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When I visited the Fries Museum earlier this year, their textile conservator, Gieneke Arnolli, showed me an old Dutch knitting book that I just couldn’t get out of my head. I felt it would be an indispensable addition to my knitting library, but it took me a while to find a copy of this book.

a better course in knitting - breien in betere banen

A Better Course in Knitting – “Het Breien in Betere Banen” by L De Vries-Hamburger

Het Breien in Betere Banen, which I think translates best into A Better Course in Knitting was written by L De Vries-Hamburger and published in 1949 by DA Daamen’s Uitgeversmaatschappij n.v., ‘s-Gravenhage, The Netherlands (you may know ‘s-Gravenhage better as Den Haag.) So far I have not been able to learn much about De Vries-Hamburger. From the introduction I know she taught knitting after the Second World War, and she wrote this book as result of many requests by her students.

The introduction is an essay about her one-woman quest to shift knitting from the realm of domestic craft to that of applied arts, and an attempt at creating a new folk art movement. De Vries-Hamburger recoils at the thought of knitting patterns written out row by row, as this will lead to the mind-numbing copying of someone else’s creative thoughts. She makes this very clear in the opening paragraph:

What is the purpose of this book?

Is it necessary that another new item is added to the reams of existing ones and is the publication justified?

Those that speak thus expect a knitting book, preferably brimful with new patterns.

This book, although it deals with knitting, is not that book.

She feels that every girl and woman is capable of creating unique garments, and following knitting patterns to the letter can never be fully satisfactory. Handicrafts can be much more than that! This book aims to point out possibilities and make knitters more confident in their own abilities.

BreienInBetereBanenSidewaysKnit

left: blouse designed by the wearer and knitter, aged 16; right: both dresses designed and created by the wearer: no. 1 by a girl aged 9, no. 2 by a girl aged 11. De body of dress 1 is knitted in red and white cotton; the other in pale yellow, white, and rust-brown cotton. Skirts and sleeves made from cotton fabric

So, this book then doesn’t give you any knitting patterns, but plenty of hints and tips on how to approach the knitting of garments. De Vries-Hamburger is a fan of knitting from the top, as she feels it’s easier to try on works in progress on and ensure a good fit. When knitting from the top is not desirable for whatever reason, she advocates knitting the ribbing last. The knitting starts with the main part of the body or sleeve. These then get blocked and sewn up, and the ribbing is knitted in the round from the cast-on edge down. This way it’s easier to adjust length, or replace fraying cuffs and welts.

a better course in knitting - het breien in betere banen - de vries-hamburger

Creating tweed effects by using two or more colours in a “mistake rib” pattern

This book was written not long after the Second World War, and in one section where this becomes apparent is on how to create colourful fabrics without resorting to stranded colourwork. Yes, stranded colourwork is good way of using up odds and ends, but she points out that by playing around with mistake rib (cast on an ODD number of stitches, then K2, P2 to end (you’ll end with 1 knit or 1 purl); turn work, and again K2, P2 to end (again you’ll end with 1 knit or 1 purl) and using more than one colour can be even more economical. The purls on top of knits in different colours create pleasing tweed effects. By using double-pointed needles it is possible to knit the right side of the fabric more than once, by sliding it back to the other side of the needle once a row is knitted. This way it’s possible to knit odd numbered repeats. For instance in the little swatch above, in the top section I knitted two rows in white, and one in blue.

a better course in knitting - het breien in betere banen - de vries-hamburger

Creating dazzling effects with simple stitch patterns on top, and using short-rows for shaping fabrics

However, De Vries-Hamburger also likes to play with colour in a more traditional way and has lots of lovely examples of stranded colourwork. She even devotes a whole section on sideways knitting (knitting from side seam to side seam instead of knitting from top to bottom or vice versa,) and how a few simple stranded colourwork rows can look very sophisticated when used this way, such as the blouses shown in the second picture.

a better course in knitting - het breien in betere banen - de vries-hamburger

Short-row shaping used to great effect in this detail for a gored skirt

I feel that De Vries-Hamburger really understands knitting and the qualities of knitted fabric. She is very clear on why knitting is a unique way of creating fabric, as it is possible to shape it whilst you create it. Compare this to sewing, where one uses a piece of cloth, which needs to be cut to make the shaping. With this in mind, she believes that a knitter should start by asking: what kind of fabric do I need to make this item fit for purpose, and once this is determined, start looking what yarns and stitches will lead to the desired effect. This in contrast to what often happens: a knitter has some pretty yarn and a stitch dictionary, and then tries to find a garment  to which these can be applied.

a better course in knitting - het breien in betere banen - de vries-hamburger

Some of the inspirational images in “Het Breien in Betere Banen”

As has been made clear to the knitter and reader in the introduction, this book does not contain a single knitting pattern. However, it is full of inspirational pictures, which De Vries-Hamburger hopes will be a starting point on an exciting creative journey for the intrepid knitter.

