A chat with Meg Swansen

I had the great honor and pleasure of meeting Meg Swansen several years ago when she was in Italy for a series of workshops and book signings. Prior to her arrival Meg had asked me to interpret for her while she was in Italy. Since then we occasionally write to each other or exchange comments on Facebook. A couple of weeks ago, I asked her if I could do an informal interview with her. She graciously accepted. Below is that interview.

Donna
The Italian knitting community is just discovering Elizabeth Zimmermann. Alice Twain (Silvia Elisa Costa) is a fan of EZ and has been spreading the “word” for several years and I have tried to do my part as well by opening the Italian EZ page on facebook a few years back. But the news is that since December of 2015 the Cultural Association “Filo da Torcere” which I founded together with my good friend Adriana Monoscalco (an expert in knitting lace and a great fan of EZ) is quickly becoming a point of reference in Italy for the Schoolhouse Press, its books and patterns.

While Elizabeth Zimmermann has fascinated me since I lived in Princeton back in the seventies, I would also like to “introduce” the Italian knitting community to Meg Swansen – who she is, where she comes from, what she does.

Meg Swansen
Your efforts to make my mother’s knitting designs and techniques more familiar to Italian knitters is greatly appreciated. I am happy to answer your questions.

Donna
so, here goes!

One of the things I like most about the Knitting Workshop videos is the fact that all of the family seemed to be involved! You and your husband (I imagine) pipe in from the wings to remind EZ of this or that. Your mom asks you questions and we hear your voices but never or rarely see your faces. Then with the Knitting Glossary dvd we get to see you and your “Ma” – as you call her – sitting side by side and reminiscing about her life.  I can see that there was a “feeling” between the two of you that is hard to put into words but that is very tangible. And, as a daughter of a strong woman who has influenced the lives of many people who are not family and who I do not know personally, the first question that comes to mind is: what was it like sharing your mother and so many aspects of your family life with so many people around the world? Another note on that “interview” of your mother, the camera keeps going to the “Gaffer” – your father – a silent presence in the background, a sort of anchor in the storm of life. I love that way of including him in the interview, whose idea was that? What did he think of your “Ma’s” woolly notions and adventures?

Perhaps the quintessential question is: how did all of this impact on you as a young girl, a teen, a young woman starting out in her own right as a designer and, of course, as the “keeper” of the EZ tradition?

Meg
That is many questions at once! I remember it all quite vividly…the excitement over her first appearance in Woman’s Day magazine in the mid 1950s (a double-page spread, no less). The discovery of the 5-lb bundle of dusty wool under the counter at the Five & Dime in Grand Marais, MN. The hesitant beginning of Newsletter #1 in 1958. We were all proud and happy that EZ’s voice was gaining an audience…she had so much unique knowledge to impart. 

With no Facebook, Twitter or social media during EZ’s knitting career, the feedback from her admirers was less immediate and somewhat insulated from our daily life. Elizabeth’s focus on designing and writing, plus the adoration of her fans seemed more of an enhancement to our family; we never felt we were losing a part of her to that world.

My husband, Chris, edited the original Knitting Glossary video, and all the choices about Gaffer’s appearance were his. (By the way, my recent Blog #5 features background information about The Gaffer as a young man.)  

Later, our son Cully filmed and edited 30+ ‘new’  techniques that we added to The Glossary when we shifted it from video to DVD, and now Cully has made The Glossary easily available by streaming it from our website.

As a young girl and a teen, I was proud to wear a steady succession of beautifully handknitted sweaters to school. I had learned to knit when I was about 5…but why bother?

I became re-interested in knitting in high-school, and made full use of my mother’s teachings to become a knitter who has great difficulty following written instructions !

Donna
You have chosen to make knitting a career and perhaps even your philosophy for living. Did knitting immediately cast its spell on you? or did it sort of creep up on you? I remember reading somewhere that a trip you took to Iceland in the early sixties was a sort of watershed knitting moment for you and marked the introduction of Icelandic Unspun to the knitting scene (thank you!): I would love for you to take me on a quick trip through the years from that moment to the knitter you have become today!

Meg
Even though I knew how to knit – you are correct – the spell was cast when I found Unspun Icelandic wool during a trip to Reykjavik. Icelandic sheep were unique unto Iceland and, at that time, they were not permitted off the island! No export was ever granted, as Icelanders realized the singular worth of the breed. That has now changed, and flocks of Icelandic sheep are relatively common in Canada and North America. 

