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Artists' Collection sweater by The Ritva Man. Designed by Mike Ross in collaboration with Allen Jones, 1971. Museum no. Circ.183-1972 (c) V&A Images

Artists' Collection sweater by The Ritva Man. Designed by Mike Ross in collaboration with Allen Jones, 1971. Museum no. Circ.183-1972 (c) V&A Images

Broadcast on BBC Four

18 September 2013

The first programme in the series explores the history of British knitting in the 20th century. It shows how knitwear, once used only for sportswear and underwear, became a fashionable staple.

The story begins in the 1920s when the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VIII, popularised Fair Isle sweaters, transforming a utilitarian fisherman’s knit into a high-fashion look. The film also shows how Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel introduced knitted separates into the modern woman’s fashionable wardrobe – a winning combination that evolved to become that most quintessential of British looks, the twinset and pearls.

The film goes onto to look at the impact of World War Two, showing how knitting at home became an integral part of the war effort, with women and girls knitting for the troops on the Home Front. Knitwear continued to be a fashion essential after the War. As the programme shows, women decoded the complex patterns that were a mainstay of weekly women’s magazines in the 1950s to produce elaborate knits for the home and their families.

In the 1960s a new generation of designers, including Mary Quant, revitalised knitwear for young, fashionable consumers. They produced brightly coloured tights and mini-dresses that capitalised on newly developed synthetic fibres, like Lurex and spandex. The film shows how the black polo neck, already imbued with Left Bank and beatnik cool in the 1950s, reached a wider audience care of the Beatles and Steve McQueen.

The programme then celebrates the Golden Age of British knitting, the 1970s, when designers, such as Bill Gibb and Kaffe Fassett, invested knitwear with hitherto unseen vibrancy, producing knits that were bold and colourful, and experimented with hand and machine techniques. Although the 1980s and 1990s saw a decline in the fashionability of knitwear, more often associated with the novelty sweaters worn by Daytime Television presenters, the film finishes by looking at knitting’s revival in recent years, both as a craft and on the catwalk.

In addition to V&A curators, contributors include Professor Sandy Black, Professor Christopher Breward, Paolo Hewitt and Giles Brandreth.

For more information visit the BBC Four website 

Handmade in Britain - a BBC & V&A partnership

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