A Knitter’s Day Trip: Edinburgh
A big MDK welcome to our new contributor, Jeni Hankins. She’s an American performing artist, writer, and maker living in London and Lancashire. So happy to have her taking us on a trip to one of our favorite cities today.
—Ann and Kay
If you’re feeling like satisfying the universal hankering for Scottish knit-vana, may I recommend a spontaneous trip to Edinburgh? I’ve just been for the weekend and experienced a cultural wool-a-palooza which I think you will love.
Right now, Dovecot Studios is presenting “Knitwear: From Chanel to Westwood” chosen from the personal collection of Cleo and Mark Butterfield. This exhibition kicks off with a sweet Fair Isle sweater which Cleo knitted when she was a teenager. From then on she had the obsession with knitwear to which we have all succumbed. Visitors can see everything from a wall of Fair Isle sweaters in delicious colors to intarsia swimming costumes to the wild concoctions of string dreamt up by the likes of the late Vivienne Westwood.
during world war ii recycled yarn was knit into “make-do” multi-colored sweaters.
There are snappy Chanel outfits and plenty of slinky garments from the various see-through crocheted dress booms, too. If, like mine, your attraction to wool extends beyond knitting and crochet, you can nip upstairs to feast your eyes on a selection of tapestries and gun-tufted pieces in the upper gallery. And, depending on your timing, you may even see the Dovecot weavers and tufters at work in the atrium below.
But you’ve only just begun when you leave Dovecot, because just around the corner is the Bernat Klein color and texture explosion at The National Museum of Scotland in their special free exhibition “Bernat Klein: Design in Color.” A Serbian, Klein settled in Scotland, post-World War II after aiding the British in the war, and he set the world of fashion and furnishing textiles on fire with his slub wool, velvet ribbon, and wild mash-ups of colors—think fuchsia, clementine, ochre, and army green in a single skein. This kind of color daring seems commonplace to us now in the world of custom dying, but that wasn’t the industry norm in the 1960s.
A Bernat-Klein Sample book
Just to add that touch of class, Klein presented his wool collections in ivory and brown hatboxes. What an eye. There’s a slideshow in the exhibition of the press combing through these hatboxes of candy colors which makes time travel seem an urgent necessity—oh, to be one of those reporters! Chanel didn’t miss a beat here, either, and used Klein’s fabrics in her collections which catapulted him to fame. But his textiles weren’t just for the elite; they also found their way into Marks & Spencer as well as institutional office chairs and sofas.
I was excited to discover that Klein’s wife Margaret Soper added a vital commercial dimension to the business by devising knitting patterns for his slub wool and variegated colors. You can see a few framed booklets in the exhibition. Wouldn’t we all be ecstatic if someone collected these together in an omnibus edition from various museum and university archives? And don’t miss the bijoux Klein display in the museum’s newly reframed Fashion and Style gallery on Floor 1. The whole gallery is a wonder.
You will be desperate for a cup of tea and a piece of cake by now. If you head over to the City Art Centre for the last exhibition on the menu, you can find something scrumptious at Mimi’s Bakehouse, the celebrated Edinburgh eatery.
Now for the feather in the cap of your wooly day: City Art Centre’s “Glean” featuring the work of fourteen women photographers and filmmakers. These intrepid women showed Scottish life of the early and mid-twentieth century just as they saw it, some of them living for months or years with crofters. Though there are incisive photos of city life, I was, of course, drawn to the many pictures of crofters with their sheep, spinning wheels, and knitting needles.
In Jenny Gilbertson’s 1930 silent film “A Crofter’s Life on Shetland” I watched a woman threading, then blocking a lace shawl on pegs driven into the snowy ground. A Fair Isle sweater gets a wash and then is pegged out on the line, then the woman goes to get peat for her fire and knits as she walks. These are the things we’ve read about in histories of knitting, but this is some of the rare documentary footage from a time when this way of life was rapidly fading and when double-pointed needles flashed through miles of knitting in moments. Jenny Gilbertson also managed to film Shetlanders rooing their sheep, then rolling the fleece up under their arms and carrying it home for spinning.
One of my favorite photographs of the exhibition by Violet Banks shows a croft on Harris with a long stretch of tweed cloth practically wrapped around the house for drying. The exhibition curators have also thoughtfully included two pairs of multicolored knitted socks made by a Miss Shand in 1950 for the Home Industries which took my mind back to the very first stranded colorwork knits of the day which I’d seen at Dovecot Studios.
My time in Edinburgh was limited, so I did see these three exhibitions in a single day. They were not large, but they were dense with inspiration. If you have more time, you could certainly see the Bernat Klein exhibition on a separate day, and that would give you the chance to take in the many other wonders of the National Museum of Scotland, especially the Fashion and Style gallery.
I wish you could raise your umbrellas—which I definitely needed in Edinburgh—Mary Poppins-style and whisk yourselves over to Edinburgh for the weekend!