A snow day
Time for a walk . . .
on the West Highland Way!
An online friend sent me a link to this Guardian article, which raises the issue of Stroke misdiagnosis in children and young people. The article tells the story of 13 year-old Isaac, whose stroke was caused by a hole in his heart, and whose condition was incorrectly diagnosed following a CT scan. This is exactly what happened to me five years ago. Stroke misdiagnosis among “non-typical” patients (those who are young, apparently healthy, and without ‘usual’ risk factors) is a surprisingly common and serious issue that urgently needs addressing. Here’s what happened in my own case.
As I was whisked away to hospital on that cold February morning in 2010, I recall trying my hardest to ask the ambulance paramedic “have I had a stroke?” To me this seemed the only logical explanation for the sudden horrific event which had left me half paralysed and barely able to speak. At the hospital, I was seen by an eminent Edinburgh neurologist, who breezed in with his satchel. He looked at my notes, conducted a brief examination, and sent me away for a CT scan. A CT scan is a notoriously blunt instrument in stroke diagnosis, and mine showed no abnormalities. “Good news” said the neurologist, “you haven’t had a stroke.”
“Then what on earth has happened to me?”
“Do you have a stressful job?”
“Yes I do.”
“Would you say you were suffering from stress at work?”
“It seems your body has decided to convert that psychological stress into a physical reaction.”
I was absolutely mystified. It was certainly true that I was at rock bottom mentally, and that my condition had been exacerbated by work-related stress, but was I really so damned mad that my brain had made my body just give up? What on earth could this mean? The neurologist wrote up some notes. I received no medication or treatment of any kind. I was taken to a neurology ward, rather than the stroke unit, and manouevred into a bed.
“What’s going to happen to me?” I asked the ward sister.
“We’ll have you out of here very soon” she said.
This was early in the morning, and that first whole day and night on the ward were truly the worst hours I’ve ever spent. I recall feeling extremely peculiar – my whole body fizzed with a painful and horrible paresthesia (pins and needles). I had an appalling headache, was experiencing visual disturbances, and could hardly hear or speak. The world kept going in and out of focus, and I had no movement at all down the left side of my body. My face drooped, the left side of my mouth flopped uselessly, and I just slumped over when I tried to sit. I was brought some food, which I managed to eat with my right hand. I called the nurse when I needed a pee. Getting me to the toilet was a strange and difficult palaver – one of the many things me and my newly disabled body were going to have to get used to. Poor, ashen-looking Tom was told to go away and find me some clothes suitable for a hospital stay. Left alone, I was completely and utterly terrified. I cried with fear. Was I completely mad? What was happening to my body? What on earth was going on with me?
The following morning, I was greeted by a pleasant medical student. She very carefully conducted a full neurological examination. She took her time and was extremely thorough. My dead left leg became the focus of her particular attention. She lightly and repeatedly hit it with one of those small hammers which, until that moment, I had never really seen in use outside of a child’s play medical set. Though the leg was completely dead to me – I was unable to move it at all – it seemed that its reflexes had become extremely intense. When she hit it, it juddered and shook wildly. The student compared my left leg to my right. While the right leg displayed a brief and ‘normal’ reflex reaction, the left reacted with uncontrollable spasticity. The student disappeared, and returned some moments later with one of the ward’s junior neurologists. She demonstrated the different reactions of my two legs to the hammer. There was a hushed and animated discussion.
Then things started happening very quickly. A wheelchair was found, and the medical student personally whizzed me off to the MRI scanner. I bypassed a waiting room full of people and was lifted into the weird tumble-dryer, where they looked at my brain. When I emerged, I could tell from the faces of the scanner operative and the medical student that something was really very wrong. The student pushed me down another corridor, to the cardio-vascular unit, where I had a bubble test. The MRI had shown that two rogue blood clots had found their way into my brain and destroyed a significant portion of its right hemisphere, while the bubble test revealed the hole in my heart through which those clots had passed. As I had assumed in the ambulance, as I had felt the whole of the previous day, I had indeed had a stroke. The medical student had suspected this from my leg’s intense, uncontrolled reactions to her hammer. This is known as clonus, and it is a positive sign of serious neurological conditions, such as stroke and MS.
Back on the neurology ward, things were very different. I was swiftly injected with heparin, and carefully examined by several other neurologists, including the eminent one who had initially misdiagnosed me. I became very aware that the attitudes of a small number of staff – most notably the ward sister – had markedly changed toward me. She was super-attentive, friendly, sympathetic. It slowly dawned on me that on the previous day she had regarded me as some sort of odd, malingering hysteric, but that now I was a different sort of a patient – a patient with a serious brain injury, a patient who had been disabled by a stroke.
The neurologist who first examined me had looked at my medical records, seen the barrage of psychiatrists and psychologists and GPs reports, read about my psychotic episodes and recently-diagnosed mood disorder, and decided that I was one of those highly-strung, over-achieving types – the types who, when heading off to their stressful jobs on a monday morning, find that their brains and bodies have just about had enough, and fall over, paralysed. Indeed, I was perhaps the type of woman who studies suggest are most prone to suffer from Conversion Disorder – what used to be called hysteria – but that was not why I had ended up in hospital. I was there because I’d had a stroke. I had been misdiagnosed by an eminent neurologist (who based his decision on years of experience and his own assumptions) and correctly diagnosed by a junior medical student (who had little experience, but who was intrigued by medical fact).
