I do research on and recreate garments and objects from the past. My sources range from original items to photographs in books, periodicals, art works, literary references and period patterns. My research also involves the history of knitting needles and related implements.
The portrait in the corner is by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) of Elisabeth Alexeyevna (?), location and ownership unknown.
I have traveled into the future with this project – that is, the future for someone who is firmly ensconced in the Long 18th Century with occasional forays into parts of the post-1815 19th century. This is a leap into the 1940s, into the pages of the book, Make Do and Mend – Keeping Family and Home Afloat on War Rations – Reproductions of Official Second World War Instruction Leaflets, London: Michael O’Mara Books, Ltd., 2007, with a foreword by Jill Norman. There are instructions for washing, drying, maintaining, mending and extending the life of clothing and other household items made of any kind of fabric with suggestions of recycling of textiles, and the minimum use of fuel, water, and appliances, cooking hints and food comprehensively covered in an accompanying volume.* The thirty-four leaflets have titles ranging from the practical How to Patch an Overall, Every Woman Her Own Clothes Doctor, How to Patch Sheets and Blankets, Heat Plays Havoc with Shoe Leather, Getting Ready for Baby to the highly informative Clothing Coupon Quiz and the matter of fact but chilling, After The Raid, printed in red type on cream colored paper, dated December 1940.
Civilian life during World War II has of, course, been extensively documented in every type of medium, as well as, for people of a certain age, including me, in tales from one’s family. Accounts of the services and practical survival on the home front but also ones concerning textiles. Those stories come to life in this book’s leaflets and, for my particular interest, there is plenty of information about the care of woolens including washing, storage, the danger of moths and other predators, and bold diagrams with text for various kinds of darning.
The above mentioned Quiz is a veritable index of clothing of the era. Knitting yarn is covered, on its own, in several sections, including in the sub-title** Section “12. Knitting Yarn” states that “hand-knitting yarn containing more than 16 per cent. by weight of wool” required “one coupon for every 2 ounces.” “Hand-knitting yarn” is also listed in section “14. Secondhand articles” along with “…cloth, stockings and woolen socks for men and boys” with instructions for coupons and fixed prices. In “Your questions answered,” “wool” in “knitting-yarn” is further defined as “fibre from the fleece of alpaca, camel, goat, lamb, llama, rabbit, sheep, vicuna or yak, whether or not subjected to any process of manufacture or recovery.” Question number “75” asks “How can knitting wool in Service colours be obtained for making comforts for the Forces” and the answer is for a “woman” to apply for registration at “her local branch of the British Legion, British Legion (Women’s Section)….,” and several other listed groups. Registration with one group only was allowed and the registrant would have her “Clothing Card (or old Food Book)” endorsed with the name of the group and she had to be able to prove that she had “a relation or Friend serving away from his or her home,” and supply “the regimental number or unit.” There was a limit of “1 ½ lb. of wool in the year ending 31st August, 1942” and any more wool would have to be “obtained with the knitter’s own coupons.” More instructions follow for non-registrants who are “affiliated to one of the Service organizations,” Navy, Army and Air Force.
In “A Guide to Woolies by Mrs. SEW-and-SEW,” (who, in the illustrations on the leaflets, bears a strong resemblance to my Hitty*** doll), there are minimal instructions for basic knitting. Casting on, grafting and reinforcing elbows, heels and toes and knitting patches are briefly covered but the instructions for one of the quintessential war practices of “unpicking” or unraveling and “reknitting” or “re-knitting” are laid out in six detailed steps. In “Special Tips for Home Knitters,” specific stitch combinations for added durability are suggested for boys’ clothing. Another leaflet, “Look after your WOOLENS they must last longer,” recommends knitting up “new garments” with two colours of wool from other garments, adding fashion tips.
Apart from the suggestion of knitting up scraps of wool to make squares or strips for a patchwork blanket, there is, however, only one knitting pattern in this group of leaflets, along with a crocheted one for the same item, namely, “Easy to make slippers for the whole family.” Instructions are given for the entire assembly of the slippers, from a multiple size template for the “plaited-stocking, rope, string, etc., soles” to which are attached the knitted, crocheted or any other “outside covering.” Materials suggested for the “uppers” are “silk, satin, lace…woolen materials…old felt hats…yarn wool, rug wool” and others, with linings made out of “old underwear, silk, velvet, velveteen…coat interlinings.”
These are, indeed, very easy to make, on the recommended “No.5” needles (5.50mm/US 9.) I used two strands of Cascade 220 in Navy and knit up both slippers in one hour, watching an episode of Victorian Farm. A few more minutes were needed for sewing the front seams and loose ends. These slippers came out at 6” long, 3 ½” wide and 2 ¾” high. Measurements are given in the pattern and stitch increases to make the slippers larger. The finished size would also depend on the materials used for knitting and the pattern can be easily adapted to the size of the sole as the first row follows the edge of the slipper sole all the way around.
For those who enjoy these windows into domestic economy in the past, there is a similar book from the era of the previous war. Published in 1916, The Bachelor Girl’s Guide to Everything or The Girl on Her Own**** addressed “the daily matter for girls who have been sheltered and planned for all their lives to turn out more or less suddenly into the world, and be forced to rearrange their lives at a distance from home and friends.” Chapters include Income, Laundry, Etiquette, Furnishings, Gardening, Dress Care and Cleaning, Household Duties, Typewriting, and Recipes, several of which I can recommend as being quite tasty!
*Eating for Victory – Healthy Home Front Cooking on War Rations – Reproductions of Official Second World War Instruction Leaflets, London: Michael O’Mara Books, Ltd., 2007, with a foreword by Jill Norman.
**Clothing Coupon Quiz – Answers to Questions on the Rationing of Clothing, Footwear, Cloth and Knitting Yarn, Issued by the Board of Trade and published by His Majesty’s Stationery Office, Crown Copyright reserved
***Hitty, Her First Hundred Years by Rachel Field, illustrated by Dorothy P. Lathrop, Macmillan, 1929. Perhaps I will make my Hitty an outfit from 1942!
****The Bachelor Girl’s Guide to Everything by Agnes M. Miall (1916), republished by Oneworld Publications, Limited., Oxford, 2008