This was one of my grandmother’s knitting books. It dates from the later 1920s, and she kept it all her life, probably because she (her name was Kathleen Matthews, née Fare) was a countrywoman who made do and mended for her children, grand-children, nieces and nephews and half the village. She was certainly a fine knitter, making us jumpers regularly, and one of my earlier memories is practicing my knitting under her tuition. Along with her embroidery stash and her knitting basket, I inherited her inability to sit and do nothing. If I haven’t got something to do with my hands when I’m sitting listening, I fidget and feel I’m wasting an opportunity, so knitting keeps me happy.
As you can see, the cover is falling apart. Were this in the British Library, where I’ve worked on magazines in the same fragile state, the pages would be conserved in their amazing transparent paper webbing that holds the original woodpulp in place but lets you turn pages without fear of covering yourself in orange dust and shards of ancient paper. The inside of the book is made of tougher coated paper, so only the inside pages are coming loose from the gradually rusting staples, but on the whole, for a book that’s clearly been used a fair bit, it’s in excellent condition. It was probably a very welcome supplement to a knitting magazine, a free gift that has lasted for nearly a century longer than its original parent magazine.
I was given the book after my grandmother died, but even if I had had no idea who had once owned it, I’d have kept it for its fabulous cover art. Look at those angular lines, the bold block colours, the use of symmetry and asymmetry, and the elegant stylised fall of the hank of wool in her left hand. She holds the knitting needles in their work close to her as a goddess would hold a cornucopia or a sheaf of wheat. Her hair is bobbed, full and shiny with health, and her eyebrows and features are marked with definition and no wasted line. She wears a thick, shapely, high-necked sweater, an advertisement for knitting with modern style. She is a modernist figure demonstrating a traditional craft.
Inside, the patterns are absolutely traditional, and absolutely of their time. The angularity of the cover design is clearly heading towards the 1930s, but inside, the patterns lag a little, back to the mid-1920s (the same age as my grandmother). These are ladies’ jumpers and sweater blouses, and cardigans for men and children. They require knowledge, or experience (since all instructions are given in the patterns), of how to make the difficult inset pockets, and precision knitting for the button bands and collars. These are patterns for the habitual knitter who routinely clothed herself and her family through the work of her fingers when she didn’t have her hands in the sink.
About half the patterns in the book are for children, all sorts of combinations of shawls, bootees, hats, coats and leggings. Girls’ coats are flared, boys’ coats are straight up and down. All the models in the photographs are knitted in pale wool to show where the ribbing lies and the details of stitch changes. I went to Fully Fashioned, the really marvellous Pringle exhibition at the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, a few weeks, ago, and gazed in awe at the giant stretching boards that held and fixed the freshly washed sweaters and long underwear to dry to the right size, just as these models would have been fixed. The fluffiness of the toddler’s leggings and coats had its own special Paton’s Teazle wool, and photo instructions for how to use a teazle brush to fluff out the wool to a superbly heat-capturing texture, lovely for keeping small children warm when they were immobile in their prams.
My favourite patterns exude domestic elegance, or its possibility. I simply love these bedjackets and shawls, with their intricate openwork and quietly distinguished fall over the shoulders. These were garments for houses where draughts were normal, and you would always need something at hand to fling round the back of your neck as you sat knitting in bed, or maybe even reading (my grandmother also kept novels from the 1920s). What we now call a shrug was called a shoulder wrap in the 1920s (the centre model in the bottom row). I have my doubts about how well these would stand up to movement: these are garments for sitting in, not for work or for rapid body action.
And finally, what of the men? These patterns show how men dressed. Their lives were expected to need active footwear of great endurance, giant over-the-knee socks for wearing in waders for fishing, or out playing golf under their plus-fours. The many different ways of turning a heel are demonstrated with close-up photographs, and some pretty decorative bands for fancying up the tops, to keep one big man’s socks from being confused with another’s in the same wash.
I’d love to knit up some of these patterns, but every time I think, ‘right, I’m going to work out the gauge and the yardage’, I’m halted by the proprietary names, and the quantities. Like all wool of the period, Paton’s and Baldwins wools were spun into different ply thicknesses and sold by the ounce (all Barbara Pym novels have a character quietly worrying if they need to buy anther ounce of wool), whereas modern wool comes in weights and has complicated names like ‘fingering’ and ‘sock’ that vary from country to country. Though old-style British needle sizes can be converted easily to US or metric, the wool is much more difficult to guess at, and, up to now, I’ve given up weakly at this first hurdle. But I use the book to check up on stitches mentioned gaily but without illustration in modern patterns, to see if I’ve got them right. And its heel-turning advice is incomparable, almost as good as having my grandmother looking over my elbow.