Wednesday, 25 July 2012

A 1930s guide to beauty

You can tell it's 1930s from the cover.
This wonderful book was a gift from my former team-mates. Yesterday was my last day on Simply Knitting and The Knitter; I've got a new job (a promotion!) on N-Photo. The knitting team gave me a really lovely collection of gifts, and possibly the star item was this book, Modern Beauty Culture by Maria Verni. It's still got its original dust jacket and even the box it was shipped in! The preface is dated 1933. The book was published by a company called New Era, and the teams also gave me a book on how to perm hair in the 'modern' style; should I ever feel the need for a 1930s-style perm I now have exactly the rod-rolling diagrams to show my hairdresser.

I think New Era must have published books for professional people as the hairstyling book is clearly aimed at hairdressers, and this one is definitely for people interested in becoming beauty therapists. As well as chapters of facial exercises, face masks and the like, there are sections on things like 'The use of electrolysis in the beauty parlour' and 'The characteristics of various types of clients'. There are even recipes so the aspiring practitioner can sell her clients her own range of lotions and creams.

Eyelash curlers haven't changed
much in 80 years.
I haven't read the book in any depth yet, but what I like about it so far isn't its practicality, as a lot of it is aimed at people who treat others, not self-maintenance, so it isn't ideal for helping you to achieve a 1930s look (although if you wanted the perfect 30s brows this is certainly the book to give them to you). No, what pleases me most is how very 1930s it is in its assumptions and priorities. There is the emphasis on electricity as a wonderful cure-all, especially for removing hair, moles, freckles - if you've got it, an electrified needle wielded by a professional will get rid of it. Verni is very keen on physical health as well as surface beauty, placing great emphasis on the need to be healthy in order to have tip-top skin and hair. This was the era of the Women's League of Health and Beauty, after all. There are lots of exercises to work various muscle groups, improve posture, improve walking and so on. There's also an awful lot about hands. Next to a bit of facial fuzz, a less than perfect pair of paws seems to have been the thing that filled 1930s woman with horror. "However beautiful and well groomed a woman may be, the illusion is shattered if she extends a wrinkled and apologetic hand to perform any slight task, such as passing a cup of tea..." Ladies, you have been warned!

Oddly, there's very little in the book about colours, although the most frequently-mentioned eyeshadow colours are green and mauve. Verni doesn't think blue suits many people at all. Red, coral and natural are the colours cited for nail vanish, used only on the pink part of the nail, not on the half-moon or the white tip.

This book was a really lovely gift from my workmates. I might try out some of the exercises, but I don't think I'll bother with the skin bleach or drinking the juice of four lemons for breakfast...

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Gods of Manhattan, Al Ewing

This is not really steampunk, which is what I was expecting, given that Gods of Manhattan is part of Abaddon Books' Pax Britannia series. I've already reviewed a number of books from the series (Blood Royal, Dark Side, and Anno Frankenstein) but all those were written by Jonathan Green, set in an England where Queen Victoria has been preserved in a semi-mechanical form, still reigning over her Empire. Ewing's story is set in the United Soviet States of America, in a warped yet familiar New York.

I don't want to go into too many details about the Pax Britannia universe, but in it the Second World War never happened, although America did have a Second Civil War in the mid 20th century. Early in Gods of Manhattan, Heinrich Donner, a German expatriate businessman who was supposed to have died years earlier, is murdered. Doc Thunder, nigh-indestructible all-American superhero and The Blood Spider, a masked vigilante, are both drawn to investigate. What they don't know is that a Mexican vigilante, El Sombra, is behind the killing, as part of his mission to track down and destroy Nazis, and Donner had led a Nazi-supported terrorist group aiming to weaken the USSA.

As I said, I don't think this is steampunk. That's my personal opinion and if you ask fifty steampunks (I'm not one) 'What is steampunk?' you'll get fifty different answers. However, most of the answers you do get will include the words 'Victorian science fiction', and that's not in Gods of Manhattan. There's no Victoriana; the few scattered references to horse-drawn coaches and some steam power feel added on rather than integral to the story, and you get the feeling that the punk-like Futureheads and zoot-suited breakdancers are firmer parts of Ewing's vision of the USSA. But that's no bad thing. If I had to slap a label on it, I'd says Gods of Manhattan is dieselpunk. Perhaps that says something about Britain and America, and if Britain's heyday was the 19th century, America owned the 20th, so it's natural that Ewing's book owes more to the pulps and comics of the second and third quarters of the 20th century than to the science fiction of Jules Verne and HG Wells.