The double-coated fleece enables you to knit the wool once it has been carded and drawn-out into a single-strand roving (a preliminary stage to being spun). Because it is unspun, the fibers (up to 18″ long) are free to produce a halo on the surface of the knitted fabric – which gives it a wonderful resilience and loft. Garments knit from the Unspun feel light as a feather, yet are remarkably snug and cozy. 

From a knitting point of view, the versatility of the wool is amazing. With a single-strand you can knit @ 7 sts to 1″ for a sweater, hat, and mittens, or @ 2.5 sts to1″ for lace. Work with 2, 3 or even 4 strands together for sweaters, jackets and blankets. I sent some Unspun Icelandic wool home to my mother, and she began to import it for sale through her mail-order business, Elizabeth Zimmermann, Ltd. After Chris and I married, I began to sell my designs to magazines and yarn companies, and eventually opened a wool shop in New Hope, PA which featured Unspun Icelandic wool. Even today – 50 years later – it remains one of my favorite wool with which to knit.

Donna
A few personal reflections: How much of your mother do you see in yourself? How much of yourself do you see in your son, Cully – who (if I may be so bold) seems to be to you what you were to EZ? I know your husband was also very involved in the Schoolhouse Press, especially behind the scenes and behind the camera! Tell me a bit about “camera guy” and his influence on your professional life.

Meg
Do you have this proverb in Italian: “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”. That describes me and my mother. But Cully-to-me is different. Being a Physics major in college, he was trained to be much more analytical and exact – more like his father, who was pre-med all through college. 

It was Chris’s idea to film Elizabeth through 12 episodes of Knitting Workshop, and laboriously to type up and publish the Knitting Workshop book to accompany the video. He also came up with our name, Schoolhouse Press – since we and my parents each lived in old one-room schoolhouses. Later, Chris originated the idea of travelling to a different part of the country at least once a year, to film a new instructional knitting video. Once we returned home, Chris would edit the footage, and most importantly, he wrote, performed and recorded original music to accompany our Knitting Vacations Video series; we produced a dozen of them before Chris died. Actually, he was in the middle of editing the Fair Isle Vest video… Cully finished the edit, and found Chris’s musical arrangements for this final video…the music is beautiful and quite heartbreaking.

Although Chris did not physically knit, he had a total grasp of all necessary knitting techniques and of garment construction; he played an instrumental part in all my designs, plus my articles for Vogue Knitting.

Donna
I looked up some information on how to do a memorable interview.. and these are a few questions I found here, there and everywhere:

What is the best part of what you do?

Meg
Although you may find me sitting on my sofa, with my feet up, drinking a cup of coffee, and knitting… I am At Work

Of course, I love to be part of producing new material for knitters – we just published our 40th book: The Complete Surprise, Knitting Elizabeth Zimmermann’s Surprise Jacket by Cully Swansen. It is written for new knitters (a beginner’s scarf includes all the techniques needed for a BSJ), as well as experienced knitters, and there are a number of fresh surprises including a dress, bolero, and a sweet little surprise snuggle suit for infants. Most important is Cully’s formula which permits you to knit a custom sized Surprise Jacket at ANY size and with ANY gauge.

Donna
What is your vision for Schoolhouse Press five years from today?

Meg
That is a question for Cully and his wife Michelle Wolfe. The knitting business has become very competitive and they each are full of ideas to keep Schoolhouse Press viable. Michelle spear-headed a total renovation of our website, which launched about a year ago, and she is the Publishing & Projects Co-ordinator at Schoolhouse Press – as well as being an English Professor at the University of Wisconsin!

Donna
Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you would like tell my readers?

Meg
Knit what you like – with the materials you like. And don’t hesitate to alter ‘instructions’ to make your garment unique and pleasing to you.

Donna
I saved the best for last… tell us something that no one knows about you!

Meg
My sister Lloie and I watched our mother bake bread on a weekly basis for decades. Ever since Chris and I married in 1964, I ground wheat berries (hard, red spring wheat) and baked our bread. Decades later, at Lloie’s request, I taught (reminded) her how to bake bread for her Kitchen Table restaurant. She calls it MegBread, and bakes 16 loaves every morning…all kneaded by hand.

Donna
Thank you Meg, for taking the time for this little chat across the miles and for sharing a bit about you and your life with me!

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