Originally published in Pom Pom Quarterly, Issue 19, Winter 2016
I have a long-standing, unsubstantiated theory that the rise of mass-produced clothing has brought about a rise in dissatisfaction with our bodies. There are many associated reasons, but it boils down to the fact that, like Cinderella’s ugly stepsisters, rather than finding the clothes (or glass slipper) to fit us, we try to change ourselves to fit the clothes. Before the Industrial Revolution, and a good number of decades following, we made our own clothes, or had them made for us by a seamstress or tailor, according to our own body shape. With the advent of ready-to-wear clothing and mass production, the vast majority of us now dress in impersonal pre-made garments. That is not a shift to be taken lightly if you consider how many of us feel oddly-sized and shaped when looking at our reflections wearing these standardised clothes.
My hope is that with the current resurgence of making garments for ourselves, coupled with increasing interest in the origins of the garments we buy, we can start to readdress the balance. One of the pitfalls we need to be wary of is letting pre-made pattern sizes of the clothes we sew or knit make us feel just as skinny/ fat, tall/short, etc, as the pre-made clothing we buy. True, this will require some skill and bravery on the part of the maker to read and adjust patterns to make them fit as they would like them to, but when you consider how many generations of humans have made body coverings, it can’t be the rocket science it sometimes seems.
There was a time when it was considered generous if a knitting pattern came in 3 sizes – which still holds true in some handknitting communities. A sweater or cardigan that appears in Pom Pom will generally have 5 sizes and elsewhere it isn’t unheard of to come across patterns that offer well upwards of 7 sizes. This is amazingly convenient and inclusive, but I would urge every maker to share the responsibility of making their garment fit their own body. Just because a pattern fits across a wide spectrum of sizes, doesn’t mean it is tailored to your body and fit tastes. Sometimes I wonder whether the inclusion of so many sizes lulls us into a false sense of hope that it will actually fit us the way we want it to. If there are a smaller number of sizes, it makes it clearer that we have a shared responsibility for creating our desired fit.
The idea of a ‘perfect fit’ is as loaded as the term ‘beautiful’. Sure, we have to be able to get into a garment and move our body parts to a lesser or greater degree, but so much of fit, as well as other elements of garment style, is based on current fashion, historical precedent and cultural tastes. At the very least, we can all agree that clothing should be designed to stay on, come off when needed, and not cut off oxygen or blood circulation, at least not since corsetry (fetish wear is another debate altogether). Though there are blips of oversized dressing, for over a hundred years in the UK, we’ve been preoccupied with clothing that fits with comparatively little ease or even negative ease around our bodies. This is the opposite of the trends of many cultures and eras, where clothes fit with a lot of space around the body or have no shaping at all, relying on the body to make their shape. Think of sarongs, sarees, huipil, togas – these are ostensibly flat lengths of cloth, wrapped or draped over our bodies to achieve their fit. When wearing such garments, your body size would have to change dramatically to notice if, for example, your waist had grown or shrunk.
As well as being cultural, fit is also personal and professional, based on how our bodies occupy our clothes, and the environment and movements the clothes have to allow for – climbing a tree, withstanding sub-zero temperatures, sitting in a chair all day, dancing all night… The body we are most familiar with dressing is the one we see in the mirror on a daily basis. It’s not a far leap to assume that a designer also holds their own body and fit taste most clearly in their mind, no matter how skilled they are at catering to other body sizes and shapes. That’s the beauty of it. Take a look at your favourite designers and there’s a chance their bodies are not wildly dissimilar from your own. I wouldn’t look to someone with a ballet dancer’s physique to design a sweater for a busty broad, or the reverse. Sure, designers have honed their skills, basing their patterns on standardised sizing, but is it a far stretch to suppose they are also informed by their experiences of occupying their own bodies?
The sizes given on the Yarn Council of America’s website are often used as the basis of pattern sizing. They’re not shrouded by membership requirements or buried deep within a website, so I encourage you to take a look and compare them to your body’s measurements. I’ll hazard to say there will be differences. These are standardised sizes, developed from averages; they are not your body. Statistics will vary from country to country and company to company and there are no laws that dictate what sizes should be. This helps explain why you might find trousers that fit perfectly at a certain shop, and then the following year they suddenly don’t – a change of factory or approach to sizing may cause discrepancies. Certainly a change in the country of production will change the understanding of a standard body.
Luckily, the absolute beauty of wool and knitting in combination is that they stretch; they have generosity and give worked into their fabric structure. Switch out the fibre and you’ll notice a change: if you have tried knitting with cotton or linen, you will feel, while knitting and in the resulting stitches, how much less natural flex these fibres have. If you stick with wool but change to a weave, you will notice that the stretch is gone. Woven fabric is formed by a grid of threads that make for a more stable structure, rather than loops of knitting that allow for movement. Stick with wool, but try switching to crochet and you’ll also generally find the stitches have a solidity knit doesn’t. Each is perfect for a different type of garment, but the forgivingness of wool and knit together are, in my opinion, something special. So, before you get all worried that you have to calculate everything yourself for a personal fit, you can also rest assured that your knitted items will allow for a lot of shaping. In fact, often I would be more inclined to trust the natural stretch of the garment than trust a designer to know exactly where my waist is in relationship to my bust and the bottom of a garment. Personally, I would rather have a straight up-and-down garment and allow the stretch over my body to shape it, OR put my own shaping in where it needs to be.
I am a long-time collector of old knitting patterns. Single-patterns and booklets, printed over the course of nearly the last hundred years. The knit is only a small part of the overall greatness of knitting patterns and it is the combination that I derive the most happiness from: the instructions, graphic design, styling, locations, hair, poses, props and interactions of the people in the photographs. Sometimes I like to get them down from their files and spread them out on the floor, sitting cross- legged among them. Bicycles, soap bubbles, beer, guns, stuffed animals, pipes and musical instruments all make regular appearances. But you can also trace the specific fashions and cultural preferences of the different eras and the subgroups within them. You can notice specific tastes for body shapes, from the rectangular silhouette of the 20s, to the wasp waists and pointy bras of the 50s, morphing into flatter chests in the 60s. Hairstyles change dramatically from kiss curls to beehives, a rare afro, centre partings and sideburns, to perms and feather cuts. They are documents of their time, but unlike a standard magazine or advertisement, they are a call to activity. They are about making something yourself, your own version, regardless of if it is a copy. They might be aspirational, but you’ve got a hand in it. The real difference from fashion and lifestyle magazines is that in knitting patterns you can often readily see that somebody roped in their partner, offspring, parent, colleague, neighbour or sibling for the photoshoot, and I love it.
Sure, my collection also includes knitting patterns with early pictures of a youthful Joanna Lumley, Diana Rigg and Kate Moss, who all went on to have illustrious careers based in large part on a consensus that their physical appearance and proportions worked well on camera. I am skirting around the use of a word like ‘beauty’ here, because it is such a flexible and taste-based term. The reality is we have become practised at evaluating clothing as depicted on a very narrow view of beauty. I think the variety of models found in knitting patterns should be celebrated and perpetuated. In fact, I think even more diversity should be encouraged. For that to happen, like sharing responsibility for a knit to fit our bodies, we must also respect the difference and learn how to judge how a garment may fit us on a wider range of shapes, not just the ones we have been trained to desire more than our own.
We should reflect on our reflections and celebrate them. In the skill and thrill of making a garment for our own bodies we can help to challenge the way things are in the world – starting with the way we feel about ourselves.