on the awesomeness of the Sasha Kagan Sweater Book

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I picked up The Sasha Kagan Sweater Book (London: Dorling Kindersley, 1984) in a second-hand bookshop in Wigtown, Dumfries and Galloway on my Easter vacation. (Incidentally: go to Wigtown. It’s tiny, peaceful, set in beautiful countryside and has dozens of bookshops, a kind of unpretentious rural Scottish version of Hay-on-Wye).

I couldn’t believe the quality of the designs inside (especially after that unpromising cover!) I mean, I was vaguely aware of Sasha Kagan as a name and at a push might have associated the name with Kaffe Fassett, Rowan, and the designer-led British knitting revival in the 1980s and 1990s. But I really had no idea what a tremendous designer she was until I read this book, which in my humble opinion is a knitting version of Madonna’s Immaculate Collection – a truly great ‘greatest hits’ published while the artist was still at the peak of her career. So many knitting books from the 80s are full of shapes and yarns I’d never touch, like batwing sweaters, lurex and mohair, but Kagan’s designs are all realised in a capsule of classic, wearable shapes (crewneck sweaters, V-neck vests, waistcoats and cardigans, and boatneck sweaters) and they are almost entirely knit in pure Shetland wool. Kagan seems to have been a major advocate for Shetland wool at a time when few others were, using Jamieson and Smith 2-ply jumper weight for most her designs.

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And such colourwork! Her training as a painter and printmaker shines through in shimmering colour combinations and in graphic surface designs which make for some of the most inspired knitwear I’ve ever seen. Kaffe Fassett’s instantly recognisable geometric patterns in rainbow colours have a subtler and more wearable counterpart in Kagan designs like Mosaic (above left) and Leaves (above right). Kagan is equally strong on flowers, especially in this book, where the flower patterns are typically presented in bands broken up by stripes of contrasting textures, like the Wallflowers sweater below.

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As for her brilliant, cartoonish animals and figures: well, I was practically speechless when I first saw designs like (below, clockwise from top left) Raingirls, Prowling Cats, Winter Scotties and Seagulls. They’re so skilfully done: playful to the point of kitsch, yet also perfectly balancing shape and colour.

Of course, designs this delectable (and beautifully presented; can we all take a moment to appreciate the flatlay styling in these pictures?) produce an instant desire to KNIT ALL THE THINGS. Kagan’s recommended construction is, unfortunately, typical of commercial knitting patterns of that period: everything knit flat in pieces, which for colourwork of this complexity (see Willow Pattern, pictured below) gives me the shivers, though I have to say that the striped ribbed backs she favours for waistcoats and cardigans are rather attractive. Obviously it wouldn’t be too hard to convert the patterns to be knit in the round, but still, choosing what to do first is going to be a problem. Don’t wait up…

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One thing I’d really love to know more about is Kagan’s influence on the knitting designers of today. Both her graphic style and love of Shetland yarn reminded me strongly of Kate Davies when I first read the book – Davies’ playful Tortoise and Hare, for example, seems to share both Kagan’s penchant for stripe-based patterns in closely-related colours and her skill for making  animal designs that are humorous without being cutesy, and her Paper Dolls motif (which adorns one of the most popular adult-sized pictorial sweaters on Ravelry) has a cartoonish quality similar to Kagan’s Raingirls, Boys or Dachshunds.

These are of course fairly superficial visual similarities: Davies’s design process and favoured techniques make her colourwork by and large very different to Kagan’s. But still, although I don’t think I’ve ever seen Davies, or any other contemporary designer whose blog I follow, mention Kagan,  I wonder whether they’re aware of her work. I’m no knitting historian, but from her oeuvre it seems like she must have played a key role in mediating a 40s-inspired colourwork and graphic tradition to the 1980s knitwear revival of which she was part, and which itself had a huge influence on contemporary designers (however much the modern, indie-dominated scene has moved beyond Rowan, most of its big names, at least in Britain, have been influenced by the distinctive aesthetic of the Yorkshire house, which carried the torch of good knitwear design more or less alone through the 90s in this country). That same 40s aesthetic thrives all over the contemporary knitwear scene, both in individual designs like Ysolda Teague’s Little Birds and entire genres, like the fair isle-led Shetland aesthetic shared by Davies, Teague, Susan Crawford, Gudrun Johnston, Ella Gordon (whose Crofthoose Hat has quite a Kagan vibe) and many others. Is it fanciful to attribute to Kagan some kind of role as ancestor of this trend?

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Kagan’s Chequer-Board: 1940s air, timeless appeal.

Whether it’s fanciful or not, I feel like a designer of Kagan’s stature and longevity should have a bigger contemporary profile in her own right. She still designs for magazines, including The Knitter and Interweave Knits, though I confess her work for them doesn’t seem to me to share the fresh quality of her early designs or her work for Rowan. Perhaps that’s why she is less popular than, say, Fassett, whose oeuvre is more consistent. Or perhaps she has chosen to enjoy a lower profile.

