Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Vintage Shetland Project; On Cutting a Set-in Sleeve Cap

I've been a fan of Susan Crawford's work for many years. After reading about it, I tracked down an early edition of her legendary first book, A Stitch In Time, and devoured every page, reading it like a novel. Susan isn't just a designer: she's a knitting historian and anthropologist. Her specialty is updating, modernizing, translating, adapting vintage designs for modern knitters.

There are two volumes in the Stitch in Time series, and they are both absolutely wonderful. If you're interested in the history of fashion and knitting, then they are must-haves. Susan takes original vintage designs and creates modern patterns for them, with updated yarn and patterns, while still utterly honouring the original concepts and designs. The first volume covers 1920-1949, and the second book has designs from 1930 to 1959.

But Susan's latest project is even more exciting. The Vintage Shetland project isn't just about patterns: it's about knitted pieces. With the help and support of Carol Christiansen, textile curator at the Shetland Museum, Susan has researched 25 hand-knitted garments and accessories from the 20th Century which are held in the Museum's archives. Susan has studied the pieces in detail, recording their construction stitch for stitch then creating patterns from them. The patterns are all fully modernized, with multiple sizes, detailed  instructions and technical advice and illustrated with beautiful colour photography shot in Shetland.

I'd be keen to see this project published regardless, but I'm even more keen because I'm involved. Susan has enlisted me to be the technical editor on the project, and I'm honoured to be part of it.

I recently had a chance to chat with Susan about some of the technical aspects of this project.

KATE: Did you have patterns for any of the pieces, or were you working only from actual completed samples? Would the knitters have been working from patterns, or not, do you think?

SUSAN: I worked directly from the pieces themselves in all cases, reading each item stitch by stitch, row by row. It was a time consuming process but revealed a lot about each of the items as I studied them. Shetland knitters tended to work from their own hand drawn charts. Many knitters would have had the same charts as each other but as a rule each knitter created their own book of hand drawn motifs to work from. However as the items I have chosen reach the late 1950s/early 1960s I believe there are one or two of the pieces which may potentially have been adapted from commercial patterns.

Many of the garments are ‘variations' on standard stitch patterns. For example there is a beautiful sleeveless evening top in a laceweight wool with delicate beading around the neck which uses a slightly adapted version of the ‘Print of the Wave’ pattern. Another garment uses the ‘Fan and Feather’ stitch pattern as the basis for a very stylish and fashion conscious sweater.

KATE: Did you encounter any techniques or technical solutions that were puzzling? Did anything you find in the techniques or constructions surprise you?

SUSAN: Oh yes, several. From a beret made using a combination of vertical fair isle strips interlinked by horizontal shaped stocking sections to set-in sleeves with apparently no shaping, there were many technical puzzles that I found myself needing to unravel. The ingenuity and lack of conformity to the ‘standards’ we have retrospectively applied to Fair Isle techniques greatly surprised but also delighted me. It was very exciting to be allowed ‘behind the scenes’ of Fair Isle as it was developing and evolving. Many of the pieces used motifs that did not divide into the same number. For example one garment used a 34 stitch main motif, a 16 stitch peerie motif and a 7 stitch peerie motif. It was a real challenge to decide how best to approach this type of problem.

Susan at work; image copyright Susan Crawford.
KATE: What’s the process/what are the challenges in writing a pattern from a sample?

SUSAN: The process all took place at the Shetland Museum archive building a little way outside Lerwick (ed: the capital of Shetland). Gavin (ed: Susan's partner) and I would go and set up for the day with laptop, magnifier, shade cards, notepad, tape measure etc. I would make a brief sketch of the piece, a description and any particular design features, take its overall measurements, then note which colours had been used and cross reference the colours to our single digit alpha-numeric code. Gavin would set up a file on the computer and usually starting bottom right, away we would go... me reading out the code, Gavin recording it on the laptop: Motif A, Row 1: 1, 1, 1, 2, 2, 1, 1, 1, 2, centre; Row 2: 1, 1, 2, 2, 2, 2, 1, 2, 2, centre. And so it would continue, slowly building a text version of each motif or pattern repeat of the piece, with each item usually taking several hours to complete. Away from the archive this code was then run through Gavin’s ‘Fair Isle Decoder’ programme. This incredible programme written by Gavin, converts our code directly into Fair Isle motifs. This of course is really just the start of the pattern writing process itself. I would now set about ‘rebuilding’ the garment from the measurements, recorded tension and the recreated motifs or stitch patterns. From this I would then set about ‘grading’ the pattern and creating a multi-sized version of each piece. The real challenges came from the non-standard nature of the original pieces. Highly unusual and inventive construction methods often paired with motifs that didn’t work together mathematically often didn’t lend themselves easily to multi-sizing but over a long period of time I gradually with the help of knowledgeable designer friends and amazing tech editors like Kate (ed: I'm blushing!), I began to produce well-crafted, coherent and intelligent patterns for knitters to use.

KATE: Are there any techniques/elements of the construction that you have chosen to update/”modernize”, or are you sticking pretty close to the samples?

SUSAN: My original plan and aim was to recreate the samples as closely to the originals from the museum as possible. It was very important to me that the recreations are as much like the pieces in the archive as they possible can be. ‘Modernizing’ in particular was not something I was looking to do. However, certain pieces had been knitted using very unique and non-transferable methods. What I mean by this is they used methods that didn’t lend themselves to being used in a pattern for other knitters to knit from. An example of this is a sweater from the 1940s which incorporated set-in sleeves and high set puffed sleeve heads. To achieve this, rather than work shaping at either side of the armhole steek, the knitter had knitted straight up to the shoulder line, joined the front and back shoulder stitches and then cut the shape of the set-in armhole that she required and then did the same with the sleeves. Imagine suggesting to anyone trying to knit this beautiful sweater from my book that they should simply cut the shape they think they are going to need out of the sides of their lovingly knitted sweater! (ed: indeed!!!!!!) So on occasions such as this, I have imposed standard construction methods to make the knitting process easier.

Susan has launched a PubSlush fundraiser for the project. Having recently self-published a book, I think something like this is a smart way to launch a book project: it's a way to fund the work and the printing, and gather preorders. This book has required a significant up front investment, too, in terms of travel and time.

If you want to get your hands on a digital or physical copy of the book, or even just one or two of Susan's beautiful patterns, you can do that here.

For the list of stops on the blog tour, visit Susan's blog. She's spoken about many different aspects of the project on different blogs and podcasts. I've thoroughly enjoyed following along.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Kate - what a fabulous project to be involved in. I checked out Susan's blog/website and started the blog tour. After reading about the project and seeing the fabulous photographs I just had to support it. Looking forward to receiving my signed copy when published.