RETROspective Knits – part 1

We had a holiday in April, detailed in part here on the blog, in the deserts of Arizona and California.  For much of that trip we were staying with my mom, Marylou, and stepfather, Stuart.  One afternoon, we were all sitting in the living room, drinking coffee and chatting.  I was knitting, of course, and Emma and I were absorbed in “blogtalk” – planning photo shoots and upcoming posts, future series, trends in knitting, etc.  We began discussing ways to photograph my green mohair shawl (subject of a future Wearability Wednesday post).  Mom said “Kelly, do you remember the green mohair coat I knit?  Here, let me show you.”  She ran out of the room, and came back minutes later with a beautiful coat, hand knit in 1965, and lovingly and carefully stored away for many decades.

This started a parade of hand knitted items, carefully washed and packed away, that had been knitted by my mother in the 1960s and 1970s.  Also, a few items that had been knitted by my paternal grandmother, Edna.   We could not help but notice that all of these things fit one or more of us, and this started a melee of trying on and strutting up and down the living room in vintage hand knitted garments.  Soon the living room looked like a yarn bomb had gone off in it; knitting covered every surface.  At some point, Emma and I looked at each other and everything “clicked”.  Here was a great thing to blog about!  We would take these lovely garments, with their oral history from my mom, and combine them with new photoshoots, showcasing three generations of women wearing a family’s knitting heritage.  Furthermore, we would “rock” this vintage vibe, using great desert locations, and cool photos of us, having a blast.

I thought about different ways to organize the outfits for this blog; chronologically, by knitter, by wearer, by style, etc, and decided to go with what I do best and just wing it.

One of our favorite pieces from my mother’s collection is a minidress, knit in a horrible synthetic yarn in baby blue and white, which we dubbed “the popcorn dress”.  I am not sure why we called it this, since the stitch pattern is definitely not a popcorn stitch, and more like a jacquard, but once in our brains it was hard to dislodge.

The popcorn dress is completely shapeless, and made out of sticky, horrible stuff, and in eye-popping (not in a good way) blue and white.  It looks not very interesting at best, and hideous at worse, until you put it on, and then it transforms itself into the height of 1960s kitchiness.  It is fun, sexy, stylish, vintage dressing at its best.

For a shapeless style, it really delivers on the body-shaping front.  Each of us – mom, myself, Emma and Leah- tried it on and it made us each look shapely.  However, I must admit that this particular style shouts “young”, so we only photographed the girls in it.  You can see here, that the dress looks super cool on each of them.  The photos of Leah are taken in the street outside of my mother’s home in Scottsdale and the shots of Emma at a friend’s house in the desert foothills outside of Tucson. (Of course, one of the problems with this blog is that Emma is a better photographer than I am; the photos with Emma in them suffer from my comparative lack of skill.  Luckily Emma is photogenic enough to mostly make up for this, but if she could, she would totally be behind and in front of the camera simultaneously.)

Can you tell that we were having fun?   The back neck of the dress should be buttoned; somewhere along the way the button went missing.  However, I kind of like it this way, so we left it as is.  Here are a few close up shots.

Marylou knit this dress in the late 1960s when we were living in Florida.  She wore it all the time.  My mom was a gorgeous, slim blonde, and I’m sure she turned heads in this dress, even in the 60s, when this style was common. Mom wasn’t sure of the exact year she knit this, or where she found the pattern, so when we returned to the UK, Emma and I pulled out the box of 1960s and 70s knitting magazines, and began a search.  Yes, dear readers, go ahead and be envious – a decade or so ago, when I was living in Germany, I received an enormous box in the post, weighing 50 pounds or so, filled with all of my mother’s old knitting patterns, and a note saying “I thought you might like these.”  It is a wonderful and much cherished resource.  Emma found the pattern right away in the 1969 issue of Vogue knitting:

You can see my mom’s scribbling on the pattern page.  If you look carefully, you can see that the small size is a 10.  If you needed proof that sizes have drifted in the US, this is it.  This dress would certainly qualify now as a size 6, or maybe a 4, but then it was a 10.  And 10 was the smallest size.  While we were searching through the magazines, we also found a piece in the 1997 Vogue knitting, with a similar dress, which they had updated from a 1962 Vogue Knitting issue.  For those of you who wanted to knit a similar dress and can’t locate a 1969 issue of Vogue, this one might be more accessible.

This dress really delivers a lot of bang for the buck.  It is interesting how something so shapeless can be so shapely.  This, of course, is the great thing about knitwear.

I absolutely adore the photos of Leah standing in the palm trees in this dress.  It is a real example of how much this blog benefits from Emma’s skills with a camera.  Leah also loves these photos and is now after me to knit her this dress in a less weird feeling yarn, so maybe another popcorn dress is on the knitting horizon.

