Balenciaga – part two

The Balenciaga exhibition at the V&A starts with some examples of his work inspired by his Spanish heritage. For any designer their own background and experience will always come through their work, to some extent. But Balenciaga, who may be the greatest ever designer in terms of technical skill and ground breaking design, is always a Spanish designer. 

The display case includes several obviously Spanish items. Black lace, as found in the Mantilla, layered over cream silk looks stunning. Beige lace, thickly encrusted with red florets, bows, lace work and heavy embellishment. And a stunning flamenco style dress from 1961, sit alongside matador jackets offset by a series of hats which have come from the bullring, the street dancers, the church and the agricultural worker. Balenciaga, as a result of the Spanish civil war, came to Paris where he set up his business in 1937. Maybe the dislocation intensified his affection for the styles of Spain, but I think Spain has a richer cultural tradition than most of Europe and these influences come through very markedly in nearly everything that he designed. Oscar de la Renta, who began his career as Balenciaga’s apprentice claimed that “even after his success in Paris, he remained very deeply influenced by the culture and folklore from Spain, from the religious to the gypsies, flamencos and bullfighters.” The highly stylised shapes and sumptuous fabrics that characterise Cristóbal Balenciaga’s work, sprang from traditional Spanish costumes.

These dresses are so beautiful, radical and absolutely different to the fashions of the day. His approach was truly original and ground breaking.

From the world of Spanish art Balenciaga is influenced by Goya’s portrait of the Duchess of Alba in a head enveloping black lace mantilla to create the amazing black silk gazar outfit known as a “chou” wrap, dependent on the stiffness of silk gazar, while the evening dress is made from fluid black silk crepe.

Velázquez’s “Las Meninas”, one of the greatest portraits of all time, and worked on by everyone from Picasso to Francis Bacon, influences Balenciaga’s ivory silk satin “Infanta” evening dress with scrolls of black velvet along the neckline and waist, and accentuated fullness over the hips, supported with panniers or padded hip under structures. The dress has a long metal zip up the centre back.

Other influences from life include religious vestments and robes he saw up close – his uncle was a priest and he was an altar boy. At the V&A there is ample opportunity to actually study how these enormous, voluminous garments were designed and worn. I really found this part of the exhibition very exciting and interesting as the modern toiles and diagrams reveal how the garments are designed, cut and constructed. These stiff shapes are held away from the body so that the underlying body shape is both disguised and enhanced. They also have the effect of making the wearer look vulnerable and ethereal.

Although the exhibition includes just the one black reimagined cardinal’s chasuble, this idea is repeated again and again in Balenciaga’s work – as a regal violet velvet evening coat with a huge shawl collar; as a black coat with an enormous cape which makes Lucky, the model, appear to be a tiny, elphin head (topped with a confection); now as a huge, orange evening coat with a huge statement collar, set off by delicate black accessories. Do the ladies in the fashion show look with interest, envy or shock?

Likewise, the amazing catwalk of perfect black dresses in the V&A cabinet, each one unique and each one challenging existing trends – he made one each year – are inspired by the black clothes that became a uniform for the widowed women of the Basque country.

On both visits to the exhibition it struck me that Balenciaga is not as well known as many modern designers who may be marketing geniuses, but are not great craftsmen/ women, with  limited design imaginations. Balenciaga shunned publicity and never gave interviews. His breath-takingly original work was appreciated mainly by very wealthy European women, but his name is not known in many households. This exhibition is the beginning of a fight back. In researching the article I found countless examples of the most exquisite designs, season after season, unique novel, inventions over a long and very productive life. I loved the V&A McQueen exhibition and really think he had a very special talent – but the V&A – aware of the bankability of the fairly recently deceased designer – spread his much more limited work over several galleries. The Balenciaga is crammed into a small space and I feel it needs to be bigger, with space to breathe. And more examples. Perhaps this is a task for the Spanish – a blockbuster exhibition with several more items borrowed from galleries all over the world.

I must end with a question. How far do you design or make items that stem from your own national or local or cultural roots? As an English person from the Lancashire cotton mills, with Scottish blood I find myself continually attracted to both wool and cotton, to tartan, to tweed, corduroy, to soft heathery colours and English summer florals. I like the English designers and the royal outfits. Do you connect with your own heritage and does this come through in your dressmaking?











Week 4 EZ seamless sweater with a colourful patterned yoke – #EZYokeKAL

posted in: knitting | 17

Today I am going to cover the sleeves on our Seamless sweater with a colourful patterned yoke.

Elizabeth Zimmermann
EZ seamless yoked sweater in pink

The yoke sweater really needs sleeves, although I have been thinking about a sleeveless version. Maybe you could make very short sleeves – a couple of inches – just to finish the sweater off?

Determining the length of the sleeves

I don’t have long arms and I don’t like long sleeves, but the length you make your sleeves before you join them with the body is very much a personal choice. Measure from the underarm (or actually about one inch down), or measure the jersey you already have that fits well.

For me bracelet length is about 15″ and full length is 17″. Mrs Zimmerman says the average woman would want an 18″ sleeve, but this is a little long for me. Maybe you like to push up your sleeves or fold them back in which case even longer than 18″ is OK. So having got the length in mind, we can move on to the width.

The width of the sleeves

The sleeves, like the bodice are knitted in the round. They are just two tubes that will be joined to the bodice when we create the yoke. They taper a little towards the wrist, unless they are made for a child in which case they can literally be tubes. Elizabeth Zimmermann uses a very simple method to decide how many stitches to cast on. Divide the number you first thought of (ie the number you used for the bodice) by 5. Cast on this number of stitches.

Let’s say you have 200 stitches – divide by 5 to find 20% – and it is 40 stitches at the wrist. My bodice has 160 stitches, so I cast on 32 stitches. Easy!

