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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Kaffe Fassett: Dreaming in Colour (An Autobiography)

A Chenille and Lurex dress Fassett knitted with actual pearls, in front of one of his needlepoint tapestries. (1970s)

The new book, Dreaming in Colour, an autobiography by Kaffee Fassett, presents the story of this well-known, eclectic textile designer. Born in Big Sur, California, Fassett designed knitwear for Bill Gibb, the Missonis, and private clients (including Lauren Bacall and Barbara Streisand).

Though he trained briefly as a painter, his creative outlets have also included a wide-range of other textile arts, including needlepoint, rug-making, tapestries, costume design, yarn and fabric design, as well as quilting. He was also the subject of a rare, one-man retrospective show of his textile work at the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1988. Though one can’t exactly call him a California designer (he’s lived in England most of his adult life), it’s clear his work was often inspired by California.

Kaffee Fassett in front of the Jars Tapestry, with a couple of his knits from the 1980s (Chapter opener for "The Glorious Eighties", pg 130)

Dreaming in Colour is a full of brightly colored photographs and illustrations of not only Fassett’s textile work, and illustrations, but also historical photographs. The chapters are laid out historically, and begin with a discussion of his “Childhood in California (1937-1956)”. They continue on to discuss “England in the Swinging Sixties” and “The Glorious Eighties,” among others: often focusing on the dress and textile history of those periods.

One interesting aspect of the book is how the photo-collages in each chapter show his development as a designer. Family photographs and artwork by other family members are juxtaposed by representations of his own work – showing a direct line of influence (such as a painting by his sister Holly of the Big Sur coastline shown alongside a handwoven fabric of the 1990s inspired by the colors of the ocean at Big Sur).

Those looking for previously unpublished information on Fassett’s design inspiration, history and art are sure to find their answers in Dreaming in Colour. It’s also a marvelous book for those in need of inspiration for their own art and craft endeavors.

Camp chairs Fassett covered with needlepoint florals, he called them "Gibson Girls" (1985-87)
The Hollyhock Tapestry, commission for the Stamford Shakespeare Company (9 X 6 feet), a more recent project.
Bordered Diamonds from "Simple Shapes Spectacular Quilts" (2010) by Kaffe Fassett
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YSL & Mondrian

Yves Saint Laurent 1960s Modrian Inspired Dress (Click for source and additional clothing)

In September 2011, I embarked on what would become a very long knitting project – completed this month, July 2012. It was titled “Mondrian Skyline” and can be found in The Ohio Mills Knitting Book. It appealed to me for a number of reasons – I could wear it, simple construction, easy fitting, but most importantly it appealed to my sense of fashion history.

On August 2 1965, Yves Saint Laurent  created a series of the color-blocked wool and jersey shift dresses, inspired by the Dutch Abstract Impressionist, Piet Mondrian, dubbed the ‘Mondrian Look.” With this design, YSL was capitalizing on the growing interest in minimalist and mod fashion of youth. Harper’s Bazaar referred to them as ‘the dress of tomorrow’ and quickly found their way into the mass-market.

Mondrian inspired dresses by Yves Saint Laurent, with a Mondrian painting in the background. Click for source

But, his Mondrian dresses were not as simple as they appeared. As Richard Martin and Harold Koda have noted, his genius was not only the artistic reference, but in using the color blocks to both accommodate the body and hide the seaming (this is, in fact where my knitted attempt failed – seaming is not my strong suit and my final product is a bit ‘wiggly’). This might be, because YSL’s dress was not actually ‘just’ a shift dress. It in fact, ‘boasts a defined shape and interior construction that allows the double-faced wool jersey to yield gently to the lines of the body. That structure is ingeniously hidden.” (Rubenstein, 128)


Martin, Richard and Harold Koday. Haute Couture, New York : Metropolitan Museum of Art : Distributed by H.N. Abrams, 1995.

Mackrell, Alice. Art and Fashion: The Impact of Art on Fashion and Fashion on Art, London: Batsford, 2005.

Rubenstein, Hal. 100 Unforgettable Dresses, New York: Harper Desgin, 2011.



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My New Job at the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles.

After years of plugging away at the academic study of dress and textiles, I am about to start a new position in my preferred field! My new job as the Marketing Director for the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles begins tomorrow, and I’m so thrilled to be working in a museum, with textiles, and in the bay area!

For those who aren’t familiar, the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles is a small museum with a big mission: to “promote the art, craft and history of quilts and textiles.” and they will celebrate their 35th Anniversary this year.

Haena Point (Hawaiian Sunset No. 1), By Mark Adams, Quilt, 1979 From the Collection of the Stanford Library of Art and Architecture

It all began in 1977, when the Santa Clara Valley Quilt Association opened in a Los Altos storefront. Now in its permanent home in downtown San Jose, the collection houses “850 quilts, garments and ethnic textiles, and a research library of more than 500 books on the history and making of quilts and textiles.”

If you’ve never seen an art quilt on a museum wall, you are missing out – quilts are a flexible form, that can work as painting, sculpture or artifact. I’ve seen quilts as portraits, landscapes, using the same painterly techniques as pointillism or impressionism and the fashion techniques of bead and ribbon work to create evocative masterworks of art. The museum also frequently exhibits non-quilt textiles, including fashion, crochet and knitwear, and tech-textiles.

Sea jellies crocheted with metal by Arline fisch at SJMQT

I can’t tell you just how excited I am about this opportunity. As I grow familiar with my new role, I’ll be sure to share exciting exhibitions, events, objects and opportunities with you.

Check out the Facebook page, and the list of upcoming exhibitions for a preview of what I’ll be working on – and if you happen to be down in the South Bay, be sure to pop by!

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The Future of Tradition: Weavers of Oaxaca, Mexico Connect Their Future with Their Past


On Thursday, May 10 at 12pm, The Commonwealth Club of California in San Francisco will play host to the Chavez Santiago family of the “famed weaving village of Teotitlan de Valle presents its story of this ancient art form, a family, a culture and preserving a way of life across generations.” The New York Times travel writer Freda Moon included them in her article “36 Hours: Oaxaca, Mexico” in January (they also have a wonderful slideshow that includes some great images of weaving).

Panelists for the Commonwealth Club talk include:

Caracol pattern rug dyed with pecan shells by Federico Chavez Sosa, Master Weaver, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico (Via Facebook)

The Chavez Santiago family uses a “combination of traditional patterns and weaving techniques with modern colors and sensibilities.” The family also works to support their local community and the traditional Zapotec culture.  I’m particularly interested in their commitment to using only 100% natural dyes in their work, which seems both forward-thinking and historically accurate.

Doors open at 11:30am, with the program beginning at noon. Tickets are free for Commonwealth Club members and cost $20 for non-members and $7 for students (with valid ID). Tickets can be purchased online here. Hope to see you there!

For a quick taste of the talk, here is a short film featuring Federico Chavez Sosa:

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