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A Stripe Beyond

Originally published in Pom Pom Quarterly, Issue 25, Summer 2018

An exploration of stripes through the ages.

There is something elemental about how stripes appear in nature and as part of textile production. It is as if their endless diversity allows a chance to play, experiment and learn, through creating, observing and wearing them. They speak to the ‘of course’ experienced when making things by hand, which makes me feel connected to makers going back through the ages. Of course we would make stripes! The way textiles – weaving, knitting, crochet – are constructed makes them inseparable from striping, because it can occur so naturally within their structures.

Stripes are everywhere. Inspiration for their colour, depth and texture in textiles can be found all over the natural and made world, from zebras to zebra crossings, from strata created over millennia in canyon rock faces to the comparatively quick layers of a lasagne. You’ll find stripes in the desert, in the waves blown in the sand by the wind, and in THE dessert for lovers of stripes: the pinnacle of layer cakes, known variously as keh lapis, kueh lapis, lapis legit, spekkoek, spiku and thousand layer cake, depending, in part, on where you are in the world and slight variations in looks and composition. There are candy stripes, which, less appetisingly, have the same red-and-white helical twists as barbers poles, symbolic of blood and bandages (historically, barbers were some of the only folks in town in possession of sharp blades, so they carried out small operations and dentistry, alongside haircuts). With survival in mind, many of the cutest baby creatures that exist, such as wild boar piglets, tapir calves and quail chicks, are striped to help them stay camouflaged when they are comparatively bite-sized. They grow out of their stripes in later life. In the human world, stripes need not be something you grow out of, though our approach to wearing them may differ. Indeed, the history of wearing stripes has been a tumultuous one, but one that I, coming of age in the latter half of the 20th century, didn’t need to worry about, save for avoiding affiliations with football teams.

A little cursory reading on the history of stripes in fashion would suggest that they were not the done thing in polite company until 1846 when Queen Victoria dressed her young son Bertie (who would grow up to be Edward VII) in a sailor’s suit. These were just subtle stripes – small details on the collar and cuffs – but they were enough to start a wholesale redemption of the stripe among fancy folk. Before that it had only been lepers, prisoners, performers, pirates and prostitutes who had worn stripes. In fact, in some parts of Medieval Europe, wearing stripes could get you executed. Stripes were considered vulgar and demeaning, becoming strictly verboten or required wearing under various moralising sumptuary laws, depending on your class and occupation. Meanwhile, when the Carmelite monks arrived in Paris from Palestine wearing striped habits, they rejected the Pope’s orders to stop wearing them until they were finally overridden by a Papal Bull after 25 years. The brothers contended that their striped habit had been given to them by the prophet Elijah, who had likely dressed in the Bedouin style1. Much more recently, the stripe has still had ambiguous connotations: gangsters in their wide-stripe suits and bankers in their skinny pinstripe suits blur the line between whether stripes denote the wealthy or swindlers, or both at the same time.

By 1858, a fully striped shirt became the official undergarment of the French Navy (though note, it was the lower ranks, not the admiralty who wore it). The marinière was adopted from the workwear of merchant sailors and fishermen in Brittany. From there, similar stripes made their way into the undergarments of the Russian and Bulgarian Navy too. As with other coastal garments such as aran sweaters and ganseys, myths exist about stripes helping to identify seamen washed ashore. Though in this case, the stripes were believed to facilitate fishing them out while still alive by making them more visible against the waves, rather than to identify the origin of their corpse once washed up.

Moving on from the Russian Revolution where the striped telnyashka became symbolic, the line draws onwards to Coco Chanel who heralded the birth of leisure wear and romanticised workwear through championing comfortable clothing for wealthy women. European cool kids – intellectuals, artists and rebels such as Brigitte Bardot, Jean Seberg, Audrey Hepburn and Picasso – took up wearing the marinière. It then transferred to the USA (think James Dean, Marlon Brando, and Andy Warhol), where stripes were already forming a key part of the national identity thanks to the Stars and Stripes. Wearing them under leather jackets, the Ramones helped to ensure the legacy of the striped shirt in counter-culture chic.

