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Voices Fall-Winter 2005:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read “Knitting It Together: A Case Study of a Sweater” by Jill Breit here.
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Volume 31

Knitting It Together:  A Case Study of a Sweater by Jill Breit

As a widely practiced craft, knitting provides an excellent medium for study of the dynamic of individual expression within group standards. When knitting garments, artists balance the desire to make a personal statement against shared notions of what constitutes a “good” garment. Knitters work with the standards of two different groups in mind: those who make garments and those who wear them. In this article, a fiber artist in northern New York reveals her criteria for excellence in fiber work through one sweater made as a birthday gift for a friend. By describing the sweater and the decisions entailed in making it, the artist articulates aesthetic and technical preferences and relates them to the preferences of those around her. The sweater embodies the values of friendship and simple living embraced by many fiber artists.
Anne Burnham models cardigan
Anne Burnham models the cardigan Bliss made for her as a sixtieth birthday gift. Photo: Lamar Bliss

When Anne Burnham of Parishville, New York, turned sixty in May 2004, she asked her friend Lamar Bliss of Potsdam, New York, to knit her a replacement for a well-used and well-loved cardigan.

Bliss is a knitter and also a spinner. By requesting the sweater, Burnham was essentially asking Bliss to make a birthday gift of handmade yarn, as well as of the finished piece of knitting. Bliss was happy to comply: her sheep provide plenty of fleeces, and she spends most of her spare hours engaged in one stage or another of sweater production. She spins and knits more than she can wear herself, and rather than sell her surplus production, she chooses to offer it as gifts. The sweater Bliss made for Burnham required 200 hours to complete, from washing the raw fleeces to binding the final stitch off the needles. Although she is a twenty-first-century woman, Bliss’s gift to Burnham mimics in process what women in the preindustrial period routinely did to clothe their families.

In this paper, I will trace the steps Bliss took to produce the cardigan for Burnham. By describing the cardigan and explaining the choices she made in its construction, Bliss articulates the artistic values embodied in its creation. By evaluating her work, she also places herself within the context of an extended community of fiber artists. To make the case that Bliss as a fiber artist both conforms to and diverges from the standards of her community, I will draw on interviews I have conducted with other knitters in northern New York.

Knitting as Traditional Practice

Knitting as a traditional practice fits solidly within even the most conservative definition of folk culture. Most knitters learn directly from family and friends, make utilitarian objects, and accept the standards of their community as guides to form and color. The advent of web sites devoted to knitting has enlarged knitters’ communities, but not replaced personal lessons and local knitting groups. There has never been a time in American history when people didn’t knit. Through peaks and valleys of popularity, a faithful core of knitters kept working, passing on skills and aesthetic criteria.

Given this fact, it is surprising that so few folklorists have studied the craft. Perhaps Linda Pershing is correct that the field mistakenly feels that enough has been said about “centuries-old and widely variable practices” of needlework (1992, 334). Very few folklorists have written about knitters at all; even fewer have honored knitters. The nearly 300 National Heritage fellows recognized in the twenty-two-year award program include an impressive number of quilters and weavers, but no knitters. This absence belies the prevalence of knitters in American society.

As Anne Macdonald aptly demonstrates in her social history of knitting, substantial numbers of American women have knitted for numerous reasons throughout the last century (1988). Economy, virtue, fashion, politics, and charity have all played a part in performance and perception of knitting. Prior to the availability of affordable mass-produced textiles, need was the major impetus. When industrialization removed necessity from the equation, women continued the practice for a variety of reasons, ranging from frugality to a desire to be creative. Published pattern books from the past one hundred years trace the evolution of the ideal woman in terms of what she will wear and what she will make for loved ones. Although men have knitted at certain periods in American history, knitting remains a gendered activity. When men choose to knit recreationally, as they have begun to do in larger numbers recently, they are still perceived as anomalies.

Knitting’s popularity tends to run in cycles, with varying motivations underlying upsurges at different times. During the world wars, many Americans took up knitting needles to provide for soldiers on the front lines. In the 1950s, it was popular for college-age women to knit argyle socks for prospective spouses. Back-to-the-landers took up knitting in the 1970s to associate themselves with the activities of simpler times. In each case, contemporary periodicals created and fostered enthusiasm for knitting according to a formula that suited the times.

