On my plate…er lap… Victorian Knitting History

2016-04-08 08.08.58In an effort to get blogging about the fashion history projects on my plate right now, I’m sharing this photo of an in-progress paid project, a knitting history project! It relates to Victorian Knitting, War Comforts, and continues to appear up into the 1920s, 1930s and even up through the 1950s and 1960s. Once completed it will be over 6 feet long and three feet wide (I’ve been working on it –off and on–for almost a year). I’ll reveal more (of course) once the project is completed and published.

Does the textile pattern remind you of anything?

Guesses are welcome in the comments (Unless I’ve already talked to you about it!)

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Did you know there was a textile factory at Sutter’s Fort?

Looms, placed near windows, at the blanket factory of Sutter's Fort
For sale in the store at Sutter's Fort

On a mini-vacation to Sacramento last week, I spent a little while at the Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park. For those unfamiliar, the Swiss immigrant named John Sutter founded the fort in the Sacramento Valley after getting a land grant from the Mexican government in 1939.  Sutter then created a flourishing agricultural empire, and a haven for many immigrants traveling west. More famously, on January 24, 1848,  James Marshall made his customary inspection of the sawmill he was building for John Sutter, and discovered gold that began California’s famous gold rush.

Interestingly, it was the same James Marshall, Sutter’s head carpenter, who made the looms and spinning wheels for the Sutter’s Fort blanket factory. Thousands of sheep were raised near the fort and in the spring, the sheep were sheare, and the wool processed at the Fort. Local Native Americans worked the looms and wheels. The factory was in the same location in 1846 that it is today, and there is much educational programming (mostly for children) related to its history. The Fort also displays hand-knitting and other textile arts throughout its rooms, and the store even has small kits for learning to quilt, spin, weave, and even sew.


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Fiber in the North State: Fiber Fusion 2013

Sheep at Fiber Fusion 2013 (Chico, CA)

A few weekends ago I treated myself to a trip to the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds in Chico for  Fiber Fusion 2013, an event put on by the Mount Lassen Fiber Guild. So yes, I mostly went because of my obsession with knitting – but much to my surprise, the spinners and weavers nearly out-numbered the knitters. Though I do own a spinning wheel, and even have fleece yet to spin, I’m fairly new at that.

There were sheep, and full fleeces, spinning and weaving displays, lace and tatting displays, as well as an adorable Angora rabbit that almost ended up coming home with me. Participants learned to make rope, what tatting was, and how to dye fabric using natural materials (like avocado pits, oak leaves, and tree bark).

It was a feast for both the eyes and for the hands (unlike most museum exhibits, the exhibitors invite you to touch!). I came home with far too much yarn, a brain full of inspiration, and perhaps even a desire to raise some fiber animals myself. Many of the vendor’s mentioned their plans to go to Lamb Town in Dixon on October 6 – so if you missed Fiber Fusion, or live closer to the SF Bay Area, give Lamb Town a try.



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Upcoming Event: Fiber Fusion on September 28

Angora Blizzard with Cormo Wool! (Bungalow Angora Farms)

What is purported to be the largest Fiber and Quilt Show in Northern California will take place on September 28 at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds in Chico, CA. Fiber Fusion 2013 will include an array of Northern California-based fiber related artists (plant and animal fibers), and vendors, as well as well as quilters. It looks like a great way for fiber-and-yarn lovers (like me) to get to know where to find locally produced products. I’m especially keep on the Alpaca and Angora vendors… According to the Mount Lassen Fiber Guild, it will include:

Vendors, demonstrations, and hands-on activities as well as FREE door prizes and fabulous raffle baskets for everything fiber – weaving, knitting, spinning, crochet, felting, dyeing, native basketry, fleeces, yarn, books, patterns, connections for instruction and workshops. Vendors and demonstrators include breeders, yarn shops, and fiber artists.

The best part ? It’s free. Participants include:

Pit River Wool Company (McArthur, CA)

Meridian Jacobs (Vacaville, CA)

Menagerie Hill Ranch (Vacaville, CA)

Bungalow Farm Angora (No. California)

Arbuckle Fiber Company (Arbuckle, CA)

For more information, and a complete list of vendors/participants, visit the Mt. Lassen Fiber Guild’s website or Facebook page.

