Saturday, March 24, 2007

Arctic Lace, a review

Donna Druchunas' Arctic Lace is an intriguing and frustrating book. It chronicles the history of musk ox domestication -- a surprisingly recent event -- and the development of a Native Alaskan lace idiom and qiviut knitting cooperative. This part of the book is fascinating but all too brief, in part because of Druchunas' firm respect for the privacy and intellectual property rights of the knitters who belong to Oomingmak Musk Ox Producers' Co-operative.

The history of the coop reminded me very much of the development of Bohus knitting. Both were a response "from the outside" to economic hardship -- attempts to provide jobs for women who needed a way to make money and care for their families at the same time. Both involved the development of special yarns, designs, and garment patterns. The Oomingmak patterns, unlike the Bohus patterns, are linked with traditional art and clothing patterns. This gives them an angular style unlike other familiar lace knitted in more familiar traditional styles. It's also knitted at a larger gauge than Shetland or Orenburg lace, which gives a different effect.

The first 60 or so pages of the book are given over to the history of the coop and the people who knit for it. Each village that belongs to the coop is profiled; these profiles include clear photos of the patterns produced by its knitters.

This is followed by 20 pages on the biology & natural history of musk oxen, their domestication and the beginnings of the coop. It was surprising to me to learn how recently they were domesticated (20th century) and how few there are in captivity (a few hundred). It does explain the scarcity of the fiber. Much of Oomingmak's supply comes from the hides of animals killed by hunters, but non-native knitters like me are limited to buying from the very small domestic pool.

This is followed by a 10 page discussion of qiviut as a fiber, including comparisons to more readily available fibers. There's even some information on spinning it, though not much.

Next is the Lace Knitting Workshop. This is a nice, thorough introduction to lace knitting and to the charting system developed for the use of the coop. Druchunas has developed three practice swatches, using increasingly finer yarns and more complicated charting. She even tells you which swatch to start with depending on your previous experience knitting lace. The many photo sequences should have anyone knitting lace in no time.

The penultimate section of the book contains patterns and instructions for 11 projects. These are not made from the lace patterns used by Oomingmak Coop, but are Druchunas' own designs. I must admit I was disappointed by this. But she has done what the original designers (themselves non-native) did when creating the Oomingmak patterns -- she started with native clothing and art and developed lace patterns from them. In many cases she shows the original inspiration, and the designs are quite similar in feel to Oomingmak designs.

A determined reader could chart the Oomingmak designs from the photos in the village profiles. Would that be ethical? I think that would depend on your intended use. If you were knitting for yourself or for a gift, I think it would be considered fair use. If you were knitting for sale, I think it would be a clear violation of copyright. (Note that I'm just interested in copyright issues, I have no expertise at all.) I think the sticky question is whether it would be ethical to, say, chart out the Nelson Island Diamond pattern and post it on a blog for free distribution. I don't know about that. Would it harm the coop economically? I will never buy one of their garments -- they are just too expensive -- and I suspect that most readers of knitting blogs wouldn't do so, either. But perhaps the people who now DO buy lace pieces from Oomingmak Coop would be less likely to do so if knitting a copy were all the rage. Or maybe there isn't much overlap between buyers of knitted qiviut and lace-knitting bloggers, and the activity of one group wouldn't affect the behavior of the other. I just don't know.

The last chapter of the book, Designing Your Own Projects, is an ambitious introduction to developing both your own lace motifs and to using them in a garment. Druchunas provides a collection of lace stitches, and a discussion of using them to create a motif. It's an interesting but too brief treatment of a complex topic, though certainly enough to whet someone's appetite. More likely to be useful is the section giving what she calls Pattern Templates: skeletal outlines of shapes (headband, scarf, shawl, wristwarmer, etc.) with basic knitting instructions and hints on choosing an appropriate lace pattern.

I like this book very much, and would recommend it to anyone interested in regional lace traditions. There's enough introductory material here that it could be used by someone who had never knitted lace before. (In fact, she covers casting on and the basic knit & purl stitches so thoroughly that someone who had never knitted before could learn from this book!)

1 comment:

Maia said...

Thank you for the thorough and thoughtful review of this book. I have skimmed through it in the store and wondered if it might give me some insight on spinning the qiviut I have (impulse buy at Stitches). Maybe I need to look elsewhere.