Designs from our DNA

I am fascinated by geometric designs. In grade school I decorated my books with elaborate borders of zigzags, Xs and Os, diamonds and even swastika type figures, having no idea what they had come to mean. As a teenager I stencilled geometric borders around my bedroom window and door. I used to think it was because I couldn’t draw anything else very well. But looking back I realize it was because I didn’t want images of horses or butterflies as decorations. I loved geometric designs. There was something reassuring about the repetitive movement between line and space.

I am not alone. Humans have been using geometric designs since the beginning of time. Genevieve Von Petzinger, a Canadian anthropologist, found 32 common markings in cave drawings dating back 30-40,000 (and more) years and spanning the planet. Perhaps the markings are early signs of language, perhaps otherworldly symbols. So far Von Petzinger doesn’t know the meaning behind the cross-hatching, triangles, ladders etc. But these cave markings contain all the elements of geometric design and are some of the first communicative expressions of human beings.  

When I first encountered Coast Salish knitting I was a seventeen year old newly wed. I moved to Tsartlip First Nation in WSANEC territory with my husband, Carl. His family had been making, what were then called Indian sweaters, since before the 1920s. The earliest example of typical, modern Coast Salish knitting is a sweater dated 1919, which is in the BC Museum of Anthropology. Carl’s grandmother, Martha, may have been one of the early designers of the unique, geometric designed, multi-banded, hand spun, bulky garments. Laura, my late mother-in-law, said that her mother unravelled sweaters she acquired second hand and carefully examined the stitches in order to learn the knitting techniques then she reknit the yarn into her own creation

Although it appears that for the first 20 or 30 years after Coast Salish women learned to knit they did not put their trademark patterning on their knitting, incorporating geometrics into their sweater designs would have been second nature to Laura’s family. They had been blanket and basket weavers before they learned to knit and had a long relationship with the use of geometric patterning.

Laura had a passion for designs and motifs. Whenever something caught her eye on things such as carpets, doilies, tea canisters and other people’s sweaters she translated them onto graph paper and then incorporated them into her knitting.

When I moved to Tsartlip I immediately fell in love with the Coast Salish geometric designed sweaters. I sat side-by-side Laura, like she had done with her mother, and it wasn’t long before I was knitting and spinning in a style that was an almost replica of hers. She shared her pattern book with me and encouraged me to make my own designs and share them with her. Pretty soon I was designing other knitted things but somewhere, somehow geometric designs always found their way into my creations.

When I asked Laura what certain motifs meant she would scoff and say, “Whatever anyone wants them to mean. A clam to one person is a wave to another. Zig zags can be mountains. Chevrons can be arrows and snowflakes can be flowers if you want them to be.” Although Laura didn’t know Genevieve she believed geometric designs belonged to the universe “You know you can find them all over the world,” she said. “I use designs because I just like the way they look and feel on the sweater.” And it’s no wonder. One of Laura’s favourite designs is a dead ringer for modern scientific images of our DNA.

That’s what I love about geometric designs. They are everywhere when we look out in the world around us and also they illustrate the structure of our inner human existence. Geometric designs belong to everyone and they can mean whatever you want them to mean. Perhaps the message of this most basic human language is that we are all one and we don’t have to agree on our interpretations of our symbols we can just enjoy the subtle certainty and peace that comes with the designs repetitions.

The double helix on my sweater, one of the last sweaters knit by Laura Olsen

2 thoughts on “Shared symbols

  1. At one time, when I was knitting and researching Fair Isle patterns, I was also studying the universality of spiritual symbolism. There are no coincidences…🤔. Now, having found your books and stories, I bought yarn you designed with Custom Woollen mills, and, and… there are no coincidences.

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