Atelier knits

The University Museum’s craft science collection features several atelier-created evening gowns, but one stands out as exceptional: it is entirely made of knit fabric. The outfit includes a knitted evening gown, jacket and shawl as well as shoes dyed to match the gown. What is the history and background of this outfit? This has been the research focus of Docent Ritva Koskennurmi-Sivonen, whose articles have been used as references in this text.

Evening gown

A red, sleeveless evening dress with red pumps.
Photo: Anna Luhtala; Ritva Koskennurmi-Sivonen.

The outfit was made in the 1960s in Ulla Bergh’s atelier,  and was designed by the owner, Ulla Bergh-Snellman, herself.  The sleeveless knit evening gown is simple yet stylish. The knitted fabric is smooth and has been pressed flat. A thinner, pink wool yarn alternates in layers with a red yarn, seemingly a blend of linen and a synthetic material. The dress does not seem striped, however. Instead, it has a uniform, beautiful cerise colour. The original owner of the dress used a silver pin, pictured at the neckline, for a more formal look. This pin is not included in the collections of the University Museum. The donor and former owner of the dress was born in 1940 and is a journalist by profession. The outfit was donated to the University Museum in 2010.

The Museum’s collections also feature stiletto pumps bought in Stockholm to be worn with the dress. The shoes are Italian, but their silk cover was dyed in Stockholm to match the dress. The shoes were manufactured by Luparense, established by Rizzolo Carlo in 1965. A family business, the company continues to operate in the town of San Martino di Luparense in Italy.

Jacket and shawl worn with the dress

A red evening dress with a transparent shawl and a long jacket.
Photo: Ritva Koskennurmi-Sivonen.

The evening gown could be worn either with a long knit jacket or a shawl. The jacket is knit with an off-white buckle yarn and gold-coloured lurex, while the shawl uses white viscose and silver-coloured lurex. Both have a loose, mesh-like appearance created with a knitting machine technique known as racking. The texture is created by assigning a few stitches side by side on the top and bottom bed of the knitting machine, with empty pins in between. By switching the positions of the beds, the yarn is knit differently in each row. The open weave appearance is created by the long yarn floats in the places of the empty pins.

Knit fashions on the catwalk

Italian-born, self-taught fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli brought knits to the top of the fashion world in the 1920s. At the time, the technical development of knitting machines – which had been in existence since the 16th century – enabled the design of high fashion out of knitted fabrics. Fashion was taking a radical turn towards comfort and simplicity, particularly thanks to Coco Chanel, and corsets fell out of style. During the early decades of the 20th century, it was common for families to knit everyday clothes themselves, until the industrial mass production of knitted garments began in the 1950s.

A black.white photo about a fashion show where the model is walking on the catwalk surrounded by an audience.
Photo: A fashion show in 1949 presents knit outfits made by the company Taidekutomo. Muotikuva magazine 1/1949, source: Koskennurmi-Sivonen 2017.

Fashion salons

During the middle of the 20th century, Helsinki was home to several fashion ateliers which were part of the Salonkijaosto organisation and called themselves fashion salons. Parisian haute couture and its Finnish counterpart, salon fashion, were hand-made high fashion. The significance of such salons has since diminished, but not disappeared entirely. Fashion salons never operated at street level, and customers had to reserve an appointment in advance. This means that salon fashion was above streetwear both figuratively and literally. The customers who commissioned atelier outfits were usually wealthy, upper middle-class and educated professional women.

Ulla Bergh’s atelier

The history of the company that produced the outfit in question began in the 1920s, when Bergh’s mother, Inez Bucht, founded a small knitting company called Konststickeri, which later gained the unofficial Finnish moniker Taidekutomo. In the 1960s, the company’s official name became Ulla Bergh Neulottua Stickat.

Ulla Bergh took charge of the company in the 1930s when her mother planned to close it down. Inez Bucht had been a knitter who made modest everyday clothes, but her daughter Ulla did not knit herself. She was more drawn to fashion design and style. Ulla Bergh travelled to Paris for the latest fashions and inspiration. Each piece of clothing made in the atelier was unique, one of a kind. Taidekutomo was invited to join Salonkijaosto in the 1950s, which gave it the official status of a fashion salon.

A photo of the grey-haired lady sitting behind a table with a glas of wine.
Photo: Ulla Bergh in the 1990s. Source: Koskennurmi-Sivonen 2017.

Ulla Bergh did not draw her designs. She would refine her idea for outfits through conversations with the customer, knitter and seamstress. The components of the clothes were cut from fabric made with a knitting machine and then sewn together with a sewing machine, meaning that the knit material was processed like any other fabric. The atelier had many satisfied, loyal customers who appreciated the comfort, style and timeless charm of the outfits. In the beginning of the 1970s, demand for atelier fashion declined as mass production gained more ground, and Bergh’s atelier slowly wound down its operations.

A black-white photo of the four ladies watching the dress on the torso.
Photo: Teaching dressmaking at the Helsinki institute for textile teacher education in the 1960s. Photo: Helsinki University Museum

Why do the University Museum’s collections feature high fashion dresses?

The collections include a total of 29 outfits or parts of outfits from Ulla Bergh’s atelier: skirts, jackets, belts, scarves, coats and this evening gown. They are a part of the craft science collection which was started in the 19th century at the Helsinki institute for textile teacher education. When craft teacher education was transferred to the University of Helsinki in the 1970s, the museum collections came with it. The extensive collection features various assignments completed by craft teacher students as well as clothes, other textiles and objects received as private donations to serve teaching and research in craft science, approximately 8,000 pieces in total. There are 72 evening gowns in the collection. The craft science collection has been used as source material for several studies, theses and dissertations.

Jaana Tegelberg
Head of Collections

Translation: University of Helsinki Language Services.

References (in Finnish):

Hämäläinen, Helena 2016: Kolme näkökulmaa Helsingin yliopistomuseon käsityötieteen kokoelmaan. Master’s thesis.

Koskennurmi-Sivonen, Ritva: Esinetutkimus. Alkeita lyhyesti.

Koskennurmi-Sivonen, Ritva 2017: Neulottua Stickat. Ulla Berghin suunnittelemat neuleasut. Tekstiilikulttuuriseuran julkaisuja 8.

Koskennurmi-Sivonen, Ritva 2002: Salonkimuoti lehdistössä. Artefakta 12. Hamina: Akatiimi.

Salo-Mattila, Kirsti 2019: Käsityönopettajan koulutuksen historioita 1800-luvulta 2000-luvulle


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