I hold no grudge at all against the eminent neurologist. After his initial mistake, I felt he consistently treated me as a human equal, and, in subsequent decisions about my care, I always felt he had my back. He was also quick to admit his error – indeed, he held it up as an example. A few days after my stroke he took me to a meeting of around 50 Scottish neurologists, where I was questioned about my background and my symptoms, and where his own misdiagnosis was revealed. I was taken out of the room before they discussed how they had actually got to the bottom of the matter, but I saw the medical student was there in the room at this meeting. Her name, I recall, was Laura. I hope they gave her a hearty round of applause.
I spent one day as a person who had been incorrectly diagnosed with Conversion Disorder. It was the worst day of my life. I really can’t stress the importance of my stroke’s correct diagnosis strongly enough. It allowed me to receive the right treatment, as well as to understand what was really happening to me, but this did not happen until around 36 hours had passed since my first arrival at hospital. Did my brain suffer further damage in that interim? Would my recovery have been swifter, or more complete, had I been given immediate thrombolysis or other clot-busting medication? No one can say. I think I’ve really done pretty well with recovery so far, but as the Guardian article makes clear, new diagnostic guidelines for stroke in children and young people are most definitely, and most urgently, needed.
Thanks to Joan Keating for sending me the link to the Guardian article.
Few things make me happier than seeing what amazing knitters do with my patterns. I wanted to give a shout out to a few of these knitters, and some fabulous finished objects that have appeared in recent months. Above is Tanya, wearing her wonderful Cockatoo Brae. You’ll notice that Tanya has retained the colours of the original sample, but has changed the ‘star’ and border motif. The curves and curls of the star that Tanya selected make a significant difference to the overall look of the yoke, and I really like the effect (if you are thinking of modifying the yoke in a similar way, simply select a star of the same stitch and row count in a book of Fairisle motifs, such as those by Mary Jane Mucklestone or Sheila McGregor). At 6’1 Tanya is also enviably tall – somewhat taller than the ‘average’ proportions on which I base my pattern sizing – so found she had to make some alterations the increase / decrease rate on both sleeves and body, adding a few inches of length to make her sweater fit her well (remember to factor in extra yarn, as Tanya did, if you are doing the same). I think her cardigan looks fantastic!
It has been particularly nice to see a few Machrihanish vests being knitted up recently – Bill looks marvellous in his Machrihanish, which was knitted for him by Stacy. Stacy omitted the pattern’s waist shaping, and also added several stitches to the steeks at both underarm and neck, which she found helpful in giving her “a greater margin of error”. Bill recently wore his Machrihanish when watching Imitation Game and Stacy “loved seeing all the men in the movie wear vests of similar design.”
Kim was very industrious and whipped up not one but two Machrihanish vests before Christmas – for Hamish (left) and Lachlan (right). To make the pattern in Lachlan’s size, Kim examined the cast on stitch count and dimensions of the 7-8 year old size of Susan Crawford’s Wartime Farm Sleeveless Pullover , and adjusted the pattern accordingly. Like Stacy, Kim also added a few stitches to the steeks, and reinforced them with her sewing machine: “crochet and I don’t always get along”. I absolutely love this festive picture of Hamish and Lachlan in their jolly vests!
In the entire-family-in-matching-knitwear-cuteness stakes, I don’t think you can beat Eimear’s Epistropheids!
After knitting hats for herself and her man, Eimear scaled down the pattern for her wee girl “I think I cast on 95 stitches and increased to 105″ she says.
Karen enjoyed working the cabling “the pattern was easy to memorise and, in the ochre shade I chose, gave the appearance to me of abundant hair plaits of which I have always been envious.” She also liked the pattern’s finishing details, “an i-cord bind off which I had never done before.” Karen particularly appreciated knitting Westering Home through the chilly winter months: “it kept me warm during January as I sat beneath it as I knitted”, and she loves the finished garment “I have even had admiring strangers discussing it with me on buses and in a pub!” I think the ochre shade of Artesano Aran Karen chose is so rich and warm – a perfect match for the cable pattern.
I love pretty much everything Georgie knits, and had to show you this lovely photograph of her recently-completed Owligan. “I’ve hardly taken it off since I knitted it,” says Georgie, “It really is warm enough to use instead of a coat when nipping here and there. I didn’t make any mods, just knit the body a little longer (hence why I ran out of yarn for the buttonbands), also didn’t add button eyes – I love it how it is.”
I was very struck by the lovely wintery look of Clara’s Warriston
Clara made her sweater a little more tunic than jumper-like, going up a size at the hips and adding a few inches of length.
Seeing Clara’s Warriston really makes me want to make one in white!
