This July, my husband and I celebrate our seventh wedding anniversary. Each year on our anniversary, we’ll go back and flip through our wedding day photos and surf through our rough, unedited video footage of the day. Everyone’s wedding day is precious, with tiny little details that only the bride and groom could possibly know or remember. In fact, we just returned home from a week-long destination wedding in Mexico with some of our closest friends. The bride and groom wanted the wedding to be small and intimate, minimal and meaningful, and they expressed the uniqueness of their relationship through the unusual Mayan cenote setting, delicate neutral colour choices, and family-friendly wedding activities. Every wedding has a special something that expresses that character of the bride or groom, or both.
In the past twelve or so years, we’ve dyed plenty of custom hand-dyed yarns specifically created to be knitted into shawls for weddings. From mothers knitting beautiful wedding shawls for their daughters, or future mother-in-laws wanting to knit something for their future daughter-in-laws, or even brides who design and knit an entire collection of shawls for their wedding parties, hand-dyed colour and hand-knit shawls go hand-in-hand in helping to create that unique quality of a wedding. When I think about it, most of the custom hand-dyed colours we dye for individuals has gone towards wedding projects.
If I ponder the correlation between the two, I think it’s largely because of three reasons:
- knitting is an expression of love
- knitting a fine lace wedding shawl is a technical achievement that historically (in some cultures) expressed a woman’s proficiency and skill with handspinning and knitting
- knitting a wedding shawl is a knitter’s way of expressing her identity to her closest and most important circle of family and friends
Knitting lace with fine, gossamer thread can take months of labour. Mistakes can be disastrous, requiring the knitter to completely restart a project, especially if stitches were accidentally dropped. Fixing lace mistakes can be a challenge! But embarking upon a great wedding shawl project, because of the significant time and effort required, is an act of sacrifice and love. Somewhere in the past many months, I read a passage from the Yarn Harlot’s blog about how there is no better way to transmit love than through something knitted and that idea has been stuck in my head ever since.
Many cultures, including the Orenburg area of Russia as well as the Shetland Isles have a tradition of “wedding ring shawls” which are handspun, hand knit shawls so fine that they can be passed through a wedding ring. In Shetland, the yarn would have been spun from Shetland sheep wool. And in Orenburg, the shawls would be made from a blend of silk and very fine goat down (similar to cashmere). Spinning and knitting such a masterpiece of a wedding shawl would be a major achievement, with the ultimate goal for the wedding shawl to be so delicate that it could be passed through a wedding ring. A woman who could spin beautiful, consistent, and cobweb- weight yarns and who could also knit them into a intricate lace shawl would surely be a woman with a strong, even, and patient character.
All the aspects of being able to create my own wedding shawl from scratch were intriguing to me. It led me down the path of wanting to learn how to spin delicate and fine lace weight yarns. At first, I was drawn towards taking a workshop from Margaret Stove, a spinner and knitter from New Zealand who spun, designed, and knit the shawl that was given to Prince William in 1982. This shawl took 394 hours to design, spin, and knit! Margaret Stove is the spinning community’s guru when it comes to ultra fine merino wool and spinning fine yarns. From Margaret, I learned to wash individual locks of fine merino wool on a bar of soap to remove the grease before gingerly flicking the tips open to spin them into frog hair.
As it so happened, in that same workshop, I watched another spinning student use a supported spindle to spin a yarn and was instantly mesmerized. This led me down another road towards learning how to use a Russian supported spindle to create those same yarns used in Orenburg shawls.
And finally, the desire to create my own wedding shawl led me to knitwear designer, Sharon Miller, who wrote Heirloom Knitting, a huge book about knitted lace, lace knitting, and the difference between the two.
Over the years, I admired knitters in our community who produced the most astonishing wedding shawls. Huge, multi-skein endeavours that were possibly 1,400 or 1,500 yards or more of gossamer thread. I was impressed, inspired, but also somewhat intimidated.
When I finally did become engaged and eager to knit my wedding shawl, I unfortunately didn’t have 394 hours of designing, spinning, and knitting time at my disposal. So I did what I do best. I dyed the yarn for my wedding shawl and knit a beautiful pattern that had long been in my knitting queue — the Swallowtail Shawl by Evelyn A. Clark. Of course, instead of working the nupps in the Estonian lace border, I substituted with fuchsia iridescent Swarovski crystal beads. The colour I dyed was about halfway between our Orchid and Raspberry colourways. And after swatching with about four or five different yarns including pure silk, pure cashmere, and some yak blends, the yarn I finally settled on was our Merino Silk Lace, a lovely 50/50 blend of fine merino wool and shiny cultivated silk. With 765 yards in a skein, I needed less than one skein for my entire shawl.
This fuchsia wedding shawl was the way that I expressed my love for my future husband and our marriage — that I would dedicate time and effort to the project. It was also the way that I communicated how I could be patient, withstand trials, experiment repeatedly until we found the right solution. Looking back, I remember how I had to be resilient in the pursuit of this goal and how I sometimes struggled but ultimately prevailed… the same characteristics and requirements to enjoy a happy married life, I believe. And finally, this wedding shawl in all it’s hot pinkness and sparkly bits was a visual expression of me — my favourite colour and bit of subtle glitter.
Summer time is wedding time and I wonder if any of you are attending weddings or celebrating your own weddings. Has knitting been a part of your celebration at all? Are you knitting your own wedding shawl and if so, why are you doing it? What pattern are you knitting or are you designing your own? I’d love to hear about your experience with lace knitted wedding shawls and if it intrigues or inspires you!