This is a repost from September 2012.
My friend Rohn Strong has written a book about knitting in WWI and WWII. The book includes historical essays, personal stories, and 19 gorgeous patterns. Here Rohn and I talk about the book, knitting, and history (what else!). Enjoy.
DD: I love how your book The Heritage Collection: WWI and WWII includes knitting, history, and personal stories. Can you tell us a little bit about how you decided to combine all three in this way?
RS: I wrote in the introduction to the book that I was not entirely sure how the book came about as a whole. It was a series of strange instances. I remember thinking about wanting to write a book about the knitting that occurred during both World Wars. On a whole different topic I began researching the history of my family, which could be a book in itself. I noticed that there seemed to be some parallels between the World Wars, knitting, and my family. So I continued on, and as it often happens, the idea took flight. It was like a good knitting project; everything fell into place and truly was able to flow together.
DD: Many knitters find that knitting is a spiritual activity to them. Do you feel this way? How does knitting tie into your values and beliefs?
RS: My knitting is my prayer. One thing that not many people know about me is that I follow a life of a Shaker. We are Christians that believe through hard work and a life of sacrifice, we will eventually reach heaven. Now, I don’t live in a commune nor do I ask people to refer to me as Brother Rohn. I simply live a life that my Great-Great-Grandmother lived. She was a Shaker too.
So when I knit, I pray. Sure I might listen to music, watch a movie, but as long as my hands are working, I am able to have that connection with God. You see, while writing this book my partner, H (as I lovingly refer to him), came down with a very frightening life threatening disease. For nearly a month he was home bound, and much of that time was spent asleep. At the time I was working on Franklin, the afghan inspired by the blankets knit for soldiers by children, and it was a perfect take-along project.
I knit my worries and fears away. I prayed each minute of each day. I would sit and rock, knitting, praying the paint off the walls. It helped. Today he is cured, his body scared, but he is healthy. And that blanket is still my favorite FO ever.
DD: These days Americans are so divided and unwilling to compromise on anything, even discussions about history can become full of partisan politics and bile. I love how knitters, even of differing opinions and beliefs, almost always get along and commune with one another. Why do you think knitting is able to cross boundaries like this?
RS: This question hits close to home, as you are aware, we have had these discussions and we disagree occasionally, but I still consider you one of my close friends. That’s because we have mutual respect. That is what is lacking among the world today.
People assume that during WWI and WWII there was this common thread among ALL of America that the war was “just” and it was “necessary”. How wrong they are. Not everyone agreed with the war. My family, although conservative in religious beliefs, has voted and stood liberal since we immigrated here. Grandma Dalton and Grandma Wilson would have never stood by and supported war. In fact they would have condemned it. However, they knew that whether or not they supported the war, their husbands were still over there fighting. So they did what they could.
It was about respect.
As a society we lack the common decency to offer respect in the hopes that we will one day receive respect in return. Respect is never given, it must be earned. That is some crap. If this were true, we would be stuck in a cycle of anger and bitterness waiting for that respect. This is exactly where we are leaning towards.
As knitters we respect each other. It is this unspoken agreement. We have conquered something, even though it may seem simple to some, we have conquered it. When you can walk into a room filled with men and women of all ages, and feel welcome, that is respect.
DD: As you know, I love how the past, present, future, and the human spirit all connect through the process of making things. What do you think may be lost in today’s society where almost nothing is made by hand any more?
RS: I think, all in all, history is being forgotten. When it is specific to knitting, there are very few people that try and focus their lives and careers on telling stories of the past through the knitting we do. Susan Crawford, Donna Druchunas (you!), and now I am proud to say me. We as a group are able to show that through yarn and needles we have a vehicle to never forgetting the past.
While writing this book, I remember reading about a man who I had never heard of. Through all of my history classes and books, I had never really learned of him. Except in one area, knitting. Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener, 1st Earl Kitchener. As we know him, the inventor of the Kitchener stitch, and one heck of a knitter. His life was so interesting. Had I not been a knitter I would have never learned about him. Knitting has taught me history, knitting has taught me independence, and knitting has taught me my responsibility to carry on such stories.
DD: What’s the most important thing you would like people to learn from your book?
RS: When I was about 13 I had the distinct pleasure to meet a German man. He was tall and lanky and not a day under 90. He had given a speech about his life in Auschwitz. As a 13 year old, I was slightly callused to the stories. We had heard the stories, they were watered down and felt unimportant.
However, afterwards I had a chance to see the man, talk to him, and touch his number. There was something he said to me, that changed my life, “When we were liberated,” He said, “I told one of the soldiers, Du Darfst Nie Vergessen. It means you must never forget. And son, you must never forget what happened to me. For the millions who’s lives are over, you must never forget.”
So I urge readers of my book to never forget, ever. We must make sure the stories continue, especially through our knitting.
DD: What’s your favorite project in the book and why? And you’re not allowed to say you don’t have one!
RS: My favorite project has to be Cordelia. It was named after 1Lt Cordelia E. Cook, a nurse in the Army Nurse Corps during WWII in Italy. We was the first woman to receive The Bronze Star and was also awarded The Purple Heart, making her the first woman in history to receive two awards.
The sample itself is awesome. Knit in madelinetosh tosh merino in the color ways “Grove” and “Thunderstorm” it was inspired by this V-Neck sweater designed in the 40’s. I decided I wanted to update it but still have a classic shape. So I shortened the design, added some great pleated sleeves, and gave ample ease in the bust. When my model, Lewis Betts, slipped it on with that black pencil skirt, I began to cry. It was so beautiful, and it is truly my favorite project, I want to make another and photograph it on a larger bust, like a 44”, just because I know it will look astonishing on every woman.
DD: What’s your favorite essay in the book and why?
RS: My favorite essay, now that’s a difficult question. I love them all. However, I have to say I really love both The Matriarch and The Traditionalist. My family has inspired me so much. Great-Great-Grandma Dalton and Great-Grandma Wilson, were two women who I hold close to my heart. I miss them every day. Having the opportunity to tell their stories has been wonderful. Simply wonderful.
DD: I love the stories about your grandmothers and I don’t want you to give away too much of the story, but why do you think your grandmothers were such a huge influence in your life?
RS: I grew up in a unique family. We were taught from birth that family is always number one, behind God of course. I would have never thought my grandmothers would have impacted my life in the way that they have. Sometimes in this world we are nothing but vessels of the past, I have said from the beginning, this book is not written and designed just by me. It was written by all three of us.
DD: What other new things do you have going on?
RS: Oh-so-much! Right now I am working on projects with Lion Brand, Red Heart, Malabrigo, Buffalo Wool Company, and a few others. Each more different than the rest! I even have a line of crochet patterns exclusive to the U.K. coming out next year. It is really exciting.
I am also working on the next Heritage Collection book, which will tell a different aspect. It will have more of my personal stories tied together with my travels to Europe, and some very interesting knitting!
DD: Anything else you’d like to tell me about?
RS: Well, We will be going on a “mini book” tour and will be at Stitches East, Rhinebeck, and even Vogue Knitting Live Chicago! So if anyone is there, come and say hello!
People can visitto get all more information and to pick up a signed copy of the book!
Oh, and thank you Donna! You are a friend, mentor, and heck of an editor. Without you this book would not be where it is. Thank you!
DD: Thank you, Rohn! It’s been a pleasure and I look forward to working with you again in the future.