Search This Blog

Sunday, 17 July 2022

Shakespeare Dream Coat for Sasha

JoAnn and Marti decided to dedicate one of the raffle dolls for the 2022 Sasha Doll Festival in Syracuse New York to the memory of Susanna Lewis, a fibre artist, Sasha doll expert, educator and author who died in July 2021 following surgery at the time of the postponed 2020 festival. 

The Susanna Lewis raffle doll needed outfits and accessories so JoAnn and Marti asked the Sasha community to provide them, inspired by Susanna's own knitwear designs and the profile of her which Theresa had featured on her blog a few years previously. During one of the conversations in a Sasha Morgenthaler doll Facebook group, I mused about the possibility of re-creating one of her wearable art creations. I was particularly taken by her Shakespeare Dream Coat (1977) which featured in a huge book called Art to Wear by Julie Schafler Dale, Susanna's galleria. 

Following encouragement from JoAnn (and also Susanna's elder daughter Alexa), I started researching what I could about the coat. It is in private ownership, I don't know who owns it and the only published photo of it is the one in that book, though someone had put the picture from the book on Flickr which I studied carefully (it was helpful to be able to zoom in and I printed it out). I eventually bought a second-hand copy of the book (shipped from Germany), it is huge, heavy and filled with interesting wearable art plus the text describing the meanings and inspiration behind each piece. The section on Susanna Lewis covers several of her works, but only that one photo of the Shakespeare Dream coat, so there is no front view or inside view. I had to guess based on the way it is displayed. The paragraph describing it is as follows:

"Shakespeare Dream Coat (1977) is a result of Susanna's interest in the nineteenth century American double-weave and jacquard coverlets done by immigrant weavers from Scotland and other parts of the British Isles. These journeymen set up shop with their large and complex looms throughout the Eastern and Midwestern states. Susanna used their coverlet patterns as surface decoration, translating woven designs into knitted ones. She incorporates a pine-tree border from a coverlet belonging to her family as a framework to surround a small appliquéd landscape. The farmer sowing crops suggests the beginning of a cycle of life, as does the quotation from Shakespeare knitted along the interior edge of the coat. Tombstone angels once more float in the heavens, near the shoulder section - suggesting the end of a life cycle - topped by a crescent moon dangling from a separate hood." (pp89, Art to Wear, Julie Schafler Dale)

I charted a pattern using an Excel spreadsheet grid (adapting an earlier cardigan pattern to help with sizing), then knitted the main body of the coat in plain wool just to test that I had the coat shape and size right. In hindsight it would have helped to have used a lighter colour wool for that test piece, which was dark green and hard to count the stitches(!). I had ordered the various colours of wool (spindrift) from Jamieson's of Shetland (Buttercup, Wild violet, Easit, Ginger, Cocoa, Amber, Rust, Spruce, Grouse) and was all set to knit the coat when I got covid-19 in early February. I isolated from the family, limited to my working from home tiny office/craft room and the spare bedroom, masking up when I ventured to the bathroom. We ventilated the house (windows open in winter) and the others did not get the virus thankfully. After the acute sore throat and headache had subsided somewhat, I was well enough to sit up and do things in isolation so picked up the knitting and worked on the coat while watching the Winter Olympics on my working from home computer screen, with the Flickr photo on a second screen and the charted pattern on the laptop screen (I use 3 screens for my day job).

Reuben worked as my sizing model for checking progress and fit.

Knitting the coat at the laptop, with pattern, printed out picture and knitting progress, February 2022

Reuben modelling the body of the coat once I'd reached the shoulders, February 2022 (grainy phone photo)

Back view of the coat, February 2022 (grainy phone photo)

The main coat, without hood, was knitted by the time I flew to South Africa a month after having Covid-19. I did a little work on it while in SA as I was starting the fabric embroidered tombstone angels by then.

'Wrong' side of the coat, showing the stranded nature of the knitting

'Wrong' side of the bottom of the coat, showing the picot edge

'Right' side of the bottom of the coat, before the picot edge was stitched in place

I used an embroidery hoop and three different fabrics for the basis for the tombstone angels, all from my fabric stash - a pale blue shirt I wore for work about 28 years ago, a pale pink sheet which used to be on my younger daughter's childhood bed and an offcut of a pale yellow patterned fabric (Humphrey's corner) which I had used to make her baby bedding - the sun shapes were stitched over for some of the angels.

Embroidery of the tombstone angels in progress (June 2022)

Angels pinned onto the coat

Embroidery in progress on the yellow fabric

I knitted the hood, it took some experimenting to get the shape right. I chose to stitch the hood to the coat rather than have it as a separate hood.

There was some hand embroidery direct onto the knitting and some bead work once the angels had been stitched in place. The tiny rust colour glass beads are used on the bottom edges for the little flowers, they are on yellow felt circles, with embroidery leaves. There are yellow glass beads around the crescent moon.

Close up of the crescent moon and the top tombstone angels

On Susanna's original coat is a farmer sowing seeds in his field at the bottom of the middle back, I embroidered an impression of him directly on the knitting. I did not line the hood (or the sleeves).

Close up of the bottom of the back of the coat, showing the farmer sowing seeds in his fields

I had knitted the front edge of the coat in Buttercup yellow, however I embroidered another colour (Wild Violet) into it then stitched brown velvet ribbon on the back to give it some additional thickness and firmness as the rest of the coat was thicker than the front edges due to the stranded pattern. I used two wooden buttons  and 3 strands (2 Buttercup, 1 Wild Violet) plaited for a fastening at the top of the coat as I did not know how the original coat was fastened and I did not want to make buttonholes.

Close up of the fastening at the top of the coat - two wooden beads and a plaited wool bow.

I decided that knitting a quote from Shakespeare in small scale was not practical, instead I embroidered it on the lining fabric (the pale blue from my old shirt). I was not able to find out what the quote was that Susanna had used because neither her profile in Theresa's blog, nor the Art to Wear book mentioned what it was, and there are no publicly available photos of it. In a nod to the 2012 Sasha Doll Festival held in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, which had a theme of 'A Midsummer Nights Dream', I wanted to pick a suitable quote from that play, but Puck's speech didn't talk about the cycle of life, or dreams in few words, whereas Prospero's speech at the end of The Tempest very much did refer to both life cycle and dreams.

"We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep" (Prospero, The Tempest, William Shakespeare)

The inside of the finished Shakespeare Dream Coat for Sasha, with the embroidered quote: "We are such stuff as Dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep" (Prospero, The Tempest, William Shakespeare). 

View of the tombstone angels and crescent moon

Side view of the coat, showing the hood shape 

The back view of the Shakespeare Dream coat for Sasha, July 2022

Reuben models the Shakespeare Dream Coat for Sasha, in tribute to Susanna Lewis

It took many hours to make this Shakespeare Dream Coat for Sasha, but it was an enjoyable challenge and I hope a fitting tribute to Susanna Lewis.


Julie Schafler Dale, Art to Wear (1986), Abbeville Press, New York ISBN 0-89659-664-8