Reading this book, which was written in 1949, I came across many prescient ideas that resonate with latter-day knitters who probably have never heard of De Vries-Hamburger. To name a few: Barbara Walker advocates knitting from the top in order to create well-fitting garments. The inimitable and opinionated Elizabeth Zimmermann also wanted to free knitters from the yoke of the knitting pattern and preferred to give knitters “recipes” in which they can plug in their own ideas. And even finding links to the 21st Century is not difficult: Amy Twigger-Holroyd‘s PhD research on home-made fashion, sustainability, and design is partly based on the believe in the inate creativity of knitters to design and adapt their own clothes – something she calls Folk Fashion.

So, why did I decide to use a herringbone tweed fabric as a backdrop for my pictures?

a better course in knitting - breien in betere banen - de vries-hamburger men's outfit

An inspiring outfit!

I was smitten by the only men’s garment in this book. It is knitted in alternating stripes of brioche rib, and honeycomb brioche (if you want to know more about brioche stitches, then look no further than Nancy Marchant; what she doesn’t know about brioche stitch is not worth knowing.) As you may have gathered, there is no pattern for this jumper, and I have done a lot of swatching to arrive at the right fabric. I also happen to have a length of herringbone tweed I purchased from Jamieson’s of Shetland during Shetland Wool Week last week.

Taking a leaf out of De Vries-Hamburger’s book so to speak, I started with thinking about the fabric I wanted to make for this jumper, and then started to look for an appropriate yarn. I ended up with a very surprising choice: Blacker Swan merino 4-ply. I’m usually not a fan of merino yarns. Yes, they’re soft, and yes, they take dye beautifully, but they seem to lack any character. I also have a notion (unsubstantiated at this point) that the merino fibres finding their way into hand-knitting yarns are often not the best quality that can be offered by merino sheep. I have more than once been disappointed in the amount of pilling that ensues after a few wears. On top of that merino is often treated to be superwash, which to my mind alters the handle of the yarn unfavourably. Blacker Swan seems to be different, and although this may be due to the fact it has some Shetland fibre mixed in, I’m more than willing to give merino a chance once more.

a better course in knitting - het breien in betere banen - brioche stitch swatch

A whole outfit in the making

I’m looking forward to cast on and start knitting, and use my long Christmas break to make a smashing pair of tweed trousers and keep you updated on my progress. And, of course, to let you know how I got on with my renewed interest in merino wool.

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Wovember 2013 is here!

Dear readers, Wovember 2013 has arrived! Another round of Woolly Wonders to be shared with the world. Like last year, I will be working hard, together with Kate Davies and Felicity Ford, to celebrate wool in all its myriad aspects. This means I will be a bit quiet on my own blog. You can join in with the fun over at WOVEMBER!

That said, I’m planning to track my WAL progress here. What is WAL? A WAL is a Wool-Along, where we invite Wovember blog readers to join in on a woolly project of your own choice, for the month of Wovember. More details on the Wovember blog.

wal_badge

 

I’m going to work on a new pair of woollen trousers, using a herringbone tweed I bought at the Jamieson’s of Shetland mill in Sandness, my first ever machine-knit cardigan, also in Shetland wool, and last but not least, I’m already working on a Fair Isle cardigan in Foula Wool. Come join us in a woolly project. What will you be working on?

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As I have been sewing quite a lot recently, I thought it was time to revisit all those lovely attachments that came with my Singer sewing machine. It’s the first time since I first got it, that I’ve been using my treadle sewing machine properly. And to my surprise, I have some attachments that I would’ve used if I had realised I had them. You may remember from my woollen trousers post, that I basted every single seam; partly because I didn’t want the hassle of taking out pins, but also because my sewing machine doesn’t have seam allowance indicators on the plate.

