Sunday, 18 February 2018

Patterns from the Past

I've collected old knitting patterns for years. They're a good way to combine a love of social history and craft, as well as still being ridiculously cheap. Only a few days ago I added two beautiful baby patterns to my collection which cost me all of 50p. Charity shops are the best places to find vintage patterns; the really old ones are normally buried at the bottom of a box of more modern patterns and are often much cheaper than the new ones.

Anyway, I thought it would be a good idea to take photos of some of my collections and share them here. Most of them are in these three old suitcases (apologies for the poor quality photograph - they're in a dark corner).

As you can see, they're being guarded by my knitted Teddy Bear and Ferdinand the wooden sheep. He was carved for me by my daughter; he has a lamb but it's fallen down the back of the bookcase and I haven't got round to moving everything to rescue it yet. By the way, that's me in the photo on top of the suitcases, aged about six with our lovely dog Buster.

It turns out that it takes a long time sorting through and photographing old knitting patterns so I think this is going to have to be the first of a series of posts. Let's open the smallest suitcase first.

On the top are my Stitchcraft booklets. These were published by Patons & Baldwins and I should think they date from the 1950s. They are all collections of patterns for babies and children.

Aren't the covers wonderful? Just look at the baby in the pink dress, beaming happily. And what about the two children on the cover of the Nursery Knitting Book?

Children still enjoy blowing bubbles but they don't use proper little pipes like those nowadays. Inside this book, there's a lovely pattern for Norwegian style hat, scarf, glove and mittens which would look just as good today.

Here are some more P&B booklets, including some of the 'First Woollies' series and some 'Beehive Baby Books'.

These two patterns from the red Beehive Baby Book (SC14, price 1/6) show what would have been old and new style patterns at the time of publication.

First there's a pram blanket knitted with Patons Double Quick Knitting and edged with ribbon. Most of the other patterns in the book use thin baby wool, 2, 3 or 4 ply, so this was definitely a bit different. Worked in a cable stitch pattern, it would have been nice and warm.

The baby on the other page is wearing a ribbed vest and pilch, described as a 'Basic for Babies' set. This is much more traditional knitting, worked in thin yarn. In case you're wondering, a pilch was a knitted cover to go over the top of the nappy - patterns for these were as common as those for vests and booties.

A couple more Stitchcraft booklets ...

'Schooldays' and - with apologies to all the men who knit - 'He-knits that she knits'. The back covers of these two are good as well.

This is the back of 'Schooldays'. I know this is what we would now think of as a teenager dressed as a middle aged woman but the clothes themselves are beautifully designed. Here's the back of 'He-knits' ...

Nothing quite like the smile of someone who knows he's got someone to knit his jumpers for him. The only surprising thing about this picture is that neither of them is holding a pipe. Men with pipes feature a lot in old knitting patterns - "I may be a knitwear model but look, I smoke a pipe like a real man". 

Underneath the booklets are two big piles of mostly single knitting patterns. They're all either Bestway or Weldons patterns.

These are small patterns, about 8 x 5" or so, the older ones in black & white, the more recent ones in colour. I think they're all pre - decimal which dates them to before 1971. What shall we start with? I think the Bestway Booklets at the top of the picture.

'Gloves and Mitts for the Family' has patterns for everyone and every season. Those were the days when a lady never went out without her gloves, even if they were lacy ones for warm days.

The booklet on the right, 'Fair Isle Motifs for Childrens' Woollies' comes complete with charts ...

... while you'll be glad to see that the boys in 'Boys' Knitwear' aren't letting standards slip. They may be hanging round on a street corner, but they're still wearing their ties.

The individual Bestway patterns are for everyone and every occasion. Naturally, there are lots of baby patterns. 

I especially like the one with the baby in pink, I think it's the combination of colours - pink, turquoise, lemon and lime green - I'd like to knit something with all those colours in. There are also a few patterns for bonnets and booties.

When my first baby was born in the 1980s baby bonnets were still called 'helmets' if they were for baby boys - so much more macho. There are lots of cardigans and slipovers or waistcoats in the childrens's patterns; most of the models don't exactly looked relaxed.

But when it comes to artificiality, you've got to go a long way to beat some of the women on the Bestway patterns.

The one in yellow is definitely smiling through gritted teeth. The hairstyles are pretty tortuous too. As for the men ... as promised, a man with a pipe.

You can see the styling starting to relax a bit between these two family patterns.

The man and boy in the pattern on the right may still be wearing their ties but at least their jumpers are a bit more casual. This is one of the few patterns to use chunky yarn which would have seemed very thick to a generation of knitters used to working with thin 4 ply yarn.

There are a lot of old sock patterns around, like this one for schoolboy socks. I think the stripes on the socks would have been worked in school uniform colours. 

The other pattern above is for bedsocks, sized for children and adults and in various styles. I think the knee length ones are probably tube socks, knitted with a spiral rib pattern that means they don't need any heel shaping. My old house is always cold, I could do with a pair of those ...

There are several patterns for gloves and mittens - can you spot another pipe? I think the mittens on the right are great (slip stitch, by the look of it). You could knit those for a child now and they'd look just as good as when they were first published.

What else is there in the Bestway pile? Oh yes, a few elegant ladies in black and white.

I do like a nice bedjacket pattern. One day I'm going to knit a bedjacket. If you live in a warmer house than mine you could always wear one over a summer dress on cool evenings.

This is one of my favourite patterns.

It's an outfit for dolls in three sizes - 12, 14 and 16". I think this would fit my original Tiny Tears who I've had for over 50 years, not to mention the original Teeny Tiny Tears that I haven't got but hope to find one day.

