Saturday, December 29, 2012

That Seventies Pattern

I never know how a post is going to affect the reading public, but the last thing I expected after I threw daddy's peekaboo robe at you is that you'd ask for more.

Never let it be said that I don't try to give you what you want.

This is the other woman's magazine from the rack in my now-defunct Living History of the Nineteen-Seventies Bathroom. Woman's Day, April 1974.


John F. Kennedy was no longer alive and Jackie Kennedy was no longer a Kennedy; but their faces still sold copies. At least we were spared a portrait of Mama Rose, whose typically gushy, self-aggrandizing memoir is excerpted inside. I will spare you quotes.*

What I will not spare you, because you asked for it, is two specimens from the NEWEST TO KNIT AND CROCHET that's trumpeted below FASHION FINDS and above 50 TIPS  TO MAKE ANY DIET WORK.

(Will the headlines on the covers of women's magazines ever change?)

We have, first, "Mosaic Vest," in crochet.


All I'm going to say about this is that if I produced a woman's upper garment with beep-beep daisies squarely over each nipple I'd be accused of knowing nothing about female anatomy. (There are great gaps in my knowledge of female anatomy, I admit. But I know where the boobs are located.)

Second, we have "Bare Shouldered Flatterer," in knitting. It's a tube top.


Now, I took a look at the pattern and the only thing holding this up is that it's worked in ribbing. That's it. The only thing fighting slippage is k2, p2.  It's the top of a sock, writ large. Reach for anything that's higher than waist level, lady, and nobody will be looking at your bare shoulders.

Just one other thing to point out, and that's her underarms. Unretouched!  Nowadays, even a low-budget magazine with tight deadlines would have taken those out with Photoshop. Even stick-thin models have skin that wrinkles when they move. It's rather comforting to see it, don't you think?

* I don't often edit after the fact, but I've decided to remove the extended Rose Kennedy commentary that was here. I fear it will be prone to provoke tiresome debate, and that's not what this space is for.  Suffice it to say I didn't care for her, or for the Kennedys-as-American-Royalty mythology–in case that wasn't clear from my tone above.

Friday, December 21, 2012

I Remember Trauma

In my childhood, we got four magazines at our house. Two were amateur radio enthusiast publications beloved of my father. The other two were Family Circle and Woman's Day.

My mother was (and is) a prudent housekeeper and not given to spending money on herself, but pretty much any time a new issue of her magazines appeared in the rack at the supermarket she'd add it to our haul of groceries.

I read every one of them from cover to cover, usually before she did. I probably knew more about menopause, infant formula, and time-saving dinner casseroles than any other kid on the block.

I'm cleaning out my workroom and have run across a couple of 1970s-era specimens, bought for a previous apartment that came with an absolutely stunning and untouched 1973 bathroom. It would have been impossible to remove or disguise the mushroom-colored plastic seashell sink, so I decided to make it a feature. Adopting the persona of Cindy, an adventurous but wholesome United Airlines stewardess originally from Grand Forks, I hit eBay and picked up a vintage shower curtain covered in orange daisies, a copy of Valley of the Dolls for the back of the commode, and a pair of "Home Interiors" molded plastic wall hangings so ugly they actually devoured sunlight and happiness.

"Can you believe that somebody bought these unironically?" I said to my mother.

"Yeah," she said. "I had those in the master bath."

And then there were the magazines. I filled the little white rack with one Family Circle, one Woman's Day, and the 1976 JC Penney catalogue. Visitors to my apartment would step inside for a quick pee, and come out weeping from nostalgia.

When I left that bathroom behind I kept the magazines, but hadn't looked at them in quite some time.  Today I shifted the box they were in and realized one was from November–a month I used to eagerly anticipate as being the first to offer instructions for Christmas gifts. November wasn't as breathtaking as December, which was usually a double number with an incredible gingerbread house on the cover, but it was an excellent amuse-bouche prior to the full-blown orgy.

