“Symbols are a language that can help us understand our past. As the saying goes, a picture says a thousand words, but … which words? Understanding our past determines actively our ability to understand the present. So, how do we sift truth from belief? How do we write our own histories, personally or culturally? And thereby define ourselves. How do we penetrate years, centuries, of historical distortion to find original truth? Tonight this will be our quest.” -Professor Robert Langdon, in the novel The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
The intrigue of knitting encompasses all of these things and more. Yes, the stitch patterns are lovely. Yes, we want to challenge ourselves to learn new things. Yes, we may be exploring history or learning about ourselves through knitting. But I believe we are also opening ourselves up to imagine what it’s like to be in another place and time, and to see the world through different eyes.
Knitting is a form of time travel; the symbols, pattern stitches and colors found in knitted pieces have endured through generations, often transitioning from ancient artifacts to antique textiles, vintage garments and modern accessories. Knitting is also a form of space travel. Patterns travel geographically-from house to house, village to village and around the world-as knitters share ideas, techniques and patterns with their children, with their neighbors and with visitors from far away.
For more than a decade, I’ve been obsessed with learning about knitting traditions, patterns and techniques from around the world. What I’ve discovered is that while there are many styles and pattern stitches that are unique to a single place, there are even more that are commonplace across cultures. Similar patterns can be found wherever knitters combine yarn colors by working with two or more colors in a row and stranding the unused yarns at the back of the work. These universal patterns and motifs, as old as human culture itself, have been used in clay, wood, metal, weaving and embroidery work long before they found their way onto knitting needles.
It might be said that these folk-art motifs constitute the oldest form of writing, embodying a pictorial language that was in use for millennia before a more direct form of writing that is, recording actual words and sentences-came into use.
The Lithuanian word for both “patterns” and “charts” is raštai. This word can also mean paper, writing, letters or documents. Rašytojas means “writer.” Today, through our knitting, we can pass down these time-honored motifs into the future just as knitters of the past did in their stitches.
I am particularly interested in the designs used in Eastern Europe, where my family originated. But as I’ve studied knitting from around the world, I’ve found the same and similar motifs used in designs from regions as far apart as Peru, Turkey, Scandinavia, Lithuania and New England.
Geometric designs made from horizontal and diagonal lines intersecting on a contrasting background are ubiquitous wherever knitting is found. Still, knitters in each corner of the world have a unique take on the arrangement of the individual design elements and may use two or three colors to change the design in simple but striking ways.
The knitted accessories in museum collections, markets and personal collections around the world derive their unique flavors from the selection of pattern stitches, the ways those stitches are combined with other texture and color patterns, and the way gloves, socks and other accessories coordinate with the clothing traditionally worn in each region.
Simple geometric shapes-such as zigzags, triangles and lines are the oldest folk-art patterns that have been adapted to knitting in most areas. But patterns became more complicated and elaborate over time, and grew to include rectangle, oval and diamond patterns, used individually or interlocked to form chains, lattices and allover patterns. In some regions, more pictorial motifs were also created.
What follows is a very small selection of patterns with a few notes about their interpretations in folk-art customs in different parts of the world. Without written records to tell us precisely what messages were meant to be understood from these folk-art patterns, we have only oral histories, traditions and fading memories to rely on for our understanding of what was most likely once common knowledge.
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In Lithuania and most of Northern Europe, zigzags represent the Earth Mother, waves of water or the river of time. One Turkish zigzag pattern is known as the “drunk’s path.”
In the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, triangles may represent the Sky God (pointing up) or the Earth Mother (pointing down), as well as man and woman. This interpretation is also traditional in Norway, where a triangle pointing up represents male power and fire, while one pointing down symbolizes female power and water. A horizontal row of triangles used in Turkey is called “black eye”; another is “amulet.” In New England and Nova Scotia, triangles are combined in patterns known as “flying geese” and “sawtooth.”
Stars, mostly with eight points, are popular wherever knitting is found. This motif may also be interpreted as a snowflake, as it is in New England, or as a flower, as it is in Lithuania. In Lithuania it is knit in floral colors such as blue, pink or yellow with accompanying green leaves.
Crosses were important symbols in folk art long before the arrival of Christianity in Europe. Larger, more ornate cross motifs may also symbolize knots reminiscent of Celtic or Viking designs, made to bring protection to families and to ensure a happy, prosperous life, while others signified fire.
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Chevron and arrow patterns often represent trees and nature in Lithuanian and Latvian knitting. In Turkey, similar patterns have many different names, including “thorny” “willow branch” or “mistletoe.”
In Eastern Europe, circles represent the sun, moon or stars, and circles with spokes represent the sun and light. Because circles are difficult to create on a knitting grid, diamonds often represent the sun. The XO pattern, made famous in Scottish Fair Isle knitting, has been prevalent in knitting in Eastern Europe for centuries.
Curved spiral shapes may represent ocean waves or snakes and dragons, depending on the region where they are used. Similar motifs may also represent the concept of yin and yang in Eastern countries.
Some knitters in the past created pictorial motifs of animals and plants, and these seem to be more diverse and custom in different parts of the world, with some interesting exceptions. Geometric patterns are often combined with stylized plant and animal motifs in the Andes, where inspiration from traditional pre-Columbian folk art was combined with Spanish and Portuguese motifs that came to South America with the conquistadors. In Turkish knitting, there are examples featuring stylized birds, insects and mammals that are strikingly similar to those seen in Peruvian knitting.
In Northern Europe, animal and plant motifs are often less stylized and more realistic. This elk motif from Northern Europe is probably the most well-known example.
One of the most fun parts of working with traditional ethnic designs is tweaking charts and pattern stitches to suit your own design. All of these examples should give you some ideas for playing with patterns on your own, and you can find many more ideas in knitting stitch libraries. You can easily draw new charts on graph paper with markers or colored pencils, in essence creating your own custom coloring book. Or if you prefer, you can work on your computer or tablet, and add color to squares in a spreadsheet, or you could even use special knitting-chart software. Whatever tools you use, I hope you will make your own foray into creating modern folk art with your knitting needles..