You add two stitches every fourth row until you have 33% of the bodice – roughly divide by 3. With 200 stitches you would have about 66; with 160 –  52 stitches. Also easy! When you get to the larger number just keep knitting straight until you have the length you want. Incidentally I knitted the bodice and one sleeve and still had some yarn left (150 gram cone).

The sleeve is 20 per cent to 33 per cent of the bodice

Now two questions remain – how and where to increase and how to knit a small tube.

Increases for the sleeve

Mrs Zimmermann doesn’t specify where exactly to do this, but my advice is opposite your beginning of row, but you could do it at the beginning of the row if you prefer. Use a marker. After the marker M1, K3, M1. EZ suggests that you make 1 (M1) by just looping the yarn around the needle to make a nice, neat unobtrusive new stitch. The three plain stitches in between the increases means you have a nice pattern of increases on the underside of the sleeve. I guess you could do them another way if you prefer but I have used her method and I like it better than other approaches I have tried.

Knitting a small tube

The Zimmermann method is to knit the ribbing or whatever at the end. I like this idea and will explain it in the final week – week 6. Next week – week 5 – we are doing the yoke and the optional colour work. But you can rib 1×1 or 2×2 or moss stitch like Helene if you like, but I am assuming everyone else is sticking with the simple tube at this point.

You know what you are knitting but how to do it?

  • dpns
  • dpns to start it and swap to circular needles on a short wire
  • magic loop

I can’t advise on either of the first two methods as they involve the double-pointed needles. I had one go at this and all my stitches fell off randomly and I hated it. One day I may learn to do it as I think socks appear to be made this way and I look forward to the challenge. For me the only way to go is magic loop.

Magic loop

This is a weird thing as magic loop is regarded by some as unusual and somewhat exotic. I know several experienced knitters who have never tried it. The truth is I tried it as I didn’t want to buy a second or third set of needles, and anyway the small circumference circular needles don’t come in every size of needle. So I thought before I buy more needles I will give it a go. For magic loop you can use the exact same set of circular needles as you used for the body. I did – as a complete beginner – on my first ever jumper, and I found it quite easy with great results. I searched for magic loop on the internet and watched a Youtube video. So give it a try unless you are already adept with those dpns. I suggested this to Giorgia and she gave it a go and is a convert too.

I have a few of magic loop tricks that I like, that may be of assistance.

The two loops are visible
  1. Cast on the required number of stitches – 32 in my case. Now divide them roughly in half so that the first 16 or so are on the left needle
  2. Then comes a loop
  3. Then the remaining stitches
  4. Then a loop and right hand needle has no stitches on it
  5. Using the right hand needle knit the 16 stitches
  6. When knitted let all the stitches come together on the wire
  7. Then take the remaining 16 stitches, plus a few of the already knitted stitches, and put them onto the end of the left needle and repeat from 2.
  8. You are pulling the first loop through at different points so you don’t get an obvious line through the work
  9. Also when you take the yarn from the stitches that are on the wire rather than a needle be careful not to pull too hard as they will shrink and become too tight
  10. But equally you don’t want them to be too sloppy and loose, so keep them close to the next stitch.
  11. It is impossible to explain this in words. You need to watch a video or ask someone to show you.


The sleeves are quick after the bodice. The increasing is regular and fun. I must admit I hate counting rows and some of my increases come after five or even six rows rather than the four recommended. I don’t suppose anyone cares. Once you have one sleeve, you need to do the next one. The sleeves are more portable than the bodice and much more portable than once you join the whole sweater together, so if you like to knit when travelling you could do the sleeves concurrently with the bodice. Once you have done the two you will be ready to start on the yoke, which I will go on to explain next Saturday.

How are you getting on?






posted in: Designing, History of fashion | 24

Let me recommend the Balenciaga exhibition at the V&A. It continues until 18 February 2018 and costs £12 unless you are a member. Or a friend of a member.

Advert on the tube (Alberta Tiburzi in Balenciaga ‘envelope’ dress June 1967)

Cristóbal Balenciaga – Spain’s greatest designer and the Master of couture – was the son of a seamstress (and a fisherman) who was sent to train as a tailor when he was 12 years old. His deep understanding of tailoring is evident in all his work. The exhibition features a wide range of examples of his structural pieces but also helps us understand how they were constructed using X Rays and animations.

Balenciaga set up his own couture business in 1937. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s he created some radical new shapes that challenged current ideas of the feminine form. As Vogue editor Diana Vreeland said, ‘For 20 years he was the prophet of nearly every major change in silhouette.’ I loved this stunning outfit with a kind of insect-y feel – In the early 1960s Balenciaga redesigns the female shape by creating this evening dress with its balloon hem, longer hobble skirt and short puffed up cape.

Balenciaga green balloon dress
1961 Evening dress and cape in green silk gazar

On my second visit one of the curators pointed out a much more ordinary suit – this one. This doesn’t look at all radical, and in some senses it isn’t.

The suit has a fitted jacket and slim-fitting skirt with a kick pleat at the back. It illustrates how capable Balenciaga was at choosing exactly the right fabric and also how he was at heart a tailor. The curator said this suit was made for a mature woman (at over £100 at the time his clientele were the wealthiest) and was made to flatter a less than perfect figure. The jacket is carefully fitted to the body in the front but includes subtle fullness at the back, meaning it would be supremely comfortable to wear. Also the sleeve length and the collar shape were designed specifically to enable the wearer to show off her jewellery. Or her hat.

The exhibition reveals the workings of the dresses in a way that is very helpful for designers and seamstresses. This lovely fushia evening dress is clearly boned and bustled. But the X Ray reveals a set of ties that appear to create harem pants inside for comfort and structure. At the exhibition this dress rotates in a cabinet, allowing the viewer to see all sides as well as inside.

