RETROspective knits – Part 3

This is the last in a three part series featuring garments that my mother and grandmother knit in the 1950s through the 1970s.  You can find Part 1 here and Part 2 here.  In April of this year we took an Easter holiday to Arizona to visit my mother and step-father.  My mom pulled out piles of vintage hand knits to show us, and we all went a little crazy and had a trying-on and photo-taking party in the desert.  These posts are the result.

One of the very early garments my mom made was this lilac dress.  This probably dates to about 1963 or ’64, and is modelled here by my daughter Leah.

I am guessing the date based on Mom’s recollection of it being one of the first dresses she knit, but also by the length – the dresses she knit later in the 60s were quite a bit shorter.  This dress is wool and a very simple shift with minimal shaping.  The lace panels are knit separately and then sewn onto the finished dress.  Thus, you can’t see through the lace, although it gives an interesting embossed character and beautiful feminine detailing.

I really like this dress and am thinking about making something similar, but this time with the lace panels knit in, so that it would be a combination of a very classic and conservative shape with a bit of flirty added to to the mix.

My mom, Mary Lou, tells me that she made quite a few similar dresses in the ’60s and ’70s; some of these were given away over the years or otherwise lost to posterity.  All of the knit garments she held on to are still in wonderful condition and very wearable, though they might be considered a bit itchy by today’s standards.  As I’ve mentioned before, I think these two things  are related – these slightly more itchy wools were more durable than many of the super soft wools being produced today, and are therefore more likely to look like new decades down the road.  After having been seduced by the softness of some unplied super soft artisan wools lately, I find that I am being drawn back to the real thing; there is something very satisfying about a wool that is still ‘sheepy’, if you know what I mean.  It breathes better, it lasts longer (and it steeks better too).

Here, Leah is modelling the dress along with a lace shawl that Mom knit, also in the 60s.  It is a simple lace repeat, knit in a rectangle, in mohair.  (In contrast to what I said above, I find mohair yarns being produced now to be far, far nicer than most of those from the 60s, 70s and 80s.  Imagine how much more soft and lovely this shawl would be knit in Rowan Kidsilk Haze, for example).

Shawls like this are very popular today.  This is certainly an item that won’t go out of fashion.  Here is a close-up of the stitch pattern:

When I was in the eighth grade, my mom knit a very cool white coat out of super bulky wool.  This was a time when big silhouettes were starting to be all the rage.  Having an enormous, long sweater pulled over slinky pants was extremely fashionable.

That’s my mom, Mary Lou, modelling it this spring, 40 years after knitting it.  She looks great, as does the coat.

Look, no buttonholes!  Having a coat that didn’t button – to me this was the height of fashion.  How completely impractical!  How could you not love a coat that didn’t button!  And, look!  It was white!  How even more supremely impractical!  Who would wear a white coat?

Yes, my teenaged self adored this coat.  I coveted it!  I borrowed it frequently!  I secretly wished mom would knit one for me.  It probably was this coat that got me thinking about knitting garments for myself.  I had knit from an early age, but it was this coat that made me first think “Hey, I could knit that!”  Even through  my crush, I could see that it was a very simple knit.  Most of the things mom knit were way above my skill level, but this was in the realms of accessibility even then.

I added the above photo for sentimental reasons.  That is Harlei, who thought this whole photo shoot thing was immensely fascinating and couldn’t resist getting into the shoot.  Harlie was a rescue dog and my mom and Stuart had her for less than a year.  She died a few months after these shots were taken, from liver damage.

Though these posts focus on hand knitted garments, I couldn’t resist throwing in the following shots of a beautiful handmade lace centerpiece.  This piece, which has a fine cotton central portion, surrounded by very delicate white lace, was made by my mother’s grandmother, Theresa, probably around the early 1900s.  Theresa was born in 1988, and married in 1904.   I remember visiting her as a child.

I am fairly certain that it is crocheted, though my mother remembers watching her grandmother make bobbin lace (that is an art we don’t see much of anymore).  We washed it and pressed it for this shot, and it looks like new;  crisp, and white and fresh.  The stitchwork is so lovely and even.  (And Emma’s photos are so pretty.)

