Rediscovering Elizabeth Zimmermann

Rediscovering Elizabeth Zimmermann
It’s hard to realize that this century lacks the presence of Elizabeth Zimmermann (1910-1999), one of knitting’s guiding lights. She is remembered for modernizing and transforming the craft, changing it to the relaxing pastime and artistic pursuit that we enjoy so much. Fads move in and out of the knitterverse, but Zimmermann’s ideas and reflections are perennial.

EZ, as her friends knew her, was born in London, but emigrated to the United States in 1937 with her husband Arnold. The family eventually settled in Wisconsin, where Elizabeth began to design sweaters; in 958, Vogue Knitting published one of her designs. The sweater was immensely popular, but EZ was not happy about the magazine’s decision to change the pattern from “in the round” to “knitted flat.” This experience caused her to start her own newsletter, known as Wool Gatherings. A stint on PBS as a knitting instructor followed, as did her own mail-order company, Schoolhouse Press, which remains open to this day.

Elizabeth Zimmermann is remembered for her “unventions”, as she termed them. She looked at knitting as a puzzle, and loved to investigate ways to make it more fun. Unafraid of mathematics, she discovered what is know known as the EPS, or “Elizabeth’s Percentage System,” which is still used by designers today when thinking through the dimensions of a sweater. She also created what she called the “Pi Shawl,” which used the principles of geometry to space out increases in a circular shawl. Perhaps most importantly, she is evoked as a mentor who strove to free all knitters from total reliance on written patterns, pressing for individuality and creativity in the craft.

Today, many of her books are still in print. The Opinionated Knitter is a collection of her early newsletters, covering the period from 1958 to 1968. They are fascinating to read because of what we discover about EZ as a person, but also because of what we learn from her about design. Admittedly, some of the photos appear dated; others present timeless ideas easily adoptable to clothing we make and wear today.

Knitting Around combines genres. It’s a collection of projects, but also a memoir. As such, it’s delightful to read from an historical perspective in addition to the knitting information. For one of EZ’s texts more focused on the craft, Elizabeth Zimmermann’s Knitting Alamanac: Projects for Every Month of the Year lives up to the promise of its name. You may not knit the project exactly as EZ did, but that’s the point – knitting is a craft meant for personalization, for stepping away from the expectation of conformity, for becoming a maker as opposed to a consumer.

I currently have two of EZ’s books on order; I’ll review them in due time. For now, I think it appropriate to re-read the three I’ve mentioned above and to remember the power of the craft to soothe.

Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with Schoolhouse Press or with the Zimmermann family. I purchased my copies of EZ’s books with my own funds.

Zimmermann, Elizabeth. Elizabeth Zimmermann’s Knitters Almanac.” Dover Publications, 1981. ISBN: 0-486-24178-5.

Zimmermann, Elizabeth. Knitting Around. Schoolhouse Press, 1989. ISBN: 0-942018-03-6

Zimmermann, Elizabeth. The Opinionated Knitter: Elizabeth Zimmermann Newsletters 1958-1968. Schoolhouse Press, 2005. ISBN: 0-942018-26-5

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