“As Georgia O'Keefe used her paintbrush to convey the beauty of her world, so has Sasha Kagan with her needles and wools. In her case, the shapes of the garments she produces are her canvas, and she fills them beautifully with colour, texture and her expression of her world. For over 40 years, Sasha has produced an astounding body of work, never tiring in her creativity, never losing inspiration, and never failing to impress with her new designs. She has created a signature look that is distinctively her own, and is instantly recognizable to knitters and knitwear lovers all over the world” Trisha Malcolm, Editor-in-Chief of Vogue Knitting magazine
“Sasha Kagan's designs exhibit a distinctive handwriting. Applying her visual skills, she demonstrates a sure eye for the merging of pattern, scale, colour and texture throughout her many designs, coupled with attention to detail in garment finish and styling. She always aims for ‘beauty, style and craftsmanship’ and for the last four decades has designed garments that have stood the test of time.” Sandy Black, Professor of Fashion and Textile Design and Technology at the London College of Fashion
“Sasha Kagan's collaboration with Rowan dates back to a serendipitous meeting with its founder Stephen Sheard, in 1984; Stephen recognized that Sasha's designs could be very much at the heart of Rowan's philosophy. Sasha remains one of Rowan's favourite designers and ‘The Classic Collection’ sees garments from four decades reworked in today's softer, more luxurious yarns” Kate Buller, Senior Brand Manager for Rowan Yarns
“Wales has a proud history of knitting and Sasha Kagan has played an important part in it, through her contribution as one of the leading designer knitters in the UK.” Moira Vincentelli, Professor of Art History and Curator of Ceramics at Aberystwyth University in Wales
- by Sandy Black, Professor of Fashion and Textile Design and Technology at the London College of Fashion, describes how from the early 1970s a new wave of designers rediscovered the delights of hand knitting.
Despite a wonderfully creative flowering of hand knitting in the austerity years of the 1940s and 1950s, by the 1970s handmade knitwear was considered dowdy and decidedly old-fashioned. As discussed in Knitwear in Fashion (Sandy Black, Thames & Hudson, 2002) knitwear was a parallel industry, a Cinderella of fashion, which had arisen out of the important, but essentially practical, hosiery and underwear trade, and which only occasionally intersected with ‘real’ fashion. In the mid-1960s the advent of miniskirts stimulated a demand for designer stockings and tights, and Vogue began to feature new knitted fashions from companies such as the Women's Home Industries, Jaeger and Susan Small.
“Knitwear was a Cinderella of fashion, which only
occasionally intersected with ‘real’ fashion.”
Operating quite separately, but responding to the same Zeitgeist, individual designers brought their fresh approach to handmade knitwear, focused on colour, texture and often quirky graphic design, inspired by decorative arts of all kinds. Some had studied textiles or fine art, occasionally even fashion, while others were completely self-taught. Whatever the route, a new genre of ‘designer knitwear’ was born.
Several key names emerged, each with their own distinctive design repertoire and colourful yarn palettes, including Patricia Roberts, Kaffe Fassett (initially working with Bill Gibb and Missoni and then under his own name), Susan Duckworth, Artwork, Jamie and Jessie Seaton and, of course, Sasha Kagan. As I learnt from personal experience, designer knitwear was initially considered too crafty for serious fashion, and too fashion-orientated for the crafts community. However, designer knitwear quickly found its niche and gained a fantastic following in many countries around the world. Overseas buyers, especially from prestigious department stores in America and Japan (such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Henri Bendel and Bergdorf Goodman in New York) and exclusive boutiques (such as Three Bags Full in Los Angeles and Betsi Bunki Nini in New York), rushed to snap up original knitwear designed in the UK.
Sasha Kagan's designs exhibit a distinctive handwriting, often inspired by the surrounding Welsh landscape, flowers and the changing seasons. Applying her visual skills, she demonstrates a sure eye for the merging of pattern, scale, colour and texture throughout her many designs, coupled with attention to detail in garment finish and styling. She always aims for ‘beauty, style and craftsmanship’ and for the last four decades has designed garments that have stood the test of time.
Sasha continues to spread her infectious enthusiasm for hand knitting in seminars and workshops worldwide, teaching and writing to encourage new knitters. Even though much has changed technically in the last four decades, with sophisticated technology now available, the depth of colour, detail, richness of texture and personal expression within hand-knitted garments continues to be appreciated. This has great significance in contemporary society, where the mark of the hand and the investment of time in making cannot be mass manufactured.
