‘Vintage Knit’ at the Fashion & Textile Museum

‘Vintage Knit’ at the Fashion & Textile Museum

I was fortunate enough to be asked to hold a talk at the Fashion & Textile Museum in London last Thursday 9th October, and I’m happy to say I managed to talk for an hour and a quarter without running out of things to say. Actually I’m not sure that was ever going to be a problem, I’ll happily talk about knitting for as long as my voice holds out! The talk was framed around ‘Vintage Knit’, but as well as discussing how I approached the adaptation of the patterns in the book, I managed to squeeze in some theory about the term ‘vintage’, and to have a look at how there was a strong alliance between fashion and handknitting in the mid-20th century which seems to have dissipated over the decades. Sandy Black’s excellent 2012 book ‘Knitting: Fashion, Industry & Craft’ is a constantly useful resource for me, and her references to Marjory Tillotson, Mary Thomas and Eve Sandford championing the fashion/handknit relationship helped to illustrate my point. Mary Thomas wrote in the preface to her 1938 ‘Knitting Book’ “… A modern knitted garment is not a thing to be dragged on for extra warmth, but has, in its own right, a place in the world of fashion.” Hear, hear!

I enjoy discussing other peoples’ views of the current handknit designs and particularly vintage patterns, so I also handed out a brief questionnaire before the talk … the questions were:

What are your views and overall opinions of today’s hand knitting patterns and designs?
Replies included:

  • “I think they’re GREAT”
  • “Getting better all the time. Still needs to be more modern and innovative though”
  • “I think hand-knitting patterns have come a long way. I’m a big fan of Rowan”

What do you associate hand knitting with (ie, is it a fashionable hobby? Traditional pastime associated with the older generation? etc)
Replies included:

  • “Now I associate hand knitting more with the young. There are lots of knit groups etc, and most markets now have a hand knit stall, but in the 70s people thought you were quite old fashioned”
  • “Fashionable hobby to de-stress and meditative. Helps me relax.”
  • “Luxury hobby for 30-somethings. Fashionable and cool now.”

Have you ever tried to adapt a vintage pattern and, if so, what was the hardest part for you? If not, what are the obstacles you struggle to overcome?
Replies included:

  • “Put off by lack of different sizing options – used to modern patterns where everything is spelt out, and having more pictures of how to assemble, etc.”
  • “Trying to get correct ply wool, rather than the pattern, although a lot of patterns only go up to 34″ bust.”
  • “Today’s sizing is different to former times when people were smaller. So it’s important to get an accurate idea of how to construct a modern garment.”

It’s always a joy to hear how the perception of hand knitting has progressed, and interesting to see that knitting from vintage patterns often presents the same concerns: sizing problems and sourcing yarns (both easily solved with a bit of research). I also find it interesting to try out a ‘stop-the-clocks’ look at where we’ve been, where we are and where we could go with it all. The first issue (where we’ve been) is well documented but rarely applied to the second (where we are). We’re in the middle of another golden age of handknitting, but somehow we’ve managed to encapsulate it in the present – sure, some of the lessons from the past are available for those who care to find them, but they to be fossilised, encased in the past – there needs to be more of a flowing nature of knowledge and abilities. Admittedly our fascination with guernseys, fair isles and lace shawls is an ongoing one, but we’ve chosen to believe that certain methods and design techniques are no longer available to us (which, when you break it down, usually just comes down to time).

Hopefully that’s starting to change … I think every time there’s a knitting revival, we feel we have to re-educate new generations of knitters, often from the start in a ‘back to basics’ fashion; but once we’ve got that over and done with, it’s time to grab the opportunity to push the craft forwards in order to actually inspire those who want to take it further, those new knitters who have got past the initial stages and who feel excited enough to pass it on to the next generation. Why not try out some new photography and contexts? Is it actually possible to produce a design and accompanying visual imagery which appeals to every living knitter on the planet? Should we even try? Are we terrified of offending knitters and putting them off? So many questions …

Seems a bit odd to me, these limitations which we place on our craft … why not encourage people to try out new designs with new yarns in order to produce something different which suits them and their style, in the way designers did in the mid-19th century? I’m not talking about re-treading old ground through literal translations of these older designs, but more through the spirit of experimentation and stimulating visuals.

I think we’re ready for it, don’t you?

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