Silk taffeta evening dress, Cristóbal Balenciaga, 1955, and X ray of the dress
Silk taffeta evening dress, Cristóbal Balenciaga, 1955, and X ray of the dress


In some ways this exhibition is scary as the skill, originality and verve are off the scale. But many of the outfits make you want to have a go.

These two items have entered my soul and I want to make and wear them. First the jacket. This jacket is constructed, in soft brown wool, from a giant T without side seams. The amazing pleating is created by ribbons across the shoulder line, from neckline to cuff, which are simply pulled up The folds are tacked to the ribbon at approximately four inch intervals.

The hat

The hat is owned by the V&A which, incidentally, has one of the biggest and best collection of Balenciaga items, largely due to the influence of Cecil Beaton a great friend of Balenciaga who donated but also urged them to acquire.


Back to the hat. According the V&A

The dramatic ‘spiral’ hat is worn like the pillbox, perched on top of the head. Inside, it is secured by three hair combs which support the sculptural spirals rising up at the back. The hat is a perfect example of the dramatic yet minimal sculptural shapes for which Balenciaga was known. Its clean lines and solid block colour exemplify the couturier’s desire to strip things back to their simplest form.

To which I say “Yeah!” In the world of clothes my first love is for the simplest but also the cleverest; the essential; complex cutting and construction that results in the cleanest line.

I have so much more to say – a second post will follow shortly.


Week 3 EZ seamless sweater with a colourful patterned yoke – #EZYokeKAL

Most of you have chosen your yarn, decided on size and gauge, cast on the requisite number of stitches on to the right size of needles to make the sweater to fit, and have knitted the first tube – the body of the jersey.Knitting round and round on circular needles is easy, repetitive work. Knitting, as you know, can be done in down time, TV time, waiting for a meeting to start, on public transport, when you are minding the kids or winding down after a busy day – listening to the radio or a podcast. You may find it soothing and relaxing especially if it is not complicated by difficult stitches or counting or trying to shape the garment. Enjoy.

If not – you can start now. Seeing someone else knitting makes me want to join in.

So let’s talk about colour today. If you have yarn you love at home – use it. If you have bought yarn for this project you are probably knitting it up. But if you haven’t started yet here are some thoughts and tips about choosing the colours.

  • I would stick to mainly a plain colour for the jersey rather than a variegated or jazzy yarn. The idea with the plain colour is something that can be set off and enhanced by your colourwork patterned yoke.
  • On the whole contrast is good. If you made a jersey in pastel shades with pastel colourwork it will not stand out very much. On the other hand if you put a stronger contrast in, it could look great. Here the dark grey would look lovely with two or three of the very light colours.
  • If you know what colours suit you choose one of them. Let’s say you look best in light-muted shades try a soft pink and use a light grey and a deeper muted blue for contrast. You don’t want too much contrast as you suit a softer look.
  • If you suit deeper shades a black, navy or deep purple jumper would be nice. You suit a stronger contrast so use bright shades like red, and orange, but maybe throw in teal or brown to make it more sophisticated.  The colours will be enhanced by a dark background.
  • You may like to make a neutral jersey that will go with everything. Neutrals include black, grey, navy, beige, cream, white, and brown. As I already have a pink and a blue jersey I am going with beige.
    Knitting with neutrals
    Beautiful neutrals

    It is a boring colour to knit with, but I am planning on have bright colours for my yoke – probably red, blue and yellow (the primary colours). I did consider just using one shade rather than several – for example a denim blue – but I can’t resist the range of colours that make the jumper the ideal match with many outfits. If you choose to make a neutral jersey you could do your colourwork with neutrals too – this may be striking – for example black, white and grey – or subtle – using a range of natural browns that are quite close to each other.

    Neutrals with colour
  • If you love bright colours think about a zingy colour scheme eg an orange sweater with blue and green colourwork – by choosing complementary colours your main colour will come to life. Or make a white sweater with strong colours in it?
  • Finally I think you can throw in one discordant note to good effect sometimes, eg three cool colours and one warm one eg cool red, navy, grey and camel (warm); navy, or vice versa orange, yellow, peach and bright blue.

Apart from my own Colourmart yarns, I have used photographs from Love Knitting MillaMia Merino which is on offer at about £3.60  for 50 grms at the moment. The colours are rather lovely.

So think about

  1. What colours suit me best and enhance my complexion?
  2. What colours work well with the colour I have chosen for the jersey?
  3. How much contrast do I want – using light and dark, bright and deep, and complementary colours (yellow/purple; red/green; blue/orange)
  4. Do I want just one additional colour with my main colour eg navy and white; two eg navy, red and white; or three – navy with red, yellow and white?
  5. What colours are my skirts and trousers? – putting these into the colourwork will give you outfits. Although I have chosen a denim blue I may swap this out for teal to match my new trousers.
  6. What yarns do I already have that I can use? The colourwork only takes small amounts so you may not want to buy a whole ball. Obviously you should try to use the same weight and composition of yarn. If you want to use something else you should swatch it as a pattern, soak it in water, dry and press it and see what happens.

I know lots of you have cast on the right number of stitches and have started the body tube. How long are you making it? I am planning about 15″ as I don’t like a long sweater. My shortest one (the ombre is about 12″ long but it stops at the waist). I haven’t completed my body section but I have one sleeve complete. I am planning to explain the sleeves next week, and go on to the colour work the following week. The final post will cover the hems and finishing. I hope this pace is OK with you.

Let us know how you are getting on with the knitting below, where you can also ask any questions. I am sure the more expert knitters out there will be able to help with the answers.


An eventful week

I need a catch up post.

