Knitting in high places

When he saw I knew what I was talking about as a knitter, it helped me to create a bond.

Irene Waggener is an anthropologist, textile conservator and a knitter. She’s talking to me over Zoom from her home in Yerevan about her book, Keepers of the Sheep, an account of her time learning from the knitters in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco. One of her teachers, Hussein, was an Amazight Tashelhit-speaking sheep farmer. Communication relied on interpreting help from his Moroccan Arabic-speaking neice, Noura, and Irene’s knowledge of knitting. I’m curious about how the teaching-learning process worked in the absence of a common language,

Irene explains that to begin with Hussein was a bit baffled by Irene and her interest in Amazight sock knitting. She says of Hussein – ‘he wondered who is this woman who wants to talk to me about knitting? I don’t have time for this – I have to go and take care of my sheep!

But then I began asking him more detailed questions showing an interest in how he made his stitches. He realised this person values this kind of work and understands how it works.

So what began with scepticism, soon became friendly. ‘In fact‘, she adds, ‘he was excited that someone wanted to learn these techniques.

Hussein was a sheep farmer who had learned to make socks from his father who had in turn learned from his father. They would knit during periods away from home, when they traveled up to the higher pastures to graze their flocks.

Irene writes..

I watched Hussein’s hands carefully as he began to knit his socks from the toe up, a technique that was new to me. Although he held his working yarn in his right hand like me, he knit and purled differently. To knit, he pushed his right needle between the left needle and back leg of the stitch before wrapping the yarn counterclockwise around the working needle. To purl, he pushed the right needle between the left needle and front leg of the stitch before wrapping the yarn clockwise arounf the working needle. This combination of eastern and western knitting techniques resulted in uncrossed stockinette stitches when knitting flat.

Reading Irene’s account of her sock lesson, I’m struck by how her observations are so plainly those of a knitter. It’s not only Hussein that she’s communicating with, through her knowledge of knitting, it’s also us, her readers. Timloukine, the village where Hussein lives in the Aït Boulli valley, is in a particularly remote area of the Central High Atlas. It was only connected by a paved road to the nearest urban centre in 2015. His life and hers – and in turn mine, are marked by vast cultural, economic and other life-defining differences. And yet, reading Irene’s observations of Hussein’s method puts me in mind of our knit night evenings in the shop when I see knitters leaning over each other as they explain their processes and techniques by showing their stitches to one another. ‘We speak that language too!’ I want to say, slightly feeling like she’s just revealed a lost branch of my family tree with undiscovered Moroccan relatives. Irene continues while I make a mental note to find out more about travelling and places to stay in the High Atlas, now that I’ve just discovered I’ve practically got family there.

And then the penny drops – I understand why Irene’s project to document Hussein’s sock knitting method and the knitting techniques of other sheep farmers in Timloukine, has escaped the remote museum-ish tone we sometimes find in records of by-gone crafts. There’s no question that Irene’s project is one of record..

This might pass. People won’t do it anymore and this will become a record of what was done...Hopefully in the future people will continue to study knitting in North Africa and people can use this as a reference for how things have been done.. Culture is ever evolving. It always changes. There’s nothing we could or should do about that necessarily but if we can record how things are in the moment or nearish past that can help us understand artefacts from deeper into the past.

But it’s also about her own development as a knitter amongst knitters. She arrived in Morocco as a pattern-following knitter with all the usual pre-occupations of gauge, row numbered instructions, recommended yarns etc… and found herself tutored by a knitter who opened her eyes to knitting without a gauge swatch.

When I started knitting with Hussein and Muah, it blew my mind. I can just make this to fit my body!‘ she exclaims, ‘ I noticed a lot of things didn’t matter so much in the way that they matter in pattern knitting… so with socks, where the beginning of the round is, really didn’t matter. When Hussein was ready to separate for the heel, he just started!

I love this contrast with the precision-oriented knitting mindset that it’s so easy for us to get stuck in – almost as much as I love the knitting it results in, for the designs that Irene collects, and the patterns she transcribes couldn’t be more inviting.

You can read more about Irene’s work on her website and on Ravelry. But for a story and pattern collection that you’ll treasure forever I recommend her book, Keepers of the Sheep, Knitting in Morocco’s High Atlas and Beyond. For sources of locally produced Moroccan yarns, Irene recommends The Anou Cooperative, a platform which is owned and run by the artisans themselves.

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