Thursday, 12 September 2013
When I did a special Canada Day post last July 1st, a commenter pointed out that I'd missed the most iconic Canadian knitting pattern of all, the Mary Maxim sweater. She was quite right, and I replied that I planned on doing a special Mary Maxim sweater post at some point. Well, here it is.
Mary Maxim is the largest privately held craft and needlework mail-order company in North America. The company was founded in the 1950s by Willard and Olive McPhedrain, who had been running a company called Sifton Wool Products Ltd. which sold wool blankets and socks. Willard saw possibilities in the hand-knitting market, and set his designers to work creating sweater patterns. The patterns sold well, and Willard derived a new name for his company that had a more homely, relatable appeal from the name of the McPhedrains' maid, Mary Maximchuk. Sixty years later, Mary Maxim has store locations in Paris, Ontario, and at Yonge and Eglinton in Toronto, Ontario, as well as an American office in Port Huron, Michigan. Most of Mary Maxim's revenue is derived from their catalogue and online sales.
Mary Maxim can definitely count me among their customers. They are one of the three companies from which I generally buy yarn, and are my main source for needlework supplies. I very much enjoy shopping at their Toronto store, I occasionally order some items from Mary Maxim online, and I can never forget how much I loved getting a parcel from them as a teenager. I grew up on a farm, the only craft store I ever got to visit was a good hour's drive away and wasn't exactly up to par anyway, and being able to buy anything I wanted from Mary Maxim's comprehensive catalogue was the best thing ever.
My catalogue lands in my mailbox at regular intervals and I still read it with enjoyment, though also with some bemusement. Besides the craft kits, patterns, needlework tools, and yarn you'd expect, they've branched out into offering oddball household gadgets such as an electric dog treat maker, an expandable back scratcher, a "detoxer" foot bath, pajama jeans, and other products of the kind one sees advertised on TV infomercials.
Tucked among all these items is the best-known Mary Maxim product ever — the classic bulky weight cardigan patterns based on the Cowichan sweater. Their reindeer cardigan is the first pattern Mary Maxim ever produced, and they still sell it. There are many of these patterns now and they feature quite a variety of images, which are usually either some type of animal or sports figure. To be honest, I find most of these bulky cardigans hideous. But there's no denying the Mary Maxim sweater's iconic status in Canada. The Mary Maxim sweater is familiar to most Canadians. If you didn't have one yourself when you were growing up, at least one of your friends did, and you didn't hear them complaining about being cold or uncomfortable.
The most appealing of the Mary Maxim sweater designs are those which are most similar to the Cowichan sweater. (Some are, indeed, nearly indistinguishable from an authentic Cowichan sweater.) This is a picture of Bob Hope sporting his Mary Maxim totem pole sweater.
This is a screen cap of Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher in episode two of the first season of Murder She Wrote, staying warm in a Mary Maxim fish sweater while on the cold trail of a murderer.
Mary Maxim sweaters aren't really city wear. One sees them much more often in small towns or in rural areas. But of course they can always be worn anywhere if worn ironically, as they are here on the cover of the Barenaked Ladies' 2004 Christmas album. I remember reading at the time that Mary Maxim sweaters were a hot item in Toronto's vintage clothing stores, as hipsters had gotten into them. Literally.
Tuesday, 2 July 2013
This is the third post in my Twentieth Century knitting patterns series (you can see the other posts here), and it covers the years from 1920 to 1929.
The 1920s saw the first really modern dressing. Many women cut their hair, went sleeveless in the daytime, raised their hemlines to just below the knee, and discarded their corsets (though they donned girdles and breast flatteners instead). Many of the knitting patterns from the 1920s are perfectly wearable by today's standards. I was still not able to find any menswear patterns that I cared to include in this post; all those that I saw were just too basic and indistinguishable from any boring run-of-the-mill pattern from today. But I was able to include just one menswear pattern by bending my rules for this series of posts.
This, of course, is not a knitting pattern photo or illustration, but a portrait of Edward, the then Prince of Wales, painted in 1921 by Sir Henry Lander. It was Prince Edward who popularized the Fair Isle sweater by beginning to wear it as golf wear, for some official public appearances, and to pose for this painting. The Fair Isle sweater is such a mainstream classic today that it's easy for us to underestimate the impact Prince Edward had on it, but I looked at a lot of patterns from 1900-1919 while researching the first two posts in this series, and I did not see a single Fair Isle pattern. Then suddenly in the patterns from the twenties they were common, for women at least — I didn't see any Fair Isle patterns for men. I've read that Fair Isle pullovers soon became a must-have for every college boy in the twenties. I'm sure Prince Edward's great-grandmother would have been pleased, given that she popularized knitting.
