Year of Mittens

A Brief History of the Bohus Stickning Cooperative

The Swedish workshop founded by Emma Jacobsson with humble beginnings as the Bohuslän Domestic Industry became the Bohus Stickning cooperative in 1939. Best known for its beautiful hand knitted items known for their attention to detail, innovative design and color, and exacting standards of craftsmanship, the cooperative was active through 1969 and continues to be hugely influential to this day.

Emma, wife of the Governor of the Bohuslan region of Sweden, founded the cooperative to aid rural women whose families were suffering during the depression. Emma and a group of women from the Social Democrat Women’s Club began by working on various sewing and craft projects, and eventually settled on knitting. After a few successful seasons creating sturdy work gloves and socks, they realized they could command a higher price for their wares if they were embellished. The earliest embellished designs were simple embroidered knits designed by Vera Bjurström.

Once the women of Bohus Stickning realized the popularity of their embroidered knits, they began expanding their repertoire. Using her fine-arts background, Emma began painstakingly sketching and swatching simple stranded colorwork designs. The first designs Emma developed were simple, well-executed stranded colorwork with modern design sense and appeal. French paintings, Victorian decorative arts, Peruvian weavings, and Chinese embroideries all influenced the Bohus Stickning designs. As more designers joined the cooperative, the more inventive the designs became, until they ultimately landed upon the quintessential Bohus Sticking trademark: the purl colorwork stitches.

The Bohus Stickning organization was run like a well-oiled machine. Emma’s designs were knitted into swatches, charted, and then transported to the rural knitters of the region, who worked both alone and in groups. Each group had a representative who oversaw all of the knitters, taught workshops, scheduled projects, and managed the delivery of yarn packets to the knitters and of finished sweaters back to Bohus Stickning, headquartered at the governor’s residence for many years. Members would come and go, and it was up to the representative to train new members and ensure a quality product.

Traditional Bohus patterns utilized a fine weight angora and wool blend to create a gorgeous halo and tonal gradations of color. The addition of purl stitches and the sometimes 3rd – or 4th or 5th – color per row opened up limitless design possibilities for the designer. By the 1950s the garments created by Bohus Sticking were available in fine department stores in Europe, and in the US exclusively at Neiman Marcus. Unlike much of the colorwork we know and love for its homey, folksy roots, Bohus knitting is a truly couture product created for profit and according to the highest fashion trends.

Emma closed Bohus Stickning in 1969 when she was eighty-four. Throughout the 1960s, the number of orders for garments had declined. Many factors beyond Emma’s control, including the plagiarism of her designs by companies who could use mass-production methods, the introduction and increasing availability of easy-care fibers such as Orlon, and changing fashion trends all played a role in the closing. Her integrity, though it ultimately helped toll the death knell of Bohus Stickning, is admirable.

Once you have the basics of stranded colorwork knitting down, the extra techniques required for Bohus knitting are deceptively simple. There are just a few things to keep in mind:

• After purling a stitch, make sure to carry the yarn to the back of the work before knitting the next stitch.

• When utilizing more than 2 colors per round, it is still imperative to assign “placement” of the yarns as they are carried across the back of the work. Instead of just a yarn carried across the back of the work (floats) being on the “top” and “bottom”, you will also have a yarn in the middle. Make sure you maintain the placement of these yarns throughout the round. This will make more sense in the doing if it doesn’t make a lot of sense right now. One way to be sure you are maintaining the proper placement of the strands is to check that your balls of yarn are not tangling. If they tangle, you are switching up your placement, which will negatively affect your tension.

• As in Fair Isle, carry the yarns that you are not using up the side of the work – there is no need to cut and weave in additional ends. You can always “tack” a longer float up the side if need be. Only cut a color off if it will not be used for more than 1-2 vertical inch(es) of knitting.

Two great resources to look into if you would like more information on Bohus Knitting are the book Poems of Color by Wendy Keele, and the website Angora Garnet, which has kits and a bounty of gorgeous images from the Bohus collection.

Save for the image of Emma Jacobsson, which is from Poems of Color by Wendy Keele courtesy of Ingrid Mesterton, all images in the post are from the digital archives of the Bohusläns Museum.

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