I’ve talked about a few of my knitting heroes before: Mary Thomas, Mrs. Beeton, the Turkish lady whose name I can’t remember, and many of my favourite designers fall into this category as well. But Herbert Niebling is in a class of knitting brilliance all his own. He truly groks stitches; he can make a piece of string dance in achingly graceful floral patterns, seemingly effortlessly.
Despite his recent popularity and his evident knitting genius, there’s hardly any information on the internet about Herbert (Richard) Niebling, not even the stub of a Wikipedia article. The best source of information I’ve been able to find is a brilliant 2-page article in Piecework May/June 2010 by Mary Frances Wogec. She’s also the designer of the beautiful Niebling-inspired lace bag on the cover.
“As the composer writes down the notes that he hears, in the same way I write down the stitches that I see.” – Herbert Niebling
A brief overview, from the aforementioned article: Niebling was born in Averlak in 1903 and learnt to knit as a young boy. He began knitting lace patterns from leaflets that were in publication at the time, and went on to study at the Hamburg Kunstgewerbeschule. After the war he settled in Freiburg, (which happens to be the only German city I’ve visited) and began publishing lace patterns inspired by the flowers in his garden.
But how does a designer go from knitting doilies from a leaflet, to being “The Grand Master of Lace Knitting”? It seems we’ll never know, but I find it difficult not to romanticise the life of a man who could so perfectly command motif, shape and symmetry in such a difficult medium. Did he see patterns in his everyday life? What did he knit his wife as a wedding gift? Did he dip his toes in the bächle on warm summer days? Did he ever dare eat a Black Forest Gateau on one of his tablecloths? These are the questions I’d like to ask him.
While I’ve never knit a Niebling design, I often flip through the Lacis book for inspiration and examine and swatch elements of his designs. I particularly yearn to wrap myself in a wispy Lyra one day, as those who share my love of His Dark Materials (and by association Ancient Greek and astronomy) will understand. Most of all though, I yearn to one day understand lace half as well as he did.