March 29, 2005
Elizabeth Zimmermann buttons
I have very strong feelings about Elizabeth Zimmermann. Unfortunately, my brain is that of a scientist: my entire life I have been trained to boil down my thoughts to the bare essentials, to speak in a clear, concise, organized manner, without any wordiness whatsoever. Just try writing a 1000-word grant proposal and you'll understand! And here I am, trying to explain why EZ is my idol, and my scientifically inclined writing skills are totally failing me. I apologize.
What do I know about EZ? The interesting thing is that everything I know about her I've gathered from a variety of sources, not from any one cohesive source. If you Google 'Elizabeth Zimmermann biography', you get nothing of the sort!
What I know is that she is often referred to as the grandmother of modern knitting. As I understand it, the use of hand knitting for making clothes decreased as the machine-knitting industry advanced from 16th century onward. Although many people knit during early- and mid-1900s, knitting knowledge was passed mother-to-daughter, and in decreasingly fewer instances; no widespread information or patterns were available. Elizabeth Zimmermann entered the knitting scene in the 1950s with the publication of Wool Gathering, a hand-knitting newsletter, and steadily, albeit slowly, knitting started to increase in popularity. Surely it wasn't the sole doing of EZ, but her contributions to knitting are of great importance. Knitting then, as now, often had an air of self-importance and complexity: only the special, the select few, the well trained can complete a hand-knitted garment. To which Elizabeth said, phooey! I quote, "Really, all you need to become a good knitter are wool, needles, hands, and slightly below-average intelligence." (Knitting Without Tears).
I think if you put Elizabeth Zimmermann in a roomful of people who were skeptical about whether they could learn to knit, or whether they could knit a complicated garment, she would run around like a little crazy lady saying "nonsense!" left and right. She saw knitting for its simplicity, not for its complexity. She noticed that human bodies of all shapes and sizes followed certain proportions, and incorporated a percentage system in her designs. For sleeves, cast on 20% of the number of stitches you had for the body. How much more simple does it get?!? She introduced the seamless yoke sweater, and told modern knitters how to knit Scandinavian and Aran sweaters on circular needles: knitters no longer had to deal with the wrong side and saw the pattern develop in front of their eyes, a great technical advantage. There were other sweater patterns, bind-off techniques, buttonholes, the i-cord, socks, selvedge stitches, etc., etc., etc.
Although I myself like/need to do things the complicated way, there is something very empowering about knowing that there is a simple way to which I can resort at any time, and that I can do anything using it! I also love (love!) Elizabeth Zimmermann's self-claimed title of the Opinionated Knitter, and her lack of shyness to state her opinions. As I understand it, a lot of stuffy knitters had a real problem with knitting being as easy as EZ claimed, and she answered their concerns in the most clever ways - phony seams come to mind. And when they tried to make her patterns more complicated by publishing them as knitted flat rather than circularly, she just started her own publishing company. It's like the ultimate "Ha!" She knew she had a better way, and she made sure everyone else knew it, and in the process she introduced knitting to a great number of new knitters, and simplified knitting for many experienced ones.
When I got The Opinionated Knitter, I was very moved. There are pictures of sweaters knit by EZ herself in that book; there are pictures of her children, her grandchildren, and her great-grandchildren in that book, wearing her original designs. There are her hand-written notes, signatures, drawings, and corrections. There's a picture of EZ sitting next to Barbara G. Walker (of the Treasury of Knitting fame), taken in 1980, the year I was born. There are the most touching pictures of Elizabeth Zimmermann herself. I had to do something.
I've been mulling over making Elizabeth Zimmermann buttons for a while now. I'm worried about copyrights, to be honest, but I decided to take a chance. If Schoolhouse Press tells me I'm trespassing copyright laws, you'll be the first to know. For now, I'm starting with some simple "knit on" buttons in EZ's own handwriting. If you idolize EZ as much as I do, take a button, and knit on!