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I’m not entirely sure when I started my obsession with denim yarn, but what I do know, is that the first time I read about it, was on the ever entertaining Mason-Dixon Knitting blog. Knitting with cotton is quite a departure for somebody who is totally committed to wool, but knitting something with the intent of shrinking it took it immediately to a whole new level I had never entered before!

Whitby Sweater in Rowan Original Denim, pre-wash

My Whitby Sweater before the nerve-wracking boil wash: hem to shoulder measures 30in (76cm)

The yarn I used is a denim yarn: it is rope-dyed with indigo (rope-dyed means it is dyed after the yarn is spun, just like the threads used for making denim fabric) and this means the yarn is not dyed through to the core. Over time it will fade, just like love-worn jeans. When I posted an knitting-in-progress picture on Instagram late last year, a student brought along her 20 year old denim sweater to a darning workshop.

Old Denim Yarn Sweater with fading

An old denim knit: 20 years old, and still going strong

The colour fades over the years due to wash and wear, but only where it’s exposed. So in all the nooks and crannies of each stitch, the darker colour remains, and it makes the cables really pop. The effect is so beautiful, and this made me realise that my sweater is not just slow fashion, but Extreme Slow Fashion: in 20 years time, mine will look as beautiful as this one, and be incredibly soft.

The other thing that makes for such a beautiful knit, is the super-tight gauge for the yarn weight. Unlike my Cornish Knit-frock, which was wrested from 5-ply Guernsey yarn on fine needles, the denim yarn knit gets its tight gauge from something else altogether: a boil wash. Yes, you throw your jumper fresh from the needles into a hot wash and wait for it to shrink!

Whitby Sweater in Rowan Original Denim, post-wash

After a boil wash, my sweater shrunk a whole 4in (10cm) and now hem-to-shoulder measures 26in

Denim yarn patterns take this shrinkage into account, and nobody has written better patterns for denim yarn than Jane Gottelier, who founded the Artwork knitwear label in 1977, together with her husband Patrick. In 2007 they released a knitting pattern book called “Indigo Knits” and it’s this book the Whitby Sweater pattern comes from. The book is full of hints and tips on how to get the best out of your denim yarn, from that all-important first wash, to fake fading with bleach.

It’s a good thing I’m a very patient person, as I don’t like pre-distressed clothes. It never looks quite right in my eyes. Nothing beats authentic ageing, particularly when it comes to denim. So no bleach to highlight cables for me, just years of wash and wear ahead of me.

Whitby Sweater in Rowan Original Denim, cable eleganza

Cables that pop, thanks to the shrinking process

Most denim yarn knitting patterns advise you to knit a garment in pieces, and throw them in a hot wash, together with some extra yarn, so that everything shrinks before you sew it up with the shrunk extra yarn. However, I found out through Kay from Mason-Dixon Knitting that Artwork tended to sew up their garments before the hot wash. So if it’s good enough for a luxury fashion label, it is good enough for me! I’ve grown really fond of the exposed three-needle bind-off as a way of seaming sweaters, so I used this method on all the seams here, too.

Whitby Sweater in Rowan Original Denim, 3-needle bind-off shoulder seam

Three-needle bind-off for the shoulder seam…

Whitby Sweater in Rowan Original Denim, 3-needle bind-off side seam

…And for the side and underarm seams

Another finishing touch I really like, is the transition of the main fabric to the collar, by way of some crochet.

Whitby Sweater in Rowan Original Denim, crochet chain collar transition

My favourite neckline finish with a crochet chain

I bind off all sweater pieces, seam the shoulders, and I then crochet a chain all around the neckline. I like this because it makes for a stable opening that doesn’t stretch out of shape; something that is particularly important for this heavy cotton cable knit. I then pick up a stitch through each chain to knit the collar. I used another little trick here: the first few rows were knitted on the same needle size as elsewhere for the ribbing, but after five rows I used a needle one size smaller, and after another five rows, I went down yet another needle size to complete the funnel neck.

One thing I was a bit nervous about, was sewing in ends. Although this denim yarn isn’t as slippery as a mercerised cotton, I did notice that during knitting it, knots from knotting together the end of one ball to the beginning of the next, easily came undone. So I left very long tails, and all wove them in in the same direction in the seams, so that they would be able to shrink, without puckering up the seams.