In the previous posts in this series, I showed photos of some of my collection of vintage knitting magazines, mostly from the 60s and 70s.  While I was living in Germany, my mother sent me a huge box filled with old knitting magazines.  Also around this time, I received a box from my grandmother.  Edna had arthritis, and as she got older, she was less and less able to knit.  At some point, she gave up completely.  When she was in her mid 80s, she insisted that her son, my Uncle Dick, box up her knitting bag and send it to me.  Dick apparently thought this was crazy, and that no sane person would want an old case of old knitting supplies, but Edna prevailed.

The case was obviously placed in a box and mailed to me just as it was, without any cleaning or sorting of its contents, for which I am very grateful.  It is a wonderful carpet case, the leather old and cracked and the fabric faded.  I love it.  Here is the clasp:

On the inside, two hand made quilted needle cases for crochet hooks and DPNs:

She had crochet hooks in every size, many of them made from bone:

Circular needles, all in their original packaging:

These Susan Bates and Boye needles were made from Nylon, and were likely the newest thing when she bought them.  Interestingly, I have tried to search for Circlon Nylon needles, as is clearly marked on the Susan Bates package, but my internet search only produces ‘Circulon’.  I don’t know if the packaging had a typo, or if the name changed, or if my search was inadequate; I will have to do some more digging.

The case also contained straight needles:

Lots and lots of beautiful straight needles:

I especially like the bent needles on the left below, and the luminescent green plastic ones (plastic isn’t so pretty these days):

And I loved her notions container; all of her safety pins and stitch markers kept in an old glass prescription bottle, dated 1959:

So, you see, my knitting legacy from Edna and Mary Lou is threefold.  First, in the beautiful garments that they knit.  Second in the tools of they trade which they passed on to me.  And third, in the love of craft and skill which I inherited.

I am going to end this series with a truly remarkable knit dress and way too many photos.  This series has showcased knitted garments made by my mother, Mary Lou, and also some that were made by my paternal grandmother, Edna.  This last is a dress that unites the two of them.  It is a dress that Edna knit for my mother in 1959, shortly after my mom and dad married.  This is my daughter, Emma, modelling it in April this year at a friend’s house just outside of Tucson.

The detailing on this dress is fabulous. It is knit in a very light mohair in a pale apricot colour (a much finer mohair than in the pink shawl).  Note the breast darts and the full fashioning, the set in sleeves, the brass buttons, the full circle skirt (amazing in a hand knit dress). To me, this just shouts 1950s.  It is elegant and sexy.  It makes me think of movie stars.

Mom says that Edna took her measurements, and then knit the dress perfectly to fit, without any extra fittings or fuss. Remember my grandmother was an expert seamstress and corsetière; if anyone could make a dress perfectly to fit, it was Edna.  My mom believes that she knit this without a pattern, and that it took about a month or so, even though Edna was working full time.  That is some speedy knitting.

I love the photo below done in black & white.  This just seems to emphasize the glamour of this dress; talk about movie stars or pin-up girls.  And though I can just imagine shooting this dress in a stylish restaurant, with a Cary Grant type in a tuxedo, and a fabulous cocktail in a fabulous glass, and a stole draped over the back of the chair, somehow this desert background really does something for it too.  Oh, don’t you wish we lived in the days when you could stroll out of the house in this dress, with a matching handbag and heels, and others would be dressed in similar fashion (though certainly not as fabulous).

In 1965, we flew back to California from Michigan during Christmas break. My mother’s grandfather, Jesse, was dying and she wanted to spend time with him.  In the six years since Edna had knit the dress, styles had changed; hemlines were creeping up.  Edna decided to shorten the dress.  She took her scissors and cut close to 2″ off the bottom of the dress, picked up the stitches, knit the edging and bound off.  Let’s put this in perspective: There were over 1000 stitches around the hem of that dress.  In mohair.  With a US size 1 needle.  Here is some more perspective:  See the photo below?  Emma is holding the piece that Edna cut off.  That is what a full circle skirt means.

