Knitting and Noir

Since posting about my beginnings as a knitter last autumn, I’ve been quietly honing my technique and it now more than ever feels like a good decision to have learnt this new skill.  So far my catalogue of completed projects includes a striped scarf, a hat, a cardigan and a sweater.  All are wearable though far from perfect. 

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that I’m a tight tension knitter.  My cardigan was intended as a loose, oversized garment but has come out looking more like an eighteenth century fitted frock coat.  In fact this rather pleases me – its closer to my natural style to be more ‘Poldark’  than practical and it works beautifully, layered with shorter jackets in contrasting textures like denim and leather.

So, faced with an enforced indoors lifestyle, I picked up a new project.  I was lucky enough to be presented with a Wool and the Gang sweater kit last Christmas and now was the time to use it. The Sonic sweater was a dream to knit, the instructions simple and supported by some excellent online videos. I managed to knit it over 5 non-consecutive afternoons and the slow and steady pace was perfect for me. It is in a super thick yarn and knitted on very large needles (that will make excellent cricket stumps in the summer) but despite the open weave texture it is surprisingly warm. I had so much fun I’m already planning my next project – the Coco Sailor Sweater has caught my eye for summer.

I have also practised enough now that I am able to knit and watch a movie at the same time.  This is an excellent trick and I’ve been working my way through the Bogart and Bacall films noir, clicking away with my needles as Bogie shoots and Bacall smoulders through every frame.  Come to think of it, there may lie the explanation for my tension as a knitter.

Is this a shop or a party?

Townhouse shopping, courtesy of Ralph Lauren

Recently I gained a glimpse into the life of the elite shopper.   One of Net-a-Porter’s Extremely Important Persons (EIPs) invited me to join her at one of NAP’s private viewings in a suite in a luxurious London hotel.  For a shopper more accustomed to rummaging for my goods in car boot sales or vintage fairs, this was a new experience but not a totally unknown quantity.  Recently, the Financial Times’ How to Spend It magazine featured Les Suites in Paris that works on a similar principle, offering high end fashion in what feels more like a beautiful home than a shop and offering a limited and highly curated selection of goods to a clientele that feels more like a social clique than a census category. It enables the seller to get closer to the customer (especially an online one) but is it satisfying to the customer?  The answer, as ever, depends on what you are looking for.

Entering the hotel from the London rain we were escorted to the suite, wading through carpets waist-deep, breathing air heady with scented candles and bowls of roses.   On arrival we were greeted like guests to a party –  coats taken, ensconced on sofas and coffee brought as my EIP’s personal shopper talked and then walked us through the treasures on offer.

First, fine jewellery: exclusive, unusual pieces that may never see the light of the website, reserved for clients by private appointment.  I was interested to note that some of the most sought-after pieces by females were the watches – many of them large and masculine in look. 

Then there were the racks of clothes.  Not an excessive amount – perhaps six or seven rails of 10 pieces each with a broad range of labels represented to offer a range to satisfy all tastes and styles, from lavishly embellished Gucci and Balmain, to minimalist knitwear from Khaite or The Row and even the conceptual with a truly extraordinary trenchcoat by Junya Watanabe for Comme des Garcons (of which more later). There were no basics, no ‘athleisure’, no simple white shirts.  This was not a practical, capsule wardrobe, these pieces were stars in their own right and displayed for their individual tactile and visual appeal.

Each piece was present as a single item which meant that trying on was fruitless unless it happened to be your size.  This I found highly frustrating.  When I’ve attended shopping parties in vintage boutiques the whole enjoyment is that it is the ultimate dressing up box: a playpen for the fashion follower.  The selling opportunity works as people bond over trying the clothes and styling each other, customers helping to sell the stock.  By comparison, this felt oddly sanitised and staid. 

That said, I’ve always been an emotional and romantic shopper – the pieces that catch my eye echo stories, hollywood glamour, half-forgotten dreams that tap directly into a vein of desire.  This is not how everyone shops.  My EIP was in her element.  As a confirmed internet shopper, this was an enhancement of her experience, the perfect complement to the online browse.

This form of selling will appeal to a certain kind of shopper, especially those already acquainted with the range of labels on offer and those short of time who may need professional help in finding clothes for specific need.  If you are a browser and a rummager like me, delighting in the hunt for the rare and unusual, it is less satisfying – the work has been done, the prizes presented, the answers are at the bottom of the page.

