a spencer dress


It is a grey and murky day, but I thought I’d take the opportunity to show you my amazing Spencer dress!


You’ll have probably seen that my Shetland friend, Ella, first scored one of these a few weeks ago in the Lerwick saleroom. She was then put in touch with Margaret Stuart, who originally designed these beautiful pieces in the 1970s and 1980s, and was able to buy a few more. Probably because I wouldn’t stop going on about it, Ella kindly allowed me to purchase one of her haul.

Mine is the same colourway as a Margaret Stuart dress held in the collections of the Shetland Museum.

(Ella’s photo)

Although it was knitted over thirty years ago, the Jamieson and Smith shades that have been used in the dress are still immediately recognisable to me: FC14, 122, 1281, 141 (used in my Northmavine hap and hoody) and 125 (used in my Puffin Sweater). FC14 is one of those beautifully complex J&S shades (a deep blue with a slightly shimmering quality because of the way the yarn is composed of so many different colours) while shade 125 is one of my all-time J&S favourites (it is the exact colour of tinned tomato soup).


The fabric of the dress is not dense at all, but really light and airy — the yarn has been worked at a much looser gauge than normal for, say, a Fairisle piece. As a consequence of the gauge, the dress has considerable drape and swing, but the lovely Shetland wool means that it is also soft and warm. The colourway lends the skirt a fabulous visual effect, and I love that the dress combines two traditional Shetland garments – a hap and a spencer – to create a piece which must have looked tremendously contemporary when it was made. It is a brilliant design.

The construction of the dress is also very interesting to me. The body and skirt appear to have been knit flat, in one piece to the armholes. Here you can see the side seam.


The bodice has then been worked back and forth to the shoulders, and, though the sleeves have been picked up around the armholes, they too have been worked flat and seamed. The whole piece is worked over garter stitch, so I imagine the construction has been specifically designed to minimise purling. A one-piece garter-stitch spencer designed by Margaret Stuart appears in Madeleine Weston’s Classic British Knits – on this garment, the seam is worked up the centre, but the minimal-purl, one-piece construction appears very similar to that which has been used in my dress. But imagine the seamless fun that might be had working one of these pieces in the round using the no-purl garter stitch technique!

I am absolutely thrilled with my lovely new dress. Thankyou, Ella and thankyou Margaret for allowing me to acquire it! It will take pride of place in my growing collection of vintage Shetland knitwear!


A comment on Ella’s blog from Margaret herself leads me to hope that she may, at some point, republish the pattern for this wonderful dress. I’m sure there are many of you out there who, like me, would love to knit one.

For those of you interested in kits
The shop will be updated at 12 noon GMT tomorrow (Sunday December 8th) with more stock of Toatie Hotties, and another new seasonal design!

55 thoughts on “a spencer dress

  1. What can we do to encourage her to publish the pattern? It is still current and gorgeous. I would love to knit and wear that dress!

  2. That is really lovely, and I’m not surprised you’re pleased. I’ve seen the one in the Shetland Museum book and marvelled at it – great to see how good it looks when worn. Wonderful pattern…

  3. It is divine – so jealous. It would be wonderful if Margaret Stuart does republish the pattern – I just wish I had the patience to knit … and then the time and patience to improve my basic skills to be able to produce such wonderful pieces. Do you know if there was ever a similar pattern, but for a button-through dress? I remember one – very similar in colours and design otherwise. It was in a TV advert in the early 70s. I was a young (hippyish) teenager and coveted the ‘TV’ dress for my first adult party. Of course, Chelsea Girl and even Biba etc had nothing like. Gorgeous.

  4. Wow! This is wonderful and it suits you so well.
    The possibilities of color combinations using J&S is a heady dream.
    I too hope she republishes the pattern – working in the round would be so efficient.

  5. It is lovely and fits you very beautifully. Would you make a pattern, of your interpretation, of this dress? I would love to knit that. Thank-you for sharing these photos and sharing your friends blog.

  6. Beautiful! It is very cold here today, so I have to admit that the first thing I thought when I saw this was “I want a dress that warm!” Or at the very least a knitted skirt – perhaps that will be my first goal.

  7. Ooh…pretty. The drape of the skirt and the colours are exquisite. I especially love the pale blue against the tomato red. I know I’m in a minority these days but I still prefer the look of seamed knitwear (probably from my interest in sewing and garment construction generally), so this aspect pleases me!

  8. What a beautiful dress Kate! How lucky Ella found a few more dresses and was able to let you buy one! The colours are indeed beautiful. Jamieson and Smith never ceize to amaze me with their beautiful yarn. It’s amazing to see how well their yarn stands the test of time.

