Dorothy Reade INNOVATIVE Knitter, Spinner, and Designer 1
Photo courtesy of Donna Read Nixon

If you knit, chances are you’ve heard of Elizabeth Zimmermann (1910-1999), Mary Walker Phillips (1923-2007), and Barbara Walker (1930— ). But you may not have heard of Dorothy Reade (1908-1985). All four women contributed to knitting’s rise in popularity in the United States in the mid-twentieth century. Between 1964 and 1969 alone, Reade’s handspun, handknitted pieces appeared in nearly twenty exhibitions from Washington State to Lima, Peru. She studied knitting traditions from around the world and taught knitting and spinning workshops. But perhaps her most lasting legacy was her championship of the use of symbol charts for clearly and concisely communicating complex knitting instructions.

Born in 1908,EllaDorothy Sorensen learned many traditional crafts from her Danish mother; her moth- er and father (also from Denmark) had met on board a ship while immigrating to the United States. On her marriage in 1937 to Arthur Reade, Dorothy became an Army wife, which provided her the opportunity to travel widely, an enthusiasm she passed on to the couple’s only child, Donna. After her husband’s retirement in 1957, the fam- ily settled in Eugene, Oregon, and Dorothy Reade began spending more time developing her creative skills. In addition to being an expert knitter, spinner, and embroiderer, Reade also threw pottery, painted watercolors, and made charcoal drawings.

Reade loved knitting in particular and wanted to see it gain popularity in the modern world. In an early draft of an unfinished article entitled “Renaissance of the Hand- crafts in the 20th Century,” she wrote, “I think [knitting] is one of the most pleasurable of all crafts, no machinery, no strenuous physical exercise, can be picked up any time. You can even learn to do other things at the same time, like reading or watching TV. Marvelous craft for the lazy person, like me.” Dorothy Reade was anything but lazy. She had learned to knit at the age of five, and she learned to spin at fifty one. She considered spinning to be “an added impetus” to her lifelong interest in knitting. In fact, it was after she had mastered spinning laceweight yarns from merino, alpaca, and qiviut (musk ox) fiber that her work exploded into the limelight.

Although Dorothy could spin a mile of yarn from 1 ounce (0.06 km/g) of fiber, she found that a half-mile per ounce (0.03 km/g) was “more practical” for knitting shawls. Her yarns were so thin—her finest yarns were only 0.005 inch (0.013 cm) in diameter—that she could fit 500 stitches on a 10-inch (25.4-cm) straight knitting needle.In comparison, today’s commercial laceweight yarns are from four to eight times as thick.

Edith A. Standen, associate curator in charge of the Textile Study Room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, hearing of Reade’s superfine yarns, com- missioned her to spin fine linen to repair a piece of sixteenth century lace. “It took me almost a month to spin one ounce?’ Reade wrote in an unpublished manuscript, “which ended in a mile of thread, two miles of exasperation, and as this type of linen is spun wet, a set of corrugated fingertips.” The finished thread, spun from Oregon flax, was a perfect match for that originally used to make the 300-year-old Italian lace.

In 1965, the Sydney, Australia, Country Life Stock & Station Journal published an article about Dorothy Reade to support an argument that there would be a market for Merino sheep in the United States if the Australian government would relax the export ban that was in place. According to the article, Reade “specialize [d] in creating pure woolen bridal veils of incredible fineness.” It was il- lustrated with a photograph of one of her veils, knitted from handspun merino yarn and weighing just % ounce (17.8 g).

Besides luxury fibers, Reade also spun more mundane fibers, including cotton, wool, nylon, Dacron, silk waste, and many blends. “Why I’ve even spun the lint from my dryer,” she told a reporter from the Medford (Oregon) Tribune in 1973. “But I have drawn the line at dog hair setter hair spins beautifully, but the minute it’s washed or worked it sticks out and can give you hives.”