May I introduce to you the seam guide:

SSeamAllowanceStraight

 

As you can see, it simply screws into place, and you can move it around to get the EXACT seam allowance you want. Simply hold the edge of the fabric against the plate. What about sewing curves, you might ask? Well, luckily the Singer manual explains how to put this guide at an angle, so that the side is at the right position:

SSeamAllowanceAngled

 

Next up, I’d like to introduce to you the seam binder:

SBinderAttachment

 

It looks a bit complicated, but it is, in fact, really easy to use. First, insert the tape you want to use to bind your seams, this is much easier to do before attaching it to the needle bar. Here it is already attached:

SBinderTapeOnly

 

Next slide the fabric in the slot, put the foot down and start stitching. All you have to do is gently guide the tape into its slot, the fluted attachment will take care of the rest:

SBinderTapeFabric

 

Voilá! Tape bound seams without any bother:

SBoundSeam

 

Anybody want to hazard a guess as to what this little contraption is used for? I originally thought it was part of something else.

 

SThreader

 

But no, it is a needle threader! Carefully clip it on the sewing needle, and the wee hook will go through the eye of the needle. The clamp will keep the threader in place so you use both hands to hook the thread around the hook and then pull it off:

SThreaderInSitu

 

There was one thing that annoyed me from day one of using the stitch length selector:

StitchLengthBefore

 

As you can see, the numbers are engraved in the selector plate, but they are really hard to see without a bright light. Luckily I found the Vintage Singer Sewing Machine blog. Nicholas Rain Noe who writes it, is a vintage Singer enthousiast and he has very good and clear instructions on almost anything. Although he seems to have a particular interest in the potted motorised models, many tips and tricks can be used on any vintage Singer sewing machine. Through his blog I managed to fix my issue with the needle bar continuing to move whilst winding bobbins. Now, the needle bar doesn’t even twitch when I release stop-motion wheel. I finally found out how to clean underneath the bobbin case. But he also has a very simple fix to get those numbers looking as new, and visible. He explains in very clear language with great pictures on how to do this, so I will just show you the end result:

SStitchLengthAfter

 

Honestly, it took me less than 15 minutes to make it look like this.

I also wanted to take this opportunity as an excuse to mention Peter Lappin’s Male Pattern Boldness blog (I found Nicholas’s blog through his.) I have been reading Peter’s blog for a long time now, as, even though I have only recently started to sew in earnest, Peter welcomes all “to the warm and whimsical world of Male Pattern Boldness, where the conversation is sewing, style, fashion, and more!” Peter loves sewing men’s and women’s garments, and like me and my knitting, he is self-taught and enthousiastic about all things sewing – I cannot recommend it highly enough.

DEAR READERS, PLEASE NOTE THAT I WILL NOT BE ABLE TO HELP YOU WITH ANY ENQUIRIES ABOUT SOURCING SPARE PARTS, OR PUTTING A VALUE ON YOUR OLD SEWING MACHINES. I WILL ALSO HAVE TO DELETE ANY COMMENTS BY PEOPLE TRYING TO ADVERTISE A VINTAGE SEWING MACHINE FOR SALE.

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Vintage Buttons

Portraits of Vintage Buttons

With my new-found skills as a tailor, I finally have a good excuse to roam the button section of the haberdashery stall at the Saturday street market in The North Laine in Brighton. Possibly, I may have purchased a few more cards of buttons that I will strictly need in the next few months. Here’s my selection, I think the portraits speak for themselves.

VintageButtons1

VintageButtonCU6

 

VintageButton2

 

VintageButtonCU5

 

VintageButton3

 

VintageButtonCU4

 

VintageButton4

 

VintageButtonCU3

 

VintageButton5

 

VintageButtonCU2

 

VintageButton6

 

VintageButtonCU1

I’m working my way through a number of toiles to make a well-fitting shirt for my partner. I’m sure I’ll be using one of these cards soon – once I worked out how to address the fit issues I’m facing at the moment.

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When I joined Team Wovember, I was introduced to the Wovember readers in a Q&A post, in which I mentioned that the only thing lacking in my wardrobe, was a pair of woollen trousers. I curated all the Wovember Words, and as this took up more time than anticipated – there were so many interesting quotes, I posted one every day – I never got round to the trousers. Or, to be more precise, I never got round to writing about them. As I did make myself a pair, shown here in a completely natural pose:

WTGreenPea

Woollen Outfit: Woollen Socks, Woollen Trousers, Woollen Jacket, Woollen Jumper, Woollen Gloves, Woollen Hat – I left my Woollen Scarf at home, as quite frankly, it was rather hot!

