Nancy Bush: Bound to Knitters & Knitting for Life

Knitting for me is more than a hobby or livelihood. It is a means of binding my life together with the lives of all the knitters, men and women, who have knit before me—from these individuals who discovered how to make interlocking loops with fingers and hooked ends of sticks, to those country folk who made their livelihood selling handknit stockings far from their own land. The traditions inspire me, as do the stories, the bits of folklore, and the varied patterns that have been created out of a need for warmth, for fashion, to tell a story, or simply for pleasure. –Nancy Bush, Folk Socks

It is rare for someone to create a life that so fluidly binds passion for a craft with passion for its makers such as Nancy Bush’s. That passion increases with each knitter she encounters, each new stitch or technique she learns, each place she travels to, each class she teaches—and every new pattern or book she shares with the knitting community. Seldom do you meet a sock knitter who doesn’t know her name, didn’t learn how to knit top-down socks from her still-popular book Folk Socks (Interweave) first published in 1994, or hasn’t been influenced in some way by one of the many knitters who learned from or through her.

While there were fortuitous moments and encounters along the way, Nancy’s life path was somewhat bred into her. Growing up with an artist/painter father made art and color part of her world. This upbringing gave her a unique way of seeing and of interpreting much of what she saw. She was drawn to the Impressionists painters, who, in turn, were influenced by the Japanese aesthetic. These interests led her to pursue an art history degree, specializing in Japanese folk art. It was during her college years that she yearned to see some of the masterpiece paintings in person. With the advantage of a friend living in Paris, she went off for a semester abroad. That semester turned into six months of travel through France and Western Europe. The trip cultivated a taste for French cuisine and seeded a travel spirit that continues to this day. When she did return to the States, she finished her degree at the University of Utah and applied to graduate school. Then, during a life-changing conversation with a professor about further studies in art history, Nancy suddenly realized that she didn’t want to study and analyze art but to learn a craft.

So rather than going on to graduate school, Nancy went to a small art school in San Francisco, where she learned color theory, surface design, and weaving. Her weaving teacher had a Swedish weaving background, and Nancy, who has Swedish ancestors, was soon enamored with the strong Swedish weaving traditions. Once finished with school and a year of working in Salt Lake City, Nancy found the desire to travel had returned.

THE TRAVEL SPIRIT

This time, however, she traveled and lived in Europe and Scandinavia for over a year and a half, including five months at Sätergläntan in Insjön, Sweden (Sätergläntan is a meeting place and school for those people from all over Sweden and the world interested in handcraft and folk culture). Although weaving was the primary emphasis of her studies, spinning, bobbin lace, nålbinding, and—most importantly—knitting were also included. It was here that Nancy went beyond the simple knit and purl stitches she had learned as a child.

Her fellow boarding-house students taught her to cast on using the long-tail method. They also showed her how to knit holding the yarn in her left hand, but she wasn’t very fast knitting that way. Nancy remembers that she became a closet right-hand knitter. “I would go back to my room at night and knit with my right hand because it was faster and my tension was better. Now I use both hands when I work color patterns that require carrying yarn for more than three stitches. But most traditional patterns are short carries so it’s right hand for me.” The first sweater she knitted was a circular pullover with raglan shaping that used yarn from the local mill and was made without a written pattern.

Once knitting took hold, Nancy didn’t look back. She turned from Japanese history and culture to the Nordic traditions. The Nordic folk art traditions contained all the elements of what inspired her and captured her heart—rich music and folk dancing, the work and beauty created by the craftspeople, the personal stories of the people themselves, and a culture in which traditions were alive and preserved as the art of everyday people.

HOME TO THE WOOLY WEST

When Nancy finished at Sätergläntan, she lived in France, working as an au pair. Eventually, it was time to return home and “do something serious.” While she was working at a local independent bookstore, another fortunate conversation took place—this time with her employer, who advised her to do something with her textile background. So, with the encouragement of her parents, she opened The Wooly West, a retail yarn store. “I never realized how serious it would get or how long it would last! I chose knitting as a primary focus because I loved the portability of it and realized that knitting was accessible to everyone. The tools are few and the basic skills are easy to teach and to learn. Over the years, The Wooly West has encouraged more folks to knit than I ever thought possible.” Although she sold the retail store in 2000, Nancy kept the name for her mail-order business.