 

Dorothy Reade INNOVATIVE Knitter, Spinner, and Designer 2
Photo courtesy of Donna Read Nixon

A passion for knitted lace led Reade to explore the lace knitting tradition of the Shetland Islands of Scotland, which was then in danger of dying out. In 1964, eight women on the Isle of Unst, all over eighty years old, were the sole remaining knitters of Shetland shawls in Scotland, according to the Eugene, Oregon, Register-Guard, and Reade was perhaps the only person in the United States knitting them. Although generally sticking to traditional Shetland spinning and knitting techniques, “I let my imagination run riot when I take up my knitting needles?’ she told the reporter. “I never know how the shawl will look. No two pieces I knit are ever alike.” Reade could complete a shawl in four or five months, less than half the time typically required by the Shetland knitters.

Orenburg, Russia, has its own tradition of lace knitting (see “Cobwebs from the Steppes: Russian Lace-Knitted Shawls” by Melanie Falick, PieceWork, May/June 1995). Receiving a gift of an Orenburg lace shawl that had been knitted circa 1860, Reade examined all of the pattern stitches, charted them on graph paper in pencil, spun yarn to match the original as closely as possible, and knitted a reproduction. She couldn’t resist letting her own creativity sneak through, however, and made some minor changes in the patterning (compare the photographs of the original and Reade’s reproduction at left).

Reade’s experiences in spinning exotic fibers and in knitting fine lace served as preparation for her involvement with Oomingmak, the Musk Ox Producers’ Cooperative in Alaska. In 1965, Reade ended up with a pound of qiviut fiber to evaluate for the University of Fairbanks. If it was found to be suitable, qiviut yarn would be used to develop a line of lace products to be made and sold by Native Alaskan knitters. Reade found it eminently suitable. The new cottage industry adopted her lace-knitting techniques and symbol charts, and today, more than 200 knitters in villages in Alaska who contribute knitted articles to the co-operative for sale (visit www.qiviut.com for more information) use both the techniques and the charts.

Dorothy Reade INNOVATIVE Knitter, Spinner, and Designer 3
Chart courtesy of Donna Reade Nixon
In 1968, Dorothy Reade self-published 25 Original Knitting Designs, which included her lace-knitting techniques along with a collection of lace pattern stitches, all illustrated with the charted symbols that she developed (a Japanese knitting book that she once received as a gift may have been her original inspiration). Almost all of her pat- terns use lace stitches that are patterned on right-side rows only, with wrong-side rows purled. She used yarnovers to create outlines and to draw pictures in the knitting. She also used knit 2 together through the back loop for left- slanting decreases (at the time, knit 1, slip 1, pass slipped stitch over was the popular left-slanting decrease).

Her other books are: A Sweater Jacket with an Aran Accent: Including 10 New Aran Island Patterns (1969), which in addition to a jacket pattern contains ten original Aran cable patterns, all charted with her symbols, testifies to Reade’s love for Aran knitting. Shorthand Knitting: Decorative Panel Designs (1970) expands on Reade’s use of charted knitting symbols and includes ten new pattern stitches along with ideas for using them to decorate knitted clothing and household textiles.

The charting system was revolutionary for its time. During the 1970s, the industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss (1904-1972) approached Reade about including her knitting symbols in a World Data Bank of symbology, which would also contain traffic symbols, danger signs, and postal icons, in an attempt to create a worldwide graphical language. The project did not completely succeed, although some international symbols have come into common use, but the use of symbols to simplify the communication of complex knitting instructions is widespread today.

I wish I could have known Dorothy Reade, but I am honored to have been given access to her papers and photographs and to have received permission to republish her charted designs in a new book. With this article and the book, I hope to bring her work to the attention of the knitting world once again.

Knitting Archeology Yarn Club

Learn more of Dorothy Reade by joining the Vermont Yarn Club – Knitting Archeology.

Written by knitwear designer, Donna Druchunas

4 thoughts on “Dorothy Reade INNOVATIVE Knitter, Spinner, and Designer

  1. Joan R Cole says:

    I am an 80 year old knitter and lover of EZ learned from her books and articles wish I had learned of Dorthy and would like to know more

  2. Melody says:

    Hi Donna! So very glad to read of your re-opening date. Please let me know the final date/time for the re-opening! I very much wish to be there! Thanks!!!
    Thanks also for the Reade info. Great article. I had not heard of her, so thanks for sharing! Looking forward to the BOOK!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.