Whitby Sweater in Rowan Original Denim, tail ends inside

Erm, yes, that is a tail (and knot!) NOT at the end of a row…

I really enjoyed knitting this sweater. It was a slow knit, but compared to how long I’m planning to wear it, it was done in a flash, and I’m dreaming about designing my own sweater in denim yarn. So I’ll share the only picture I have so far of me wearing it. You can see me in conversation with Sarah Corbett, founder of the Craftivist Collective. We had a really lovely afternoon together, and I can’t wait to share with you what we have been up to, so keep an eye for a new blog post soon!

Whitby Sweater, Tom and Sarah Corbett Craftivists Collective

Sarah Corbett, me, and That Sweater

 

In my quest to learn the fine points of hand-sewing and using a tailor’s thimble, I spent an amazing afternoon with the Military Finisher for Gieves & Hawkes, Ms Jules Walker.

Military finisher for Gieves and Hawkes Ms Jules Walker

Military Finisher for Gieves & Hawkes, Ms Jules Walker. You can also see Bob the tailor in the background

I learnt so much more during this afternoon than just about hand-sewing techniques in tailoring. Savile Row is a very special community of craftspeople, and there are many specialised jobs. Jules, for instance, is a finisher, specialising in military uniforms. Then there are the cutters and tailors: the cutter is the person who will measure a client, advise on style details, and cut out the cloth accordingly. The tailor is the person who will actually stitch the suit. Depending on the price point, this may involve a lot of hand-stitching. Once the suit has been stitched and the lining has been constructed and basted in place, the garment is passed on to the finisher, who will put in all the finishing touches: make the buttonholes, sew in the lining, etc. As a military finisher, Jules will also make the ranking stripes by hand and sew them on, and any other specialised military uniform embellishments, such as cords and braids. Almost everything Jules does, she does by hand, so she was a perfect teacher for me.

Hand sewing lining into a suit, Military finisher for Gieves and Hawkes Ms Jules Walker

Jules demonstrating the felling stitch on a scrap, used for inserting the lining in a suit

It was a bit scary to show my hand-sewing skills as they are to a professional, especially because I have taught myself from books and the internet. The most important thing for me was to know whether I was using my tailor’s thimble correctly, as this seemed such a controversial topic when I posted about it previously. It turned out I had no need to be worried. Unsurprisingly, first and foremost it’s about doing a lot of practice, and finding a way that works for you. I knew this already about knitting, but somehow this hadn’t quite translated into sewing in my head. So I was very pleased to find out I only need a few small tweaks to my technique, and just get stitching.

This meant I could move on to one of my favourite details on hand-made suits: the tailored buttonhole. Jules and one of the tailors were renovating a mess dress, originally bought from Gieves & Hawkes in 1959. The main job was already completed: replacing the grosgrain silk facing of the lapels. This meant that the original buttonholes had to be re-made, which comes with its own challenges, as the fabric has been stitched before, and therefore wasn’t quite so stable as she would’ve liked.

Re-cutting a buttonhole, Military finisher for Gieves and Hawkes Ms Jules Walker

Re-cutting a buttonhole in new facing on an old jacket

I loved seeing all the tools that Jules had gathered. Like all of the best craftspeople I know, she has tried out all sorts of things for all the jobs she needs to do, some more traditional than others, and uses those that works best for her. Using a scalpel to cut a buttonhole was one of those things you wouldn’t expect, but it made so much sense.

Buttonhole stitching by Military finisher for Gieves and Hawkes Ms Jules Walker

Jules thumb nail is an important tool in itself: it helps her “break” the fabric at just the right point where she wants the needle to come out

Another surprising tool used by Jules and tailors are their fingernails. Jules uses her thumb nail a lot in order to guide the needle through the fabric, whereas some of the tailors have long nails on their little finger: this helps them unpick stitching quickly! These were the kind of hints and tips you rarely find in a book or on the internet. Hand-sewing can be strain on your hands, so Jules showed me how she sits, and how the fabric will be moved around, rather than her hands, when going around curves etc. Whereas finishers usually sit down to do their job, tailors prefer to stand, and have a higher work surface (see first picture in this post.)

