Today, as we head into the chillier months here in the northern hemisphere, I want to share with you a new knitting pattern for a classic cowl that will see you through these colder months.
The Valdes Houndstooth Cowl is a wonderfully relaxed and easy knit that will quickly become a wardrobe staple. Once a cowl sceptic I have through personal experience, become an absolute convert to this style of double wrap infinity cowl. They’re so easy to wear and despite appearing to contain a lot of knitting, in simple stitch patterns such as this slip stitch houndstooth, they fly around and off the needles surprisingly quickly.
The yarn I chose for my sample is an old favourite; Rowan felted tweed DK. I’ve knit a number of personal projects with this yarn and as a result had a few odd balls left over that were perfect for this knit.
The colours, are as its name suggest tweedy and blended such that all the colours in this palette complement each other wonderfully, so it’s easy to combine the colours you have. For example the dominant turquoise of the ‘watery’ colourway also appears as a undertone or fleck in the ‘ginger’ colourway and vice versa. Similarly with the apparently green ‘avocado’ colourway also contains very subtle flecks of both ‘watery’ and ‘ginger’.
This richness and depth of colour not only makes it easy to combine the colours, it also makes it the perfect yarn for the houndstooth pattern which we so often associate with fine woven textiles. These textiles with their fine warp and weft threads can create a depth of colour that belies the apparent dichromatic appearance generated by the geometric repeat. Tweedy yarns combined with this slipped stitch houndstooth allow us to do this with our knitting, and I think the Valdes Cowl demonstrates this wonderfully, but then I may be a little biased.
The Rowan felted tweed DK knits up quickly on 3.5mm (US4) needles as the pattern is worked in the round. The cowl starts with an optional provisional cast on and is closed with a kitchener stitch graft for a seamless finish, although you can cast on and cast off as normal and simply sew it up. Full written instructions are given for both the provisional cast on and the kitchener graft – and I’ve linked to helpful instructional videos here in case you find it easier to follow visual resources.
As for yarn, I used 1 50g ball of ginger and 2 of each of avocado and watery, each ball is approx 175m/191yds so in total you need 175m/191yds in one colour, and 300m/382yds in two others.
The cowl is knit in the round with a nice number of stitches for the circumference so it’s not too fiddly and I know I’m repeating myself but it is a slipped stitch pattern not stranded colourwork, so You’re only ever knitting with one colour at a time. As a result it’s easy to get into a lovely rhythm and for the pattern to become quite intuitive.
The pattern is available from my usual outlets priced in GBP or Euros:
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Sometimes knitwear tells its own stories, and sometimes those stories lead to others which we can share and this is the case with the naming of the Valdes Cowl.
When I started researching houndstooth pattern I was aware of its ubiquity in European dress as both a timeless classic but also as motif that regularly appears in the fashion cycle.
From Coco Chanel and Christian Dior in the late 1920s and 1930s and regularly returning to it throughout their careers, as have their fashion houses ever since…
Coco Chanel, 1929; Chanel Suit, 1959; Dior Jacket, 1948; Miss Dior, 1950.
to modern day style icons like Beyonce who regularly sports the pattern, here in 2010 in McQueen (left) and 2020 in David Koma (right):
I love this montage from Town and Country Magazine that demonstrates the widespread appeal across ages and backgrounds:
Indeed the first known example of the houndstooth pattern is in the Gerum cloak excavated from a peat bog in Sweden in the 1920s and dated as originating around 500BC. While many sources trace houndstooth back to 19th century shepherds in lowland Scotland, David Bailey traces its path from Gerum across time and continents including its use in African basketwork, Hawaiian grass plaiting, Inuk parkas and Japanese tea jars. Whilst drawing on secondary sources where historic practices of attribution leave something to be desired, this work suggest that Houndstooth is a more universal pattern than we may at first assume.
It was through Bailey’s detailed history that I became aware of the stories of two interesting women from the 1960s, Pauline Trigère and Beverly Valdes, the latter for whom the cowl is named.
French born to Russian Jewish parents, a tailor and dressmaker, Trigère trained as a pattern cutter in Paris before leaving for North America with her husband, mother and 2 young children in 1936. However, she soon found herself a divorced single parent who needed to earn her own living and started working for several fashion houses before launching her own collection in 1942.
Wikipeadia credits her as having ‘reinvented ready-to-wear fashion, matching form to function with bold prints and architectural silhouettes to create a distinctly modern female aesthetic’. Her designs were worn by a a range of high profile women including, Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor, Josephine Baker, Evelyn Lauder, Nancy Kissinger, Bette Davis, Catherine Deneuve, Jacqueline Kennedy and Wallis Simpson, the latter 2 of whom are shown in the montage above in houndstooth, although Kennedy is shown wearing a Bob Bugnand design and I’ve been unable to attribute Simpson’s coat.
Trigère not only used houndstooth in clothing designs but also in her designs for the roof and interiors of the 1970 Mercury Cougar:
However, it is a decision that Trigère made relatively early in her career that perhaps marks her out and that interested me. In segregated America she became the first ‘significant’, 7th Avenue designer to employ an African-American fashion model when she hired 23 year old Beverly Valdes as a house model. Trigère, often regarded as “plain speaking” or “outspoken” is quoted in a 1974 interview in the New York Times as recalling, in a quote that captures something of her pervasive racism of the time: “People said the other girls wouldn’t put on the dresses Beverly had worn and that we would antagonize the customers. Of course, the girls didn’t object and we only lost one customer, in Birmingham, Alabama. We didn’t miss her.”’.
Quoted in Life Magazine in June 1962 Trigère explained her reasoning: ‘I didn’t hire Beverly to make history, I choose her because of her good features’,
It is telling, but unfortunately not surprising that much of what I have been able to find out about Beverly Valdes, is through the story and action of Trigère rather than Valdes herself. I have not been able to find anything significant of biographical detail or of what became of her beyond her employment in her 20s*. I did however, find an Simplicity advertisement in Ebony Magazine, May 1964, where Valdes appears in her own right without even a mention of her employers name:
Nonetheless, I am happy to name my cowl for Beverly Valdes and in doing so share some of her story.
Until next time, Happy Knitting
*My online research has been limited as some sources were not accessible from my location. If anyone else has any further information or links, I’d love to hear of them.
I’m aware that Beverly Valdes shares a name with Zelda Wynn Valdes, herself a designer and couturier who is believed to have had the first black-owned business on Broadway, another story for another day perhaps.