It’s Wednesday, and that means it’s time to discover today’s My Place pattern, which is a delicious feast of interdisciplinary design! Multi-talented Nicole Wagler spends her working life among ceramics, and it is her deep love and knowledge of the styles, history and processes of decorative tableware that has inspired her Zwiebelmuster shawl: a gorgeous two-tone piece combining brioche and garter stitch. Renowned as the eighteenth-century birthplace of European porcelain, the German city of Meissen is Nicole’s place, both in body and in spirit. Her Zwiebelmuster pattern celebrates Meissen’s characteristic blue and white porcelain palette together with one of its most familiar motifs – the onion. As a lover of eighteenth-century material culture, I confess that this pattern speaks very deeply to me indeed. But, all history aside, I think what I love most about Nicole’s shawl is its sheer exuberance as her Zwiebelmuster enacts its own joyful celebration of a local tradition of great design. As Nicole explains, eighteenth-century European porcelain painters often simplified and abstracted the stylised Chinese and Japanese motifs they worked with, and one might suggest that this long process of abstraction and translation has continued with her shawl: a piece that combines its historic inspiration with a bold, contemporary appearance. Indeed, one of the things Nicole enjoys most about porcelain is its intriguing combination of the antique and the modern . . . but though she says you can put your nineteenth-century porcelain in the dishwasher, I don’t recommend you do that with her wonderful knitted Zwiebelmuster! Here’s Nicole to tell you more about her place.
The German phrase Zwiebelmuster translates to onion pattern in English and usually refers to a particular design in monochrome cobalt blue underglaze that decorates white porcelain tableware. This distinctively patterned blue and white tableware achieved widespread popularity throughout nineteenth-century Europe, but had actually begun to be produced a hundred years before that, in the city of Meissen, which, as I’ll go on to explain, is for several reasons, My Place. But why were these early porcelain pieces decorated with onions? Well, most European decorative schemes were copied from Chinese and Japanese patterns which were inevitably adjusted to suit European tastes. Thus the motifs that evolved into the onion pattern did not at first show onions at all, but were originally intended to suggest stylised Asian pomegranates, peaches and striped lemons or melons – fruits that remained unfamiliar to most European eyes (and palates) but which were very easy to adapt and abstract into the kinds of domestic fruits and vegetables such consumers knew very well indeed. The painters of the new, popular, European porcelain designs began to create unique, hybrid motifs and in their hands it was just a few small, abstract steps from a pomegranate or a striped melon to an onion – and thus the Zwiebelmuster was born.
An important contributing factor to the popularity of Zwiebelmuster tableware was that it was relatively simple to produce. Compared to decorations in multiple colours (which needed to be applied onto the glaze and therefore required a third firing), the cobalt blue onions could be fired together with the glaze. This made the production process faster and cheaper, and the resulting dishes became accessible to, and affordable for, a much wider range of consumers. Additionally, the fact that the decorative motifs were covered by the glaze made the tableware very durable and practical for everyday use. Even today, you could put items of nineteenth-century glazed porcelain into the dishwasher without fear.
Back in the summer when I submitted my entry for the My Place competition, I lived in the small city of Meissen in eastern Germany. This city’s past and present is strongly connected with many kinds of ceramics, and especially with porcelain, whose European iteration was first invented and developed here. Porcelain objects were already very popular among seventeenth-century European aristocrats, but were incredibly expensive due to the cost of their importation from China and Japan. August the Strong, elector of Saxony, encouraged the development of porcelain, which eventually succeeded to much acclaim in 1709. Eager European consumers soon demanded new Meissen porcelain tableware in large quantities, fascinated by the material’s whiteness, its thinness and its mysterious translucency: qualities that local potters had been unable to produce until the eighteenth century. The distinctive qualities of porcelain still exert their own aesthetic fascination over those who love this unique material – among whom I include myself.
I am a trained porcelain painter but now work as a process engineer for ceramics after studying ceramics, glass and construction materials. I cannot go anywhere without turning dishes over to look at the stamp and finding out where they have been produced and by whom. Ceramics are my passion, and I can talk for hours about different histories, styles and production processes. I enjoy travelling and exploring local ceramic traditions, and I love all aspects of ceramic manufacture and design. Porcelain has always remained one of my abiding interests, since it is simultaneously an antique product and a modern high-tech material. Porcelain– its history, its unique materiality, and its familiar patterns and designs – is thus an integral part of me, as much as it is indelibly bound up in the life and history of the particular part of Germany that is My Place.
When wandering around the city of Meissen, porcelain can be seen everywhere: museums, park benches, church interiors, bells, wall decorations and so much more. The city boasts many talented contemporary artists who enjoy working with this material, as well as numerous commercial factories producing a wide range of ceramics from tableware to tiles, technical ceramic components, and bathroom ware. Because of its porcelain production, for over forty years, Meissen has been twinned with the wonderful Japanese town of Arita, between whose residents countless important friendships have developed over two generations. Arita might be regarded as Meissen’s Japanese equivalent and forbear, since it was the site of the development of porcelain about a century before Europe’s. But that’s another story!
For my Zwiebelmuster shawl design I developed an “onion pattern” with brioche stitches in Milarrochy Tweed shades Tarbet and Hirst which I felt most resembled the characteristic blue and white of Meissen porcelain. But I am very much looking forward to other colour combinations and I am really excited to see my onion pattern knitted up in other interesting yarns and colourways – perhaps some that reflect other local design traditions around the world.
Brioche is a wonderful technique with a spectacular appearance, but isn´t that complicated at all. The resulting fabric is squishy and springy and soft. So, please don´t be intimidated if you’ve never knitted brioche before. It’s much easier than you think, and the Zwiebelmuster pattern only uses four basic brioche stitches: it would be a great opportunity to learn this technique if you’ve not tried it.
In contrast to the pattern panel stands a simple striped garter stitch triangle which is a very pleasing and addictive knit. Two-coloured I-cord edges and bind-off give a really clean finish. The size of the shawl design can easily be adjusted before reaching the brioche section, and I’ve given directions for doing so in the pattern.
I feel very honoured and thankful that I got the chance to share my very first knitting design with you here on the KDD&Co blog! It kind of feels like it will be an adventurous start into something new that can finally lift my creative energies – a feeling I’m sure many of us can identify with right now!
My Ravelry username is nicochan and my knitting related Instagram account is knit.nico.
Finally, some recommendations for further reading on porcelain and its history:
Edmund de Waal The White Road (2016)
Hans Sonntag Die Botschaft des Drachen (1993)
Suzanne L. Marchand Porcelain: A History from the Heart of Europe (2020)
Thank you so much, Nicole, for this fabulous design – and for introducing us to your place!