I always find it interesting how far changing shades can completely alter the feel of a design – I was really struck by how Beatriz’s use of Kauni as the contrast yarn totally altered the effect of the colourwork of her Epistrophy. I think the way the graded colours work their way through the diamond motifs up the yoke is very subtle, and incredibly beautiful.
Here is Kristie, in her beautiful Bluebells (which I confess is one of my personal favourites from my Yokes collection) Kristie added some length to both sleeves and body, and omitted some of the waist shaping to make a slightly less fitted garment.
Kristie says “my only caution would be if you are knitting this sweater in low light be careful not to confuse the MC blue with the CC blue. I learned the hard way!” Kristie has written about her experience of knitting this sweater here.
Maybe it is the time of year or something – everything in the landscape seems so scoured out and colourless – but I find myself on a massive orange kick. And what better orange could there possibly be than this?
The yarn is Bulky lopi in shade 1418 – “carrot tweed”. Such a rich, deep firey shade! So carroty, so very, very . . . orange! The Icelandic wool so thick, so warm! The tweedy neps so nubbly and so pleasing! I just had to knit myself another Owligan.
I knit this Owligan a little shorter – around 14 inches to the underarm. Making the first size, I used just under seven skeins of yarn. Because of the tweedy nature of the lopi, the finished garment has a rather rustic feel – which is quite different to my other versions of this cardigan.
My orange Owligan is the ultimate antitdote to a grey February day and I absolutely love it.
It is Ravelled here.
As you may know, my multi-talented friend Felicity Ford (aka Felix) frequently helps me out by producing illustrations of my designs, for reproduction in my patterns and books. I found her Yokes drawings really pleasing, and particularly so when they were illustrated collectively, as they are on page 5 of the book, and above.
So I decided to get some new tote bags made.
When you start manufacturing and printing things, whether that’s bags or books or whatever, you find yourself having to consider all sorts of matters that would never have crossed your mind before . . . paper stock, glues and bindings, types of fabric, different printing and stitching processes, labour conditions, environmental practices, and so on. I can honestly say I never imagined I’d spend as much time as I do thinking about the weight of printed paper, or, in the present case, tonal printing and gussetting. As I’ve made a few of these totes now, I have a good idea of the sort of thing I like, and the sort of thing that is possible to produce. The Yokes totes are a little different from my previous bags in a few respects. First, we’ve used a few shades of grey in order to best reproduce the pleasing tonal effect of Felix’s pencil drawings. . .
. . . and I’m really pleased with how the illustrations have turned out on the finished fabric.
Second, the bags are made from a good quality 5oz cotton and are gussetted, which makes them pleasingly robust and sturdy.
They are also manufactured from fairly traded cotton, and printed in the UK, by a company with fully transparent environmental and ethical policies, which is important to me.
In short, I am pleased with these totes, and if you fancy one, you’ll now find them on sale in my shop.
And if you are interested in Felix’s process when illustrating my designs, you may like to read this post.
I recently had a chat with one of my favourite designers, Gudrun Johnston, and thought I’d bring this to you today. I just love Gudrun’s work. She has this knack of producing designs that are are always classic, timeless and wearable, often using stitch patterns (particularly those originating from Shetland) in really innovative and interesting ways. And if you’ve ever knit one of Gudrun’s designs, you’ll know that she always writes a clear and eminently knitterly pattern. She’s a great designer creating beautiful knitwear, and her Shetland Trader Book Two is for me one of the real stand-out collections of recent months. I wanted to talk to Gudrun about her work, and hear more about producing this stunning collection, and I thought you’d like to hear more about it too.
If you’d like to get a real flavour of Shetland Trader Book Two (and its beautiful Unst location) Gudrun’s photographer, Kathy Cadigan, shot this lovely video, which makes a great accompaniment to the interview.
1. Can you tell us a little bit about your knitting background, Gudrun? Did you learn to knit as a child? And when did knitting turn into a business for you?
Despite being born in Shetland and having a mother who was designing knitwear during my early years, I actually didn’t learn to knit until I was around age 9 and it didn’t happen in Shetland!
I was living on a different island off the west coast of Scotland (the Isle of Rum, to be precise) and was attending a teeny primary school. At one point my brother and I were the only pupils. Like I said, teeny. The schoolteacher introduced me to knitting, though all I remember is creating a rather unattractive pastel-green ribbed vest.
I didn’t pick it up again until around 11 years ago. I was more than rusty, but I found all the basics were still there. I was quickly obsessed with creating knitted items and dove head first into exploring the possibilities. In terms of it becoming an actual business… that more gradually crept up on me.
Like other indie designers I owe a lot to the launch of Ravelry. It was perfect timing for me in that I was just getting started writing and publishing my own patterns and here was this easy platform from which I could connect with knitters all over the world! It really snowballed from there with all sorts of great connections being made with people in the industry.
2. I often find that absence from a well-known and well-loved place can shape oneʼs sense of it as much as constant presence. Has this been your experience regarding your relationship with Shetland? And if so, does this occasional distance / absence have any influence on your designs?
