Historical Sew Monthly 2016 – Gender Bender Challenge

This post should have been written up and published by the end of April, but my daughter had surgery and I have had her and the teeny terrorists staying for the past 6 weeks or so. And crafting and blogging with a 1yo and 2yo running around, just gets a bit complicated. And because of my complex pain syndrome, I’ve mainly been zoning out on the sofa in the evenings when they’ve gone to bed as I’ve been very sore and very exhausted. And now my daughter is better, my body has decided to protest so now I am stuck on the sofa / in bed with plenty of time to craft and blog… I have a feeling this is going to be one of those years!

But despite the time pressures, I did design and knit a fairisle beret for April’s HSM 2016 challenge.


My Research into the History of Fairisle Patterning


Edward, Prince of Wales, 1921 by Sir Henry Lander

I chose fairisle, because I love it. Traditionally, it was knitted using a combination of undyed and naturally dyed sheeps’ wool, the undyed wool, supplying a range of muted colours, to tone down the brighter hues. Prior to the popularisation of the technique by Edward, Prince of Wales, by being photographed in and wearing it for this 1921 portrait, the technique was used in the main, for knitting fisherman’s keps or caps. The output of the traditional  Shetland and Fairisle knitters, as noted by  Joan Fraser in her concise history, was strictly gendered, with shawls made for women and keps for men.

It was proving difficult to find extant ladies’ fairisle  knitting patterns for the 1920s, despite a book of fairisle designs being published on Shetland somewhere in the mid to late 20s (Crawford, S. Knitwear Through the Ages, 1920s) and Harrods ordering in handknitted ladies’ sweaters for their sporting wear dept. This lead me to believe that it was initially a male fashion,and that I might need to shift my era to the 1930s and its abundance of patterns, despite  Fraser’s assertion that, the boyish 1920s fashions, made fairisle unisex almost immediately. This lead me to wondered whether women, who were unable to afford the “real deal” sweaters were adding a bit of fairisle to their accessories, even though period knitting patterns were impossible to find!

And Then I Found….

DACS; (c) DACS; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

This beautiful portrait of a lady in a fairisle jumper, wearing a hat with a fairisle band!

“The Fair-Isle Jumper by Stanley Cursiter, painted in 1923. Oil on canvas, 102.2 x 86.6 cm
Collection: City of Edinburgh Council
Photo credit: City of Edinburgh Council, City Art Centre”

I then needed to decide whether she was wearing a beret or a kep, as it seemed fashionable to wear the beret in a similar way to to the hat in the painting. I looked at various photos of keps,  and decided that she was more likely to be wearing a beret or tam, because of the way if falls. But since completing my beret, I found this  article by Kate Davis, where she reconstructed the hat as a lined kep and now I wonder if I

was right, as her finished kep looks similar,  in construction and fall  to the hat in the portrait. I had discounted the kep because the male versions I had seen, having an all over pattern, looked more structured. However, I’d overlooked one key point;  the all over patterned  fisherman’s kep has a firmer fabric structure, due to the stranded colour work, than a plain stocking stitch has. So I intend to redesign my hat as a kep, and do a  direct comparison, to assess which would be most authentic to the hat in the portrait.


Designing and Making The Beret

My first step was to read through some extant, knitted beret patterns, over at the antique pattern library, to identify the thickness / ply  of yarn used, the needle size and tension. I am on a stash busting mission, so  I chose to use modern 4ply yarns, which knitted to a similar tension to those available in the 1920s, using  UK size 10 / 3.25mm circular needles.Although circulars aren’t period, I find them easier to knit with when resting, as double pointed needles seem to require me to be fully sat up. I also decided to dispense with the large pompoms dangling from the crown, because they were likely to catch the sensitive areas on my neck and send me into muscle spasm – which tends to freak the general public out! And I do want to wear my beret 🙂

With this information and a tension swatch knitted, I made a working draft of the pattern, deciding on how I would increase for the crown, how much depth I wanted and finally how to decrease to maintain a good circular shape. Once complete I studied a range of traditional fairisle swatches, selecting 2 patterns that  would work with the band stitch count, which were then charted on squared paper. I also needed to add elasticity to the band, to improve the fit and ensure it stayed on, so worked a 1 x 1 rib under cuff, the same depth as the band on 2.75mm (UK size 12) needles. This was  turned up and whipped stitched to the first increase row for the crown, once the hat was complete The fairisle and the remainder of the hat were then worked on 3.25mm (UK size 10) needles.I had 168sts for the band, which were increased evenly  to 360 sts, then working a straight section, before decreasing again to bring the crown into shape. I tried the beret on to my polystyrene head as I went, so that I could adjust my rough pattern for fit.

Here’s a side by side comparison of the 2 hats, modelled by my lovely neighbour Sarah. Photography by her 13yo son Josh… he’s much better than me and is working for crochet jelly fish!


The Challenge: Gender Bender

Material: 4 ply acrylic yarn in grey, green, blue and rust

Pattern: my own, inspired by extant patterns and a portrait from the 1920s

Year:  1923

Notions: 3.25mm circular needle, yarn sewing needle

How historically accurate is it? 60%, had I used shetland wool and knitted it as a kep, instead of a beret, it would have been 100%

Hours to complete: 2 to design and 12 to knit up

First worn: for photos

Total cost: I was given the yarn a long while ago by someone who was giving up knitting, so free!



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s