Popular interest in knitting is currently at a peak. In Manhattan and other large cities, knitting cafes are a phenomenon. The yarn industry targets young professionals who knit stylish scarves out of expensive fibers, such as cashmere, during their lunch hours. Throughout the United States, there are after-school knitting clubs attended by both boys and girls. Yarn shops host themed knitting parties.

Photo of comb used to straighten wool
These steel combs are used to straighten wool fibers in preparation for spinning. Running the wool through the combs also removes any debris left after washing. Photo: Jill Breit
Until recently, knitted items as objects of display were unusual except at county fairs and church bazaars. It is increasingly common, however, for the work of textile artists to be shown in art museums and galleries and as installations in public spaces. Maine artist Katharine Cobey uses knitting as a medium for sculpture, draping and molding knitted fabric to create large three-dimensional displays. Kathryn Alexander of New York State makes tapestries, as well as garments noted for the wildness of their design.

While specific intent varies considerably among knitters, certain themes appear repeatedly in discussions of the craft. Stress relief is the most common reason new knitters give for taking up needles. The rhythmic repetition of motion in knitting suits many who seek a meditative practice. One knitter I know told me, “When the world is too much with you, you need a little knit” (Carl 2003). Bliss describes her knitting sessions as peaceful interludes.

Easily portable, knitting is a perfect activity for people on the go, a way to fill idle moments riding the train or waiting in a doctor’s office. The rhythmic motion of knitting is mostly a matter of feel, a type of muscle memory. Many knitters watch television or do something else while they knit, because they do not have to concentrate on the work to know how it is proceeding. Unless a pattern is particularly complex, knitters can feel how a piece is progressing and where they are in the process. They will feel in their hands whether or not the tension in the piece is consistent.

Many knitters report on the sensory experience of their craft. Yarns are colorful and they often smell good, but most of all they feel good. Knitting is a tactile activity. All the knitters I have interviewed eventually speak about the feel of the work. Ninety-year-old Annis Holmes has knitted steadily all of her adult life. She told me, “I just love yarn. I have a good feeling with it in my hand. Yarn makes me happy” (2002). For most knitters, whether or not a fiber feels good in the hands is an important factor in the decision to use it in a project. Knitters speak in terms of whether or not a fiber has “good hand.” Literally, this means that a given fiber is pleasant to hold in one’s hand. The fibers will be smooth, the heft of the yarn right. Knitters judge right away when picking up a skein of yarn whether or not it will feel good to knit with it. Some compare handling yarn to the satisfaction of petting a dog or cat.

Bliss thinks it is possible that the calming affect reported by many knitters is attributable not just to the steady motion of knitting, but to the sensation of yarn moving across the skin. As a professional massage therapist, she is well aware of the benefits of touch. Although she highly values the touch of fiber, Bliss more often emphasizes the quietness of knitting. Metal knitting needles make a gentle clicking sound when struck together, but many contemporary knitters use bamboo, wood, or nylon needles, eliminating even that click. For Bliss, the tactile quality of knitting is most important as a way to gauge how comfortable the final garment will be. She takes great care at each stage of garment production to insure that the user will find her work pleasant on the skin.

Making a Cardigan: From Sheep to User

Bliss likes to make things and has done so from the time she was a young girl. She asked an aunt to teach her to knit when she was seven, but she had already learned other craft skills, such as sewing, by that time. Knitting became one of several skills Bliss could apply to creating items she wanted. During an intense fascination with macramé in the 1970s, knitting nearly disappeared from Bliss’s repertoire, but she continued to turn out a sweater occasionally. Always willing to learn a new technique, Bliss during those years learned to spin from a colleague at the public radio station where she worked as an announcer and producer.

Bliss lives in an old farmhouse on twenty acres of land. Her partner had kept goats on this property for a number of years, and when all but one of her goats had died, they got a sheep to keep it company. Over time, two more sheep joined the first. This small flock keeps the fields around Bliss’s house from going to scrub, and she likes to see them in the pasture. Owning sheep became the impetus for Bliss to turn her attention in earnest to spinning and knitting.

