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
It is a truth universally acknowledged that if one is in possession of the largest collection of needles in the universe, one must be in want of (read tempted to begin) new projects all of the time, which prodigiously encourages the condition commonly known as Startitis. A New Year’s sorting and clearing out of my knitting, quilting and needlework projects revealed, therefore, an extremely large number of sewing, stitching, quilting, and, most of all, knitting wips, most of those historical reproductions. Since the beginning of 2012, I have managed to finish eleven reproductions and one pair of modern socks but this year simply must be The Year of Completion. Some of the projects date back quite a few years, others are far more recent. Many make up a collection of small household objects and accessories for clothing from the 19th century, begun out of curiosity and, since they were small, “I could always go back and finish them quickly” - except I did not do that.
One of the first to be finished in 2012 is this sweet little pincushion, knit in the shape of an acorn. This pattern comes from Weldon’s Practical Knitter, Number 125, Thirty-First Series (1896) which may also be found in the facsimile version of Weldon’s Practical Needlework, Volume 11, Interweave Press, 2004.
The original pattern called for “pale and dark green knitting silk” and “four steel needles No. 18” whose modern equivalent is 1.25mm/US 0000. I used DMC Mouliné Spécial 25 embroidery floss, in two shades of green 167 for the “pale” and 934 for the “dark,” knitting with all six strands at once. This probably made a larger cushion than one made with 19th century knitting silk.
As with most 19th century patterns, there is no gauge/tension stated in the pattern which is written entirely in text, and there are no charts. There is, however, an illustration. There are also no stated finished measurements except for the stalk (see below.) My acorn measures 2 ¾” long (from the base of the stem down to the tip) and just over 3 ¼” wide under the dark cap.
The acorn is knit in one piece from the bottom up to the cap and is supposed to be filled with emery. The pattern suggests making a small sack in “pale green silk” for the inside filling to avoid leakage through the knitted acorn. I neither made a sack nor used emery but stuffed my acorn with washed fleece. The stem was crocheted with a 1.75mm crochet hook and, although no size was stated for the hook, the stalk should measure “3/4 to 1 inch in length.”
I have been reading 19th century patterns for years, and have come to the conclusion that many of them, in edition after edition, were borrowed from one another which is the most polite way of saying purloined, re-written or updated in fashion. By the last two decades of the century, however, Weldon’s Practical Knitter Series, expanded the selection of clothing and the household items also offer a broader, as well as a recognizable collection of choices. Instead of a short paragraph of general instructions reliant on a basic knowledge of the construction of all sorts of clothing, the patterns have become more detailed, often a row by row, with usually reliable artistic illustrations, and, sometimes, quite chatty. This pattern opens with a recommendation for the acorn-shaped cushion as “a change from the inevitable and not too convenient strawberry which once formed the contents of part of every work-basket. The model before us has no inconvenient beads to get in the way of the needles, and is quite easily made.” There is some purchasing advice as well, namely “If a worker has no knitting silk among her stores, filoselle has the advantage of cheapness, as two complete balls of knitting silk would cost more, and but a very small proportion of each would be used.” Furthermore, “Made in large numbers (in knitting silk) for bazaars, these acorns would find a ready sale, as they are novel, pretty and practical.” The end of the pattern has guidelines for stuffing and shaping “the little cushion,” and not “getting the acorn too long and narrow in shape,” creating that nice rounded bottom. I, unfortunately, could not round out my acorn cushion, so it is rather long and narrow in shape, no matter how much I squashed the stuffing into the end. Perhaps this is a case of the illustration being not quite accurate? If I made this pincushion again, I would knit the bottom more loosely, and that, might allow for the stuffing to expand the width.
Note: All quotations are from the facsimile edition of Weldon’s Practical Needlework, Volume 11, published by Interweave Press, 2004.