This November issue (from 1975) would have come out before I started reading in earnest–I was four, and still primarily interested in Little Golden Books and Interview–but the projects are exactly what I remember.


A few standouts include the classic, unsinkable granny square poncho.


Every girl in my first grade class* looked exactly like that.

And this, also crocheted. It's both a scarf and a litter of tragically conjoined asbestos hot pads.


Hey, you youngsters who always want to know how it was possible that knitting and crochet almost died out–here's a big part of the answer.

But this post is not just another excuse to laugh and/or scream at old yarn tricks. No, it's an excuse to laugh and/or at this.


It's made from fringed bath towels. It hangs just below the crotch. It's for your dad.

I bet he was the king of the neighborhood swingers' club holiday party.

* Kate B. Reynolds Elementary School in Tucson, Arizona; and a fine little school it was, too.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Gobsmacked in Cambridge

A final note from the England trip, an addendum of sorts to the notebooks (one, two, three).

We spent most of the day doing what visitors do in Cambridge. College, college, college, Trinity Street (I bought a beautiful English-made bow tie at Arthur Shepherd), college, college, church, church, church, lunch.

It was mid-afternoon, the clock was ticking, and I had not yet set foot in a bookshop.

Working on a hunch that an ancient center of learning might yet have one or two of these to root around in, I asked Liz.

"Yes," said Liz. "I will point you at two. Tom and I can go have a drink at the pub while you browse."

(Liz has done this before.)

After some negotiation it was agreed that I should have one hour, thirty seven minutes before presenting myself at the pub.

"Now," Liz said. "Over there is the larger shop. Over here is the smaller shop, but they specialize in antique children's books."

I'll repeat that.

"They specialize," said Liz, "in antique children's books."

I think Tom said something after that, but I was already at one hour, thirty six minutes and ten seconds and didn't have time to fool about. I can talk to Tom any time.

The children's bookshop was the size of four phone booths. For those of you too young to remember phone booths, it was the size of those four retro novelty photo booths at Jerusha and Skylar's wedding in Williamsburg, the one your whole dodge ball team went to.

I walked in, and the first thing that hit me in the face was a shelf crammed with titles I have read about but never seen in person. This place is the physical embodiment of my lifelong wish list. Within seconds, I was confronted by four linear feet of what I gauged to be turn-of-the-century Caldecott.

"May I help you find anything?" said the nice lady at the desk.

"Gasp," I gasped.

"Well, do please let me know," she said.

I stared dumbly at the row of Caldecott for a moment. I tried to reach for a book and realized my fingers had gone numb.

Then, much as those who have survived environmental catastrophes say that an inborn, automatic survival instinct pulled them through, I heard a voice that was not quite my own say,

"Listen. I'm from America and only have a few minutes. I see you have piles of Caldecott. I'm also interested in Ernest Shepard, Arthur Rackham, Dulac, and Walter Crane. Oh, and I wonder what you might have in the way of needlework titles–especially knitting."

She sprang into action.

"Needlework. Hmm. Now, that's a tough one." But she had that look in her eye, the one book people get when presented with a novel challenge.

"I know," I said. "There really isn't much."

"Well, have a look at these." They were crochet books from the 1950s, aimed at the plucky post-war girl of twelve to fourteen.

"Sweet," I said. "But I don't really crochet."

"Hmm. Well, I'm afraid aside from those all we have at present would be some Girl's Own annuals with needlework patterns..."

"I like the sound of that."

"...and then there's that."

Up on a top shelf, cover facing  out, leaning casually against a row of who cares what, was this.


It's Jane Gaugain's The Lady's Assistant for Executing Useful and Fancy Designs in Knitting, Netting, and Crochet Work.

Jane Gaugain, in case she's not a household name for you (yet), is the woman you might call the mother of fiber arts publishing. She ran a haberdashery business in Edinburgh with her husband, she wanted to sell wool yarns from Germany, and she realized that you sell more yarns with pattern support. So she began to circulate patterns by request and subscription. (There is a wonderful article about her in this issue of Twist Collective.)

