Japanese Lace?

Recently I have finished my Japan Sleeves, a pattern by Joji Locatelli, which uses lace panels to give structured saddle detailing to a dolman sleeve.

My completed Japan Sleeves
Dutch angles, Japanese lace? What next!

This style of lace was dubbed ‘Japanese’ by her and shared similarities with other lace patterns that had caught my eye while pattern browsing.

‘Murron’ by Jennifer Wood of Woodhouse Knits is a design I found via Ravelry which tells of its origins in a Japanese stitch dictionary.  ‘Peking’ by Holli Yeoh (appearing in the always inspiring Twist Collective publication) uses a panel of lace which looks as though it could be the ‘Chinese Lace’ pattern you can find in one of Barbara Walker’s compendiums of knitting stitches and which is catalogued on the Knitting Fool website.  Another pattern, again from the Spring 2013 edition of Twist Collective, ‘Pont Neuf‘, really uses the yarn colour and pattern name to emphasise the flowing forms which are what makes me love these types of lace pattern.

They look so much more organic, often with a balanced asymmetry worked into the designs that seem to open up and offer a delicate complexity rather than repetitions of small static lace motifs.  This branching or flowing tendency is much better suited to mimicking the natural world whether it be winding foliage or rippling water.

‘Imogen’ by Carrie Bostick Hoge in the Madder Anthology 1.

Finally I should also mention the lovely ‘Imogen’ by Carrie Bostick Hoge, which again uses that lace panel focus against a structure of plain stocking stitch background – and uses Quince and Co. yarn! – which is extraordinarily beautiful in its plain simplicity and washed out drift wood colour palette.  Kind of the yarn equivalent of crème fraiche.

Two things occur to me as a result of my ‘Japanese’ lace obsession: firstly what is ‘Japanese’ about this lace and secondly, what is really going on when we design an ‘original’ pattern (or perhaps what am I paying for in this pattern design?).  I’ll chop these topics up in the interests of time and limited attention spans and come back to my thoughts on the anxiety of influence another day.

What is Japanese Lace?

I started grouping these patterns into a new bundle on Ravelry and called it ‘Japanese lace’ following Joji Locatelli’s description.  Searching using this term, however, will not yield anything like the group of patterns I am interested in.  It isn’t a named regional/ethnic style or listed under specific fabric characteristics where the only option is the broad term ‘lace’.  All the same, I have a very definite idea of whether or not a pattern wants to be grouped in this category.

The question of Orientalism rears its head.  In ‘Peking’ my ‘japanese’ lace instead manifests as ‘chinese’, stemming from the title in Barbara Walker no doubt.

Lotus Blossom lace.
Lotus Blossom lace.

Looking through the invaluable Knitting Fool database I learn that Joji Locatelli’s lace panels are using a pattern which appears under the name ‘Lotus Blossom’, which now adds a religious dimension to the serene reverie I slip into when contemplating the growth of these panels as I try to put away my knitting (much to the chagrin of the put upon Boy).  Any information someone can share on the original source of these patterns would be very much appreciated!  But as far as I know these are not lace motifs originating from these countries and their appellations stem from their imitation or resemblance to aspects of Chinese or Japanese art and design.

As far as Japan is concerned it is generally considered that knitting in the open loops on two needles sense came over with the Europeans.  There is a superb series of articles on the history of knitting in Japan by Yoshimi Kihara, who has now moved on from yarn to knit newspaper into paper sculptures which age, mature and decay like the texts they are constructed with.

“It is generally accepted that knitting may have started in Arabia and passed to Europe through Egypt. Similarly, the exact period when today’s style of knitting arrived in Japan is shrouded in uncertainty, even although it must have followed on from contacts with Europeans.” – Yoshimi Kihara at Knit Japan.

Her fascinating account of the spread of knitting as a hobbyist’s pastime through missionary schools and of the market for knitted tabi providing income for the declining Samurai class is well worth your perusal.  This piece, as well as the fine Knitty article by Julie Theaker on the history of knitting, has really opened my eyes to the false histories we have assumed about knitting.  And looking at Coptic socks from the middle ages with Arabic text and protective motifs knitted into their colourwork really adds a further dimension to the phrase – ‘Not your grandmother’s knitting’.

