Friday, June 19, 2015

An Interview with...Lea Stern
Once a week I post interviews with interesting people about their insights on their experience of working in the Knitting industry. This weeks interview is very different. Lea isn't publishing patterns regularly she just has two. One is very special, it's a pattern that all proceeds are being donated to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

You can find Lea here on Ravelry. You can purchase the pattern here. Here's a news article which includes a short video about Lea, Krystyna and the sweater.

Please tell us about the trip to the museum which inspired this project.
I was invited in 2003 to a preview of the Hidden Children exhibit at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum along with a colleague of mine, who was himself a hidden child and his story was featured in this exhibit along with many others. I saw the sweater on display and read a brief explanation of its history and was amazed that it had survived. I felt immediately that to keep this story and the sweater itself alive, I needed to produce a pattern for it that would be available worldwide.

Were the museum curators supportive when you first approached them with the project?
Unfortunately my dear husband and just been diagnosed with cancer and despite significant efforts and after a very difficult course, he died in 2004 and while it was always on my mind the sweater project had to go on the back burner for a while. My job as a full time anesthesiologist was all consuming and I had very little time for anything other than work and caring for my home. About 6 months before my 60th birthday and after I had taken a less demanding job, I realized that I had better start on this project. In 2012 I began sending a proposal to the curator explaining my project concept. I don't think they were accustomed to this type of request and as the sweater is quite fragile, they did not immediately agree to my request. After approximately 2 years of conversation with them via email, I was allowed to spend the afternoon at the museum with the sweater, Suzy Snyder the curator for the original exhibit and Cynthia Hughes, the head of textiles.

How did you go about the technical process of creating a copy of the original garment?
I took extensive notes, measurements and photos at the museum. I was allowed to handle the sweater to determine gauge and construction. Then at home I used the information I had collected to begin swatching. Since I've been knitting for approximately 58 years, I've knitted enough sweaters and read enough patterns to be able to knit and write a pattern simultaneously. I have designed sweaters, socks, hats, and other accessories, so this was not my first attempt at writing a pattern. In the past, these designs have been for myself and friends, though I do have one other pattern available on Ravelry called Sundance mitts.

Did you recognize the stitch pattern or did you have to recreate it?

I did not recognize the stitch pattern though it is a very simple pattern of knit and purl stitches. To make things easier for myself, I looked in every book of stitch patterns I could find, including all of Barbara Walkers books and I was never able to find this particular combination of knits and purls. I had to assume that it was something Krystyna Chiger's grandmother had just made up or seen somewhere and liked. Suffice it to say, I had to recreate the stitch pattern. Fortunately, my close up photos of the sweater were quite useful!

The sweater has an interesting edging are there any other special details?

This is really a very simple crocheted edging that was fairly easy to replicate exactly as it had been done by close examination of the original. The ties in the original sweater were simply three stands of the same yarn firmly braided, though in the pattern I have mentioned other options for the ties. To be historically accurate, this is the type of tie I have used in the reproductions.

Tell us about choosing a yarn for the replica.
I initially thought this would be quite easy as I have access to some tremendous hand dyers. However after some thought, I realized that while they may be able to more accurate reproduce the colour of the sweater as it is now, it is extremely faded and as such, we will never really know its original colour. I also came to realize that specifically hand dyed yarn would be hard to get a hold of if people wanted to knit the sweater in the same yarn I had used. Since the sweater was made in about 1939-1940 in Poland, I knew from my studies of historical knitting, that we would need a wool that was 100% wool and not a blend. I also knew that a luxury yarn would not have been readily available and it was clearly not what this sweater was knitted of. Lastly, the fact that the sweater had survived 75 years and been subjected to horrific environmental conditions, I knew that it had to have been 100% wool. From there, I am quite familiar with all the major yarn companies in North America and abroad and knew that Quince & Co. had a 100% wool, sourced here in the U.S. that was the right weight (fingering) and had a fabulous colour palette, particularly in the green range.

You presented the copy to the original owner, Dr. Keren (Krystyna Chiger), that must have been very exciting and sad at the same time. Please tell the readers about that day.

I went from my home in Washington, D.C.  to New York Long Island to meet  Dr. Keren and to tell her about the process of recreating her sweater and show her the work I had done to get to the finished product. Her husband, Mr Marion Keren was very interested in the work since he is a mechanical and civil engineer and enjoyed the process of "reverse engineering" a sweater!
I brought her photos of the journey, showed her all my notes and swatches and gave her a finished copy of the sweater pattern. I brought about 5 of the test knitted sweaters and let her choose the one that seemed to remind her of her original sweater most closely. The museum curators had told me that it had been difficult for her to give up her sweater but she had graciously donated it to the museum. I was delighted that she chose the sweater that my best friend Julia Grossman had knitted! When she held it up she said, "Now I have my sweater back!"
It was a very emotional moment and I felt that even if the project went no further, I would have at least accomplished the goal of reproducing the pattern and delivering it to her. Krystyna has written a book about her experience called "The Girl in the Green Sweater".  She autographed my copy and presented me with a Polish language edition of it as well. Her book was also made into a Polish film called "In Darkness" by the famous director Agnieszka Holland that was nominated for an academy award.

What does this sweater represent to you?
This sweater means triumph over prejudice and intolerance. It represents a grandmothers love for her granddaughter and the devotion the granddaughter felt in return. I am a physician and I have been fortunate to have lived a wonderful life in the United States largely protected against the type of injustice that is has too often pervaded the world. I had a brilliant mother raised in northern England who taught me so many types of needlework but in particular knitting, and I feel honoured to have been able to use these skills to do this project.

Is there anything else about this project that you would like to share with the readers?

I would want to ask them to tell this story of Krystyna Chiger and her family and of the brave catholic sewer workers who helped them survive. Knit this sweater and tell generation after generation what happens when intolerance is allowed to fester unchecked. Tell the young girls what the sweater they are wearing represents and why it is so important to never forget. Our world has been very troubled throughout the years and it is my hope that small things like this sweater will somehow make a difference.

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