is still a feared concept.  The sanctity of the couple, the traditional family unit (even with same-sex parents) continues to be revered and pushed, despite the fact that nearly 100 years of Freudian analysis has proven how difficult and unrealistic this form of living really is. And amazingly,  as I enter my mid-twenties, I have even found myself feeling the societal pressure of marriage  - something I always thought I'd manage to be immune to. The wedding industry has a a lot to answer for, and it's easy to blame my pet hate, Capitalism.

However, it's not entirely as simple as that. As well as the social, institutional benefits that are imparted via a marriage license, it's important to recognise the deeply personal effects that marriage has in peoples' lives. Philosopher Alain de Botton reasons the importance of rituals in social lives, which indeed is a large part of why all the liberal people I know have got married. Although this is still a monogamous and heteronormative standard, it remains the dominant motivation in society, and is quite complex as it embodies contradictions. People still pay homage to this tradition despite the fact that the institution of marriage has a long history of subjugation and control, whilst those living outside of the system have been penalised in forms ranging from stigma and mockery (see: Sex and the City, any Hollywood rom-com etc) to outright punishment (see: the witch trials which targeted  single women living alone). Michel Foucault's theory of power goes a long way to understanding why concepts are embraced despite us knowing that they are problematic and a form of control: because it is enforced from below, and embraced by people, enjoyed as a form of pleasure:

What makes power hold good, what makes it accepted, is simply the fact that it doesn’t only weigh on us as a force that says no, but that it traverses and produces things, it induces pleasure, forms knowledge, produces discourse. It needs to be considered as a productive network which runs through the whole social body… 
(Michel Foucault, 'Power/Knowledge. Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977', p.119)
Knowing this, I think I can forgive myself for feeling the sway of the big rock, big frock, and party. My partner, thankfully, has yet to be convinced.


1. Do go and read A Short History of Love over on the philosophy site, The Book of Life. It's really very enlightening.

2. I wanted to add that as well as the basic state of resisting marriage by simply not getting married, there are other, historical forms of living with people and having sexual relationships that seem very progressive, but are barely discussed. The first is the brilliantly French set-up of having a husband (who pays for your amazing wardrobe and house) and a lover (who writes you poetry and takes care of the rest). This has traditionally, publicly and very frequently been adopted by French kings (see: the various Louis); but surely the time has come for the boot to be on the other foot.

Secondly is the concept of having multiple husbands who take care of various things together, with a First Husband running the household, Second Husband doing the cooking, down to the Fifth Husband being the favourite; all simultaneously competing to share the wife's bed and sire the first female child. This is an inversion of the Confucian-Chinese household.

The Amazonian idea of the male sex slave within the all-female island society seems a bit too much of a porno fantasy story-line to be realistic. Of course, both the French and the Chinese systems require both inherited wealth and property, which is of course a difficulty; but I just wanted to make some suggestions for alternatives to marriage which still operate within a (loosely) heterosexual framework.

Please make more suggestions in the comments!