At the shop, she taught most of the classes, from beginning knitting to knitting ganseys as well as Fair Isle and Norwegian-style sweaters. Her wish for the store was to offer fine natural-fiber yarns, classic and traditional patterns, useful knitting tools, and expert instruction to her customers. It was one of the first shops in the United States to carry true Shetland yarn and sock yarn imported from Wales. She imported specialty items such as jumper boards from Shetland, nøstepinnes from Norway, and stitch keepers for double-pointed needles. Her favorite tools are double-pointed needles; she sees them as a connection to the past. And to further retain that connection, Nancy collects old needles and reproductions of antique tools, such as knitting belts and wooden tools used to stabilize needles.

In 1985, her first published design appeared in Knitter’s magazine—a beret inspired by Bohus knitting. The response was favorable, and she continued to design for Knitter’s and for her store. From 1989 to 1995, she wrote the Knitster’s Notebook, a column for Knitter’s magazine. She says, “I chose the name after reading Richard Rutt’s History of Hand Knitting, in which he talks about ‘knitsters’ and their labors. It became a title that traveled with me, it seems, as I continued to write and to share my thoughts about knitting.”

SOCKS AND MORE SOCKS

At the same time that she started her column, Nancy began Scottish country dancing. Intrigued by the fact that many of the male Scottish dancers didn’t wear handknitted kilt hose, she started to design socks; her first designs all used round heels and wedge toes. While doing research, she noticed that there were few resources for sock patterns and certainly little written about their knitting history and techniques. Thus her first book, Folk Socks, was born. The book is still popular, Nancy believes because it’s a good basic sock textbook. “Readers will learn some history and some culture about socks, which, I hope, will lead them to respect socks more. So many people have told me that they learned to make socks from Folk Socks. I wrote the book as a learning tool.”

Nancy Bush

Stockings for a Young Lady, PieceWork, November/December 2009. Photo by Joe Coca.

Her take on the continuing sock phenomenon is that everyone needs socks, they’re fairly quick to knit, they make a portable knitting project, and there are so many interesting ways to make them. “I made one toe-up sock in my life and that was it. I’m an ‘all cuff-down’ sock knitter. And turning heels is my favorite part of the whole sock—the sock construction is intriguing.” Nancy has always focused on Northern European shaping and is happy sticking to that architecture. Does she always knit a pair? Sometimes she has help from a friend for the second one when she’s on a book deadline. She doesn’t wear many handknitted socks because she knits for her livelihood and is generally up against deadlines.

Nancy went on to design many more socks—not that she keeps track because she doesn’t. She wrote two more sock books, Knitting on the Road (Interweave, 2001) and Knitting Vintage Socks (Interweave, 2005), as well as designing sock patterns for her own catalog and for magazines, such as PieceWork. Her favorite sock pattern is the Traveler’s Stocking from Knitting on the Road. The idea for the design, whose pattern is composed of simple-to-make traveling stitches, came while she was traveling and researching the knitting of Estonia.

A PASSION FOR ESTONIA

Just as one stitch connects to the other, so, too, did she connect with many cultures’ knitting roots. It was during Nancy’s research for Folk Socks that she found a book in her local university library about traditional Estonian clothing, albeit written in Russian. Although she couldn’t understand a word of it, she could see images of interesting socks and mittens. Nancy remembers that as she looked at it, she knew she had found the rest of her life. “I felt like I knew it; I felt like I had been there in some former life. My passion for Estonia started that day and has only grown.”

Nancy Bush

Nancy in Estonia with one of the ladies on Kihnu Island during a knitting evening. Photographer unknown.