My relationship with Shetland has had a huge influence on my designs. Although I very much identify with being from Shetland now, that wasn’t the case for most of my childhood. I was born there (and my great grand parents were from Shetland) but after 13 years of living there my parents relocated to mainland Scotland when I was around 4.
We made occasional visits to Shetland over the years but it wasn’t until my parents retired back there about 12 years ago that I have been a more frequent visitor. This coincided with my interest in knitting. So as I was getting reacquainted with the Shetland landscape and people I was also learning about the rich knitting traditions.
Now I get to visit Shetland more frequently and always look forward to the time I spend there. Every visit opens up a new opportunity to connect and dig deeper, to learn new things about the wool industry and history, see new designers work and get inspired, quite often by the landscape. I feel like I’m from Shetland now in a way I didn’t when I was a kid, I like to imagine that I’ll end up there more permanently at some point in the not too distant future.
3. Your mum, Patricia Johnston, worked in a similar field and I was lucky enough to be able to see one of her original designs in a recent exhibition in Lerwick. That exhibition really made me appreciate your mumʼs important position as one of a handful of Shetland women who, in the 1970s, took the knitwear industry into their own hands, and began to shape its direction in really innovative and creative ways. Your brand now shares its name with hers, and I wonder if you could say a little about how her precedent inspired (and continues to inspire) you?
I am so proud of what my mum accomplished with her business, and being able to carry on the Shetland Trader name is such an honor. I was incredibly moved to see her sweater in the exhibition and so glad to see her get recognition for her role in the Shetland knitwear industry. Despite not being a Shetlander (she’s English), or a knitter, she blended the traditional with the contemporary to create some incredibly unique garments.
As these were all made to order garments we don’t have many in our possession any longer. I have a few of her kids garments that were worn by my siblings and I. They’ve been passed on to our children. Believe it or not, they’re still going strong. I have a folder of photographs showing all of my mother’s designs. I often look through it for inspiration. I also more recently came across two sweaters that were purchased by a Shetlander at a local sale. These particular sweaters really speak to her eye for detail. Unusually, they blend Fair Isle with lace, and have beautiful bell sleeves and high turtlenecks. Very seventies, yet still current!
My mum had taste with her own unique flair. And a good work ethic that inspires me every day.
4. Shetland Trader book 2 is a wonderfully balanced collection, with different signature pieces featuring a variety of texture, colour and openwork; different yarn styles and weights and a wide range of techniques. I know from experience that creating this balance can be an awful lot of work! Can you say a little about how you went about planning the collection?
I would love to be able to say that all of those aspects were very carefully planned out, but that isn’t totally true! I knew that for this second collection I wanted Shetland yarns to feature heavily. That served as the foundation for many of the designs. I had already worked with several of the yarns available, but others were less familiar to me. I spent time swatching and gathering ideas.
My first collection had featured Shetland Lace patterns. Although I wanted to bring this into the new collection, I also wanted to explore the use of Fair Isle this time around. I had a lot of ideas for this collection, some came fully formed and definitely influenced other pieces in the collection and others never made it in. Sometimes narrowing down all the possibilities is the hardest part!
5. The collection is photographed in a beautiful Shetland location, Belmont House, in Unst. This extraordinary setting has a wonderful ease and tranquility, and the house and your designs somehow really speak to one another! Can you tell us a little about this location and how it inspired the collection?
I was just starting to put the collection together when I first visited Belmont House, a self-catering property in a marvelously remote location. I was with fellow designer (and friend) Mary Jane Mucklestone. We were considering Belmont for our Shetland trips and had organized to take a look around. The property – inside and out – blew us away. It was so beautiful. Some very dedicated and passionate people had meticulously restored it, with perfect attention to detail.
It wasn’t quite right for our trips, but I quickly realized how perfect it would be for photographing the new collection! Choosing yarn colours for the collection, I referenced the palette from Belmont House often as well as the general Shetland landscape. Having spent time inside the house meant it was easier for me to plan for the photoshoot too.
We stayed in the house over 3 days and had lots of time to find the best backdrops for each design. With it being summertime, we had plenty of light to play with, including the beautiful Shetland simmer dim. The quality of that evening light is remarkable. Aside from being there to shoot for the book, I had a contingent of my extended family there. We had a lot of fun!
6. Designers often work very differently, and Iʼm always interested to hear about the stages of their process. Can you talk us through the process of creating one of the designs in Shetland Trader book 2?
One of my favorites from the collection is the Belmont cardigan, so let me tell you about that!
Usually I begin a design with sketching and swatching and this was true for Belmont. I knew I wanted it to be a fitted and cropped style of cardigan, and I knew exactly the yarn I wanted to use (in this case Jamieson and Smith Shetland Heritage in a lovely fresh green). I had already decided on the lace pattern I wanted to use. It was a lace pattern that came about as the result of a knitting mistake made by a Shetland knitter. I had already used the same pattern in the Hermaness Hats (also part of this collection). So I spent time swatching and trying to figure out how I wanted the lace to sit on the fronts. I tend to knit fairly elaborate swatches to figure out any unusual shaping rather than doing lots of maths ahead of time. My brain works best that way. Once I settled on my idea, I figured out the numbers for the size I was making. I will usually just write the pattern out only in the size I’m making and do the grading afterwards.