When Emma was sorting through photos for this post, she started playing around with the photo below, putting it into sepia tones, to look like an old photograph.  Doug was walking past the monitor  and said “Hey, where did you get that photo of my mom?  I don’t think I’ve seen that one before!”  Doug’s mom, Ethel, died before I even met him.  We have always thought that Emma took after Doug’s father’s side of the family (the Lebanese side).  It’s funny; we’ve never before noticed a resemblance between Emma and Ethel.  But in this photo, with it’s astonishing 1950s vibe, Doug mistook Emma for his mother.

I love this dress.  With its 22″ waist, there is no way I will ever be able to wear it.  Not only is it stylish and sexy and elegant, it is a knitting work of art.  As a knitter, I get intense satisfaction out of this dress, and out of all of these beautiful pieces, knit with skill  and flair, and preserved so carefully through the decades.

Writing this series has been a wonderful experience for me.  It tied together more than four generations of women through something created using simply two needles and a length of yarn.  Seeing the clothes brought back so many memories and writing these posts reminds me of the fascinating stories in my family.

I hope that you have enjoyed reading this series as much as Emma, Leah, Mary Lou and I enjoyed making it.

RETROspective knits – Part 2

In the first installment in this series, which you can find here, I showed off some of the beautiful garments that my mother knitted in the 60s and 70s.  In April, while on holiday, we had a vintage knitting photo shoot feeding frenzy, with Emma, Leah, myself and my mom, trying on and modelling a pile of knits (in the hot Arizona desert nonetheless). It was a great deal of fun, and we had a blast working a retro groove. In this post, I will show a few more of these garments, as well as some knit by my grandmother.

A couple of years ago, the shrug became a sort of go-to knit item (in the same way that the shawl is now, or socks were last year).  The absolute classic shape is a top-down cropped raglan, with yarn overs for the raglan shaping, creating a series of holes (or ‘lace’ as we knitters like to refer to holes) on either side of the raglan seam.  Ravelry was teeming with cropped raglan shrugs.  Well, one of the reasons that this is a classic shape is because it is a classic shape, if you know what I mean.  My mother was knitting and wearing this shape in the 60s. Here I am modelling it:

For comparison’s sake, here is a version that was quite popular a few years ago.  I knit two of them, for Emma and Leah, for Christmas 2009.

Mom’s version was knit in a beautiful pale blue mohair.  The sleeves are a bit longer, as is the body, but the shape and construction are exactly the same.

My mom knit this sometime in the early 60s.  I found that I really enjoyed this pale blue, although it is a colour I rarely wear. It would look great with a little sundress, or a pencil skirt and heels, but I think it also adds a little bit of class to a pair of jeans.  I much prefer this version, than the version I made, which was designed for a super bulky wool.

As you can see above, the shaping for this one is more billowy, suitable for a light throw on a summer’s evening, and very contemporary.  Mom, if you are reading this now, go take this shrug out of mothballs and start wearing it again!  Wear it with pearls and look like Grace Kelly!

While we are on the subject of shrugs, I was surprised when my mom brought out this piece, a sort of cross between a shawl and a shrug.  I had forgotten about this; I knit it for my mom as a gift when I was 15 years old.

One end of the shawl tucks into a space in the other end.  Interestingly, I have seen quite a few new designs just this year using this technique.

I was really pleased to discover that my mom still had this shawl, one of the earlier things I knit, 35 years ago.  It was also the first knitted gift I ever gave.  This is one of those great things about moms, I guess.  I wonder if she also kept all of the ash trays I made her over the years.  (Do you remember those days when everyone smoked, and first graders proudly made ash trays for their mothers for mother’s day gifts?)

This style is a little too cutesy for me now; I much prefer the classiness of the blue mohair, a shape which has withstood the passage of time.

Another very classic shape from around the same time can be found in this sweater knit by my mom in 1969 or 1970. It is a lovely pullover with three quarter length sleeves and a cable pattern around the neck and down the front.  It was knit in a lovely shade somewhere in between lilac and grey.  This style, fairly boxy with little waist shaping, cropped to just below the waist, and with set-in sleeves and very tailored shoulders was typical of the era, and still looks great today.

Mom wore this sweater for many years, and then gifted it to me.  Now, as you can see, it fits Emma perfectly.  I took these shots of Emma in May, after returning from our trip to Arizona. This sweater had been packed away for a long time, and I had forgotten how nice it is.  It is made in pure wool, the best material for knitting; see how well it has kept it’s shape?  This is not one of those new wool yarns, which is fabulously soft but pills like mad.  It is ‘sheepy’, and has great stitch definition and withstands decades of wear.