The gloves and the hat will get their own separate posts in due course, as today I want to tell you all about my trousers. For a long time now, I  wanted to make myself a pair of trousers, and indeed, two winters ago, I bought some lovely charcoal woollen fabric from Dïtto. I bought some calico. I bought a pattern. I bought a zip and buttons and thread. And I traced the pattern in one size too small. And I made a toile from the calico. And I found out I my mistake. I traced again;  I made a second toile. And I found it had the right size, but had an ugly fit.

And that’s when I gave up.

But, the fabric always looked at me reproachfully every time I opened the drawer in which I had hidden it from sight, so WOVEMBER2012 seemed to be the right time to try again. I was lucky that in the meantime I had made friends with Zoe, who knows a thing or two about sewing, and we agreed on a skill-swap: I would teach her how to darn, she would teach me about sewing. She gave me some tips on altering the pattern and this time, the toile fitted very well, and confidently I took my shears to the woollen fabric:

WOV12TrousersPattern

As, however, I’m not a confident sewer, and my Singer treadle sewing machine doesn’t have any seam guides on the cover plate, I basted every single seam before taking it to the sewing machine. It meant that I could pay attention to the needle, rather than the side of the seam, and I didn’t have to worry about navigating over pins: the fabric is quite heavy, so a pin, even if inserted perpendicular to the stitch line, was a slight distraction. It may come as no surprise to you, that I tried to make these trousers to the best of my abilities I currently have.

So, let me take you through my trousers, so to speak!

I hand-picked the fly and zipper for two reasons: 1) I just really love the look of it; 2) I do know how to wield a needle and thread, but I still struggle a bit with making a nicely curved stitch line.

WOV12TFly

I’m a big fan of tailored button-holes, and I once spent an afternoon perfecting my button-hole stitch, so I finally got to use it on a garment, even if my Singer has a buttonhole attachment that famously makes the most gorgeous buttonholes in the whole wide world. For a sewing machine. The vintage button was sewn on with a “woven shank”, which means that you go around and through the threads of the shank in a figure-of-eight:

WOV12TButton

I’m particularly proud of my welted pockets. I approached them very carefully, spent a lot of time pressing and basting, because a heavy woollen fabric really needs to be put into place with a lot of pressing, making fiddly folding of strips of fabric a bit of a challenge:

WOV12TPocket

The cuffs also have a special finish. There used to be a time that I thought that spending £250 or more on a pair of designer trousers, was money well spent (oh how I have changed), and when you buy these kind of trousers, their cuffs haven’t been finished yet, so that they can be made to measure. One shop I used to frequent, used a seamstress who always put this sturdy ribbon in. It protects the cuff from fraying, and it also made the trousers fall very nicely over your shoes – grosgrain ribbon is the nearest I could find, although I remember the ribbon in those expensive trousers to be a bit sturdier. If anybody knows what this is called in English, I would love to hear from you. In Dutch, they are called a ‘stootband’ which roughly translates into bumper.

WOV12TStootband

There is one drawback on using my Singer treadle machine. It’s a straight-stitch-only machine. I do have the zigzag attachment (it attaches in a similar fashion as the buttonholer, but instead it makes the fabric zigzag under the needle) and every time I try this out, I have less than satisfactory results. So I blanket stitched all seams by hand. I also sewed down the waistband by hand, as I wanted a very neat finish. Last but not least, I read somewhere (I can’t remember the source), that back-stitching the centre seam makes for a very strong seam, which also has a little bit of give. Which is good, as I wear these trousers on my bicycle, too, so I also back-stitched the centre seam.

WOV12TFlyOpen

I have been told by sewers that all that hand-finishing would completely put them off. But I feel differently about this: apart from actually enjoying handstitching, I’m not put off by something taking its time. I’m a handknitter, and I’m used to it. Yes, it did add an additional day before these trousers were ready, but I enjoy getting into the rhythm. I put some music on and soon I’m completely absorbed by the task at hand, making stitch after stitch, feeling at one with the object I’m making.

The woollen trousers are already a faithful addition to my wardrobe. They are comfortable, fit very well, and look rather smart. Although I chose the fabric two winters ago, having helped out with Wovember makes me even more happy that I used wool – and those of you who have followed Wovember know that there are plenty of reasons to use wool for your clothes: it’s natural, bio-degradable, hygroscopic, flame-resistant, breathable, warm, sustainable, versatile. But, ultimately, I’m just happy that all this validates what I already know: the look and feel of wool is unsurpassed.

