Sunday, 30 January 2011

A life in patterns

A lady very kindly gave me an A4 envelope of old knitting patterns this week. They'd belonged to an elderly relative of hers who can no longer use them, and she wanted to know they were going to a good home. Looking through them made me think of their original owner, what she must've liked and which parts of her life the patterns represented.

The earliest ones were very practical: Bestway multi-sized school jumper patterns for boys, cardigans for girls and several leaflets of sock patterns. When my Nannie was dying last summer, my uncle mentioned that she'd knitted all the socks for her children. She had five, and I found myself wondering if she ever had time to knit anything but socks! I don't know how many children this lady had, but she certainly did a lot of practical knitting in the 1940s and 1950s.

A lot of the later patterns, from the 1960s through to the 1980s, were for aran designs, and the number of them and span in time made me think that this lady really liked knitting arans. They were for both sexes, all ages, so I guess she must have made plenty for other people, not just herself, enjoying the thick wool and intricate textures. A few daintier designs from the 1980s made me wonder if she was knitting for a daughter or perhaps granddaughter then, or if she sometimes wanted something pretty for herself, although something in the leaflets made me suspect these patterns weren't for her.

And Paul Daniels? I don't know if the lady liked Mr Daniels in particular, thought the jumper pattern was an excellent one or was keen to support Oxfam, but it made me smile.

What will your knitting and sewing patterns say about you? I suspect mine will, after whoever gets them gets over their shock at the sheer volume of them, will see someone with quite vintage and feminine tastes, as most of my non-vintage ones are Louisa Harding. Someone who knitted mainly for herself, no kids, and for pleasure rather than necessity. It's really interesting to look at a person through the lens of the patterns they own. Will someone see one or two well-loved knitting or sewing patterns in your stock, or lots of apparently untouched ones? Thirties slinky, forties action girl or sixties dolly bird?

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Eeee! I have an award!

The lovely Lady Cherry of Lady Cherry Loves has given me an 'I Love Your Blog' award.

I haven't put the button up because I'm not very good at that sort of techy thing, but I thought I'd mention some other blogs I really love. The fab thing about the internet is that blogs don't have to be lowest common denominator, they don't have to appeal to as wide a range of people as possible in order to make money, they can be specialised. There's a fantastic mix of professional and amateur blogs to be found, whatever your interests. Here are some of my favourites, although I'm not listing the ones with cats in as that would take all year…

Eclectic Ephemera Brilliant news stories with a vintage angle. Fashion and home blogs are great, but Bruce Partington-Plans' blog also gives a view of the wider world of vintage.
Diary of a Vintage Girl We all read it. There are many fab blogs that make me feel cosy, part of a friendly and warm vintage world, but Fleur's blog is not like that, hers is friendly but also very glamorous. If the others are fine vintage reds, Diary of a Vintage Girl is vintage champagne!
Art of Darkness Cobwebs' brilliant blog on spooky things to buy, make and see online. Halloween is my favourite holiday, and Cobwebs delivers it all year round.
Retrochick Great fashion posts, and it's also nice to see a really good vintage blog from the flatlands of Norfolk. (I grew up there. It's much cooler now!)
Miss Magpie's Musings I enjoy this for the fashion, especially the charity shopping.
Dressing Mrs Exeter I love Mrs Exeter's posts on dressmaking.
Landgirl1980 and Landgirl's Library Fabulous forties-nous and great books of interest to lovers of vintage and history.
The Steampunk Home Coolness for your cottage. I'm more into a deco-futuristic look, but really like the stuff that gets shown on this blog.
And, of course, Lady Cherry Loves: tea-drinking, vintage shopping, Friday-film-watching fun.

Monday, 24 January 2011

'Vintage' bedroom set

Here's my latest knitting pattern, a vintage-inspired bedroom set for the current issue of Simply Knitting magazine. (My editor's given me permission to use the photo.) It's for the Quick & Easy Knits section, which is always a challenge to design for as the patterns for all four items have to fit onto one A4 page, so the trick is to make things elaborate enough to look nice, without writing a 50-line pattern. A reader had suggested a bedroom set, and as the person in the office who's fondest of vintage things, I volunteered to do it. I do all my designing in my spare time, and this is what was occupying my weekends before Christmas.