Front of buttonhole re-made by Military finisher for Gieves and Hawkes Ms Jules Walker

The front of the re-stitched buttonhole, fresh off the needle. A certain amount of fraying is unavoidable when renovating

Back of buttonhole re-made by Military finisher for Gieves and Hawkes Ms Jules Walker

And the back of this renovated buttonhole

The real skill of a finisher, however, is not so much the ability to stitch one beautiful thing, but to repeat this feat of perfection over and over and over again. Needless to say, when she was still training, Jules spent a lot of time practicing her stitching. She showed me a number of her buttonhole samplers. They were beautiful objects in themselves, and they gave me a lot of inspiration. Note: if you want to see the below picture in closer detail, simply click on them to see a larger version.

Buttonhole practice (front) by Military finisher for Gieves and Hawkes Ms Jules Walker

Practice, practice, practice! Jules’s large sampler is early work, whereas the small sampler is sheer perfection

Buttonhole practice (back) by Military finisher for Gieves and Hawkes Ms Jules Walker

For a Savile Row tailor every little detail counts, including things hidden from sight

I think it’s clear that my job is cut out for me: practice, practice, practice! The most important tip here was: concentrate on technique and consistency first, and speed will follow. With many thanks to Jules for sharing her knowledge so generously; I’ve learnt so much, and I have even more respect for the highly skilled craftspeople on Savile Row than I already had. Now, where is my sampler and buttonhole twist!?!

Between Christmas and New Year, I always reflect on the year gone by, and the year ahead. 2016 has been a really good year for me personally, and I have plenty of exciting things to look forward to in 2017. Looking back at 2016, I noticed some themes running through the last year: conversing, making, and collaborating.

Detail of sampler made by Witteridge, Whitelands College Collection

A darn made to emulate a jersey (machine knitted) fabric, which is made by stem stitching over foundation threads that go across the hole, from the Whitelands College Collection

Conversing: throughout the year I’ve been given opportunities to talk about my practice, sharing my ideas and views on the importance of mending. I was honoured to have been asked to give the keynote speech at Cultures of Repair: Past and Present, a one-day conference to conclude A Remedy for Rents, an exhibition of darning samplers from the Whitelands College Collection.

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Chatting about stitching, with Luke Deverall, Stewart Easton, and Trevor Pitt, the BOY STITCHERS (picture by Stewart Easton)

A completely different setting was At Home, A 21st Century Salon, which included BOY STITCHERS: “Until quite recently in human history, a lady’s needlework was a sign of being a good and virtuous woman. BOY STITCHERS reverses this stereotypical image and shines light on a new breed of male stitchers, exploring the work of Trevor Pitt, Stewart Easton, Luke Deverall and myself, who together talk about and demonstrate their artistic approaches to working with textiles.”

Makers House Leather Trench Coat Repair

Hiding a penmark on a leather trench coat by sewing on a silk patch, using one of the new Burberry SS17 fabrics

A completely different setting again: in September I was invited by The New Craftsmen and Burberry to take part in Makers House, as part of Burberry’s September Collection presentation. The September collection was in part inspired by craft and making, and Makers House celebrated this by inviting a number of makers to show and share their skills to the public in an enchanting pop-up venue.

Making: apart from talking about my visible mending work, I’ve also been making things. Some of it knitting, some of it mending, and some of it inbetween.

Hexa Hap Shawl

Hexa Hap in Kate Davies’s Buachaille yarn, published her Book of Haps (picture by Tom Barr, Kate Davies Designs)

Although strictly speaking I knitted the Hexa Hap in 2015, the pattern for it was written and published in Kate Davies’s Book of Haps in 2016. I thoroughly enjoyed working on my contribution to this book, as it gave me a good insight in professional pattern writing and publishing.

Boxpleat Jumper in Daughter of a Shepherd Hebridean Yarn

Boxpleat Jumper in Daughter of a Shepherd Hebridean yarn, with accents in madder-dyed Shetland yarn (picture by Jeni Reid/Small Window)

Sequence Sweater Arms Wide Open

Sequence Sweater, using The Uncommon Thread’s Blue-faced Leicester

I remain inspired by Cecelia Campochiaro’s Sequence Kniting, and I made two jumpers using stitch patterns from this book. The first one was the Sequence Sweater for my then husband-to-be. The second one the Boxpleat Jumper for myself. There will be more where that came from, but I will not be able to share this with you until some time next year!

