Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Knitting with Mary Quant

Catherine Johnson's recent post about Fair Isle knitting really opened a window into the past for me. I don't knit complicated patterns, like Catherine; my guiding principle has always been that for most of the time, I want to be able to knit without looking at what I'm doing. Obviously, you can't do this when you're shaping, and I'm prepared to make the occasional exception for a baby's jumper or the odd cable - but in general, I want to be able to read or watch television while I knit. It makes me feel peaceful to have my hands at work while my head's somewhere else. Once, many years ago, I even took some knitting into the cinema - but my friends did think this was a step too far and I only did it the once.

My mother was a great knitter and dressmaker. My sister and I were children in the fifties, and it was much cheaper then to make clothes than to buy them - it's not so now. So every year, we had a new dress each at the beginning of summer and another for winter, and cardigans for school and for best. There was one pattern with a multi-coloured crocheted edging, and embroidered flowers, and pompoms - mine was royal blue and Maggie's was cream. Then there was a dark green double breasted style - oh, and there was always a 'fawn' cardigan; no-one talks about 'fawn' any more, do they? I can't even think what you'd call it now - it was a sort of pale milky coffee colour, and its virtue was that it went with anything. And for summer, a white cardigan, to match your white shoes.

I don't remember the dress, but I do remember the boleros - white and fluffy!

Someone gave her a length of green linen, and we had square necked dresses trimmed with green and white seersucker. And there was a glazed cotton dress with a self-fabric covered belt and a flared skirt - but by that time I was heading into my teens and my beautifully made dresses were beginning to feel old-fashioned - it was the sixties, and things were changing. I started to make my own clothes. The library in Ilkeston had masses of pattern books, and I would pore over them, looking at the latest fashions from Paris as well as these interesting new designers from London, like Mary Quant, whose minimally packaged make up - black and white, with a daisy logo - we all bought from Redvers Smith in the market place.


She designed knitting patterns too. For this one, I learnt to crochet. I got the stitches, but I had trouble getting the tension right - I've a feeling I had to ask Maggie or Mum to do the collar and cuffs. (I didn't knit the socks. That would have been too ridiculous.) The jumper looked great, but I hardly ever wore it because it was too hot.


When I was looking for a picture of this pattern, I also found pictures of Mary Quant clothes I made. (Who would have thought? Isn't the internet marvellous? And notice the sizing - a 14 then was much smaller than a 14 now.) I remember deliberating long and hard over the colours for this dress. I chose chocolate cord, with the stripes in turquoise and, I think, a sort of ochre colour. And the suit! Now, that was a step too far. Mum had gone to tailoring classes and made each of us a beautiful suit. Maggie's was brown and white tweed with a curvy little jacket. Mine was an orangey tweed. The material was really beautiful, but orange? With my rosy cheeks? A match made in sartorial hell. So I decided to make my own. How hard could it be?


Well, very. Especially with contrasting trims, and a hipster skirt with a curved waistband. I made it, but it never looked right. Nice material, though - green tweed with a windowpane check, and a plain trim.

I did recently get out my sewing machine again, but it's so much cheaper to buy clothes and there's so much choice that it doesn't really seem worth the upheaval. But I still knit. Lots of friends' children are having babies now, so I knit hats for them. And I'm trying to create the perfect snood - or is it a cowl? You know, a joined-up scarf. The first was too stiff, the second not long enough. I'm on my third now, and getting closer.

I have an odd little memory. We were on holiday at Scarborough, and I was walking along the beach by myself. I suppose I was about ten. It was a cool, cloudy day. There was nothing special about it, but I thought: This is a moment, here and now, that I will always remember. Why? I've no idea, but I always have. And I was wearing a shawl-collared jumper made of tweedy wool, royal blue, flecked with primary colours. That's as much a part of the memory as the dark clouds and the wet pebbles.

Apologies - it's very self-indulgent to go galloping off down Memory Lane like this. But blame Catherine - she started it!

13 comments:

carol drinkwater said...

Sue, boleros and pom-poms! Yes, my mother also knitted clothes that included those. Did all our Mums knit? Perhaps post-war, they were more or less obliged too. I never took to the needles though. We did dressmaking at school and to my ongoing shame, I wore IN PUBLIC some tent thing I had stitched together with no zip - so a gaping back covered by a cardigan.
What a fun post.

Sue Purkiss said...

Dressmaking at our school was awful. We spent weeks making a white pique pinafore trimmed with pink gingham - completely impractical, and never to be worn!

Joan Lennon said...

My mum made most of my sister's and my clothes as well, and knitted and crocheted - so much underrated talent those women had!

Susan Price said...

Has 'fawn' become 'taupe' or is that too grey? 'Camel' perhaps?

Sue Purkiss said...

Think 'camel' is a bit too yellowy. Not sure about 'taupe' - will have to look it up. Sounds a bit posh. I think 'fawn' needs to be reinstated. I shall make it my life's work.

Catherine Johnson said...

Love this Sue! The patterns are fabulous - I never knew Mary Quant did knitting. Fantastic post x

Mary Hoffman said...

Fawn is now "beige" and it much vilified. I love beige! Great post.

Ann Turnbull said...

I've just knitted myself a fawn cardi, and the ball-band says the colour is "natural". But I agree with Mary - often it's "beige". The other colour that has disappeared is "maroon". I think it's "burgundy" now.

My mum knitted and sewed for us too, and I sewed whatever I wanted right through the 60s and much of the 70s. I still make the occasional thing, especially curtains, but now I sew by hand. My sewing machine is long dead. And of course nowadays the department stores with their lovely fabric departments are long gone.

Christina Koning said...

I really enjoyed this post, which brought back memories of the wonderful clothes our mothers (and sisters) used to make - from, I think, Butterick patterns. I was never very good at sewing, although I did make a blouse at school in Needlework class - white with red polka-dots. Very trendy!

Sue Purkiss said...

There were lots of makes of patterns then, weren't there? Style, Simplicity, Vogue...

To me, 'beige' is a creamier colour than fawn. I think 'natural' comes closest!

carol drinkwater said...

I use the word "fawn' in my new book - (to be delivered tomorrow, I hope!) but as in fawn-shaped face…
In reality, the young deer's face and coat tends to be a little greyer than the colour, 'fawn' which, I agree with Mary, is meant as a description of beige or oatmeal.

Sue Purkiss said...

Yes, I agree: fawn cardigans weren't the same shade as a fawn.

Good luck with the last stage of your book, Carol - something to celebrate, along with Christmas!

Leslie Wilson said...

I think fawn was more of a pale beige. My school cardigans at secondary school were fawn, which is enough to put anyone off the colour... My mother adored camel, and thought it suited me, which it didn't; my skin is too pale. But oh, how you took me back, Sue! Especially that Butterick pattern. I made myself a shirt-dress in broderie anglaise. There were reefer jackets, too, and white tights.