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On Wishbone Sweater Yokes (or, This Is Not a Carbeth)



It was over a year ago now that I wrote about knitting a top-down version of Elizabeth Zimmermann's  'Hurry Up! Last Minute Sweater' from The Knitter's Almanac, and my subsequent inability to share my method due to potential copyright issues. I am not going to re-tell the story here - so if you are interested, please read that post first (nothing has changed since I wrote it).

That said! I have been wearing my 'upturned EZ sweater,' as I call it, quite happily for the past year (you will see I played around with the hem and collar styles, but the photos here are the final version). Knitted in a dark, rustic wool from Kerry Woollen Mills, it is a loose, rugged, unassuming sort of sweater, and only on occasion would I get any comments on it. And then one day - it must have been a couple of months ago now - I was in the town and wearing this sweater, and several knitters stopped to comment on it, saying something cryptic to the effect of 'Oh my, I can't believe you finished yours already!'

It was only later when I glanced at my instagram feed, that I realised what they meant. For the Scottish designer Kate Davies had just released her beautiful Carbeth sweater, and it quickly became the new hot thing, with knit-alongs (Bang Out a Carbeth!) in feverish progress. 

There is indeed some similarity between the Carbeth and Elizabeth Zimmermann's Last Minute sweater. And on this topic, behind the scenes, there have been some (very polite) grumblings. And while I normally would steer well clear of such discussions, the question interests me from a research perspective - because honestly, I devoted quite a bit of energy last year to investigating the origins of the 'wishbone' sweater yoke, and what a shame it would be to let that go to waste! So, as a creator and wearer of a non-Carbeth, I am going to throw in my 2 Euro-cents.


As far as a direct comparison between the EZ sweater and the Carbeth: Having now seen both patterns firsthand, I can assure you they are not the same design. The visually obvious differences are in the silhouettes, in the neckline styles, and in the treatment of edgings. But the more subtle, yet - from a design perspective - more significant difference is in the yoke construction. Without giving anything away from either pattern, EZ does something quite specific with the shoulder shaping in addition to the 'wishbone' yoke shaping. KD's design uses a different method. Clearly, these are distinct approaches to the same general style of yoke.

Now, onto the more interesting question of what that style of yoke is, and where it originated. In her December chapter of the Knitter's Almanac, Elizabeth Zimmermann writes, that she had not seen elsewhere the sort of 'wishbone' yoke she ended up developing for the Hurry Up sweater. Some interpret this to mean that she invented this look. However, in fairness, EZ 'unvented' (as she herself would put it) quite a few techniques, which had certainly existed before her time, but which she discovered independently and then popularised among a new generation of knitters (for example, the i-cord). 


The wishbone yoke is in fact simply a variation of the raglan yoke. Consider that for a classic raglan yoke, the body to sleeve stitch count ratio at the neckline is typically 3:1. However, the designer can vary that ratio in what ever way they wish.

In the feeble little drawings above, for example, I have attempted to illustrate the aerial neckline views of three raglan yokes, with identical stitch counts, which use different body to sleeve proportions. As you can see, the fewer stitches are allocated to the sleeve in relation to the body, the more the style begins to resemble a saddle shoulder. And, as more stitches are allocated to the sleeves in relation to the body, the yoke attains a 'wishbone' look. 

In addition to being quite interesting to knit plain, the wishbone construction has useful applications - most notably, that it allows for long, uninterrupted vertical motifs to flow from collar through sleeve, and be visible from the front. It's a useful canvas for creativity. 


As readers familiar with my background will know, I very rarely knit from patterns. Yet something about the EZ Hurry Up sweater drew me in, as soon as I saw it. And while initially I assumed it was the novelty of it, later I realised it was in fact the familiarity. Where had I seen such sweater construction before? I tried to remember, but couldn't.

Fast forward to several months later, when I was browsing various sources to try and find patterns with similar yoke styles. I found quite a few, including the popular Onske by Olga Buraya-Kefelian, and Bloomsbury by Svetlana Volkova. And as I looked at those authors' names, it finally dawned on me...

Soviet films! 

I can visualise one particular film so distinctly now: It had something to do with three friends setting off on a mountain-climbing expedition, and one of the main characters wore a thick yellow pullover with a wishbone yoke and a slightly raised neckline. There were many close-ups of him gripping the mountain face, which made the interesting yoke quite prominent. Naturally, I do not remember the name of the movie. But it was from the 1960s, maybe even the '50s, and certainly uninfluenced by the Knitter's Almanac.

Once I realised this, I busted out the virtual cyrillic keyboard and started specifically searching for Russian terms which I hoped would bring up this film and this sweater. I did not find it, but I did find that the wishbone style of yoke construction appears to be not at all uncommon among Russian-speaking knitters. They refer to it, however, simply as a type of raglan sweater and do not attribute any special name or designation to the style. 

Does that mean the 'wishbone' yoke is Russian, or former-Soviet, in origin? Not necessarily. But finding examples of it in that context at least shows that it isn't a novel or recent stylistic invention. 


So, where does that leave us? Well, nowhere in particular, dear readers. It is generally my feeling that today's rather academified knitting culture, for lack of a better term, is in many ways disconnected from its own historical origins. Traditionally, knitting has been a folk art, passed down through generations orally and visually, with little accompanying documentation. It is therefore not only possible, but quite likely, that a technique or style we might be tempted to attribute to a contemporary knitter, was in fact in active use in a different era or culture. 

With that in mind, I can only encourage all to be creative, and to design and knit whatever they want - and most importantly to enjoy it, and not worry too much about who invented what.

{...Just please, pretty-please, don't call my sweater a Carbeth!}

You can find the actual Carbeth pattern by Kate Davies here.
And Elizabeth Zimmermann's Hurry Up! Last Minute Sweater in The Knitter's Almanac

Also, if you are new here and wonder why I watch Soviet films, you might enjoy:
Of Ireland, Identity and Fibre
Exploring Russian Knitting Podcasts