Me and My Husband, handmade tie and pocket squares

Signing the register in style

When I got married in November, I was keen for us to wear something I had made myself. My sewing skills as they are, would not allow me to make a suit, so I made things that were within my skills: matching pocket squares for both of us, and a tie for me. The pocket squares were made from a very light linen fabric, which I finished with hand-rolled edges, and embellished with stripes in feather stitch, using silk. I also knitted myself a tie, using a custom-dyed skein of British Stein Fine Wool by The Little Grey Sheep, and lined it with some vintage Italian silk.

Collaborating: something I haven’t spoken about much as yet, but which, I’m sure, will be a very fruitful collaboration, is that I have recently joined The New Craftsmen makers. They work with a selection of Britain’s finest craft makers to showcase the skills and craft products of the British Isles. The New Craftsmen present objects that are deeply connected to culture and place, while representing a vision of sustainable, real luxury, expressed through dedication to makers, materials, method and design.

Vintage Repaired Blanket for The New Craftsmen

Blanket B02: a vintage Welsh narrow loom blanket, repaired with a variety of techniques

So far I’ve made a small collection of repaired vintage blankets, patched French linen tea towels, and Sanuqhar pencil cases (note: not all my products are in the webshop at the moment.) As mentioned before, when The New Craftsmen were asked by Burberry to celebrate the craftsmanship that inspired their SS17 collection, I was invited along to repair items of clothing brought in by visitors to Makers House, using fabrics from the new collection. We are already chatting about a new project, which I will share in due time.

Merken, Stoppen en Mazen (marking and darning) lesson plan from the 1880s

A Dutch lesson plan on darning fabrics

This brings me neatly to what I’m looking forward to in 2017. Not only will I be working more with and for The New Craftsmen, I also have some other projects under wraps. Frustratingly, I cannot talk about any of those right now. Patience is a virtue! Meanwhile, I what I can talk about is my personal projects, and I’m keen to share progress about these here on my blog. First and foremost, I’ve bought some scrim (a loosely woven coarse linen fabric, nowadays really only used for cleaning windows) to start working my way through some old Dutch lesson plans for needlework, and in particular repairing and darning. Going back to basics will ground my understanding of techniques, and it’s also a good time to start getting to grips with using a tailor’s thimble.thimbles at The Lace Factory Museum

A selection of thimbles from the collection at The Lace Factory Museum, Horst, The Netherlands

I’ve received many comments on my thimbles blog post, both here, on my Facebook page, and on Instagram about how others got on with thimbles, and alternatives to the traditional metal thimble. It would seem that many people dislike the traditional thimble, and have sought alternatives that suited them better; particularly the leather thimble got mentioned frequently. For now, however, I will persevere with the tailor’s thimble. Yes, it will take time to unlearn my old sewing technique, but I’m attracted to the speed that tailors can stitch very neatly, using methods that have stood the test of time, and which will also be a way of learning more about hand-stitching and tailoring. I doubt I will ever become as good as a tailor on Savile Row, but I can learn from them and apply those things that will take my textile practice to the next level.

Make Do and Mend notebook with Patch

Notes from a Make Do and Mend class, from the Mass Observation collection, where I taught a workshop earlier this year

I’m looking forward to sharing my projects and thoughts on my blog, and I hope you will feel inspired to try out new things, start stitching, knitting, or visibly mending your own clothes.

Happy New Year!

 

On Thimbles

In my last blog post I spoke about my intention to learn how to use a thimble. I have mentioned before that I enjoy hand-finishing my sewing projects, such as hand-worked buttonholes, inserting a lining, and even whip stitching seams to stop the edges from ravelling. This is in part because I use an old Singer 201k treadle sewing machine that can only do straight stitches, but it is also because I enjoy the act of hand-stitching.

woollen trousers, hand-picked fly

Woollen trousers with prick-stitched fly and hand-worked buttonhole

Sewing is much quicker than knitting, and many sewers that I know are amazed about the amount of hand-stitching I do, because “it takes forever!” However, compared to knitting, all this hand-stitching is done in a jiffy! Slowly but surely working my way towards having only hand-made clothes, leading to more hand-stitching, has increased my interest in tailoring, and the accompagnying hand-stitching. And even if I might never become an expert in tailoring, I can take away those bits that will work for me. So far, I’ve not used a thimble, but the drawback is that my fingertips are shredded to bits by the sewing needle, so it’s time to learn from tailors, and use a thimble.