Was I tempted?   The Junya Watanabe trench caught my eye on the rack and, though it was too big, was still something I could try on.  It was a genius piece of design, the back a swirl of sunray pleats (welcome irony in a trenchcoat) and it was reversible with a zingy lime green interior.  It was a ‘forever’ piece and an item of pure joy to pull out on the dreariest of days.

Would I go again?  Undoubtedly.

The stories our clothes tell

Rita Hayworth smouldering in The Lady from Shanghai wearing Jean Louis

Recently I read that Patou now sells clothes with a QR code for the customer to scan to discover the story behind the item. I am clearly not the only person who enjoys a tale with my threads. Commercially this has to be a good move. On a practical level, it can help to satisfy our concern to live sustainably by assuring us about how our clothes were made and who made them. But the urge to tell stories about our clothes runs deeper than that to questions of not only how but why.

As a long-term vintage shopper, I have become accustomed to conducting my own research into the stories of clothes I buy. The last dress I bought was a consigned Miu Miu piece that I traced to the A/W 2011 collection. Vogue called this collection ‘a modern vintage collection that transported us back to World War II era Paris’ and ‘one of the most elegant Miu Miu collections.’

The collection was featured in UK Vogue in a sublimely beautiful shoot, styled by Lucinda Chambers, modelled by Kate Moss and photographed by Mario Testino. I clearly remember seeing these images when they first came out and being deeply affected by the elegance of the clothes.

This recent acquisition prompted a 1940s film binge: Now Voyager, Laura and then The Lady from Shanghai in which I found Rita Hayworth wearing an ensemble that was strikingly similar to some of the catwalk images from that Miu Miu collection (see top image). Was this the source of the inspiration? The costume designer for the film was Jean Louis who worked with Hayworth on Gilda and on Pal Joey.

So my recently acquired dress seemed to have come to me from 1940s Hollywood, via Milan. Having been captivated by the Miu Miu collection on sight, back in 2011 I had finally found my dream item nine years later and it is one of those pieces you instinctively recognise as being ‘you’. Discovering the context of its original presentation within a Miu Miu collection and a possible source of the inspiration for that collection, only go to make a lovely dress even more special to me.

There are powerful commercial reasons to tap into this vein but there’s something else here too. The more special we feel our purchases are, the more we will value them, cherish them and use them. The more we all do this, the less need we will have to discard badly judged and unloved items. Many items in my wardrobe are decades old and I fully expect this dress to measure its lifetime with me in a similar frame. Rita Hayworth knew a good thing when she saw it and who am I to argue?

Bright young things, old bags, exotica and erotica – a year of exploration

Spring is in the air and this means (amongst other things) some enticing new exhibitions in London and Paris. 

Top of my list is the long-awaited re-opening of the Palais Galliera, Paris’s museum of fashion and perhaps the greatest of its kind in the world.  If, like me you have been following the tantalising glimpses of the basement refurbishment on Miren Arzalluz’s and the Galliera’s own instagram, then you’ll be champing at the bit to know what delights they have in store.  Watch this space.

Meanwhile, back in London I’m looking forward to comparing the arcane monochrome drawings of Aubrey Beardsley with the equally monochrome early portrait photography of Cecil Beaton.  Beardsley’s drawings were considered shocking in the late nineteenth century and still pack something of a punch today.  Similarly Beaton’s early work was influenced by surrealism and, even whilst documenting London’s social whirl in the roaring twenties, his anecdotes teetered on the edge of wicked wit, always managing to stay just the right side to deliver teasing flattery.  Aubrey Beardsley is at Tate Britain from 4 March until 25 May and Cecil Beaton’s Bright Young Things is at the National Portrait Gallery from 12 March until 7 June.

I’m intending to try to see both on the same day as I think it will offer an interesting comparison.  I might also try to fit in a third show to complement Beardsley’s orientalism as the V&A are mounting a show about the kimono.

This garment offers an interesting perspective on fashion as one of the occasions when an article of national dress, and not a terribly practical one at that, has become embedded in mainstream fashion.  Anyone who saw Elizabeth Debicki in The Night Manager will remember the beautiful kimono she wore (sourced from the glorious Fuji Kimono) as beach apparel, but it remains a form of dress that continues in use in its original form.   

This show spans the kimono in all its incarnations and promises to be a fascinating cultural insight.   See Kimono: Kyoto to catwalk at the Victoria and Albert Museum from 29 February to 21 June. 

