What to Wear for a Season of Resistance

Ingrid Bergman on the set of Joan of Arc (1948)

Hello. Here we are in 2017. A very bittersweet 2017.

It’s hard to see beyond the bitter—many people are anxious, afraid, unsure, and exhausted. I am all of those things.

But there’s a sweetness to this time, too—many people are showing love, care, support, and commitment. I am trying to do those things.

Plus, the turning over of a new year, even a dreaded year, brings with it the relief of a fresh start and the energy of an untold story.

Here at the Fiber Archive, I’ve got some 2016 catching up to do (mainly finishing this guy!), but I’m also hatching plans for my first major project of 2017. I’m imagining a garment that encapsulates this weird year’s dual vibe: energy and exhaustion, anxiety and care, fear and commitment, protection and action. I need a garment that both comforts me and readies me for battle. I need a sweater vest.

That may seem like a strange, even wimpy, choice. We don’t think of the sweater vest as particularly tough these days. (Maybe because of this. Or this.) But the sweater vest is part of a long history of protecting one’s core with knitted or woven material. In a way, it was born to do battle.

The sweater vest is a distant relative of the gambeson, a quilted tunic worn underneath (or sometimes as) armor in the medieval era. The gambeson was “a thick woollen waistcoat, worn under steel armour, to make it sit easy on the body.”* Its name derives from the Old German word wamba, meaning “belly.”** This makes sense, as the garment’s purpose was to protect the body’s fleshy—and essential—middle from bruising or penetration by weaponry.

Even before the gambeson, there was the Greek linothorax. Made from layers of linen, fused and laminated with animal glue, the linothorax transformed a soft, woven fabric into a hardened vest that rivaled metal armor from the era.

Fast forward to nineteenth-century dandies and further forward to twentieth-century golfers and cricketers, and we see the sleeveless garment get pared down to become more mobile and versatile. And of course, we see it migrate into women’s fashion with the rise of feminine workwear in the second half of the twentieth century. The practical is interwoven with the aesthetic, as the sweater vest continues to meld inward warmth and protection with outward polish and display.

So yes, a sweater vest will be my armor of choice heading into this season of resistance. I’ve got the perfect yarn—undyed wool from the villsau (“wild sheep”) of Norway, purchased on my visit to Hillesvåg Ullvarefabrikk last August. So not only will my vest be harking back to some of the earliest and most innovative forms of armor, but it will also have a bit of Viking spirit.

Get ready, 2017: my wamba and I will be warm, protected, and prepared for battle in the name of all those who find themselves vulnerable in these bittersweet times.

xoxo to infinity,
LWS

*Blount, Thomas. Tenures of Land & Customs of Manors: Originally Collected by Thomas Blount and Republished with Large Additions and Improvements in 1784 and 1815, Volume 1. London: Reeves and Turner, 1874. 427.
**Notably, the word wamba is also related to “womb” and to “wamus.” The latter refers to a variety of early American vest-like garments and is still used to describe some types of jacket.

MAKING IT, NEW: Basketball, Net Works, and Hazel Meyer

Hazel Meyer Basketball Net Knot Close-Up

Hey, fiber folks—let’s talk about… sports?

I know that’s kind of coming out of left field (<–sports!) but much of the country is focused on the NBA Finals, which kicked off (<–sports!) last night, and that got me thinking about the intersection between basketball and textiles. From ancient fishermen’s nets to groovy macramé wall hangings, the craft of knotting—with cord, thread, or wire—to make a mesh design has been an invaluable technology in all areas of life, including sports. Exhibit A: the basketball net.

Athletics and fiber arts are stereotypically gendered in opposite ways: boys are taught to push themselves to their athletic limits, while girls (or the “girlish”) stay inside with their needlework¹. But the two worlds—Sport and Craft—actually intertwine in some important ways, both symbolic and material. And some of the people who have allowed me to see that intertwining are the subject of this installment of Making It, New. They are the feminist-craftivist collective called NCAA (New Craft Artists in Action) in Boston, MA, as well as the Canadian mixed-media artist Hazel Meyer. Continue reading MAKING IT, NEW: Basketball, Net Works, and Hazel Meyer

MAKING IT, OURSELVES: Bellows Cardigan

Bellows Cardigan FO Front Brooklyn Tweed

I wish there were a font to convey my smile as I type this edition of Making It, Ourselves—you know how you can hear if the person on the other end of the phone is smiling? Well, I can’t help but grin from ear to ear when I talk about my Bellows Cardigan.