When you ask Bliss why she has chosen spinning and knitting as her primary creative outlet, she says, “I don’t know. It’s just there. I have those sheep: there’s this pile of fleece. Every year they drop another fleece on me, and you have to do something with it.” As the couple acquired sheep, they may have given some thought to using the fleeces for yarn production, as the three sheep present a palette of natural colors for Bliss to work with: white, mottled gray, and dark brown. These colors can be used separately or blended to make various shades of gray.

The sweater Bliss made for Burnham is an Aran cardigan made from a rag wool combining one strand of white and one strand of soft gray wool. Aran knitting, more commonly referred to as Irish knitting, is characterized by the way in which cables and other stitch patterns combine to create a textured surface. Although Aran knitting originated in the British Isles, it has been adopted by knitters all over the world. Aran sweaters are almost always knit in a solid color, usually off-white, to highlight the texture of the knitting. For the purposes of design, the body and sleeves of Aran sweaters are divided into vertical panels, each panel displaying a different pattern of stitches; a large center panel is typically flanked by smaller panels, in which patterns move symmetrically out from the center. As in many textile traditions, the patterns are named. Ethnic and regional variations in pattern names are common.

Bliss is very interested in the formal elements of her fiber work. She considers her art to be mathematically and technically challenging. She controls the final product by taking charge of each step required to make it. When Burnham asked Bliss for a handmade sweater, she set in motion a chain of activities. Shearing the sheep is the one step of yarn production that Bliss does not handle herself. Each May she hires a shearer to remove from her sheep the coats of wool they have been growing since the previous summer’s shearing. After the coats of wool are off the sheep, Bliss undertakes each stage of yarn preparation herself, rather than send the fleece to a commercial establishment, where it would be processed and turned into skeins of yarn. This adds considerably to the time investment she makes in her garments.

Bliss was not responsible for choosing a pattern for Burnham’s cardigan. Burnham asked her to reproduce a sweater that had been tested and found worthy. This is not the usual way for knitters to approach garment construction. Most knitters work from published patterns. As they gain experience, knitters often become comfortable enough to make variations on published patterns or to combine different patterns. Some knitters like to make their own patterns, an option that even inexperienced knitters can now consider, thanks to the availability of knitwear design software. Like vernacular builders, knitters who design patterns work with a corpus of “problems already solved” (Hubka 1986). There are a limited number of ways to attach sleeves, for example. Bliss thinks of knitting as a process of building. She is always aware of the three-dimensionality of it. I asked Bliss if she ever views her knitting as an engineering project: “Oh, yeah, yeah; it is.” As she was knitting Burnham’s cardigan, she always had in mind how the pieces would have to fit together to make the whole.

Technical Standards of Production

As a spinner and a knitter, Bliss meets the demands of separate folk communities. Although there is certainly some overlap, many spinners do not knit, and the majority of knitters do not spin. Each activity requires a different set of skills. The cardigan Bliss made is subject to judgment on three levels: how well did she process the wool she used, how well did she spin her yarn, and how well is the knitting done? As many folk art scholars have noted, skill in execution is often the arbiter of excellence. Lack of short fibers and plant debris indicates that Bliss is effective at handling the tools for eliminating them. Yarn that is consistent in smoothness and thickness indicates aptitude with the spinning wheel. Excellent knitting requires consistent tension and even stitches, as well as a pleasing design.

Bliss regularly tried on sections of the sweater she knitted to gauge its fit
As Bliss knitted a birthday cardigan for her friend, she regularly tried on sections of it to gauge its fit. Photo: Jill Breit

While Bliss appreciates the praise of those outside the fiber community, she subjects her work to the scrutiny of her peers. It is their approbation she ultimately seeks. She does this formally by entering items she has made in county and state fairs. Two years ago, a vest Bliss made for her aunt took honorable mention at the New York state fair. The recognition was nice, but blue ribbons are Bliss’s aspiration. She regularly attends fairs to scrutinize the work of other fiber artists, to see where she can improve, and to get a sense of what the judges look for. A competitive spirit fuels her efforts at excellence.