I have tried to find readily accessible and authentic period patterns for this series, but I'll make an exception for this one iconic sweater and instead point you to some replica patterns. The closest patterns I could find were in Michael Pearson's Traditional Knitting: Aran, Fair Isle, and Fisher Ganseys
, and in Sweaters from Camp: 38 Color-Patterned Designs from Meg Swansen's Knitting Campers, by Amy Detjen, Meg Swansen, and Joyce Williams. It wasn't as easy as it should have been to replicate this pattern because the artist didn't bother rendering it in detail. I wonder if Prince Edward's sweater pulled askew in the front as it does in this painting or if that was the artist's mistake.
This Knit Coat Sweater looks very modern to me. I think the only change I'd make, aside from any necessary size-related alterations, is to replace the sash with a coordinating skinny belt. This design was published in Columbia Yarns, Vol. 21, in 1920, and is available for free on Costumes.org. Columbia Yarns, Vol. 21 is available as a reproduction from Iva Rose Vintage Reproductions for $21.95.
This open front cardigan looks like it's straight out of knit.wear, and it already has a skinny belt. It would have been considered sportswear back in its day, something a woman would wear on the golf course or to play tennis, but now it's suitable as work wear and for nearly anywhere else. This design was published in the Bear Brand Blue Book, vol. 42 in 1922, and a reproduction of that book may be purchased from Iva Rose Vintage Reproductions for $15.95.
This is the Warrington Sweater. Checks must have been very much in style in the twenties, because I saw a lot of checked patterns in my research for this post, and I liked the unusual twist on checks in this pattern. This design was originally published in Fleisher's Knitting & Crocheting Manual, 19th Edition, in 1922, and is available for free at A Good Yarn. A reproduction of Fleisher's Knitting & Crocheting Manual, 19th Edition is available from Iva Rose Vintage Reproductions for $21.95.
This is the Somerville Sweater. This design was also originally published in Fleisher's Knitting & Crocheting Manual, 19th Edition, in 1922, and is available for free at A Good Yarn. A reproduction of Fleisher's Knitting & Crocheting Manual, 19th Edition is available from Iva Rose Vintage Reproductions for $21.95. Incidentally, if you like this model's hat, scroll down to the next pattern.
These are the Claremont (top), Devereaux (left) and Duncan (right and in the previous pattern photo) hat and scarf sets. I really wanted to include at least one hat pattern in this post, and by rights it should have been the iconic cloché, but as cute as the cloché looks when considered on its own, it is terribly unflattering on anyone. It hides too much of the face and the downward lines of the hat are universally aging and unkind to even the youngest and most attractive of its wearers. Canadian author L.M. Montgomery, who was in her late forties and early fifties during the twenties and was always a well-dressed woman who cared a lot about her appearance and clothes, found most of twenties fashions "very beautiful" but hated the cloché, writing in her journals that it looked exactly like "an old bonnet without strings". I was glad to come across these alternative and much more flattering twenties hat patterns to include instead.
These hat patterns are available for free at A Good Yarn, and were originally published in Fleisher's Knitting & Crocheting Manual, 19th Edition, in 1922, A Good Yarn. Fleisher's Knitting & Crocheting Manual, 19th Edition is available as a reproduction from Iva Rose Vintage Reproductions for $21.95.
This little short-sleeved sweater is another sportswear design that would now go almost anywhere. I would be inclined to make those sleeves more fitted to the arm, but otherwise this sweater is totally cute and wearable just as it is. This pattern was originally published in the Minerva Knitting Book, Vol. 10, in 1922, and a reproduction of the book is available from Iva Rose Reproductions for $9.95.
I love this little top. The rose-decorated yoke and waistband looks like it might be crocheted. This pattern was originally published in the Bear Brand Blue Book, Vol. 43, in 1923, which is available as a reproduction from Iva Rose Vintage Reproductions for $15.95.
I'd work with this little girl's pleated dress a little, making the sleeves shorter and the neckline a little lower, and finding the right weight of yarn for it — this looks a little heavy. But the concept is great. This pattern was originally published in Fleisher's Knitting and Crocheting Manual, 20th edition, in 1923, and is available as a reproduction from Iva Rose Vintage Reproductions for $21.95.
