© Helga Isager
The story behind the Isager Yarn company is, like the yarns themselves, a study in contrasts – more particularly the often uneasy tension between creative self-expression and technical expertise. Marianne Isager and her coauthors beautifully capture this story in the book ÅLJ: Åse Lund Jensen – a Danish knitwear designer, which is part homage to Jensen, a notable knitwear designer and founder of the company that would become Isager Yarns, and part reflection on the politics and meaning of craftsmanship. The essays on feminist knitting and knitting as activism, including a mention of the ”pussy hat” pattern from January 2017 give the book tremendous value for the conscientious knitter, beyond the yarn story and knitting patterns.
© Isager Yarns
As with Sunday Knits, the Isager yarns sprung from the lack of quality yarns in pleasing colors. In the early 1970s, Åse Lund Jensen was applying for a membership in the Den Permanente – a private craft sales cooperative founded in 1931, which displayed and marketed the work of independent crafters who were not able to run showrooms of their own – and her work was turned down due to the bright, harsh colors of the knitting yarn available in Denmark at the time. Jensen reached out to a woollen mill in Skive, on the Jutland peninsula, and worked with them to develop three durable, yet lightweight yarns: Spinni, ALJ (a 3-ply DK weight yarn), and Hebridia (a thicker 4-ply yarn). As the mill‘s color palette was still not to her liking, Jensen partnered with a friend to develop a color palette inspired by plant dyes, ranging through cooler greys and indigo blues to greens and earthen browns. In order to create more possibilities for the knitted fabric, Jensen developed three tones for each individual color – light, medium, and dark – ensuring that no matter which colors the knitter picked, the results would look as good as if the pattern had been designed for them.
© Marianne Isager
Marianne Isager was a student at the School for Decorative Arts in Copenhagen when she met Jensen, who gave a seminar in knitting in 1974. Isager at the time had been focussing on weaving and needlework, but she found the mathematical challenges of pattern design which Jensen presented during the seminar irresistible, and a welcome change from the laissez-faire “hen knitting” approach to the craft at the time. The ethos of “hen knitting” focused on knitting as an act of self-expression, with nothing planned out in advance, and all numbers and shaping left to intuition: “If the sweater was too big — give it to your boyfriend, or to a child if it turned out too small.” Jensen, on the other hand, was adamant about swatching, like her contemporary Elizabeth Zimmermann in the US; Jenson wanted to “raise the level” of Danish handcrafts and teach the importance of the technical knowledge that gives knitters the best chance of creating the desired result – whether that result is a perfect circle with intarsia feminist symbols, or a perfectly tailored sweater.
© Åse Lund Jensen
Isager and Jensen remained in touch after the seminar, the older designer mentoring the student in knitwear design and business skills, while Isager became increasingly involved in the yarn company. In February 1977, Åse Lund Jensen learned she had developed lung cancer, and began to transfer the business to Marianne Isager; by the end of March, Jensen had died at the age of 57. Isager juggled family – including her daughter Helga – her schoolwork, and the management of the yarn company for two more years. In 1979, Isager graduated from her course and focussed her energy full time on the company, now called Isager Yarns.
© Marianne Isager
In addition to telling the story of Isager yarns through essays and letters, The ÅLJ Jubilee Collection includes a range of patterns for garments, accessories, and housewares by Åse Lund Jensen, Marianne Isager, Helga Isager, and Annette Danielson. We particularly like the bold visual effect of the Goose Eye pullover, a joint effort of Jensen and Marianne Isager. These patterns feature the meticulous attention to technical expertise that Jensen championed and, as such, can be a source of confusion for US knitters who happen to be less familiar with the norms of European pattern writing. As in Helga Isager’s Amimono collections – including The Artisan, Room 606, and The Map Collection – patterns are graded to a limited number of sizes, usually 3, but occasionally 4. The patterns assume familiarity with basic garment construction, as well as the ability to rework or reverse pattern elements (such as shaping) without wordy explanations. Knitters who have not worked with Isager patterns before are advised to read through the pattern thoroughly before beginning – and go to their LYS (we’d love to see you!) to ask for clarification on points they are not confident about. It might also be prudent to begin with some of the housewares, such as the entrelec cushion cover, just to become familiar with how an Isager pattern works.
We particularly loved the story of how Marianne Isager fell almost accidentally into the role of knitwear designer and yarn company owner, and it got us thinking about our own knitting stories. What drew you into knitting? What’s your knitting story?