worn

The best things in my wardrobe are made of wool. Some of these are ‘vintage’ items that have worn incredibly well. I thought I’d show you one of my favourites today.

I picked up this hand-knitted cardigan second-hand. From its shape, patterns, buttons, and the kind of worsted- spun Shetland wool that was used to knit it, I reckon it dates from the 1930s. 80 years later, it is still in fantastic condition. The right side of the fabric has that slight sheen that Shetland hand-knits seem to develop after many years of wear. There is not a single pill to be seen.

The strands along the back of the fabric have felted ever-so-slightly. The work is incredibly fine and neat.

But this is not a pristine garment. It has been worn a lot. Where this is most evident is under the arms. Here, movement and friction have created areas of felting on the fabric’s right side.

It is also a garment that has been cared for. There is a place on the back of one elbow where an area of about two square inches has been repaired. The darner has taken great care to match the pattern. You can see that wool of a slightly paler-blue than the original has been used. Here is the darn from the wrong side . . .

. . . and here from the right side.

These are clearly the repairs of a seasoned darner. The stitches are perfectly made, the fabric perfectly stable. I do love to see good darning. One of the most moving hand-knits I have ever encountered is a Fair-Isle sweater now on permanent display in the Shetland Museum. It belonged to a local who spent much of WWII as a prisoner. He wore this sweater constantly, repairing and re-repairing the areas that suffered from wear. A powerful document of his interment, as well as his Shetland identity, this sweater really looks as much darned as it is knit. It is very beautiful. Next time I visit Shetland I’ll get a photograph for you.

Here is another repair conducted by the hand of an inexpert darner – ie me.

Not only is this an example of my second-rate mending, but you can also see how difficult it is to find contemporary yarn that is a good match for vintage palettes. The brown colour I’ve used to darn is a Shetland that is close in hue to the original, but it is a blend with flecks of green in it. Like all of the colours used on the original sweater, the rusty-brown shade is very flat and solid. This ‘flatness’ is one of the many things I find interesting about knitting wool from the 30s and 40s. Those marled, heathered, or tweedy effects that we might think of as being ‘traditional’ are really of relatively modern ilk.

I love the simple construction of this sweater. The button bands are so neatly done that I originally assumed they had been knitted at the same time as the colourwork. Had the knitter actually purled those stitches back-and-forth instead of working in the round?

No they hadn’t – but they had conducted a kind of knitterly magic when picking up the stitches. Each cut yarn-end on each row has been individually bound down and woven in. It is an incredibly nifty piece of work.

Impressive! But how had the knitter secured the steek before cutting? When I looked closely at the armhole steeks (similarly neat, and flat) I discovered more about her method.

Upon careful examination I discovered some tiny cotton thread ends showing that the steek had been hand-sewn before cutting. While the majority were removed when the steek was completed, a few of these stray cotton thread-ends actually still remain in the armhole joins, as you can see at the centre of this rather blurry photograph.

The work is so neat, so very carefully done, that there is no bulk at all — hardly a hint of anything resembling a join or ‘seam’.

The sweater has very little shaping: there are some decreases in the arms, and a narrowing at the waist created by the ribbing, but there is no underarm gusset, or setting-in-of sleeves. The sleeves are, in fact set in to the armholes totally squarely, as you can see here.

This squareness is probably one reason for the increased wear that the underarms have seen – but the totally un-tailored sleeve actually fits surprisingly nicely under the arms — not much excess fabric at all.

The cardigan is a good, neat fit on me. I love it, and love to wear it. I’ll keep admiring it, repairing it, wearing it, caring for it. Maybe under my proprietorship it will be able to see another several decades of wear — just as it did with its original owner.

82 responses

  1. A cardigan that’s a pleasure to see, beautiful in it’s own right, so well done Kate on finding it, wearing it and caring for it, we should treat all our woolley things this well.

  2. Beautiful sweater, Kate. And your ability to analyze the way it was put together is really impressive and enlightening!