  1. The knitting disaster

In an eventful week I have tried to make the saddle shouldered seamless jumper, featured in Knitting without Tears. Can I have my money back – it made me cry!!

Can you work out what went wrong? By way of explanation this is a seamless sweater, made initially exactly the same as my colourwork yoke jersey – three tubes joined on one needle. Then the decreasing is done first by taking up four stitches from the front and back every round, swapping to take the fullness from the sleeves, and finally reverting back to the body until we have just the saddles to work. The problem of course is that line of decreasing needs to be contiguous and look line a clear line across the sweater. It is actually a kind of mock seam and so it has to work perfectly. Otherwise the eye will not be decieved. So I now have two options. One is to pull it out and redo the yoke area. Or, and this is the beauty of the Zimmermann seamless approach, I can pull it back and create either a yoke sweater or a seamless raglan. I won’t want to make a colourwork yoke because of the stripes, but I could conceivably create a stitch pattern in the yoke. I think the raglan might be better. The yarn is recycled from the sloper sweater. It is lovely soft cashmere and will be warm, so I am thinking of having a relatively high neck. A further thought was could EZ be adapted to create a polo neck?

2. The meet up

In other news I met up with Sue from New Zealand. She reads the blog, sews, knits, dyes, and is in the UK for the first time since her “OE” (overseas experience) when she worked in our NHS hospitals as an orthopedic nurse ten or so years ago. Having had a few days in London she is off in a hired motor home to visit some of the beautiful parts of the English countryside. We had a Beijing street food meal in Brixton market and a visit to Simply Fabrics where she managed to purchase a few souvenirs.

Sue Newth
Sue Newth from New Zealand

She also very kindly gave me a silk scarf she had dyed with Indigo. She used pegs to create the beautiful design.

Indigo dyed scarf with wooden peg design
Lovely indigo silk scarf from Sue

Sue has a real sensitivity for colour and I just loved her neat grey outfit with a splash of orange – bag, glasses and lipstick. Very classy.

3. The purchase

I bought Colourmart yarn for my third seamless yoked EZ jumper. I am thinking of using the beige this time as I already have two coloured ones. But I love the green too. My mother, who enjoyed shopping, always had a solution when you liked two things equally, when shopping for shoes, for example. “Get them both!”. Obviously I will knit up the green at some point if I use the beige this time. Knitting along with me are Maggie, Michelle, Karen, Giorgia and Sue Stoney – hello girls! Have you got your yarn? Have you cast on the right number of stitches?

4. The evening class

We finished the patchwork class. Nick and I signed up with a plan to make a patchwork quilt for our new bedroom at Rainshore. We have the germ of an idea but I am not sure we will get round to doing it. The experienced ladies in the class conspired with me to convince Nick to do all the cutting and me to do the sewing. But actually he really loved learning to use a sewing machine. Patchwork and carpentry are quite similar, as it happens and he took to it like a duck to water. We both found the class a fun and useful introduction and, as ever, we met some really great people on the course. Kaye Telford started each class with a “show and tell” experience where she brought mainly her own work and demystified the techniques. And every week we made a sample. I wasn’t particularly thrilled with my samples – in fact I appear to have lost some – but I did learn some interesting techniques, and I have lots of handouts. We covered

  • Rail fence
  • Quarter square triangles
  • Log cabin and courthouse steps
  • Broken dishes
  • Hour glass
  • Flying geese
  • English paper piecing
  • Disappearing Hour Glass
  • Pieced Hearts block (flying geese)
  • Free cut panels (for borders)
  • Applique
  • Bias binding
  • Quilting
Patchwork samples
Introduction to patchwork

5. My sewing room

Nick made me a cupboard for my new sewing room at Rainshore. I absolutely love this, even before it has been painted. In fact I like it unpainted. I have a week to think about it while Nick puts in the maple shelves. The rest of the house has cupboards painted in Cornforth White. But I am thinking of a different shade of paint – pink, green or blue.

handmade sewing cupboard
Rainshore sewing room cupboard by Nick

6. And a wedding!

Esme’s friend Kate got married to George in the wonderful Asylum Chapel in Peckham. Esme was one of the bridesmaids and Kit and Ted were page boys. The place was full of English summer flowers in shades of pink white and blue (my favourite), mixed in with olives in honour of George’s Greek heritage. Kate wore a short, lace dress with a sheer back. She looked amazing. The weather was perfect and we went outside after the ceremony and showered them with dried flower petals, drank champagne and enjoyed the steel band.

I was thrilled to wear my Mondrian dress –  as we walked through the back streets of Peckham to the wedding a woman stopped her car, put her head out of the window and shouted out “I love your dress!”. I always enjoy wearing it.

Elizabeth Zimmerman seamless sweater with a colourful patterned yoke – #EZYokeKAL

posted in: knitting, Tips and Techniques | 13

Thank you for your enthusiasm about making your own version of the Elizabeth Zimmerman seamless sweater with a colourful patterned yoke. I am delighted that Giorgia, Helene and Felicia have started already!

Elizabeth Zimmermann seamless yoke sweater
Elizabeth Zimmermann sweater

About ten of you said you would make one along with me – and two or three said maybe later – after their holidays. Even if you can’t make the time now maybe you are interested in how to make a jumper like this. It can be made in a week (if you use DK yarn), can use up left over yarns, and is a good way to create something unique to match all your skirts or trousers. This blue one goes with all my pinks, blues, greens and yellows, for example.

A few issues have come up already, which I will try to address. As I am a beginner knitter I am certainly not an expert so I am grateful for all the advice offered already which I will also share.

