Knitting America: A Glorious Heritage from Warm Socks to High Art

As many of you know, I’m an avid knitter. I’ve previously written about knitting from a variety of perspectives: ‘vintage’ inspired pattern books (Ohio Knitting Mills); the new(ish) street art trend for Yarn Bombing, as well as crafting and gender. Though I’m amazed by the work of avant garde designer Sandra Backlund, I really don’t know if it’s possible to emulate her patterns. In contrast to Tove Hermanson‘s cry for more modern and experimental knit patterns, I crave historicism and ‘vintage charm.’

My "Hush Hush" 1920s knitted nightie (of lace Merino)

And so, for the last six weeks I’ve been knitting a 1920s shift dress with a lovely feather and fan pattern detail and some ribbing.  It has been slow going – small needles and tiny yarn with lots of details. I just finished it this week and I have to admit that it’s satisfying to have come this far. About half-way through the project, I received a copy of the paperback, Knitting America: A Glorious Heritage from Warm Sock to High Art and so wanted to start reading it immediately. I resisted the temptation, and now that I’m finished with my dress, I get to explore the book!

Knitting America: A Glorious Heritage from Warm Sock to High Art by academic and knitter Susan M. Strawn (formerly of Interweave Press, and now a professor at dress and culture at Dominican University), is thoroughly researched and includes a good index, resources list and detailed endnotes. It is heavily illustrated (300+) with paintings, photographs, posters and vintage advertisements. It covers “The First American Knitters” (Chapter 1) of the 1700s through “Knitting Redefined” (Chapter 12) which brings the book up to 2007.

Not surprisingly, a good portion of the book connects women’s and children’s knitting to military activism and patriotism (especially during the Civil War, WWI, and WWII). It includes fascinating posters and slogans such as “Remember Pearl Harbor, PURL HARDER” and the red cross campaign slogan,”Our Boys need Sox, Knit Your Bit” (seen below). After thumbing through it, one really gets a clear message that the perception  of knitting transforms frequently in American popular culture – though it always seems to have been found valuable. Knitting America includes a few paragraphs on Native American knitting, and interestingly, that the popularity of knitting seems to have wained in the 1920s (it seems that due to the high demand for hand-knitted items in WWI, people were just burnt out on it by the 1920s).

Page 98-99 (From Chapter Six "The Knitting War")

The book also includes 20 historical knitting patterns, including various military socks, baby clothes, a particularly intriguing purse from the 1890s, as well as mittens, scarves and ties. The patters seem to be based on both actual historical garments (the Zoar Mittens below are from the Ohio Historical Society) as well as historical printed pattern instructions. covers the idea of knitting in American history with amazing breadth – everything from Civil War Reenactment Knitters (pg 49) to the emergence of ‘art knitting’ (pg 192) to Native Alaskan Qiviut Lace Knitting (pg 71) to Amish and Mennonite Knitting (p6 65) and even includes a photograph of Sojourner Truth knitting in 1864 (pg. 40).

Page 60-61 (Chapter 4: Traveling Stitches) including Pattern for 1880s Zoar Mittens

Of the 20 patters included in the book, I have my sights set on either the 1950s Men’s argyle socks (164) or 1930s Baby Soaker (pg 127) reprinted from the The Farmer’s Wife, March 1939. If anyone has tried out any of the patterns, I’d love to hear your feedback.

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Fashion History Finds me: In a Hospital

A few weeks ago, I was visiting a relative in a hospital in the rural Northern California town of Colusa. The halls of there were filled with various forms of art for sale. While most were paintings of local life, there was also the odd quilt or photograph. In one large display (pointed out to me by my mother -thanks Mom!), I came upon the work of a former patient: Josephine Lanouette (May 26, 1917 to June 7, 2002).

A group of 10 beautiful illustrations dating to the early 1930s were up in the case. Most notable were the outfit pages in color seen here at the left (note the bottom left includes a flying outfit, swimming outfit, beach outfit and dancing outfit – labeled around the heads). Other pages included a study of 1930s hairstyles, glamorous scenes that looked right out of a movie set, single portraits, silhouettes, and an illustration of fashionable children playing in a yard, among others.

According to the text accompanying the display, Jo began drawing fashion illustrations at the age of 14 because she couldn’t afford the clothes that she wanted. These illustrations were primarily of clothes dating from the early 1930s, and are strongly reminiscent of Hollywood’s glamorous leading ladies.