The stitch pattern on the nightdress case is a vintage classic – I've seen it used on bedjackets, cardigans and all sorts of ladies garments. Traditionally none of these items would have been knitted or used knitted elements; all the designs for nightdress cases and sachets that I've seen have been embroidered or worked in cutwork, and edges for mats would've been crocheted or tatted. I have seen a knitting pattern for hanger covers in the past, but that was from the 1970s. While none of these items would've been found in a mid-20th century bedroom, I have tried to make them look as though they could have been. I started with the nightdress case pattern and adapted the stitch pattern to become a motif for the sachet and a zigzag design for the mat edging. There's not a lot you can do with covered hangers, but I did a ridged pattern as it would help skirt loops cling to the hanger better.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

My style icons: Helena Bonham Carter

If ever any major celebrity could carry off a steampunk look, it’s Helena Bonham Carter – in fact, I’m not altogether sure she isn’t already doing it.
 Helena’s looks and early career in Merchant Ivory films meant in the 1980s and 1990s she was fixed in the minds of the public as the Victorian/Edwardian beauty, forever in corsets. She may laugh about it, but some of that style clearly appealed to her, as she’s a big fan of bloomers, describing them as ‘the perfect alternative to tracksuit bottoms’, and happily wears hers when not working. She’s not a neat, prim dresser, however, being frequently rumpled and tousled. She likes interesting details, especially watches and novel bags. In the past week she’s been soundly slated for wearing red and green shoes to the Golden Globes. Port and Starboard, most excellently steamy, say I.
Vogue once commented that Queen Mary looks ‘like herself’, and you can say exactly the same for Helena: she looks like no-one but herself, even on the red carpet. Her willingness to follow her own fashion drumbeat means she may rarely win accolades for her personal style, but she’s one of my style icons. I may not want to dress like her (I doubt anyone is capable of that), but I hope to have the same conviction in my choices.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Building my vintage wardrobe

No, nothing to do with flatpacks. I’ve worn bits of vintage for years, but really started making the transition to a more vintage-styled wardrobe last year, and I’ve been mulling over my progress of late. Most of my older pieces were special-occasion items like 1950s dresses, and the bias-cut 30s number I wore to get married. There’s no dress code at work, but I thought full-skirted navy net with sequins might raise a few eyebrows, so some outfit renewal had to be done.

Luckily I’ve never been an especially showy dresser, even in my gothiest of goth days, so I had quite a lot of very classic garments in plain black. Even when it wasn’t vintage-shaped, much of it would fade into the background behind more distinctive pieces. What I had could be added to, rather than cast aside. (Radical changes always strike me as quite odd, as well as being rather pricy.)

I’m too chubby to have a really good choice of authentic vintage garments nowadays, so in building my wardrobe buying ‘can pass’ items from charity shops and making more eyecatching items myself have been my easiest choices. Charity shop skirts seem a particularly rich source of wardrobe builders, whether you’re looking for a 1940s A-line or a pleated jobbie to go with a 1950s-style top. For some reason I find it easier to find good-quality skirts than anything else; I got a fab calf-length dark pink/grey tartan one recently.

Good quality tops are much harder to find, and good-quality vintage looking tops don’t come up at all round my way. I have been wondering if it’s because, in many outfits, tops have the most detail, and so they are more obviously in or out of fashion, so people renew their tops more frequently. Because of this, I’ve picked up my needles and knitted myself a jumper. Roaring success. Stylish, and comfy enough that it gets me out of my long-sleeved jersey tops AND it doesn’t go unworn for ages because I’ve washed it and can’t be bothered to iron it. Many more will follow, especially once I’ve mastered the dark art of resizing sleeveheads.

For a chubby woman shopping for accessories is great. I’ve never found a handbag, perfume or brooch that didn’t fit! Costume jewellery is great for a quick shopping fix , but I’ve found shoes and handbags are a bit costly and that side of things is developing more slowly. I’ve stuck to plain black for shoes so they’ll work with as many garments as possible.

So, what’s next? I don’t feel a pressing need for more skirts – they will turn up in charity shops. I have more jumpers planned as things are still lacking in the top department. I’m mulling over a handbag I saw in Vintage to Vogue in Bath. Summer dresses are my bugbear, as the high street ones are too short and the Tara Starlet ones are gorgeous but too small, but Heyday and Puttin’ on the Ritz both do really nice ones (the Fleur Wrap and the Tea at the Pavilion respectively).

How did your vintage wardrobe develop? I’d love to know your hints for building one, especially identifying and filling in gaps.

Image: a jumper I'm planning on knitting from Knit With Norbury, once I've wrapped my head around resizing armholes. On the subject of jumpers, Susan Crawford has just put up a post about a smashing little knit that I fell in love with when I saw it at Clothes Show Live. I'm not really a 50s gal, but they did some cracking designs back then!

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Oh, to live in an alternate universe!

Cobwebs at Art of Darkness (a brilliant blog if you like things creepy, kooky, mysterious or just plain ooky) put up a link to Sean Hartter's page of posters he's come up with for films that never existed. Which one would I really like to see? The Lee/Cushing/Price Ghostbusters with Bette Davis as Zuul, although I'd also part with a non-vital part of my body for Alfred Hitchcock's Halloween, or the Lon Chaney/John Barrymore Batman.

