I started knitting when I was 4 or 5. My mother knitted; her mother knitted and they taught me how to do it. I knitted quite a lot during my school time to get away from my homework. When I got older I more or less forgot about it. I went to the Royal Academy of Art in the Hague, NL. I did a study of fashion and textile design which included a lot of history of costume and lace. We were supposed to know art history too to be able to make a timeline of what was going on with costumes or lace to know exactly when a painting was made. I only knitted once during those 5 years.
When I finished my studies I did a lot of archeological work in the UK, I like to search and find. I couldn’t find a teaching job back in the NL, but I found this Irish designer who had a workshop in Amsterdam. She was a weaver who used typical Irish colour combinations that I find very interesting. She asked me to do all the design work for the knitwear based on the colours and shapes of her designs. I worked there for 7 or 8 years, starting with hand knitting. She did a lot of lace work on knitting machines so she designed a whole collection of lace knitted dresses, jackets and coats. So she asked me to buy a machine and learn so that I could do other colours. I found that I loved machine knitting. So I started to make a collection of my own. At that moment the whole economy went down the drain in a couple of months. No tourists came and she had a lot of trouble with her boutique, everyone stayed away. Even my teaching contract went away. So we went over to Germany and in Dusseldorf where at that time there was a lot of knitting in collections of German high fashion designers. So I did hand and machine knitting for them on demand.
I met a designer who did hat wear design and he wanted to start a collection of knitted caps and he asked for my help. So I started shaping in 3 dimensions for your head. It’s quite different to knitting a sweater and it was really fascinating. He then had to go back to Israel and work in his family’s business, so I decided to make my own headwear collection. There was a lot of international interest in buying my collection. Then the German economy changed so I went to Munich and that’s where I started doing a lot of work for Opera, TV, theatre and movies. The whole choir of the Czech opera had knitted spencers (sleeveless vest) and stockings; I made them for all 80 members with all kinds of things knitted in. Nobody else in Germany is knitting to a fitting schedule, though there are plenty of knitting hobbyists, so I had to do it all. I worked for Joseph Vilsmaier, in movies, making copies of clothing worn during an expedition in 1970 to Nanga Parbat. I had to do all the knitwear making exact copies of what they wore. The screen was so wide (30m) that the clothing looked really different blown up. So I had to invent a whole new way to sew those caps and hats so it looked like the original. I used a gauge 12, so it was very fine knitted stitches, but even those when blown up show all kinds of things that you don’t see with your eyes. At the same time, I still had my own knitted headwear collection and I was also working with a designer in Paris. That was a huge production that I had to do as well as those for my own customers. Then at the end of that I almost had a burn out. So I decided I had to do something else. It was too much.
Previously I have never said of myself that I’m a knitter. I have always said that I’m a designer of knitwear. Now as a knitting historian I say I’m a knitter and people are not interested any longer, and that’s fine. If I tell them what I’m doing they don’t understand it at all. People think they know what you do when you say you’re a knitter, but there’s so many aspects of being a knitter either professionally or as a hobby. People that knit a lot, always live to a long age as knitting is a cardio vascular exercise. Your heart and blood system benefit from knitting and so you live to a long age and as your brain is always exercised when knitting it’s without getting Alzheimers. I said this in an interivew with a local radio station and they got a lot of phone calls from listeners.
In Munich there is a place where Hitler used to be with his girlfriend Eva Braun. From 1943 she took to wearing a German traditional knitted jacket and it became a Nazi symbol. It’s a short jacket, that’s shaped very nicely. It’s knitted from the bottom and the sleeves are knitted all in one, finishing at the neck. There is a museum in Berlin, the Deutsches Historisches Museum who have a photograph of the jacket with a Nazi symbol on the sleeve. That was exactly what I needed for my research. So I asked the museum if I could link to it from my website. They had 2 conferences with the whole staff to determine if I was allowed to link to it, as there are still many neo Nazis. The museum were fighting to keep the photograph visible on their site as part of our history. I got permission, but they cautioned me that they had had pressure for 2 years to remove it. I asked some friends to visit my site and check it once I made the link live. Just 2 hours after I published the link on my site, a friend from Australia checked and my site was already blocked. I’ve since removed it. That style of knitted jacket is still banned in Germany as being a Nazi symbol. In 2010 I visited a shop who had that style in the window in a different colour, in a beautiful red wine colour rather than the original black. The sales lady told me that it was the first season that they’d been able to put the jacket in the window without American tourists calling the police saying that they were selling a Nazi symbol. I still haven’t finished the research as there is too much political and historical pressure on me, when all I want to show is the story of the jacket that is German traditional costume. The jacket cannot help what happened to it.
Friends of mine suggested to me I concentrate on historical research into NL knitting. That led me to writing my fifth book (Dutch Knits). I still have my headwear collection, with new designs. But I put the whole collection onto a low level. My main work is my historical research into knitting. Now everything I did during my school time at the academy like history of art and costume is coming together where I can put my knitting and my art history and my fashion history together. I’m doing a lot of research into historical knitted items that are found in archeological excavations. I’ve written a booklet (Het geheim van het Groningse gebreide kousje uit 1540) about a knitted baby stocking that is 28cm in length, for a baby that is about 12-16 months and a knitted mitten. Both in the same material, wool. The stocking is knitted with a Middle Eastern casting on, which means from the toe to the top rather than the other way around. I could date both these items from 1540 based on the way that they are knitted. I did a lot of reconstruction for the institutions. There is huge interest in people doing historical knitting and I’m doing a lot of lectures about this work. The media in Amsterdam were fascinated by the story and couldn’t believe that it was possible, that is something that I find really amusing.
As a result of that I’m now researching a knitted silk stocking found in a shipwreck off the coast of the NL from 1735. The curator thought that the stocking was of the same age, but it’s not. The stocking is about 100 years earlier than that. I believe that the stocking was a treasure belonging to one of the passengers. It’s similar to those in paintings by Rembrandt. I wrote a whole history of the stocking explaining why it is from that time and what you can see and how it was done. On the top of the clock (the part between the knees and toes, a triangle above the ankle on each side) there is a tulip pattern knitted which is really interesting and there was no mention of this motif anywhere or how it was made. I’ve just made a knitted 17th century silk stocking tour for the Rijksmuseum. The tour lasts about 45 – 60 minutes, every single painting shows a bit of the story of the knitted stocking. It ends with a few pictures by Rembrandt of a similar stocking to that which was found the ship. The tour will be finished in the next few months and I’m anticipating a lot of interest.
Constance Willems is a designer, artistic researcher & writer, storytelling with a focus on knitting. Her books are available from her website or many other platforms in both Dutch and English; or you can follow her research as an art/knit historian on Instagram or Facebook. Alternatively you can listen to her talk about the secret of the Groningen little knitted stocking.