More on the design

This pattern is created in stocking stitch which, if done on two needles, back and forth, requires one knit row, followed by a purl row. If you knit on circular needles you avoid the need for purl rows as it involves one very long knit row, arranged in a spiral. The circular needles allow you to create stocking stitch without purling a single stitch making it faster to knit. Additionally by knitting three tubes that are joined at the yoke we can avoid virtually all seams, meaning there is minimal sewing up to do (just the underarms which are mainly woven together at the end).

I was attracted to the pattern for this reason – it is a very neat design solution. I love clever but simple designs. The fact that it also has colour in it makes it beautiful and individual. When I consider what colours I might combine to make a harmonious and useful garment I get rather excited. The restrained amount of colour really appeals to me. But if you are worried about knitting with two yarns you can make this in just one colour. Or you could colour block using different colours for the body, sleeves and yoke.

Finally there is the issue of hemming or ribbing the jersey. The “downside” of stocking stitch is that it curls because the smooth face of the stitch is slightly smaller than the wrong side. It needs hems or another finish to stop it rolling up at the edges.  There are a range of options here, but you can decide at the end. This blue jersey has hems on it – a finish I had not tried before and I like it. I find that ribbed edges can be a bit “tight” around the wrists etc and they just don’t feel quite so stable when you pull them off.

Cuff treatments - knitting
Curling cuffs

Quantities of yarn

I explained that I hoped to make this sweater for myself (b34″) with about 300 grams of yarn. I am fairly stingy with fabric and yarn and I will make do with something close to the colour, or I will order some more, or I will make shorter sleeves or go for a cropped look. Mrs Zimmermann has lots of suggestions on how to stretch your yarn which really appealed to me. However all the good advice is to buy enough yarn to make your garment. Otherwise you will find your heart rate raised unnecessarily as you reach the end of the job. Two or three of you said that 300 grams wasn’t enough and suggested 500 grams. It is probably good advice to buy more than you need, but as my Mother in Law used to say “That is how Mr Coleman makes his money” (Coleman’s is a mustard brand – the amount you put on your plate but didn’t consume was what made the company rich).

Shape and fitting

This jersey is made of three tubes – the body and two sleeves. The sleeves are shaped a bit but the body not at all. It is more like a T shirt than a fitted blouse or dress. It has a little stretch in it, and being seamless it is not going to pull apart, but will (to some extent) mould to your body. There are plenty of nice shaped jersey patterns out there if you want something that is more waisted or more flared over the hips.

I have a fairly curvy figure – 33-26-38. However my jerseys measure 34″ across. I finished my sweater at the high hip which measures 34″ on me. In summary – a close fit on the high hip, plenty of ease in the waist and comfortable across the bust. The fit across the shoulders is good on me and I am going to assume that unless your shoulders are very large this jersey will accommodate them. The way EZ writes her patterns is that they can be scaled up or down – for a baby or child to a large adult of either sex. However there will be an assumption of average proportions I guess so if your figure is very unusual you may have to make adjustments.

Making a swatch

One commentator suggested a larger swatch  – I had tentatively suggested 20 stitches by about 20 rows. OK! I am lazy and I don’t really like making swatches. I especially dislike pulling out my knitting if I don’t need to. I have also been given good advice that you should knit your swatch on circular needles. Finally my knitting guru suggests soaking and drying a swatch before measuring it.

So why are we knitting a swatch?

If we want to create a garment that fits we need to know how the thickness of the yarn, the size of the needles, the tension of our knitting and the impact of the stitch pattern combine to create a certain “gauge”. So using needles that are suitable for the yarn you have knit a swatch – if you are a beginner your knitting maybe a bit irregular so it is suggested you make it bigger than the 20 stitches I meanly suggested.

Mrs Zimmerman would have you make a hat rather than knit a random swatch and I get that. But my cheat is to guess what you will achieve and then start to make one of the sleeves. This means you can measure how many stitches you knit to the inch in the round. And after a couple of inches you can try it on. Also, if you guessed right (or nearly right) you won’t have to unravel it.

Here is my sleeve swatch. I find that I have knitted exactly five stitches to the inch on my favourite 5mm needles, using Colourmart yarns merino yarn.

Checking the number of stitches to one inch

How to calculate your numbers

I was thinking of preparing a ready reckoner for you, or even a spread sheet. But maths is fun.

Bust (measure a sweater that fits you well) x stitches to the inch.

In my case 34″ x 5 = 170 stitches.

So cast on 170 stitches, or 200 or 140 or whatever you have come up with. And knit the length you want (somewhere between 12 and 20 inches – you decide).

And make sure you don’t allow your stitches to twist when knitting in the round.

Beginners knitting
Oh no!



“RTW June” – how did it go?

posted in: Organisation, Style advice | 24

After a long month of “Me Made” in May I wanted to reassert my style choices. So this month I have mainly worn ready to wear options that I feel are more stylish and contemporary than my old home-made suits and tops.

I announced my intention to find clothes that are

  • Stylish and fashionable
  • Comfortable
  • Rather plain
  • Androgynous
  • Work appropriate

And I decided on a “uniform” made up of

  • Trousers
  • Trainers
  • White shirt
  • Small jacket

I was warned that my idea of a working wardrobe/uniform might be too restrictive.

Let’s have a look at some of the outfits I actually wore (you have seen two of these already) in a month that had some really hot days. On those days I reached for handmade summer dresses, of which I have a few. Otherwise I more or less stuck to the plan.

It is kind of samey, yes. But that was what I liked about the look. It was so easy to select, to wear, even to look after. The white shirt doesn’t even need ironing if it is hung up to dry, straight from the washing machine. The turquoise shirt is an early “Pink” version of these stretch shirts – a present from my brother. In fact I wore this shirt when I started at Notting Hill Housing 13 years ago! It is still a really nice, comfortable shirt.

