Look closely at Diane Thomson’s knitting and you’ll see that her pairs of mittens and gloves—the Latvian ones, the Norwegian ones, the ones based on African weaving—don’t always perfectly match.
“In the cuff area is where I do a lot of design work,” Thomson says. “So I’ll knit the first one up, get to the second one, and go, ‘What if I did this instead?’” Whatever that new inspiration is, a bit of added color or detail, “I do that.”
“I love to try different things,” she adds.
It shows. Thomson’s knitting is on exhibit through April in Ingebretsen’s classroom and community space. As a knitter she’s prolific, creative, skilled, and above all a free spirit.
“When I’m teaching students to knit, I like to let them know there are no knitting police,” she says. “If you get results that are pleasing to you, then you’ve done it right.”
Thomson teaches at Ingebretsen’s (she has a wristers class coming up May 15 and 22 that includes Latvian braid trim). Her exhibit includes 27 pairs of mittens and gloves, 4 sets of wristers, and 15 hats, just a portion of what she’s knit in the past four or five years. She also spins. She weaves—she’s just finishing a Navajo rug for a class she’s taking at the Textile Center of Minnesota. And, oh yeah, she has a full-time job. But working with yarn is what gives her a chance to stretch and explore.
Her first pair of Latvian mittens, like most of her knitting, comes with a story about what she learned.
“Those are the mittens that took 10 years to do,” Thomson says. Lizbeth Upitis, who wrote Latvian Mittens, had come to the Twin Cities to teach a class. Thomson got home afterward, looked at the book and the yarn she’d bought, and felt completely lost. It all got put away and it stayed put away for a decade, until a weekend getaway on northern Minnesota’s Gunflint Trail five years ago.
Suddenly, “I sat down at my computer, charted out the full pattern, and knit those mittens that weekend,” Thomson says. “It was like my mind was finally at the right point that I could do them, and that just opened up the flood gate.”
What changed? She’d been knitting Norwegian mittens, which made her comfortable with multicolored patterns and charts. But there are big differences between Norwegian mittens and Latvian ones.
“Norwegian mittens are much easier,” Thomson explains. “You’re working on a larger gauge, and you have a definite front pattern, you have a definite back pattern, and you have a gusseted thumb. With the Latvian mittens, the pattern has to go all the way around seamlessly. That’s the hardest part, is getting the pattern balanced so that you don’t have an awkward visual.”
It’s challenging because Latvian patterns give just a fragment of a chart, not a mitten’s worth of chart. It’s up to the knitter to project outward from that and figure out how to apply the pattern over the entire fabric of the mitten. That’s the real hurdle Thomson got over. Her solution was to use plain old Excel spreadsheet software—no specialized charting software—to copy and paste the provided chart until she found the best arrangement of it across her mitten.
She has more pointers if you want to try Latvian mittens. One is not to worry about being perfect, especially the first time out. She tells students who are new to Latvian knitting, “You’re probably going to knit three mittens before you get a pair.”
Rauma Finullgarn from Norway is her “go-to” for Latvian mittens because of the great range of colors. But she’s also used baby yarns, like Dale Baby Ull, and sometimes mixes yarns within a project. “I use whatever I have at hand,” she says. “I’m kind of an economic knitter.” Ingebretsen’s also has kits from Latvia with yarns produced there.
Besides Upitis’s book, she recommends Nancy Bush’s books as good resources for learning ethnic traditions, titles like Folk Socks and Folk Knitting in Estonia. That’s where Thomson’s curiosity might take her next, into Estonian tradition.
She joined a Latvian knitters group on Ravelry a few years ago, and loves the ways technology makes knitting a richer experience. (“You get these conversations that are international . . . it just opens up a whole world.”) Lately, the Latvian group members are talking about “an inlay technique that’s usually done in Estonian knitting, and it’s documented in Nancy Bush’s book . . . . They’re doing it, and it’s like, ‘Oh, I want to learn that.’”
Thomson’s knitting friends already know what she’ll say to them if she decides to try it—the same thing she always says when she shows them something new that she’s working on. “Is it hard?” they’ll ask. “No, it’s a lot of fun!”