This week, I’ve been heavily leafing through Sandy Black’s Knitting: Fashion, Industry, Craft (2012), Black’s collaboration with the Victoria and Albert Museum. I’ve been reveling in the book’s archival colour photos. Lots of little learnings, here: like, that the first European evidence of knit upper-body garments arrives in the 16th century, and that, in the Middle Ages, knitting guilds were male-dominated domains. But also that knitting has long been connected to locality and livelihood, providing extra income for families, and was performed very much on the move by all members of the household. Knitting-belts and skeins-pinned-to-skirts allowed socks to be stitched during field work and market-runs (I’ll remember this the next time I get impatient with my DPNs on a sock-knit). I’ve enjoyed reading, too, about specific knitting traditions: the X O pattern of Fair Isle sweaters (a tradition synonymous with stranded knitting), and traditions of knitting fisher ganseys and Aran sweaters. The Aran’s lanolin-rich fibres made them warm and water-proof, true to their maritime purposes, and their unique patterns purportedly revealed a wearer’s local origins. It was a discovery, too, to read about strange fibres, like the rare byssus, or ‘sea silk.’ Byssus is harvested and spun from gleaming deep golden-fibres made by little mollusks off the coast of Sardinia. How amazing is that?
I came across one garment, though, which I keep returning to in the book: the Jane dress.
The Jane dress is a feat of lacework. Designed by Maria Luck-Szanto and hand-knit in Britain by one Peggy Cole in 1956, the dress is knit in worsted wool worked in a single piece, from the top down. Dress-shaping is incorporated right into the lacework pattern (wow). The entire garment, back zipper included, weighs in at only 6.5 ounces. It’s as though Mrs. Cole had, at her disposal, a troop of nimble-legged lace-making spiders, all spinning away. From the high neckline and radial scallops around the shoulders, to the final scalloped hemline (edged in crochet for reinforcement and definition), this dress is marvelous; the clean, simple contours of the dress are the perfect showcase for its handmade lace wizardry. All I can say is whoa (knitting whoas are far better than knitting woes).
Trained in tailoring, design and handcrafts, Hungarian-born Maria Luck-Szanto is known for being among the post-war UK designers who brought knitwear design into the world of high fashion with Szanto Models Ltd. in London. Rather than treating knit fabric like any other fabric (to be cut, tailored, seamed, etc.), Luck-Szanto saw the special qualities of knitting as an opportunity to rethink traditional clothing design. Her garments could, very often, not be made with woven fabric; fabric-shaping happened entirely on the needles with minimal or no seams, resulting in complex, sculpture-like garments.
Luck-Szanto kept a remote circle of hand-knitters across Britain who, working from home, were able to earn supplementary income by producing her designs. The completed pieces were sent in to be washed, blocked, and finished. A combination of several knitters’ work, the dresses combined warmth, elegance, and durability. “Completely uncrushable and the pleated skirts stay pleated”, one advert reads of the designer’s pleated “Barbara” dress (cited in Black 2012: 92). I’m absolutely crushing on Luck-Szanto’s uncrushable dresses! I’m inspired by the way her designs highlight and develop the unique qualities of knitting to make pieces that were seamless, comfortable, and stunning.
I’m not sure what I’d do with a garment like the Jane dress. My lifestyle seems completely at odds with wearing or owning something like this. I’d probably just hang it by an open window and let the breeze play on the lacework’s magnificent drape.
All images © Victoria and Albert Museum, 2017
More on the Jane dress and other Szanto Models designs can be found on Maria Luck-Szanto’s V&A collections page.