By Lucy Howell
Shirley Bradford has over thirty years experience working for women’s magazines in knitting departments as a designer and pattern checker, as well as working for yarn companies.
Currently working as a freelancer, Shirley is commissioned by magazines or book editors with a brief, produces drawings and knitted swatches then after the final design is chosen, writes instructions and has the sample garment knitted.
Polka Dots & Potions spoke with the designer about the rise in the popularity of knitting, the return of 40’s and 50’s patterns, and tips for new knitters.
Can you tell us what you are working on at the moment?
I’ve recently been working on several patterns for Woman’s Weekly magazine where they’ve given me patterns from their archive that they featured in the 1940’s and ‘50’s and I’ve had to re-write the designs using current yarns. The old patterns were usually only written in one size, and often in very fine yarns, so I have to adapt the new instructions to include a wide range of sizes, using yarns which are more popular today, while still keeping the look of the original garment. The magazine found that this is very popular with their readers; they print a little black and white picture of the original photo with the date it first appeared.
Are you surprised when old patterns come back into fashion?
Not at all, home and interior trends are constantly re-working styles of the past e.g. mid-century etc, so fashion is no different. There’s always a call for nostalgia. Not sure about 80s/90s big shoulders and picture knits, but a lovely fitted 40’s top always looks great, and every year the top designers do their versions of classics like Aran and Fair Isles.
A lot of younger people are taking up knitting. Is this unexpected?
No it isn’t I think young people like to look individual, and to be able to create something unique is wonderful; the sense of achievement in making something yourself that you won’t see on anyone else. It used to be economical to knit your own sweaters, but these days it’s so easy to get nice-looking fashionable clothes very cheaply, like Primark, so that’s not a reason for knitting any more. I think there’s a case for intelligent-thinking young people to buck the trend and do something more ethical and green, while satisfying a creative urge to make something with their hands.
What advice would you give to new starters?
Try to find someone to teach you, it’s difficult to learn to knit from books. There are demos on knitting techniques on YouTube which are really helpful. Also, there’s a growth in knitting clubs and workshops, look on the internet and you can usually find a local knitting shop, coffee shop or pub which runs a regular ‘knit and natter’ type event, it’s a lovely social thing to do, as well as getting help and tips on your knitting.
Where do you find inspiration?
For my own things, I always have at least one or two things on the go for myself, it could be after seeing something in a magazine or well known and out-of-price-range designers’ catwalk shows, maybe even a textile, ceramic or rug design.
What is your favourite style and why?
Anything really, depending on the mood. I love working with colour: Fair Isle patterns are fun to design, either based on traditional patterns or with a modern twist; lovely chunky cables or delicate lace. The only types of knitting I’m not too fond of personally are ‘novelty’ yarns which give you a multi-coloured or crazily textured effect, e.g. fun fur, without any patterning as such – not great yarns for a designer like myself, but actually quite good for a beginner as you can get the effect without too much effort. I like a bit of design and effort.
Do you think the skill should be taught at schools?
Yes I do, and there is a change in schools doing more practical lessons such as food and nutrition these days. The only thing with knitting is it’s better taught as one-to-one or in small groups. The school where I help runs an after-school knitting club which is quite successful.
Where is the best place to buy good quality knitwear?
How long is a piece of string…? Knitwear, as in finished sweaters etc, the list is endless: Missoni, Burberry, Sonia Rykiel, Isabel Marant to name just a few, if money’s no object.
Good quality knitting yarns: John Lewis has a good wool department, also Liberty. There are loads of good online ‘wool shops’, the trouble is it’s such a tactile thing that unless you’re familiar with the yarn you’re buying, it’s unsatisfactory because it’s impossible to judge the colour and feel of a yarn on a computer screen.
Get some inspiration from the high street:
1: Ivory/pink ombre jumper, £25, Dorothy Perkins 2: Grey pearl cluster jumper, £45, Miss Selfridge 3: Metallic jumper light silver, £39,99, Mango 4: Marl striped jumper, £30.40, Warehouse 5: Jumper in vintage pattern with fringing, £38, ASOS