  3. Wow, those button bands and the darn are an amazing feat. No shortcuts, which gives the neatest result possible. I’d love to see another close-up of the button band especially. The Shetland wool has worn incredibly well; I hope you get to wear for many years to come.

  4. Thank you for the “tour” of this sweater, which is a real beauty, as well as for highlighting the practice of darning. I’ve only recently come to appreciate the value of a good repair, when a pair of beloved jeans began to deteriorate and I decided to patch them (and have since patched the patches). Now I have not only the joy of getting to wear them a bit longer, but a sense of pride at extending their usefulness.

  5. Nothing like a bit of history to enjoy. Some of my favorite items – clothing and otherwise – are old, used, and valuable for the fact they are not made of acrylic and plastic, but made by hand. Thanks for the post!

  6. I also found a stunning hand knit cardigan at our thrift shop, almost two years ago now, and I’ve been doing the same with it. I’ve spent much time admiring the original knitter’s stitches, construction, and perfection in the cardigan’s seaming. There is even a spot on the cuff where it needed darning. It doesn’t fit me as well as your cardigan does, but I don’t care. It’s such a beautiful piece, I am inspired by it to make the same.

  7. I love the way objects have a story, especially hand made ones that continue to bring delight to their owner. A beautiful story, thank you for sharing your finding, anne

  8. I am so thankful for people like you who save these garments not only in the initial rescue, but then the darning and the documenting. I think for all the wonderful resurgence of interest in fiber arts, we have still lost A LOT of information. I love that these techniques can be teased out from looking at historical pieces!

  9. Your lovely writing is a gift to all of us who share a true admiration for this intricate sweater. Thank you for sharing this work from another woman’s hands. Whenever I am knitting, I will think of the beauty she created, and the beauty you so generously share with your knitting stories. Thank you.

  10. Beautiful sweater and post. I think the fact that heathered yarns are not classics is very interesting-they seem so appropriate to me that I just assumed!

  11. Awesome in the true sense of the word. And, no pressure, but I look forward to the someday photos of the WWII prisoner’s sweater. I love to darn and am forever examining my friends’ knits for excuses to practice my favorite hobby (after knitting of course).

  12. Beautiful sweater! Have you thought of using tapestry wool to match the colour if you need to darn it again? It comes in hundreds of colours and one strand is about 4-ply.

    • there is a pattern on Ravelry – Fair Isle Cardigan by Bestway – that is an original 1940’s pattern that looks somewhat similar to Kate’s sweater. The sleeves are set in differently. Perhaps this will do for you?

  13. My comment is an elegy. And a request for help.

    Your pictures of the button bands reminded me of a cardigan I bought years ago from a second-hand shop in the Grassmarket in Edinburgh. A glorious cardigan with a round Fairisle yoke (sp?) in greeny-yellow and a pale turquoise and deep brown. I wore it constantly, and it wore beautifully. Never any piling, never a hole. The very slightest roughening under the arms, just as you show. Oh, I miss it!

    For one day – a little over two years ago now – I got caught up in an incident with a gunman. (All rather melodramatic, like a bad film.) The shock of it made me unwell, and I had memory lapses. And in one of these memory lapses I left my cardigan on the Underground. Gone.

    The memory lapses are behind me. I am well enough now for it to seem odd that my health was ever absent. But I have not been able to find a real and honest cardigan to replace the one I lost when I was unwell.

    Does anyone have any idea where I might be able to find such a cardigan?
    Or to commission a copy?
    All suggestions gratefully received!

  14. I love the cardigan and the color palette. It is so unusual, and unlike what we see. I have a question though, why are the holes darned rather than re-knit in using the kitchener stitch or a similar method so there is no need to darn at all? Is it for lack of yarn to match, holes too big, or some other reason. I have a few moth holes that I have to patch up and was planning to use the kitchener stitch to patch everything up, but want to know if that is not a good idea?

