It has been an incredibly busy week here! As you might imagine, the imminent arrival of Buachaille means we have a lot to do, and I am hard at work creating a small collection of designs to accompany the yarn’s release (only a few weeks to go!) Then my friend and colleague, Jen, came to stay with us for a few days – together Jen and I are currently developing several rather exciting projects . . . one is a book which will appear next Spring, and another is a new volume of Cross-Country Knitting. Above is a sneak peak at the latter’s content, of which more very soon.
Jen and I got lots of work done, laughed a lot, and had time for a hearty post-photoshoot dinner at the Bridge of Orchy hotel. It was lovely to see her.
Meanwhile, In the Loop 4 was happening down the road in Glasgow (one year I will make it to this event, which always features a fantastic line-up of speakers and some important research). This year, the conference was hosted by my friends at the Knitting in the Round project (who you’ll remember I’ve mentioned before). I was really honoured when they asked me to provide some samples for the fashion show which closed the conference!
Jade Halbert selected three of my designs, and I styled them with the original garments I’d used when photographing Yokes. I genuinely love styling – visualising a look is often the starting point of the design process for me – and I really appreciated the thoughtful way that Jade styled the models to suit the work of each designer in the show.
The lovely model wearing Buchanan even had her hair in braids!
I loved the soft and subtle palette of the beautiful garments shown by Jade Starmore , and was blown away by their styling with these stunning leather skirts (also the work of Jade)
The show featured well-established names of Scottish knitwear design such as ERIBÉ
. . . and Di Gilpin
. . . alongside the work of emerging contemporary designers like Laura Muir
It was lovely to see the work of some of my friends and comrades in hand-knit design, like Gudrun Johnston . . .
I also came away feeling inspired by the work of designers I’d never previously encountered. This cashmere dress by Stephanie Laird was truly gorgeous.
And I loved the fresh take on colourwork in Hilary Grant’s bold machine-knit accessories
Thankyou, Lynn, Marina, Jade, and the whole team at Knitting in the Round and In the Loop 4 for inviting me to be part of this fantastic event! Thanks too to Tom, who took the great catwalk photos in this post.
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 Stern’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).
Yokes, knitted & crocheted pre-1950
Can you guess what my next book is going to be about?
If you are like me and have long admired the longevity, distinctive mod styling, and careful brand aesthetic of British retailer Fred Perry your heart may have skipped a wee beat when you read those words. Fred Perry Knitting Patterns? Really?
Yes, really. The gorgeous golden cardigan on the left currently retails on Fred Perry’s website at £125, but the company is also offering knitters the amazing opportunity to really re-create this look themselves – why not download the pattern for free and whip one up today!
There are eleven designs for men and women, including both garments and accessories. Every attention has been paid to the patterns’ careful vintage styling and ‘authentic’ mid-century graphic design and layout.
But sadly, the same care and attention has not been paid to the content of the patterns themselves.
The recommended yarn for these patterns is Rowan British wool Red Faced Leicester. Have you come across this yarn? Or heard of a Red Faced Leicester sheep? No, nor have I. In effect, Fred Perry is suggesting you knit this sweater with a yarn which does not exist, that grows on a non-existent sheep.
Red Faced sheep do exist:
One must assume Fred Perry is unable to distinguish between these delightful creatures and others, equally delightful, but rather different.
Sadly, the problems don’t stop there. There’s no gauge or sizing information (!), nothing about yarn weight, quantities, shades, or other materials required, and the ‘language’ of these patterns would, I imagine, confuse any hand knitter either vintage or modern.
. . . certainly this contemporary knitter could make neither head nor tail of the incomplete and oddly constructed Cabled beanie pattern, which you might imagine, would be one of the easiest designs to get to grips with. Could it be, then, that Fred Perry’s offer to “knit your own” garment from their Autumn / Winter 2013 knitwear collection is merely a sneaky marketing ruse? A way of spinning and bolstering the brand identity of mass-market knitwear through recourse to familiar ideas of the ‘vintage’ and ‘handcrafted’? Surely not!
