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.