Susan Crawford on Colour

When I was a little girl, I had a habit of staying up when I was supposed to be going to sleep and drawing ‘Princesses’ on the insider covers of my story books. Sadly, I couldn’t find any examples of my handiwork to show you, but from memory I recall that offensively high heels, giant, crinoline-esque skirts adorned with bows, elaborate head-dresses, and of course lashings of sickly shades of glittery pink were de rigeur with my 5 year old self.

Today things are rather different. I cannot walk in heels; there is really no room in my current fashion aesthetic for bows; and give me shorts or britches any day above the cake-like skirts I craved in girlhood. Were I to draw imaginary outfits on the inside covers of my books nowadays, my focus would be on excellent pockets, pleasing stitch patterns, clever uses of wool, ingenious shaping, and interesting palettes. Something like this, perhaps, which is the ‘Princess Twinset’ from Susan Crawford’s latest book, Coronation Knits. Check out the ingenious waist-shaping, the pleasing combination of Alabaster White and Cornflower Blue Excelana, and the crisp stitch-definition! This is a Princess look I could work, even with the Landgirl-esque fashion sensibilities I have adopted today…

‘Princess Twinset’ © Susan Crawford

Ingenious waist-shaping! ‘Princess Twinset’ © Susan Crawford

Susan is one of the people whose writings on vintage fashion and sumptuous publications help me to figure out my own style and to think differently about clothes. I love my copy of A Stitch in Time Vol. 2 and find it a very rich and inspiring repository of ideas, pictures, colours and patterns, and it is always fascinating to talk to Susan about vintage patterns. I am therefore delighted to be included on the Coronation Knits blog tour and to have an opportunity to explore this latest project in a little depth. Building on Susan’s previous work with vintage knitting patterns, Coronation Knits focusses on fashion influences during the time of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.

In looking through Coronation Knits, I have been particularly struck by Susan’s use of colour throughout the collection, and the beautifully styled photographs. This may be because of my recent obsession with with reds and blues, but I suspect also that amidst the ubiquitous bunting and patriotic window displays of Royal Berkshire in recent weeks, Susan’s uses of these colours stands out as being distinctly nuanced. For my blog-tour post, I have interviewed Susan specifically about the colours used in Coronation Knits and am presenting our interview here for your enjoyment. You might be pleased to learn that no sickly shades of glittery pink feature and that as a special treat, some unpublished out-takes from the photo shoots have been included to illustrate some of Susan’s thoughts.

F: What was your original vision for the palette in Coronation Knits? Did you have an idea about a particular way of interpreting those distinctive reds, whites and blues when you first conceived of the project?

S: With Coronation Knits the overall colour palette was decided in my head from the moment I conceived the project. There was never any doubt that it would revolve around the core colours of red, white and blue, but I wanted to create variations on the theme so that the book wouldn’t look ‘samey’ from page to page. Using cream or natural white wool as a contrast to the blues and reds helps the strong colours ‘pop’ or soften depending on how the natural shade was used. I felt that including the cyclamen yarn for ‘I’ve been to London to visit the Queen’ and the very ‘off’ tones of red, white and blue in ‘Silk Rose’ where I used wine, rose pink, beige and teal, managed to break up the colours nicely and throw the balance off just enough to keep it feeling varied.

‘I’ve been to London to visit the Queen’ © Susan Crawford

‘Silk Rose’ © Susan Crawford

I used to work part time as the print room technician at our local art college, helping students choose and mix inks for various design projects. With the usual financial restraints that art colleges seem to suffer from, there was never a full range of inks available so we had to be more creative with what we had. In a similar way, deciding on a limited colour palette for the collection pushed me to be more creative. I found working within tight parameters really stimulating and enjoyable – and true to the make do and mend ethos, too!

F: I wondered if you might say a little bit about your yarn/colour choices for some specific patterns in the book? What drew you to the cool reds and blues in ‘Diamonds are Forever’? The warmer tones in ‘Retro Jubilee Socks’? The beautifully restrained cream/blue combination in ‘Coronation Sleeveless Pullover’? The lovely high-contrasts of ‘Change of The Guard’? …and what about that beautiful, cool, semi-solid in ‘Blue Riband’?

S: I was very fortunate with ‘Diamonds are Forever’ in that I found a yarn that had several blues in its colour range and was then able to blend them together. I wanted to include red and white in the diamond pattern but without it being too overpowering. The red I chose is a soft, raspberry red containing lots of blue and this enabled me to create a softer transition from one colour to the next.

‘Diamonds are Forever’ image © Susan Crawford

With ‘Retro Jubilee Socks’ I wanted to achieve the exact opposite, putting three contrasting colours next to each other so that they would each stand out.