Several years ago, I read the book Some Wore Bobby Sox: The Emergence of Teenage Girls’ Culture, 1920-1945 by Kelly Schrum and couldn’t help remarking on the similarities. Chapter 5 in particular is particularly relevant: “A Guiding Factor in my Life”: Teenage Girls and the Movies:

Teenage girls used these materials [fan magazines and film stills] to personalize rooms, decorate belongings, construct scrapbooks, or trade images. Irene Scholfield, a high school student in Northern California in the late 1920s, lovingly drew pictures of movie stars based on movie magazine photographs … turning mass produced images into personal art. And she was not alone. Seniors in 1933 nostalgically remembered their younger high school days of ‘deskcovers hidden by drawings and photographs of moviestars.'” (155)

Josephine’s illustrations seem to fit right into Schrum’s book, both because of their link to Hollywood glamour as well as to teen culture during the depression era. The clothes she drew were SO glamorous! It’s unclear if she ended up pursuing any sort of career related to costume and fashion, though her obituary did note that she was “a former member of the Colusa Stagehands,” a local community theatre group.


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Dance Costumes Collection at the Bancroft, 1913-1945

Last week  I came upon the most marvelous collection of Dance artifacts while I was doing a bit of research via Calisphere (a digital consortium of primary sources via the University of California) and the California Digital Library. The beauty of these illustrations stopped me dead in my tracks. Called the Paget-Fredericks Dance Collection, it includes about 2,000 drawings, photographs, paintings and memorabilia that date from between circa 1913 and 1945.

It is the collection of San Francisco born artist Joseph Rous Paget-Fredericks (for those interested, the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library also houses a collection of his papers dating from 1920-1960). He was a student  of Léon Bakst, and “his dance drawings and paintings were exhibited in Europe and the United States”(via the finding aid). He later published a book, I Shall always Love the West: Impressions of the Incomparable Anna Pavlova during her several Visits to California (1952).

Nearly 400 of these works are available online through the Online Archive of California (OAC). It includes works depicting great as well as unknown dancers in the 20th century – such as Isadora Duncan, Loie Fuller, Vaslav Nijinsky, Anna Pavlova and Ruth St. Dennis.  Though not available, researchers should note that the collection includes illustrations of Adolph Bolm and Louisa Casati, among others. Happily, this collection also includes set and costume designs for Swan Lake at the SF Opera House, a number of productions at the Greek Theater in Berkeley and for a number of ballets and performances.

As I was scrolling through the collection, I came upon what appears to be a gold mine: “1964.020, Historic Dance Costumes“: this section included costumes belonging to Loie Fuler, Anna Pavlova and Isadora Duncan (even Marie Taglioni’s fan!) are included here (These are a part of 30 dance costumes on long term loan from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco). Sadly, no photographs of these pieces are included online.

In total though – it’s a vast collection – and I hope to find some time in the near future to see if any of it relates to my current research (which it might!). I could spend hours going through these photographs and illustrations, but I’ve chosen just a few to highlight here. Some of them have no captions, dates or titles. But some of real gems – including some pithy ones like “Isadora–far too heavy… if only she would cut down and diet!”.

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Week in Review: Fashion History on Twitter

This week went by in a flurry of activity, and so far my little blog experiment seems to be going well. A good deal of that activity came through via Twitter: Exhibitions were discussed, there was a particularly enjoyable (and well organized) Tweet chat amongst fashion bloggers, and I met some rather interesting people. It seems seems a round-up of sorts is in order:

Roberto Capucci's Nove gonne (Nine Dresses) Dress, 1956, silk taffeta (N.39) Photography by Claudia Primangeli / L.e C. Service (Via C'est La Mode)

Yesterday, the new Roberto Capucci exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art started making the rounds – if you’re not familiar with his work, get ready to be amazed. I feel like Capucci might be one of those amazing designers who’s unappreciated (not for long!).

The Museum at F.I.T.’s new exhibit on sportswear titled Sporting Life, started popping on my radar as well – looks good but I wonder how much this exhibition will differ from their previous sportswear exhibit, All-American: A Sportswear Tradition (1985) curated by Richard Martin. Not surprisingly, Museum of FIT also hosted a special celebration of Claire McCardell’s birthday last week (She’s so my girl).

A number of other large-scale fashion exhibits continue to gather steam via twitter and other social media sites, especially Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty. (Side note: how does the New York Review of Books print a review of the exhibition, and leave out mentioning the exhibition catalog or its essays? What’s wrong with this picture?)

From Beauty Culture (Via Annenberg Space for Photography)

But I digress. Happily, I also learned of a new ‘under the radar’ exhibit happening here in California. Beauty Culture, on now through November at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Century City includes 100+ artists and 170 photographs by fashion, beauty and fine art photographers who explore “the links between beauty and violence, glamour and sexuality and the cost (in its multiple meanings) of beauty.”