Then, in 1840, Mrs Gaugain produced her first book. This book.

This book, which is the beginning of everything that brought you all those knitting and crochet titles on your shelf. Elizabeth Zimmermann, Mary Thomas, Barbara Walker, Alice Starmore, Interweave, Soho, STC–it all starts here.

Now, please keep in mind that I went to England owning exactly one (1) knitting book that pre-dates 1880. And it's terrible. I mean, absolutely terrible. Fun as a relic, interesting to look at, useless to work from.

So for me, standing face-to-face with the first widely acclaimed, best-selling collection of knitting patterns was a little overwhelming.

But not so overwhelming that I didn't check the price. I was afraid to look.

It was really good. More than I'd normally drop on a single book–but really good. There aren't piles of knitting titles from this era lying around. Think about it. What do you usually do with outmoded books of knitting patterns? You throw them away, that's what you do. Or you donate them, or trade them, so that others may throw them away. And so it has always been.

It means that when you do find Mrs Gaugain for sale, she's pricey. But this shop was not a specialist in this topic, and though they did note "scarce" on the front flyleaf they didn't price it to keep it lying around in space that could be better occupied by, say, a nice first of Wind in the Willows.

So I bought it, with a beating heart and just one sad glance at the big, blue, oblong, I'd-never-even-heard-of-it album of Caldecott illustrations that's still sitting there, probably, and she said they would ship it to me if you haven't yet bought my Christmas present.

When I left the shop, I checked the time. I had been inside for exactly ten minutes.

While strictly speaking I had another hour and twenty-seven minutes allotted to book shopping, I found myself unable to go on. After you find the book at the top of your Life List just sitting there, what's the point of trying to beat that in a second venue?

I didn't know what to do, honestly. I felt like a dog that had spent his life chasing cars, and then caught one.

I stumbled toward the pub, clutching Mrs Gaugain to my palpitating chest.

Liz and Tom weren't there, of course. They weren't expecting me for more than an hour. In fact they were probably expecting me to forget them entirely, then scream NO NO LEAVE ME HERE IN PEACE as they attempted forcibly to extract me from the stacks.

(Liz and Tom have done this before.)

I turned around and ran smack into them on the street. They were startled.

"What happened? Did you find something?" said Tom.

"Mmrrbrblp," I said.

It was all I could do to get the book out of my bag and show it to them. They, being kind people, did not even make fun of me (much) when I started to cry.

The copy's in beautiful shape. Sound and complete, right down to the hand-colored plates demonstrating netting.


Note the errant smudge of red left by the colorist, who was probably a tubercular orphan, aged four, or similar. Poor kid.

This is not, I hasten to add, a first edition. It's a third edition (1842) as shown by Mrs Gaugain's preface.


She notes:

The Work has again undergone a thorough revision by me, and from the Receipts all having been worked by many of the subscribers–the best means of ascertaining its correctness–several little inaccuracies in the former Edition have been detected and corrected.

Inaccuracies corrected? Does this mean–can it be?–that am I holding the corrected version of the Pineapple Bag?! Did she fix the decreases at the bottom?!!



Tuesday, December 04, 2012

English Notebook: Three

Last Bits and Bobs

True to my promise, these photographs from the England trip have no relationship to one another except that what I saw, I liked. And what I liked, I tried to photograph.

This was especially challenging in a setting like King's College Chapel in Cambridge, where the lighting was extremely subdued. It was tough to get a decent shot of anything without recourse to a tripod, so the haul was very small. I suppose I could have tried lying flat on my back in the aisle, as one misguided tourist did; but as he was politely but firmly escorted to the door I'm glad I didn't.

I'm more for details than sweeping views in a space like that. Sure, the vaults and the stained glass are spectacular. They've also been photographed thousands of times. I spent a lot of time admiring them, but the camera turned on for smaller things.