Bliss rarely joins spinning or knitting meetings, preferring to work alone, but she never works without awareness of how her efforts might be received by other fiber artists. Vlach has said of folk artists, “Certainly, artists may work alone, even in seclusion, but they will work within a socially sanctioned set of rules for artistic production which they expect will insure the acceptability of their completed pieces” (1992, 20). This is true for Bliss at each step of garment production. While she doesn’t choose to gather regularly with other fiber artists, she anticipates how her work will be received within the community of fiber artists. She welcomes feedback even in the most casual setting: occasionally Bliss will knit in public, and she loves it when other knitters approach her to comment on what she is doing. In turn, Bliss has no hesitation about approaching a knitter in public to ask about the project and to respond to it.

In studying textile traditions in eastern Newfoundland, Gerald Pocius investigated aesthetic criteria for making hooked mats. He uses a methodology similar to that used by Ruth Bunzel to study pueblo pottery (1929): he asked women who made mats to tell him which mats were good and which were not. Pocius felt you could not study an artist without first investigating the community in which that artist worked. He found that technical skill was the most important factor: “Women in all communities felt a ‘good’ mat or quilt was one that was well made. Cosmetic evaluations were always secondary” (1979, 56).

For Bliss, it is very important that anything she makes be well done. She wants her products to reflect that she has mastered the best techniques for the job. “I want to make the improvements that make it a better garment. If I can avoid pills, boy, that’d be great. So, I go learn a whole new technique in spinning and in fiber production in order to avoid pills.” The fact that the new technique is more time-intensive does not deter her. Trying to understand particular characteristics of different varieties of wool intrigues Bliss. Each of her three sheep has different qualities to its wool, and she experiments to see how she can make the most of each fleece’s distinctive features.

Bliss is willing to rip out sections of knitting that do not meet her expectations. The techniques of knitting are deceptively simple. To knit, one minimally needs two needles, string, and the ability to knit and purl. The most elaborate pieces of knitting in the world are still just variations on knit and purl. However, many things can go wrong as the fabric develops. Applying incorrect pressure will result in fabric that either puckers or sags. Dropped stitches will leave holes. Misplaced stitches disrupt a pattern. Many knitters have told me that learning to “rip,” or undo sections of knitting, is one of the most important steps in becoming a proficient knitter. In the process of knitting and unknitting, artists develop a grasp of the engineering inherent in the technique. The difference between an adequate piece of knitting and an excellent one lies in this grasp. As one knitter commented, “I want it to look handmade, not homemade. Anything worth doing is worth doing right” (Berard 2002).

Aesthetic in Practice: Choosing a Design

Northern New York is noted for the same brand of conservatism associated with New England. This is not surprising, since northern New York was settled by descendants of early New England settlers. The sensibilities of residents in the northern part of New York State differ markedly from those of residents in the southern part of the state. A preference for understatement expresses itself in the North Country’s knitting community. As one knitter commented, “In the woods, the culture is not to stand out, to blend, not to be too flashy” (Barsuglia-Madsen 2002). In an exhibit of North Country knitting I curated in 2003, the visitor favorite was a solid blue pullover ornamented only with a subtle band of raised stitches around the chest.

Bliss comes from an extended family of Saint Lawrence County residents. A native of northern New York, Bliss has internalized these conservative preferences. In describing her tastes, Bliss mentions another native knitter, Barb Klemens. Noted for her predilection for simple, unadorned garments, Klemens ran a yarn shop in Canton, New York, for fifty years. Bliss remarked:
I see lots of sweaters that have fancy flourishes to them....Frankly, I don’t really like those things. I’m kind of like Barb Klemens. Something that is going to look good no matter what decade I wear it in—I like that. I like something that is very classic, something with good clean lines, although my favorite sweater is very baggy, and I snuggle up in it. That’s the other thing I go for: is it comfortable, something to snuggle up in?
Within parameters of group taste, Bliss has preferences of her own. She’s fascinated by patterns in which stitches meander across the fabric to make the design. Straight lines of cables, common in the region’s sweaters, bore her. She likens them to the bland appeal of sweet candy canes. Cables are interesting to her when they wander and intertwine to form lattice patterns or similarly complex designs. Bliss appreciates the decorative possibilities of knitting and is always on the lookout for ideas. She makes a habit when she sees a sweater she likes of breaking it down in her mind to determine which features in it make it attractive to her. She loves to watch patterns unfold as she knits a piece. Before starting work on a project, Bliss knits many sample swatches, testing patterns and yarn to see what will work for an item she has in mind.

