today’s inspiration

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Kerstin Olsson in Karen Invarsson’s Bohus design “The Swan”.

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Twiggy iconic in Fairisle

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The McCartneys in Shetland

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Yoke design by Unn Søiland (1951)

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Yokes, knitted & crocheted pre-1950

Can you guess what my next book is going to be about?

Fred Perry Knitting Patterns

Fredperry

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?

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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!

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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.

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But sadly, the same care and attention has not been paid to the content of the patterns themselves.

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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:

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(California Red Faced sheep)

One must assume Fred Perry is unable to distinguish between these delightful creatures and others, equally delightful, but rather different.

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(British Blue Faced Leicester sheep)

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.

FPknittingpatterns

. . . 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!

aranknitcardigan

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.

not a onesie?

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I purchased this boiler suit from LHD Marine supplies in Lerwick a while ago and have been wearing it pretty much constantly for the past three weeks. We have not had a washing machine; I have been spending most of my time decorating, and for both reasons it has formed a useful uniform. For some reason I feel very happy wearing it. Perhaps this is because the boiler suit makes me feel as if I am getting things done, and indeed, I actually AM. Last time I was in Shetland I had an interesting conversation with a friend of mine about these garments, which, given the amount of serious sea and land work that goes on there, are pretty ubiquitous. I was told that many Shetland men have boiler suits of ascending value, and keep one for “best”. I am seriously considering doing the same.

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My “thing” for boiler suits is of some long standing, as I recall that, for my twelfth birthday I asked my Mum to sew me one, which she kindly did. This stupendous 1980s garment was pale pink, and featured turn ups and giant batwing sleeves. I have no photographs of me wearing it, but given that I also had a terrible perm at the time, I fear that I must have looked like a small, pastel-clad circus entertainer. I proudly wore the pink boiler suit for the first party I was allowed to hold without the presence of my parents. My only recollection of this momentous event is that Christopher Hodgkinson played frisbee with some mini tacos, firing them into next door’s yard, where, after the effects of evening rain, they expanded to form a soggy snack-based crazy paving. There were words, but not of the serious kind.

My affection for my boiler suit leads me to question my horrified reaction to the animal-print onesies that are the evening-wear of choice of many Edinburgh youths, as well as to the fleecy “leisure” suits that are sold for festering on the sofa. All these garments say to me is “fire hazard” and “adult baby”, neither of which are positive associations. Or perhaps I am merely late to the boiler-suit party as onesies of all kinds were certainly the thing a couple of seasons ago. I recall I saw an entirely functional-looking navy boiler suit on sale for £350 last year at YMC. All I can say is that you can get a boy’s age 9-10 32″ boiler suit from LHD Marine supplies for £15 and it will do you just fine. Do you have a boiler suit? Or do you, as I, arbitrarily divide different kinds of all-in-ones into categories of acceptability? I am interested to hear about your relationship to these garments.

This digression comes to you from upstairs, where I have finished the woodwork and am about to start painting the walls. Below me, the kitchen is actually IN, with its (gulp) oak surfaces and exciting appliances (including a dishwasher, which I have never previously possessed – the novelty!). But the plaster is still wet, and the walls have yet to be painted and tiled. This will happen in a couple of weeks and then I promise there will be pictures. In any case, I hope to have my studio painted and completed over the next couple of days and be back at my desk by Friday, so if you’ve been waiting for an email response from me I’ll be beginning to catch up then.

Mod

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(Delaunay in an outfit of her own design)

Do you remember a little while ago I was having a Sonia Delaunay moment?

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(‘Simultaneous’ dress & car upholstery)

Around this time, I was knitting the the Puffin Sweater, and shortly afterward, I wrote a piece about Delaunay which has just been published in Rowan 53.

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The brief for my feature was to write something to accompany this Rowan design story . . .

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. . . and I felt that the influence of Delaunay was startlingly evident in mod-inspired knitwear collections.

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(Delaunay, 1923 / Céline, Autumn / Winter 2010-11)

Delaunay’s proud, modernist vision of garments as wearable art was the starting point of my thinking . . .

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(Delaunay celebrated by Vogue in 1925)

. . . but I ended up somewhere rather different.

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(Jean Shrimpton in Yves Saint Laurent’s Mondrian Dress, 1964)

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(Lisa Perry & Phillip Lim’s appropriations of Lichtenstein)

You can read more in the magazine!

on the move


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.


Delaunay and her matching decorated Citroen B12, 1925


Delaunay, cars and clothes, 1925


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).

Pleats now and then

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.


(pleats at Maxmara, Jaeger, Cos, Paul & Joe, Hobbs / NW3)

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.


(Film star Lillian Gish in a Fortuny “Delphos”)

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.


(Flax flower)

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.


Sybil Connolly Day Dress. Victoria and Albert Museum T.174-1973. Gift of Mrs V. Laski

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.”


(Sybil Connolly with Robert Briscoe, Lord Mayor of Dublin and Patti Curran wearing one of Connolly’s signature Irish linen dresses in Life Magazine, May 20th, 1957)

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.


(“Irish invade Fashion World” Look Magazine, August 10th, 1953)

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.

Further reading:
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)

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