The heroes themselves do echo classic superheroes and pulp characters. El Sombra's name translates as The Shadow, obviously, and he laughs manically as The Shadow does, but with his sword and bandit mask and Mexican ancestry there's also a good dollop of Zorro in there. Doc Thunder feels part Superman, part Doc Savage. The Blood Spider also has something of The Shadow and possibly Batman in him, with his rich playboy alter ego. Even the villains have a little Lex Luthor, a little Blofeld in their makeup. You can't map the characters one-on-one with older ones, though, El Sombra is not Zorro or the Shadow, even if he has them in his very near ancestry. He's got his own quirks and traits - they all do.

I think fans of pulps and superhero tales will really enjoy this book. It's fast and pacy, the fictional New York is the city of all your favourite 1920s-1950s comics and noirs, the plot is really well done, and while I found the variety of ways in which characters get tied up a little tedious (nobody has sex, but there's a fair bit of mild chaining and beating) it's not detailed enough to offend anyone but the most prudish of readers. I'm definitely going to look up Al Ewing's first book in the series, El Sombra.

Book source: given to me in a clearout

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Coronation Knits, Susan Crawford

The 'Crowning Glory' beret in progress - I've folded
it up so you can see a quarter of it, and the crown motif
is very clear.

Hello, and if you're new here, welcome to Crinoline Robot, the latest stop on the blog tour celebrating the release of Susan Crawford's new pattern book, Coronation Knits. It's available in three forms: print only (£12.99 plus P&P), e-book (£10) or as a print and e-book bundle (£17.99 plus P&P). It's available from Knitonthenet.

If you're not on the blog tour, let me explain: knitwear designer Susan Crawford has bought out a book of patterns inspired by or adapted from knitting styles that existed at the time of Queen Elizabeth II's coronation. This means well-fitting, ladylike knits, practical family garments and attractive accessories, mostly in the finer yarns that were popular in the mid 20th century. 

One of the things I've come to appreciate about Susan's work is that her patterns fit. In recent years a lot of designers have brought out books of 'vintage' patterns - they are usually really vintage-inspired - and they're almost always too baggy in the body in a post-1960s boxy way. Susan's original designs are like genuine vintage patterns in fit, but she makes sure she has lots of sizes, which anyone who's ever been faced with resizing a 36in-bust-only vintage pattern will appreciate, and she will tweak construction to make use of modern knitting techniques where appropriate, so her hats are often knitted in the round, not in multiple parts and seamed.
'Coronation' sleeveless pullover - image
copyright Susan Crawford, used
with permission

Coronation Knits is closer to Vintage Gifts to Knit than A Stitch In Time volumes 1 and 2 by Susan Crawford and Jane Waller because it is a petite book (far easier to carry about in your knitting bag than chunky hardback ASIT volume 1) and it contains patterns for children's and men's garments as well as ladies' ones. I really like the man's crown-patterned tank top; Mr Robot would rather go naked than wear such a garment so I won't be making one for him, but I do hope some chap, somewhere, wears one. There's also a lovely twin set, which is shown in two colours in the book but I think I'd make all in one colour. What you can't see in the photo here is the cabling at the lower back of the cardigan, a very pretty touch. I'm obsessed with twin sets right now. Wendy recently brought out a fantastic Merino 4ply, and the seafoam green (which is greener in the ball than it looks on the manufacturer's website) would be perfect for it. Visit Susan's website to see images of all the designs.

The proof of a pattern is in the knitting, so I've knitted up one of the designs from the book – it's incomplete in the picture at the top of this page, but I've finished it and it's now blocking. (In other words, I've washed it and shoved a plate inside it while it dries so it has a proper beret shape.) I used the yarn specified, and got a lovely beret, complete with crown motif. Excellent! I used double-pointed needles instead of one circular needle - I don't like using circs, and as there are four crown motifs around the hat it was a simple matter of having one crown to one needle, with no need for stitch markers.
'Princess' twin set - image copyright
Susan Crawford, used with permission

Here's the full blog tour list. If you've been following the tour, your final stop is a treat, as you need to drop by The Sexy Knitter on the 25th. Otherwise why not start at the very beginning? If you want to see more of my knitting, the easiest way to do that is to click on 'Knitting' in the word cloud in the right-hand bar, or look me up on Ravelry, where I am called idontlikecricket.

12th June 2012 - More Yarn Will Do The Trick - Jean Moss
16th June 2012 - JenACKnitwear  - Jen Arnall Culliford
18th June 2012 - The Icelandic Knitter - Helene Magnusson
20th June 2012 - Knitting Institute - Knitting Magazine
24th June 2012 - Ingrid Murnane Investigates - Ingrid Murnane
28th June 2012 - Domestic Soundscape -Felicity Ford
29th June 2012 - Sheep To Shawl - Donna Druchunas
2nd July 2012  - The Making Spot - Simply Knitting  
6th July 2012   - rock+purl - Ruth Garcia-Alcantud
7th July 2012   - Fourth Edition - Karie
10th July 2012 - By gum, by golly! - Tasha
14th July 2012 - tomofholland - Tom Van Deijnen
18th July 2012 - Woolly Wormhead - Woolly
22nd July 2012 - Crinoline Robot - Mim
25 July 2012     - Sexyknitter.com - Sarah Wilson