In this case my notions of what the gauge was like in a swatch became quite different once the knitting was underway. Because the fronts are all in lace and the back in Stockinette Stitch, there was going to be a difference in gauge. I didn’t compensate enough for that and once I was past the hem and working on the body (it is knit seamlessly bottom up) it was apparent that there was far too much fabric on the back! I had to completely rip back and re-do some numbers Not too drastic, but an example to me of how knitted fabric can surprise you!
7. I think your work has an immediately recognisable aesthetic: thereʼs always a certain ease about it, and a way of making classic stitches feel unfussy, fresh and contemporary. Can you talk a little about the design styles and kinds of aesthetics that you draw on for inspiration?
I tend to wear fairly unfussy clothes. I don’t feel comfortable when there is too much going on in the fabric. No ribbons and frills for me! So I think when it comes to designing hand knits it’s natural for me to keep the lines clean and make the garment something that will appeal across the board. I am hugely influenced by the Shetland knitting traditions, the lace patterns in particular, and enjoy finding ways to use them in a contemporary context. You can find those clean lines in Shetland lace patterns as they are often very geometric and distinct. They can be elaborate and sometimes difficult to knit, but yet they retain a certain simplicity and timeless quality.
8. I find that it’s incredibly important to have a convivial and collaborative team of folk around me when working on a large project. Could you tell us about the different people involved in producing Shetland Trader Book 2?
I couldn’t agree with you more! It can be hard to work in isolation so much. When it comes to getting to work with other people it’s very refreshing.
Seeing as I knew that I would be in Shetland for the shoot it made sense to get some Shetland lassies involved in the modeling. I began by asking Ella Gordon, who you know well. I had met her several times and knew that she’d be a great model, especially as a wool lover and employee of Jamieson and Smith! I then figured it would be nice to have a second face for contrast and approached Ella’s friend Vivian (also a Shetlander). I had seen photos of her via Ella’s instagram feed. Thankfully, she was enthusiastic to join us too. This worked out really well as the two of them were very relaxed and comfortable during the shoot (and also just lovely to hang out with)!
Ella in Burrafith
The photographer, Kathy Cadigan, was also someone I already knew and liked. Conveniently enough, she had signed up to come on our first Shetland trip (which happened right before the shoot). I love Kathy’s aesthetic and energy and knew she would capture exactly what I was aiming for with this collection.
Ella and Vivian in Hermaness Hats
Mary Jane is not only a dear, dear friend of mine, but an experienced stylist. I was very pleased to have her there to keep tabs on all things style/clothing related!
On the technical side of things I had Carrie Hoge do all the graphic design. She had done such a lovely job on my first Shetland Trader collection. I feel very in tune with her whole design aesthetic.
For technical editing I had Heather Zoppetti (who is also my wholesaler and a wonderful designer in her own right). For sample knitting I had a trusted and exceptional knitter, Nicole Dupuis to help me out.The printing was done by Puritan Press, who had also produced my first book. They are a small press in New Hampshire and wonderful to work with! They even made sure to have some early books ready for me to collect and bring to Wool Week last year!
Oh, and I shouldn’t forget my extended family, who made meals for us all!
All of these people made the book what it is, and I’m so incredibly grateful to have been able to work with them all!
9. Can you tell us about the textile and knitting tours youʼve recently been organising in Shetland? Will those be running again this year?
Various people had asked both Mary Jane and me if we would ever consider doing trips to Shetland. We eventually thought why not! Our first two trips ran last year, one in the summer and the other during wool week. We had groups of 12 on each trip. The accommodation was in Burrastow House, another beautiful location on the west side of Shetland. We had the place to ourselves and the group were served delicious meals by the charming Belgian owner, Pierre.
The trips are heavily fiber focused, but we also wanted people to truly experience the Shetland landscape and it’s inhabitants. There were fiber related classes, visits to Jamieson and Smith and Jamieson’s yarn companies, visits to a working croft where we watched hand clipping of Shetland sheep (with the option to have a go), visits with local designers, talk and tour of the Shetland Museum Textile exhibit, a boat trip to see some birds and seals, and of course down time for everyone to do some of their own exploring!
The two trips are fairly similar with the biggest differences being the time of year and the fact that the Wool Week trip means there are even more knitters in Shetland and even more fibery things happening!
I’m pleased to say that they both seem to have been successes! We received very positive feedback from the groups. There are even 5 of them returning for their own trip to Shetland for Wool Week this year.
So yes, we are running them again in 2015! We have already built up an email list of potential participants, so they have had the initial information and option to sign up early. We will be opening the remaining spots up to the general public soon. Information can be found on my website.
10. Finally, whatʼs next for the Shetland Trader?
The next big thing for The Shetland Trader (and my family) is that it will be based in Scotland as of this summer! This will mean closer proximity to Shetland (we will be living in Edinburgh) and hence lots more opportunities to visit and gather inspiration! It will also make it easier to run the trips, and potentially mean I can do them more often.