Thimbles, needles, beeswax

Thimbles, needles, and beeswax: the traditional tailor’s tools. Shown here are two plain closed-top dressmaker’s thimbles, one closed-top souvenir thimble from Belfast, one open-topped tailor’s thimble, and at the far right, a leather quilter’s thimble

Thimbles come in many shapes, forms, and materials. The traditional tailor’s thimble is made from metal, and has an open top. Dressmakers’ thimbles normally have a closed top. I have not been able to find out why there is a difference, but I think it might have to do with the sewing technique used. The tailor’s thimble goes on your middle finger, the needle is held between thumb and forefinger, and put into the fabric. The needle is then pushed through the fabric with your thimble-covered nail. In order to do this comfortably, your middle finger is actually curled up, sitting right behind the needle. Have a look at these videos by an expert tailor. Keeping your middle finger bent is the most difficult thing when learning to use a thimble the tailor’s way, so an old apprentice trick is to put a tie on your thimble to keep your finger in the right position.

thimble padssashiko thimble

Thimble pads, popular with quilters, and a sashiko thimble

I’m keen to learn to use a tailor’s thimble, but there are many other thimbles to choose from, such as a leather thimble, shown in one of the pictures above, “thimble pads” which are small stickers to stick to your finger, and sashiko thimbles, which are shoved right down your middle finger. The metal plate at the bottom protects the palm, as traditional sashiko uses a long needle which is threaded through the fabric multiple times before pushing it through with your hand, which isn’t much different from a sailor’s or sailmaker’s sewing palm.

the history of needlework tools and accessories book

The History of NEEDLEWORK TOOLS And Accessories, by Sylvia Groves

I will finish this blog post with some background information on thimbles, from Sylvia Groves’s The History of NEEDLEWORK TOOLS And Accessories (Country Life Books, The Hamlyn Publishing Group, Feltham, second impression 1968): the word thimble is derived from the Old English thymel, meaning a thumb stall. It was originally a small bell-shaped cap of leather, made to be worn on the thumb in sewing. She goes on to say that “Although this type of primitive protection continued in use in remote and isolated districts until quite recent times, the metal thimble displaced it in more civilised countries at a very early period.” With this being my only book in my library on needlework tools and accessories, what follows is from a very European-centric viewpoint, showing exactly which countries the author deemed civilised.

Thimbles of bronze have been found on the sites of Greek and Roman cities, such as Pompeii and Herculaneum, which were destroyed in 79 CE. They can be divided into two two types: one heavy, cast, and with the indentations irregularly placed; the other finely made from sheet metal, with indentations more neatly arranged and occasionally having an open top. A cast bronze ring, about a quarter of an inch deep, with three rows of indentations arrachged diamond-wise, served a similar purpose.

thimbles from the history of needlework tools and accessories

A fine collection of thimbles, finger protectors, and thimble cases (click on the picture for a larger image)

There are very few thimbles to found that can be confidently dated to befor the 16th century. Thimbles can be made from all sorts of metal, but in general, thimbles from the 17th and 18th century were often made of brass or steel, or sometimes a combination of the two. An open-topped steel thimble might be lined with brass. Alternatively, a silver thumble with a steel top might be obtained; the top stamped with indentations, was soldered on, and the silver might be engraved, or of open filligree. These thimbles were never intended to withstand the wear and tear of daylong sewing, but were reserved for fine needlework and social occasions.

For children, nests of thimbles were made fitting one on top of another and increasing gradually in size, to allow for growth. In the early Victorian era, there arose a fashion of ornamenting the sides of thimbles with representations in relief of famous buildings, bridges, and other well-known landmarks; they were sold as souvenirs to tourists who were increasing in number owing to the developments in railway travelling.