But, when you fail to knit yourself a lovely golden Aran cardigan from Fred’s badly-put-together pattern (which fails to include instructions for the sleeves) , you can easily return to the website to purchase one ready-made. As you can see, this cardigan was “originally designed for fishermen on the Scottish isle of Aran” [sic] as opposed to the Irish Aran islands . . . you know, Fred, where actual “Aran” knitwear comes from? Perhaps the error-ridden and confusing “knitting patterns” are merely the tip of an eroneous marketing iceberg? Oh Fred! How cruelly you shatter my mod dreams!
Discussing a British brand I like and admire in this context is all the more galling as I really think these patterns are a brilliant idea. Why not engender more collaboration and interplay between high street retailers and hand-knitters? Between ideas of making and consumption? Between the world of “knit” as it is currently taught on fashion and textile courses, and the world of “knitting” as now practiced all over the world by savvy and talented craftspeople? Having had a good look at the Fred Perry Knitting Patterns, it strikes me that their single biggest problem is that they have been produced by someone who might know an awful lot about designing for Shima knitting machines, but has no understanding of the evolving descriptive vocabulary of contemporary hand knitting. With just a little more effort Fred Perry might have produced something truly innovative here, rather than this epic – and slightly cynical – fail.
All of your thoughts are welcome.
Thanks to Karie (@kariebookish), Helen (@ripplecrafts) and Benjamin (@knityounexttues) for the enlivening twitter debate which prompted me to write this post.
Do you remember a little while ago I was having a Sonia Delaunay moment?
The brief for my feature was to write something to accompany this Rowan design story . . .
. . . and I felt that the influence of Delaunay was startlingly evident in mod-inspired knitwear collections.
Delaunay’s proud, modernist vision of garments as wearable art was the starting point of my thinking . . .
. . . but I ended up somewhere rather different.
You can read more in the magazine!
This Poiret suit is from 1914. I love its lines so much. I know I would be rubbish at actually walking in that skirt, though. Bring on the 1920s, and the knee.
Sonia Delaunay, Driving Caps, Silk and Wool, 1924-28. Included in the Cooper-Hewitt Color Moves exhibition, 2011.
I am taking a break from my collection today, and researching a feature which somehow keeps bringing me back to the work of Sonia Delaunay. I came across these amazing wool and silk ‘driving caps’ that she designed, and was so blown away by them that I just had to show you. In their interplay of colour and rhythm, they capture so much of what I love about Delaunay’s work. They are hats for use as much as ornament, garments intended, like most of Delaunay’s clothes, to be worn with ease by what she regarded as ‘modern’ women — women on the move. Like Delaunay’s famous ‘simultaneous’ coats and dresses, the bold, undulating and interlocking rectangles that create the structure of these these caps are the effect of dense, woollen embroidery rather than knitted stitches . . . still, as you can imagine, they have got me thinking. But today I am not supposed to be thinking about knitting. I am supposed to be thinking about 1920s Paris and New York, of the grid of the city, of wheels in motion, sleek architectural lines, bobbed hair, sportswear, dancers and swimmers, runners and cyclists, chevrons and stripes, blocks and spirals. I suppose it does all come back to the knitting, after all.
George Lepape, cover image for Vogue’s ‘Winter Touring’ issue, January 1925, depicting Sonia Delaunay driving outfit with matching vehicle.
For anyone interested in Delaunay, I highly recommend the catalogue and accompanying essays of the Cooper-Hewitt Color Moves exhibition (2011).
I’ve been thinking about pleats for a little while now.
The heat-set pleats that have been a familiar feature of Issey Miyake’s “Pleats Please” brand . . .
(Issy Miyake, “Pleats, Please” in Dazed & Confused June 2012, image via Style Bubble)
. . . now seem, in attenuated form, to be everywhere on the high street.
