My life in textiles

As Wovember has begun, I’ve found myself thinking extra specially hard about the role of wool in my life and about my feelings towards fashion and clothes.

Too, I recently helped my parents on their mission to de-clutter their attic, and found an enormous cache of photos.

To set some of my thoughts in order, I thought it might be fun to explore my life so far in textiles. As you’ll see, wool has taken on a much more significant role in my current life than it had in my childhood, but perhaps it’s interesting to look at the whole trajectory from then to where I find myself today. There are some detours into some other themes like art, music, charity shop bargains and also some, ahem, experimental hair styles, and I apologise for the somewhat low-wool content of this post, but let’s keep it real: I grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, which were practically *made* of acrylic.

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The most omnipresent woollen item that I can definitely recall from childhood was this sturdy baby blanket. After I had it, it went to my three younger brothers. Between and after their births, it was used for keeping dolls and cuddly toys nice and warm.

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We also had a sheepskin that I adored, and that did the rounds between all of us when we were very small. It was a wonderfully sensuous and fuzzy object and I have ensured that each of my nephews and my niece have their own lambskin based on my memory of this one. It is pictured here with one of my brothers (Fergus) looking a bit poorly underneath it, and my rabbit, Binky. That sweater I’m wearing was purchased with several other pastel green items at BHS in the 1980s. I remember that shopping trip which also included an amazing green velvet skirt and a sort of plaid patterned shirt that buttoned up all the way to the top and which you can see two photos down from here.

I have some very specific associations of wearing frilly and pretty things for family visits, then being peeved that my attire was unsuitable for the more fun things such as tree climbing or digging.

The entire pursuit of looking lovely for such things as piano recitals (at Pontins, my Aunty Hilary’s house, or my Uncle Mike’s Wedding for which I was the organist) came at something of a cost and one thing I love about being a field-recordist now is that I feel that, in this role, I can actively reject the trope of the lovely lady sitting demurely at her piano whilst still massively loving the shaping and production of sound.

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That said, I loved that dress with its huge pink ribbon belt, and I was very proud to win first prize for my rendition of Beethoven’s Opus 49, no. 2. Check out the person smoking in the background of this photo – do you remember smoking being allowed in bars? I have very happy memories of watching Allo Allo with my family in the cheery Pontins chalet in which we stayed at the time of this talent contest, and of attempting to identify the plants featured in the print using a cherished Reader’s Digest nature book.

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This is a recital at Hilary’s house, in which I have assumed the pose of the Very Well Behaved Eldest Sister. Two of my brothers – Edward and Fergus – are playing a duet. I am sure that five minutes after this photo was taken, I began bossing them around and made them sit nicely and listen to me. I am wearing the other items from the BHS shopping trip that yielded the pastel-striped sweater.

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…and this is the enormous floofy 100% polyester frill-fest that I wore to play the organ at my Uncle’s Wedding. It was enormous and it had a kind of fake satin rustle and tiered ruffles on the back. I thought it was amazing but wearing it did not stop me from forgetting the music to Mendelssohn’s Wedding March on the day of the big event!!!

Girly clothes could be a source of transgression and mischief as well as presenting physical barriers to climbing trees (boo).

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Here I am very young in a wondrous Queen-of-Hearts outfit that was sourced at a local jumble sale. It had crepe paper hearts indelibly attached to it, and I raided Aunty Hilary’s *legendary* dressing up box for my accompanying headwear. Stylish, non?

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I love these photos of jolly winter outdoors times from when we lived in Thornton Heath. I have a vague memory of a joyous pile of hats and scarves from which we would all grab some cosy things before belting out the door to go sledding or biking. Even the most pathetic spattering of snow would bring out all the knitted things; they were largely acrylic and bought at the Whitgift Centre in Croydon, but they lasted for years and years and we loved them.

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I have particularly happy memories of these awesome rainbow legwarmers, documented in this photo with my Dad, Fergus, and our two half uncles – Robert and Ben. I am sure we had black sweaters with rainbow yokes as well, but can find no photographic evidence of them!

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My own dressing up box – modelled here by comrades at a memorable birthday party – was an amazing thing, largely populated with incredible lurex items from my mother’s brief partying phase of the late 1970s. She and my Pops married young and had four of us and I was fascinated by all the spangly items and exotic PRE CHILDREN lifestyle of which they spoke. I often think about this dressing up box when I see the shelves and shelves of identical manufactured fancy dress outfits you can buy today in the run up to Halloween; I don’t remember us ever buying specific fancy dress clothing, but I do remember the immense fun we had repurposing the old clothes of my parents. Friends of the parents, too, when forced to witness the extreme joy that was dressing up when I was very young, would often part with exciting items of clothing, knowing they would be cherished and played with every day.

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This was a 1970s sweater of my mothers that I appropriated for myself as a teenager. It may even have had a woolmark in it; I remember it was a slow love affair that started with me thinking it was a terribly rustic and unexciting garment and then slowly deciding it was in fact the height of sophistication. I wore it a lot when I was about 12 or 13.