Overall looking at my choices I would say the wardrobe is much more colourful and varied than I think you feared.

Here are my observations.

  • Having a set of rules and a very much reduced wardrobe is liberating
  • I don’t think about what to wear – I have been going for an almost random selection
  • Each top goes with each bottom and both pairs of shoes
  • The uinqlo stretch shirts are amazing and don’t need ironing
  • I love neutrals, especially lighter colours on me (white and stone/beige)
  • I seem to have worn more colour than I intended
  • While trousers are not my very best look (as I am curvy with hips) they mean I can avoid hosiery and feminine footwear
  • I feel a bit like a 1970s lady golfer or sports woman in some of these outfits
  • In the sales I bought a light lilac trouser suit (Topshop) and a pair of wide turquoise trousers (Finery)
  • I still need some better navy shoes…

So what do you think? I have had very good feedback from the family especially my husband Nick and son Gus. They both really like the new look. Somehow looking youthful, like a young man, is a better kind of youthful than trying to look like a young girl. The boyish look – with short hair, flat shoes, trousers, shirt and jacket – is somehow age appropriate but also fashionable. Gus made the point that this is a confident look on a par with men choosing a floral shirt or a pink suit. You have to be comfortable with your sexuality and self-image to depart a little from the rigid norms.

I maybe being very judgemental but I feel that many women my age do look a bit dated and old-fashioned. They stick with what they know – hair cut, hair colour, make up, colours and wardrobe. Although my look is far from radical it is slightly unusual, but I am getting very comfortable with it and plan to stick with it.

None of this is “me made”. I could make most of these items. Indeed I have copied the Vivienne Westwood jacket and I have a good pattern for trousers. But RTW seems to fit me at the moment, and I like the opportunity to try before I buy. Also making a nice jacket, say, is time-consuming and rather expensive in terms of fabric and other materials. My beige jacket cost less than £25 and the new lilac one cost £30. And most of the trousers above cost about £25, as did the shirts. I can’t justify the expense or time to make these items which fit as good as I can fit myself. For now I am only going to make something if it is amazing, interesting, completely unique, or for a special occasion.

On the other hand I don’t see RTW jerseys that I like very much and I am finding handknits great fun to make and wear. I am getting towards peak jersey now (although I want to make a cardigan and most of the Elizabeth Zimmerman options seem to involve cutting – eeek! or should I say steek!)

Is it time for shoes yet??

There will be sewing on this blog, but maybe not as often as others. I have got some patchwork to show you – but it is a bit underwhelming. The course ends this week so I will show you what I have done. And then I will be choosing my autumn course!

Making a seamless sweater with a colourful patterned yoke the Elizabeth Zimmermann way – #EZYokeKAL

posted in: knitting, Tips and Techniques | 25

This post is dedicated to my friend Lois who says “My knitting skills are limited to plain and pearl, learnt as a very young child.”  And to Felicia who hates the way that many jerseys have tight ribbing at the end. “I would be very interested in a blog post with instructions for making a generic knitted sweater. I’m about ready to do some knitting again and have wool for two sweaters. But I’m still so unhappy with the sweater I made a few years ago and I want a better result next time! I like the waist on this one — it’s not one of those standard ribbed knit affairs that pull in.” And finally to Michelle who writes: “I learned to knit a very long time ago (flat knitting, two needles, follow the instructions stitch by stitch), and I have been intrigued by your experiences with Elizabeth Zimmerman’s method. So much so that I got a copy of her book. I’m still intrigued, but now also a little confused, so a ‘how to’ post would be much appreciated!”. I sent my annotated copy of the pattern to Giorgia M – so you can join too if you like!

So, no pressure ladies. Or gentlemen. But if you would like to join in you just need some yarn, circular needles and the ability to knit. Even if you can’t knit yet you can easily learn over the next 7 days. I will be making a third version of this sweater with you and I will share tips that I have learnt from Elizabeth Zimmermann, or from my own trial and error.

To start you off let’s just go through some of the basics.