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Knitting on the homefront (WWI)

Nurse Bertha Mullen (Mrs. Chester Mullen), ca 1918. Photo by Chester Mullen. Bertha Mullen wearing a Red Cross uniform and is knitting a sock. (Shasta Historical Society)

Knitting played a large part in women’s experience of WWI (1914-1918). That fact is recorded in historical collections across the United States, including rural Northern California, as well as across the world. As historian Susan Strawn notes in her book Knitting America, “By the time America entered the war, knitters around the world were already sending hand-knit comforts to soldiers and refugees in Europe. In the far-flung British dominion of Australia, volunteers turned out astounding numbers of socks.” (91).

The Red Cross developed a nationwide campaign, with posters and pattern books designed to encourage women to aid in the war effort – even children knit for the red cross. The Red Cross even went so far as to supply yarn, patterns, needles, and instructions, ensuring distributed of needed articles of hand-knit to the military directly.


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Southeastern European Folk Dress: A CSA Event with Dr. Elizabeth Barber

Earlier this month I had the rare pleasure of taking a Costume Society of America (CSA) Western Region tour of  Resplendent Dress from Southeastern Europe: A History in Layers, the current exhibition on at UCLA’s Fowler Museum, with one of the world’s foremost historians on the earliest known clothing. Dr. Elizabeth Barber is an expert in archaeology and textiles who has been become well known for  her research on 20,000-year-old clothing, archaeological finds, and historical connections,  since earning her PhD from Yale in 1968.

Only twenty CSA Western Region members and guests would fit on this exclusive tour, and it was a pleasure not to be missed! We not only learned a tremendous amount about the early history of clothing in Southeastern Europe (everything from Albania to Croatia to Romania and all points in between) – but we learned how the forms and symbols connected through history.

The exhibition, tour and talk were not only informative but also beautiful. The garments on display were the best of the Fowler’s collection of folk wear from the 20th century, beautifully dressed, displayed, and organized. The detail in the handwork in each and every piece was breathtaking, awe-inspiring, and taken in all at once is mind-boggling. I could have stared at each piece for a lot longer just to look at the details. One of the best parts of the exhibition is the attention to detail: Many of the mannequins have complete ensemle -d own to the shoes and socks and up to the headdress.

The exhibition is up through July 14th and is breathtaking. For more on the CSA Western Region tour of the exhibition, watch for the September issue of the CSA Western Region newsletter. To be the first to know about upcoming events and tours through CSA Western Region, Join here.

Dr. Barber has also produced a wonderful book documenting her research and the exhibition (I bought my copy on the spot): Resplendent Dress from Southeastern Europe.

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I’m in Knitting Traditions Magazine !

Due to hit shelves on April 9, the next issue of Knitting Traditions not only includes 25 historical knitting patterns (including an article about Knitting and the Brontë sisters), but also has two extra treat: an article I wrote on the 40-year history of Jack Frost Yarn and a pattern I derived from a booklet the company put out in 1953.

My article, The Jack Frost Yarn Company and the History of Handknitting in the United States was a joy to research and write, has some nice historical photos, with a good dose of fashion history to boot. The little vintage basket-weave baby sweater, in butter yellow,  knit-up quickly and was easy to do. The pre-order page for Knitting Traditions Spring 2013 issue notes:

Learn about the history of the Jack Frost Yarn Company and its popular, now-vintage knitted pattern books, as written by Heather A. Vaughan. Enjoy photographs of early Jack Frost pattern booklets and create your own vintage baby cardigan with the Jack Frost Baby Cardigan knitting pattern.”

I can’t wait to get my copy in hand, and see people start to actually knit up the cardigan! All the more reason to look forward to springtime.

