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Thursday, August 28, 2014

Knitwear through the Ages - The 1920s

To mark the republication of A Stitch in Time volume 1 I thought I would take a look back at knitwear and knitted fashion during the decades covered by both this, and volume 2 in a little more detail -

Britain was a rapidly changing place as the 1920s dawned. World War I resulted in dramatic social upheavals compared to its pre war days. One of the most significant changes was that in 1918, women over 30, won the right to vote. In the four years preceeding this landmark event women, had taken the place of men in the workforce, whilst World War I raged across Europe. Women, naturally and almost without thinking, became more independent and ‘liberated’. And, with the dawning of a new decade, the desire for a different type of dress, that enabled them to participate more in life, without the constrictions of corsets and tight, restrictive, layered, long clothes changed the way women dressed for ever.

Many women wished to remain in the workplace, and many more began to take part in leisure and sporting activities, such as swimming, tennis and golf. A new, lean silhouette became desirable with women wanting to look slender, athletic and young. Previously long hair was cut short into a bob, make up became more and more popular and skirts became shorter and shorter.

Breasts and curves were particularly unfashionable, with women going to extreme lengths to appear flat chested with slim hips - many binding their breasts and wearing girdles, just as restrictive as the corsets they had rejected. Androgyny was all the rage with many girls adopting a boyish appearance wearing sweaters with shirts and ties.

Sweaters were generally worn long and loose hiding the natural form. Neck lines had low, round or V necks, with stocking stitch garments being particularly popular. The sweaters were worn over skirts that finished just past the knee with natural coloured stockings - suggesting naked legs! Cloche style hats became incredibly popular pulled down over heavily made up eyes.

Can you crochet a toque? from A Stitch in Time volume 1

Nights out and dancing - informally - became incredibly popular, with ‘flappers’ dancing to the ‘Black Bottom’ and the ‘Charleston’. Stars such as Josephine Baker and Clara Bow - the ‘It Girl’ - brought a new sexuality to the fore. A more sophisticated beauty was seen in Greta Garbo, but the actress who epitomised the 1920s look more than any other was Louise Brooks.

Louise Brooks

With her sharply cut bobbed hair and straight fringe, cupid’s bow lips, dark eyes and lithe body, she encapsulated the era. Like many of the other famous women of the time - Josephine Baker and Clara Bow included, she gave out mixed messages about her sexuality and enjoyed questioning traditional stereotypes.

Josephine Baker
 Other style icons of the 1920s, included for the first time, adventurers - such as aviator Amelia Earhart and most notably, sports stars such as tennis champion Suzanne Lenglen, whose sportswear was designed for her by Jean Patou, and is probably one of the earliest examples of sport and fashion working together in this way.

Suzanne Lenglen

Sportswear as everyday wear really became accepted as a fashion statement however, when Coco Chanel introduced jersey garments such as an easy fitting cardigan jacket worn with a soft pleated short skirt in 1922, and was herself seen wearing men's trousers. Chanel is also credited with introducing the knitted one piece bathing suit, which remained popular for many years.

But how did these fashions feed directly into hand knitting? The rise in popularity of knitwear and knitting in the 1920s can probably be credited to one sweater. In 1922, James A Smith, a draper, of Lerwick, Shetland, presented a hand knitted Fair Isle sweater to the then Prince of Wales.

 Designed to be worn whilst playing golf it created a huge surge in interest in hand knitted garments as a fashion statement. Edward VIII, as he became, was a fashion icon of his time and  wearing this V necked Fair Isle sweater when golfing, caused a sensation. The long lines, V neck and masculinity of the garment also appealled to fashionable ladies of the time, and became the garment to be seen in when golfing or taking part in outdoor activities, such as walking and shooting.

Image courtesy of Shetland Museum
Even Harrods bought the sweaters from James A Smith, creating a huge demand for garments knitted in Shetland and Fair Isle. Knitting on both islands was big business, with two colour garment production increasing rapidly during this period. New patterns were created by the knitters, adapting designs from wallpaper, tiles, magazines etc. A pattern book of fair isle charts was first published on Shetland sometime between 1925 and 1930 which provided knitters with charted instructions of new innovative fair isle patterns.

Most knitters were also encouraged to keep their own hand written chart books, a practice that continues to this day.