  15. I’ve found your posts on the longevity of wool sweaters to be so inspiring. Just a few days ago, a friend’s mother posted a picture on Facebook of my friend’s younger daughter wearing a sweater that was knit by the girl’s great-grandmother probably 30 years ago, worn by my friend and her younger sister, stored carefully, worn by my friend’s older daughter, and is now seeing use with a fourth little girl. The sweater still looks brand-new. It (and all the other AMAZING sweaters knit by my friend’s grandmother, and I’ve had the honor of handling quite a few of them) are all Norwegian in style and yarn rather than Scottish, but still remind me so much of what you’ve posted. My friend’s mother tagged me in the photo, as the one serious knitter they know, and I just hope I can produce sweaters with similar longevity to live up to the comparison!

  16. What a beautiful garment! Wonderful also that it is now in such deserving hands……. These fairisle sweaters used to pop up now and again in Portobello Road back in the 70’s…

  17. It’s Monday morning. A little grey outside. I’m feeling slightly agitated by a lot that needs to be done today. This, however, was like reading poetry, both calming and uplifting at once. I particularly like the darning and views of the back of the knitting. Like all good wool, this has warmed me up for the week. Thank you. xx

  18. Thank you for sharing the pleasure of owning and appreciating such a treasure!
    It is uplifting to know that there are other knitters appreciating and “feeling” for such garments and all the expertise and love behind it:
    thank you Kate!

  19. A beautiful post which reminded me of my Mother who knitted all of my sweaters, cardigans, bonnets, mittens and scarves. She taught me to knit and darn and I remember her knitting Fair Isle but not in the round, she would purl the colours too.

  20. Oh my, what a beautiful cardigan;and so hard-wearing! I am particuarly interested in the point you make about the colours being “flat” rather than tweedy, our view of the past is always coloured (no pun intended) by our own preconceptions and desires, isn’t it?

  21. Oh Kate that sweater/cardigan is lovely, and I bet the knitter of it would be so proud and pleased about your comments and that you have found it and are wearing it. I think this is amazing.
    It would be so lovely to see the Shetland sweater/jumper you speak of that belonged to the man who was once a prisoner of war.

  22. i am writing and thinking about the value added by labor, marx, buddhist mindfulness, et al in cooking and the food revolution caused by alice waters/elizabeth david. your prisoner’s sweater story, and your examination and perpetuation of this sweater, kind of make the world go round.edward espe brown, the famous zen chef, says, work is our love made manifest.

  23. Gorgeous sweater. I love the close inspection and analysis you have provided of its creation and care. I have been wanting to learn darning – I have some much-loved socks and sweaters that need a bit of extra love so that they can be loved even more. Most guides I have found are about a type of darning that ends up like weaving, not re-creating the stitches. Maybe this is the only option, or maybe I have just been looking in the wrong places.

  24. I am infrequent commenter but just had to say I can’t even begin to tell you how inspiring this sweater is for me, Kate. I love Shetland wool & music (my spouse and I will be planning a trip to Scotland next year and I’m determined to visit Shetland), I love fair isle knitting in general, and I love vintage knits (and I love your blog, but that’s a given ;).

    I just posted my recently finished allover stranded cardigan on Ravelry and my blog, knit from a 1940s knitting pattern, and I’m already in love with it. That era is just about my favorite in terms of fashion, so I’m delighted to see how well-loved this 40s cardigan has been, and how it was lovingly cared for and repaired. The colors and patterns are wonderful, and I love that it achieved the tailored look of that era while keeping with what I think of as more traditional Shetland construction techniques like the sleeves straight into the body instead of a shaped cap. Really neat to see an example of this. Very inspiring! I know it will see many more years of wonderful love and care in your ownership, and hope that my own cardigan will live to look half as good in 70 years.

  25. My mother, now 95, talks about yarn samples from when she was young. I would love to see some of the colors! The sweater is charming. I like the wide bands of ivory. Garments with history are so interesting. Thank you for sharing!

  26. Truly loved to read this in-depth description….. I love vintage, and vintage-inspired garments, so this is truly a beautiful piece to look at. I can only hope and fantasize about how in 70 years someone might find a handknit by me somewhere….

