Wednesday, April 25, 2012

3KCBWDAY3: Knitting heroes

There are people I know in person who I'd think of as knitting heroes - people who use their craft to sustain their sense of self-worth amid mental or physical illness or disability; people who will rip and re-knit the same yarn a dozen times until it becomes that perfect item; people who'll take on a complex project as a relative beginner and come out with a stunning finished object.  And then I was going to play this conventionally today and go for two of the Big Beasts of the knitting world, Kaffe Fassett, king of colour inspiration and Debbie New, knitting genius.

But while I was coming home this evening on the train, reading the business pages and thinking of a couple of conversations I'd had over the last few days, I totally changed my mind.

Knitting hero: Emma Jacobsson

Some of the details here are from Wendy Keele's Poems of Color; some are from Susannah Hansson's wonderful Bohus class last summer at Knit Nation, and some others are from Kjell Andersson's brilliant and moving film on Bohus (available on DVD from Schoolhouse Press).  All errors are my own.

Emma Jacobsson's husband was the governor of Gothenburg in Sweden, at a time when the stone-miners in the Bohusl√§n quarries were hit by both the Depression and the Second World War.  Thinking of production which could be done without too much equipment but which would bring in a significant amount of income, she settled on knitting - but knitting to rival the great couture houses of New York and Paris.

At one stage, a Bohus twinset, sweater or cardigan rivalled anything available in New York department stores from designers like Ralph Lauren.  The knitting was done on 1.75mm or 2mm needles throughout.  The designs used several colours in a row, and a combination of knit and purl stitches for texture.  The yarn used was a wool and angora blend (again sourced by Jacobsson), which fuzzed out into the most beautiful colour blend.

There are photos of everyone from Princess Grace of Monaco to Audrey Hepburn wearing these sweaters and cardigans.  They were knitted top-down, but worked with seams after the yoke shaping/underarms to give the feel of other couture garments.

The knitters were paid by garment, and quality was strictly monitored.  However, for an industrious knitter, the payment was a huge help to the family; such that it actually caused some family rows on occasion because it meant the woman was earning more than the man.

Gradually, as clothes became more throwaway, it became more difficult for Emma Jacobsson to find new markets in North America, or preserve existing markets.  In the end, the Bohus enterprise closed in 1969, to the regret of many of the knitters, despite the packet of yarns they received as thanks.

I don't think I'd have liked Emma Jacobsson if I'd met her in person.  She seems to have been a somewhat relentless, pushy person who really didn't take "no" for an answer.  In my head, she was a cross between The Killing's Sarah Lund, The Archers' Lynda Snell and Princess Michael of Kent.  And all of those women get things done.

Emma Jacobsson ensured employment for hundreds of women, making a high quality product which was desired worldwide, and for which the knitters were adequately paid.  The knitting itself was extraordinarily beautiful, as seen by the colour combinations above.  The Bohus designers and knitters corresponded back and forth, and all were very skilled.

For 30 years, women in one of the poorest areas of Sweden made knitting pay, thanks to Emma Jacobsson and the team she assembled around her.

All photos taken by consent of Susanna Hansson from her personal collection of Bohus Knitting.  For details on her work,go to - if you can attend one of her classes, it's a treat.


Tracy said...

That's really interesting Liz thank you

Tecrin said...

That is fascinating! And looking at those pictures, especially the green and grey one, I guess I have seen these designs before. I would never have guessed that it was the result of something like this. Interesting!

Cyprienne said...

WOW. Makes me want to knit a Bohus of my very one -- thank you for the much-needed history lesson!

Kepanie said...

What a great history lesson!

stash haus said...

We had Susanna speak at our Guild - it's a fascinating history. I was just telling my mom a bit about the history this weekend.

I agree with your opinion about your hero. Reminds me of that quote one sees on bumper stickers in the US - "well behaved women rarely make history."