Wouldn't mind seeing a Bogie and Bacall version of Mr & Mrs Smith.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Tea in Bath

If you're in the south-west (Bath) and enjoy tea parties, Mrs Stokes now has a blog devoted to the Secret Tea Party so you can find out what dates are coming up, and see photos of other lovelies enjoying tea, cake and a vintage makeover. During the tea there is a talk on some aspect of vintage, and I thoroughly enjoyed the one I went to, and am definitely planning to go to more in future.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Salvage and destruction

You know how annoying it is when someone buys a vintage dress and cuts the bottom off because 'it's too long'? That's how I feel when people cut up vintage magazines and books. I should be upfront and say this post was inspired by Fleur de Guerre's recent post about her new diary but this is not a criticism of her or people who like the diaries, just me waffling on about my urge to preserve (and possibly showing how OCD I am about printed material!). The diary is a pretty thing and I went to the page selling them… and nearly fell off my chair when I realised that they were made by chopping up period film books! I have about a dozen pre-1970s film books, mostly 1940s and 1950s, and I treasure them. They're increasingly hard to find nowadays. I simply don't get the point of cutting up something that's genuinely vintage to make something with a vintage look, unless the original item is damaged to the point where it's no longer fit for the original purpose. I know it's hardly ripping the Elgin Marbles off the Parthenon, but to me it's the equivalent of cutting up a pair of usable deco fabric curtains or a wearable Horrockses dress to make appliqu├ęs.

Which leads on to another thought: is the popularity of vintage likely to result in a 'vintage' that has nothing to do with genuine things from the 20th century? I see a lot of shops' ranges regularly for work, and many have 'vintage' items that bear little or no resemblance to anything that existed in the first half of the 20th century. Sometimes they've simply slapped big roses over everything, sometimes it's a bit of lace. It's reaching the point where someone could furnish an entire house in this 'vintage' without it containing anything, or looking like any home, from between 1920-1960. I'm quite rigid; to me if a thing is the real, historical artefact it's vintage, if it's an actual copy of a vintage item or a vintage-style item clearly done by someone who knows what they're doing to create an accurate-looking item it's reproduction, and the rest is modern, no matter how many roses spatter the surface.

Is the popularity of 'vintage' leading to the destruction of the genuine article? Does it actually matter?

(I now have the urge to go on a book-buying rampage to save more papery treasures!)

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

The booplicious Helen Kane

Listen to song by flapper sweetie Helen Kane and you might be forgiven for thinking that it’s from a Betty Boop cartoon. You wouldn’t be alone in this: Helen herself (unsuccessfully) sued Paramount and Max Fleischer in 1932 for wrongful appropriation and unfair competition.

Helen’s peak recording career lasted for just two years, from 1928 to 1930, but her songs are easy to find on CD. At first you may find her squeaky voice strange, but she’s note-perfect and packed with personality. Helen’s career began on the stage, and as you listen to many of her songs you’ll be able to imagine her performing for a crowd, with a cheery nod and even a knowing wink for the chaps in the front row.

See Helen performing Dangerous Nan McGrew here.

My CD came, as most of them do, from good old Duck, Son & Pinker in Bath, paid for by me. If you don't have access to that musical paradise, you can always buy Helen Kane's music on Amazon. (And you can probably find it online elsewhere; having the CD I've never had to go out and look for it!)

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

On the radio: Dashiell Hammett, Secret Agent X-9

I missed the start of this on Radio 7, but thanks to the BBC iPlayer if you've missed it too you can catch up on Hammett's secret agent story with ease. It's a typical 1930s action story, complete with a kidnapped girl and a criminal mastermind, although after reading Bulldog Drummond, watching Dick Barton: Special Agent and listening to Paul Temple it's quite refreshing to have an American adventure story for a change. I like getting in to listen to something like this on the radio, it gives me something look forward to each evening.

(Click on the 'derring do' tag if you want to see all my posts about this sort of thing.)

Monday, 10 January 2011

Buy more brooches!

One of my New Year’s resolutions – and the only one I’m managing to stick to with any enthusiasm – was to buy more brooches. There’s something so very mid-20th-century about a nice brooch. They set off a smart suit, cocktail dress or even a plain overcoat so nicely.

I’m very lucky in some ways working in Bath. There is, of course, a good choice of charity shops, although I’m also fortunate in that the town where I live has a good selection of those too. In Bath there’s a super little costume jewellery stall called ‘Not Cartiers’ which I’ve been buying from for over a decade. It was based in Bartlett Street Antiques Market and moved to the Guildhall Market a while back. Some of their stock is new, some vintage, and you do have to have a good close look at everything, but to be honest their prices are very good (c
heaper than high street costume jewellery) and any mistakes won’t break the bank.

