February 1, 2007

The Mittens of Rovaniemi

Warning: This post is picture heavy. My sincere apologies to my friends on dial-up.

While I was at Madrona, I was lucky enough not just to teach some classes, but to have enough holes in my schedule that I could take a couple. (This is a job perk that to a knitter, is the equivalent of having a company car. It rocks.) My favourite was The mittens of Rovaniemi, with Susanna Hansson. Now, by way of disclaimer, Susanna and I are friends. (Or, I think we are. If we are not, she is doing a very good job of making me feel that way and I'd rather not have any illusions shattered.) I admit that one of the motivations for taking her class was that I would get to be in a room with her, and that doesn't happen real often, she being in Seattle and me being in Toronto.
The second motivation was that the last time I was with her in Seattle, she had showed me these incredible mittens from Lene Alve in Finland,

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and when I had tried to ponder out by what magic they had been knit, Susanna had declined to tell me, saying that it was A) too complex to show me over lunch and B) the only thing she had to dangle out as a carrot to get me to take her class where she would teach this.
I was gripped.

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Now, what those are, and I imagine that you cannot quite grasp this just yet, is mittens, knit in several colours in the round, in intarsia, only continuing in the round (never turning back to purl), without carrying any colour at any time (with the exception of the base colour) and without ever twisting them together. They break all the rules. All of them. I'm going to show you some pictures of how this happens, but I'm not going to tell you exactly how to do it because it is A) too complex to show you over lunch and B) the only thing she has to dangle out as a carrot to get you to take her class where she would teach this.

Before Susanna started, she gave us a little historical and cultural context, and tried to divine how it is that Rovaniemi, Finland might have come up with this unique approach. (Credit where credit is due here, Susanna owes much of her knowledge to Lene, who actually lives there and puzzled the thing out with her. Lene is, in case you are unfamiliar with her, a genius and an artist.) She drew a parallel between this sort of knitting and weaving, which was totally lost on me until Susanna showed us a mitten in progress.

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That knitting needle holding the yarns holds them like that the whole time, without them ever becoming tangled. (If you do it right. Mine got tangled once or twice as I learned this brand of knitting voodoo.) The class was marked as "advanced" and I was stunned to discover that we were a room of advanced knitting students all being challenged to learn. Susanna is a very good teacher, since none of us ran ourselves through or threatened to put needles in our eyes. (I realized that it was a really hard thing when I listened to Karen Alfke, sitting in front of me doing Yoga breathing - or maybe it was Lamaze, to get through a row.)

They are knit with that seriously lovely Finnish yarn Satakieli (No. I can't pronounce it either, but it's good yarn.) and (in my case) 1.5mm needles. (That's size 000 for my American friends.) This is enough to make you a little bit woozy, and Susanna, in her infinite wisdom, had decided that approaching this challenge - difficult knitting on tiny needles with wee yarn, would be rendered insurmountable if you hated the colours, let each of us choose our colourways from her stash.

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At least half of the fun of this class was watching people pick their colours. (It was remarkable how many knitters chose yarn to match their outfit.) Then we coloured our charts to match our choices -

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and went forth. It was stunning. It was compelling. It was clever and addictive and the cumulative sound (it's very quiet) of 18 knitters completely resetting their brains was boggling. There was no chatting. There was no conversation. There was only the silence of learning and deep thinking and the occasional expletive. (I am guilty of that.) I paid very careful attention, since while I could execute the technique (after a while) I was extraordinarily concerned about dropping a stitch, since I knew for certain that there was no way I would ever pick it up accurately again.

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Just looking at the work, how would you ladder back up a mistake? I was careful to avoid this dilemma. Once you get the hang though, once you integrate the new way of doing things, it was not doing this manouver that was hard....it was stopping. A portion of the patterned part of the mitt demands the effort, a part does not. I know that I wasn't the only person in the room who, when confronted with an ordinary knit stitch that didn't need special treatment...stared at it like we had never seen it before. Knitters kept just....stopping.

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Every once in a while someone would stop and look at exactly what they were doing, puff up with pride and wonder and smile gleefully.
We put them all together on a table at the end (nobody finished, naturally, even though we were doing mere wristlets instead of full mittens) and the sight of them all together gobsmacked all of us.

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The strands, the ends! The size of the plan....the potential for disaster....

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it was huge. (Not one person had a tangle, thanks to the freakish knitting needle weaving thing. Ever knitter picked their cuff back up our of this orgy of strands and walked away unharmed. Wild.) I snapped this picture while we were at it.
Three knitters working the same pattern, with the same yarn, on the same size needles.

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If anyone ever asks you if you think gauge matters much, think that shot over.

I finished my cuff at home this morning:

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and I admired the way this technique leaves you with an inside as beautiful as the outside:

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I reflected on something Susanna had told us. She had travelled to Finland to learn this. She and Lene had worked hard to turn it into something teachable, they had prepared all the handouts, worked up the charts, done the reseach...amassed the yarn and taught the class and at the end of the whole thing...when Susanna was done teaching this to the 18 people in her class, Susanna figured that this meant, herself included and to the best of her knowledge, that since this was the first time she had taught it, that there were now 19 people in North America who now knew how to make the Mittens of Rovaniemi.
It's an honour. The world is shrinking all the time.

Posted by Stephanie at February 1, 2007 2:19 PM