There are a very large number of antique thimbles to be found, made from all sorts of materials. Their shape provides little indication of their date: those made during the last three or four centuries may be either short and flat topped, or long, tapering and domed, according the the fashion at the time or the whim of the maker. Mother-of-pearl thimbles came from France; glass from Bohemia or Venice. Wooden thimbles came from Germany and Austria, where they were bought as souvenirs by tourists, but they are by no means common as wood is a soft material unsuitable for practical use in sewing. Complete thimbles without indentations, fashioned from horn, ivory or tortoiseshell, may occasionally be found; they are, in fact, finger guards and were worn on the first fingers of the left hand to protect it from the continual prick of the needle’s point. When these guards were made of metal, part of the top was cut away diagonally, leaving only the rim entire.

Wish me luck in my thimble journey: I think it will take me a while to unlearn my old hand-sewing technique, and learn a new one, but I will persevere and report back, so keep an eye out for my next blog post!

The last couple of months has been a very productive one. I can’t reveal everything just yet, but it did involve a lot of hand-stitching of fabrics, and re-reading some of my old books on mending and repairing, such as old Dutch lesson plans to teach girls the art of marking and darning.

Merken Stoppen en Mazen, Nuttige Handwerken

The Female Handicrafts for School and Home, and Useful Needlework. Both are lesson plans to teach girls the art of marking and darning

I have written about these books before, but I looked through them again when I was preparing for one of my workshops a little while ago at Hope & Elvis. In particular The Female Handicrafts contains a lot of detail, starting with the very basics.

How to mark household linen

A page from The Female Handicrafts. showing some letters of the alphabet

For instance, the first chapter on marking household linen, starts with the easy letters with lots of vertical elements, such as the letter “I”. It then moves on to those with strong diagonal lines, and finishes on those which have curves. To learn this, it advocates starting with an open-weave plain fabric, such as scrim. Marking your household linen was important, as many people took their washing to the laundry house, and this way you could check whether nothing was missing and that you actually got your own things back.

Darning fabric technique

A page from Useful Needlework

Likewise, Useful Needlework starts with the simple re-inforcing technique of weaving thread through the fabric, again using something like scrim to get a feel for the technique, before moving on to finer work. Needless to say, I’ve stocked up on scrim, and I have my darning threads at the ready!

msm-stoppen-2

Easy start with darning…

darning in pattern, damask darning

…followed by an intermediate step of adding stripes and checks…

msm-stoppen-3

finishing with something altogether more complex

For the aforementioned workshop at Hope & Elvis I got everybody to make a sewing sampler, based on the samplers I’d seen at Goldsmiths earlier this year, as part of  the A Remedy for Rents exhibition.

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Plain sewing samplers from the Whiteland College College

It was my first foray into teaching something sewing-based, and we all made a small sampler using old textiles. The edges were hemmed using four different hemming techniques, then we made three different types of patches. I had selected the different techniques based on practicality, still useful today. They included amongst others: slip stitch hem, herringbone hem, hemming stitch, napery hem stitch, calico or oversewn patch, tailored patch, and flannel patch. For those who wanted more, I also taught how to hand-work a buttonhole. I don’t believe hand-worked buttonholes are any better or stronger than machine-made ones, but I do think they look very nice.

Tailored buttonhole by Annie Hewins 1879, Whitelands College Collection

Hand-worked buttonhole, found on a sampler in the Whitelands College collection

I’ve also spent a lot of time sewing patches onto sturdy linen tea towels (I will share this project in a couple of weeks) and it became apparent pretty soon that I will have to start using a thimble. I enjoy hand-sewing, and whenever I sew, I tend to do a lot of finishing by hand. When sewing woollen trousers, this is quite easily done without a thimble, but it’s a different story with those tea towels. The needles I use are rather fine, so the eye of the needle is almost as sharp as the point! Teaching myself to use a thimble might take some practice and perseverance, but I’ve found an old tailor’s apprentice trick to get me started.

All-in-all, this means I have a lesson plan of sorts for myself. I’m going to take it all back to the beginning: teach myself how to use a thimble, and then start marking, darning, and patching according to my Dutch books. I hope that this will lead to new inspiration and new off-shoot projects. I will be sharing my pursuits here, and perhaps you’d like to join in! Therefore I will post not only completed work, but also a heads-up post with what I’m planning to concentrate on next. Keep an eye out for the first post in the next one or two weeks.

