Exhibition celebrating America’s knitting doyenne to open
Oct. 17, 2006
All knitters seem to agree: Knitting is so much more than the dropping of stitches.
Molly Greenfield learned to knit from her mother. Now a master's candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the history of costume and textiles, Greenfield says that a long broad swath of American history can be seen through this craft.
"Knitting was and is a pervasive form of creative expression for women, and also an area in which women could be designers. This exhibition is not only about the history of knitting, craft and design, but also about women's history, the rise of the women's movement in the United States, the history of immigration in America and the migration of highly educated Europeans to America during and after World War II," she says.
The exhibition to which Greenfield refers is the one she is curating on the doyenne of American knitting, Wisconsinite Elizabeth Zimmermann.
Born in England, "EZ" immigrated to Wisconsin with her master brewer husband, Arnold. Zimmermann's designs and techniques reached a vast audience through her workshops, classes, public television series, books, newsletters and articles, many published by Zimmermann's Schoolhouse Press, established in 1959.
Zimmermann also founded a legendary summer knitting camp, first held in Green Lake, Wis., in 1974 and now held in Marshfield, Wis. Greenfield attended the camp last year. She says the experience convinced her that EZ revolutionized the art and science of knitting.
"I decided then that it was necessary to look at Zimmermann's influence," Greenfield says. "The more I worked on my master's proposal, the more I realized that the objects I had seen at camp made by Zimmermann and her daughter Meg Swansen as well as the campers were what was driving my interest. I thought, rather than trying to talk about them, it would be more effective to present them in the form of an exhibition."
The result, "New School Knitting: The Influence of Elizabeth Zimmermann and Schoolhouse Press," will open in the School of Human Ecology's Gallery of Design on Friday, Oct. 27.
If you suspect someone of being a knitter, but don't want to ask outright, mention Zimmermann or Swansen. The responses you will get will be emphatic, to say the least.
For example, Jane Dymond, logistics coordinator in the UW-Madison Office of Human Resources, also attended knitting camp during the summer of 2001. It changed her knitting, and, perhaps, her entire life, she says.
"I became fearless in taking things on and in trying new projects. I also really developed an appreciation for the camaraderie and community of knitters," she says.
And that's precisely what the camp founders had in mind.
"I didn't have the pleasure of knowing Elizabeth, but her books and teaching videos are witty and intelligent and plain-spoken. She really pushed the idea that knitters shouldn't be, in her words, 'blind followers.' They should be in charge of their knitting," Dymond says.
Normally soft-spoken Suzanne Broadberry, a student services coordinator in UW-Madison's Graduate School, is happy to echo Dymond.
"Elizabeth Zimmermann was an incredibly talented knitter who pushed the limits of knitting, always experimenting, developing new patterns," says Broadberry, who at the moment is crafting a pair of mitre-square pants, which she describes as patchwork quilt-like.
Greenfield says that Zimmermann's "percentage system" of knitwear design, which uses a mathematical formula to calculate how many stitches to use for parts of a garment, saw knitting for simplicity, not the complexity and difficulty often associated with it. Some of her innovations include yoke (unset) sleeves; circular needles to eliminate frustrating "wrong sides" on patterns; the "pi shawl," formed by regularly spaced increased stitches based on pi; and the "baby surprise jacket," knit flat and folded into shape origami-style.
Greenfield's exhibition features some of Zimmermann's and Swansen's designs, as well as the work of nine knitwear designers the duo influenced. Greenfield would like to be a curator when she graduates, "hopefully in a costume or textile collection," she says. Working on this exhibition will provide her with perfect real-world experience, while bringing EZ's philosophy and methods to gallery visitors.
"The exhibition will allow the people who view it to have their own experience with the objects, as I had," Greenfield says. "It's important to recognize these designers outside the context of the knitting world. There is very little written on the history of knitting. I want to look at Zimmermann and Swansen not only in terms of their impact on knitting, but also how they influenced their cultural development in America."
"Knitting is really about building community with other knitters," says Dymond, who is currently at work on a pair of Latvian mittens. "It's such an intelligent and creative way to spend your time"
"New School Knitting," composed of about 35 pieces, plus a selection of videos and other materials, will run through Sunday, Dec. 17, in the School of Human Ecology's Gallery of Design on Linden Drive. Swansen will attend the opening reception at 1 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 29, at the gallery. Greenfield will speak at 2 p.m., followed by a question-and-answer session with Swansen.
Knitters will be welcome for drop-in sessions starting at 7 p.m. on Thursdays, Nov. 2, 9 and 16 in the gallery. Plans for a weekend knitting workshop also are in progress. All events are free and open to the public. For more information, or call (608) 262-8815.