Area Woman Changes Newsletter Name to Celebrate the Waning Days of a Global Pandemic; May Have Jinxed Holidays
🎄But since we're here: sweaters.
Here we are again. For some reason I was so optimistic back in October that I decided to rebrand, daydream about midcentury airports, and go long on Cold War Content™ (which we’ll still do, don’t worry) but since the relentless cheerfulness of non-optional indoor fun is upon us, it’s time to consider domestic life anew. I’m currently on my third sourdough starter, have a 720 day streak on DuoLingo (всем привет!), and I’m prepared to finally unpack my extensive yarn collection if push comes to shove.
A few years ago I was on a scarf and sweater kick and ended up giving myself tendonosis, which necessitated visiting one of Philadelphia’s renowned orthopedic practices and explaining to a doctor that my wrist soreness may have been the result of a knitting injury. While browsing knitting patterns a few days ago, I discovered a book that may change all our lives: Wit Knits: Lively and Original Hand-Knitting Design, by George Hostler and Gyles Brandreth, published by HarperCollins in 1985.
Here’s what we know: Knit Wits is sold out on Amazon, there’s a Reddit thread devoted to its designs and sourcing hard copies of the book, there’s a nice summary on the blog Messy Nessy Chic from 2016, the book has its own Tumblr, and apparently you can download some of the patterns on Ravelry. It’s hard to put into words how absolutely bonkers the patterns in this book are, so I’ll show you:
Ok. One of the first things I thought of when I saw this (a keyboard/scarf combo, modeled by none other than co-author George Hostler) was that the whole enterprise is reminiscent of Elsa Schiaparelli’s 1927 “Cravat” sweater (which, because it’s housed at the V&A, is described as a “jumper” in the credit line.) It’s a black sweater with a frankly fake bow pattern on the front, knitted to mimic the look of a neck scarf or cravat. This was one of Schiaparelli’s first forays into surrealist fashion, in which she would play with the surfaces of her garments, forging a new path somewhere between contemporary art and fashion. Were her clothes canvases for designs, designs in their own right, works of art, or layered illusions of real and fake ornaments to trick they eye and spark conversation? (All, I think?) Schiap wore her faux cravat jumper to a luncheon one day, and immediately received orders for her sportswear, launching one of the unlikeliest fashion careers in history. This happened nearly a century ago, and it’s staggering to think that something we take totally for granted today—wearing clothes and accessories branded with images depicting other things, or even text, often ironically—was once a new idea. Beadwork and embroidery that evinced the look of flowers or shells, for instance, or popular devices like paisleys or checks were commonplace before, but the idea that a piece of clothing could itself be a kind of billboard for a witticism was brand new.
And indeed, it’s very ‘80s. The origin of the book (and indeed, of the sweaters) turns out to be Scrabble. George Hostler sadly passed away in 2018, but Gyles Brandreth appears to be alive and kicking in the UK where he’s a former conservative MP for the city of Chester. Here’s the story, according to their website: Brandreth was a mad keen Scrabble player and established the National Scrabble Championships of Great Britain in 1971. A fellow player gave him the gift of a hand-made sweater with the phrase “Gyles Brandreth Loves Scrabble” on the front (knitted to look like it was spelled out in Scrabble tiles, naturally.) Based on the enthusiastic reaction, he got the idea to start making and selling sweaters for the public. Weirdly, he’s not unlike Elsa Schiaparelli in that respect. Brandreth teamed up with accomplished knitwear designer George Hostler who was based in Leicester at the time, and the pair started making jumpers for their boutique in Kensington. They also authored four books together, and made sweaters for the likes of Princess Diana and Elton John.
Though the Scrabble origin story doesn’t mention Postmodernism, Brandreth and Hostler couldn’t have timed their gambit better because repurposed, ironic symbols and signs were about to be everywhere. Gyles & George’s designs remind me a lot of the work of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown the champions of American Postmodernism along with Michael Graves. They would identify serious, stately, even stodgy elements from design history (broken pediments, chippendale chairs, gothic revival style) and remix these references into colorful, unpretentious, and witty buildings and things for people to use in daily life. The trick of Postmodernism was to create something new which referred back to an older, more serious thing, invite the viewer wonder if the new thing was “real” or not, understand intuitively that it wasn’t, and then to contemplate what “real” even meant in this confusing new world.
There’s something about the serif letterforms, nautical images, and pet iconography in Gyles & George’s designs that astutely pokes fun at the British horsey set in a way that seems almost Venturi and Scott Brown-esque, all rendered in a deeply British artistic medium that can be worn and thus commented upon (or studiously ignored.) The sweaters are almost like Ralph Lauren fashion designs taken to their absurd extreme; garish and fun, they overtly reference signposts of upper middle class and posh life, but visually they’re tacky in precisely the ways that this population tries hard to avoid, thus they neatly create an awkward conundrum that could only exist in fashion (and probably only in England.) There’s an argument to be made that the jumpers are textbook examples of Relational Aesthetics, only much more practical and better still, suitable as hand-me-downs.
I don’t have my hands on a copy of Knit Wits yet, but it’s on my list, and I have my wrist exercises ready in case inspiration strikes. I wish you and your cozy ones a lovely holiday, a nice long break, and better things to come in the new year. 💖