A Knitter’s Day Trip: Gyles Brandreth
When I was a kid, my parents took me to storytelling time at our library in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The librarian sat in a low chair in front of a squirmy band of us cross-legged children, arranged her long green skirt around the chair, and we all stopped wiggling when we saw her skirt. It was covered in cloth pictures of children and animals from around the world. She pointed to an appliquéd girl in a blue dress with a yellow hat and said, “This is Madeline and she lives in France.” Then she began reading. Well, that was it. All I wanted to do was grow up to wear a storytelling skirt and tell stories about everything on my skirt.
Gyles Brandreth is a person who, in his own way, has done just that except he tells stories with sweaters and you can see a fine a selection of them at the Petersfield Museum and Art Gallery in Hampshire, England.
It all started with Scrabble. Gyles organized the first British National Scrabble Championship in 1971. To honor his Scrabble prowess a friend presented him with a Scrabble sweater which read “Gyles Brandreth loves Scrabble.” From then on, he was hooked.
He was a TV presenter on chat and quiz programs, so he began wearing picture sweaters on air. This was because he loved them, but also because he remembered the advice of one of the best-known British advertising executives Peter Marsh, Mr Showbiz: “Viewers remember 83 per cent of what they see, but only 17 per cent of what they hear.” People remembered what Gyles wore and then, like us kids at the knee of the librarian, they remembered what he said.
For years, Gyles wore more than a thousand of his colorful sweaters in public appearances. Then he became a member of parliament and traded his bright knitwear for a grey suit. His sweaters waited patiently in his basement. When the pandemic hit, a friend suggested that desperate times called for Gyles’ positive spirit. He brought back his sweaters and wore them while sharing a poem each day online.
How did he get so many sweaters? He had a great collaborator in the late George Hostler. Gyles writes, “One day, in the early 1980s, I was walking down Kensington Church Street and passed a small boutique where in the window I saw a sweater featuring a pair of cockatoos. I loved the look of it, went into the shop and bought it. I also asked the shop who had made it. They gave me George Hostler’s address in Leicester.”
Gyles faxed George designs or sent them on postcards or the backs of envelopes. George figured out how to turn everything from snakes to slogans into knitwear. Often, George would send Gyles a sweater by train from Leicester to London in time for a breakfast television program! They also produced some of their knitwear for sale including one sweater made famous by Princess Diana. On the front it read, “I’m a Luxury . . .” and on the back, “Few Can Afford.”
The Peterfield Museum is now showing part two of Gyles’ sweaters which includes thirteen hand and machine-knitted sweaters. Christmas and Halloween feature in the line-up as well as a sweater that reads “THE END” which Gyles wears for curtain calls in Pantomimes.
There’s a mohair tribute to the musical Into the Woods where the wearer’s shoulders become a treetop. There’s also a giant toothy mouth and sunglasses sweater—a knitted Mick Jagger/Elton John hybrid—which Gyles wears to rock concerts. You’ll see corrugated and striped ribbing, embroidered musical notes along sleeves, and even wool-covered wired daffodils sprouting from shoulders.
Most TV presenters are shown from the waist up and Gyles took the view that he had a blank canvas on his shoulders which he could fill with joyful and curious knitted messages. In a career filled with everything from Monopoly championships to tending one of the largest teddy bear collections in England, Gyles Brandreth has found a way of saying something extra everywhere he goes.
The Petersfield Museum is housed in an exceptional space combining a Victorian ex-county police station and contemporary architecture. They hold the Bedales Historic Dress Collection as well as presenting works by contemporary craft artists.
If you don’t want to lose any time in making your own statement sweater, almost directly opposite the museum, you’ll find Linda’s gorgeous Handmade Studios Yarn Shop full of hand-dyed British yarn as well as a tempting selection of Rowan and West Yorkshire Spinners.
Looking for guidance on a motif? Over the last thirty years Gyles and his collaborators have released several books on knitting everything from bears to bowties into your sweaters which you can find used and new online. Time to tell your own picture story in string!