It’s been done for a few days, and I’ve worn it in public a couple of times so far. I’d like to say that I take a demure “oh, this old thing?” attitude when people compliment my sweater, but it’s more like, “HEY EVERYONE CHECK OUT MY SWEATER I MADE IT AHHHH!” Sorry, everyone—I’m pretty excited. There’s nothing quite like seeing something through, from the first glimmer to the final product. Continue reading MAKING IT, OURSELVES: Bellows Cardigan

WIP CHECK: Bellows Cardigan (SOS!) + Sewing Waves of Pleasure/Work

The last few posts have glanced backwards, toward the historical: Cary Grant and WWII, sheep in the White House’s early days, the arousing side effects of the 19th-century sewing machine. But behind the scenes I’ve been stitching away and planning summer projects, so it’s time for a little DIY check-in—and a cry for help. Continue reading WIP CHECK: Bellows Cardigan (SOS!) + Sewing Waves of Pleasure/Work

POP FIBER: Mr. Lucky and the Gender of Knitting

 

 

This week, we’ve been thinking and chatting about the relationship between gender and art/craft and in particular about the spectacle of the male knitter. It’s a big conversation, involving concepts like industrialization, domesticity, capitalism, “women’s work,” high versus low art, homophobia, sexism, ageism, yadda yadda yadda… It’s a conversation we want to keep having but certainly can’t fit into a single post. So today’s post is a little experiment: it’s a short-and-sweet critical essay on a popular instance of cinematic knitting—Mr. Lucky, starring the one and only Cary Grant—just to begin thinking through this question.

The film Mr. Lucky (1943) was based on a story called “Bundles for Freedom” by Milton Holmes, who also wrote the film’s screenplay. It features a classic moment of knitting on film, and captures a moment in American history when knitting was not only popular but almost mandatory in the name of patriotism. Watch this clip for the famous scene of Cary Grant getting lost in his stitches: Continue reading POP FIBER: Mr. Lucky and the Gender of Knitting

MAKING IT, OURSELVES: Dianna Walla’s Aspen Socks/Warmers

For the second project in our “Making It, Ourselves” series—our series of DIY projects inspired by history—we look back to Dr. Gustav Jaeger and his animal-fiber philosophy. He and his adherents claimed that all dress should be not only practical but healthful, which for him meant clothing made purely of wool, camel, mohair or other animal material. (For the full post, see our Brief History of Long Underwear from back in February.) Inspired by the Jaeger story and its reverberations in the Rational Dress Movement of the same era, I set off to create my own animal-based garment to insulate, ventilate, regulate, circulate, and uhh de-fluxionate(?) my body. I found just the garment in Dianna Walla’s Aspen Socks. Continue reading MAKING IT, OURSELVES: Dianna Walla’s Aspen Socks/Warmers

HISTORY PROJECT: The Legend of the Aran Sweater

Jean Seberg Aran Fishermans Sweater

I know, I know. There is already SO MUCH out there about Aran sweaters. There is, for example, a fantastic slideshow and timeline of the rise of this famous knitting style. There are articles about its morbid history as an identifier of drowned sailors; articles debunking that history as pure fiction; articles explicating the stitch motifs, like hieroglyphs, according to their folk meanings; articles upholding the sweater as symbolic of both national identity and transnational migration. Regardless of the angle, it is clear in all of these instances that the Aran sweater (also called a fisherman sweater*) is much more than just clothing: it is a legend.

As a scholar, I want to understand this legend. As a knitter, I want to be part of it. This week’s post is my effort to do both. Wading through the myriad definitions, explanations, and myths, it became clear that in order to understand the Aran’s mystique, we need to consider its historical and literary roots. Continue reading HISTORY PROJECT: The Legend of the Aran Sweater