Make New and Make Do

On 17 September I’ll be running a very special darning workshop at The Keep, Brighton. The Keep is a centre for archives that opens up access to all the collections of the East Sussex Record Office (ESRO), the Royal Pavilion & Museums Local History Collections and the internationally significant University of Sussex Special Collections, including the Mass Observation Archives.

Yarn Advert Bellmans WW2

No coupons for khaki wool; three special offers of this popular shade; The Brighton Herald, 1941

The Archive holds the papers generated by the original Mass Observation organisation between 1937 and 1949, with a few later additions from the 1950s as well as some documents from the 1960s. The material collected by Mass Observation falls into two main categories:

  • Personal writing: A national panel of volunteer writers were recruited to reply to regular questionnaires and tasks, including writing diaries
  • Topic collections: A team of paid investigators went into a variety of public situations and recorded people’s behaviour and conversation in as much detail as possible. This was first conducted in Bolton (known as Worktown) and then in other locations across the country

Make Do and Mend Notebook

Make Do and Mend notes, held in the Mass Observation Archive (reference: SxMOA 99/83)

Having all these collections in one place makes it easy to find some interesting cross-collection links. For instance, at The Keep you can find copies of women’s magazines such as Woman’s Own (a weekly publication first published in 1932 and still going strong) and Woman’s Journal (published monthly from 1927 to 2001). Woman’s Own was aimed at a different kind of woman than Woman’s Journal. This is not only evident on the front cover: Woman’s Own usually shows a child or a woman, often actively occupied with something or other. Woman’s Journal, on the other hand, has portraits of upper class ladies, wearing a ball-gown or other fancy outfit.

The Second World War saw unprecedented government intervention into everyday life on the British home front. Food rationing began in 1940 and clothes were rationed from 1 June 1941. Fabric was essential for war purposes, such as uniforms. By reducing civilian clothing production, factory space and labour could be freed up for war production.

Rationing forced people to be painfully mathematic in how they spent their limited supply of clothing coupons – and to find shrewd ways to avoid doing so. The government-backed ‘Make Do and Mend’ scheme was introduced to encourage people to revive and repair worn-out clothes. Handmade and hand-repaired clothing became an essential part of wartime life. People got creative across the country out of necessity, finding ways to make and care for clothes – and forge their own wartime style.Make Do and Mend Scheme WW2

Mend and make-do to save buying new, issued by the Board of Trade

This governmental intervention was subtly visible in these magazines, to a greater or lesser degree: although both had sections on making accessories, sewing, knitting, and crocheting, Woman’s Journal also featured a monthly spread on the latest fashions from Paris. In contrast, Woman’s Own would often highlight how many, or rather, how few coupons were needed for the materials required for a particular project.

Adverts from yarn companies (and you’ll find more of these in Woman’s Own than in Woman’s Journal) will, as less and less yarn becomes available for the domestic market, acknowledge that their yarns may be difficult to get hold of, but if you can, they’re worth buying. From a Lavenda advert from November 1943: “pure wool can and should be used over and over again.” Magazines have articles on how to re-use wool, and patterns start accommodating for having fewer resources: many items have shorter sleeves, v-necks (both save on yarn), use fewer buttons, or have yarn-saving stitch patterns: open-work inserts (lace stitches require less wool per area than textured stitches) or Fair Isle patterns, so you can use up odds and ends.

The Board of Trade also placed “infomercials” in Woman’s Own and Woman’s Journal as part of the Make Do and Mend campaign. They usually consisted of a few hints or tips around a certain topic (remaking old clothes into new ones, taking care of fabric, etc) and included a small section on Make Do and Mend classes. Women were encouraged to attend one of these classes, or set one up. The Mass Observation Archive contains two exercise books with textile samples from Mrs Watkins, who attended this class in Portslade. Some of these Board of Trade infomercials were also published in the Picture Post, a magazine more directed at a male readership: instead of a call to join a Make Do and Mend class, men were asked to “count their coupons”! One of them, however, does show sailors and soldiers darning their own socks…

Make Do and Mend with Patch

Invisible mending by using threads harvested from hem or seam, from Mrs Watkins’s notebook

I hope you will join me at my darning workshop at The Keep on 17 September, as it will give you a unique chance to see the some of these magazines and archived objects all gathered together especially for the occasion. Fiona Courage, Special Collections Manager and Mass Observation Curator (Library), will  give an introduction to The Keep, and be at hand to answer any questions you may have about items on display.