The cables are lovely and crisp, and the heather striations in the yarn are subtle yet add richness and sheen.

While looking through all of my old pattern books while putting together the first installment in this series, I found the pattern Mary Lou used to knit this.  Here is a photo of the front page of the booklet, and a photo of the pattern.

There was no date on the booklet, but based on the styles (and the haircuts) I would put it at circa 1969-1970.  What I really love about the cover shot, is that the model is holding a cat, and if you look closely, you can see that the cat’s claw is stuck in the fabric of the skirt, and is pulling the stitches. I can just imagine the photo stylist standing by with a crochet hook in hand to fix the damage.  I thumbed through this pattern booklet this morning, and was amazed at how great these patterns were.  I find most patterns from the 70s and 80s to be horribly dated (and often horrendous); but these, from a slightly earlier period all look classy and timeless.

In the previous post, I wrote about how my mother started knitting just after I was born. My grandmother, on my father’s side, was also a knitter.  Both my mother, Marylou, and my grandmother, Edna, were fabulous knitters.  But interestingly, they were both far better seamstresses than knitters.  My mother could sew anything, and she did, making men’s tailored shirts, and evening gowns, lined suits; you name it, she could sew it.  My grandmother was a trained corsetière, who could make the most beautiful of undergarments, corsets, bras, girdles.  Think of the days of stays and lace and fittings and hand finishing. When I was fifteen, my grandmother took me to be fitted for a bra.  “Girls these days,” she said, “either they’re not wearing a bra or they’re wearing one that doesn’t fit.  Pah!  Support them now or live to regret it!  Every girl should be properly fitted by an expert.”

My grandmother and grandfather, Ernie, were square dancers.  They were fairly fanatical about square dancing, doing it several times a week, and travelling around the country to square dance events.  My grandmother hand sewed their square dance outfits.  She had a closet devoted to them. Her dresses were beautiful, in brilliant yellows, pinks, reds, blues, with lace and embroidery, and fabulous colourful patterns.  Each dress had a matching set of tulle petticoats, and a matching pair of dyed dancing shoes.  My grandfather would wear a suit, a slim fitting charcoal suit; but he had a shirt to match each of my grandmother’s dresses.  It would be a crisp, white shirt, but with a placket made in the same fabric as the matching dress, and a pocket handkerchief to match as well.  I used to spend hours sitting on the floor, staring at that closet, and playing with what seemed like miles of tulle petticoats.  And I would watch them dance, in a big room full of dozens of beautifully dressed couples, each moving in choreographed precision. It was magical.

The square dance also marks a very sad point in my memories, because Ernie died of a heart attack at the age of 54, while square dancing with my grandmother.  Although we lived a whole continent away, we were there that night, and I watched him fall.  Though my grandmother went on to lead a very full and very long  life, I don’t think she danced again.

Here is one of my favorite photos of Edna and me.  It was taken in our back garden in Florida; I believe it was about a year after Ernie’s death.  I would have been about nine years old here (I know I look about five, but until I was fifteen I was tiny.)

As to her knitting, Edna knit beautiful things.  She knit a lot of dresses.  First, because women in those days wore dresses.  But also, I think, because my grandmother had the figure for dresses.  She was very slim and very busty, and looked amazing in a hand knit dress.  I have two of these dresses, which my grandmother gave me 20 years or so ago.  This pink one, I believe, was made in the late 70s or early 80s at a time when novelty yarns were big.

I am not a great fan of pink, and not a fan of these yarns, which were shot with metallic threads and a bit itchy, but still one can see that the knitting is lovely.  Edna would have been in her late 60s or early 70s when she knit and wore this.  She had lustrous, shining silver hair, and the most amazing skin, and I am sure that she looked fabulous in this dress.

What I especially like about this dress, however, is that I also have the silk full slip that matches it.  Like with the tulle petticoats for the square dance dresses, Edna would buy undergarments especially to match each outfit.  This is really an old-fashioned concept; as is the silk slip, I fear.  I remember her saying to me “Keep the slip with the dress, because you never know when you will be able to find another that matches.”