The Garment is completely knitted – at last! I finally accepted the fact that I had to stop working with this glorious wool but managed to drag out the last six or seven inches for as long as possible. I shall miss The Garment sitting beside me on the sofa as I worked on its “woolen roll at the top” (hood/cowl) or arms. We are not, however, to be separated soon as two major tasks still remain, namely the sewing in of the yarn ends, 65 in all, and the making and sewing on of the ten Deathshead buttons.
I can, however, give some statistics such as the total measurement of The Garment from the top of the “woolen roll” to the edge of the ankle/feet is 82 inches. Twenty and about a half skeins of Twist of Fate Spinnery* 3 ply natural brown wool, roughly 3,075 yards (or 1.747 miles) were used – twenty-two were purchased so I still have one and a half skeins left over to make something else or keep it as pet yarn.
According to the scale in the post office, The Garment weighs 4.15.50 lbs.
Taking advantage of glorious early spring weather, The Garment and I went out for an airing to one of the benches where I often sat and The Garment grew downwards from the needles in my hands. I did treat myself to a run of Lantern Moon needles (4mm/US 6 throughout) in the variations that I needed as these needles are easy on the hands and wrists, and the good Doctor would not have wanted me to have knit myself into a case of carpal tunnel. Straights for the casting on and the first few rows of the garter stitch cuffs on the feet and then joined with a set of double-pointed needles and onto to a series of circulars, from 16” to 40” and finally back to the 16” circular for the "woolen roll" and upper arm, gussets and all made it a tight fit on the needles. Double-points for the lower parts of the arms, the last sections to be knit, since the sleeves were worked from the shoulders down.
First one leg was knit and then the other with both joined at the lower hip. Two legs gradually gained a torso with the fall in front, based on the style of breeches, followed by a division for the opening at the chest, back and forth knitting here with buttonholes and a band on either side. Decreases and increases for gores defined the waist and chest, and from the underarms up, the front and back were knit separately back and forth and then joined at the shoulders in a three needle cast/bind off. There are not very many extant knitted garments with sleeves from the late 18th/early 19th century but the few knitted jackets from the 18th century that I have seen appear or are stated to be constructed in this way, if not knit entirely as a tube, as in the case of some baby jackets, and then joined at the shoulders, openings for the sleeves cut out, and the front cut open and hemmed on either side. There is also a knitted cotton woman’s jacket in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum with the gores for shaping the waist.
After joining the shoulders, the neck stitches were picked up and closed at the front for the "woolen roll" (cowl/hood) which was knit in the round on 16” circulars. Then it was back to the torso, picking up the stitches around the armholes and the sleeves, as mentioned above, were knit down from the shoulders.
Although the “original” Garment was most likely cut and sewn from a loom knitted piece of fabric, I have used late 18th/early 19th century hand knitting techniques in my version such as the three-needle bind/cast off, picking up the stitches around the arm/shoulder, and knitting down towards the cuff. Knitting in the round was, again, more common due to the fairly limited repertoire of hand knitted items that were fashionable or needed at that time, and most would have be worked on a range of fairly thin four or five double pointed needles. Circular needles, scholars seem to agree, are a very early 20th century invention but the double-pointed needles I used are accurate to the era if a little on the large size, which the wool, expense and my time demanded in order to finish The Garment. The tension/gauges of knitting found in extant objects from this era is usually extremely fine but there was no possible way I could reproduce that scale without buying about four or five, maybe six times the yardage of a very, very fine wool (if I could find it or have it spun, in the right colour), and taking about three times the amount of time to knit The Garment. I note all of this because I searched all over the world for almost two years to find the right wool in the right undyed colour with a not overly modern, tight twist but it was worth in the end.
I will be writing more about the finished Garment and its design and, of course, there will be photographs of it being worn by the volunteer who stepped up to the line. For now, however, set a course for the Deathshead buttons!
Another day of knitting at the beach, me, in three bulky layers of warm clothing and The Garment, enjoying the sunlight in brisk weather.