Somewhere along the way, wearing horizontal stripes got a bad wrap for being unflattering. This presumes that being or at least appearing slim is the aim, which you may or may not subscribe to. Stripes do have the ability to play tricks on your eyes, giving a misleading idea of volume or creating the appearance of movement in stationary things. This is why, counter-intuitively, camouflage consisting of bold, strikingly graphic, intersecting stripes known as dazzle camouflage were painted on UK and US naval ships during World War I (and somewhat in World War II) to help confuse enemies about their outline, speed and quantity. Bridget Riley’s smart use of colour and scale appears to make the stripes in her paintings almost pulsate, causing your eyes to hum. Agnes Martin was equally enamoured of stripes executed with resolute fastidiousness, however hers radiate a determined calm. Neither artist’s work reproduces well, which is a good reminder of the intangible magic of a handmade item. Paintings are often talked about in a different category of handmade, with a reverence not extended to other crafts, though they tend to be, at their core, textile (colour on woven canvas).

To look only at the symbolism of stripes is to miss out on the simplicity and joy of making them. In textiles, stripes are the easiest way to add colours, difference, and interest. They are a feature of every textile and costume museum I have been to around the globe. I find it hard to imagine national dress from almost anywhere in the world without stripes. They are also key identifiers of branding and affiliation to sports teams (which has its historical roots in owners being responsible for clothing their mercenary armies and stripes being an easy way to tell sides apart).

At the crux of it all is the fact that textiles are easy to stripe. In a weave, stripes are easy to add to the warp or weft. Stripes in knitting can be introduced into your fabric intentionally or unintentionally in a multitude of ways: from different types of stitches and gauge, through thickness and texture of yarn, to colour. Whatever outcome you are after, knitting stripes necessitates choosing at least two varying factors. They can be subtle or unmistakable. They can be close in colour or in stark contrast. You can change needle size between rows/rounds or wrap multiple times around the needle and drop stitches to create your stripes vertically or horizontally.

For all the variety stripes can add to knitted fabric, the extra work needed to make them appear is minimal, save paying a bit more attention than you would for stocking or garter stitch. Where colour comes in, they often require just a few extra ends to sew in (and the possession of more colours). If you are a sock knitter and choose a yarn that has been specifically dyed to do so, the stripes will instantly appear as you go, with nothing required from you other than knitting and watching the colourful adventure unfold. Stripes are brilliant for stash busting, as they allow multiple colours to make up the required yardage/metreage for a project.

If you always change colour on a Right Side (RS) knit row/round, you will get a smooth transition between colours. On the Wrong Side (WS), you will get a less smooth transition with a row of purl bumps. There’s no reason this can’t be worked into the design. It will just be more along the multi-coloured lines of Missoni than the clean lines of Gaulthier or Rykiel.

Fat stripes, thin stripes; straight stripes, wiggly stripes; striking stripes, subtle stripes; regular stripes, single stripes – oh stripes, how we love them, these notches on the bedpost of knitting. As well as allowing us to add more colours, they provide targets: goals to work towards. Stripes provide an excellent motivator, providing clear, visual incentives to the already just-one-more-row/round nature of a good knit. They egg you on, while at the same time being markers of how far we have come.

1 For those who want to delve in deeper there’s a book by French scholar, Michael Pastoreau called the ”The Devil’s Cloth: A History of Stripes and Striped Fabric” (Columbia University Press, 2001). It’s good to note that he told the NY Times in an interview that he doesn’t like to wear stripes, so you might not want to turn to him for an unbiased view. He also isn’t a maker or textile historian.
2 Regulation uniform shirts needed to consist of 21 2cm white and 20 1cm blue stripes with 14 blue stripes on each sleeve, apparently symbolic of the number of victories of Napoleon against the British.