Every Rose Has Its Thorn – a peep inside The Vintage Shetland Project No 2

Its possible from the title of this story that some of you may guess which garment from The Vintage Shetland Project I’m going to talk about today. Some of you may very well have helped me find some of the many knitting patterns around in the early 1950s that used the same motif. It is of course the piece that up to now has been simply known as The Rose Cardigan. This gloriously colourful, optimistic, elegant and beautifully knitted item has seen much better days; it has been well worn and seriously mutilated. Because of the damage this stunning piece is kept safe in a tissue lined box in the Shetland Museum Archives and I was so fortunate to get the opportunity to see and study the cardigan. The instant I clapped eyes on it I knew it had to be part of the project and to feature in the book but it hasn’t made its inclusion easy, almost as though it wanted to remain hidden! Information about its original construction, its knitter and the reason behind its partial destruction proved somewhat elusive, but an even thornier issue has been the construction of its replica piece and the complexities surrounding the pattern writing for it.

rose cardigan original

In the first instance how even to recreate it? The yarn used for the original piece was impossible to find and the range of colours equally untraceable. It was at this point that the idea to create Fenella began to form. I needed a wool that could be used to knit this vintage 3 ply garment along with many others that I also found in the collection. Vintage 3 ply produces a lighter fabric and more stitches to play with enabling more complex motifs. The rose cardigan also used a riot of colours that spoke strongly of the 1950s – yellows, corals and pinks mixed with bold reds and eye popping, acid greens, all against a back drop of darkest brown. The original period buttons in an almost florescent shade of green complement the rest of the piece perfectly. I well tell you more about Fenella another time, but suffice to say I set about creating and having spun my own vintage 3 ply wool which then had to be dyed in 25 colours. I worked with a truly amazing dyer based in the Scottish Borders who was able to work with my assembled collection of tapestry threads, paint shade cards and other assorted oddments to recreate the colours from the original pieces, which of course, remained many miles away in the Shetland Museum Archives. Waiting for the arrival of the first batch of colours was thoroughly terrifying. What if the colours didn’t come out right? No knitting could even begin until I had the yarn and if I couldn’t get the colours then there would be no cardigan. And so well over a year later, the moment eventually came and the colours were just right.

fenella for rose cardigan

Now I just needed to write the pattern!

So how best to go about writing the pattern for eight sizes whilst still containing all the design features, such as the beautiful shoulder line ending so neatly with 2 full red roses or armhole decreases worked only on the diamond patterns between the main motifs. This in turn results in a perfect flow of roses across the upper body. Perfection of design – so important for the finished look and yet easy to overlook when scaling a pattern up or down!

rose cardigan shoulder detail

There are sizes in the pattern to fit from a size 30 inch bust to a 60 inch bust so there is a lot of variation to deal with such as differing body lengths, wider and narrower upper arms, boobs! And much more. All of these had to be applied to the original design whilst ensuring that in each and every size the knitter ended up with the same finishing flourishes. After many hours sat in front of multiple computer screens, checking and rechecking the maths, drawing out charts to ensure all the shaping fitted where it was supposed to and a flawless run of roses created. There were so many times the pattern had to go back to the drawing board as another ‘non-variable’ revealed itself. But I eventually got there with the determined help of my tech editor and also my husband, the pattern finally came together for all sizes.

working on the rose cardigan pattern_cropped

Another decision also had to be made. What sleeves might this cardigan have had before scissors had been taken to it? They may have started long and gradually got shorter as they wore away and the cardigan moved from one for special occasions to daily workwear. Eventually I settled on our sample being knitted with above-elbow sleeves as so many were in this period.

rose cardigan sleeve detail

The knitting had initially gone splendidly then disaster struck my amazing knitter, Irene. A badly broken wrist and months of healing and recuperation before knitting could begin again. This one cardigan seemed plagued by complications but we weren’t about to give up. Irene and I spoke regularly and met on a number of occasions. An almost obsessive knitter, she found it almost unbearable being unable to knit at all. However, patience, physiotherapy and exercise finally paid off and Irene was finally able to begin knitting again. The final version of the pattern was also ready and at last the recreation of The Rose Cardigan could be completed and this garment of which so little is known can happily be included in the pages of The Vintage Shetland Project and its part in a bigger story can be told.

I’ll be back very soon

but for now,

Susan xx

6 Responses

  1. Belinda Davies

    That cardigan really is the most exquisite thing isn’t it!

  2. juliafc

    So many beautiful little tailoring details, like that shoulder! Poetry! and the front and back contours of the underarm shaping! bliss! Fantastic in all its complicated glory.

  3. Ann

    I’m so glad you persevered! This cardigan is absolutely gorgeous. Have you done kits for projects before? In not usually a kit person preferring to choose my own colors and yarns, but this is perfect the way it is!

    • Susan

      Hi Ann, yes I have done kits for other knitting projects before – you can see them on the online shop. As you say though the colours are so special for the garments in The Vintage Shetland Project so I will probably only offer kits in the colours of the original pieces – why mess with perfection?

  4. Whitney

    I am so excited for this portion of the book, I can’t even tell you! Two things I am a big nerd about are knitting and roses, so this whole project really is IT for me. I am so impressed with the hard work and perseverance that went into getting it all together. The logistics alone of getting all the sizing down would make me curl up and hide in a corner. I cannot express how grateful/excited I am to share in the spoils of all your hard work!!

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