- by Moira Vincentelli, Professor of Art History and Curator of Ceramics at Aberystwyth University in Wales, discusses how knitting has been a part of Welsh culture for centuries.
Yet, in the nineteenth century knitting was to be seen outdoors. The eminent portability of the craft meant it could be done while minding animals or walking to market. Furthermore, while knitting is firmly established in the popular imagination as a female activity, men also knitted, especially where there was an economic benefit.
In spite of the apparent geographical connotations of ‘raglan’ sleeves and ‘cardigan’, both names are derived from aristocratic generals of the Crimean War (1854—6) and have no real connection with Wales. Nor has Wales given its name to any sweaters associated with the fishing industry, such as Aran or Guernsey, but a photograph from the National Museum of Wales records a Barmouth fisherman wearing a distinctive jumper with a heavy knitted yoke to give warmth to the upper body. The textile designer, Ann Sutton, reproduces this in her book The Textiles of Wales (Bellew, 1987) and designed an updated version with more specific Welsh references. By the late nineteenth century and the development of machine knitting, the hand-knitting industry in Wales was in decline. In the summer of 2010, the National Museum of Wales acquired the ultimate romantic evocation of Welsh knitting. Dating from 1860, William Dyce's painting shows two women knitting out on the mountains of Snowdonia; the standing figure is dressed in the iconic Welsh costume with red shawl and tall black hat. What kind of reality does it represent? Their passive demeanour chimes with a gender stereotype for knitting but the isolated and rugged setting for this domestic craft is more surprising. Yet, in the nineteenth century knitting was to be seen outdoors. The eminent portability of the craft meant it could be done while minding animals or walking to market. Furthermore, while knitting is firmly established in the popular imagination as a female activity, men also knitted, especially where there was an economic benefit.
For much of the twentieth century most women learned to knit whether at home or at school: for some it was torture, for others a joy. The everexpanding market for women's magazines fed the interest in domestic prowess and romantic dreams and published knitting patterns for useful and decorative items from baby clothes to bathing costumes; teacosies to twinsets. From a certain feminist position, knitting, so strongly associated with women and the domestic arts, is also a symbol of female oppression — the classic activity of women in unpaid labour. But the new knitting of Sasha Kagan and fellow designers reclaimed the activity as something that was much more fun.
Mid Wales has an important place in textile history. Llanidloes and Newtown had developed as centres for Welsh flannel production moving from cottage industry to industrial production by the first decade of the nineteenth century. The enterprising mill owner, Pryce Jones, established the first mail-order business at Newtown based on the new communication networks of the period: canals, railways and the postal service. After the 1960s the area became the headquarters of another major textile and design business: Laura Ashley. Echoing the values of the ‘drop-out and back-to-nature movement’ it promoted an alternative ‘feminine’ image. Aspects of this can also be seen in Sasha Kagan's inspiration taken from natural form and floral designs and the suggestions of new family values. Such designs are so different from the humble hand knits of 1950s childhoods. Her enterprise was a model for the times – eventually an international business working with many knitters from all around the country. Its reliance on the postal service and new communications makes an interesting link with Pryce Jones.
For Sasha Kagan the most exciting aspect of the work has always been the designing rather than the knitting itself but her knitting patterns, packs and workshops have brought pleasure to thousands of women (and some men). Knitting is a fulfilling activity in itself: the rhythmic handwork is therapeutic and soothing and feeds into the pleasure of seeing the patterns emerge and the delight in surprising colour combinations and varied textures. Knitting for babies, for children or for loved ones are further satisfactions and the bonding involved in learning to knit is also important. According to one of the many blogs on the subject most people seem to be learning from their grandmothers these days. All this represents the traditional, feminine side of knitting.
Wales has a proud history of knitting and Sasha Kagan has played an important part in it. Her career echoes aspects of the wider history of her times — from moving to a rural community in the 1970s to developing innovative marketing techniques and, above all, through her contribution as one of the leading designer knitters in the UK.
- by Jill Piercy, Curator of the ‘My Life In Textiles’ Exhibition, summarizes Sasha's early years and extensive career.
“I feel lucky to have taken up the craft
in our increasingly technological age
at a time when it is becoming
more appreciated and sought after.”
Her next book ‘Sasha Kagan's Big and Little Sweaters’ (Dorling Kindersley, 1987) included patterns designed for children as well as adults, and featured more of her witty and whimsical designs, such as the flower girl and cowboy, as well as florals and the Memphis-inspired geometrics.