I was born in September 1961 in California.  My dad, Lee, had just been accepted into the graduate school at Michigan State University; so as soon as the hospital released me, my parents put me in the back seat of their bright orange VW beetle (purchased by my dad while serving with the military in Germany) and drove straight through to Michigan.  There, we set up house in Spartan Village, a dormitory facility for married students and their families.  My childhood memories of Spartan Village are amazing; growing up in the 60s on a university campus, in a married housing dorm teeming with other children, in a period filled with political demonstrations and hope and music – it was a super place to be.  Interestingly enough, I went back to Spartan Village with Doug and the girls in the summer of 2003.  Doug was teaching in a Linguistics Summer School there, and we spent a month in Spartan Village living just next door to my childhood apartment.  I had the most amazing sense of deja vu all summer.  But, I must say, as an adult the place seemed decidedly less super than my childhood memories suggested.

One of our neighbors there, Marge Stevens, taught my mother to knit.  Mom was already a great seamstress, but had never knit before.  This must have happened almost immediately after moving there, because the first thing that she knit was this baby outfit for me.

It is a bit faded now (it is after all, 50 years old), and hard to photograph in the bright desert light, but you can see that it is cream, with pale green stripes, and knit from wool.  Mom had it put away with my baby shoes, and also with the little hat (on the flower pot) which was knit for me by my paternal grandmother, Edna. I will feature some of Edna’s knits in the next installment of this series.  I wonder if my mother knew, as she knit this baby outfit, that she had unleashed the knitting genie from the bottle.

By the time I was a teenager and spending all my spare time knitting, weaving, spinning, needlepointing, and generally engaged in fibre-related activities, my mother was an accomplished knitter.  She knit much of her working wardrobe.  By this time, my parents were divorced, and my mom worked for the local newspaper in the small Long Island town we lived in.  One of the staples of her wardrobe at this time (mid 70s) was the skirt set.  Here are photos of my mom and me modelling two of these skirt sets. (Though they both still fit her perfectly, they are definitely on the snug side on me.)

As you can see, they still look great and have held up beautifully.  The rust set, which Marylou is wearing, I remember particularly well.  I remember her knitting it and groaning from the sheer number of bobble stitches she had to knit for the vest.  In fact, this was intended to be a long sleeved sweater, but mom got tired of making bobbles, and it became a vest.  She wore this all the time; it was a very chic but functional and comfortable working outfit.

Mom and I modelled these skirt sets for these photos in the middle of the day in Scottsdale, Arizona, in the heat.  Did we complain?  No.  Actually, we had a blast.  It was so much fun modelling all of these great knit pieces.  It was one of those girl things; a cool project that kept three generations of us busy for a week; planning outfits, locations, shoes, makeup, taking endless photos, giggling, reminiscing.

In the late 70s, or maybe very early 80s, my mom made a lovely turtleneck, with lace panels, in a beautiful smoky grey mohair.  Mom wore this sweater for a few years but eventually she got tired of me continually borrowing it, and gave it to me.  I wore it frequently.  I especially remember wearing it at college, usually teamed with a grey and wine pencil skirt and high heeled wine coloured boots. (I went to Barnard, at Columbia University in the middle of Manhattan; in those days, I was always well turned out as befitted life in such a thriving fashion capital. This might have also been because they didn’t make jeans in my size back then.) Recently, I took it out of storage and gave it to Emma, who also loves it.

The great thing about this sweater is that it has been worn, and loved, by both my mom and I and now will be worn and loved by my daughters.  And it looks every bit as great today as it did the day it was finished.  These photos were taken back at home in the UK, on a cold, bleak May day, and Emma looks really pleased to be modelling something so cozy and warm.

I had forgotten, until I saw these photos, how much I loved this sweater.  The lace panels are so subtle, but really add to the beauty of the fabric.  Also, I am admiring the fact that it looks so lovely, while not having any shaping.  In the past few years, I have mostly been knitting very fitted garments, but can really see the appeal here of an unstructured silhouette.

Here is another unstructured silhouette that really delivers.  My mother knit this purple dress sometime in the mid 70s.  She wore it teamed with a pair of suede flats that matched the smocking, but in keeping with our Southwestern theme, we have paired it with bright red cowboy boots and hat.

I love this very unusual pairing.  And I love how the dress flows; it seems to have a lot of movement in it.  You can imagine it swirling and flowing around the legs as you walk.  The two photos below show the beautiful craftsmanship involved.  (She’s a great knitter, my mom.)  The combination of the unique rib and the smocking is visually pleasing, and I just adore the pop from the contrast of the coral and purple.  Just the tiny bit of coral detailing really makes this dress.

And no one can deny the appeal of red cowboy boots.  These boots belonged to my mom.  They now belong to Leah.

