Born: At Barnard Castle, County Durham, England, 2 January 1945. Education: Studied at Queen Mary's School, Lytham St. Anne's, Lancashire, 1961-63; Fashion Diploma, Leicester College of Art, 1963-67. Family: Married John Christopher Heffernan, 1982; children: Amy. Career: Knitting editor, IPC Magazines, 1967-71; director/designer, Patricia Roberts Knitting, Ltd., from 1971, and, through Vogue, supplied knitwear for London shops; designer, Patricia Roberts Yarns and Woollybear Yarns, from 1976; director/designer, Patricia Roberts shops, from 1976; Patricia Roberts perfume, 1990. Exhibitions: Knit One, Purl One, Victoria & Albert Museum, London, 1986. Collections: Victoria & Albert Museum, London; Whitworth Museum, Manchester. Awards: Duke of Edinburgh's Designer's prize, 1986; Design Council award, 1986. Address: 60 Kinnerton St., London SW1X 8ES, England.
Patricia Roberts Knitting Patterns, London, 1977.
Patricia Roberts Knitting Book, London, 1981.
Patricia Roberts Second Knitting Book, London, 1983.
Patricia Roberts Collection, London, 1985.
Patricia Roberts Style, London, 1988.
Patricia Roberts Variations, London, 1991, 1993; New York, 1992.
O'Hara, Georgina, Encyclopedia of Fashion from 1840 to 1980s, London, 1986.
Sutton, Ann, British Craft Textiles, London, 1991.
Raven, Susan, "Patterns for Patricia," in the Sunday Times Magazine (London), 8 December 1984.
Brampton, Sally, "A Priceless Pearl among the Plain Set," in the Times (London), 31 March 1986.
McDowell, Colin, "Never Out of Fashion," in Crafts (London), May/June 1986.
My knitwear is identifiable by its sophisticated stitchcraft. I love to push the technical limits of hand knitting into new areas, but always within the context of casual, easy to wear fashion. I am inspired by the creative possibilities of hand knitting and enjoy inventing new stitches and amalgamating them with colours, textures and form.
For each collection I think of a theme and then imagine ways of interpreting it into colour, Aran or lace work, or a combination of these. There is often something completely new about the way they are worked. The inspiration comes from anywhere and anything— holidays, nature, the sea, art exhibitions, bric-a-brac, etc. I work in natural fibres, often luxury ones, like cashmere and angora. We have developed our own range of cottons, specially for hand knitting, in a myriad of colours.
I want people to feel comfortable and enjoy wearing my sweaters at almost any time and anywhere from the city office, to the country, the sea, or the fashionable ski resort.
The 20th century saw a revolution in hand knitwear and this fresh interpretation of knitting tradition was made by a small number of designers. Foremost in the field was Patricia Roberts who had trained in fashion at Leicester College of Art. On leaving college as an enthusiastic hand knitter in the early 1960s, she worked for a group of women's magazines making up patterns, and quickly learned the value of technical accuracy. Frustrated by the general outlook of hand knitting for economy's sake and magazines wanting Marks & Spencer copies, she realized knitwear must go in a different direction to justify knitting by hand at all.
At the age of 26 she launched herself as a freelance designer and put together a collection of entirely fresh-looking handknits which were sold to Browns of London and Bloomingdale's in the United States. She opened her first shop in London's Knightsbridge in 1976, selling both made up garments and knitting kits for the home knitter. Noting the lack of quality and limited color of available yarns, she sold her own range wholesale. Roberts soon had a thriving mail order business and had produced the first of her annual pattern books in a short time. More than a dozen were published in paperback and several in hardback as well. Roberts designed the books herself, stylish volumes of glamorous sophistication, many of which often sold out almost overnight.
Texture and colour have always been dominant features of her work—she was one of the first to make the British Spinning Industry confront the challenge for more creative yarns for the burgeoning talents among British knitwear designers. Roberts skilfully explored new techniques to achieve textural bobbles and bas relief, taking images from nature like bunches of grapes and cherries or, more mundanely, novelties like children's sweets or even a Scrabble board. Her grapes and cherries were huge bestsellers. Aran castes thin as trellises intersected areas full of different pattern, color, and stitchery. The yarns themselves further increased surface interest with fluffy mohair, smooth silks, and other luxury yarns like cashmere and angora.
Roberts has long used only natural fibers and designed her own range of cottons. Her plainer garments made use of thick linens, tweeds, and marls. These highly textured, one-color designs vied for attention with the more dramatic, multicolored, intricately-patterned garments in bright primaries or jewel tones. For the home knitter, these were not garments for the faint-hearted. Roberts continually designs on the needles, "I keep knitting it up," she has said, "and unravelling it because I keep changing my mind." It is then written down and sent to outworkers to be made up. Ready-made garments have definitely been at the top end of the market and customers have included stars of stage and screen.
Designer Jean Muir, who chaired the Knitting Committee of the Design Council, compared Roberts' work to that of a painter or sculptor, calling her "a craftsman who has made her work commercial…. [she is] a leader in the resurgence of artists and craftsmen who are bringing about the most exciting movement that has happened in this country for a century." Roberts regards herself as primarily a designer, very interested in the product design, and claims to be not at all "arty crafty." She has often been referred as the most commercial of Britain's hand knitters; with no loss of originality and quality, her ready-made collections, patterns, and yarns have been available to a wide international public.
In 1986 Roberts was awarded the Design Council award and subsequently the supreme accolade, the Duke of Edinburgh's Designer's prize of the year, never before awarded to a clothing designer. The Design Council described her achievement as "an outstanding example of British design success," and added, "despite a considerable growth of sales, the best design standards had been maintained throughout the growth of the company." Her work was included in exhibitions at the Victoria & Albert Museum twice in that same year, and her work was added to the museum's permanent collection.
In the mid-1990s Roberts showed two collections each year to buyers in Paris, Milan, and London. Retail shops bearing her name were opened in London and franchised shops in Hong Kong, Cyprus, and Melbourne. As much as three-quarters of her garment business was exported, primarily to Italy. Roberts was probably the first to see the commercial possibilities in what had started in the early 1960s as a fairly obscure craft revival. She remained seemingly untouched by her success, "I've always been a worker," she has said, "a plodder. I tend to think I'm not ambitious but I must be; other people seem to think I am." She progressed steadily from designing knitting patterns to masterminding an internationally acclaimed empire of haute couture knits and designs.
Roberts has raised handknitting to an artform and pioneered a way for others to follow. Although self-effacing by nature, she is matter of fact about her success: "I'm not surprised because nothing has happened overnight. It's all been just one stage after another."