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.
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.
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…
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?
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.