Wednesday, 19 March 2014

The Life and Times of Elizabeth Zimmermann

Monday 17th March
This months talk was a celebration of one woman's pioneering spirit to change the way we knit:  Elizabeth Zimmerman, the Opinionated knitter.  

Unusually our speaker chose to let Elizabeth speak for herself by reading from her highly conversational diaries.  It was a bit like listening to an audio book or a radio serialisation as Lesley Fidler, a self confessed Zimmermann fan and knitting addict, brought her to life.

Elizabeth Zimmermann was born into a privileged life in England in 1910 and was taught to knit by her mother but it was her Swiss governess who taught to knit in the controversial German or continental style.  Elizabeth chose to study at art school in Bavavia where she was to meet her future husband.  But this was 1936 and the Nazi party was asserting itself and so Elizabeth and Arnold fled to the USA to make a fresh start in New York and later Wisconsin.

Elizabeth advocated knitting on circular needles and was credited with knitting the first example of an Aran sweater which was published in Vogue.  However when the pattern appeared, Elizabeth realised that the publishers had changed her patten to the more conventional pieced-style for the American audience.  She chose to publish her own patterns thereafter and sold via her mailorder yarn business.

Her Elizabeth's Percentage System of scaling patterns is a clever mathematical formula which could be used by anyone to accurately scale and size a garment and it puts the knitter firmly in control of the creative process.  She also invented (although she would have hated that word, perfering to describe her creations as unventions) the idiot-cord or i-cord method of producing trims that could be used for knitware.

Lesley illustrated her talk with examples of her own knitting showing how she had used the patterns and techniques advocated by Elizabeth.  These included using a bridge to continue knitting in the round whilst shaping armholes which allows space-dyed yarn to flow continuously over the pattern.  Lesley typifies so many of us who lead a double-life : high-powered tax lawyer by weekday; knitting guru and WI craft judge by weekend.  It was a delight to meet someone who juggles these two personalities so well!

I am ashamed to say I'd never heard of Elizabeth Zimmermann before this talk.  I'm not sure why - but perhaps it was because she was a practictioner, a knitter's knitter and not a designer.  But this fiesty lady who was not afraid to challenge the norm and who continued to ride on the back of her husband's motorbike well into her 80's (whilst knitting no-less) is definitely someone I want to get to know better.  

"Knit on with confidence and hope, through all crises." Elizabeth Zimmermann (1910-1999)

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