‘Retro Jubilee Socks’ image © Susan Crawford

With ‘Coronation Sleeveless Pullover’ I wanted a more subtle effect. I created and only used one motif throughout the garment to achieve a sense of restraint and uniformity throughout the design, and I used a soft deep blue and a natural white to emphasise the effect. I had toyed with adding a third colour but on experimentation this was definitely a design where ‘less’ was ‘more’.

‘Coronation Sleeveless Pullover’ image © Susan Crawford

‘Changing Guards’ was great fun to put together as a design. Once I had charted out the little soldier I played with a selection of Jamieson and Smith 2 ply Jumper yarn that I had until I got the colour selection just right. The red is a cool, blue red rather than a warm, orange red which helps it sit comfortably between the blue and the black.

‘Changing Guards’ image © Susan Crawford

The babylonglegs yarn I used for ‘Blue Riband’ was the first yarn other than Excelana that I chose to use in the book. I particularly loved that it wasn’t a primary blue; this set a precedence for finding an array of reds, whites and blues. For me part of the challenge of the project was finding a variety of shades – and also combinations – within a very limited colour palette.

‘Blue Riband’ image © Susan Crawford

F: As a designer, what is your approach to colour when working with a collection? Do you start with the garments or the colours, or do those two ideas sort of develop in tandem?

Different collections have worked in different ways to be honest. The Stitch in Time books most definitely begin with the patterns/garments. Once these patterns are chosen and categorized into decades or eras, I then try and create a varying yet representative colour palette within each section. I want the colours to flow smoothly as the reader travels through each part. Looking back this is something that works much more successfully in Volume 2 but back in 2008 when I was working on Volume 1 the range of colours available in 4 ply yarn was much more limited than it is now. Interestingly, when I have spent a long time working with vintage patterns I begin to see everything in greyscale and it takes me quite a while to get out of that mindset and to start picturing colour choices.

F: Speaking of greyscale, the effect of the grey background – The Royal Route – used throughout Coronation Knits, has a very elegant, restraining effect on the overall style of the book. Also, when I was looking at the collection, I found myself thinking about the Excelana palette you have designed and about what you said in your Wovember interview re: there being a lot of grey in the different shades to help them tone together. This greyness is especially apparent in the designs which use Excelana like ‘Princess Twinset’ and ‘Crowning Glory’. Could you talk a little bit about the importance of grey in this project – or how grey has been used to tone the collection in a certain way?

‘Crowning Glory’ image © Susan Crawford

S: I had fantasized about including ‘The Royal Route’ image in a collection for a long time and knew I wanted to use it one day even before I began the Coronation Knits project and it basically became the framework around which the whole collection was built. This was such a completely different way of working. The background is usually the last thing I would think about, but knowing throughout the design process that there would be this counter balance to the colours chosen for the designs was, for this particular project, a great way to work. It was almost like have an additional colour in every design which created a continuous thread throughout the book. I tried to pick yarn shades that had a certain amount of grey in them which again brought together these seemingly very different shades of red, white and blue. As you mention, the Excelana colours all have some grey in them to unite them as a range and it was a challenge to find more shades that fitted in with this. Interestingly, the Royal Route image itself contains a lot of blue, which has toned the background and designs together still further. I think the book would have looked very, very different without this particular background adding stability yet contrast. A plain background could have created a very stark result and any sort of coloured or patterned image could have created very confused and cluttered images.

‘The Royal Route’

F: I love how the subtle/cool shades you have used throughout Coronation Knits cause the reds to really pop – could you talk about some of your favourite RED THINGS used in this project? Nails, hair, scarves, dresses etc.?

S: Ah, red. If you look at photographs, images and films of the 1940s and 1950s you can see how red has been used to add umph to an image. Even in a black and white film – for example ‘Double Indemnity’ starring the amazing Barbara Stanwyck – you know even though you can’t see, that she has deep red lips and dark, glossy red nails. In the hand-tinted images of the 1950s red was added to give the image a lift; an intensity that wouldn’t be there otherwise. I have always wanted to recreate this and do a black and white knitting book with just flashes of red but as yet I haven’t been allowed! However I first played with this on the cover of A Stitch in Time 2 where I had a black and grey garment photographed on a white background and the model wore red lipstick and red nail varnish. I did a similar thing again in Coronation Knits but was able to take it that bit further with the Royal Route background and the colour palette being red, white and blue anyway.

Accessories used in the photoshoot for Coronation Knits, image © Susan Crawford

Naturally I included red lips and red nails on all the female model’s shots and introduced flashes of red using two beautiful head scarves, one mine and one one kindly lent to me, both of which are original 1953 commemorative scarves.