Kings, Angel

Desk, Kings

The book above was on a chorister's desk. I had to shoot it "blind" by craning my short, peasanty arm over the top of the desk, therefore the odd angle and framing. The note at the bottom of the cover says NOT TO BE TAKEN AWAY. I've been listening to the annual "Festival of Lessons and Carols" live broadcast from the chapel for years, so it was more than a little thrilling to stand where the music is made.

Even walking past London's Greatest Hits (like the statue of Eros at the center of Piccadilly Circus) I tend to be more attracted to obscurities. These are carved into the entrance of a theater spitting distance from the Piccadilly tube station, half-hidden by posters.

Piccadilly, Theater

One of the things I notice, in looking them over, is how much of what I love in the London cityscape boils down to color and pattern.


Near Portobello Road. (Click it.)


Somewhere in Kensington. (Click it.)

No visit to London is complete without my friend Jane, who is (surprise) a knitter. Jane arranged for us to have dinner at Brown's Hotel. (I had grouse, of which there is no picture. It was delicious.)

Jane introduced us to her splendid fellow, Nick, who is not only charming but the perfect size to model the Fair Isle sweater Jane had just finished. She took endless pains selecting the colors, none of which shows properly in the photograph because the aggressively trendy hotel bar we were in was lit primarily (and dimly, of course) with purple lights. (Because nothing flatters the human complexion like purple light.)

Still, here is Nick and the sweater.


The sweater isn't even for him. He just agreed to model it. Jane knit it for somebody else. Is that a cooperative boyfriend, or what?

That's not even the most of it. The rank and file of knitters have to carry our work in bags. Not so Jane. Not since she met Nick, who's in a band, and who gave her a yarn road case. A yarn road case. So she can tour.

Jane's Case

Love you, Jane. You'll want to hang on to Nick with both hands, dear. And he to you.

There will be one more England entry.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

English Notebook: Two

I spent one entire day in England at Loop.


Loop is a yarn shop–the English often say "wool shop"–in a London neighborhood called Islington, on a sort of street called "Camden Passage."

When they call it a passage they aren't trying to be cute. Look.


It's exactly that–a narrow passage between old, low buildings. Most of Loop's neighbors sell antiques, and on certain days of the week the streets around fill up with more antiques dealers.

This is the Loop classroom. It holds eight, including the teacher. If you're going to teach at Loop it helps to be small and/or short.


Loop's owner, Susan, has a gift–there is no other word for it–for arranging her stock in beautiful and unexpected ways. You don't just see the pretty things, you feel inspired to take them home and play with them. Before classes began, I had the place to myself and spent the time drinking it in.






I was so enchanted I wanted a picture of me in the shop, as a souvenir.


The students were lovely. We gathered around the table and had tea and little pecan tarts, and played with at lace and old patterns. The day flew.

To top it all off, I had the pleasure of the company of Jean, whose work and words I've admired almost since the day I began writing this blog. She knits everything, but it's her lace that first grabbed my attention, and I doubt I could have finished my first major piece of lace without her. She alerted me to Sharon Miller's Heirloom Knitting, and to Bridget Rorem's lace alphabet.

Jean came all the way from Scotland to meet me at Loop. I was almost too shy to ask if she'd have a picture with me after class. (My first impulse, on seeing her coming down the stairs, was to run over and hug her in shameless American fashion.) But I spoke up, and she obliged.


If you're one of Jean's fans, I can now tell you with certainty that she every bit as witty, sharp and fun as you'd think from reading her blog. I have a good mind to find a way to get up to Scotland and stalk her in her natural habitat. Fair warning, Jean. (And thank you.)

If you find yourself in London, you probably ought to go to Loop.  Really, you ought.

By the Way: 2012 Holiday Ornament

The annual Panopticon Holiday Ornament is ready to go. This year, the theme is yarn...and puppies.

2012 Holiday Ornament

Just realized I spelled "blogspot" wrong in the watermarks. Aw, screw it.