“The Red Palm” Design: Kerstin Olsson, 1967; picture posted with permission from Bohusläns Museum

Last week I opened up the most recent Garnet Hill catalogue and saw a gorgeous bobbles & lace knit sweater next to this caption: “E/Hand-Knit Sweater EXCLUSIVE Lusciously soft Italian blend of acrylic/wool/viscose/alpaca… Italy/Imported….#27525 $88.” It makes me want to know – just who is hand-knitting these sweaters for such a low price? Or is that just the name of the “style” of this sweater… After I count up the hours it takes me to actually knit something – I’m a moderately fast knitter when I get going – plus the time in designing or just making a gauge, plus the cost of the yarn: it is priceless!  (Something I usually only start to realize when buying insurance for my precious hand-knitted items to be sent in the mail.)

The subject of hand-knitting for sale brought to mind the knitting book I most recently finished: Wendy Keele’s history of “Bohus Stickning,” a Swedish knitting business that created so many beautiful and unique hand-made sweaters from the 40’s through the 60’s.  The business was started for women in rural, southern Sweden (Bohuslän) who were struggling to make ends meet following the depression. In 1937 the women approached Emma Jacobsson, the wife of the governor of Bohus, to look for a cottage industry for the women to make money while taking care of their children, homes and farms. Emma settled upon knitting, something that the women in this region could already do and that required few tools. She found innovative designers and encouraged them to create new, interesting, and fashionable sweaters, hats, and mittens that were eventually marketed around the world, most importantly to wealthy foreigners. She demanded the highest quality of wool, paying higher than usual prices to the best wool producers, and she demanded perfection in the actual knitting and sizing. Bohus Stickning grew and thrived as the economy improved in the 1950’s, but by the early 60’s demand fell and in April 1969 Bohus ceased operations.  So much had changed in that period of time as cheaper, machine-made sweaters became much more easily available and fashions and styles had evolved.

While reading I was struck by the story of the women who actually did the knitting.  After Bohus closed, some of the knitters wrote letters of gratitude for Bohus and all that it gave them. One wrote, “It will be a big loss not to get Bohus knitting anymore. It had been so interesting and nice when sitting alone…” (Keele, page 51). This lovely glimpse into domestic life of the past is something that I think about often as I raise my two children and struggle to meet that happy point between taking care of them and meeting my own professional, personal, financial, etc. needs.  I wonder how my ancestors – several of them from nearby Norway – managed to cook and preserve and farm while raising children who constantly get into things and need so much. On top of all of that, the Bohus women were knitting perfect sweaters for others to make a little extra money; they were docked pay when the sizing was off or there was a mistake in the pattern, Keele writes. When I read political histories about important actors and decisions, I miss this part of the story – the day-to-day life of people in a particular time and place, especially of the people taking care of hearth and home.

The larger history during this time and place is striking too: Bohus Stickning was founded in September 1939, the year that Germany invaded Poland and effectively started World War II in Europe.  If Sweden would have taken sides in World War II – the country was neutral – the knitted goods made by Bohus Stickning most likely would have supported the war effort. Of course Bohus was not unaffected by the war, Keele explains; at one point the Swedish government required a permit for wool to be exported and spun in Finland where Emma sent some of her finest wool; later, the Finnish government banned all wool exports. Still, I can’t help but think of the home knitters in New Zealand during World War II who supported their troops by knitting them thousands of socks made from their country’s wonderful wool of course. (I read about this in Heather Nicholson’s book, The Loving Stitch: A history of knitting and spinning in New Zealand, published by Auckland University Press, 1998.) How differently Bohus Stickning might have developed – how different those women’s lives would have been! – had Sweden changed political course.

From Garnett Hill, to Sweden, to domestic life, to politics, and now to New Zealand. It looks like I’ve chosen my next book to read!

Photo used with permission from Interweave Press. Photo by Joe Coca, © 1995 Interweave Press and Joe Coca, http://www.interweavestore.com/store/Search.aspx?SearchTerms=Keele

“Poems of color: knitting in the Bohus tradition,” Interweave Press, 1995; by Wendy Keele  http://www.interweavestore.com/Knitting/Books/Poems-Of-Color.html