Mary Adams (aka Wild Thing, Soft Shoulders, Sweater Girl, and now Small Town Girl) learned to knit when she was 5 years old and has virtually never stopped. Over 40 years ago she began designing sweaters featuring iconic images from popular culture.
The first of these sweaters featured the image of a Fab soap box, with lemons bursting out of a red and orange target on a bright yellow background. It also featured a semi-circular dotted line and ‘press here to open’ knitted into the shoulder.
One of the sweaters she produced in the early days was a knitted interpretation of the powerful cover of Lou Reed’s Transformer (1972) album, designed by Ernie Thormahlen and featuring a brilliant photograph by Mick Rock. This led to an unexpected adventure – and many more Lou Reed sweaters over the years. For further information, check out the exhibition I’ll be your mirror or the Lou Reed section of the portfolio.
The aim of Small Town Girl is to produce garments that not only stimulate the eye but are well made, elegant and fun to wear. One of the features of knitted garments is that the images are dynamic – they are not only distorted by the shape of the body, but change constantly as the body moves.
All the knitted garments are hand loomed and hand finished by Mary herself, in pure Australian wool, and last for many years with proper care.
Note: The name Small Town Girl was inspired by the powerful opening track on Lou Reed and Metallica’s double album Lulu (2011), Brandenburg Gate: ‘I’m just a small town girl who’s gonna give life a whirl’.
Mary Adams was born in Montreal, Canada. From a very young age she had a passion for theatre and costume, writing little plays and making costumes for her long suffering sister and brother to perform in. Her first venture into a more public arena was when, encouraged by her drama teacher, she was given the opportunity to design the costumes for a school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
She completed a Masters degree in Drama at the University of Toronto, and got practical experience working in various costume departments (Hart House Theatre, the Royal Canadian Ballet, the Canadian Opera Company) before moving to Australia in the early 70’s. She took over as wardrobe mistress of the original Rocky Horror stage show in Sydney in April 1975 while selling sweaters at Sydney’s Paddington market.
She returned to Canada in 1977 where she continued to make and sell sweaters, while working as wardrobe mistress of Young People’s Theatre in Toronto. In 1979 she moved to New York, where she dedicated herself exclusively to the design and production of sweaters, selling through several retail outlets including Capezio’s and Henri Bendel’s. In 1980 she was invited by the Government of Montserrat to set up and manage a cottage industry for the production of knitwear under their Sea Island Cotton project, and spent two happy and productive years in the Caribbean with her 2 sons before returning to Australia in 1983.
For the next 30 years she lived and worked in Sydney, under the name Soft Shoulders. In 2013 she moved to Lismore, a small town in the rainbow region of northern New South Wales, where she took up the name Small Town Girl, and began working with a wonderful team including artist/photographers Katrina Mathieson and Raimond De Weerdt, IT wizard/musician Chris Fitzsimmons, and artists/models Cynthia McDermott and Georgi Starr. She has now returned to Canada where she lives and works in another small town, Arnprior, not far from the city of her birth, Montreal.
Andy Warhol/Lou Reed 1967 was the year of Canada’s centennial, and to celebrate Montreal hosted Expo ’67. Little did I know that it would change my life dramatically by introducing me to the work of two brilliant artists who became major influences. I was blown away not only by the United States pavilion itself – Buckminster Fuller’s amazing geodesic dome – but by Andy Warhol’s stunningly coloured multiple self portraits inside. I had never seen anything like them – a surprise and a delight. Later the same year I heard Lou Reed for the first time when I bought the album The Velvet Underground and Nico – with Andy Warhol’s fabulous cover: a banana that you can peel . Both the music and the art work were exciting, innovative, provocative, fun, sexy – and captured the spirit of the times perfectly. I wanted to learn, contribute – be part of it.
Martha Mann, the brilliant Canadian costume designer, inspired and taught me everything I know about costume – not only the rules and tricks of the trade, but the need for perfection in detail, no matter whether anyone else in the world would notice or care. Sometimes I’d show her a piece of work that I knew wasn’t quite perfect but would not be visible to the audience – and she’d just look at me, smiling, with one eyebrow raised. If it wasn’t perfect, there was no question – it had to be redone. I think of her every time I look at a new design for the first time and know it isn’t quite right – that I have to go back to the drawing board. It was an honour and joy to work as her assistant at Hart House Theatre while completing an MA at the University of Toronto’s Centre for the Study of Drama.
Mrs Carrington, a brilliant weaver/tapestry maker from Poland, who designed and produced tapestries for cathedrals in Europe, agreed to take me and a friend on as students once a week in Melbourne. She taught me the elements of fabric design and production – how to work out a pattern on a grid, how to set the colour of each stitch before passing the shuttle across to secure them, a technique very similar to the one I now use in hand looming the knitted garments. She also taught me patience and perseverance, illustrating their importance by describing the entry test for a fabric design course at one of the most prestigious institutions in the United States. Applicants were simply presented with a tangled mess of coloured yarns; only those who had enough patience to untangle and rewind each colour separately were accepted into the course.
Bill Walker, an Australian visual artist/ designer/ photographer, started the whole thing off when he suggested I make a sweater featuring the Fab box design. It took me a month to work out the design (in particular getting the curves right) and another month to knit it (by hand) but by the end I was totally hooked. I knew that I wanted to continue exploring the medium, using colour and texture to create garments that, like the Fab, reflected elements of popular culture, had strong visual impact and were fun to wear. Bill produced many stunning designs in the early years, some of which feature in this portfolio. (Click on his name to view collection)