Of course I can't do a post on twenties knitting patterns without including one of the most iconic knitwear designs in history, Elsa Schiaparelli’s famous trompe l’oile Bowknot Sweater from 1927. Prior to the 1920s, and even after that time, collars and cuffs were generally detachable. One owned several of them and pinned them to one's shirt, blouse, sweater, or dress as desired. The rationale seems to have been that collars and cuffs got soiled more quickly and if they could be laundered by themselves by hand in a sink it would decrease the number of times it was necessary to launder the whole garment on a washboard. When Schiaparelli designed a sweater (which came in black and shocking pink) with an collar and cuffs knitted into the design, it was something completely innovative and witty. Schiaparelli also got other women to wear a shoe on their heads and think of it as a "smart hat" (mind you, as ridiculous as the shoe hat looked, it still wasn't as unflattering as the cloché). That shoe-as-hat trend didn't last, but this sweater still looks good.
This pattern is available for free from Schoolhouse Press. I've made this sweater myself. I look terrible in black, am very far from having the boyish figure that was the ideal in the twenties, and didn't care for the idea of knitting a stranded sweater, so I used a tweedy orange wool instead of black for the main colour, reshaped the sweater to make it shorter and looser and the neckline slighter lower and more open, and worked the collar, bowknot, and cuffs in intarsia in a cream silk yarn.
I've been including ten patterns in each post in the twentieth century series, but for this post I have a bonus pattern for you, the Irvington Sweater, originally published in A Good Yarn. A Fleisher's Knitting & Crocheting Manual, 19th Edition, in 1922, which describes the Irvington Sweater as, "A splendid example of the so-called Indian sweaters — a gay and charming mode that has found favor with the younger set. A strictly sports model." This gay and charming mode would also have found favour with the young Nazi set. Of course I'm aware that the swastika has a positive meaning ("good luck" or "all is well" if Google serves me correctly) in Indian culture and in Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism... but you wouldn't see a pattern like this in any mainstream English-language knitting publication today for reasons I am sure I don't have to explain, and you won't probably won't care to make this sweater unless you are Indian, and perhaps not even then. Some years ago a former co-worker of mine, who is of Indian parentage but has lived in Toronto all her life, asked her Indian-born parents to buy her a shawl while they were visiting family back home. They brought her back a gorgeous one that, alas, had swastikas all around the border. She gulped, then told them as tactfully as possible that it was a beautiful shawl but that she could never wear it.
Coming up: Look for the review of Knit Simple's Fall 2013 issue tomorrow morning!
Thursday, 21 February 2013
It would seem the Cosby sweater is back, the distinctive crazily colourful sweater that was made so iconic on the eighties-era Cosby Show that I couldn't write about knitting sweaters for even a month without referencing it. Hipsters are wearing them ironically and designers are reinventing them. There are websites the celebrate the Cosby sweater, such as The Cosby Sweater Project, the author of which creates original artwork inspired by the different sweaters in the show; and Huxtable Hotness, which examines the sartorial choices of the show one episode at a time (more than one episode at a time would be simply too overwhelming for us all).
This article from Collector's Weekly tells us the back story of Cliff Huxtable's sweaters. The sweaters came from a variety of sources, and were sometimes ordinary department store sweaters, sometimes loaned by designers, and sometimes custom made, one-of-a-kind pieces. The Cosby Show's costume designer Sarah Lemire says the sweaters were not (contrary to popular belief and image Google results) designed by the Australian company Coogi. “My sweaters were busy to a certain point, but it wasn’t to that extreme,” says Lemire. “I still can’t stand those.”
Lemire sometimes designed the sweaters herself and had them handknit by a Boston architecture student, and explains that the sweaters were chosen because they were appropriate for wearing around home and because they wouldn't shift about as noticeably and make it difficult for the director to match the frequent close-up shots of Cosby to longer shots. Lemire sewed Cliff Huxtable's shirts to the sweaters to make certain they didn't shift between takes.
Some of the sweaters Cosby wore on his show were designed by Koos Van Den Akker, a Dutch-born and Paris-trained New York designer whose work Bill Cosby and his wife discovered for themselves. Van Den Akker created collage sweaters that were wearable art for Bill Cosby, and he's still designing today, as this current design from Vogue Patterns attests.
I don't think I'll be donning any Cosby sweaters myself, either ironically or in all seriousness. One thing I'm realizing more and more as I write this blog is how classic and conservative my tastes are, and I'll be sticking to my beloved Fair Isle, cable, lace, and vintage patterns, with maybe the odd hand-dyed yarn if I feel like walking on the wild side. But one insight I'm taking away from all The Cosby Show costume analysis is that Denise Huxtable's costumes, weird as they looked at the time, have aged far better than the attire sported by the rest of the cast. If you want pictures of you to appear attractive several decades down the road, you have two options: updated classics, or outfits so off-beat that they'll never go out of style because they were never in style to begin with.