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.