In terms of the design side of things I am hoping to start work on another collection that would see some of my mother’s designs written up with some of my touches thrown in. Of course there will also continue to be collaborations with other yarn companies too!
Thanks so much for this illuminating chat, Gudrun! I’m really looking forward to seeing more of you when you return to bonnie Scotland!
I don’t know about you, but I am extremely excited about Tate Modern’s Sonia Delaunay retrospective, which opens in a couple of months. I’ve long had a thing for Delaunay’s work, but have never had the opportunity to see much of her work in person, particularly her textiles. I wrote an editorial feature about the significance of her work a couple of years ago for the Rowan Magazine, and it seemed a good moment to reproduce it here.
Today, modern art and fashion seem familiarly hand-in-glove. Patricia Field uses the work of Keith Haring to define her version of New York style; Yayoi Kusama collaborates with Louis Vuitton to create novel polka-dotted accessories; Phillip Lim appropriates the art of Roy Lichtenstein to lend his latest collection graphic edge. This contemporary fashion / art symbiosis is at its most obvious — perhaps at its most simple — in Lisa Perry’s recent work. Perry is a fashionable art collector as much as a fashion designer, and in her Madison Avenue store — its bright space-age interior echoing the set-design of Kubrick’s 2001 — you’ll find sharp, neatly-cut shift dresses decorated with the work of Jeff Koons or Ellsworth Kelly. Perry treats the dress as a blank canvas upon which the work of her favourite artists might be showcased. Her work is frequently lauded as “new-mod” or “futuristic” for its minimal lines, its optimism, its bold use of colour, and, of course, for its explicit grandstanding of the works of modern art that she most admires. But Perry’s modernist dress of the future also has a past.
Rewind to 1911. A woman sits in a Paris apartment, stitching a quilt for her son. She selects disparate scraps of cloth, placing blocks and stripes and chevrons of coloured fabric in jarring, daring juxtaposition. The high-contrast result is bold and pleasing to her. She looks around at her apartment, its dark and fussy decoration, its heavy, ornate furniture. Something must be done. Little by little, she embarks upon the radical re-design of the spaces in which she lives. The walls are simply rendered, the furniture is replaced by minimal, modern pieces, and the rooms are gradually transformed into a series of blank planes that seem to wait to be enlivened. The woman continues to cut and stitch, to paint and to embroider. A set of curtains here, a pair of cushions there. Upon the wall, she daubs and hangs a canvas of interlocking discs lit up with incadescence. Turning to her own garb, she adopts loose, unstructured clothing, counteracting her garments’ economy of line with bold, swirling, surface colour. The woman’s world is now awash with dynamic hues and her lived environment — clothes, furnishings, paintings, decorative objects – have all become part of the same wild collage. This woman is Sonia Delaunay, whose distinctive aesthetic and many talents made her central to the development of modernist fashion design.
Born in Ukraine, and educated in St Petersburg, Sonia Terk’s background was privileged, and her education wide-ranging. She excelled in mathematics, needlework and painting, debuting her talents in the latter with a solo show in Paris in 1908. It was in Paris that she met Robert Delaunay — one of the early Cubist group of artists interested in transforming contemporary theories of colour. While Robert’s canvases explored new ways of making colour itself the subject of art, Sonia brought her own sense of colour to life in a perhaps far bolder and more extensive way, moving beyond fine art to household textiles, theatre, poetry, film, print, interior design, commercial illustration and, of course, fashion.
Delaunay’s early approach to colour was exemplified in La Prose du Transsibérien, a 1913 collaboration with Swiss poet, Blaise Cendrars. Over the unfolding pages of this spectacular book-object, (published at some considerable expense by Cendrars himself) text and colour were brought together in a unique relationship. Cendrars’ words, and Delaunay’s colours intermingle, collide, wrap around each other. Delaunay was not merely illustrating Cendrars’ text, nor was she developing what might be regarded as a simple dialogue between text and image. Rather, her contribution to La Prose du Transsibérien was to enable colour to become a creative participant in the poetry itself. Delaunay’s rhythmic swirls and splotches produce alternate dissonance and harmony, dynamism and movement, traveling across and around, up and down the page, as Cendrars’ narrator takes an uneasy journey through the conflict and chaos of revolutionary Russia. In the final section, text and image are jointly illuminated with energy as the narrator arrives in Paris, with its bustling streets, new technologies, and iconic constructs — most notably the Eiffel Tower, which announces itself joyously in Delaunay’s brilliant blocks of colour. Each printed copy of La Prose du Transsibérien was contained in a wrapper declaring itself to be “the first simultaneous book,” neither text nor artwork, but an object that demanded to be seen and read at the same time. Cendrars and Delaunay had together painted a picture of words, and written a poetry of colour.
