Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Vintage Bohus

I spent last Sunday in Susanna Hansson’s Bohus Stickning class at Stitches West. What a great day! Susanna tells the Bohus story, with plenty of slides, shows off her collection of vintage Bohus garments, and gets you started on a pair of Blue Shimmer cuffs. For me, the highlight was the opportunity to see and handle the vintage garments from Susanna’s collection. Here are some photos – click to see closeups. From the 1940s, two designs by Anna-Lisa Mannheimer Lunn:

 Blue-Eskimo-hat Blue Eskimo hat RedEdge1
Red Edge cardigan
See the unexpected touch of pink in the Blue Eskimo hat? That photo also shows the tiny gauge – look at the garter-stitch brim. These 40s designs have less of a modern following than the later ones, but I love the retro look of them. Rumor has it that a kit and pattern for The Red Edge is coming soon from Solveig Gustafsson. I’d wear that sweater often.

From the 1950s, three designs by Annika Malmström-Bladini (all from 1957):

 winter-haze-tam3 Winter Haze (Vinterdis) tam Lemon2Lemon cardigan 

Tobak (Tobacco) was a cowl-neck pullover with a plain body and color patterning on the neck and cuffs only.  And Lemon – that eye-popping chartreuse body color is quite true, on my monitor at least.

From the 1960s, designs of Kerstin Olsson:
Green-Wood-2 The Green Wood (1960) WinterHaze-tamMyrten Grön tam (1964)
New-Azalea-3 The New Azalea (Red Egg) (1963) Mosaik4 Mosaik jacket (1967)

And one last 1960s design, Karin Ivarsson’s Large Lace Collar tam from 1960:

The Bohus story is told in detail in Wendy Keele’s excellent book Poems of Color. (The book was recently out of print for a short period; it’s likely to go out of print again soon, possibly for good.) Briefly, it goes like this: in 1937, a group of women, wives of unemployed stone cutters in the Bohus province of Sweden, approached the provincial governor’s wife for help devising a home-based industry that would allow them to help support their families. The governor’s wife was Emma Jacobsson, a highly educated Austrian Jew who had grown up in Vienna and immigrated to Sweden when she married. She took on the project, and after a few false starts, settled on the production of handknit garments – sweaters, hats, mittens and gloves.

Bohus Stickning was born in 1939 and lasted until its closure in 1969. Emma Jacobsson herself was the first designer; just five others were hired over the entire 30 years. Hundreds of knitters worked for Bohus Stickning over the years. They were highly trained and well paid, receiving about 30% of the retail price; they were expected to produce perfectly-knitted garments, but were allowed up to 3 months to finish a sweater.

These were couture garments with a conscious fashion aesthetic. They were marketed as luxury goods; the sweaters sold for around $300 US in the 1950s in stores like Neiman Marcus. Ingrid Bergman and Grace Kelly were among the celebrities who owned Bohus sweaters. Emma Jacobsson fiercely defended the integrity of the brand through strict quality control (of  the wool, the spinning, the dyeing, and the knitting) and marketing techniques (high pricing, careful choice of sales outlets).

For more on Bohus Stickning, read Poems of Color. If you ever get a chance, take Susanna’s class – there’s nothing like seeing the garments in person, and being able to examine the construction methods. Here’s a link to an online article based on one of Susanna’s lectures – it appeared in Knitch magazine. Unfortunately Radiant Knits: An Enchanting Obsession,  the catalog for the 2009 Bohus exhibit at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis, seems to be no longer available. [Edited to add: You can get it from Saga Hill Designs, the website of Wendy J. Johnson, who photographed the Bohus garments for the catalog. Thanks to Ellen for the tip.] That exhibit featured Susanna Hansson’s collection. There’s also a documentary film by Kjell Andersson, made for Swedish Television in 1999. The film is available from Schoolhouse Pressin fact you can order it together with Poems of Color at a 20% discount. There’s also a Flickr pool, with photos of some vintage sweaters I’ve seen nowhere else like this one and this one. Of course, there is a Ravelry group too, moderated by my friend ermabom aka knitsarina.

*Edited to add one more great online article: B is for Bohus, Revisited, an entry in unionpurl's Knitting Abecedarium.

As many of you know, some of the garments are now being reproduced in kit form by master Swedish dyer Solveig Gustafsson. Her yarns and colors are truly beautiful, and the prices are very reasonable. Just go to her website and feast your eyes on the designs she’s made available. Susanna has very generously translated the patterns into English, in return for which she encourages knitters to donate to Doctors Without Borders, in the spirit of Bohus Stickning’s original social support purpose.

I don’t have much to show for my morning of class knitting:
blue-shimmer-cuff I’m pretty slow with two and three colors at a time on 000 needles. That’s the size I needed to get a gauge of 8.5 stitches to the inch.  The yarn is 50/50 merino and angora. I have to rip this and start over to get a nice cuff, but I plan not only to do that, but to go on and knit gloves. I think they’ll be beautiful.

**3/4/2010: Just uploaded the vintage Bohus photos to Flickr so you can see them even bigger. Click here


  1. I'm not 100% sure this is up to date, but Wendy J Johnson still has the Radiant Knits booklet listed as available on her website:

    Your post is an excellent and concise description of the history of Bohus Stickning. And your photos are fabulous. I'm delighted you found the Ravelry group and look forward to seeing much more of you there!

  2. Gorgeous! I've always been attracted to Bohus knitting, but have never actually spent the time to make a project in the style. Thank you for the inspiration!