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Another sweater of my mum’s – please forgive the appalling hairstyle – this one a hand-knit (perhaps made by my Aunty Gill). I discovered when I was about 15 that this was the greatest sweater of all time in which to sit around campfires. I am uncertain about the wool content of this garment, but I still remember its sturdy, fuzzy warmth, and that even after the most self-abusing night of partying, it was a beckoning embrace of safety and of comfort.

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Another family hand-knit that seemed always to be around and on one sibling or another, was this lovely blue sweater with its embroidered silver flower. If anyone made it for us, it will have been my Gran, Margaret, whom I’m sure also knitted the baby blanket that is being used as Cheryl’s robe in the fancy dress photo from my childhood party above.

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One of the most memorable sweaters of my childhood actually belonged to my Dad. It was like a sort of armour, a tickly, textured-knit, boardlike structure (possibly lightly felted) that seemed to equip him for any sort of physical task such as assembling a climbing frame (as in the photo above) or going on any sort of DIY or walking-challenge type quest. I stole that sweater when I wanted to feel materially reassured and I often wonder where it has gone now, because if the moths did not get it, I reckon it could survive pretty much anything.

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This was another parental sweater swiped for my own purposes. As a self-conscious teenager whose body had begun to develop all kinds of curves, this enormous single rib all-acrylic machine-knitted sack offered the ultimate hiding place. It was perfect to wear on long moody walks with the dog, and when out on canal boat holidays undoing lock gates with my windlass.

A sweater I feel I really must share with you is this one, purchased in the 1990s from Snooper’s Paradise in Brighton. I slashed the high neck and did a poor job of blanket-stitching the raw edge. I would have been 16 I think?

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I met my first ever sheep on the holiday in which I also met this goat.

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It was at the village of Clovelly, and there was a wondrous petting zoo type place at which you could do all the best things like sit in a tractor, bottle-feed a goat, and pet a lamb. I remember thinking the goats were particularly forward about launching onto your lap to get at their milk bottle and that the lamb’s head was sturdier and much less soft than I’d imagined just from looking at it.

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This is a rare photo of a coffee-morning gathering at our house in Thornton Heath and I’ve shared it because you can see from Joni’s sweater (pictured left) and her daughter Faye’s Christmas jumper, some of the mainstream knitwear trends of the mid 1980s. I feel you can see the influence of the Icelandic Lopapeyser and of Fair Isle patterns in their mother-daughter sweater combo.

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This is the most detested sweater of my entire life thus far; the official uniform for the secondary school that I attended. It was a standard edition school sweater and my best friend Dorrie and I colluded to ensure that our parents both bought matching 48″ chest versions, as we were agreed that a baggy look was our preferred aesthetic. The acrylic was uncooperative and so Dorrie put hers in the pressure cooker after which it was about 15″ tall and 80″ wide from sleeve to sleeve, while I ironed mine on the hottest possible setting, after which it became more drapey and also a little bit crackly. We picked the sleeves of those detested sweaters apart with our compasses and went around with all our fingers poking out of the holes. May they rot in hell.

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…by contrast, this wondrous hand-knitted 100% acylic bobbly hoodie was the pride of my early 20s. I found it in a vintage clothing shop in Dublin and wore it everywhere for years; it had a really special squeak when removed from the washing machine, and I enjoyed that I could show a snifter of shoulder if I was flirting with boys whilst wearing it.

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I’m showing this photo because it is the first evidence of my beginning to think about the material composition of things. In it I am illustrating a touring exhibition about the conservation of water.

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I was working with several environmental organisations on this project and convinced them that we should choose our materials carefully to ensure that the touring educational exhibit was made in the most sustainable way possible. We used organic paint by AURO mixed with non-toxic oil paints, a latex glue also produced by AURO, and hand-made paper cut to size, on which we printed all the text. I was about 19 years old I think.

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Around a similar time, I began looking at the composition labels on clothing in the charity shops from which I purchased all my clothes. If you can look past the interesting hair style and the crazy face glitter, I remember this wonderful mustard-yellow sweater very well. It was clearly a hand-knit that had been discarded because the shawl collar was not especially flattering, but I wore it a lot and can still remember its lovely rough cabled texture.

A catalyst for my interest in textiles was meeting with Judith Hoad, who has written a wonderful book about the history of Donegal Tweed. I briefly stayed with her in Donegal and attempted to study herbalism with her for a short while; my favourite thing about those times was going in to see her in the evening and discovering her at her spinning wheel, making yarn from which to knit socks for herself and her husband, Jeremiah. She was the first person I ever saw spinning yarn, and an Australian couple who were also visiting with her kindly gave me a drop spindle they had fashioned and a random fleece donated by a nearby farmer.

With that drop spindle and that fleece I made myself a fantastic new hairstyle:

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Also, going through these old photos, I found some of my A-Level art exhibition, which included a giant tapestry of the goddess Daphne. I had spotted Daphne in a stone carving in Egypt, which I was lucky enough to visit aged 17. I made a drawing of the carving, adapted it to a square canvas, and then purchased a huge variety of different yarns of varying material compositions) and sewed this.

