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Christopher Wood-Inspired Knitwear

Curatorial Assistant Meg Breckell tells us more about her recent knitting project, inspired by Christopher Wood.

Christopher Wood’s Self-Portrait (1927) is one of the most iconic paintings within the Kettle’s Yard collection, and undoubtably depicts one of the best jumpers in art history. As a very keen knitter, my initial response after learning of this painting as an Art History student was that I must recreate this fantastic garment.

The jumper Wood has depicted himself wearing is deeply rooted in his admiration for the Parisian avant-garde in the 1920s. The distinctive diagonal pattern references Harlequin, a theme in several works by Picasso and other contemporary artists working in France who often referenced circus and theatre themes in their work. Harlequin also featured in the costumes of the Ballet Russes, which Christopher Wood had strong connections with, and was even commissioned to create set designs for — some of which are in the collection at Kettle’s Yard.

Christopher Wood, Self-Portrait, 1927

Through this self-portrait, Christopher Wood announces himself as an artist embedded within the culture of avant-garde Paris, not only by depicting himself within a Parisian skyline, but the Harlequin pattern of his jumper.

Wood’s jumper is also a reference to modes of dress that were adopted by the Ballet Russes and wider avant-garde circles in Paris in the 1920s. In 1924 Coco Chanel designed the costumes for Le Train Bleu, a ballet that encompassed the present-day Côte d’Azure, the costumes reflecting the current fashion trends of knitted bathing suits and other garments which had previously been reserved for sports. Wood, upon seeing the production, continued to paint depictions of stylish bathers dressed in similar garments over the following years.[1] Additionally, the jumper as a piece of clothing was being adopted by designers such as Chanel during this period. Previously, it had been reserved for undergarments, sportswear, and the uniform for those working at sea.[2] By depicting himself in such a jumper, Wood can be seen to be following the trends of garments and materials which were being adopted to everyday dress.

When setting out to make my own version of Wood’s jumper, I wanted to encapsulate the bright colours of the jumper, finding the yarn which achieved this best was a merino wool yarn, which I found in my local knitting shop in Brighton. I first trialled various methods to recreate the pattern within small swatches, before setting out on making a garment. I plotted the pattern on square paper after knitting a plain swatch of the yarn, to establish the tension when knitted.

I experimented knitting the pattern using two different techniques: Fair Isle and intarsia. Fair Isle knitting is used for creating patterns, usually using different colour yarns, which are worked throughout the garment at the same time. The colour not being worked is carried at the back of the stitches, creating an extra layer on the verso.

The intarsia technique differs from Fair Isle knitting, as colours or patterns are nitted separately, rather than multiple yarns being carried through the garment. Patterns knitted in this way are therefore not as thick, as only one yarn is worked at a time.

After trailing both techniques, I found that a combination of the two methods worked best for recreating the Harlequin pattern, as the brown yarn had to be carried throughout the garment, whereas the multiple colours used to create the pattern only needed to be used in small sections. Carrying the brown yarn throughout the garment meant that the Harlequin pattern appeared much neater, as the yarn being carried at the back provided structure to the pattern, rather than relying on sewing in the ends of the yarn when the garment was completed. However, through using a combined method, it did mean that the many layers of yarn on the verso would create quite a thick garment. I wanted to pay homage to Wood’s wonderful painting, but not necessarily copy it exactly, so I designed a V-neck tank top, based on one I had previously bought and liked the shape of. Using the tension swatch I knitted at the start of the process, I worked out the number of stitches needed and estimated the number of rows. For shaping the rest of tank top, I referred back to the garment I was basing my design on, as well as to other patterns I had used before and had adapted for various other designs.

I wore my Christopher Wood inspired tank top the first time I visited Kettle’s Yard a few years ago and cannot wait to wear it to work!

[1] Katy Norris, Christopher Wood, (London, Lund Humphires and Pallant House Gallery, 2016), p. 67

[2] Sandy Black (ed), Knitting: Fashion, Industry, Craft, (London, Victoria and Albert Museum, 2012), pp. 160-162