Monday, 16 July 2012

A spot of weekend Bond-age (radio)

Spy fiction fans, get ready for a treat! From Russia With Love is the Saturday Drama this weekend on Radio 4. The cast list alone should give you an idea of what to expect: John Sessions as the General, Mark Gatiss as Kronsteen and Julian Sands as M. I'm most excited of all by the actor who is playing the star role, as James Bond is being played by Toby Stephens, who voiced the spectacularly good Raymond Chandler adaptations on Radio 4 last year. He's also previously played Bond in radio versions of Dr No and Goldfinger, and on the telly played Kim Philby in Cambridge Spies.

At least if we're rained in all Saturday this weekend, there's something to look forward to!

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Crinoline lady embroideries and some vintage haberdashery


A stack of vintage embroidery transfers
There are two each of the two designs in the middle
row. The design of the one at the bottom seems
to suggest the stitches that should be used.
 I've been given some lovely things by friends in recent months, and I thought I should share them with you.

While I write about steampunk a lot, the name of this blog was actually inspired by an embroidery motif popular in the 1930s and 1940s: the crinoline lady standing in a garden. I've no idea what it was that made them so well-loved, perhaps it was a longing for a more certain time in an era when both war and the breakup of the Empire were looming, but they pop up an awful lot in this time period on everything from dressing table mats to tablecloths and cushions, usually in a mix of sugary shades with plenty of blues and pinks. Anyway, one day I woke up and thought, 'Why is it always a lady? Why not a robot?' and so the name of this blog came about.

My friend Claire of Eternal Magpie has come into a pile of embroidery transfers and has sent me some of them. They're really lovely. I have been planning to embroider some blog page furniture, and will adapt my favourite transfer to make it. (If you're into all things crafty, I recommend Claire's blog. She's into a wide range of crafts, from knitting to sewing to jewellery making and also explores the historical side of textiles – if she doesn't know something about rural workmen's smocks, you probably don't need to know it either...)
A detailed embroidery transfer for a crinoline lady in a garden.
This one is my favourite.

I'd really like to do more embroidery. I'm not completely sure where my free time goes but there never seems to be enough of it. (Possibly I do too much freelance.) Anyway, I've had ideas for all sorts of embroideries bubbling around in my head, so with luck I'll get time to sit down and so some.

The other lovely thing I've been given is a couple of cards of hooks and eyes. They've been passed down through my steampunk chum Naomi's family, and she gave them to me because she thought I'd like them. They're so pretty I won't be using them, I'll keep them as they are. The ones on the blue card say 'By appointment to Her Majesty the Queen and Queen Mary' so they must have been made some time within the reign of George VI; I'd guess pre-war because of the printing and the hairstyle of the lady on the card. The larger ones are much easier to date as they have 'WAR TIME PACK' in big letters on the back.

So, perhaps it's time to start exploring sewing! And also to be grateful for having kind and generous friends.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Pondering my next knit / copycat shops

Now I've finally got the Gold Jumper of Doom off my needles, I've moved on to choosing my next knitting project. I know I need a navy cardigan; I have a pack of 4ply yarn (500g) ready to go and need to find a pattern. And so I dived (dove? I dunno - some sub I am!) into my vintage knitting patterns.  You know, there's a surprising dearth of dainty vintage cardigan patterns! I have a fairly good stash of old patterns, including an awful lot of 1950s-1960s Stitchcrafts and Vogue Knitting Books, and the lack of pretty little cover-ups took me aback rather. I found plenty of jackety knits, and some very sensible cardis, and I've decided I really need a 1960s-style bouclĂ© dress suit, but on the whole the patterns I liked best were jumpers, and I need a cardi.

I did have a couple of options from A Stitch in Time volume 2, Kasha and the Lavenda Droplet Bolero. However, I already plan to knit Kasha in black, and the more I see the bolero with the matching top as a twin set, the more I want to make both halves, and I don't have enough navy yarn for that. (Wendy have brought out a really fantastic Merino 4ply that I plan to use instead, probably in silvery grey or sea foam green.) I'm thinking of the pattern you see here, but I'm still not sure that it's right. It's very sensible. The hunt for the right pattern will continue. I might be completely inauthentic and make myself a bedjacket to wear as a cardigan.

(EDIT 11/7/12: I found it! The perfect cardigan! The one book I hadn't flicked through was Knit With Norbury, which was the book with the pattern for my blue jumper, and two pages before the pattern for that jumper was the perfect cardigan. I am all ready to go!)