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I love that tapestry because it reminds me of how, with zero knowledge or training in embroidery, I just went for it and did my own thing. The sewing is totally freestyle but I love the bright colours and the vim of the mood in which it was made.

There are many later fashion moments from my life that are much woollier, but I love the earlier part of the story to which those woolly chapters belong. I love looking back and finding how many of my most memorable clothes were inherited or handmade, and the role that second hand clothes and gifting clothes has played within my wardrobe… I also find it interesting to reflect on fashion from a more social perspective – clothes that made me feel safe or happy, and clothes that felt restrictive.

I think that garments are an incredibly rich context for social history and I hope you have enjoyed this tour of hair, jumpers and dressing up; I’d love to hear about the clothes that you remember in the comments.

9 Responses to My life in textiles

  1. Heather says:

    Thank you for sharing your photos and the associated memories. There were several aspects of them that were similar to my history. My younger daughter used to love wearing her dad’s jumper and when it became so worn out I unraveled it and made it into a chevron blanket for her after buying some contrasting wool.
    I keep a dress up box for my grandchildren. I also dislike the rows of mass produced fancy dress costumes. Our grandchildren enjoy playing with the dress ups and have produced little plays using the various bits and bobs from the box.
    Loved the hairstyle produced with the wool and drop spindle.

  2. Fi says:

    This is fab. I must go and hunt through our family pictures! I know there’s one of me and my brother in matching fir-tree motif jumpers (about 1974) and I definitely had a lopapeysa influenced jumper – I didn’t realise this at the time of course – in the mid 80s because I remember it being on my University ID. The minute I put my Stopover sweater on last year it all came back to me.

  3. Anne Howe says:

    My granny just to add on to our jumpers..she would start with a one colour jumper and proceed to two then three colours as we grew. I particularly remember a sweater with browne and yellow that made me look like a bumble bee and the enormous red woollen leotard she knit me that made me look like a spot on the ice while skating.(very visible from the balcony) she taught me how to unravel a sweater and reuse wool. She was my knitting hero

  4. Colleen says:

    I feel like I’ve gone through the wardrobe and arrived at Felix – much better than Narnia, though there is something rather leonine about that wondrous woolly hairstyle. What a treat.

    There’s much less photographic evidence of my life in textiles, but it is all in my head. In my hands too when I touch different fabrics – the serge of a much favoured gymslip, a plaid cape, a suit tailored in off-white wool to wear at Midnight Mass with a hood made of dyed navy blue fur. In the sound and scratchiness of petticoats and flounces, stiffened to create the full frocks for little girls of the fifties and early sixties. Then there’s the hanging around haberdashers while my Auntie Mary bought yarn, or the whingeing while my mum schlepped me around dusty, labrynthine shops and warehouses for remnants or bolt ends.

    A couple of years ago I was sorely tempted to buy yet another sewing machine. It was a beautiful specimen, but the thing that smade me want it me was the smell of sewing machine oil. So very evocative.

  5. I loved looking through your pictures, and like a couple of the comments above they remind me so much of things I wore myself (I’m sure if my mum looked she’d find no end of ones with me and some very rum hair don’ts indeed)…like you I had a love of huge mens jumpers, like many teenagers I hated the way my body was changing and found such comfort in wearing oversized and weighty jumpers to hide under…..many of them would have been my dads who while very fond of knitted cardigans and tank tops, tended to not wear jumpers (which is why I got to have them)…after he died I got to keep some of his clothes including a huge pair of his old work socks which are quite easily some of my favourite knits…

  6. Souodragon says:

    Such a great post, and brings back memories of when my own children were younger. My son seemed to favour fancy dress whenever possible – even this year he and his fiancĂ©e were Gomez and Morticia Addams. I remember getting a little exasperated with four younger children. However the main success was a Mr Blobby costume that amazingly won us a bar of chocolate.
    There was a slight melt down when he asked to go as Death to a cubs Halloween party. I spent half the day with Wendy House Poles, cornflake boxes, tin foil and bin bags. Then I decided to check the time with another (rather scarily organised) mother – only to be informed that there was no party, but instead a church service with the District Commisioner.
    Looking back, a small part of me wishes I hadn’t made that phone call, it could all have played out!

  7. Jacki Gordon says:

    I loved this post. It is such a personal yet also universal story. It got me back to thinking of sweaters I wore, sweaters I knitted. When my dad passed away in 1997 I was shocked to find the mohair “Perry Como” sweater I had made for him 30+ years before (blue with black piping and leather buttons). I couldn’t believe he kept it. My first job at age 14 was in a yarn shop and I have supported the LYS everywhere I go since then.

  8. Swantje says:

    Wonderful post… I also feel strongly that clothing of any kind carries personal history, especially hand made items. I recently found one of my mother’s hairs in one shawl she knitted. She died 18 years ago, it was a very emotionally charged discovery!

  9. Heather says:

    Thanks for those memories. I knit lots of character jumpers for my 2 son’s in the
    90’s. My grandma knit me lots of cardigans and jumpers and taught me to knit. My Auntie knit a christening shawl for my first son and my uncle recently told me the wool was shetland lace which they bought on a holiday to the Shetland’s. All those memories knit with love.

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