Originally published in Pom Pom Quarterly, Issue 12, Spring 2015
Swedish minimalism is about pared-down chic with a flourish of cosy, viewed through pale Nordic light. It is a contemporary understanding of old-fashioned that elevates simple shapes in monochrome and mineral colours, and is ideally set off by bare wood. There is a love of stripes, triangles reminiscent of pine trees, and the odd red horse. Summers are endless light and wild flowers. Long winters allow for optimum crafting in houses that are warm enough to leave your shoes at the front door and where everyone wears nice socks. There is candlelight and the scent of cinnamon wafts through the air, it is tidy and blissfully well- ordered. You have space to notice and appreciate beautiful details and careful curation. Sounds lovely, right? Gosh, yes it does!
I can feel myself being swayed even though I am not a minimalist by any stretch of the word. For starters my theories on minimalism are far too expansive. The crux of it is that I am suspicious of it, I’m convinced it is hiding something. This doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the studied simplicity, beauty and challenge of it.
Minimalism is aspirational; something you strive for and struggle to achieve. Like aspirations of grandeur, minimalism is easier to achieve with wealth. If you can afford to buy whatever you need when you need it, you don’t have to keep it around “just in case.” Bigger houses allow the same quantity of essentials and a smattering of fripperies to look comparatively sparse. Plus there’s more storage space to keep things out of sight. Curiously though, minimalism likes to conceal its wealth in a monastic romanticism of poverty or at least frugality and denial. The aesthetics of minimalism are about educated taste: understated, knowing, and perhaps just a little smug.
Knitting, on the other hand, is very much about excess. Thousands of stitches make up any given item and there’s always more to knit. Even when working with a minimal style, your brain will be full of endless possible projects, skills to acquire, techniques to try, gifts to give, knowledge to share, stories to tell, prowess to divulge. Knitting is about being resourceful and creating your own terms of grandeur, be they minimal or maximal. Whether you have a desire to be ahead or abreast of trends, or to wind back the fashion clock, there are many options. There’s even scope to be a trailblazing eccentric. You’re in control of making the things you want and making them fit you and yours, regardless of how you measure up to rarely relevant statistical averages or currently desirable body types. Unlike fashion magazines, knitting patterns (both contemporary and vintage) often use family and friends as models, rather than specifically hired folks with aspirational body types. As far as idealised bodies go, the sexy blonde stereotype is inextricably bound to Sweden. Interestingly though, these women hail from a country that supports women in ways very few others do. The confidence this recognition imparts on all Swedish women, regardless of looks, is palpable,
A couple of months ago I visited the Nordiska Museet (Nordic Museum) in Stockholm. It is a wonder-filled museum of decorative art, something of a Swedish equivalent to London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. The focus, however, is firmly on the country’s own design history. It is the representation of a place rather than a survey of the whole wide world. By museum standards their textiles collection is a rummager’s dream. It is not displayed on the walls or in open cases, but in a long galley of a room, flanked on both sides with large plan chests. Glass topped drawers (314 to be precise!) slide smoothly out on runners to reveal the fabrics inside. I approached the knitting drawers with a desire to explore the roots of Swedish minimalism which inspired this issue of Pom Pom.
The thing is, I didn’t find anything even remotely minimal in those drawers. There are stitch counts upwards of 30 per 10cm/4″ over intricately stranded floral patterns, knits embellished with embroidery and fringed edges as dense as pompoms. I spotted various techniques of double knitting used to increase warmth and weather resistance, which is necessary in a climate that gets (pardon my American) butt-freezing cold. And COLOUR! Made in a largely preindustrial era when you were in charge of making your own entertainment as well as your own wardrobe, the items in these drawers satisfied both these goals. The handmade garments and fragments of knitting are examples of skill, imagination, ingenuity, practicality and play. It would appear that when items like these were all still handmade and people were highly skilled, minimalism wasn’t valued as much. It seems it was preferable to exercise and show off your skills. What I saw on show was knitters flexing their muscles.
When I see feats of creativity like these I find it inconceivable that it became part of popular thought(and humour) that women lack mathematical, scientific or technical skills and spatial awareness. Though I didn’t see any harbingers of minimalism, there is a different lineage I can trace. Those drawers contain the work of accomplished, adventurous, industrious, aesthetically savvy women with brains of steel; the type of Swedish women I am accustomed to meeting now.
Generations of us have felt that we are competing with cleanly machined lines while we navigate a world of consumer excess designed to pull the handmade rug out from under our feet. We have some ground to regain when it comes to the skills and acumen required to cut loose and make great things. Our ideas of perfection will shift along with them. What I learned in my quest for the roots of Swedish minimalism is that the missing key in many cases is confidence. We need confidence to try, experiment, fail and be excellent. So I am willing to concede that some studied simplicity may be the route to a place of joyous rich complexity. But let’s not dwell too long in demure understatement.