Today we are continuing to explore the life and times of Helen Bond Carruthers with her grand niece, Jenifer Klier. So onto the second of our interviews!
Viviene: Did your aunt make the entire sweater herself (i.e. knit or crochet them) or did she purchase sweaters and then apply all the embroidery, appliqué work and beading?
Jenifer: No, she did not knit them herself. She purchased the un-embellished cashmere sweaters, if I am not mistaken, from a company named Bergdorf Goodman in a variety of colors. After the designs were applied (which was a multi-step process) she added a lining and her label, and changed the buttons. They also shortened the sleeves before applying the design. I can still see the vast amounts of boxes of sweaters, thread, fabric, buttons (of incredible variety of size, shape and color).
Viviene: Do you have sweaters your aunt made for you and if so would you be willing to share the story behind them and also photographs of them as well?
Jenifer: Yes, I do have six of her sweaters, but she did not make them for me, as I was only a child when she died. In fact, by the time I came along, she was more of an “overseer” of the whole thing than an actual designer. I have no doubt that any sweater made it past the design stage without her approval, but she did have several employees at that point to do the actual work (whom she personally trained, of course). I am a relative technophobe, so I’ve enlisted the help of my daughter (Kelly, age 22) in getting some digital photos to you.
Viviene: Knowing that your aunt started out making her sweaters as a hobby, did she ever feel pressured once the sweater making turned into a business for her?
Jenifer: As I mentioned in the beginning, by the time I came along Auntie’s business was well-established and she had a large staff, including a secretary, to assist her, and I was a child and would probably not have picked up on the more subtle nuances of running a business. My memories of her are of a happy, confident woman who was devoted to her family and community. My fondest memories of her are of her reading to us or scratching our back for “hours” on end, telling us stories about when our dad was little or when we were little, or designing beautiful dresses for her seamstresses to make for us (unfortunately, all three alike). She was an incredibly talented and dynamic woman, who made a name for herself in the days before it was “acceptable” for women to do that, and I still miss her, even though I am almost fifty years old—she was an extraordinary influence on my life in many ways.
Viviene: Your aunt traveled and did trunk shows. Were you ever able to accompany her on any of these trips?
Jenifer: Sorry, I think she had probably stopped doing that by the time I was around. My mom did find a few things, but no trunk show announcements. She did say that the shows were almost always associated with racetrack meets (all over the country). As you probably know, the tracks are only open for (live) racing for a few weeks out of every year, with the times depending upon what part of the country they are in. For example: Keeneland and Churchill Downs, here in Kentucky both have meets in the spring and in the fall (not concurrently, but one after the other), whereas Belmont Park in NY meets in June (and maybe another time—I’m no racing expert). I’m sure places like Hialeah, in Miami, are open in the winter.
Viviene: Did any of your family members apprentice with your aunt to learn how she made her sweaters?
Jenifer: Sadly, no, none of us were old enough to appreciate the legacy she left us at the time…although I believe my daughter has the passion and talent to carry on Auntie’s work, she never saw anything except some vintage sweaters…which she adores and has worn, by the way…
Viviene: Did anyone other than a family member ever apprentice with your aunt and then go out on their own to make custom sweaters.
Jenifer: I don’t believe there is anyone alive who worked with her.
So in closing this installment of our interviews we’d like to again share another beautiful sweater that Jenifer has inherited made by her grand aunt. Keep checking for our continuing blog about Helen Bond Carruthers.
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