Traditional and Contemporary

Translating ethnic traditions into modern fashion is a tricky business. The pitfalls are legion: dumbing down, misconstruing, disrespecting, just getting it "wrong." Our first edition of Folk Socks, for instance, had a pattern for sixteenth-century Islamic-style socks with a motif band spelling "Allah" just above the foot. Well.

The inspiration for the "Maize" sweater was a fine antique Inca pot.

We heard plenty about that (even though the antique sock which provided the inspiration had the same pattern band in roughly the same place). Needless to say, the new edition avoids the issue. But enough about that.

Marianne Isager is a brilliant knitwear designer who has a gift for absorbing the aesthetic of a culture and interpreting it in ways that are contemporary, tasteful, and interesting. She's done collections inspired by African, Japanese, and Peruvian art. In each case, she has filtered her experience of the culture through her design-savvy Scandinavian point of view to come up with garments that run the gamut from those that borrow literally from the culture to those that have an evocative whiff.

  The design for the "Stars" sweater was inspired by a Peruvian cap.

One of her strategies for achieving this alchemy is to look beyond textiles. Inca Knits has sweaters inspired by knitted caps of the Peruvian highlands and the woven belts of Bolivia, but there are also designs inspired by baskets and pottery. Especially pottery. Pottery ornamentation can be free-form, not confined to grids in the way knitting and weaving are, and so it offers worlds of possibility. A common motif in ancient Peruvian pottery, for instance, is a circle (or concentric circles) in a square. You see this in museum pieces, and you see it in the tourist markets.  You see it interpreted brilliantly in the cover sweater of Inca Knits, where it feels traditional and contemporary all at once.

The sweaters in Inca Knits make me want to get out my needles, but they also make me want to study how the designer has worked. One sweater takes the star motif, the ch'aska, from traditional knitted caps and uses it in a vaguely Scandinavian snowflake sweater. Another borrows from a sweater worn by a Chilean fisherman, with the subtle addition of cables that echo the ropes he uses to haul in his catch. The result is fresh and timeless. Color, pattern, detail. There's a lot to learn here.