Anyway, if any readers know more than I do about her current work, her historic influence on the industry, or her connections with other British designers, please do share! And if you come across the Sasha Kagan Knitting Book anywhere, snap it up at once.

Self-control 2: eating my words

IMAG5185_1Anyone who follows me on Instagram might have seen a certain denim dress pictured on there several times recently. A suspiciously Warehouse-like denim dress, a denim dress that very closely resembles the despised high street dress I sort-of congratulated myself on not buying in my last post.

Yep, it’s the same one. In my defence, I did not buy it myself; my boyfriend bought it for my birthday and it was entirely his choice; I even had a go at dissuading him, since I couldn’t in conscience encourage him to do something I had decided it was unethical for me to do myself. But oh, I’m so glad that he did!

I love wearing it so much I’ve become addicted: it’s practically a uniform. I wore it eight times before putting it through the wash, and as soon as it was dry I put it on again and wore it four days in a row. Every time I have worn it just as pictured below: with very old, battered-but-sturdy tan boots, a chunky grey wool cardigan I knitted myself, and the dog-tag porcelain necklace I “liberated” from my mother’s jewellery collection. (Not the tan handbag, unfortunately – that was also a maternal loan, but its return was strictly enforced!)

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Again, I’m not quite sure what the point of this post is, apart from to ‘fess up. Perhaps to say that this garment, this rather plain blue dress which has aroused such a curiously strong passion, has been teaching me about my relationship with clothes in more ways than I expected. It feels like a style departure to wear something this old-fashioned and to wear it like a uniform, and yet it also feels like coming home; there’s a naturalness and a simplicity to getting up every day and putting on the same outfit that I had not at all expected to love as much as I do (I never liked my school uniform much!)

In fact, it feels like my expectations of clothing are shifting just as a result of this one dress: having seen that it is possible for one garment to be so comfortable, so stylish, so effortless to wear, so durable (I hope), so simple yet un-boring even when endlessly repeated, I hope I will be looking for the same qualities in any future RTW purchases, and from garments I make myself too. Perhaps I will even go as far as this woman and wear the same outfit every single working day? I doubt it, but I feel I understand the impulse now in a way I didn’t when I first read that article.

What about you, readers? Do any of you wear uniforms (voluntarily or not)? How do you feel about variety vs predictability in dressing?

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❤ H + denim dress 4eva ❤

Self-control

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Denim midi dress, £55 from warehouse.co.uk

So, yesterday, I walked past the Cambridge city centre branch of the high street women’s clothes shop Warehouse, and this dress was on a mannequin in the window. I don’t mind telling you, my reaction was a bit like this pug‘s (linked because you’d never get the rest of the way through the post if I put that GIF in it).  Instant enchantment, in other words.

Whoa – I haven’t had that reaction to a piece of high street clothing in a long time. Then today, I did something I haven’t done in even longer: I went into Warehouse. It was strangely bright and cramped in there, and there were lots of things made of polyester, but I found the dress and tried it on, and wow! it felt great and looked (I thought!) pretty great and I thought about buying it, I really did. I got some compensation money from my gas company this month for some historic billing f**k-ups, and it would have more than covered it. I was so tempted.

Then I thought: no, I could make this (simple bodice, elasticated waist, A-line skirt) and anyway, it didn’t have pockets, which seemed like a really stupid omission. A dress like that is begging for you to put your hands in deep pockets and slouch a little! In fact, I think the model below is trying to do it and that’s why her hands are hanging in that weird way…sorry, I digress.

warehouse denim dress

I came back and looked at my patterns, and chose two I could mash up (McCall’s 5927 for the bodice and sleeves, Sewaholic Saltspring for the waistband and skirt – with pockets because Tasia of Sewaholic is a sensible woman). I even started browsing for organic denim I could buy, since I don’t have a big enough piece in my stash; I reckon it would need at least 3.5m of wide fabric for a tea-length A-line dress with long sleeves. But in the course of that browsing I re-read So Zo’s musings on organic cotton and decided that it would be unethical to buy new fabric, organic or not, so I will just have to wait till I find something suitable second-hand.

In case you’re wondering what the point of this post is, sorry – and thanks for reading so far – but I don’t really know. It just felt significant that all I’ve read and thought about ethical textiles and conscious consumption and the global garment industry is now actually strong enough to overpower even the sudden mad rush of falling in love with a garment, a rush which took me over the threshold of one of the despised high street shops I usually avoid like the plague, and to the point of contemplating giving them money. I guess maybe I want to say that being part of an online community of thoughtful, caring, responsible makers (like Zoe and Felicia and Karen) can actually make a difference to behaviour, that actually we can encourage and support each other to consider the interests of exploited garment workers and the environment above our own selfish desire for clothing gratification.* Consciousness-raising FTW!

