Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Elizabeth Forster, designer

I mentioned to a friend that until relatively recently, the people who designed knitting patterns were largely unknown to knitters and that it's sad that they never got any recognition.  She told me that her mother had had a friend, Elizabeth Forster, who designed knitting patterns and, what's more, had written a book.  The book, The Wandering Tattler, is not about her work as a designer, except incidentally.  It's about her travels in South America and Asia, and the birds that she saw - she was a keen ornithologist.  (The wandering tattler is a species of bird.)    It's easy to find cheap secondhand copies of the book online, so I bought one.

She gives a brief outline of her life in the book.  She started working for the BBC in 1930, and after World War II began a parallel career as a freelance designer of knitting patterns, eventually giving up the BBC job in 1955.  In the 1960s and 1970s she evolved a routine of creating designs until she had accumulated enough money to pay for her next trip. Meanwhile, the things she saw on her travels gave her ideas for designs when she came home again.  Sounds like a good lifestyle.  In the book, published in 1976, she says "My ideas [for designs] come from textiles in museums, from baskets, from folk weaving.... The floors of Indian temples have provided several good designs, while another came from the floor of the university in Cuzco, Peru, and yet another from a pair of gloves which I found hanging on a stall in a small village in Afghanistan."  She shows two of her designs in the book, inspired by her travels in Peru and Guatemala, both for Wendy Wools.

And then, while I was sorting through papers from Lee Mills, I found a knitting supplement from Woman magazine, dated October 1957, with patterns for ten jumpers "by top British designers". It is unusual to find any acknowledgment from magazines of that period that the knitting patterns have been designed by somebody, so I took a look. The 10 jumpers are designed by 9 women I had never heard of .... and Elizabeth Forster.

Hers is, I think, more interesting than most of the others. It has an intricate panel of interlaced single cables on the front, and the caption says that it was inspired by wrought iron work - perhaps seen on her travels.

I don't know whether it will be possible to identify any more of her designs - I'm not sure how it could be done. But I am pleased to have brought together these three, at least.  She seems to have been an interesting person and an interesting designer.


  1. Dear Barbara,
    Elizabeth was a dear friend and neighbour to my family. She was a unique and prolific designer but kept somewhat chaotic records of her designs. Her correspondence, garments, patterns, cuttings and stitch library are all collected and in one place awaiting an enthusiastic person to catalogue them. It's an eclectic collection; very much reflective of the person she was, and of her diverse interests and influences. Most of her patterns were published in Woman's Own, Woman's Weekly, and other women's publications, plus a few for the Telegraph. She designed a lot for Wendy too. If anyone is interested please don't hesitate to get in touch:, or through Ravelry (username: LMK79)

  2. Ooh - I love the green jumper, and not only because it's green; it's very classy! I don't remember seeing this one at Knit Night?

  3. I agree - it is very classy. She says in her book that "the centre of a wrought-iron gate in Cordoba" inspired one of her designs and I think it might be this one. I'll bring the supplement it came from to Knit Night - you'll find it interesting, I think, and sad. Not one of the other "top British designers" is known to Google at all - their work is completely forgotten.

  4. Christine Berwick25 April 2012 at 13:07

    Dear Barbara

    I thought I would let you know I worked as secretary/PA to Elizabeth Forster for two or three years around 1960. She was amazing - she would have an idea for a garment, often based on sketches brought back from her travels, and then write the knitting instructions in shorthand. I would type these and send out to knitters scattered around the country together with the necessary yarn. Occasionally a garment would have been commissioned by a wool company - she did work for Lister, Lee Target, Sirdar, Wendy and Emu - or by a woman's magazine or newspaper; however the majority were done as "spec" garments and every couple of months or so, Elizabeth would pack her latest designs into a couple of suit-cases and spend a few days in London showing and, hopefully, selling them to the fashion editors of magazines and newspapers many of which, at that time, had offices in Fleet Street.

    I think one of Elizabeth's proudest knitting moments - well certainly during the time I was working for her - was when Ernestine Carter commissioned a white 2 ply sweater, with a most beautiful fair-isle red rose across the front, for publication in the Sunday Times. The pattern was so intricate and was beautifully knitted by a Miss Saunders from, I think, Newbury, Berkshire. It really was a work of art.

    Some of the garments would be returned to her after publication and she would then wear the majority of them herself. She did give some to friends as presents and generously gave me one for my birthday and Christmas. She had some lovely jackets and sweaters made up in mohair - which was fairly new at that time; they were beautifully warm so she would wear them as she cycled through her home village, Wiveton, and then on to Cley to the East Bank to pursue another of her passions - bird-watching.

    She would write articles whilst travelling abroad - again in shorthand - and send to me to type up for publication; these mainly appeared in the local newspaper but one or two did make the London broadsheets. These articles were a useful reference for her first book.

    Gradually she did more writing - and gave many talks to various organisations - and less designing. In the mid 60's she felt she did not need a full-time secretary; her books were typed by an agency and I did the patterns at home.

    I did enjoy working for Elizabeth Forster - she was so interesting and every day was different!

    If you, or anyone else, would like to get in touch my email is

    Enjoy your knitting.

    Christine Berwick

    1. I do believe that a large collection of Elizabeth Forster's work was bequeathed to the Castle Museum in Norwich and is happily being catalogued. I believe some pieces went on display at a recent one off exhibition in September 2014.

    2. You are right, Jane, that the archive has now been acquired by the Castle Museum in Norwich, although it wasn't a bequest to the museum from Elizabeth Forster. Se my later post on the archive:

    3. I had the opportunity to visit Norwich Castle today (26/11/2016) for their "Passion and Fashion" exhibition today. They had a small collection of her finished samples on display, a dress, a waistcoat, gloves, hats. There was also an opportunity to buy vintage wool from her collection that is surplus and helps to raise funds for looking after all the patterns and other documents.I was lucky enough to be able to chat to the lady who used to type out her original knitting patterns - from shorthand transcriptions would you believe, and who helps look afetr the collection.

    4. Hi Liz, Thanks for your comment. Good to know that some of her work is on display, and that her surplus yarn is being put to good use.

  5. Wonderful reading this and all the comments as I discovered Elizabeth Forster after buying her book at Himalayan Solo and was intrigued by her Bio which mentioned her love of knitting! (And Adventure!)

    1. Thanks for the comment, Morwhenna. Interesting that you discovered Elizabeth Forster via her book - I heard of her career as a knitting designer first, and then read the books. You might like to read The Wandering Tatler, too - when I bought mine, 2nd hand copies were very cheap.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...