I've also seen this evening that yet another high street shop is selling something that looks suspiciously like an independent designer's work. I can live with shops copying vintage designs that haven't been made in years and are no longer earning a living for the designer, but by copying current indie designers these big chains are essentially helping themselves to one person's income. Here in the UK we have hundreds of people graduating in design each year, there's no need for big shops to rip off the indies when there's such a massive pool of employable talent out there. I'm seriously thinking of taking a pledge to make my own clothes and buy indie and secondhand only from now on (undies aside). I've been moving ever more that way anyhow, but it seems the only way to protest effectively against the high street copycats. Nuts to you, high street! I've got knitting needles, and I'm not afraid to use them!

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Murder on the Yellow Brick Road, Stuart Kaminsky [books]

The cover of the book Murder on the Yellow Brick Road by Stuart Kaminsky
It's November 1940, and private investigator Toby Peters gets called to MGM by Judy Garland because someone has murdered one of the little people who played a Munchkin in The Wizard of Oz.

So begins Murder on the Yellow Brick Road, the second of Stuart Kaminsky's novels about Toby Peters. I don't have the first one, but this stands alone, possibly because it was written in the 1970s, long before the current popularity for serial novels that not only feature the same characters but tie in closely with each other. Kaminsky was a genuine lover of film, and he talks about that in the afterword to this book. (He lectured in Film Studies.) It comes out in the story too: he knows the history of The Wizard of Oz, and is generous towards the real-world characters who pop up in the narrative. Judy Garland is shown as uncertain, a little lost, but able to be steely when she needs to. Clark Gable is charming, Victor Fleming urbane. During his investigation into the Munchkin murder Peters even runs across, and is helped by, a detective story writer named Raymond Chandler.

Despite the murders and the plot line, there's something essentially optimistic about Kaminsky's writing. He has the sparse prose that most good writers of private eye stories have, but also conveys a feeling of warmth and nostalgia towards Peters' Hollywood. Unlike, say, James Ellroy's LA Quartet novels, where you feel the California sunshine is simply throwing everything sordid into sharp relief, and the police and detectives are just about able to prevent the whole world from descending into criminality, Kaminsky's work makes you feel that most people are basically okay, and in this sunkissed world Peters is needed to sort out the few exceptions. Murder on the Yellow Brick Road is a crime novel for everyone who's still got a bit of stardust in their eyes.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Professor Elemental - the comic

The cover of Professor Elemental comic issue 1 showing the Professor holding a gun and cup of tea and Geoffrey holding a saucer.
I love the cover!
Geoffrey the monkey butler.* Tea. Cake. Strange adventures abroad, and stranger adventures in science. All themes in the songs (is that the right word?) of chap-hop star Professor Elemental, and all present and correct in the first volume of the Professor Elemental comic.

I read comics when I was a little guttersnipe getting 2000AD every week in the late 1980s and all the way through my university days, but stopped buying them in the noughties and have only got back into them in recent years thanks to my friend Kai**. I wanted to buy this one because I really enjoyed Professor Elemental's performance at Waltz on the Wye. The comic feels beautiful: nice card cover, decent paper stock. When I unwrapped it my first reaction was that it felt like a high-quality item.

Did it read like one? Oh yes. There are three separate stories, all a few pages long, written by Chris Mole but with different artists. The third piece is directly inspired by the song 'The Quest for the Golden Frog'. There's also an interview with Geoffrey. You could safely give this comic to children – one for your junior steampunks, perhaps – but it's still fun to read as an adult, and it makes me smile just to pick it up and flick through it. I'll definitely be buying later issues, and if you want a copy, you can buy them direct from the Professor Elemental website.

Splendid! As the Professor himself might say.


*Okay, he's an orang-utan, and as anyone who reads Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels will tell you, orang-utans are apes, not monkeys. But 'ape butler' doesn't have as nice a rhythm.
**If you're reading this, Kai, I got you one too :)

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Are you a winner?

Prizes in my giveaway: a fair isle beret, two fridge magnets, a John Creasey crime novel, a rocket brooch and a Soviet nuclear scientist's lapel pin.
Yes, of course you are! May your life be made of Win and Awesome.

But only one person can be the winner of the box of robotness, and the number the random number generator came up with was... number 1, Ravelledsleeve! I must admit, that surprised me - although any number should be as likely to come out of the hat as any other, somehow I never expect number 1 to come out.

Congratulations, Ravelledsleeve! Send your address to crinolinerobot at yahoo dot com and I will post your goodies out on Saturday.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

John Arlott's Cricketing Wides, Byes and Slips!

We're having a dismal summer this year, but the England cricket teams - men's and women's - are still having a decent season. Mr Robot went to see England versus Australia at Lord's on Friday, and as well as a Lord's lapel pin for me, he brought a couple of CDs for us both to listen to. (And spent about a tenner on a very average burger, and rather more on beer! Ah, cricket!)