She continues to produce two collections of new knitwear designs each year, exhibits widely, has regular international lecture tours, is a contributor to many knitting magazines and makes kits to enthuse knitters. Her textile career has been regularly punctuated with the publication of innovative pattern books. Inspiration for designs comes from many sources, ranging from vintage knitting patterns to the flowers and leaves she sees from her studio window, to embroidered textiles she finds on her travels.
Sasha's early geometric designs were inspired by her love of Fair Isle sweaters from the 1940s and the rich and intricately patterned cardigans and slipovers crafted by her mother and aunt. Her designs began as small squares, triangles, spots and zigzags and she went on to explore the three-dimensional shapes that had been a recurring theme in her art-school days. Her love of geometry can often be seen as a subtle sub-layer in many of her patterns.
Sasha's passion for both gardening and the countryside has inspired many of her designs across all four decades of her career. ‘Country Inspiration’ (Taunton Press, 2000) contains an extensive collection of 45 nature-inspired pieces and was accompanied by an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. As the colour of leaves alters through the seasons Sasha selects yarn to reflect the changes, from the vibrant lime greens of spring to the rusts and mellow yellows of autumn.
Her palette is very versatile and a collection is often based on a particular range of colours and yarns. Many of her patterns are based on her interest in folk design and traditional peasant costume. Tiny all-over repeating motifs, borders that lead into geometric scatterings of flowers, paisley swirls and floral fantasies are set in bright shades on a dark background, giving each garment a richness and depth.
Her latest retrospective exhibition ‘Sasha Kagan — My Life in Textiles’ began its tour in autumn 2010. It became obvious very early on that the exhibition needed to be based around Sasha's main recurring motifs rather than be chronological. Together, we identified them as geometrics; her ‘witty and whimsical’ figurative designs; folkloric based on ethnic designs and traditional costumes; florals, leaves and the new range of abstract designs based on the close-up studies of mosses, lichens, slate and crystals.
In exploring Sasha's vast collection of garments and designs, it became clear that the majority of her designs are based on timeless shapes and the patterns, which can be interpreted in many colourways, can easily adapt to any decade and remain fresh and classic in the ever-changing world of fashion.
- by Trisha Malcolm, Editor-in-Chief of Vogue Knitting magazine, shares her personal and professional retrospective of Sasha's career.
“I found I could say things with colour and shapes that I couldn't
say any other way — things I had no words for.”
Later, with the encouragement of her parents, Sasha attended art school, where she honed both her painting and printmaking skills. It was during this early period that she discovered the beauty and cadence of design repeats. She was influenced by the work of William Morris and this is very clear to me. She found repeating pattern to be soothing and therapeutic, and the sum of the whole made up by these repeats to be visually calming. This discovery of repetitive calm has been a mainstay in Sasha's work — and she has perfected her art so that her motifs tumble in a pleasing and cohesive manner.
As a young mother, Sasha relocated from London to an idyllic location in the lovely Welsh countryside. The influence of her new environment has made itself known, or shown, as the years have gone by. Her colour palette is now more natural and muted, her motifs more organic, her shapes more feminine. Her repeats flow with more fluidity, reflecting the seasons she sees outside her windows (notwithstanding the piles of snow she is dealing with as I write this).
At one stage, Sasha's fascination with the allure of chenille was a strong presence — she often used it for edgings and motifs. At other times, a touch of angora might be added, but primarily, her love for natural wools and tweeds, and for soft and pretty cottons has won through. It's very rare to find hand-dyed yarns in her work — she is the colourist and chooses each hue with great care — and the accidental nature of hand-dyes would not fit her sensibility at all.
Sasha's recent retrospective of her work categorizes her pattern motifs into recurring themes: geometrics, folklorics, florals, leaves, abstracts, and the witty and whimsical. For me, it is the flowers and leaves that are the most alluring. Her love of nature and her home really resonate, and it is those that I have commissioned most from her over the years we have worked together. And while most of us know Sasha for her knitting, she has explored many of these areas in crochet as well, again showcasing her talent and versatility.
To me, what makes Sasha unique is that while she has made a wonderful name for herself with her striking design collections, she has never forgotten the hand knitter — those of us who knit at home for relaxation and to create our own unique garments. Sasha has always made patterns available for the key pieces in her collections and has influenced the designs of many others who design in this industry. Since 1986, she has been a regular contributor to Vogue Knitting, and I thank her for adding her unique flavour to our pages.
