I recently visited the Fashion and Textile Museum in Bermondsey, London to view the Chanel to Westwood knitwear exhibition. I had been desperate to see the exhibition and finally managed it just a few days before it closed.
I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition yet was surprised by how small it actually was and was slightly disappointed at the layout meaning some of the garments were displayed above head height with no way of getting a close look at them. The exhibition was also heavily ‘biased’ towards the 1970s and 1980s – naturally enough, as there is far more knitwear available from these eras than the earlier part of the 20th century, but not a period I’m personally that interested in. The exhibition was in fact, one person’s personal collection of knitwear and knowing that helped the disparity in objects make more sense.
Despite all this, there were some pieces that made the trip and the entrance fee worthwhile all on their own and one in particular which hasn’t left my mind for a single day since the visit.
Photography, even without flash, was not allowed so the photos that follow are not the best as they were taken rather hurridly and secretively so as not to get into too much trouble!
The first knitted piece that took my interest was this wonderful machine knit swimsuit from the 1930s featuring a fabulous geometric pattern that could easily have been created by Kaffe Fasset or Sasha Kagan. I also loved the colour scheme of the swimsuit and am keen to extract the pattern and colourway to use on a jumper or cardigan.
Talking about Mr Fasset, brings me to this jumper from the 1940s. As part of the Make Do and Mend section of the exhibition it used a lot of different colours in small amounts allowing the knitter to use up odds and ends of wool rather than needing full balls. I’m not 100% sure about the real age of this piece but it is listed as a 1940s piece in the exhibition.
In the display next to this jumper were some extremely striking pieces from the 1930s. This beautiful striped zig zag jumper is as wearable and modern today as it was in the 30s.
A fabulous addition is a vibrantly coloured zip on the left shoulder creating a real design feature. Another super modern feature of this jumper is that it is knitted in rayon – or artificial silk as it was known. Alongside this jumper was a stunning machine made dress also featuring a full length feature zip down the centre front of the piece.
Zips were new and exciting in the 1930s and I love the way these designs have used them in such striking ways without over-powering the garments or spoiling the line of the knitting. Considering these two pieces are 80 years old they have both held their shape incredibly well.
The third piece from this display reminded me of the sort of jumpers Miss Lemon would wear in Poirot. It contains all the archetypal traits that we expect from the business jumpers of that era. I could just see her wearing it whilst trying to sort out Poirot’s invoices or answering the telephone.
The next piece I saw that really interested me is this twinset, which may be familiar to you, as it is featured in A Stitch in Time volume 2.
It was wonderful to see a 1950s version of the twinset knitted and on display – although I did want to straighten it up on the display pole! We did manage to get a rather poor shot of the book image alongside the 50s original though which made me very happy.
And now the piece I can’t forget. Moving back to the Make Do and Mend case I saw this sublime cardigan.
Hand knitted in the 1940s using 16 colours of 3 ply wool. The pattern on the front and back is actually different to the pattern on the sleeves. But most fascinating of all are the ribbing and stocking stitch panels that have been added on each side of the body then continued down each sleeve.
The cardigan has been cut at each side from armhole right down to the cast on edge – including the ribbing then the plain strip has been sewn to the two raw edges. The strip continues in one piece across to the sleeve where it is attached in the same manner. Without the stocking stitch strips the cardigan is incredibly small and the strips were presumably added to make it fit. Such a beautiful intricate cardigan will have taken many, many hours to knit and the knitter was probably loath to take out their work and start again when it didn’t fit. The information board about the cardigan suggests that the strips were added at a later point when the wearer outgrew the cardigan and needed to make it bigger.
From the wear on the cuffs and the closely matched colour of the strips, I think they were added very soon after the original cardigan was completed and was found to be too small. My friend suggested that the sleeves and body pieces may have come from different garments and then put together to make the cardigan but I’m not sure. I think it was knitted, was found to be too small and was altered to make it fit. I will of course, never really know and its that uncertainty I think, that fascinates me most about vintage knits. We can only ever make educated assumptions at best.
The pattern of the cardigan and even the inclusion of the strips has obsessed me ever since though. It is knitted using 16 colours – there are 16 base colours in Fenella – in 3 ply wool – Fenella is a 3 ply weight wool. It seems to be telling me to recreate it, to find a way to make the construction including the strips become a fluid, workable pattern. So at the earliest opportunity that is exactly what I am going to do.
So thank you the Fashion and Textile museum for your very personal knitwear exhibition. You have inspired me to embark on a creation that may well become an obsession but I’m not complaining!
Images copyright Susan Crawford ©2015