I've run across the term "living tradition" a number of times as a Morris Dancer, and I'm not sure if the term has any great salience out side of that community, but I think it should. What I should say about Morris dancing, is that it's very old, and if it has anything it has history. Morris also, is incredibly silly, which presents it's practitioners with a quandary: It's hard to be silly if you do everything "by the book." When Morris dancers, or any other folk dance/music enthusiast says "it's a living tradition," it's with great respect for the history of the folk, and a knowledge that traditions change and develop with every passing moment and every generation. I have a Weaver's where Lee Hayes calls this the "folk process." In the same moment, every invocation of a "living tradition" or the "folk process, is most frequently uttered right before aforementioned enthusiast/artist creates an utterly modern fabrication of absurd proportions. I could recount many such examples of this happening in song and dance, but I'll spare you for I fear that these would only be funny for me, and besides this is an essay about knitting.
As I have conceptualized it, the knitting tradition reflects not only the more conventional thoughts about styles, primarily shapes but patterns as well. Knitting in traditional ways, but also invokes a sense play with in these traditional frameworks. For me, it is the sense of freedom that these frameworks produce that is the truly exciting part of knitting in this way, and I hope to begin an exploration of both the frameworks and the sense of play this week.
When I think of traditional knitting, my first thoughts are of the textured knitting traditions of England and Ireland, the Shetland "Fair Isle" style of knitting, and of course the Mitten and sweater knitting that typifies for many Nordic and Scandinavian knitting. These are all certainly examples of traditional knitting, and I think there is a lot to be said for looking at these forms as guidelines for creating new designs. It's worth noting that our notion of traditional knitting is affected by the fact that the knitting traditions are the product of their collection at a very specific moment in history, but I think it's quite reasonable to assume that knitters in the late 20th century were not the first to improvise in their knitting. Thus, it seems more proper to assume that the Fair Isle Jumper, the Aran sweater, and all their traditional counterparts are really as much a product of the late 19th and early 20th century, as they are of the "knitting tradition." I remember reading something once that located the origins "Aran" Sweater to Irish immigrants in New York during the 1920s, even. Does this make Aran sweaters less traditional than, say a style of knitting that is far older. No. Aran sweaters deploy an inventive combination of features that are significantly older. There is a great deal of power in the "traditions" and an amazing quantity of possibilities.
I'm relatively sure that there isn't a great deal of historical precedent for the kinds of designs I'm drawn to creating, but at the same time, nearly all the components are traditional: the shape, the patterns, the technique. And in any case the elements that aren't strictly traditional are often inspired or reminiscent of elements that are traditional. All this by way of saying that, there's lots of room for freedom within the tradition, and that's part of the reason that I'm so drawn to these ways of knitting.
Unfortunately, the sense of play in traditional knitting is pretty hard to teach in any coordinated way, but fortunately, people seem to pick it rather quickly upon being exposed to traditional knitting styles and "patterns." These vestiges of tradition, are indeed what I think most people's first association with a knitting tradition because they are more concrete, and immediately visible. These basic garment shapes are not always the most flattering or taylored, but they are versatile, and I've found that with a little bit of finesse it's quite easy to adapt these styles to most body types. Traditional knitting often still looks a little "folky" but, that is sort of the point. Beyond this, I've had some trouble attempting to articulate the more concrete aspects of traditional knitting, in part because there have been a number of really important books on the subject. I will recommend the books by Beth Brown-Reinsel and Pricillia Gibson-Roberts as they are both good starting places for exploring traditional (particularly sweater) knitting. My general impression of explorations of traditional knit, is that they present both a shape for a garment, and a number of patterns that can be combined in the knitting of the garment. This division seems like a useful one, particularly for the instruction of traditional knitting, because it can allow students the ability to construct their own projects that correspond to their skill level.
Traditional knitting presents us as knitters with scores of possibility, that I find hard to explore properly without getting more in to the specifics of particular designs and forms. At the same time, the mindset of the traditional knitter seems to come easily to many knitters, even though it's harder to teach. Having said all this, the reason I've remained so inthralled by traditional knitting is not just because of the great sense of design possibility in these styles, but also because I find that the approach and forms (shapes, patterns) of this kind of knitting just work, for both my aesthetic and my temperament as a knitter. I hope to explore not just these shapes, and approaches to knitting, but how to convey the sense of "tradition" to the uninitiated knitters. In that sense, both the teaching that I seem to be engaged in and this series itself are part of this exploration.
Knit on in good health and good sprits, and I'll be back in a bit with something hopefully at bit more concrete.