During her first trip to Estonia, in 1995, she found handknitted shawls, a few with lace patterns resembling sprigs of Lily of the Valley. She purchased them as gifts without really paying attention to the knitting techniques. She was focused on researching mittens, socks and gloves, the knitting culture and traditions, the symbolism and stitches, and the history of Estonia for her book Folk Knitting in Estonia (Interweave, 1999). (affiliate link) If you spend any time with this book, you can see why Nancy considers Estonian knitting to have the most intriguing techniques she has learned in her more than thirty years of knitting. The traditional cast-on alone is ingenious—it’s worked over two needles held parallel, thereby producing looser and more elastic stitches for socks, mittens, and gloves. And, as in her first book, she deciphered many a sock, glove, and mitten in the Estonian National Museum and other collections to learn braided and fringed cast-ons, traveling stitches, and color inlay. Other methods she learned directly from the knitters, such as the knitted braid cast-on she learned from Liidia, a farm woman from Kihnu Island.

Nancy Bush

Nancy in Estonia with two of her close friends and mentors Aino Pödra (left) and Hilja Aavik (right), photograph by Laila Pödra.

During Nancy’s second trip to Estonia, the cultural historian part of her started to think of the lace patterns as research. As she asked more questions about their origin, she was directed to the town of Haapsalu, located on the western coast. Until this point, her focal point had been primarily socks. Although Shetland lace intrigued her, she never thought she would knit much lace. But the more attention she started to pay to lace knitting, the more she found it interesting and a bit magical. She was entranced not only by the lace but by the people—so much so that she’s traveled to her Estonian “homeland” fourteen times and has each time experienced something unique. She told the story of the Haapsalu lace knitters in her book Knitted Lace of Estonia (Interweave, 2008), and with each trip she met more people, listened to more stories, saw more incredible lace, and recorded stitches, techniques, and patterns.

“I often visit Haapsalu,” Nancy reflects, “to ask the knitting masters yet another question about the lace knitting. But I also go simply to see them, to make sure they are all doing well. My dream is to spend six months there, just soaking up the ambience. When I visit Estonia, I see friends and go to my favorite places: cafés, a music shop I love. I go to the Rocca Al Mare Open Air museum to breathe the air of an older Estonia, of the past. I understand that I idealize Estonia, but for me, it is a magic place. Once I taught courses at the Culture College in Viljandi to a group of exceptional textile students. On my last visit, I spent a day at a bird refuge on the west coast. It was the beginning of the migration of birds heading south for the winter, a fresh, slightly rainy day; the air and the light were fantastic.”

Her favorite shawl is on the cover of Knitted Lace of Estonia: the Crown Prince Square Shawl, which she knitted in just three weeks. The shawl contains motifs that were designed for a shawl knitted for Swedish Crown Prince Gustav-Adolf in 1936. Nancy’s pattern is an adaptation of a design from Triinu Magazine (published between 1952 and 1995); she added a two-pattern repeat to each of the lace-edge pieces to give the edge more stretch. Her advice to those using an Estonian lace pattern for the first time: “Be sure you’re comfortable with the yarn and the needles. Most of the patterns are not too difficult, and the fact that the wrong-side rows are almost always purled gives you some ‘down time’ in the knitting. If the pattern has ‘nupps’ (buds or knobs in Estonian), be sure to work the yarn very loose. I can’t stress that enough.” Her favorite yarn for lace is a two-ply worsted-spun in a solid color to show off the pattern most effectively.

It’s hard to imagine that Nancy doesn’t already know all the knitting techniques of the Nordic countries or in Estonia—but she says she doesn’t and can’t wait to return to Estonia, the country that captured her heart years ago. And there are other knitting lands she hasn’t yet made it to, such as Ireland and the Faroe Islands. Rest assured, when she does travel on, she will share all of it with us.

Marilyn Murphy had the distinct pleasure of co-leading Interweave’s Scandinavian Knitting Journey with Nancy Bush and sharing in these rich traditions through Nancy’s stories and teachings.

To stay abreast of Nancy Bush’s upcoming teaching schedule and new offerings, go to www.woolywest.com.

This article was originally published in Interweave Knits Spring 2010.


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