Designs of sweaters are not the only way Bliss expresses her standards. Repeatedly in speaking of her work, Bliss emphasizes comfort over appearance. When I first interviewed Bliss, she was really enthusiastic about knitting socks: “The joy has been the socks because they feel really good on the feet” (2002). She knits her socks on small needles to assure a dense, hard-working product, even though her hands object to the strain. She does not use the coarser wool of her dark brown sheep by itself in a sweater, explaining that the result would be “like a Guatemalan sweater that you can exfoliate your skin with when you put it on.” She loves the luster of pure Romney wool from her gray sheep. In making Burnham’s cardigan, Bliss chose to twist this wool in because it feels so nice on the skin, even though white would have shown the pattern off better. By making this choice, she compromised on the visual clarity of the sweater for the sake of physical comfort: “I wanted to make this more like a snuggly sweater instead of just, oh yeah, that’s pretty.”

Bliss’s cardigan may be exquisitely made, but it is not precious. It will not be an heirloom, hidden in a closet to be worn occasionally. Although its solid construction guarantees a long life, the garment will wear out and require patching along the way. Many would shudder to think of a sweater requiring 200 hours of labor being worn casually, but that is part of the pragmatism associated with knitting in Bliss’s community. Knitting instructor Susan Carl asserts: “Sweaters should be worn. A hole can always be fixed” (Carl 2002). For some knitters, making those repairs is a responsibility of thriftiness, another virtue prized in northern New York. Mennonite knitter Arlene Yousey remembers that, in her household, “worn portions of garments were reknit. This was part of stewardship, mandated by God” (2002).

For Bliss, the usefulness of knitted items sets them above objects made purely for decoration. To make this point, she contrasts knitting with Ukrainian-style painted pysanki eggs: “It’s nice to look at a pysanki egg, but okay, given the choice between an egg and a sweater, really, which would you choose? It’s got to be the sweater. It’s got to be the socks. They can be so much more incorporated into your life, and the egg is always going to sit on a shelf.” Bliss’s ordering of value is by no means universal. Another person might prefer the egg, reasoning that it is rarer, since sweaters are readily and inexpensively available in the store.

Bliss rarely follows published patterns. Since she is fascinated by the process of engineering garments, she likes to figure out the stages as she goes. Bliss enjoyed copying Burnham’s old cardigan. She teased sections of it apart to determine how it was put together. The biggest puzzle for Bliss was a pair of knit-in pockets on the front of the original cardigan. She had never made pockets before, and it took her several evenings to grasp the technique. Bliss might have saved herself time by referring to a book or asking other experienced knitters how to set the pockets in, but she prefers the challenge of working it out herself. She especially enjoys the detective work of looking at antique pieces to uncover what a knitter had in mind when she was working. She likes to envision the anonymous knitter: “It’s so neat looking at a sweater to see what that person did.” As she knit the cardigan, Bliss regularly checked the fit by slipping pieces of it on herself.

Bliss did not feel obligated to reproduce the model exactly. While the original was off-white, she used a rag wool. In some of the panels of the cardigan, she substituted stitch combinations that she liked for ones she did not. In her opinion, reproducing Burnham’s cardigan meant faithfulness to form, not decoration. This attitude was consistent with Burnham’s. Burnham is a professional potter who makes dinnerware and other functional pieces. She appreciates utilitarian qualities, but also wants art to reflect its maker. She wanted her original cardigan replaced because it was the most comfortable sweater she had ever owned. She requested that Bliss mimic the fit and feel of the original. Bliss retained all attributes of the cardigan that contributed to this end. For example, she carefully studied the shaping of the shoulders on the original cardigan and shaped the shoulders in just the same fashion, even though the method differs from her usual shaping method. Burnham gave Bliss license, however, to change some elements of the pattern to combinations she would enjoy watching unfold. The final product incorporates a new textural quality, but fits just as the old did.