  9. Beautiful dress, gorgeous skirt with those colours and the movement. It fits you beautifully. And also a joy to read MargaretĀ“s comments.

  10. I still can’t believe how well the colors and fabric have held up after all those years. I’d love to knit a dress like that. It fits you beautifully. It was destined to be yours.

  11. Beautiful! I would knit this dress and wear it to death! Since you say that the dress is knit at a loose gauge, could it be that Margaret Stuart decided to go with seams in order to prevent excessive stretching?

  12. I bought Classic British Knits way back in the 80s and it’s still a fave! It’s a coincidence that you mention no-purl garter stitch. I only heard of it this week when a Danish knitter on Ravelry posted comments about how she was knitting Harriet’s Jacket. Always more to learn…

  13. Lovely, absolutely lovely. The design and colours are so thoughtful and satisfying. It is wonderful that you, and Ella, are allowing these dresses to live again. I am currently making Margaret Stuart’s spencer pattern, a very pleasing design and nice to knit.

  14. Give me about 4 inches taller and I’d be wearing this too! (That would take my midriff out!) Still love your boots!
    I’ve considered the pattern stitch for a sweater, but had not considered for a skirt. Just shows what talent you have. Beautiful!

  15. You look spectacular in that dress! I just bought the BMC to practice :) I was surprised at the construction, being dyslexic :) I was looking at it just the opposite way haha
    Thank you for showing this.

  16. Between you & Ella, you’re going to start a revival of this classic style. We will all make Margaret rich buying the pattern, not to mention J&S. Planning my colors now.

  17. Fabulous dress; just the thing my wardrobe could use. I really hope that pattern becomes available soon. By the way, it looks great on you.

  18. I love this look! I was in NY on Friday at a museum exhibit and a lady there had a dress on. I asked if it was a Spencer and she said yes how did I know. I explained re your site and she was very impressed. Apparently it originally belonged to her mother. It looked fabulous also!!! Enjoy!

  19. This is so beautiful! I’ve always thought i couldn’t wear knitted dresses as I’m a plus size lady and they often aren’t very flattering for the fuller figure, although I love them to look at. This one is nicely shaped to create a waist, and would suit my figure, although ideally the colours would be on the top half and the skirt would be plain for me, as am pear shaped. I do really really love this though, I can imagine there would be tons of interest if the pattern was ever reprinted! You look wonderful in it!

  20. The whole idea of a knitted dress both thrills and scares me.
    I LOVE the look of them & to be completely dressed in wool must be divine. But I have always worried about “extra bottom” you know, you’ve been sitting down, you stand up and your dress still appears to be sitting…..
    Please tell me this doesn’t happen because there are a few knitted skirts I would love to tackle too!

  21. It looks really wonderful on you, as does Ella’s on her. It is a lovely design.

    Does it need to be seamed in order to support the weight of the garment and stop it dropping and going out of shape?

    I, too, would love to get my hands on the pattern. One of the commenters said she is knitting the dress. Does she already have a pattern? Or is she a friend of Margaret Spencer. :)

  22. I am guessing that the dress is knitted from the bottom up like a hap with a lacy edge and then an old shell striped panel that moves into the garter stitch of the spencer pattern. The whole garment has a side seam, I think. Margaret Stuart’s spencer top is in The Traditional Sweater Book by Madeline Weston published in 1987 and now an inexpensive second hand buy. This spencer is knitted bottom up with a central front seam and is great fun to knit. Haven’t these wonderful dresses caught our imagination, so well done by Kate and Ella Gordon!

  23. This is a spectacular dress and it looks spectacular on you. (And I think that kind of murky days make for very good photos of colourful items, btw).

    I read about this in the previous post and followed your link to Ella’s site. i got very interested in the concept of a spencer, and was disappointed to find there’s next to nothing on ravelry. Given that spencer is also a family name,it seems equally impossible to find something useful googling it. Wouldn’t you be so kind and tell us a bit more about this garment? (the actual,original spencer, that is, the upper body garment)

  24. Just a comment on the no-purl garter stitch in the round.
    The way that is shown on the video leaves a gaping seam line. The trick is to just drop the thread, and not move it until it is time to pick it up when you turn the work. That way the end of round will be almost invisible. If you start moving threads from front to back it will leave an unneccesary gaping hole. I know because I did just that despite this excellent tutorial:

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About Kate Davies

writer, designer and creator of Buachaille (100% Scottish wool)