Books with Franklin: Great Danes
Traditional Danish Sweaters: 200 Stars and Other Classic Motifs from Historic Sweaters (Trafalgar Square) is the English edition of a long-awaited new work by legendary Danish designer and teacher Vivian Høxbro, perhaps best known outside Scandinavia for her books Domino Knitting and Shadow Knitting.
Traditional Danish Sweaters is a departure from both of these. This is an evident labor of love, illuminating a chapter of knitting history that even hardcore knitting history nerds (myself included) may not have encountered before.
The title refers to a quite specific garment, often called a “star sweater” in modern Danish (and the book’s original title); but originally called “bindtrøie” (knitted sweaters) or “nattrøie” (night sweaters). The author refers to them throughout almost exclusively as “night sweaters.”
What’s a Night Sweater?
The night sweater has its roots in fine, knitted silk undershirts worn in Northern Europe by the well-to-do as far back as the sixteenth century. By the nineteenth century, undershirts knit from wool had become a fundamental part of everyday (and night) dress for working-class women across Denmark, as well as in parts of Norway and Sweden. They were placed over a linen shift and beneath a woven bodice, and worn (the name aside) both day and night. By the end of the nineteenth century, they had almost disappeared as Danish women abandoned regional dress in favor of more fashionable, international styles.
If they were just a form of knitted underwear–and even the Danish gave up on them–is there enough to the night sweater to justify an entire book?
Høxbro’s book is the perfect example of how much can be learned from even a humble, everyday article of clothing if you take the time to look closely. The nearly ninety historic examples she studied (plus odd sleeves and other bits) show a fascinating range of approaches to construction, design, finishing, and decoration.
Yes, decoration. Even though very little of the night sweater was seen during the day, they were richly covered in knit/purl textures, traveling stitches, knitted braids, sideways stitches, and even embroidery and silk ribbon trim.
The stitch dictionary within the book offers pages and pages of variations on the characteristic eight-pointed star that gives the sweater its modern Danish name, along with pages and pages of lattices to contain them and texture panels to surround them.
The construction details are just as fascinating to anyone who takes an interest in how knitted garments are built. Knitted sleeves on woven fabric bodies. Necklines reinforced and finished with woven ribbons; clever reinforced vents at the waist; interesting treatments of shoulders and sleeves.
I spend most days up to my grafted armpits in knitting patterns, yet I found myself sputtering with surprise all the way through.
A Rich History
As to the story behind the night sweater–where it came from, who made and wore it, and what ultimately happened to it–Høxbro modestly says she is not a historian, and then lays out a lively history superior to just about any I’ve read in any knitting book published in the past decade. She doesn’t dive quite so deep as Susan Crawford in her monumental The Vintage Shetland Project, but that is not her goal.
Instead, she offers enough to give even the casual reader an intelligent account of what is known (or can be inferred) about the world of the night sweater, from the sources of the wool to the creation of the yarn, from the tools used (a whole lotta dpns) to the dyeing process. There are sections on methods for casting on, on holding the working yarn, and on regional variations across Denmark.
All of these are nested comfortably in well-documented research.
In learning about the sweaters, you learn a lot about the knitters who made them, and the wider world of textiles in nineteenth-century Denmark. There are photos throughout of surviving examples, supported by line drawings of details that are otherwise difficult to discern in heavily worn fabric. Sometimes the details Høxbro notices are incredibly touching–like the very wonky night sweater whose malformed neckline and jittery decoration strongly suggest it was made by someone who possibly hated knitting–or who at least was not very good at it.
As it’s a rare knitter who only wants to look at handsome knitting without trying it, the book offers support in the form of five traditional patterns with contemporary sizing; four new patterns for night sweaters inspired by the originals; and patterns for a top and a stole that include signature moves from the night sweater playbook. If you want to design your own from scratch, there are instructions for that, too.
This is a must for any knitting history collection, and a treat for any curious knitter. With this book and thirty years of professional knitting behind her, Vivian Høxbro could slip into a well-deserved retirement with her legacy secure. But I really hope she won’t.