Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Textile Narratives & Conversions: Proceedings of the 10th Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, October 11–14, Toronto, Ontario


Copyright 2006 by the author.


In presenting and analyzing the narrative of a woman who knitted for survival, I engage two continuing marginalizations in mainstream history; that the lives of ‘everyday’ women are poorly delineated and that the realm of textiles is undervalued as a source of knowledge.

Outside the visual art domain the status and potential of textile study, with its associations of domesticity and craft, is little valued. Yet textiles have a history of being associated with many other aspects of women’s lives, a relationship that is slowly being probed for the knowledge it may hold (Parker, 1984; Tickner, 1988; Ulrich, 2001). Through oral history and the study of objects imbued with memory, we gain access to additional topics, issues and aspects of identities; we hear the stories that clothe, illumine and enhance what we know of women’s historical lives. Such is the case, presented here, of one woman’s attachment to the tools of her trade. They provided the means to preserve family and culture, to enact her agency, when confronted with the inexorable force of historical circumstance.

When Anna Vipulis Samens was faced with fleeing her home once again, she was a determined woman. “The knitting machine is my life; I will not take a step without it” (Glenbow Archives, 1979). In her Latvian homeland Samens operated her factory in the capital of Riga through the First World War, Russian Revolution, German occupation and Soviet expropriation. As the Soviets approached to reoccupy Riga in 1944, the Samens family buried family valuables; china, silver and a stamp collection. Anna’s husband had sold a race horse for three gold czar’s coins which secured an open truck for a hurried escape for the family of five with a few of their possessions. On October 4th the knitting machine chosen for the journey, a lighter commercial model was placed in a coffin-like box with extra parts. In preparation for another temporary displacement, Anna took the key to her factory, some business papers, a small sewing machine, patterns, yarns and the box. It took four of the five family members to carry the box.