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.