I find myself ambivalent about contemporary pleats, largely because all of these examples (including Issey Miyake’s) are heat-set on 100% polyester fabrics. Frankly, the mere words “polyester heat-set pleats” are enough to make me feel a wee bit sweaty, but then you know I am all about the natural fibres . . .
The first name that springs to mind in association with modern methods of pleat-setting is probably that of Mariano Fortuny.
In 1907, Fortuny developed an innovative (and closely-guarded) pleating process for fine silks. He showcased this process, and the beautiful form-fitting fabric it created, on his famous “Delphos” dresses.
Worn uncorseted, and echoing the lines of the ancient chiton, Fortuny’s gowns had a forward-thinking, body-freeing simplicity. But the craft processes used to create them – pleating, cutting, cording, weighting with tiny glass beads – were of course incredibly elaborate.
In a way, however simple the lines of a garment, heavily pleated textiles immediately carry the suggestion of excess because of the sheer quantities of fabric they require. Thirty years after Fortuny’s silk gowns, another designer took a fabric with much more homespun connotations, and, through innovative pleat-setting, turned it into the height of fashionable luxury.
In the early 1950s, the combined linen industry of the North and Republic of Ireland employed more than fifty thousand people. Yet, like other traditional textile manufactures, the industry was threatened by the rise of man-made fibres. Linen, of course, has a propensity to crease and stay creased, which rather limited its range of uses as a modern dressmaking fabric. But together, Belfast handkerchief manufacturer, Spence-Bryson and Dublin designer, Sybil Connolly were attempting to turn what many regarded as the negative attributes of traditional Irish linens to their advantage. Connolly recalled the process thus:
“A challenge invariably makes one creative; after pondering the question for some time and in conjunction with the workroom staff, it was decided to experiment to see if we could develop a process that would permanently crush or pleat the linen and so make a feature of the problem rather than an insurmountable setback. It took eight months, during which time we put many theories to the test, before we came up with the correct solution. The process we decided on still remains our secret.”
Here is the beautiful fabric Connolly developed with Spence-Bryson.
Through Connolly’s pleat-setting process, nine yards of fine handkerchief linen were transformed into a single yard of dress fabric. Like Fortuny, Connolly used cords and smocking for structure, but her pleats were set in the garment horizontally rather than vertically, lending her full, floor-length skirts an airy, textured quality remiscent of the underside of a mushroom. In these dresses, as in many other of her designs, Connolly’s explicit aim was to promote and support ‘traditional’ Irish textiles. Yet her dresses perhaps proved so successful because they were also regarded as uniquely meeting the demands of the modern 1950s woman. “Crumple it into a suitcase,” enthused Vogue of one of Connolly’s dresses in 1957, “and it will emerge, uncrushed, uncrushable, to sweep grandly through a season of gaiety.”
Like other mid-century designers and entrepreneurs, Connolly had a clear sense of the value of the idea of Irishness. She frequently launched her work across the Atlantic, and her designs were perhaps most popular in the United States and Canada. When Jackie Kennedy chose to wear one of Connolly’s gowns for her official White House portrait, there was a clear statement being made about national presidential connections.
When promoting her work, Connolly consistently lauded Irish skills and craftsmanship, and often developed styles in direct reference to those ‘traditionally’ worn in rural Ireland. For example, the striking cloak that appeared on the cover of Life in 1953 was meant to suggest red flannel petticoats.
But as the 1960s rolled on, the diasporic romance that Connolly’s work spoke to began to seem rather anti-modern.
Sybil Connolly didn’t move with the times. She professed a profound dislike for the mini skirt, and instead turned her hand to ceramics, producing some beautiful work for Tiffany, inspired by Mary Delany’s eighteenth-century floral paper cuttings.
Until her death in 1998, Sybil Connolly continued celebrating and promoting Irish craft and design, producing several publications on the subject. I have a copy of her last book Irish Hands, which is not only really interesting and informative, but also a damn good read.