  27. Thanks so much for this post. What a legacy for a good knitter to leave behind and how wonderful for her skills to see the light of day again. I hope you and the cardi continue in good health for many more years to come.

  28. So glad I found your blog, you are a truly inspirational person with a vast knowledge on knitting history and a very talented designer too. Best wishes Heike

  29. What a beautiful jumper, and how appropriate that it has found its way to another knitter who appreciates it (and can share it!). I love the design and the colours – hmm….

  30. I love that design and cardigan. Its beautiful, and the way you look so carefully at each facet of its construction is a wonderful read. Once, at an Estate sale, I found a hand knit, wool cardigan from Ireland, for $5.00!!!!! I don’t think they had any idea the treasure they were letting go. I wear it often, esecially during fall and winter, and had only one spot to do any darning. And my darning doesn’t look anything like the original owner’s in your blog! I can hide the darning I’ve done, its just on the cuff, so it can be rolled up and unseen, but otherwise it is in excellent shape. I just love my find, as I am sure you do and are enjoying yours! Those colors are really pretty, and your photographs are wonderful to see up close all its tending to and loving care. So interesting, as always! Love your blog. I’ve since passed the blog on to others who love fiber, fabric and knitting, and each has enjoyed reading the blogs, and very much also your photographs. I am so glad there is someone who thinks so highly of well constructed knitted items, to care for them so that they may give joy to others down the road. And to write such interesting blogs. Yours is the first blog I ever signed up to receive email notices regarding new postings! I truly enjoy the warmth and thoughtful writing infused throughout each story. Its like hot cocoa on a winter day. :)

  31. I think that sweater is as happy to have found you as you are to have found it! It is wonderful to behold and I thank you for the pictures and comments about it’s expert construction.

  32. That is gorgeous. It looks beautiful on, too. I thought you might get a kick out of this “trip through the Fjords with this Fair Isle woven crewneck”, which is not woven at all but knit, and clearly not Nordic in any fashion. It’s referred to as “Navajo-inspired” and “surfing intarsia” by the site linked to for purchase. So…Nordic Navajo Fair Isle surfing intarsia. Thank goodness they haven’t called it “wool” as well. http://glo.msn.com/style/knit-wit-7611.gallery#!stackState=0__%2Fstyle%2Fknit-wit-7611.gallery%3FphotoId%3D70475

  33. A fascinating insight into the complexities of the construction of a sweater. I have to confess my finishing techniques leave a lot to be desired! I find it completely admirable and awe inspiring the care and time taken over the finishing of garments, especially from the 1940’s. I wish that I could have more patience and dilligence.

  34. What a fantastic sweater. I am impressed that there is not bulk and excess fabric in the underarm area. I love the those sweaters but never knit them because of the square design. Why is this one different, say, from the Poetry in Stitches sweaters?

  35. What a beautiful cardigan – lovingly knitted, worn and cared for in its past life. I am sure it is no coincidence that it fell into your hands for its future care. May you enjoy many more years in its company! x

  36. Hello Kate!
    I’m a knitter. I love knits. I’ve wanted to give fair isle a try for a while, and I’m slowly building up the courage to do something multi-color.
    I’ve read about traditional fair isle, taken a Craftsy class and read Alice Starmores book about it. But the colors and the patterns. Ugh, not my taste. And I don’t have the skills for color combining yet.
    When I googled “traditional fair isle pattern” your cardigan here came up. I recognized it at once. I read about it long ago. I loved this blog post and the story, and the attention you have to the technical detail. I loved the feeling of the fabric, that your photos allows us readers to feel.
    So I took a look at the yarn you recommend. It’s perfect. The origin and heritage as well as the colors.
    So I thought; this cardigan is the fair isle knit that made my heart literally skip a beat. Should I try and copy the stitch pattern down? I wouldn’t like to do it without permission from you. So I ask: will it be okay if I make a similar fair isle pattern chart for myself?
    If so, it would make me a happy knitter. :)
    Warm wishes Cille

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