I suppose what we have with the opening of Japan’s borders in the mid nineteenth century is the mutual influence between Japanese and European culture.  A new exposure to the visual arts, and particularly ukiyo-e, led to the Japonaiserie or Japanism in France.  I always think of Van Gogh’s ‘Almond Blossom’ (c.1890), that is pasted across my dead kindle (the boy put his elbow through the screen!).

Sad birds – a giant Boy smashed up our tree 😦

Amy butler -SUNDAYWRAP_03_jpg_mediumWith these ‘oriental’ lace patterns, it’s not so much an appropriation of another culture’s heritage and manipulating its value and techniques, as using the aesthetic which Europeans sincerely respected in Japanese visual art and transposing it into an entirely different – and at this point in history very European medium.  In contrast, we could look at something like the kimono cardigan of ‘Midwest Modern Knits’ (which admittedly appeals to my Japanophile tendancies) which is a bizarre use of Kimono styling in a garment that in its yarn, weight, movement and colouring is very un-Japanese yet appropriates the kimono to convey a demure, mute beauty which trades in assumptions about oriental sexuality.  And come to think of it, despite the flowery artisan backdrops of the photo-shoot, the bulky fit of this wrapped aran-weight cardi looks much more like the gi worn in karate – a quite different set of oriental associations.

It is also the case that the introduction of hand knitting culture to Japan had a powerful influence on European knitting culture.  The charting of knitting patterns in English language knitting publications owes much to this meeting of worlds.  Yoshimi Kihara includes a section on the legacy of Izo Matukawa who worked at one of the missionary schools in Osaka and is credited with the innovation in lace charting. The infuriatingly linear conventions in UK pattern publications (which I have ranted about previously) can be put to shame in contrast with the far more sensible array of charting methods attached to other knitting traditions.  (See this fantastic post on international lace charting conventions).

So, shifting away from japonaserie to think about the characteristic structure of this group of lace patterns, poking around t’internet I find that self-appointed lace guru Dona Druchunas has written several insightful blog posts (and several books to boot) on lace knitting.  And on knitted lace.  As she informs us, aside from regional traditions in lace knitting there are basically two types: lace knitting – where wrong side rows are knitted or purled plain; and knitted lace – where decreases and yarn over increases can appear on both sides of the work.  As I learned when choosing to attempt ‘Juneberry‘ on my first foray into lace shawl knitting, knitted lace is the more challenging of the two!  And all of these patterns are of this second category.

My first lace shawl project: Juneberry knitted up in the unphotographable bark Troon Tweed. Perhaps not showing the pattern off at its best.
My first lace shawl project: Juneberry knitted up in the unphotographable bark Troon Tweed. Perhaps not showing the pattern off to its best.

So I wonder if this structural difference between lace knitting and knitted lace is responsible for what I was seeing as a difference in style – between the (slightly frumpy?) all over diamond and leaf based lace patterns I was familiar with and the organically flowing patterns I was seeing in these ‘Japanese’ lace panel patterns.  Increasing and decreasing on both sides of the work allows for two rates of change in diagonal lines: this enables variety in the curves at the edges of shapes. And the sharper turns possible give delicate points or flourishes to the edges of leaves and scrolls.  These structural qualities make for patterns that more closely render features of the natural world.

Twisting branches in the Japanese garden in Aberdeen's Duthie Park.
Twisting branches in the Japanese garden in Aberdeen’s Duthie Park.

The natural world brings me back to Japan.  Japanese art and craft has an affinity for natural structures and the beauty of broken or imperfect structures (I’m thinking wabi sabi).  This may explain the impulse to use the ‘japanese’ descriptor for these patterns which don’t seem to have a specific connection to the Japanese knitting tradition.

And perhaps with the importance I accord to charts, particularly when attempting knitted lace (patterned on both sides) without losing one’s place, it seems appropriate to offer over these patterns to the Japanese and particularly to the legacy of Izo Matukawa.

My Scottish Japanese garden, complete with chimney stacks and litter bins.

He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.

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