Expressing Values in Fiber Work

Working with fiber as she does satisfies Bliss on an intellectual, analytical level. She is especially drawn to activities requiring geometric precision: macramé, painting pysanki eggs, knitting. When asked to describe a pattern on a sweater, she has a hard time doing it in a gross sense. She sees patterns at the level of individual stitches, so describes them in terms of how the stitches move through them. Tracing her fingers over stitches in Burnham’s cardigan to show how they shift to form the texture, Bliss becomes increasingly animated about the motion contained within the panels. The fiber work she does also satisfies her on a larger level: “It thrills me that you can start with something that looks like fog, and turn it into something warm and protective.”

For Bliss, keeping sheep and making usable items from their wool is part of a lifestyle choice. Quiet contemplation is important to her and is something she is engaged in as she spins and knits at home. As we toured her backyard one afternoon, Bliss joked that in kinship with the slow food movement, she’s an adherent of the slow clothes movement. This was not the first time I had heard this from a fiber artist. Joanne Seiff, a spinner and knitter in Bowling Green, Kentucky, explained it this way: “I also believe in sort of the slow food movement and slow everything movement, in that I feel like our society is too rushed, and spinning is a way to deconstruct what we own and make it more valuable” (2003).

The slow food movement is a global grassroots movement that originated in Italy. The message of this movement is that modern life is too busy and fast paced. Proponents advocate a return to leisurely meals made with locally grown products and eaten in the company of family and friends. Their philosophy includes a host of other lifestyle choices favoring simplicity. Simplicity and time to pay attention are two things Bliss values highly. She would likely agree with Seiff’s assessment that understanding what goes into the production of goods makes it difficult to take them for granted.

Bliss has arranged her life to be able to give uncounted hours to her art. She does not like to keep track of the time she invests in her projects and only did so in this case at my request. A massage therapist, she set her office up at home in order to avoid commuting. She schedules appointments around other activities in her life. She and her partner grow a lot of their own food, as well as flowers. When talking about the place of fiber work in her life, Bliss comments that she likes to watch the sheep, that it’s a good way to use the land, and that she enjoys introducing her clients to the sheep. The sheep have names: Adonis, Star, and Mildred.

The house in which Bliss lives is testimony to the creative capacity of its occupants. The spaces overflow with the products of their efforts. They spend much of their time at home making things, and these things decorate most of the surfaces in their house. Bliss very consciously chooses elements of her life to satisfy her own idea of what constitutes a good life. Necessity is not the motivation for her spinning: “I don’t need to do it. I make enough money; I could go off and buy yarn like anybody else.” Like Seiff, she enjoys the peacefulness of the activity—“It’s just been calm and quiet,” she remarks—and she takes pleasure in the fruits of her labor.

Bliss’s cardigan embodies her values. It is a product of an intimacy she has with her land and the animals that live on it. As Bliss says, “There’s nothing quite like putting on a garment when you know the animal that it came from, and you’ve seen it all through the process.” It is this “relating to the materials through all the senses” (Hardy 2004, 181) that prevents Bliss’s work from becoming an abstraction. Bliss’s fiber work asserts her belief that time does not equal money, a rejection of the capitalist formula. Further, it serves as an expression of her commitment to family and friends. She often mentions the pleasure of making things that will keep her loved ones warm. This expression of values through knitting has been studied by folklorist Peggy Yocom in Rangeley, Maine. The women she worked with made clothes for dolls, making choices in the process that adhered to tradition and reacted to change. In doing this, Yocom concluded, they “clothe the dolls in their own values” (Yocom 1993, 129).

Making things by hand is one element in Bliss’s formula for peace of mind. She feels engaged, calm, and connected as she works through each step of making a garment. Knowing the eventual user of the garment enhances her sense of well-being. It pleases her that a niece and nephew called her this past spring to ask if they could have more handmade socks for Christmas.


