Creating connections through the arts and across cultures

“Ethnic Knitting Discovery” author Donna Druchunas speaks with Riehlife on culture, family history, and connection

In award-winning author Donna Druchunas' new book "Ethnic Knitting Discovery" just released by Nomad Press she takes knitting to the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, and The Andes. These places represent three different cultural regions for me. How they come together in the book is the sense of how to make and craft more intuitively. For me, reading the book felt like a description of how I learned to cook without recipes and how I learned to play violin by ear. I'm not a knitter, but just reading the book and enjoying the illustrations was a pleasure.

Donna Druchunas, author "Ethnic Knitting Discovery"

Donna Druchunas knitting a rug on giant needles in England. She's wearing a sweater made by her grandmother over 50 years ago.

Riehlife: Donna, previously, in your book "Arctic Lace," you wrote about a special luxury fiber from Alaska. To what extent were you involved with Native peoples there as you researched,wrote, and launched the book? How did you happen upon that topic?

Donna: I read about the Oomingmak knitters' co-op (www.qiviut.com) in a Piecework magazine article from the 1990s and I fell in love with these knitters and their work. After doing as much book research as I could, I decided that I wanted to visit Alaska and I did meet several of the knitters at the Oomingak shop in Anchorage and in the rural Eskimo village of Unalakleet.

Riehlife: "Arctic Lace" included stories as well as knitting patterns. Does this new book as well? How did you find the stories?

Donna: This book has stories as well, but they are shorter than the stories in Arctic Lace, mainly because there is much more technical knitting information in this book. I found the stories for this book by doing extensive reading.

Riehlife: I'm fascinated by the translation of your technical writing background to this field of transmitting knitting instructions. I was a technical writer for awhile and it requires a very particular mind training. Would you comment on the mind set it takes to write the directions and how you do it? Do you have other knitters test what you write before publication?

Donna: To write instructions, you have to be able to write very clear prose without redundancy or confusion. In a way it's less creative than other types of writing. When you're writing a novel, you probably don't want to use the same word over and over again in a paragraph because it gets boring. But when you're writing instructions, you need to be very consistent in your terminology. In other ways, technical writing is more creative than other prose writing and reminds me of poetry. Every word must count and do a job.

You also have to know that you're not perfect and you have to be willing to work with technical editors who will find mistakes in what you've done, and ask you to make changes to your instructions. And in knitting publishing, you'll also find that the creative director at your publisher's office may want you to use different colors and different yarns for the model garments you are making for your book.

It's a very collaborate process, even though you only see one author's name on the cover of the book. As we used to say in the computer business, "Technical writers have no ego."

Riehlife: I'm wondering what it is in your background that draws you to other cultures and what you gain from that interaction? Do you feel that your knitting books give back to these cultures or benefit them in various ways?

Donna: I hope that my book will help to keep the traditions of these various cultures alive, and that I can help others appreciate cultures that they might otherwise ignore or never hear of at all. I grew up in New York and my friends were Irish, Greek, Italian, African-American, Puerto Rican....

I loved going to my friends homes and learning about their different family traditions and getting to eat the wonderful dishes their mothers cooked. I still haven't found a recipe for the Greek lemon soup my best friend's mother made.

I've since lived in other parts of the United States where there don't seem to be too many people from different cultures. I think that the lack of diversity impoverishes everyone, especially children. It is so much better to grow up knowing people that are different than you are and learning to appreciate their cultures and traditions.

Riehlife:There was a time when everyone knitted as part of survival. I came from such a family. My mother knitted me a two-piece dress when I was a child that was truly lovely, but so different from what any other little girl was wearing that this diminished my joy in wearing my mother's fine handiwork. I think you have a family item in your possession that you treasure. Could you tell us about your family knitting background and legacy?

Donna: My mother used to sew all of my clothes, and my grandmother made all of my sweaters. I hated it! I wanted Levis jeans and department store cardigans. It's hard to believe it now, isn't it?

When my grandmother moved from New York City to upstate New York and retired from her office job, she asked me if I wanted the 50+ hand knitted suits she had made for herself. Most of them were made in fingering-weight yarn in amazing lace and texture patterns. Each suit had a skirt, a shell, and a cardigan.

I could almost cry now when I think about it, but I told her no. In my family we believe that unwanted objects should be given to people who will use them, so my grandmother divided up her work wardrobe and gave the suits away to friends who would wear them.

Riehlife: I like the metaphor of knitting as a form of connecting. As you know, connecting is one of the themes of Riehlife. Does that appeal to you as well and how have you encountered knitting as a form of connecting in your own life?

Donna: Knitting connects me to my grandmother, even though she passed on over a decade ago. Knitting also connects me to my mother regularly. Although we don't always seem to have many things in common, we both knit and spin and spend a lot of time planning projects together, shopping for yarn and notions, and working on our projects.

Donna's website: www.sheeptoshawl.com tells about all her books and takes you to her blog.
Go to Susan Tweit's blog Community of the Land to read a fascinating related post on knitting, culture, and place.

For today's post on Amy O'Neill Houck's "The Hook and I" click here.

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1 Responses »

  1. Janet, I love your posts and am enjoying the Carlton set especially. This one on Donna's book is especially rich because it gets at the core impulses behind the project's creation. Thanks.

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