Despite all the glamour portrayed in the contemporary media of the ‘Bright Young Things’ poverty in Britain was a significant problem, with many people living in dreadful conditions. In fact, the workhouses still existed until 1929. There was significant unemployment and, in 1926, a General Strike was called. To escape from their circumstances many people spent a great deal of time at the cinema, absorbing the beauty and sophistication seen on the big screen. Literacy improved over the decade allowing a wider variety of women to read the women’s magazines of the day, and work from knitting patterns. The hand knitting of fashionable, outer garments by following a pattern, rather than only knitting underwear, comforters etc., out of necessity and often without a pattern, became widely popular, filling an economic need.

Woman’s Weekly (which had been founded in 1911) and Woman and Home, first published in the mid 1920s, began to publish regular knitting patterns aimed at  the fashion conscious woman, who couldn’t afford Chanel, Patou, or Harrods, but who wanted to look like the woman they saw on the big screen and in magazines and newspapers.

Woman’s Weekly only began publishing knitting patterns on a weekly basis from around 1932/1933. However, with single pattern leaflets still relatively uncommon in the 1920s the gap began to be filled more frequently by these magazines, with unisex patterns being offered by Woman and Home for a Fair Isle sleeveless cardigan

 and Woman’s Weekly presenting a fair isle pullover for golf or walking, with a deep V neck on a completely flat chested female model.

Designs for tennis wear and long line deep V neck sleeveless pullovers were featured, with an even mixture of pattern instructions knitted in the round or in separate pieces.

 Even the Chanel cardigan and pleated skirt was interpreted into a knitting pattern, as well as her bathing suits! Most garments, even the tennis sweaters and swimming costumes, were knitted in 4 ply scotch fingering wool, from brands such as Ladyship, Templetons and Patons. For ‘dressier’ garments, artificial silk was usually recommended.

Patons & Baldwin, Weldons, Munrospun and Scotch Wool & Hosiery Stores and several others, did release single patterns and pattern booklets, the most noteable being ‘Woolcraft’ from Patons & Baldwin, still being published today, but which was first printed in the 1910s.  These companies produced pattern leaflets to promote and sell their yarns. Whilst some of these patterns featured contemporary designs, many were traditional designs being ‘revisited’ such as Sock and Spencer patterns. In the US, two major yarn manufacturers in particular were producing ‘modern’ knitting patterns to tap into this increasingly popular market. These were Minerva and Columbia.

 Once again, both used their pattern books to promote their yarns,  but tapped into the latest trends. Their publications usually offered a selection of knitting and crochet patterns, in fact, patterns of this period from all manufacturers and magazines often combined both crafts assuming knowledge of both by the readers.

With the Great Depression and the Wall Street Crash in 1929, the world became a very different place as it moved into the 1930s, but the creativity and exciting design that can be seen in that period most definitely has its foundations in the 1920s, and the sweater, jumper or pullover, as we know it today owes its birth to the modern, independent young women of the 1920s.

A version of this essay was originally published in The Knitter magazine in 2010 

I have found that over the years I have become more and more fond of the styles of this decade and have gained great inspiration in the shapes, drape and patterns of the period whilst working on a new mini collection featuring Fenella. Its not quite ready to be revealed yet but watch this space!

A Stitch in Time volume 1 is still available at the discounted price of £30 (plus p&p) until the end of August from my website.

So, for now,
Susan xx

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Designed in Paris


for the want of a stitch the pattern was lost!

Designed in Paris is a late 1950s pattern which appears in A Stitch in Time Volume 2. It is a beautiful tunic style textured jumper knitted in two colours of Excelana 4 ply. It has proven a very popular design but recently I received an email from a lady who was having trouble reproducing the pattern as it looks in the photos.

When I receive a pattern query I always return to the pattern and have a good check through it. When everything seems mathematically and typographically correct I usually knit a sample square so that I can provide the knitter with very precise instructions on how to cope with the difficulties they are having.

On this occasion I began to work the four row pattern and immediately realised that 1. On the first couple of pattern rows things didn't work quite according to the instructions and 2. By following the instructions I was getting a different pattern!

This obviously seemed very odd so I looked closely at the finished garment and the book photographs and it dawned on me that the finished piece had resulted in a quite different looking pattern than the instructions would suggest. So how on earth had this happened.