Read more here about my workshop at The Keep, or, if you simply can’t wait to book a place, please call 01273 482349.

Boxpleat Jumper

When Rachel Atkinson told me she was working on producing a yarn, using her dad’s flock of Hebridean sheep, I just knew it was going to be something really special. I love the deepest, darkest shade of chocolate brown you get from naturally black sheep, and Rachel’s yarn, aptly named Daughter of a Shepherd, really does the Hebridean sheep justice.

Daughter of a Shepherd Yarn

Rachel’s Daughter of a Shepherd yarn: a luscious, deepest, darkest chocolate brown

Despite the colour, it shows up textured stitches really well, which was a good thing, because my love affair with Cecelia Campochiaro’s Sequence Knitting is still going strong. One type of fabric you can create with sequence knitting is a broken garter stitch (alternating columns of garter stitch from knit stitches, garter stitch from purl stitches,) which give a very strong vertical texture, enhanced by columns of slip stitches, a type of fabric Cecelia calls “boxpleats,” as it has a 3D quality to it.

Sequence Knitting in Boxpleat pattern

Boxpleat pattern from Cecelia Campochiaro’s groundbreaking work, Sequence Knitting

Waiting for the right project to come along, was some of Elizabeth Johnston‘s handspun Shetland yarn, which she made from grey Shetland wool, overdyed with madder. It wasn’t much, but enough to provide a pleasing accent of colour. I took measurements from a French workwear smock, and after swatching, I cast on and mostly made design decisions as I went along.

My good friend Jeni Reid has taken all the pictures following below, and I’m using them with kind permission and they are credited to Jeni Reid/Small Window. You may have spotted her at yarn festivals with a big camera in hand, and being a knitter and spinner herself, she manages to capture goings-on with a knitterly eye.

tomofholland boxpleat jumper in daughter of a shepherd yarn

Me looking mighty pleased in my boxpleat jumper

tomofholland boxpleat jumper in daughter of a shepherd yarn

Boxpleats for armhole shaping. I love all the movement in the back shoulder area

The armholes are shaped using actual box pleats and I’ve gathered the sleeveheads, so there is volume along the arms to show off the boxpleat fabric, but keeps the shoulder saddles neat and tidy.

The boxpleat pattern is best knitted flat, so the jumper was knitted in pieces, and then seamed together using a three-needle bind-off. I’m a real fan of the three-needle bind-off for seaming. Sure, it takes a while to pick up stitches along each seam edge, but the resulting seam is strong, yet it retains some stretch quality, something that was really important here, as the jumper is very heavy, and therefore I anticipate it will grow longer in wear.

tomofholland boxpleat jumper in daughter of a shepherd yarn

The hems are finished with a split

Although knitted in pieces, the over-all shaping is more or less based on the classic Elizabeth Zimmermann seamless saddle shoulder pull-over.

tomofholland boxpleat jumper in daughter of a shepherd yarn

I was in a very studious mood…

Last but not least, I used a lot of gradually differing needle sizes. The sleeves start at the cuffs in 2.5mm needles, and by the time I reached the sleevecap, the needle size had increased to 4.5mm. This created a gently shaped sleeve, allowing for the boxpleat pattern to do its pleating at its best. To stop the jumper from flaring at the hems, I knitted them on a slightly smaller needle to gently draw in the fabric. The neck is finished with a funnel neck, highlighting the non-curling quality of the boxpleat pattern.

I thoroughly enjoyed designing and knitting this jumper, and as you can tell from the pictures, I finished it just in time to put it away for summer.

tomofholland boxpleat jumper in daughter of a shepherd yarn

Boxpleat jumper

With special thanks to Rachel Atkinson for letting me buy a few more skeins for this special project, and to Jeni Reid for taking such beautiful pictures, as this jumper provided a photographic challenge, due to the colour.

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