My January purchases were this softly-coloured Aynsley posy and a sparkling enamel and diamante bird, each costing £7.50. I’m not very good at dating things like this, but china brooches seem to have been at their peak popularity between 1945 and 1960. If I ever get into Green Mary dress it would be perfect on that, but I also think it will be sweet on a dainty pastel knit. I’d guess the bird is 1980s or later, but he’s a pretty creature and very nicely made: the colours don’t overrun anywhere, and the diamante are in three colours (clear and blue, plus a single red one for the eye) and very neatly set, with none missing. I have a vague memory of this sort of thing becoming massively popular after the Duchess of Windsor died in the late 1980s and her jewellery was auctioned off. At any rate, I’m a fiend for very simple black clothes, especially plain shift dresses, and the birdie will liven those up no end.

Both photos are copyright PP Gettins

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Making plans

I haven't posted much this week because I'm back at work and on print deadline, but I have been making plans – and making things.

I've started work on another 1960s beret because my mum liked my one so much. This one is in slightly different colours, but still using wool yarns. Knits like this are a great way to use up odd balls of DK.

Still on the knitting front, I'm planning to make the 'Jersey with a soft bow' from A Stitch In Time to wear to Waltz on the Wye. I have finally found a style inspiration and it's Nicole Kidman as Mrs Coulter in The Golden Compass. I won't be copying any of her outfits, more the spirit of them, and for that reason I'm planning to make the jumper in a very pale gold silk-rich yarn, Fyberspates Scrumptious. Susan says I should use the laceweight rather than the 4ply for it, which means I should get the whole jumper out of two skeins – that's less than £30 for the whole thing. I'm going to start it soon because I'm a sloooooow knitter.

Bought two fab brooches yesterday. Look out for photos this weekend! At least I'm sticking to one of my resolutions…

Monday, 3 January 2011

New Year's Resolutions

Switching to fairtrade tea is the only resolution I've successfully stuck to in the past, but here are mine that I should manage to keep until mid-January...

Do my stomach exercises daily, don't use the lift at work (I work on the fourth floor of my building), and get back in the gym. There's no point whining about being too thick round the middle for vintage styles if I'm not doing anything to tone up the lumpy bits. This is particularly important as most of the clothes I like require a streamlined look.

Buy more brooches. (I like this resolution; there should be no problems sticking to this one.)

Knit 'Jersey with a soft bow' in Oyster Scrumptious in time for Waltz on the Wye. (I'm not linking to the WotW site right now as Google says it's got something nasty on it.) My friends reckon they're looking forward to seeing my art deco take on steampunk. Erk! They have more confidence in my wardrobe than I do.

Three's enough, although I also want to make more of an effort to do my ironing so I have nice blouses to wear and polish my shoes regularly. I've slipped back into living in my hiking boots and long-sleeved T-shirts in the cold weather, and that's got to change! What are your resolutions?

Saturday, 1 January 2011

1960s and 1970s - love 'em or hate 'em?

One thing's for sure, over the coming season you definitely won't be able to escape them on the high street, the 1970s in particular. Neither has ever been my favourite decade. Flares. Synthetic fibres. Loud prints. Brown. Glam rock. Okay, most of those are 1970s, but you get my point. You can't imagine Carole Lombard in brown corduroy or Margaret Lockwood in silver platforms.

No time has just one look, though, so I thought I'd start the New Year looking at some things from those decades that I like, although avoiding anything political. Feel free to add more great things from those decades in the comments!

1960s 0ddball telly
The Avengers and The Prisoner in particular. Remakes of both have been attempted and failed miserably. I love them for their weird storylines and when in colour, bright palettes, the strange characters and bizarre settings.

Margo Leadbetter
If I have to 'do' the 1970s in any way, please let it be as Margo from The Good Life. I suspect that Margo would herself have been much happier in the 1950s, which may account for the fact that she managed to be ladylike at (almost) all times. Monsoon have a dress coming out next season that is pure Margo, but it's well over £100. Wait for the sale...

1960s suits
Those cute little boxy suits like the one in the picture are lovely. Given my lack of waist, I've been thinking it may be a good look for me! The ladies who wore them usually had incredible hair styles too, although I suspect large parts of the 'dos were false.

I'm also very fond of the knitted sets consisting of mini dresses with matching socks, although I'm the wrong size and age for those.

The Muppet Show
More oddball telly. Miss Piggy deserves a 'style icon' post of her own, but every Muppet has its own charm. The Vincent Price and Alice Cooper episodes are my absolute favourites.

Yes, it's cheating a bit to say this, but from the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band's cover of 'Jollity Farm' to films like The Sting and The Great Gatsby, some of my favourite things about the 1960s and 1970s came about when people looked back. The Edwardian era seemed particularly popular. I have a fab '1970s Edwardian' dress somewhere, absolutely covered with embroidery in imitation of an Edwardian lace tea dress, but bell-sleeved.

Go on, say something nice about the '70s!