But new exhibitions aren’t the only things I learned about on Twitter this week. On Wednesday the Independent Fashion Bloggers group held a group chat, which was fascinating to read/watch. It fostered a good deal of discussion about how to promote a blog, but it also fostered some good relationship building among bloggers.  It looks like that’s to be a weekly occurrence (follow the hash tag #IFBChat and follow them @_IFB for next weeks discussion).

Twitter also brought to my attention a fellow blogger and historian, Melissa Donne (@melissa_donne), a PhD student at the University of Southampton researching fashion in film. She’s working on a thesis studying the interactions between these two, vastly different worlds, and is also blogging at Fashion in Films. Definitely one to watch.

That’s just a small snippet of the things flying across the screen this past week. I’m looking forward to seeing what next week will bring – hopefully some goodies. Come join the conversation and see what’s going on: follow along with me @FashionHistoria.


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Teaser Tuesday: Craft in America

Premiering tonight on PBS at 8pm is Craft in America, and from the trailer it looks like it will offer some inspiring stories on handcrafted objects and their role in culture. The companion book is available for sale : Craft in America: Celebrating Two Centuries of Artists and Objects

Watch the full episode. See more Craft in America.



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Venice Incognito: Masks in the Serene Republic

Venice Incognito: Masks in the Serene Republic* By James H. Johnson details the practice of masking in Venice and explores how this practice led to the mixing of all social ranks including nobles, clergy and con men. It is full of stories of the role that masking played in everyday life, but also focuses it’s attention on Carnival and commedia dell’arte. It’s a fascinating look at identity, truth-telling, and appearance.

Throughout his affair with M.M., Casanova relied on the simple half-mask common in eighteenth-century Venice. During his trips to Murano, there was plenty to arouse suspicion–his unlikely devotion to the little chapel, his faithful presence in the convent’s visiting room, his regular visits to a certain green door at the top of the staris. But there was one thing that would not have raised an eyebrow: his mask.

In Casanova’s day, virtually the whole of Venetian society wore masks as daily dress, and not just during carnival. For six months of the year, beginning in the early autumn and ending with Lent, masks dominated the city. They reappeared periodically throughout the summer for civic festivals and ceremonies. Nobles greeted foreign emissaries masked. Venetians entered private receptions and public theaters masked. They heard concerts, watched plays, and danced at formal balls masked. Husbands and wives met for meals masked at inns and hotels. Masked patrons sat in cafes sipping chocolate and reading the gazette, or at lower-class establishments, eyeing other patrons to rob, swindle, or proposition… (47)

In my talking with the author, Johnson points out that “sometimes what we think are ornaments or accessories in dress actually got their start as a response to social needs or situations–in this case, the mask served first and foremost as a way that people in a very segregated society could share close spaces (cafes, the theater, the gambling hall) without going through all the rigamarole of bowing and scraping.” Fascinating to say the least – and I hope to learn more once I’ve finished reading the book.

On a related note, Tricia Roush, the milliner behind House of Nine’s Design, recently attended Carnival in Venice (March 2011) and provided some marvelous photos of how it is celebrated today. Many more are available here.

Autumn,  masked and in a gorgeous 18th century gown at the Hotel Danieli on the Grand Canal. Via House of Nines

*Full Disclosure: I am a publicist for the University of California Press – the publisher of Venice Incognito

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The Story of A (Donated) Wedding Dress

Here is the story of a wedding dress recently donated to Lacis Museum of Lace and Textiles in Berkeley by Jeanne Lee, living in Ohio:

“My father’s brother fought in the pacific during WWII.  He stayed in the Philippines after war and married a widow with two children.  They never had children together.  He worked for CAL and every 7 years they would travel around the world and that always included a stop to see us.  When they visited in 1969, I was living at home and planning a wedding.  My fiance was in Vietnam and their visit was a bright spot in a very bleak year.  Since they would be not be back in the states the following year, I shared all of the weeding plans .  I had not purchased a dress but I had a picture.  It was a plain white A-line with a simple veil.  Aunt Gloria said that she would take the picture back to the Philippines and have the dress made.  I was thrilled.  When the dress arrived in Rochester many months later, I was stunned.  This was not the dress in the picture and it was not me.  It is lovely dress but…    I found a cap and veil to match and  I have never been tempted to dress in pearls and sequence since.   I am sure Aunt Gloria thought I was too thin to wear a plain A-line dress.  She added sleeves, raised the neckline, the satin panels and beading added dimension.  It was a lovely gesture.”

* All images via Lacis

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