Knitting & the Art of Fairytales

As a little girl, I had a book of The Twelve Dancing Princesses, illustrated by Errol Le Cain. I wished with all my might to climb inside the pages and become as lovely and beautiful as those sisters. I wanted their gowns, heavy with fruit, and their long, pale hair. I wanted their extravagant nightly walks through forests of silver and gold.

Le Cain’s paintings of the princesses had enchanted me for life.

It’s not surprising that today I can see the impact of his work on my own. Stories and art – intertwined – make a strong, lasting impression. The tales and books we have as children help us grow into the knitters, writers and artists we are today. Dramatic art like LeCain’s can have a formative affect on our love of color, texture, drama and romance. I see his hand in my own knitting designs. A flower-laden scarf or leafy choker. And I see the impressions of other artists I loved in my youth, peeking through in the cables, lace, and Latvian braids that are my trade.

I suspect it’s the same for knitters everywhere. Many of us can remember cherished fairy tale books we grew up with. When we were impressionable and frightening stories of children getting eaten jumped off the page, the art of Arthur Rackham or Adrienne Segur was there. When we swooned over dreamy castles and enchanted woods, artists Errol LeCain and Nancy Ekholm Burkert showed us the way.

Perhaps it’s just a knitter’s obsession, but I see many things in common.

For all fairy tale artists, the raw material is similar. Fairy tales are stories of transformation. They tell of ordinary objects and people that are taken over by forces they can’t see or control. The art reflects these inexplicable forces. Fairy tale art takes elemental things – wind, water and woods –and makes them visceral and wild.

As knitters, we take elemental things – sticks and string – and do the same. When we pick up the needles, we have the power to transform everyday materials into three-dimensional things of beauty. Works that can be dramatic and complex or clean and simple, rich and thick as earth or light as air, with all the colors of a good sunset or forest night. We shape knitted pieces out of nothing, and imbue them with moods, wishes and prayers.

The similarities don’t end there.

Perhaps one of the best known fairy tale artists is Arthur Rackham, an English illustrator and one of the leading artists from the Golden Age of book illustration in the early 1900s. Rackham’s illustrations are full of women whose long, luscious hair and gossamer shawls stream in an ever-present wind. The women’s wraps unfurl against foreboding, smudgy clouds. Rackham’s colors are rich and deep, blood rust, navy blue, iron sky. Like fine woodcuts, his illustrations incorporate repetitive lines and motifs. Rock strata swirling like short-row stripes, a lake’s surface as complex and peaceful as lace.

His Undine – a mermaid – wears garments with a loft and flow that bring to mind a sheer knitted shawl of the finest Icelandic wool. It’s a generosity and drama that a child would never forget, and that a grown knitter might dare to recreate.

Nancy Ekholm Burkert’s haunting and wistful pencil and watercolor illustrations made my heart race as a girl. Her 1972 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs contained a darkness I’d never known. When I absorbed those pages, I was right there in the woods with Snow White, so alone, tripping over roots and running from hidden animals. Her gently terrifying forest brings to mind gnarled cables and glinting, eye-like beads.

Over thirty years later, Burkert’s wicked stepmother crafting her poison apple is still fresh in mind. When I had the chance to try yarn dyeing, that illustration inspired me to attempt a colorway far beyond my capability. One that would capture the tinge of blood in the color of her dress, swirling out against the black recesses of her room, and the subtle, pale shades of her terrible apple.

The Golden Book of Fairy Tales was central to many a child’s book collection in the 1960s and 1970s. A terrifying book, it was filled with children losing limbs and being abandoned in the woods or carried away by enchanted cats and hounds. Eerie illustrations by French artist Adrienne Ségur featured languid princesses and set an otherworldly tone. Her vacant-eyed heroines, each shedding a single tear, must be remembered vividly by any child who owned one of her books.

Adrienne Segur’s palette was unique, with mustardy golds and browns juxtaposed with the freshest green and pops of pink. When I look at her paintings, I see unlikely and bold combinations for colorwork. In Segur’s paintings of woodland magic, I see owl-shaped cables with vaguely threatening button eyes, and hundreds of different ways to knit leaves.

We knitters are visual people, working with color, texture and pattern every time we pick up the needles and add a new yarn, or sit to sketch a sweater or shawl. For many of us, the visual representation of fairy tales is vivid in our memories.

It’s not that we consciously remember these things when we’re considering the drape of a garment or the halo of the perfect yarn. We carry the memories inside. It’s now, as an adult and a fiber artist, that I can see my own work in those illustrations. I can see the things I make – and what I find epic and wonderful – lurking there, as unknowable as the prince in LeCain’s underground boats.

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