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?

The Saturdays

As a child, one of the books that I read over and over again was The Saturdays. In Enright’s tale, four New York siblings are bored every Saturday, until they decide to pool their allowance and let one person have an adventure with it each week.

It’s a very long time since I had a long and empty Saturday – what a treat that would be! But, busy as they are, they can still be boring. Between the cleaning and the shopping, the homework and mountain of logs to be stacked, Saturdays can be a bit mundane. This year, though, we seem to have stumbled upon a bit of a plan.

It turns out that a plan was just what we needed. (Who would have guessed?) With the children being the ages that they are, little rhythms have fallen into place. I make a vat of soup, to last the week. John visits the fishmonger, to buy something delicious for tea (moules frites, anyone?) Birthday cards are made and posted. One or another of the children bakes a cake. And then I have a little crafternoon, with anyone who wishes to join me.

It’s only a little crafternoon, because by the time the house is clean and piano practice done and the fridge full up for the week ahead and so on and so forth, there are usually just two or maybe three hours left to play. But that’s enough time, if you’ve planned ahead, to achieve something quick and crafty. Last week, I made beeswax balms. The week before, I worked on my Lionberry shawl while Ilse crocheted a snood with impressive speed. Before that, we made some beeswrap. Having everything to hand, ready to begin, is a wonderful thing. With a bit of preparation, cakes get baked, chairs waxed, pots filled with protective goodness.

This week, inspired by all the fun with beeswax, Ilse suggested that we use the candle-making kit she received for her birthday and, knowing that this Saturday was going to be particularly full of jobs, I agreed. We aren’t really a kit-making family, to be honest. We generally tend to make things up for ourselves. So it was particularly pleasant to set out the chopping board and a couple of sharp knives and look on, knitting in hand, as Ilse and Seb worked their way through all the candles in the kit. Apart from the odd bit of tricky cutting, I wasn’t really needed at all. I was quite happy, then, to nibble my chelsea bun, sip tea, and admire their progress – all the while knitting furiously on another jumper sample.

I worked out that I’ve knit three jumpers in the last month, and cast on for one more yesterday evening. There is no shortage of craft in my life. In fact, I fully intend to do less knitting as soon as the latest pattern is launched, for fear of doing damage to my hands. They are beginning to seize up a bit. So why, you might wonder, would I want to do yet more crafting on a precious Saturday afternoon?

I suppose it’s the difference between work and play: making something just for fun, as opposed to creating something with the intention of publication. Then there’s the family aspect of it – I love watching my children’s creativity. And the pleasure of bashing something out in a couple of hours flat, rather than taking days and days to get it right. Plus the satisfaction of ticking something off the ‘I’d like to…’ list.

Not all Saturday crafternoons are crafty, strictly speaking. Sometimes Fliss draws. We have plans for a Christmas cake quite soon, and a batch of garden chutney. But they are the sort of activities that don’t quite fit anywhere else in our week. Too long for a weekday evening, too short to fill a luxuriously lazy Sunday. As long as we’ve thought ahead and got everything we need, we can make these things in a couple of hours in an otherwise bustling day. Who knows how long it’ll last, how long before no-one wants to sit and knit with me. No doubt the family rhythms will shift again, before long. But for now, this is how we spend our Saturdays.

Madeleine

Please excuse the flatness of these photos – we’ve had high winds, grey skies and lots of rain, none of which are helpful in taking a decent photograph!

How was your weekend? Do you have a rhythm on Saturdays, or is every one different?