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Knitting In Difficult Times – 1930s and 40s – part III

What was knitted? Why and by whom?

WWI which ended in 1918, a bit more than 10 years before our era, and it had influenced the world of knitting in a way that is barely imaginable.

An adult woman in the 1930s had probably been in her teenage years during the First World War, when millions of handknitted items were made, partly due to patriot knitting, when socks or gloves were requested for the troops. Partly out of necessity at home, to have warm garments on cold days or to look fashionable with limited supplies.

And please remember – during the First World War, women’s fashion style changed considerably – from corsets under complicated layers of fabric and ruffles to garments that made moving far easier, not only for the everyday activities or sports, but also for working.

Women were still having a profession, which was a quite new thing after the first world war and reached a first peak in the 20’s.

There were, of course, some female medical doctors or other women in high-valued jobs, but most women worked as sales clerks, secretaries, teachers or nurses, where wages were low. This means, that many of them had to be well-dressed each and every day, but on a budget. That might have been one of the reasons why dresses, for a long time the most proper kind of garment for a woman, weren’t that popular any more. Sweaters and skirts took their place. It simply was far easier to look fine and fashionable at work with skirts and sweaters that could be combined. And of course these sweaters usually were handmade – by a young sales clerk, secretary or teacher – or her loving mom.

What else was knitted?

Knitting has, of course, a long tradition. But knitted garments as outerwear were still a quite new thing. For a very long time, knitted clothing or accessories were for underwear only or for some really comfortable items for the leisure time at home.

We already saw that there were a lot of knitted sweaters. But besides that, sportswear was usually knitted. Sweaters for tennis or golf hat a great influence on non-sport-fashion, too. Swimsuits were also knitted

– and please don’t forget that these figure-hugging things were still very new and were considered as bold. There were laws which controlled how much skin should be revealed and how much had to be covered.

And then there was, of course, underwear. Since the fashion style was so very close fitting, underwear was made from very fine yarn and very figure hugging.

People, children and adults, usually wore a lot of underwear. First reason was, that heating was far more difficult than today. Second reason, that washing was far more work, and a lot of fibers couldn’t simply be washed. So underwear was meant to keep you warm and to shelter outerwear from sweat and smell. I found this advertisement I don’t want to withhold from you – Shetland wool was promoted for underwear.

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Just to mention it.

Knitted things for babies were important, too. They were growing so fast …

And some women knit to support their husbands, and children, their families by knitting for shops, for example.

So far, most things had to do with fashion and what knitters made – the sweaters, sportswear or underwear. But to provide all those knitters with supplies, there was a knitting industry needed – means, above all, the yarn manufacturers.

 

The knitting industry

So far we heard that there was lot of knitting in the 30s from a lot of experienced knitters. The knitting industry kept watching this and tried to make the very best of it, using basically 4 different steps, opportunities and methods.

  • Magazines
  • Designers
  • Fashion Shows
  • Yarns

Magazines:

The 1930’s were the big era of magazines, and that is very lucky for us, the curious ones. It is even better that a lot of those magazines survived for such a long time.

Those of you who collect knitting patterns probably know that magazines from pre-war-time are not as easy to find as those from the years after war. Paper doesn’t like moisture nor fire, and what wasn’t destroyed during the war was used for heating or simply thrown away, eaten by mice or whatever.

In case you already noticed that or will see it now – I use magazines from all over the world when I search for knitting subjects or patterns.

For two reasons: first, Those journals from Europe, the US or Australia don’t differ very much in the content that we are interested in, so they are absolutely comparable. What was fashionable in the UK appeared also in Australia, and the difference in time or climate that might have been important then is not important anymore in retrospect.

Second, availability is a crucial thing. The Australian Women’s Weekly, for example, is nearly completely archived, and this archive is accessible.

Back to magazines: Vogue knitting, for example, was launched in 1932, and what you see here are covers from issues of Australian Woman’s Weekly, the French Petite Echo de la Mode, the Austrian Perfekt Mode and Monarch from USA – all of them from the early 30s – and these are just a few of many new magazines all over the world. These came out just in time to spread the new fashion trends and style of the 30s and encourage knitters to make the newest sweaters for themselves or their families.

