A small, sustainable wardrobe: practical knitting

A series about the clothes we wear and the impact they have both on us and the world around us.

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My copy of Practical Knitting Illustrated: The Key to Hundreds of Garments You Can Make Yourself doesn’t have a date inside. Looking at it, I thought it looked quite 1940s, and the fact that all the illustrations are black and white would fit that theory. A quick internet search gave me one copy dated to 1947, which sounds about right.

I don’t think that a volume entitled Practical anything would sell particularly well nowadays. Despite the resurgence in craft, knitting and dressmaking patterns seem to be sold as novel! easy! quick! or fun! This book doesn’t claim to be any of those things – although it does bill some of the resulting items as such. Instead, it focuses on how hardwearing, warm, comfortable and versatile the garments inside will be. And although I wouldn’t want to wear all of the garments listed (a knitted beach suit, anyone?), those are the values that I like to apply to my own designs.

It goes without saying that British knitters of the late 1940s were approaching their craft from a rather different place than we do today. At the height of rationing, each adult civilian was entitled to the equivalent to one new set of clothes and shoes a year. Clothes – and materials – rationing was on the cusp of coming to a close, but there would continue to be shortages for several years yet. Although you could theoretically go out and buy whatever your wardrobe needed after 15 March 1949, you were unlikely to be able to in practice. Goods in short supply were managed by price control. Despite this, clothes were expensive and had to be made to last.

This issue is reflected in the advice given on buying yarn. Sold by the ounce, yarn quantities are one of the most confusing things about vintage patterns because how long is an ounce of wool? It seems that it depended on the quality, and readers were instructed to buy the best they could afford. The best qualities although more expensive to buy, are cheaper because they go farther in the knitting through having more rounds to the ounce. And it only took 5 ounces – about 140 grams – of yarn to knit a women’s 2 ply jumper. How’s that for economy of materials?

I would imagine that higher quality yarns would also work out cheaper in the long run because they would wear better and not need to be replaced as quickly – saving both money and labour.

It’s the labour in the book that I can’t quite understand. Although the book pictures 24 different types of yarn, it’s clear that finer yarns were the order of the day. Shetland yarns – which I assume were like the traditional Shetland jumperweight 2 ply yarns still available today – cannot be recommended too highly. Having knit a 2 ply fair isle allover myself, I know how much longer it takes to knit a jumper in a finer yarn. John’s cabled cardigan – in DK as it was – nearly finished me off. Yet here, women (because this book is clearly aimed at women) are encouraged to knit everything for the entire family. No wonder virtues such as hardwearing and plenty of room to grow were included in the descriptions of products. Keeping a family in vests and socks must have been a Herculean task indeed.

I don’t suppose that any women, no matter how dedicated, fulfilled all their family’s requirements in this way. I’m told that my husband’s grandmother, who must have bought or received this book as a newlywed, was a prizewinning knitter, and I would love to have been able to ask her about what she did and didn’t knit for her family. While I keep myself in socks, other people receive them from me as gifts rather than as a matter of course. I’ve never knit a vest (undershirt) in my life. But baby knits and children’s jumpers? Yes, I’ve knit many of those in my time and it’s true: the more hardwearing, warm, comfortable and versatile they are, the more wear they’ve had by one child after another.

I’m as guilty as anyone of wanting things done yesterday. I knit almost a whole jumper in a weekend recently. And yes, it is hardwearing, warm, comfortable and versatile. But I didn’t enjoy making it more because it was fast! In fact, I definitely enjoyed it less. So when I cast on for a new pair of socks last night, I opened Practical Knitting for company, and enjoyed its words of wisdom on the subject of socks for your sons. These three-quarter length socks are excellent for sturdy schoolboys who are always on their feet, it told me. For holiday times, make them with Fair Isle tops. Now if that isn’t taking pride in your craft and making the most of the materials you have, I don’t know what is. Practical doesn’t have to be boring. It can be as fun and creative as you like. Just like the rest of the deeply practical wardrobe I aspire to.

Madeleine

Joining in with Ginny’s Yarn Along at Small Things

Do you prefer to make things quickly or slowly? What’s the most painstakingly made thing in your wardrobe? Did you make it yourself? And is it practical?

2 thoughts on “A small, sustainable wardrobe: practical knitting”

  1. Oh goodness, I can’t think of anything less suitable for swimming in than wool. I don’t know what possessed people – it must have weighed an absolute ton and stretched like mad when wet! Thank goodness for modern swimwear!
    I’m really glad that you are enjoying the posts, and pleased that you’re finding them thought-provoking with regards to your own wardrobe. It’s such a personal thing, but also something that we all have to have, and I love getting ideas from other people on the subject.

  2. I’m enjoying your reading posts about clothes and a sustainable wardrobe, and they’re prompting me to have another think about my approach to my own clothes. Funny that you should mention a knitted beach suit… my mother had a hand-knitted swimming costume when she was a child in the 1940s. She said that it used sag in the most amazing way when she got out of the water!

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