Women, and men, have been knitting for centuries, and I pay homage to the creativity and artistry of Sasha Kagan. She has made a tremendous contribution to ensuring that knitting does not stop with this generation. She has inspired us all with her individual expression of her artistic point of view, producing a stunning body of work that will go down in knitting history as a unique and very special collection. Congratulations Sasha!
- by Kate Buller, Senior Brand Manager for Rowan Yarns, looks back over the last 30 years at how Rowan and Sasha have worked together to produce some timeless designs.
At that time, Sasha had been prompted by enthusiastic feedback from knitters to publish a book featuring multiple-size classic shapes for the whole family, following the success of ‘The Sasha Kagan Sweater Book’ (Dorling Kindersley, 1984), which primarily featured Shetland 4-ply wool.
Alongside her new book, Sasha was commissioned by Rowan to design the ‘Under/Over’ sweater for Rowan Book 1 — a classic Memphis-inspired colour statement. Another commission soon followed for Rowan Book 2 (‘Vinca’).
The relationship between Sasha and Rowan now cemented, she went on to contribute to many of its magazines and books over the years. We cannot discuss every design, but some of the most memorable ones are mentioned here.
For Rowan Book 10, the famous ‘Swallows and Amazons’ collection, Sasha came up with ‘Hawthorn’. This William Morris-inspired piece was later reworked in Magpie Aran and Chunky Cotton Chenille as a coat for the Victoria and Albert Museum. Demand for big statement pieces continued and Rowan Book 16's ‘October Leaf’ is a good example of a simple mirror image print brought to life with the rich velvety texture of Chunky Cotton Chenille knitted on a Magpie Aran background.
In 2000, a landmark show was held at the Victoria and Albert Museum celebrating 10 years' worth of designs using Rowan's finest yarns. Sasha exhibited a collection of hand-knit pieces at the show and also published her third book ‘Country Inspiration’ (Taunton, 2000) to coincide with the occasion. The exhibition continued in Japan the following year with the Mitsukoshi British Fair. The influence of Japanese patterning can be seen in Rowan Book 32's ‘Snowberry’, using Rowanspun 4-ply and DK. Floral sprays decorate the yoke balanced by a tiny border at cuff and welts. The relaxed twist of this 100% wool quality provided a perfect foil for the elegant berry branches.
One of the recurring themes in Sasha's work is mixing together geometric texture and intarsia motifs, which enables the design to work on two different levels. In Rowan Book 33 Sasha used this technique with fine 4-ply cotton to create ‘Diagonal Flowers’, a classic navy sweater with diamond ribs mirroring at centre back, front and sleeves.
The first example of vertical panels of lace and motifs used together appeared in Rowan Book 34 as ‘Rosebud’. Rowan's 50% wool 50% cotton was ideal for this design as it relied on stitch definition for the full effect. It also worked beautifully for ‘Diamond Leaf’, which explored a self-coloured lattice pattern with leaves worked in Summer Tweed and Chunky Chenille.
In 2004, feeling the need to encourage the next generation to pick up yarn and needles, Sasha authored her first ‘how to’ book ‘Knitting for Beginners’ (Carroll & Brown, 2004). Rowan's Big Wool and Polar were ideal for this publication, which offered patterns that could be finished in hours. In the same year Rowan ran a vintage 1970s story in its Book 36, and Sasha contributed ‘Daisy’, a homage to Mary Quant's famous logo, Ossie Clark's sharp tailoring and a nostalgic reminder of student days spent on the Kings Road.
Scottish Tweed was another of Sasha's favourites and she used Rowan's cleverly blended Shetland Wool in ‘Scottish Island Knits’ and her next book ‘Knitwear’ (GMC Publications, 2008). The ‘Harlequin Leaf Coat’ is a good example. The possibility of using two ends of 4-ply to make a DK weight enlarged the colour palette, which, for a designer like Sasha who sees yarn as paint, opened up fantastic opportunities. The blending of colours in the Tapestry range of long print soya protein and wool provided a vehicle for ‘Pebble’ and ‘Laurel’, and Rowan's Summer Tweed gave the required desert feel for ‘Baluchistan Stripe’.
Sasha remains one of Rowan's favourite designers and ‘The Classic Collection’ sees garments from four decades reworked in today's softer, more luxurious yarns: Kid Silk Aura for ‘Sweet William’, Silky Tweed for ‘Tulip’ and Baby Alpaca DK mixed with pure silk for ‘Oriental Flowers’.