Past, Present, Future Tension – Remembering Knitting Wholesale

I had lunch with an old friend yesterday – we talked about our younger days as you do, but we managed to avoid murky nostalgia in favour of a clearer path, instead discussing ways to reflect on the past and incorporate it into the present. Having worked intensively on a vintage knit project for the last six months or so, I’ve been thinking along similar lines about knitting recently. I’ve completely immersed myself in the world of vintage patterns, which as habitats go is a pretty marvellous place to be, but along the way I confirmed a theory I’ve been batting around. At the risk of stating the bleeding obvious, here it is (in usual lengthy verbose form).

You might have noticed that I’m an avid collector of vintage patterns, yarn and related paraphernalia (there’s no fooling you). I’m a staunch fan of the importance of re-visiting and curating the past, studying the original historical artifacts, reminding ourselves of the outstanding elements and learning from them, but I have my reservations … if we’re slavish to our history we run the risk of leaving it exactly where we found it. The temptation to remember knitted designs wholesale means locking them in a time-capsule, forever intrinsically linked to the era which produced them.

Knitting patterns in their current incarnation were still in their infancy during the 1920s – 1950s – it’s easy to forget that the craft of pattern design in its present form is only 100 years old or so. Over the years new skills have been developed and further exploration has meant that certain methods have progressed: awareness of different techniques such as casting on and off, selvedges, drape and shaping methods, advances in yarn production and colours have all been explored and developed in the drive to perfect the craft, pushing it beyond a useful and enjoyable hobby.

The vintage revival can be many things to many people: an alternative to the current homogenous culture, a surrealist expression (see The Chap Magazine), a nod to the values that our parents and grandparents represented, or just a pure nostalgia trip. Without analysing the patient too much, it’s a lot of fun, but I’m not entirely sure what it’s saying about women’s fashion, or indeed women in general. We’ve come a long way in 50 years and although we’ve lost certain elements of style along the way, we’ve gained freedom and variety (both of expression and physically) which we shouldn’t be so keen to forego.

Hurrah for flat shoes, hurrah for incredibly uncomplicated underwear, hurrah for not spending painful hours on your hair and make-up every day, and hurrah for having different ways to express our strengths as women. When we look back wist-laden I think we’re partly mourning the fact that we no longer have the time to spend on these things … good lord what are we doing with our time? We’re working, we’re conversing, we’re hopefully fulfilling dreams and allying our identity with other elements which don’t depend on the way we look. I love dressing up but I don’t wish it was the 1940s. I’d rather spend the little spare time available to me on my work, family and feeding my mind than perfecting a victory roll. Have we really come all this way and shed all those gnarly inherited female roles and traditions only to regret their loss?

I’m intrigued by the roads we’re travelling at the moment: knitting and vintage fashion have collided and I’m not immune to the powerful lure of the combination (again, you may have noticed) but I do recognise that styles come and go and we mustn’t linger too long on the past before we integrate, absorb and move it all forward. It’s no coincidence that all this fascination with the early-mid last century has occurred at a time when we’re re-evaluating so many different areas of our lives: the interest in gardening, culinary and craft skills has taken on the form of a small, quiet revolution, an antidote to the technological and corporate developments, echoing the psychology behind the Arts & Crafts movement at the beginning of the last century – think how effortlessly that movement morphed into Art Nouveau’s interpretation of the natural world, finally coming to rest in the stunning Art Deco designs allied to the technological developments of the time. If we can similarly incorporate the best these stylish eras have to offer into the present we can ensure that they have a part to play in the future.

Knitwear designs very rarely coincide with current fashions – woven fabric has its own drape and flexibility which can be tricky to emulate in knitwear. Bar the odd autumn fashion season where outsized jumpers or fair isle detailing on the catwalk mean a brief flurry of similar patterns in knitting magazines, hand knitting patterns tend to exist in a parallel universe of chunky winterwear, socks, shawls, accessories and unwearable tank tops, appealing to a common denominator and disassociated from the fashion world. Of course a knitwear pattern needs to have a certain amount of longevity – you don’t want to wear something that’s out of date by the time you’ve finished knitting it, and on a practical level the designer needs to maximise their (often rather small) returns on their pattern. Talented designers such as Ysolda Teague, Kate Davies and Veera Välimäki manage to tick all the boxes, remarkable in their achievements to create not just knitwear for the sake of it, but wearable fashion which even the most style-conscious among us would be happy to wear. Crucially, their garments contain enough elegant detailing to make them future classics.

If we can learn anything from the current interest in vintage knitting, it should be the attention to detail, confidence, and spirit of experimentation displayed by the original designers themselves which we carry forward to the future. Exciting and brave, they reflected the fashions of the time and seem fresh to us again now; elegant, tailored elements and colour-work which work so well with fine yarn and thin needles have faded from popularity over the years as thicker yarn weights and quick, easy designs have become time-saving favourites. Wearing vintage-styled garments in the current age feels pretty darn good (and you can be sure there aren’t many people wandering around in self-made garments designed 70 years ago), but the next natural step is to combine their spirit with the skills and lessons learned since they were dreamt up and create knitted designs which not only reflect today’s fashion, but lead it.

So if you’re interested in adapting these patterns I’m going to suggest a different approach: take the time to explore them, the stitches, details, the shapes they made, find out how they work and what made them successful, experiment with them in the same way the original designers were doing. Then try taking them one step further to incorporate into your modern life: update them, use new techniques, try a different yarn or colours and see how the designs are affected, add your own elements, take them forward, don’t be hampered and hamstrung by the rules dictating their re-creation. It won’t always be a success, but you will have learnt a lot in the process.

None of this will stop me from knitting from vintage patterns of course, I’m still in love with the designs, but I’m constantly on the lookout now for what I can learn from the garment.

My thoughts have co-incided with booking my ticket to this year’s ‘In The Loop’ conference at Southampton. I’ve gone for Friday’s programme as one session particularly caught my eye: “Stitched Up – Vintage Mania and the Dark Side of the Knitting Revival”. Makes it all sound deliciously dangerous and intriguing, the terms ‘mania’ and ‘dark side’ suggesting a thoughtless hysteria in the approach to vintage knitting which I’m interested to hear about – I’ll report back in September.

P.S. Incidentally, the friend I had lunch with is the talented Mr Mike Smith; over the years whenever we’ve met up he’s always recorded the moment in his sketchbook – except now he uses an iPad and stylus to create his works, bringing his own craft into the present. Thanks to him for letting me use the image – nice to see my 1940s fair isle jumper rendered digitally!

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  1. Julie at 16:57

    I was so interested in your post because I have thought long and hard about this. Those knitters and designers were so skilled, we do them a disservice if we don’t push the boundaries further based on what we have learned from them. I love vintage knitting patterns, but I always look from the viewpoint, “what could I do with that?”

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