“Simultaneous” was a word that Delaunay applied to much of her work — paintings, illustrations, printed textiles, and embroideries. The word “simultaneous” referred primarily to her particular take on hue (in which contrasts co-exist, lending images and fabrics movement and multiplicity), but extended beyond this to describe her collaborative and often multidisciplinary methods of working. Delaunay’s exuberant idea of the “simultaneous” meant that she might regard the making of a dress, a dance, a poem, a painting, a hat, a melody, a film, a building or a bookbinding — as part of the same energetic creative process. While other artists of her generation struggled with disciplinary boundaries, she happily ignored the distinctions that were assumed to exist between fine and applied art, or indeed between art, craft, and commercial design. Certainly, her distinctive brio as artist and designer derives from her confident handling of so many different media. “For me” she wrote:
“there was no gap between my painting and what is called my decorative work . . . I never considered the ‘minor arts’ to be artistically frustrating: on the contrary, it was an extension of my art, it showed me new ways while using the same method.”
After the dark days of the First World War (which the Delaunays spent in exile in Portugal and Spain), Paris began to reinvent itself anew as the quintessential modernist city. The world seemed to suddenly spring to life with energy and rhythm: electricity, mass production, jazz. Delaunay’s work chimed with the moment, its new sense of optimism, its dynamism, its bright variety and contrast. She began a series of productive collaborations with like-minded artists in a wide range of fields. She was commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev to create costumes for the Ballets Russes, produced robes poemes with Tristan Tszara, and worked with film makers Rene le Somptier and Marcel L’Herbier on costume and set design. Delaunay developed a particular interest in dance, becoming fascinated by the relationship between the body and the textiles that clothed it. For someone who regarded “colour as the skin of the world” it seemed obvious that dress might become a sort of mobile, dynamic tattoo. Delaunay’s friend Blaise Cendrars, celebrated the effect of her clothing in his famous poem On her Dress she has a Body, and Delaunay herself regarded the wearing of “simultaneous” clothing as a sort of physical performance. She and Robert sported her brilliant simultaneous outfits at Parisian balls and cultural events, attracting considerable attention from their contemporaries. This idea of dress as performative, wearable art, resonated with many modernist movements, including the constructivists, surrealists, and of course the futurists (who made clothing central to their manifestos).
Delaunay, in garments of her own design.
Delaunay began to receive commissions, and swiftly rose to prominence as a commercial textile designer. She was just as confident in the world of fashion as she was in that of fine art, declaring herself incredibly frustrated with the trends that had dominated the 1910s, condemning the hobble skirt (“the skirt is not adapted to walking, but walking to the skirt, which is nonsense”) and what she saw as the pointless “multiplied refinements” of Art Nouveau. Like Chanel, she favoured a total economy of line and garments in which form clearly followed function. “Dress,” wrote Delaunay, “must be adapted to the necessities of daily life, to the movements which it dictates.” Her modern customers were clearly in agreement. In Paris, Baudelaire’s male flaneur had transformed into the female flapper: women were cutting their hair, wearing dresses they could dance in, and adopting the mode garçonne. Delaunay was keen to design modern clothes for modern women, clothes with a purpose and function to the fore. Her simultaneous fashions were meant to move with the body that moved in them. She designed hats to drive in; skirts to dance in; swimsuits to swim in; thick coats and wraps in which to swathe the body during a brisk Winter’s walk. Her bold garments, in which the female body was animated by the colours and rhythms of the modern city, had found their moment, and were the surprise hit of the 1925 Paris exposition.
“How natural it will be,” Robert Delaunay enthused of Sonia’s newly popular designs:
“to see a woman get out of a sleek new car, her appearance answering to the modernised interior of her home, which is also shaking off its old, dusty cornices to rediscover simple, pure lines. [Sonia Delaunay’s simultaneous fashions] are responsive to the painting, to the architecture of modern life, to the bodies of cars, to the beautiful and original forms of airplanes — in short, to the aspirations of this active, modern age which has forged a style intimately related to its incredibly fast and intense life. [Sonia Delaunay] creates fabrics that are oriented to an era yet to come.”
Delaunay suddenly found her talents in great demand, and was celebrated everywhere by fashion writers and cultural commentators as the designer of the “dress of the future.”
What was it about Delaunay’s simultaneous fashions that made them feel so modern, so very future-oriented, in the 1920s? First, of course, is her particular use of colour. At a first glance, her palettes seem to be almost abandoned, alive with multiple, wild hues, but on closer examination one sees that they are in fact almost minimalist — generally limited to three or four shades plus neutrals. She tends to use vivid contrasts, and a little tonal shading, in signature arrangements of chevrons and swirling discs. In Delaunay’s “simultaneous” outfits, it is these chevrons and zig-zags — sometimes printed, sometimes rendered in dense, embroidered satin stitch — that are key to creating the undulating, almost prismatic effect of movement from her carefully-chosen palettes. Her shapes have rhythm, but they are also freed by a lack of strict regularity (Delaunay often became irritated with those who suggested her designs were ‘geometric’ as she felt this reduced their vitality and individuality to a sort of painting-by-numbers.)