  1. We are going to make a virtually seamless jersey. This is because making pieces and sewing them together can be quite challenging for a beginner and often looks a bit rubbish. By avoiding seams you are likely to get a better looking jumper. Also seamless allows you to make the jersey on circular needles. This means you can avoid knitting purl stitches which many knitters dislike, even Mrs Zimmerman. Finally I think seamless garments are more streamlined and elegant.
  2. The main idea is to create three tubes of seamless knitting (from the bottom up) – one body piece and two sleeves. Once knitted up to the underarms, you will put them together on the circular needles and then knit the yoke. Starting at the widest part – the width of your body including the arms – you then decrease stitches to make the jersey smaller until you get to the neckline – the hole for the head.
    Jersey once yoke is knitted. Seams at underarm are open and hems/ribbing to come
  3. The size of the jersey is determined by you, not the pattern. This is actually freeing rather than frightening. There are some rules of thumb you will quickly work out for yourself, but the most important thing is to measure an existing sweater that you like to wear rather than your body, and then to work out how many stitches to cast on for the body. The measurements you will need are – jersey circumference, length from underarm to hem (eg waist length, high hip etc) and  sleeve length (from underarm to cuff). Measure an existing wooly or just decide on the design you want. The gauge is the number of stitches to create an inch (or 2.5 cms) of knitting. This is a bore but it is important. My dear friend Aida made a huge jersey recently because she got this wrong. (Sorry to embarrass you darling!)
    Me trying on Aida’s too large sweater
  4. You can check the gauge by using say 5mm needles and DK yarn; or say 3.5mm needles and 4 ply yarn. This is just a suggestion – you do have to make your own mind up, or use what you have! Cast on say 20 stitches and knit in stocking stitch for say 20 rows. Then measure one inch or 2.5cms across and count how many stitches are included in this length. It is likely to be a whole number and a part of a number eg 4.25. This is the figure you times by your chest/bust circumference measurement to find out how many stitches you need to cast on. The width is the important measurement – depth is not important as will be measuring the length of the jersey with your tape measure as you go along, rather than counting rows.
  5. Now you know how many stitches you need to cast on for the body. For me (s8 UK), with my personal knitting tension, I have used 160 stitches for DK and 200 stitches for the four ply. This is just a point of reference – you may be smaller or bigger, and knit tighter or looser. The other casting on you do is for the sleeves and the number of stitches is a percentage of your first cast on number for the body ie 160 or 200 in my case. I will explain this as we go.
  6. This jersey has the option of a bit of patterning at the yoke. This is the lovely, fun bit that makes your jumper unique. You can choose four colours (or one, two or three) that helps your jumper match your skirts and trousers. But you don’t have to do the colourwork – the jersey would be very nice plain.
    Elizabeth Zimmermann
    EZ seamless yoked sweater in pink
  7. How much yarn to you need to make a jersey? This is a hard question for me to answer as I am not an expert. I never have quite enough and my own prototype jerseys were made with insufficient yarn and I just added similar colours together. A lot depends on the size you are making – for a baby, a man or a child or for yourself. But if you are buying yarn specially I would say get enough –  it is uncomfortable to worry about running out. You can buy nice wool at less than £5 a ball and you will need about 6 x 50 grm balls for a woman’s jersey. You could use synthetic fibres or luxury yarns if you like but mine was done with Merino yarn and it is nice and soft and I am happy with it against my skin. Maybe, first time, use up something you have at home, and do a better version second time? If you toile with your dressmaking there is nothing wrong with doing a practice version. If you are short of yarn you can do shorter sleeves or waist length. My pink one has 3/4 length sleeves and comes to the high hip.

That is enough for now.

Work out your gauge and I will show you how to do the maths. Very easy maths! I am barely numerate but I find the Elizabeth Zimmermann’s “per centage system” much easier to follow than a pattern that tells you exactly how to knit each stitch. I have found these commercial patterns difficult to follow as you don’t have the idea in your head to start with. It’s a bit like being taught to dance with diagrams of the steps. Perhaps it is easier if you first learn to express your own rhythm and move to music before you try to learn specific steps. Did you know that Argentinian tango is entirely improvised (not in a show, but when danced freely in a dance hall or on the streets) – the woman follows the man who makes up the steps as he goes along. This sort of knitting, to my mind, is much easier than following a pattern eg K3, P2, skpo, etc. Although it has a few instructions like that you will understand what you are doing and you are much less likely to make mistakes.

Do let me know if you are thinking of joining in, by commenting below.  I know I am “the blind leading the blind” – what right have I to teach others to knit? Only that I battled to get the skills I have and I think I know a good way to learn and to teach. So if you want to have a go too – it is very satisfying to make a nice jersey, and it is fairly quick – then get some needles, yarn and practice making a swatch and I’ll see you next week.

Sad News

A few of you asked me to update you about Jessica – my friend’s young niece who lived with her Mum and sister in the Grenfell Tower

I am very sorry to tell you that the police, the school and the family have now confirmed that Jessica very likely perished in the fire. Despite their very strong family ties, an incredibly supportive network, great friends and a strong religious faith the family is understandably distraught. Please hold them all in your thoughts and prayers at this unbearable time. Thank you.

A missing poster for Jessica Urbano put up after the fire in Grenfell Tower, West London. June 16 2017. A huge tribute wall set up for the victims of the Grenfell Tower blaze is demanding ‘jail for those responsible’. Seven people are named on the wall with the message rest in peace, they include: K Maliki, S Meerabux, D Miles, Maria Kelopatra, Ray, Marley, Yasin and Jess. Residents, victims and well wishers were making pilgrimages to the 18ft wall near – the tower, all of Thursday morning. Boxes of coloured feltip pens have been left for people to scribe messages of the support.

Helmut Lang – 1990s designer

posted in: Designing, History of fashion | 10

Still considering my own New Look of pared down androgyny, I took a look at fashion history.

When I did my City Guilds training in fashion in the 1980s, our History of Fashion module finished in the 1970s, although our tutor Judy Tregellan did her best to encapsulate the defining features of 1980s style. But by 1990 I had three little kids and no time, money or energy to keep a close eye on fashion trends. I wore a baggy track suit, managed to get my hair washed, but rarely cut, and gave up my subscription to Vogue. The last claim is a joke – I never had a sub to Vogue – although little known fact was that you could read it in the Equal Opportunity Commission Library in Manchester.

However I wanted to catch up with the decade that I lost Looking back now, how do we define the 1990s, in fashion terms?

It’s hard to see a defining “look” as so many trends were evident – from Supermodels to Kate Moss (a more natural, slimmer version), from Grunge to Glamour, from neon colours and exercise wear – a wide variety of incoherent trends can be discerned. For me the two notions that were both new and ground-breaking were Minimalism and Deconstruction. I loved both these trends and while Alexander McQueen  pursued a highly creative deconstructivism and Tom Ford (for Gucci) captured a pared down, sexy and highly commercial minimalism, the person who combined both into highly wearable outfits was Helmut Lang, which makes him my Designer of the Decade for the 1990s.

Lang only decided to move into fashion after he failed to find the perfect jacket and T-shirt in the shops and was forced to make his own. And he left fashion to become a fine artist when he felt constrained.

His pared down, simplified aesthetic was technically challenging and completely modern. He broke with many traditions – moving his shows from France to the US, putting his shows out via the internet during this decade, and leaving his own company when he felt his creativity was compromised. A look we currently take for granted (and one I interested in, designing my own work wear look) is industrial, sharp-cut, pared down, androgynous, predominantly black-and-white and includes both basics like white T-shirts and black skinnies with beautiful, detailed and cutting-edge items.