At this year’s BAFTAs, Gillian Anderson’s attire spoke to current trends . . . in a heavily pleated linen dress designed in 1957 by Sybil Connolly.
Perhaps the time is now ripe for a revival of pleated Irish handkerchief linen? I suppose one can dream. . . and continue to feel ambivalent about heat-set pleated 100% polyester.
Sybill Connolly, Irish Hands, The Tradition of Beautiful Crafts (Hearst Books, 1994)
Alexandra Palmer, Couture & Commerce: the Transatlantic Fashion Trade in the 1950s (UBC press, 2001)
Claire Wilcox, Modern Fashion in Detail (V&A reissued edition, 1997)
(You can see examples of Connolly’s pleated linen dresses at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Dublin (I had the pleasure of seeing these gorgeous garments last year); at the Hunt Museum in Limerick; at the V&A and the FIDM in Los Angeles)
Today I’m really pleased to bring you an interview with Jean Moss, as part of the blog tour for her new book, Sweet Shawlettes, which has just been published. With twenty-five different designs, this book is a veritable showcase of cowls, shawls, capelets and collars. Small projects provide an ideal canvas for exploring new techniques, and one of the most distinctive things about Jean’s book is the sheer range of knitterly styles and techniques it covers. So if you have never tried entrelac, intarsia, or shadow knitting, there’s a nifty project or two in here for you.
Perhaps contrarily, given its impressive technical range, my favourite design in Sweet Shawlettes is possibly the simplest – Enigma – a dramatic and contemporary two-piece shawl. Knit in plain stockinette with two sweet-shop shades of kidsilk haze, it has a truly elegant simplicity.
Working with Rowan, and Jamieson and Smith, as well as international brands like Ralph Lauren and Benetton, Jean has been at the forefront of British knitwear design for more than three decades. Based in the UK, but traveling all over the world, the trajectory of her career really interests me, so I began by asking her how it all started.
Could you tell us a little about how your design career began?
Originally I learned to knit before I went to school because I wanted to please my beloved grandmother who spent hours teaching me. A fallow period ensued but my interest was rekindled in my teens when I started to make my own clothes. It was the swinging sixties and I loved what I was seeing on the street and in magazines, but had no way of achieving anything similar other than to pick up my needles again. From then on I was hooked. It never occurred to me that I’d ever be able to make a living out of it, especially as I had no formal training in design, but after getting requests for sweaters I’d made for the kids, I decided that it might be a way of making some extra cash from home. No-one was more surprised than I was to find that very quickly I was presenting my designs to luminaries such as Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein and they were placing orders! It was a meteoric learning curve!
. . .and how you began to create designs for hand knitting?
When I started, I was living in an ramshackle old farmhouse with my husband, two toddlers and a menagerie of pets miles away from anywhere. My husband was commuting daily to teach miles away, so we were wracking our brains to find another way of making a living, which involved less travelling. So… we bought a knitting machine! My designs sold well so we quickly had to get more people to knit them. At a London show an agent for Ralph Lauren asked me to do some handknits for him. I jumped at the chance although at the time I had no production capacity and handknitting was definitely not my forte, but within six months we had 2000 knitters in the UK producing handknits for the Polo/Ralph Lauren label as well as selling my own collections to boutiques in the US and Europe. Obviously, as I had no design training whatsoever, there’s a certain amount of luck involved, but this was the eighties when the ethos was go for it and anything can happen.
From your perspective, how has British knitting and knitwear design changed since the 1980s?
The internet has changed everything. When I started I saw myself as a fashion-led knit designer, producing fair isle, aran, lace and intarsia sweaters which were difficult to knit, had limited production and therefore had a very high price point. However, the cult of the knitted stitch has superseded the fashion angle now. Knitters are into techniques, relaxing with their knitting and sharing the fruits of their labours with their friends and the web is a fantastic tool for facilitating this. If you look at the most successful books on knitting right now they are all about techniques – there are far fewer book which are purely collections of designs. This is fine with me as I’ve always been interested in both – I love fashion, but I’m also a technique junkie, so I try to make each design a mini tutorial for at least one technique.