*obviously I don’t know who actually makes clothing for Warehouse and what their working conditions are – but since I don’t know that they aren’t exploited, I have to assume that they might be.

 

further thoughts on a slow wedding dress

Our wedding was on 1st August, and by early February this year, I had some sense of what I wanted the overall shape of my dress to be. I bought this pattern from Etsy (it came all the way from Las Vegas!):

McCall's 7081: a vintage 1963 evening gown dress patternMcCall’s 7081 is a 1963 cocktail dress pattern, and I chose it because of the unusual bust seam lines and boat neck on the front bodice, and the v-neck on the back. The only size I could find was a bust 34, and I spent the next few months working on muslins, trying to refine the fit for my slightly smaller bust, and much narrower back. I invested in a dress form (something I’d wanted for a long time – this project was the excuse I needed!), and with Hanna’s help, adjusted it and added padding around the bust to approximate my dimensions. Although this bodice looks uncomplicated (its sleek simplicity was what had most appealed to me), the front curved seams proved deceptively tricky to alter, and in the end I left them alone, and achieved a better fit by, essentially, removing fabric at the side and back centre seams.

This was the first time I had incorporated muslins into a dressmaking project, and this part of the process was certainly slow, and at times frustrating. It goes without saying that for such a project as this, muslins were entirely necessary, and I would never have cut into costly silk without being fairly sure about the final result. In the end though, I did enjoy this particularly slow stage of the project – rather like when honing a long piece of writing, the repeated, careful revising  eventually left me with a sense of satisfaction and pride, in knowing that I had produced a thing well-crafted.

By late June, I hadn’t yet decided how one or more pieces of the antique lace would be incorporated. I knew that the lace was definitely going to be part of the skirt, and on the back of the skirt (a full-length circle skirt), where it would be most striking. I can’t remember exactly when it was that I finally chose to use just one piece: a tambour net flounce, over 3 metres long, dating from the 1880s, which is coincidentally the same decade in which the church where we were married was built.

IMG_1843I think many people would be shocked that I was still making some quite crucial decisions about my dress with just over a month to go until our wedding day. The timescales prescribed by the wedding industry are often terrifyingly long – it’s not unusual to make practical arrangements and lay down substantial deposits years ahead, and in my experience of others’ weddings, dresses are sourced months, if not also years, in advance. Hanna and I often talk about the disturbing aspects of contemporary wedding culture, in which people are lead to believe that their wedding has to be a day on which everything is ‘perfect’. Women in particular are put under the pressure of ‘perfection’, and not least when it comes to wedding dresses – as the world of bridal magazines would have it, it’s acceptable to spend thousands of pounds on your ‘dream’ wedding dress, a garment which will be worn only once (and is probably made entirely from synthetic fibres, in a factory in China – but that’s a post for another day…).

So in a context in which brides-to-be are expected to plan every little detail of ‘their’ day very far in advance, my wedding dress was in many ways last-minute. As I said in my last post, some people were clearly surprised and concerned that my dress wasn’t finished when I mentioned I was working on it in July. The dress was completed three days before our wedding, without any rush – just the satisfying pleasure of a project thoroughly executed, in the finest of materials (and without an eye-watering price tag). I was delighted with the finished dress, but much of my joy in wearing it came from the slow experience of making it, and the memories of that experience.DSC_0258IMG_2140

further thoughts on Slow Fashion October

Hello! Lucy here – Hanna’s co-writer on this blog, or, as a dear mutual friend once suggested, either her witch or her familiar…

While reflecting on what Slow Fashion October might mean for me, I have found myself returning repeatedly to the word ‘slow’, and its various implications. I sew and knit, but I have never participated in Me-Made-May, mainly because I inevitably recoiled from that sense of pressure – to make pledges, to take photographs, to make and finish garments quickly in order to have enough suitable things to wear, and to wear things for the sake of the pledge, rather than for any of the other reasons one might decide to dress in any particular way, ‘me-made’ or not, during the month of May. Slow Fashion October appeals much more to my nature, and is a far more realistic fit with how I think about my wardrobe as a mixture of me-made, thrifted, and other garments, and with how my sewing and knitting projects are a welcome ‘slow’ aspect of my life.

In our professional lives as academic researchers, Hanna and I are both fairly used to progress and achievements happening slowly, over months and years. ‘Slow’ goes without saying in that context – and can be a challenging, frustrating, and sometimes overwhelming feeling. I want to think more about the relationship between these two spheres – crafting, and writing – but for now, I’ll stick with how I hope Slow Fashion October will work for me. In both academic research and crafting, it’s very easy to feel guilty about ‘slow’ progress, unfinished projects, things not yet achieved. I want to use this month to focus on a more positive relationship with sewing and knitting projects that have slowed down to a complete halt, and to pick them up not in a rush to meet a deadline, or out of a sense of guilt, but with a focus on the good things about the ‘slow’ nature of craft.