Many of these styles feature a simple, round neck white vest. In addition trousers with a flat front, the three button suit for men and low-rise jeans were all design idioms coined by Lang and now completely ubiquitous wardrobe staples. To my mind these looks and many others are wearable classics, with a twist. Still fashionable and sought after his 1990s ready to wear items are aspirational but also plain and restrained.

For more marvellous images, see Vogue feature.

Lang created a new design language for the 1990s and beyond. His minimalist approach revealed the underlying architectural quality of the clothes, but these are not stiff structural creations. The soft, translucent fabrics, the layering and shadow effects, the use of transparency is just the bees knees as far as I am concerned. I also love the palette – black, white, neutrals, splashes of yellow, cerise, blue and golden-yellow from time to time.

Helmut Lang has always been interested in this light and shade/layered translucency. I find it fascinating! I saw this photo of Kate Moss in a Helmut Lang top and wondered if I could knit it?. Also we have Erin O’Connor in a knitted vest.  The Kate Moss top is so beautiful. Is this something a beginner knitter could create, in some way?

Obviously not! It appears to be a translucent shell top, worn over a simple white vest, with diaphanous pink fabric (bias cut neon pink chiffon?) lightly attached across the bust and also wrapped around the upper arms. Is it even constructed or is it just for show? But I am hooked on this look and will be experimenting. Stay tuned!


My Ombre Jumper

Thank you everyone for your kind, supportive messages following the Grenfell Tower fire. It meant a great deal to hear from so many kind people – it has been really hard and upsetting for so many people, but I do believe that things in our industry will improve as a result of this major tragedy. They need to. We don’t have any news of Jessica. I feel bad to speak about knitting – but life goes on – work, family and our creative work.

I so enjoyed making the seamless yoked sweater described in Knitting without tears by Elizabeth Zimmermann. I thought I would try her second seamless pattern – the raglan sleeve. I don’t really go for the raglan as I like a more defined shoulder line. But as the knitted raglan seems to be a variation on the yoke sweater which rather suits me, I decided to give it a go.

I wanted to use my four ply cashmere set which came in lovely shades of beige, soft blue and grey.

Four ply cashmere

In order to ground the jersey and make it work with my dark coloured trousers and skirts I started off by casting on 2×2 rib in deepest charcoal. This shade is my black. Although Zimmermann suggests adding the ribbing or hems at the end I had a clear idea of what I wanted with this sweater. I wanted an ombre effect – shading – from deep to light. Dark grey to light beige, via light blue.

cashmere 4 ply
Casting on with charcoal cashmere 4 ply

Zimmermann also suggests starting with dpns and using two lengths of circular needle cords I just stick with one, finding that magic loop works well for me.

As with the yoked sweater the three tubes of knitting – one body (200 stitches) and two sleeves (40 stitches, gradually increased to 66) – are joined on the needles, leaving a few stitches (16 in this case) on a thread at the underarm.

Knitting an ombre jersey
The body section

You can see in the photo above how I tried to blend the colours by introducing a line or two of the next colour before I progressed to the block of colour. Knitting with four ply and 3.5mm needles is slow progress, but I find the knitting most pleasant. The finer needles are easier to use, more precise and elegant. I like the effects I got with the chunky yarn but it is much harder on the hands.

Eventually I was ready to join the sleeves to the body and I put all the stitches on to the one long circular needle. At this point I came across a knitting pattern for a similar jumper. This is a top down, raglan sleeved jumper in two styles So Faded by Angela Mowry. Although Angela has made her jersey with some fabulous hand dyed yarns I think the basic idea is an ombre sweater. I decided to include a detail from this pattern – ie I purled the very top of the raglan sleeves. My neckline is lower cut and I produced a waist length jersey similar to her cropped version. Although I didn’t set out to copy the Mowry jersey specifically I soon realised that you don’t really need a pattern to make a straightforward jumper like this. Elizabeth Zimmermann empowers you to create your own jumper to your own specifications.

And as well as finishing my jumper I bought some new shoes! These are like trainers but made of leather. They come in navy, but like many commentators I wish that darker trainers had darker soles. But lighter trainers look good with a white sole. I think the cool beige leather is a great colour and picks up the beige at the top of my sweater. I like lighter colours on me, and this is a good summer sweater. Overall a really fun project. The main issue for me was I didn’t know how best to strand or join the yarns over several rows. I just twisted, and swapped colour but it wasn’t very satisfactory.

Elizabeth Zimmerman
My new Ombre jumper (EZ seamless raglan)

The sweater also looks nice for work – I haven’t really needed a jacket in this warm weather and a sweater is a good substitute that can be put in my bag if it gets too warm.

Elizabeth Zimmermann
Ombre sweater for work

Now I have made a couple of yoke jumpers, and this seamless raglan sleeved jersey, from Knitting without Tears I may try the third version of a seamless sweater – the exciting seamless saddle-shouldered sweater – “a little more sophisticated, but worth the effort, really, and great fun to make”, according to Zimmermann. I love the boring black and white photos supplied. They inspire because they are so blank. I am looking at this and seeing red – or stripes or colour blocked sleeves. Or maybe there would be room to do some patterning across the upper chest, or just a plain sweater. It’s so exciting – the endless possibilities implied by this simple photograph.

EZ Seamless Saddle Shouldered Sweater
EZ Seamless Saddle Shouldered Sweater

In the meantime one of my IG friends Lois has asked for a lesson in how to make these jumpers (which are all based on the same principle). I will do a blog post to explain it for her, which may be of interest and useful for others.

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