June 01, 2014

Bookish. - Issue 4

Bookish - photo by Jared Flood for amirisu

Elizabeth for Beginners

A brief introduction to one of knitting's most celebrated heroines, by Jared Flood


Bookish - photo by Jared Flood for amirisu


Shortly after my arrival in Brooklyn, a local yarn shop owner introduced me to a humble book called Knitter’s Almanac by Elizabeth Zimmermann. When I left the store with a copy of the book (and several skeins of grey wool), I had no idea that my own discovery of Elizabeth would start me down a path that would change not only my relationship with knitting, but my career as well.

* * *

Elizabeth Zimmermann (or “EZ” as she is colloquially referred by throngs of adoring fans) is widely regarded as one of knitting’s great heroines. Her legacy began humbly in the late 1950’s with a series of selfpublished newsletters for knitters that laid the groundwork for a career that would span almost 40 years.

Elizabeth’s newsletters (and later, books and television series) were rife with a distinctive message of wherewithal and independent thinking that transcended the content of yarn and knitting alone. Elizabeth always reminded readers - through her special blend of wit, honesty and intelligence – to take off our blindfolds, roll up our sleeves, and grab challenges by the horns. From the beginning, her knitting patterns bucked the standard trends of “pattern speak” and bloomed instead with a pithy, explore-it-yourself style that empowered knitters to make creative decisions and solve problems in a self-assured manner. Elizabeth embraced visual forms of communications in her work - touting the advantages of knitting from charts and filling her patterns with hand-drawn construction diagrams (beautiful in their own right and often penned with black felt-tipped pen in a lyrical and unpretentious fashion) that revealed her architectural understanding of design. After studying just a few pages of her books, one can immediately feel the charm and confidence that her writing exudes.

In addition to the unwavering following she had garnered during her lifetime, the first decade of the 2000s brought Elizabeth an enthusiastic new wave of popularity among a young generation of knitters now connecting online through blogs, Ravelry and social media. This fresh outpouring of admiration and loyalty to Elizabeth’s contributions – evidenced by the thousands upon thousands of iterations of her work being recorded on Ravelry.com – has been another testament to the timelessness and capacity of Elizabeth’s creativity and her message.

Despite her passing in 1999, there is no question that her legacy maintains its vitality today, almost 15 years later. As someone who has experienced her influence so profoundly on my own path, I love knowing that her message will continue inspiring the hearts, minds, and hands of knitters and wool-lovers for generations to come.

* * *

A lot has been written in the US about Elizabeth in the last decade, but for those knitters who have never had the pleasure of being introduced to her work, the following page features three of her greatest hits that often act as gateways to her oeuvre.

The Baby Surprise Jacket 

Bookish - photo by Jared Flood for amirisu

First published in January of 1968, the Baby Surprise Jacket (also known as the BSJ) is Elizabeth’s most widely-known and heavily knitted pattern (at the time of writing, 20,798 Baby Surprise Jackets were listed on ravelry.com).

The origami-inspired BSJ is the perfect example of EZ’s passion for 3-dimensional puzzles. This ingenious modular riff on a classic baby cardigan is worked in a single piece and finished with two simple seams that run from shoulder to cuff. The pattern provides endless options for striping, color blocking and trim details - as well as being a perfect project for using up colorful scraps of leftover wool (which Elizabeth surely had in ample supply). 

The phrase “you can’t knit just one” has never been more applicable than with this addictive knit.


The February Baby Sweater

Elizabeth’s Baby Sweater on Two Needles was presented in the 1981 book publication Knitter’s Almanac, a sort of knitting handbook that features essays for every month of the year alongside a season-approrpriate pattern design. Today’s knitters lovingly refer to this garment as the February Baby Sweater, after the month for which it was inspired.

Along with the BSJ, the February Baby Sweater went viral among knitters online during 2007-2008, and soon inspired an adult version (the “February Lady Sweater” tendered by blogger Pamela Wynne) which experienced a widespread popularity of its own. The top-down almost-seamless sweater can be worked 

simply on two straight needles and features a garter stitch yoke and gullstitch lace patterning (though any 7-stitch pattern repeat can easily be substituted to create unique variations).


The Pi Shawl

Bookish - photo by Jared Flood for amirisu

If you’d rather try your hand at something more ambitious, the Pi Shawl is a delicious endeavor. 

Also featured in Knitter’s Almanac (July), Elizabeth’s iconic shawl design introduced a new construction method for circular lace based on the geometry of Pi (“Π”). It is shaped using concentric rings of increases that are worked at expanding intervals, allowing for broad areas of fabric whose stitch patterns will not be interrupted by shaping lines. In effect, Elizabeth’s method creates a blank canvas for a multitude of design variations.

Intuitive to work, this design is a great project for knitters wanting to experiment with shawls. Beginning at the center and worked circularly (always from the RS) knitters can always easily monitor the accuracy of their chosen stitch patterns with nary a purl in sight, a detail that seems to have given pleasure to Elizabeth.

Bookish - photo by Jared Flood for amirisu



Footnotes/Related Links

Schoolhouse Press (http://schoolhousepress.com): 

Elizabeth’s family-owned yarn and pattern business based in Wisconsin is now helmed by Elizabeth’s daughter, Meg Swansen.

All photos provided by Jared Flood