But Delaunay’s simultaneous fashions were also modern, and modernist, in their use of fabric as a plane. Among her contemporaries in couture, her designs were perhaps definitively planar, two-dimensional, in their treatment of material. While other designers (Fortuny; Vionnet) were exploring innovative three-dimensional sculptural techniques of pleating and cutting, Delaunay saw her simply-shaped designs as flat surfaces waiting to be animated by rhythm and colour. (She later described herself as “incapable of sculpting”). The straight-up-and-down shift dress was, then, her ideal blank canvas, and its simple, unobtrusive lines perfectly suited to being transformed by her into a walking work of art. In this sense, her work has much in common with the Bauhaus treatment of planes and surfaces (indeed Walter Gropius was a friend of Delaunay’s, and a great admirer of her interiors).
Delaunay had her own vision for fashion’s new direction. Designers should not be tempted, she wrote, to take “inspiration derived from the past” but must instead “grapp[le] with the subject as if everything begins anew each day.” The work of artists would achieve popular currency, and be properly valued; collaborations with technologists would make beautiful, quality design accessible, affordable and wearable by all, and through improved mass production, fashion would at last “democratise itself, and this democratisation can only be beneficial since it will raise the general standards of the industry.” “The future of fashion is very clear to me,” she wrote with characteristic confidence.
Delaunay was speaking, of course, with the familiar optimism of the 1920s. Her perspective (as much as her bold aesthetic) is recognisably modernist in its faith in new technology, its wonder at the potential of mass production, and its belief in a better future. Things appeared rather less bright and hopeful over the next few decades, as the world was shaken by economic collapse, horrific war, and its grim aftermath. Delaunay closed the fashion end of her business, continued to paint, and worked closely with the Amsterdam firm, Metz & Co producing innovative surface designs for textiles. She began to explore the potential of the square, and professed admiration for the work of Piet Mondrian.
Not until the 1960s did Western culture feel an optimism, an energy, a hope for the future comparable with that of the milieu Delaunay had inhabited forty years previously. And how did fashion mark this moment? With a straight up-and-down shift dress whose simple lines were enlivened with a bright and striking work of modern art.
By the late 1950s, mod girls, frustrated with the era’s fashions, began to stitch up their own simple shift dresses — dresses in which they could dance to the rhythms of jazz and soul. Designers such as André Courrèges took their cue from the street — raising hems, and radically simplifying the line with the elimination of bust and waist in a manner obviously reminiscent of the 1920s. The season following the first appearance of Courrèges’ angular mini dresses, Yves Saint Laurent debuted a collection whose show-stopping garment was a shift dress boldy emblazoned with a painting he identified as Piet Mondrian’s number 81. Yves Saint Laurent famously declared himself as “a failed painter,” but like much of his work, this dress was certainly suggestive of aesthetic innovation rather than deficiency. Situated at the intersections of art, fashion, and popular culture, it spoke powerfully to the moment. By 1965, largely because of photographic reproductions, the work of Mondrian was so instantly recognisable that it had become iconic. In a canny move, YSL, in effect appropriated that iconic status for his dress which, when it appeared on the cover of Vogue in 1965, created an international sensation. It was hailed by Harper’s Bazaar as “the dress of tomorrow” and within weeks, printers and cutters were hard at work creating copycat Mondrian shift dresses for everyone, at every price point. The YSL ‘originals’ cost around £1800, and were fashioned from high-quality wool jersey. Each coloured block and line was painstakingly cut and individually stitched to create a bold streamlined patchwork. But by 1966, cotton or rayon dresses featuring a Mondrian-esque design printed directly onto the fabric were circulating on the streets of London for between £37 and £60. Then, in a shift that anticipates some of the complexities of the art-fashion nexus today, the popular currency of the YSL dress began to reflect back on the commercial value of the work that had inspired it. As iconic fashion borrowed from iconic art, so art capitalised on fashion as Mondrian’s work began to circulate for astronomical sums on the US art market.
In a way, YSL’s Mondrian dress achieved Sonia Delaunay’s modernist vision of the popularisation of art, and the democratisation of fashion (though Delaunay would have probably preferred it if this had been accomplished through high-end mass production techniques rather than copies of ever-diminishing quality). The Mondrian dress also carried clear echoes of Delaunay’s work in its sharp cut, its simple lines, its striking use of colour, and, of course, in the treatment of the garment as canvas. In an interview of 1968, Delaunay dismissed YSL’s Mondrian dress as “society entertainment, circus, promotion,” but also grumpily conceded its evident debt to her work “clever people have made hundreds of millions from my idea.” So was Sonia Delaunay, 1920s designer of the colourful, radical “dress of the future,” the first mod? We might certainly remember her vim and originality when contemplating the rather more obvious — some might even say calculated — work of contemporary designers like Lisa Perry.
This piece was first published as an editorial feature in Rowan Magazine 53 (2013)
Shari Benstock, Women of the Left Bank (1986)
Jacques Demase, Sonia Delaunay: Fashion and Fabrics (1976)
Adam Geczy and Vicki Karaminas, eds, Fashion and Art (2012)
Matilda McQuaid and Susan Brown, eds, Colour Moves: Art and Fashion by Sonia Delaunay (2011)
Christopher Wilk, ed., Modernism: Designing a New World (2006).