The hat, a genuine Stetson, was a gift to Doug from Stuart.  You can see him modelling it in the photos of his Brick pullover, from an earlier post.  You might have noticed that the girls borrow this hat.  A lot.

I started out this post by mentioning a green mohair coat that Marylou knit in the mid 1960s, so I will end the post with it.  I remember being very envious of this coat, which I thought incredibly glamorous.  When mom first made it, she lined it with black netting.  This was intended to give it more structure, but actually it made it feel stiff and awkward, so she didn’t wear it very much.  A number of years later, mom ripped out the lining, and after that, she wore it more often.  Mostly, she would wear it to go out in the evening, to add glamour to an outfit, as well as warmth.

See?  I’m still having fun.  Even wearing a mohair coat in the desert.

I love this one.  I love the colour, I love the length, I love how it looks so chic but feels so cuddly.  From a comfort perspective, it is like throwing on a much worn sweatshirt, but team it with a dress and a pair of heels and it looks fabulous.  I would also wear this with jeans.  In fact, I just might need to sneak this one back in my suitcase the next time I visit my mom.

This concludes the first part of an anticipated three installments in this RETROspective series.  I plan to post the next one in mid-July and the last in mid-August.  I hope that you’ve enjoyed reading it as much as we enjoyed putting it together!

24 thoughts on “RETROspective Knits – part 1

  1. Love, Love, Love this post…….. Not just because of the knitwear that is still very wearable, but because it brings back so many memories! Love the pic of you and mom in the skirt sets…….

    I think you do have to make the ” popcorn” dress for Leah, it looks amazing on her and on Em…..

    • Hi Romi. Thanks so much. It’s too bad that you weren’t there, too. We could have had some good sister shots. And I think that you are right about the photo of me and mom; it’s one of my favorites. Emma really captured the moment well.

  2. Love this post with all the pictures and the descriptions. Talked to Mary Lou yesterday. Her knitting is just amazing. Great picture of you and your mother sitting- such “real” smiles and laughter.

  3. I wish I had a treasure like this! Sadly, I am the only one who knits in my family, so none of that. The closest I have is my grandma crocheting everyone a blanket when she was alive. No apparel, sadly. The dress is very cute, maybe you can replicate in more, um, suitable yarn?

    • Hi Margaret, you are right: this knitting history is a treasure. There is a moral here too: treat your knits well and they will last a good long time. I don’t have any of the sweaters that I knit in my youth; they were either given away, or lost upon my many moves around the world, or eaten up by moths and consigned to the rag pile. I will make an effort now to treat my current and future knits as well as my mom did. I’m glad that you liked the post.

  4. Hi Kelly,

    What a wonderful post! Should I say I remember the popularity of the “popcorn dress”? Is it Phentex? I really enjoyed reading and look forward to the sequels! Love to all, Teresa

    • Hi Teresa, I’m not sure what make the yarn is, but it is really very plastic-y. In the 1970s I worked as an arts and crafts instructor at a senior citizen’s centre, and we made hundreds of macrame plant hangers out of similar yarn. It makes me cringe to think of it. (And to think that I’m nearly a “senior” myself, now! Egads!) And, just to add, I can totally see you in a popcorn dress!

  5. Echoing another commenter: Love, love, love this post! Thank you so much for sharing

    And now I’m off to track down a turtleneck-with-lace-inset pattern to satisfy my sweater-envy!

    • Hi Rachel. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post; we had fun writing it up. I know what you mean about the turtleneck with lace. That sweater had been packed away for decades; looking at the photos of it now makes me want to pull out my needles and knit it up in my size.

  6. I loved this post. So much so, the first time reading it put tears in my eyes. Your memories are so beautiful, and the love that your Mom put into these gorgeous hand-knits is palpable.

    I can hardly believe your Mom held on to the Popcorn Wonder LOL. I remember that yarn (it might have been Phentex, 100% new-fangled Olefin)! I love both of the mohair numbers – the gray sweater and green coat. Both are just gorgeous and truly transcend time.

    Again, loved, loved, loved this post. Thanks for sharing your memories.

    • Ann, thanks so much for your lovely words. I think it’s really great that the girls and I got to do this with my mom. It was fun also to write about times gone by. And I agree about the two mohair pieces; I love them both. I am seriously thinking about casting on a mohair coat for me.

  7. Wow! This post knocks me out! Everything here could be worn today and would look completely fashionable. I love that your mom kept everything in such good shape. And getting a box like that in the mail? Wonderful!

    • Hi Maya! Yeah, that box of knitting magazines was a really great thing. In the past 20 years, I have moved from the US to Australia to Germany and to the UK, and I keep dragging all my knitting books and magazines around the globe with me. I am so glad that you enjoyed the post. Thank you for commenting.

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