There are several patterns for string bags and a few collections of tea cosies. I do like tea cosies.

And finally, I was struck by these two patterns. I wonder if that's the same little girl and, if so, where she is now?

I've probably got fewer Weldons patterns than Bestways but I think they're my favourites. There's something about their design that I absolutely love. Just look at these womens' patterns.

These models look alive in a way that the Bestway ones rarely do. And isn't that green jacket wonderful? Or how about these hats?

I think all of these look stylish and appealing. Do you think the woman in the Fair Isle set is trying to explain colour photography to her Black & White colleagues? If so, I'm not sure the one in the fuzzy bonnet is quite getting it.

My Weldons baby patterns look more dated but the designs are still interesting. Batwing baby cardigans anyone? I used to knit those for babies as these were easy to get their arms in and out of.

The children's patterns are lovely too. 

That 'Windcheater Pullover' at the top looks very practical (I remember when a certain style of jacket was called a Windcheater - wonderful name). And just look at the little girl in the yellow cardigan, now that's what I call a smile.

I suppose it's in the nature of glove and sock patterns that they don't change much ...

... and you'll be relieved to see that the men are still wearing their ties and holding their pipes.

There are just two more Weldons patterns to show you and these are amongst my favourites. First there's this penguin tea cosy. What do you mean, you don't feel the need for a penguin tea cosy?

And then there's this ...

Yes, that's right, it's called 'Television Knitting, Designed to Knit while you Watch'. There are four patterns: for a bedjacket, a zip up jumper, a short sleeved jumper and a blanket. Just in case you didn't get the point, each picture is framed by a television screen. Now I know I'm laughing at this but look at that blanket. Is it just me or is it very like my Pathways blanket? They say there's nothing new under the sun.

I bet you're thinking we've got to the bottom of that suitcase now but you don't get off that lightly. There's one more pile to show you before you're allowed to go and make a cup of tea. 

This is my collection of Woolcraft magazines, a publication which went through many editions during the 20th century. My earliest copy is the 8th edition which dates from the early 1930s and my most recent is the 17th edition from 1962.

Inside the 8th edition I found a torn out page from an engagements calendar for July 1937 on which someone had written a pattern for a knitted skirt.

It's 31" long and sized to fit someone with 40 - 41" hips. It's called 'Ribbed Skirt' and is knitted with 16 oz 4 ply Excelsior wool and a number 9 circular needle. A circular needle in 1937? I thought they were much more recent than that. Wouldn't it be fun to knit this and see yow it worked out? 440 stitches though ...

For many years, all editions of Woolcrafts had a full page illustration for each section. Here's the one for the baby patterns from this one.

By 1962, those illustrations had been replaced with a more modern look.

But my copy of the 16th edition of 1956 still looks quite like the early editions.

Funnily enough though, my 1962 Woolcraft does have something in common with my edition from 30 years earlier ...

Not a knitting pattern this time but the details of the various pullovers knitted. David's was in lemon 3 ply (maybe that's the wool used to tie the page to the book), Simon and Andrew's were in maroon and Ian and Katie's were in gold. The knitter has made notes of the number of stitches for each part and the individual measurements. I love finding things like this.

While I think about it, I found this book a useful source for information about the Woolcraft magazines. In fact, it's pretty much essential reading for anyone interested in the story of knitting.

This is the late Richard Rutt's A History of Hand Knitting, first published in 1987 and now sadly out of print. If you can find a secondhand copy, do buy it - it's an absolutely brilliant book. As well as masses of interesting historical detail about knitting, it's worth buying just for the appendices alone which include a list of publication dates for the Victorian 'Weldon's Practical Knitter' (another one of my collections) and a copy of the earliest known knitting pattern (it's a sock pattern in case you were wondering).

If you want to read more about old knitting patterns while you drink that cup of tea (yes, I've nearly finished), I can recommend the blog Knitting Now and Then where Barbara writes interestingly about all aspects of historical knitting. I also found a flickr album of Bestway patterns complied by Lucy of the blog 1940s Style For You. You can browse through it here. I'm sure there are lots more resources out there; if you know of any others, do let me know by leaving a comment below.

And now I'd better put all those patterns away again.


  1. I just love reading through this and seeing the old pattern books! I especially love the touch of humor that you included. I have several old books and pamplets, and yes, the men are almost always holding a pipe!

    1. They hardly ever seem to be actually smoking the pipe though, do they? I think it's just a macho prop. I wonder if there are any patterns with the man holding a pint of beer.

  2. I have a very old circular needle somewhere. It's a horrible metal springy thing. I might go on an expedition to look for it.

    1. Do you know how old that needle is? I suspect they were nothing like the smooth ones we have now. Addi turbos for example

  3. I loved this blog post! It was great to root through your collection with you, and your commentary made me laugh out loud (making my dog look at me strangely).
    Off to get tea and hope there's another post like this one soon!

  4. I'm glad you liked it. I'm sorting through the other two suitcases with another post (or two) in mind. They're more of a mixture so I think I'll have to go for a thematic approach

  5. I know I'm late to the party; I've been working my way through from the beginning. I think the gentleman in the yellow sweater on the back of the 'He-Knits' book is holding a pipe. Does that restore his street cred?

    1. Well spotted. He must be a real man after all!

  6. Love all the Woolcraft editions Frankie....can I ask how you know that is the 8th edition? Is it printed inside? From a recent fan of Woolcraft!

  7. I got the information from Richard Rutt's wonderful book 'A History of Hand Knitting'. Woolcraft editions were only numbered from 1950 onwards. I have a list of descriptions of the first 13 undated editions if you would like it. Let me know your email address (you can copy mine from the email link on my profile) and I'll send it to you.