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Knitting: Fashion, Industry, Craft by Sandy Black

I was so excited when Knitting: Fashion, Industry, Craft by Sandy Black arrived on my doorstep. Black is a well-known clothing and textiles scholar from the London College of Fashion (who also founded the journal Fashion Practice). Sandy Black’s work in this book is not only fascinating, but satisfying to someone (me) who’s been looking for a comprehensive history of knitting. In four well-illustrated chapters Black covers the history of knitting:

Red toe socks, 4th-5th century, found at Oxyrynchus (now El-Bahnasa), Egypt. "This pair of ankle length socks in red wool is in good condition with only one hole in the sole. The sock is worked seamlessly in single needle knitting..." (10)

1. History, Tradition and Mythology: from the Third Century to the Late Nineteenth Century

2. Livelihood and Industry: Hand- and Machine-knitting from the Seventeenth to the Twenty-First Centuries

3. Knitting in the Home: from the Eighteenth Century to the Present Day

4. Classics to Couture: Fashion Knitwear from 1900 to Now.

Knitting: Fashion, Industry, Craft is full of historical eye-candy for those looking for inspiration, but also includes plenty of the hard facts that historians crave. I was particularly drawn to the “Knitting in the Home” chapter (since that’s what I often do and write about). It includes a section on the evolution of the knitting pattern that begins:

With the development of printing and the rise of literacy, the popular market for needlework and knitting had grown considerably by the end of the nineteenth century. To reach this audience at more accessible prices than the drawing-room manuals, there emerged several series of low-priced monthly journals. Significant among these were the Family Friend (1849-66 and 1870-1921) and Weldon’s Practical needlework series (1886-1929), including Practical Crochet and Practical Knitter. . . . Knitting instructions also evolved. Gradually, more attention was paid to teaching the basic knitting skills in printed form, and reference began to be made to the notion of knitting tension and needle gauge. instead of continuous prose, instructions were separated into lines. Despite Mrs. Gaugain’s pioneering efforts, the standard knitting abbreviations now in common use were first established by Weledon’s in 1906.”

Bonnett. 19th Century, Britain. The back of this intricate textural bonnet forms an unusual six-pointed figure made up of obrdered leaves on an openwork mesh ground. (V &A)

Granted – the vast majority of in-text examples and photographs in Knitting: Fashion, Industry, Craft relate more specifically to knitting in the UK, and many of the objects shown are held in the collections of the V & A. Of course, that isn’t all that surprising, given that this is a V & A book.

That said, major American companies – like Oregon-based Jantzen – are mentioned. Smaller American companies, like Jack Frost, are not. American knitwear is occasionally mentioned in a number of places, like the sportswear section. World history of knitting is included (Europe, Americas, Asia), as are technological developments and knitwear trends in high fashion through history.

Knitting: Fashion, Industry, Craft includes a diverse number of viewpoints, and perspectives on knitwear throughout history: and also includes knitted dresses by designers like Jean paul Gaultier and Julien Macdonald; as well as World War II knitting; intricate lacewear; Victorian beaded bags; and socks from all eras.

It seems a thorough examination, and I can’t wait to dive into it more deeply.

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Opulent Textiles from the California Missions

This past weekend I had the distinct pleasure of visiting the de Sassiet Museum at Santa Clara University for a Costume Society of America Western Region program, led by Elise Rousseau,  on the collection of liturgical vestments of the California Mission era.

The skill and craftsmanship displayed within these examples are a beautiful sight to behold – regardless of any personal religious affiliations. They included delicate metallic embroidery, stump-work, lace, and other high quality hand-work. The textiles themselves included rich brocades, chenille pile velvets, taffeta’s, and other delicate objects of finery (all VERY old, especially for California). The de Saisset Museum houses one of the most important collections of ecclesiastical garments and liturgical accessories dating from the founding of Mission Santa Clara de Asìs in 1777 through the 1920s. This collection had been hidden behind a false wall for years, unknown to the collections staff until a recent 2005 renovation revealed it.

Mission-Era Vestments from the Permanent Collection (on view to December 2) presents only a small portion of what may very well be the largest known collection of California Mission Vestments. Groups of 17th and 18th century copes, dalmatics, chasubles and accessories demonstrate a range of styles and purposes, as well as fabric and production origins.

The composition and use of these textiles offered a glimpse into the history and role of the global silk trade with far east Asia on the Spanish Galleons during the height of the Spanish Empire, Colonial Nueva España, and into the Franciscan Missions in California.

For more, check out the gallery of images below:

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