Below is the only photograph that the original sample knitter and I had to work with when we were creating the new version of the pattern.

Looking at it now I can see that there is a difference between this and the new version but at the time, immersed in rewriting 80 patterns I somehow managed to miss the fact that the stitch pattern doesn't quite look the same. What would appear to be the cause of the mistake in the knitting is that the very first set up row as written makes it difficult to work the first pattern row as described and the sample knitter had made a choice of how to proceed. Unfortunately looking at the pattern notes there doesn't seem to be any mention of the problem and I consequently have also missed it. 

So where does that leave the pattern? If you follow the instructions as written in the book you will actually get the stitch pattern as shown on the original black and white photo above NOT the stitch pattern shown on the new version of the garment although because of the set up row not being right it makes it very tricky to actually get started on this variation which is were the trouble begins. I am aware that most people when they are knitting this pattern want the stitch pattern as shown in the new version so first of all let me take you through how you create this stitch pattern whilst still being able to use the pattern as described in the book.

On rows 1 and 3 of the 4 row pattern you are told to 'knit into loop only below next st and drop st off needle'. Instead of carrying out this action you need to knit into the 'space' below the next st on the needle as shown below:

Step 1: Place right hand needle into space below next stitch on left hand needle

Step 2: Wrap yarn round needle knitwise and draw yarn through space

Step 3: Drop stitch on left hand needle off the needle

Step 4: Knit the next stitch. 

Step 5: Repeat steps 1 to 4 across the row.

All other instructions within the pattern remain exactly as specified. The only change is the stitch as described above. The set up row can also be left as in the book.

If however, you would like to try knitting the jumper using the stitch pattern as in the original pattern you need to follow the 4 row pattern as described. However in order for the very first row of the pattern to work you need to finish the stocking stitch pattern worked first on a right side row and then work a row of knit stitches from the wrong side of the work providing you with a purl ridge to work into. Once you have done that the pattern makes sense. Let me show you how to carry out the action 'knit into loop only below next st and drop st off needle'.

Step 1: Insert tip of right hand needle into the front loop (the purl ridge) of the next stitch on the left hand needle

Step 2: Wrap yarn around needle knitwise and draw through loop to make new stitch

Step 3: Drop stitch on left hand needle off the needle

Step 4: This creates a loop lying across the front of the work

Step 5: Knit the next stitch. This secures the loop at the front of the work

Step 6: Repeat steps 1 to 5 along the row.

And there you have it. Two very different looking patterns created simply by working one stitch slightly differently on the two patterns. If you have the pattern you can now choose which stitch pattern you would prefer to knit. I'm rather tempted to knit myself the original version so that I can see how it looks compares to the new version.

but for now,
Susan xx

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Film on the Farm

Last week saw a very special event taking place at the farm. Not only did we finally have our long planned Farm Warming, but we also combined it with the Premiere of my daughter, Charlie's graduation film, Mutoid, all about six year old Aran, the son of my very good friend, Woolly Wormhead

We decided to use our 'slightly' shabby 15th century barn as the venue for the screening and the after-party.

We set about pressure washing the interior and then utilizing a number of old doors left behind after the farmhouse renovation, Gavin built a magnificent door of doors.

We created a large screen above the 'stage' area hung from roof beams and set about decorating the barn with bunting, paper lanterns and wild flowers from the surrounding fields.


Fairy lights were then strung around the barn and the scene was set.

We all sat entranced as we watched Charlie's poignant and revealing film. Aran himself sat on the front row, mesmorized at the sight of himself on the big screen.

After the film and some refreshments including our very own Elderflower Champagne we finished the evening with music. First there was an impromtu performance on the piano from one of the guests.

Then a very special acoustic performance by Seattle Yacht Club, arriving at the farm directly from their gig at Kendal Calling.

The band's guitarist is Charlie's boyfriend, Denis, and in addition to her 'official' degree work, Charlie has directed all of the band's videos to date. 

All in all the night was a great success and it was wonderful to hear the sounds of laughter, chatter and music emanating from this old, old barn, empty for so many years, but now coming alive once again.

As Aran put so very simply in the film, 'I think I will live here forever'.

Aran and Charlie before the film screening

for now,
Susan xx

All images copyright Susan Crawford 2014