Who doesn’t love an accessory? The Fashion Museum Bath offers us a whole year of shoes with their Shoephoria from 28 March 2020 until the 31 March 2021.  If I were a Bath resident, I’d be tempted to enjoy a daily dose of shoe love for the whole year.  With a collection of over 3,000 pairs and dating back to the late seventeenth century, this promises to be a show that will tug on my heartstrings and require some serious restraint to keep me from bursting through the glass.

Staying with the theme, the V&A will offer us Bags: inside and out from 25 April until 31 January 2021.  I have high hopes of this one as the V&A seem to be interested in tapping into the mystery of the handbag and its contents as well as its aesthetic and practical design.  All life exists (sometimes literally) in a handbag and this makes them endlessly fascinating.  From Ernest Worthington’s infant abandonment (‘A Handbag?’) to Grace Kelly’s famous adoption of the Hermes handbag to hide her pregnancy, they are with us every step of the way.

Finally, if the clash between fashion and culture of the 1960s and 70s is more your thing then you will be pleased to know that London’s Fashion and Textile Museum is offering Beautiful People: the boutique in 1960s counterculture from 3 July until 4 October.  If you can’t wait until then, Paris’s Musee Yves Saint Laurent is offering a glimpse of just one of those beauties with a show focusing on YSL’s muse, Betty Catroux, Yves Saint Laurent feminin singulair from 3 March until 11 October.

The endless fascination of fashion is the way that we all use it to communicate and express personality, or as Beaton himself put it, ‘we all have enough of the peacock in us not to be able to dismiss it entirely.’  These shows promise to hold up the looking glass to ways in which fashion has shaped and been shaped by society.  There is an exciting year of discovery ahead.

Dressed for the Occasion

Normcore has a lot to answer for.  For at least a decade, this relaxed, dressed-down style has had us in its grip.  Its combination of preppy, peppy vigour with the essential comfort factor has made it almost irresistible.  What could be easier in the morning than to combine a pair of chinos with grey marl and gold sneakers?

Easy, for sure but when you walk out of your house and find that everyone else in the street had the same idea, then perhaps its a signal to change tack.

My wake-up call came recently and it came in the shape of a Vilshenko cape.  This garment is the opposite of ‘normcore’ in its purest form.  Where chinos and sweatshirt telegraph simplicity and practicality, an embroidered cape signals gratuitous joy in every stitch.  It won’t protect you from a snowstorm.  You can’t wear it to cook or do anything practical really.  It doesn’t have pockets.  

What it does have is instant impact.  Whenever I wear it I am suddenly conscious of eyes on me – even more so when I pair it with a Maison Michel fedora.  It never fails to attract comment and the very best kind of comment: those that remark on personal style rather than an overt enquiry about where something came from.

Clothes like this promote a different bearing.  Bette Davis and Joan Crawford knew the power of a pair of sharp shoulders to draw up the posture and streamline the silhouette.  They showed us the transformational power of a hat – even a simple beret: witness Bette in full Orry Kelly splendour, peeling off her gloves on arrival at Cascades in Now Voyager.  It is an unforgettable sight.

So goodbye normcore.  It was comfortable while it lasted and my feet are certainly grateful but now I need something more inspirational.  Let’s hope it doesn’t snow this year.

A yarn to be proud of: Manos del Uruguay

There is a new anxiety in my life.  It lurks quietly in the background before ambushing me and inducing panic.  ‘Lack-of-project’ is the name I’m giving it but it really needs something more terrifying than that.  It struck me recently as I came to the end of knitting a cowl and suddenly realised I had nothing planned next.  Luckily a stripey scarf came to save me – the classic use for left-over yarn and that is coming along nicely.  For a newbie, it is a good test of accuracy and consistency to knit row after row of ribbing in alternate yarns , trying to keep good straight lines and not allowing the stitches to run out of order on a new line.  So this project is keeping me in line and it is satisfying to see the scarf growing and the colours blending.

I am conscious too that I need to be learning more and so I have booked another of Tribe Yarns’s excellent courses to knit a ‘top-down’ cardigan.  It is always exciting to be facing a new challenge but I am feeling particularly inspired by the yarn this time.  I have chosen Manos del Uruguay’s Maxima merino in Grapevine and already, whilst knitting my test swatch, I’ve been captivated by watching the colour of the yarn change as I move through a row.  The overall effect is almost like a tie-dye.  A chunky merino yarn, it is easy to work with, doesn’t split and is wonderfully soft and tactile.

