Lessons from Vintage Knitting I

Over the last couple of months I’ve been indulging my love of vintage knitting and vintage per se.

It started with a workshop with Susan Crawford at our local Waterstones. I was already knitting a pattern from Susan’s recent wonderful tome A Stitch in Time Vol.2, the much referenced Gay Bolero which is still just waiting for the sleeves to be sewn in – a job for this evening I think.

The Workshop in early February was Valentine themed and involved us knitting a heart with lace edging which Susan had sourced from a vintage knitting magazine. It’s a great little project with lots of different stitches and techniques, so an ideal pattern to stimulate learning and discussion of different approaches to techniques.

The lace edging for the heart is a lovely pattern to knit and looks great too. I came home with all the knitting completed and the heart partially sewn up. And then it waited patiently in my ‘in progress basket’ as Valentine’s Day came and went, until I decided it would be a nice gift for my Mum for Mothering Sunday. After years of not knitting, Mum has got back into it, partly due to my enlisting her to knit squares for the Blackpool Knitting Group Blanket Project. Back into the swing of it she’s moved on to hats, scarves and baby and children’s clothes for grandchildren and now great grandchildren. Anyway I thought she’d like it and finished it off stuffing it with some lavender from our allotment and some yarn ends and popped it into the post. She was thrilled with it, much more so than I imagined she would be. She loved the lace too, it really does lift the project and I was really touched by how much she liked it. Thanks Susan.

This is my heart – hurriedly photographed so I could catch the post:

Anyway, here cometh the lesson…..

As part of the conversation at the workshop Susan gently but firmly out me straight on the matter of seams. Now it won’t come as much of a surprise to many people that I can be a little impatient and even negligent about finishing – it’s not that I do it badly, just that I avoid it as much as possible. Indeed the cardigan I actually wore to the workshop took nearly two years from finishing the knitting to sewing it up, sewing on the collar and button band and sewing on the buttons.

It’s also not that I don’t enjoy the process of sewing up. I think it’s mainly that I can knit anywhere and often whilst semi-distracted, but to get seams and button bands and collars correctly placed needs a bit of time set aside, a flat surface and some concentration, and creating those conditions isn’t always easy. This is also why my bolero is sleeveless right now. Sewing the sleeves together; there are three pieces to each sleeve, was fine with a bit of pinning, and I was able to do some of that on the train. Similarly the body was fine although attention was required to make sure the lines of the pattern matched up, one section being done twice to make sure this was the case. However, inserting the sleeves is a more delicate operation requiring correct placement and managing the stretchy character of the fabric, setting the top of the sleeve correctly at the shoulder and dealing with the excess that creates the shape and line correctly. The kinds of things that done well, are pretty much unnoticeable because they just look right, but done carelessly, look so wrong and scream their wrongness at every wearing.

But, as Susan explained, many garments have seams for a range of valid reasons, including adding structure and shape, enabling the garment to withstand the load that falls in particular places such as the shoulders, and thus to improve durability and the lifespan of a garment.

I wouldn’t say I’m a complete convert to seamed garments, but I am less dismissive of patterns with a lot of finishing and am banishing my negativity at the prospect. And actually, sewing up my heart with little neat stitches was almost therapeutic in it’s own way, a virtue I’ve previously attributed only to the knitting bits of a project.

In the run up to the Workshop, Waterstone’s had a wonderful window display of Susan’s garments, which I had meant to photograph, but my camera battery died as I focussed. The window was scaled down later but I did get a picture on my phone at this stage. So not in all it’s glory, but lovely nonetheless and it was great to see people stop and discuss the garments on display as I was loitering and musing which would be my next project.

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