So, during my Slow Fashion October, I will attempt to finish a couple of projects. One is Ysolda’s Blank Canvas sweater, which I started in March 2014, when Hanna and I were away on our annual writing retreat. I have the sleeves and most of the body, so just need to join them and finish the shoulders and neck. Another is a pinafore dress, New Look 6726, in a black and green large houndstooth woven wool blend. The fabric was a gift from my sister, and I cut out the pieces for the dress in October 2014 (see below). Finally, I have a Marks & Spencer size 18 skirt, in green needlecord, which I bought for £3 in a Norfolk charity shop earlier this year. It has pockets and a buttoned panel closure down the front, is completely unworn, and crying out to be remade into a skirt that fits me.

One that slowed to a complete halt...

Slow Fashion October

October flowers in Cambridge

Slow Fashion October is the idea of Karen Templer at Fringe Association – and what a good one it is! She takes inspiration from Me-Made-May, but observes that – having been created by and for sewers – it isn’t particularly well-timed for knitters. So she proposes October as another me-made month, but with a difference:

“I’d like the scope of this to be broader . I’d like us to be able to celebrate not only our own makes (although definitely that!) but clothes that have been made for us by others; worn over the course of years or decades; handed down or rescued from thrift shops or attics; mended; handcrafted in the small studios of slow fashion designers and/or from ethical fabrics; and so on. I want it to be about responsible and sustainable fashion in all its splendor, in other words. An opportunity to discuss and explore the wide range of topics that are at the core of slow fashion.”

Well, this basically rings all our bells here at Patch Aesthetic, so count us in! We’ll be using Karen’s weekly themes as a jumping off point for musings on everything to do with slow fashion.

October is a great month for this. As Karen points out, it’s peak international fashion season, and a time when even on the high street the culture of consuming clothes is revving up. That back to school feeling and the sinking temperature are almost inseparable from thoughts of a new winter wardrobe, as if we can signal our return to focus and efficiency after the lassitude of summer with a closet full of new coats, boots, and tights. And just over the horizon looms Christmas, with its emphasis on consumption of all kinds, as well as the strange mania that can be induced by clothing catalogues full of sparkly party dresses (oh Boden, how I love hate thee). For me, October and November are two of the busiest months of the year, a whirl of lectures, talks, and teaching, while the approach of December sends me into a spin of making presents.

Before all that takes hold, Slow Fashion October seems to offer a perfect breathing space; the chance to slow right down and put some thought into what I wear/want to wear, and why.

As it happens, I’ve already spent quite a lot of time this year cultivating a more conscious and thoughtful approach to my wardrobe. With the idea that I might participate in Me-Made-May, I decided to spend April doing an audit of my style and my wardrobe using the excellent Colette Patterns Wardrobe Architect series. That gave me a much clearer concept of the ethos, shapes, and colours that were important to me, but I still felt I had too much stuff. So instead of doing Me-Made-May, I spent that month getting rid of vast amounts of clothing (and shoes, accessories, books, household goods etc) using the KonMari Method; I also organised and catalogued my stash of fabric and wool. (I’ll write more about both of those processes another time.) The result is that I am much happier with the volume of my possessions, and have a good idea of what kinds of things I should make.

Tartan silk taffeta + V8280 (Vogue's version of the legendary Galaxy Dress) = a match made in heaven, right?
Bad: Tartan silk taffeta + V8280 (Vogue’s version of the legendary Galaxy Dress, which turns 10 this year).

But of course, as the weather cools and life gets busier, I’m still tempted when I walk past shops and see beautiful coats or brogues – and I have escapist dreams of making my next sewing project a tartan silk taffeta cocktail dress (see above). Slow Fashion October is the reminder I needed to stay true to my goal of having a better relationship with stuff in general and with my wardrobe in particular. It also seemed like a great reason to start that blog that Lucy and I have been talking about for years, and so Patch Aesthetic is here!

My specific resolutions for this month are:

1) not to buy any clothes, yarn or fabric, either new or second-hand;

2) to make a useful outfit (i.e. one that conforms to my self-determined style rules and fills a wardrobe need) from materials I already have (see below);

3) to finish off my KonMari clear out so I have a manageable volume of clothes and accessories, all of which are either useful or beautiful;

4) to use this blog to reflect on fashion, craft and sustainability, and to connect with other crafters on social media.

Readers, what does slow fashion mean to you? Do you have any plans for Slow Fashion October? Let us know in the comments!

Blue-grey feather print jersey + B6086 = a properly useful three season day dress.
Good: blue-grey feather print jersey + B6086.