When I checked out Manos del Uruguay I was even more impressed.  The yarns are hand dyed and hand spun by artisan women living in small villages in Uruguay.  Formed in 1968 by women for women, to improve quality of life for those living in remote rural areas, it remains a non-profit organisation with workshops in 12 co-operatives.  Each skein of yarn comes with a label showing the name and location of the artisan who made it, and being a handmade product, every one is unique.  So thank you, Fatima, for enriching my life with your beautiful merino yarn. This is a very special product and I am going to make sure that I do it justice.

Fixing my knitting: the cowl strikes back

My first attempt at knitting a cowl went horribly wrong.  It was a lumpen monster unworthy of the alpaca that had supplied it.  I felt bad about this and bound to make amends. 

Now I have fixed it but what gave me particular satisfaction was finding a way to make its oddities part of the design concept. I had failed to follow (even a simple) pattern and had been forced to correct an inadvertent expansion to 104 stitches in width. I decreased too steeply and ended up with some gently undulating rows. Some of these remained in the section I salvaged but I found that they provided a frill that hides the seam, making the cowl reversible and adding texture (and extra warmth). Unorthodox perhaps but its mine and I rather like it.

The greatest relief to me is that it works as a garment – it hugs my neck and is beautifully warm and soft. It has gone from zero to hero and I appreciate it even more for that reason.

Best of all, it leaves me with a reclaimed ball of angora wool and the scope for another, matching project.  A pair of wrist-warmers perhaps?

What I learned from failing with my first knitting project

It is painful to write this post but I feel I must.  Part confessional; part advisory, this is what I got horribly wrong in my first knitting project. I bare all and there are pictures too.  Health warning over, here’s the deal.

My first project was a cowl: 55 stitches wide and 60cm long.  It called for alternate rows of knitted and purled stitches. Simple stuff but for the beginner, wrought with hazard. I produced a monster that is over a metre long and varies in width from 55 to 104 stitches, including holes and lumps at variable points.  It is horrible but it taught me a lot so this is why I swallow my pride and share this horror.

Here are the pitfalls that I tumbled into, some of them technical and some of them emotional or circumstantial.  At any rate, I hope they prove useful to other beginners.

1.  Twisting the yarn – I did this again and again: you forget whether you are knitting or purling and you twist the yarn the wrong way over the needle.  It results in a tight twisted knot of a stitch that you don’t always notice until you come back to it a row later.  Solution: concentrate and think about what you are doing and which stitch you are on. If you think you’ve gone wrong unravel the stitch and do it again.

2.  Yarn over – classic newbie problem – so angst-ridden about dropping a stitch, if you forget where you are mid-row you might try to knit an extra stitch between two by looping the yarn back and knitting through it.  I did this many times and it resulted in holes and extra stitches that inadvertently ‘increased’ the piece.  In fact I managed to double the width of my cowl by doing this.  Solution: focus on each stitch, notice how it completes and relax about dropping stitches.  If you find a loop that is not a stitch in a subsequent row, don’t try to make it into a stitch, just loop it onto the right needle and carry on.

3. Dropped stitch – horror of horrors: you DID IT. Breathe. Solution: Can you get the loop back onto the needle? If not, use a crochet hook or a stitch fixer to pull it back up in the next row. Correct this one as soon as you can because the more rows that you knit before fixing it, the harder it gets.

4. Knotting – only one vowel’s difference but a world away in concept.  Do not be tempted to tie up holes or use knots to fix things: THEY WILL COME UNDONE.  Solution: for dropped stitches see above; for finishing things off, leave a long tail of yarn and weave it back through the previous stitches.  That will be much more secure and (almost) invisible.

5. Casting off with blithe abandon – I failed to cast off the first time I tried so I had to add another row to try again, meaning less yarn for the final sewing together. Solution: allow more left over yarn than you think you need.

6. Leaving your brain somewhere else – knitting can be relaxing but sometimes it needs concentration and if it does, your brain needs to be present.  My worst mistakes happened when I was preoccupied with other things, too stressed, had had a glass (or two) of wine or was simply in the wrong frame of mind.  Solution: approach your project ready to focus and think about what you are doing so you get the best out of it, both for the project and your own mental and emotional benefit.