How would you describe your style? Do you feel this has evolved over time?
My signature style has always been a combination of colour, texture and form. However, I’m interested in exploring as much of the art of knitting as I can and I like to think my designs are ever-evolving as I learn more and more. I keep my camera to hand and I take many pictures of interesting objects, people and places – looking back over them often sows the seeds of new patterns. Fashion is essentially ephemeral, and what gives me a buzz is creating timeless pieces that transcend fashion, which hopefully will look just as good in twenty years time as the day they were knit.
You have a great knack of selecting exactly the right yarn for a design. What’s most important to you in a yarn?
I’m flattered that you think that as I do try hard to find beautiful yarns for my designs. I make a list of the yarn requirements for each project and then try to find one that fits the bill. Having said that, it’s become impossible to be au fait with every yarn on the market at any given time, so I always start with yarn companies I love like Rowan, Sublime or Jamieson & Smith. You can never know how a yarn will behave until you’ve swatched it, some projects demand drape, others need stitch definition and every pattern is different, but for me it’s important for the yarn to feel good in the fingers whilst being knit.
I love the glamour of the 1920s and 30s. Poiret’s orientalism, Fortuny’s sumptuous pleats and the fashion drawings of Erte and Iribe are all hugely inspiring. Women were trying out all sorts of new ideas as they threw off the shackles of the Victorian era and fashion design was innovative, outrageous and chic – all the things I love. It’s hard to name one fashion icon, but having done a whole book on Audrey Hepburn, I must say the research was a delight. She was the perfect muse, as Ralph Lauren famously remarked: “Who wouldn’t want to drop everything and design for Audrey Hepburn?”
Definitely Morocco, but I love the theatricality of Venice too. I’ve been hosting knitting holidays with my partner Philip Mercer for ten years now, mainly in the UK, but our trip to Morocco last year was one of my favourites – design inspiration wherever you look.
Your love of plants and flowers has inspired many of the designs in “Sweet Shawlettes”, and your garden is clearly very important to you. Do you see any similarity between the processes involved in knitwear design and gardening?
Yes I do find many similarities. At the start of each book I have to have a couple of weeks of cooking time, when I do nothing but displacement activities like gardening, cooking, playing guitar or going on long walks. This gives me a chance to mull over and crystallise ideas and it’s amazing how the seeds of designs are often planted years before and given the right conditions they spring forth – much like growing plants.
Now, a giveaway! Courtesy of the nice people at Taunton Press, I have a copy of Sweet Shawlettes set aside for one of you. Following Jean’s remarks about gardening and knitting, to enter, please leave a comment on this post telling us the name of your favourite garden flower. We’ll (randomly) select the winner on March 21st, the date of the final stop on Jean’s world blog tour.
Good Luck, Everyone!
If you’d like to follow the Sweet Shawlettes world blog tour, here is the full list of destinations:
Wed 7 Mar Jen Arnall-Culliford Knitwear Jen Arnall-Culliford
Thurs 8 Mar Yours Truly
Fri 9 Mar Rock and Purl Ruth Garcia-Alcantud
Sat 10 Mar Woolly Wormhead Woolly Wormhead
Mon 12 Mar Yarnscape Alison Barker
Tues 13 Mar Confessions of a Yarn Addict Anniken Allis
Wed 14 Mar Joli House Amanda France
Thurs 15 Mar This is Knit Lisa & Siobhan
Fri 16 Mar The Knitting Institute Katy Evans
Sat 17 Mar Life’n Knitting Carla Meijsen
Sun 18 Mar ConnieLene Connie Lene
Mon 19 Mar Just Call Me Ruby Susan Crawford
Tues 20 Mar Tiny Owl Knits Stephanie Dosen
Wed 21 Mar Ulla-Bella Anita Tørmoen