Commemorative scarf, image © Susan Crawford

One is a strong vivid contrasting scarf with an abstract pattern in red, white and blue; the other is in much softer tones and depicts the Coronation scene. I love how this scarf looks almost washed out. Charlie (my daughter) had thoughtfully died her hair a ‘strawberry blonde’ shade that worked perfectly with the range of reds and pinks in the clothing. Finding the fabulous atomic print dress with a vibrant pattern really helped create a wow factor on the ‘Lion and Unicorn’ jumper. I also love my Coronation cup which makes a brief appearance at the front of the book. And out of shot but worn in nearly every photograph are a pair of fabulous red stiletto shoes which Charlie wore throughout to really make her feel the part!

‘Lion and Unicorn’ image © Susan Crawford

Thank You, Susan!

My 5 year old self is especially gratified to read about Charlie’s stilettos, but what I find myself most interested in now, is all the well-knitted wool featured in the collection. I love how glamorous Susan has made all the designs with her restrained approach to the palette and the styling. I also love seeing the Excelana yarn (about which I have blogged before) deployed to such elegant effect.

‘Princess Twinset’ image © Susan Crawford

However perhaps most of all, I love the context given to the whole collection by the introduction to the book. In this, Susan talks about her own childhood, and a scrapbook which belonged to her mother, which contained many salvaged newspaper cuttings featuring images of Queen Elizabeth II in her various outfits. Susan pored over this scrapbook book during rainy afternoons at her Grandparents’ house, examining the outfits of the Queen and inheriting her mother’s interest from it. It was reading about this in Coronation Knits that reminded me of my own childhood preoccupation with the clothes of ‘Princesses’. I did in fact buy a couple of books from a jumble sale featuring the fashions of Lady Diana Spencer when I was about 7, but the Princess’s actual clothes seemed rather wanting when compared to my garish fantasy wardrobe. Normal dress cuts! No bows! Depressingly sensible shoe-heel height! Perhaps if I had known Susan when I was 5, she could have helped me to decode the meanings, histories, value and extraordinary luxury of some of the items which I poo-pooed in my glorious, youthful ignorance. However, I do not think that celebrating the Royal Family’s fashions is the sole focus for Susan Crawford in Coronation Knits; rather I think the designs in this new collection celebrate the aspirations and fashions of ordinary people when Elizabeth II was crowned in 1953; the wish of a small girl to ‘Visit the Queen’, or the plans to stand somewhere along the Royal Route in one’s Sunday Best, looking to glimpse the young Queen. I love that the outfits can be worn for sipping tea delicately out of bone china as in the styling shots, or pictured in more prosaic settings.

For me Coronation Knits is a brilliant combination of glamour and practicality; a little bit of red lippy to go with the combats, the walking boots, the turban, and – yes – the knitted ‘Princess Twinset’. A contemporary take on vintage fashions, Coronation Knits celebrates the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in a way that is – true to Susan’s working style – both personal and thorough. I love the meticulous way that Susan has described her thoughts about the colours used throughout the project here, her clear thinking on the styling of the project, and the way that she has linked the idea of the collection back to her own life and experiences.

Happily I have a copy of the book to give to one lucky reader! All you have to do is write a comment about your own childhood thoughts on clothes, or your favourite colour combination used in the photos from the book that I have shared here. A winner will be selected at random and announced here on 15th July. The winner’s book will be posted out at the end of the Coronation Knits blog tour. In the meantime, if you cannot wait to get your hands on a copy of the book, you can buy it here. The pricing and purchasing options for the book are as follow:

CORONATION KNITS by Susan Crawford
96 page paperback (240x185mm)
over 50 full colour photographs, plus charts, schematics, illustrations and b & w images.

£12.99 (+p&p)

£17.99 (+p&p)


The next stop on this blog tour is Donna Druchunas and the rest of the dates are as follow:

29th June 2012 – Sheep To Shawl – Donna Druchunas
2nd July 2012  – The Making Spot – Simply Knitting 
6th July 2012   – rock+purl – Ruth Garcia-Alcantud
7th July 2012   – Fourth Edition – Karie
10th July 2012 – By gum, by golly! – Tasha
14th July 2012 – tomofholland – Tom Van Deijnen
18th July 2012 – Woolly Wormhead – Woolly
22nd July 2012 – Crinoline Robot – Mim
25 July 2012     – – Sarah Wilson

Finally, because I couldn’t possibly do this post without finding a sonic angle, here are Ian Rawes’ recordings of the Diamond Jubilee gun salute and Thames Bells.

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