WTEthel

me posing in my high wool-content outfit on Brighton beach.

WTcloseup

My Sanquhar socks.

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In my last post I promised I would talk a bit about my Singer 201K Treadle Sewing Machine.

A friend of mine was given this gorgeous Singer treadle sewing machine. One of her friend’s aunties or granny had moved into a nursing home and couldn’t use her machine any longer. My friend never got into sewing, so the sewing machine was languishing in a corner and one day she decided to give it to me, as I had expressed an interest.

Although the machine was still just about in working order, it obviously required a lot of cleaning and lubricating to make it usable again. So I found the Treadle On website, which contains a lot of useful information. Therefore only a small summary here: I took the machine head out of the cabinet and removed an enormous amount lint from all the nooks and crannies. Then I removed all the rust with WD-40 and also attempted to remove most of the grime. I then generously lubricated the machine head with sewing machine oil, and greased all the moving parts of the treadle, including the gears underneath the machine head. After I put everything together again it purred like a kitten.

Here are some pictures of the beautifully embossed cover plates, which give access to the internal workings, so you can lubricate the lot. It also has the Singer emblem underneath the stitch length selector. The serial number plate showing “EC661.971″ was still attached, so I managed to work out that my machine was produced in the Clydebank, Scotland, UK factory in 1940!

Despite its age, it still had most, if not all, accessories in a variety of biscuit tins and boxes. We have here from left to right, top to bottom: a lint brush, a collection of bobbins, a darning plate (this covers the walking dogs), a zipper foot, a gathering foot for shirring, an adjustable hemmer, a binder (for applying bias binding to an edge), a ruffler, a foot hemmer for sewing a fine narrow seam, the edge stitcher makes for easy joining of lace and insertions, a little tool for threading the needle, and last but not least, a blind stitcher for “superior invisible hemming”.

There is also the famous button hole attachment, to make perfect machined button holes on this straight stitch machine. Instead of the needle going left and right for zigzagging, this clever contraption moves the fabric to left and right! Although it sounds like this would never work, it actually makes the most beautiful button holes ever, as you have full control over everything. You can adjust: button hole length, spacing of the stitches, the width of the bight (this is the width of the stitch used for the button hole), and the width of the cutting space. Gorgeous!

And as you cannot zigzag with a straight stitch machine, there is also the following attachment: a zigzagger. The round inserts determine the zigzag stitch: normal zigzag, arrow head, groups of three zigs and three zags, and a scallopped stitch. Like the button holer, there is a lever that cups around the screw for securing the needle in the shaft, and that’s how it drives the mechanics inside the attachments. You can see the lever in situ in the picture above.

The stitch length selector also controls the direction of sewing. Unlike what I previously thought, you always spin the flywheel in the same direction (when I start treadling, I give it a swing with my hand, from the top of the wheel towards me). So if you need to reverse, you switch the stitch length selector lever from bottom to top. The length of the stitches can be selected by unscrewing the small screw and moving it up our down. This controls how far down or up you can push the lever. You can kind of see how this works in the picture below. The engineering is all very clever!

Luckily my machine also still had all the instruction manuals, otherwise I wouldn’t have known how anything works, or indeed, what they even are!

Without these, I would never have been able to thread the machine and work out how to service it. The machine is built in such a way that you can easily service it yourself, and the instructions show you how to take the machine head apart and put it back together again. I doubt you would ever see that in modern sewing machine manuals! Despite this it has taken me up to last week before I understood exactly how to set up the tension dial again, after I had taken it apart for cleaning and lubricating.

So, this is my Singer 201K Treadle Sewing Machine. It is easy to operate, and it makes the most beautiful soft noise when you use it. It gives you superior control over the sewing speed, something I always struggled with with electric sewing machines. And although I have many knitting projects in the pipeline, I hope to be able to make a pair of woollen charcoal trousers for the coming winter, which I think will go very well with the fire engine red Cornish guernsey that’s on the needles right now.

DEAR READERS, PLEASE NOTE THAT I WILL NOT BE ABLE TO HELP YOU WITH ANY ENQUIRIES ABOUT SOURCING SPARE PARTS, OR PUTTING A VALUE ON YOUR OLD SEWING MACHINES. I WILL ALSO HAVE TO DELETE ANY COMMENTS BY PEOPLE TRYING TO ADVERTISE A VINTAGE SEWING MACHINE FOR SALE.

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