Knitwear: Chanel to Westwood exhibition opens at Dovecot Studios in Edinburgh

It celebrates knitwear in all its many forms, not just pullovers

The only thing that cheers us up at this time of year is being able to dig out our favourite jumpers.

There’s something about the material that provides comfort and makes the freezing season more bearable.

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Dennis Nothdruft, the Broadstairs-based exhibitions curator at the Fashion and Textile Museum, London, agrees. “I’ve got a BIG jumper on today,” he says.

Dennis Nothdruft Pic: Michael Cockerham, Fashion and Textile Museum, 2022
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This expert is responsible for putting together the new show, KNITWEAR: Chanel to Westwood, which will run from October 15 2022 until March 11 2023 at at Edinburgh arts venue, Dovecot Studios.

The gallery’s director, Celia Joicey, says “Decade by decade, this important exhibition charts over 100 years of knitwear history exploring not only key designers but also technical innovations in hand, machine and industrial knitting. The importance of knitwear in fashion can be taken for granted, but this exhibition is an opportunity to celebrate knitwear’s distinctive place in Scotland’s cultural and economic history and to inspire future design directions”.

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This exhibition will feature over 150 pieces, mostly sourced from the collection of Mark and Cleo Butterfield of Devon’s C20 Vintage Fashion, who have a huge archive of knits.

Nothdruft feels that people have an emotional connection to this fabric.

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Fair Isle sweaters Pic: Michael Cockerham, Fashion and Textile Museum, 2022

“I'm most interested in the material culture aspects of the story and how much we relate to the knitted garment. Everybody has a favourite jumper. You go to a museum and look at a beautiful old couture gown - they're lovely, but most people don't relate to that. There's something about the knitted garment that is inherently comforting. That struck me when we were doing the exhibition - people's responses,” says Nothdruft. “That's something very human, particularly with the pandemic, we saw this amazing increase in people doing knitting and crocheting. There's an element of hand craft that's important again and relevant, definitely”.

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The show will have an entire section dedicated to Shetland’s Fair Isle jumpers, which in the Twenties were popularised by Edward VIII when he wore them on his golfing trips to St Andrews. There are plenty of the sleeveless tank top versions of these, which have attracted everyone, from hipsters to geography teachers, over the last few decades.

Scottish designers, Glasgow’s La Fetiche and Pittenweem based, Di Gilpin, will be represented by some of their contemporary collaborative work. They both create pieces that modernise traditional Scottish patterns with bright or unexpected twists. For those who want to know more about her work, Gilpin will also be hosting a presentation, High Knit and High Fashion, at the gallery on October 14 from 3-4pm.

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The Dovecot displays will also feature a Missoni chevron-striped jumper, Sonia Rykiel and Bill Gibb pieces, bejewelled cocktail sweaters from the Fifties, as well as conceptual designs by Comme de Garcons and Vivienne Westwood, including her ‘disintegrating’ or pre-distressed knitwear.

Violet by La Fetiche with Di Gilpin, photo Sonia Sieff
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Some of Nothdruft’s favourites include a piece from Schiaparelli's Alpine-inspired collection, which fits into a section they’ve dedicated to the hugely influential theme of folklore.

“In the Thirties and Forties they were looking at places like Eastern Europe. There’s a whole movement that has fairytale folklore inspiration. There’s a lovely group of those - very beautiful and very much of their time,” he says.

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The Sixties and Seventies were a bit more wacky and avant garde, with novelty creations from the likes of Fiorucci. There’s one piece from them that sounds like it definitely makes a statement. As Nothdruft says, “It’s quite amazing, it has a hippy or Native American character, with long braids that are three dimensional and come out of the jumper”.

Although Welsh designer Julian Macdonald, who is known for his glamorous and ultra feminine creations, might not automatically be associated with knits, the exhibition features one of his evening dresses.

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Violet by La Fetiche with Di Gilpin, photo Sonia Sieff

“He was quite a virtuoso of knitting and some of those really early experimental pieces were really challenging what knitwear could be and the materials one could use. Knitting, but still making quite extraordinary garments”, says Nothdruft.

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There are also some beautiful 1920s Chanel twinsets, including a blue striped one, which they’ve dressed with the prerequisite long string of pearls. These had been acquired by the Butterfields after the labels had been cut out of them, apparently as a tax avoidance measure when they were originally purchased. As Dovecot has some connections with the design house, they were able to verify them as authentic Chanel pieces.

Of course, the show isn’t just about jumpers and cardigans and it doesn’t only cover high-end designer items, as they will also be referencing the ‘make do and mend’ era of WWII. There’s underwear, including stockings and an Edwardian petticoat, and other displays demonstrate how echoes of some of the techniques used in early knits re-appear in more modern day pieces.

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“It's vaguely chronological, but it really was looking at themes. We wanted to talk about the circularity of knitwear. So, here's something from the turn of the century, and the same stitch is used in a dress from H&M in the Nineties,” says Nothdruft. “We looked at different trends across the century. So that includes things like knitted sportswear - golf and tennis clothes - and bathing suits, while not the most practical of swimwear. We also have a little bit of crochet in the exhibition. It had a huge moment in the Twenties, when they made the most extraordinary flapper dresses out of crochet and we see that technique again in the Sixties. We’re looking at how knitwear is interpreted by different eras and decades”.

General Admission to KNITWEAR: Chanel to Westwood is £10.50. Dovecot Studios, 10 Infirmary Street, Edinburgh

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Gabrielle Chanel in the garden of her private mansion at 29 Rue de Fauborg, Saint-Honore, pic: Sasha Hulton Archive

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