7. Complacency – early on (at least after 30cm or so) I realised things were not going well: I’d increased width from 55 to 104 stitches, incorporated holes, lumps and at least one knot.  I should have called time and unravelled the lot and started again but I carried on.  Mistake: it won’t get any better.  Solution: Just step away from the disaster zone and start again.  Good yarn deserves better. 

There, I’ve done it and shared my shame.  Cowl Mk I bites the dust but cowl Mk II will be better and it will deserve that anonymous alpaca’s turquoise locks if its the last thing I do.

The coat off his back: why I love Wool Week

It is Wool Week and it seems an appropriate moment to celebrate the artisans and the animals that give us beautiful natural yarn for knitting and weaving.  The fact is, this is the thing above all that enticed me to try knitting: seeing how the animal’s fleece goes from farm to garment and beauty of the natural processes involved in that transformation.  One of the many attractions of knitting is the direct connection between making and wearing a garment.  I certainly feel a sense of pride in wearing anything I’ve made that far outweighs the (secret) knowledge I have of the imperfections in it.  Imagine, though, the pride you might feel in mastering the whole production process yourself. 

This summer, on holiday on Dartmoor, I was lucky enough to witness our neighbouring farmer penning her angora goats for shearing. The little flock of goats live a charmed life on Dartmoor, farmed solely for their mohair. As you would expect, their hair is rather special – their ivory corkscrew curls are super-soft and produce a beautifully soft yarn that Susan, their owner dyes and spins herself.

I was fascinated to see that she uses a traditional spindle – the kind that I remember from fairytale books – and even more delighted to be given the opportunity to try spinning myself.

It is harder than it looks and requires a level of physical co-ordination that you might expect from drumming: each arm and one leg all employed in different motions. The right hand feeds the fleece through thumb and forefinger into the left hand that holds spun yarn taught, while the right foot pedals at a constant speed to keep the spinning wheel in regular motion. As the yarn is produced, it winds onto a bobbin.

The way it works is that the spinning wheel creates energy that is transmitted to the yarn.  Whichever direction the wheel spins will determine the natural lean of the yarn, so in order to avoid that translating into a wonky garment, you can combine yarns with opposite ‘leans’ to give a single straight strand which then becomes a ply yarn. 

The real skill though lies in creating colour combinations in the yarn itself.  Susan showed me how she builds different colours into the yarn, using lighter colours or metallics to lift the darker ones.  It was clear to see her enthusiasm for this and her joy in the colour combinations. 

The final stage is creating the product – a woven rug, a knitted cushion cover or hat.  These products are very special: a unique and  hand-made product that has been created from inception to completion by a single artisan.  From caring for the lush fleece of her goats to creating the hat that will protect your own locks from winter weather, Susan has the process covered.

 I couldn’t resist buying one of her beautiful hats, especially having met the ladies and gents who had generously donated their luscious locks, and I wove the thread that I had spun myself through it as a reminder of a really fascinating and eye-opening afternoon.

You can find out more and commission work from Susan at www.dartmoormohair.co.uk and if you live near Dartmoor you may see her at local markets or National Trust events, though perhaps not with her caprine suppliers…..   

Failing that, you can check out Wool Week online at www.campaignforwool.org including their super-cute gallery of sheep photos which is nearly as good as seeing the real thing.

Yarn Therapy II

Four weeks and four classes after my initiation to knitting at Tribe Yarns in Richmond I have completed my first finished garment.  It is a simple woolly hat but I feel immensely proud of it.  I know it intimately, as only the maker can.  I know the stitch where I encountered a fluff ball of unspun yarn, the moss stitch that was actually supposed to be ribbing, the concealed thread that finished the top and bottom, even the moment when Amazon rang the doorbell and my stitch-marker fell out.

I knitted it in the course of a week while listening to an audiobook version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Originally chosen as a suitably seasonal entertainment and a book I’d always meant to read, as the chapters progressed it got me thinking about the relationship between creator and their creation.  Though Frankenstein is ultimately consumed by his obsession, he can never escape his fundamental connection to it, nor his subliminal pride and sympathy with it. My hat is highly unlikely to inflict a similar fate on me but I did experience a powerful attachment and driving force to make the necessary progress over the week, then a boost of elation and pride in seeing my creation come into existence.

Like Frankenstein’s creation it is somewhat primitive and rough round the edges but like the creature too, it has the right instincts.

So this is my Frankenstein hat but, unlike Frankenstein, I suspect I shall be making another.