It is National Knitting Week 14-20 October and to mark the event I was inspired to try a new challenge – to knit from a vintage pattern. Fortunately I am in an ideal position for obtaining vintage knitting patterns, as the Archive of Art and Design has a large collection of knitting ephemera.
I began by searching through the archives for something suitable. The diversity of knitting patterns is almost overwhelming: there’s the choice of patterns from the 1910s onwards for men, women, children and household items; however, an upcoming holiday to Normandy and the anticipation of visiting sites of the D-Day invasion in 1944 drove me towards the World War 2 patterns.
A variety of knitting ephemera. Archive of Art and Design, EPH/34/14, 22, 25, 35, 44, EPH/7/6; EPH/10/6. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
An advert on the back of a Bestway Knitting book catches my attention: ‘If you can knit – you can “do your bit”’. It may be seventy years too late, but I feel this would be a good item to knit to commemorate my visit and it also prompts me to investigate the knitting phenomenon during World War 2.
Bestway Knitting advert. Archive of Art and Design, AAD/1990/3/47. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Booklets for knitting on behalf of soldiers were common during the war and the Archive of Art and Design possesses many. Everyone was encouraged to pick up their knitting needles. Any activity that allowed people on the Home Front to feel as though they were making a difference to the war effort was very good for morale and knitting to keep soldiers warm and clothed fulfilled this need.
Cover of Copley’s pattern book. Archive of Art and Design, AAD/1990/3/48. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
There were patterns for every level of ability. These varied from patterned sweaters that required more complex shaping, to simple scarves, cuffs and operation stockings (heelless socks). Many of these only need the knitter to knit a simple repeated rib pattern. If someone had knitting needles, yarn, someone to show them the stitches and enough patriotic fervour, it would have been simple to learn and pitch in to the war effort.
Out of all the articles of clothing suggested by the booklets, I chose one of the ‘helmets’, or balaclavas. This was very easy to knit and consisted primarily of knitting in the round in a rib pattern. The shaping at the top and the hole for the face add a bit of interest after 10 inches of uninterrupted knitting.
‘Helmet’ pattern. Archive of Art and Design, AAD/1990/3/48. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
One of the primary challenges in knitting vintage patterns is the question of which wool to use. The Copley’s leaflet that I am using explicitly states ‘to ensure satisfaction Copley’s wool… must be used… otherwise the articles will not work out to the measurements’. I would be happy to oblige, had Copley’s not gone out of business – the trademark for the “Speedinit” wool required by the pattern expired in 1992.
This unfortunate circumstance allows for an expression of creativity. In the 1940s the diversity of wools was much less than today and this can be viewed as an opportunity to improve on one of the disadvantages of sheep’s wool – its itchiness. To achieve this, I decided to use an Aran weight alpaca wool, a soft, silky, luxurious yarn which also has the advantage of being warmer than sheep’s wool. 150g of this wool was appropriate for this pattern.
The author modelling the finished balaclava! © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Happily, I was able to finish my helmet on my week long holiday to Normandy and it will now be passed on to its delighted intended recipient.
Why not have a go at knitting a pattern from the V&A Archive? Click on this link for downloadable instructions for knitting 1940s garments.