I asked Bliss if she considered her cardigan folk art. “I think you’re nuts,” was the answer. Is it fine art, then? Bliss distinguishes this way between the two:
If I were really good, I’d like to call it fine art. Folk art just seems like it’s venerable, and fine art seems like it’s a goal to work towards—like to really make something that’s really, really good. Nobody sets out to be a folk artist.
In responding to the question of whether or not the cardigan she has made is folk art, Bliss’s own identity is called into question. If nobody aims to be a folk artist, presumably people do aim to be fine artists.

Ann Ferrell has written that, for a piece to be considered folk art, the “object must grow out of some kind of tradition: of process, of materials, or of collective aesthetics” (1999, 10). Bliss’s cardigan qualifies on all three grounds. The sweater was made using the same techniques and materials knitters have used for thousands of years. Functionality outweighed appearance in design decisions. Bliss worked within the parameters of acceptability in the fiber community in which she learned and continues to work. The sweater was made as a gift for a friend, who speaks of it in the same terms Bliss does. And it springs quite naturally from the environment in which Bliss has chosen to live. Bliss’s commitment to working with fibers stems partly from the satisfaction of each step of the process and partly from satisfaction with how it connects to other aspects of her life.


Jill Breit is a folklorist whose favorite stomping ground is northernmost New York State. She is currently engaged in research on the aesthetics of back-to-the-land architecture.

Knitting as a traditional practice fits solidly within even the most conservative definition of folk culture. Most knitters learn directly from family and friends...


Barsuglia-Madsen, Lis. January 14, 2003; Canton, New York. Interview by Jill Breit. Transcript.

Berard, Carole. May 22, 2002; Canton, New York. Interview by Jill Breit. Transcript.

Bliss, Lamar. July 10, 2002, and August 4, 2004; Potsdam, New York. Interviews by Jill Breit. Tape recording.

Bunzel, Ruth. 1971 [1929]. The Pueblo Potter. New York: Dover.

Carl, Susan. December 10, 2002; Potsdam, New York. Interview by Jill Breit. Transcript.

Ferrell, Anne. K. 1999. I’m Not Handy, I Had Mine Made: Christmas Curb Lights as Expression of Individual and Community Aesthetics. Tributaries: Journal of the Alabama Folklife Association 4:9-30.

Hardy, Michele. 2004. Feminism, Crafts, and Knowledge. In Objects and Meaning: New Perspectives on Art and Craft, 68-85. Ed. M. Anna Fariello and Paula Owens. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.

Holmes, Annis. May 10, 2002; Chestertown, New York. Interview by Jill Breit. Transcript.

Hubka, Thomas. 1986. Just Folks Designing. In Common Places: Readings in American Vernacular Architecture, 426-32. Ed. Dell Upton and John Michael Vlach. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Macdonald, Anne L. 1988. No Idle Hands: The Social History of American Knitting. New York: Ballantine.

Pershing, Linda. 1993. Peace Work Out of Piecework: Feminist Needlework Metaphors

In Feminist Theory and the Study of Folklore, 327-57. Ed. Susan Tower Hollis, Linda Pershing, and M. Jane Young. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Pocius, Gerald L. 1979. Textile Traditions of Eastern Newfoundland. Ottawa: National Museums of Canada.

Seiff, Joanne. November 25, 2003; Bowling Green, Kentucky. Interview by Jill Breit. Tape recording.

Vlach, John. 1992. Properly Speaking: The Need for Plain Talk about Folk Art. In Folk Art and Art World. Ed. John Michael Vlach and Simon J. Bronner. Logan: Utah State University Press.

Yocom, Margaret R. 1993. “Awful Real”: Dolls and Development in Rangeley, Maine. In Feminist Messages: Coding in Women’s Folk Culture, 126-54. Ed. Joan Newton Radner. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Yousey, Arelene. January 14, 2003; Lowville, New York. Interview by Jill Breit. Transcript.

This article appeared in Voices Vol. 31, Fall-Winter 2005. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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