The other dress I have from Edna is this yellow one.  I would date it from the 70s I think.  It is a beautiful piece of knitting, with great finishing details.

Isn’t it a lovely dress?  It has such a beautiful shape, and the execution is flawless. This dress makes me think of Easter parades.  When I was a child, on Easter morning whole families would walk to church, dressed in their absolute Sunday best, wearing glorious spring dresses and hats.  This dress has that very ladylike, elegant but happy feel to it.

These photos are frontal views, because if we showed the back you would see that the zipper could never be done up.  I would need to lose 20 pounds before I could zip this up.  My grandmother may have been very busty, but she could have rivalled Scarlet O’Hara in slimness. Edna would have been a knockout in this.  Notice that for this dress, we don’t need a matching slip because it is fully lined.  They made them good in those days.  I think that you can see, in both Marylou’s and Edna’s knitting, that they were seamstresses at heart, and they bring that expertise, as well as that sensibility, to their knitted garments.  Some photos of the lining details:

All of this reminiscing about sewing and undergarments, reminds me of another family story which I can’t resist telling, although it has nothing to do with knitting.  My dad, Lee, joined the army when he was a young man.  Dad grew up in Watsonville, California, which is home to a large army base, so he ended up doing his basic training just a few miles from home.  When he had leave, he could go home.  As my grandmother tells it, he would walk into the house, kiss her cheek, hand her a duffle bag full of dirty laundry, and head off to have fun in town.  Well, Edna possessed a wicked sense of humor, as well as a closet full of corsetmaking supplies.  One day, as she was washing Dad’s laundry and he was out having fun, she took a pair of his underwear, and sewed row upon row of lacy ruffles onto the back.  She then folded them up, and tucked them away into his duffle.  As Lee tells the rest of the story, the next morning they had an inspection in the barracks, and he reached into the duffle, grabbed the shorts and pulled them on, and then stood up at attention for the inspection. Apparently, he caused a near riot that morning, saluting his sargeant in his lacy ruffled shorts.  My dad was an excellent storyteller, and over the years I heard him tell this story many times.  He would laugh until he got tears in his eyes recalling that day.

The story has a great epilogue, as well.  Dad was a paratrooper in the army.   It’s hard for me to believe, but yes, he used to jump out of planes. Each of the paratroopers had a lucky item, something they always wore or carried when they jumped, to bring them good luck.  My father’s lucky item was that pair of ruffled shorts; he always wore them when he jumped.

I’m going to end this post with a dress that my mother knit, which I think  might qualify as the most lovely of all of her knits.

I think this dress is spectacular!  It is knit in a pale, buttery yellow.  The shaping is superb, and so gorgeously, iconically 60s.  I also love the way we shot it here, at a friend’s house in Tucson, against Southwestern pink adobe with the beautiful Sonoran desert background.

I love the high neck, and the classic shift shape, and the fabulous sleeves.  The seed beads on the neckband and cuffs and on the detachable belt were all sewn on by hand. (If you look closely, particularly on the last photo, you can see that many of the beads have fallen off over the years.)  Look at the knitting itself; it’s just beautiful, don’t you think?

We moved to Florida when I was a little girl, as my dad was offered a faculty position at Florida State University in Tallahassee.  My mother joined the Faculty Women’s Club.  In those days, most faculty were male, and the Women’s Club was for the wives of faculty members.  One of the major events of the Club was a yearly fashion show.  My mom knit this dress specifically to model in The Florida State University Faculty Women’s Club Fashion Show, in 1967 (possibly ’68).  I am sure that Marylou blew the competition away wearing this; she was a bombshell.  (Like her granddaughter.)

The photo above shows the detailing on the sleeves really well.  This style of gathered sleeve is not very popular now.  Imagine how many stitches there are in each sleeve.  And of course the cuffs would have been knit separately and sewn on.  Much of knitting today is focused on one-piece, no-seam knitting; it is all about simple styles without finishing.   I, for one, think they are missing out on something.

This concludes part 2 of RETROspective Knits.  I hope that you enjoyed it, and that you stop by next month to see the final installment.

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!