Sunspun Fine Yarns

In focus: Elizabeth Zimmermann

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Of all the knitting books in the shop, some of our favourites- the ones we return to again and again- are those of Elizabeth Zimmerman. With their homespun styling and outside-of-fashion designs, they may not look as promising as some of the prettier, more modern collections when you first pick them up but inside each cover is a wealth of knitting treasure… Elizabeth Zimmermann (1910-1999) was a British-born, Wisconsin-based knitter who revolutionised modern knitting through her books and instructional series on American public television. Her approach to knitting was wholly unconventional for the times, encouraging knitters to work to their own body measurements and shape, rather than relying on commercial patterns, which also allowed them to experiment and develop their own ideas and patterns. With this in mind, she developed Elizabeth’s Percentage System (EPS), a system for creating a custom-fit garment knitted in the round from the bottom up based on a series of measurements. This system is still used by many independent hand-knit designers and many of our favourite patterns on Ravelry have their core in the EPS! The EPS is referred to in most of Elizabeth’s patterns but is described in detail in Knitting Around and Knitting Without Tears.

Elizabeth's Percentage System or EPS

Elizabeth’s Percentage System (EPS)

Understanding that the body was tubular, rather than flat, Elizabeth also popularised the traditional practice of knitting in the round, which had been central to folk knitting for hundreds of years but had fallen out of favour in the twentieth century. However, being in many ways a thoroughly modern woman, she knit on circular needles, instead of the long double-pointed needles used in Shetland and other parts of the world. She was so convinced by seamless knitting that, annoyed when one of her publishers rewrote her design for a seamless Shetland yoke jumper to be knit flat, she started publishing her patterns herself- and Schoolhouse Press was born! Elizabeth also helped to reintroduce the continental style of knitting (which involved holding the yarn in the left hand) to the US, after it fell out of favour after World War 2 because of its association with Germany- inherently practical, Elizabeth felt it was quicker and more efficient that the English style of knitting. As you’d expect, her books are full of other tips and techniques for  interesting details and good finishing, such as the phoney seam that allows a garment knitted without seams to sit flat:

Phoney seams

Phoney seams

And many of her designs have becomes rites of passage of generations of knitters; the Baby Surprise Jacket (from the Opinionated Knitter and the Knitters Almanac) is a piece of phenomenal engineering that only Elizabeth could have come up with! How does a piece of knitting like this…

The Baby Surprise Jacket

The Baby Surprise Jacket

… end up looking like this?!

Baby Surprise Jacket

Baby Surprise Jacket

The many thousands of Baby Surprise Jackets on Ravelry pay homage to Elizabeth’s legacy. These are a couple of our favourites- sewnancy’s lovely, simple version makes it all about the shape and mitred shaping, whereas helloyarn‘s is all about the gorgeous variegated yarn:

Sewnancy's BSJ

Sewnancy’s BSJ

Earlier this year, we ran a two-part class on seamless knitting and much of the content for that class originated in Elizabeth’s books, including the EPS; if you are at all interested, be sure to sign up for our newsletter to hear about newly released classes, as we’ll definitely be running classes on seamless, custom-fit knits next year… Although her innovative spirit had enormous influence on modern knitting, she underplayed her contributions to modern knitting, calling her innovations ‘unventions’ and saying of them: “One un-vents something; one unearths it; one digs it up, one runs it down in whatever recesses of the eternal consciousness it has gone to ground. I very much doubt if anything is really new when one works in the prehistoric medium of wool with needles. The products of science and technology may be new, and some of them are quite horrid, but knitting? In knitting there are ancient possibilities; the earth is enriched with the dust of the millions of knitters who have held wool and needles since the beginning of sheep. Seamless sweaters and one-row buttonholes; knitted hems and phoney seams – it is unthinkable that these have, in mankind’s history, remained undiscovered and unknitted. One likes to believe that there is memory in the fingers; memory undeveloped, but still alive.” ― Elizabeth Zimmermann, Knitter’s Almanac If you are interested in learning more about Elizabeth Zimmermann, you can find all her books in stock at Sunspun. You may also like to visit Schoolhouse Press, which was established by Elizabeth and carried on by her daughter (and designer in her own right) Meg Swansen, which sells many of her patterns, DVD’s and associated yarns and products.

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