All these pattern books and magazines were not only following the trend, that knitting was fashionable and that knitters asked for new patterns. There was also another side – a yarn industry that fought for survival in a time when money wasn’t easily spent. Remember that we are still during or shortly after the great depression. Magazines were developed because there were enough readers, and yarn companies wanted to meet those readers because they wished to be as successful as before, during the first world war and the years after.

As we already mentioned before: Knitted garments – means knitted things for outer wear – had a first flash in WWI, and it picked up again in 1920s. This was called the knitting craze, and when it slowed down a bit in the last years of the so called Golden Twenties, the crash in 1929 inspired knitters nearly all over the world to pick up their needles again. They simply were in need of garments. And we have to remember that knitting was an easy to handle craft. No machines needed, not much room in a probably crowded flat, and the knitting could easily be carried wherever the knitter goes. Even when economy was at the lowest, all the knitting related things kept the industry going.

Patriot knitting during the first world war had brought the knitting industry up, the companies grew during the so called knitting craze in the 1920s, and they were determined to prosper further during depression and after.

So magazines were one of the most important distributors for the yarn manufacturers.

One of the most interesting ones is the Australian Woman’s Weekly. This magazine was launched in 1933, and it was an instant hit, the copies increased to half a million within a few years and we can assume that this magazine probably reached nearly every household in Australia – bought by one person, lend to mothers, daughters, best friends, neighbours, stored in libraries.

And these magazines summed up the same tiny tidbids of daily life that we like to read in our magazines today. We have to keep in mind, that the 30s started with the Great Depression and ended with a terrible war, but between all these things people gave birth and died, fell in and out of love, read books from Margaret Mitchell or William Faulkner, listened to Glenn Miller and danced, saw movies with Claudette Colbert and Cary Grant and went to sports events everywhere in the world.

All these tiny tidbits of everyday life can be found between many other things in those magazines which were read by so many people that we must believe that content here was really powerful.

Another interesting and well-read magazine of those days was the ‘Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung”.

One more note: none of these two was a crafting or knitting magazine. But between all these so very important news, we see the advertisements and patterns that have to do with knitting – obviously, this was something interesting for readers, and yarn manufacturers met their customers here. We are before TV and internet … We can definitely tell that in the 1930’s, knitting was popular and the publishers of these magazines knew where they could meet the knitters and connect them with yarn manufacturers.

Part IV will come soon – and start with the designers – stay tuned 😉

Knitting in Difficult Times – the 30s and 40s – part II

So we went through the difficult times in part I, and now comes the other half of today’s headline, the knitting.

Knitting usually has to do with fashion. Colors, materials, all this depends on availability and trends, not only in the usual sweater but also in accessories and even home décor. Fashion has not exactly the image of something serious. It is said to be superficial, short-living, it has a kind of bad reputation. But there is more in it.

To show what I mean I chose a short clip from a movie.

The movie is called the Time Machine, was made in the United States in 1960 and is based on a novel by famous science fiction writer H.G. Wells. Leading character: Rod Taylor. The movie tells the story of a Victorian gentleman who managed to invent a machine for time travelling. This machine stands in his living room, and he has a great view through his window during his travels and sees how days pass in the blink of an eye by looking out to the street. And here is what happens – please have a look.

What I thought was quite intriguing when I saw this movie is that the people who made it decided to show the passing of time with fashion. Obviously they thought that there is barely a thing that defines a certain era as much as fashion does.

The point is – what people wear and how their garments are made always reflect the cultural and technical developments of a certain time. How people dress is not only a question of trends, style or personal taste and attitude, but also of politics, ideology and economy: Which kind of material was available, what was technically possible, and what was necessary for people in daily life to wear?

And – what probably is more interesting for us, the knitters with a soft spot for old patterns – or: costume history -: it also works the other way round – we better understand why something – a knitted sweater, a dress – looked the way it did in the 30s or 40s and why it was made in this or that way and not differently, when we know how life was in those years – what was necessary in daily life, what was available, and what was technically possible.

So ‘knitting in difficult times’ will lead us back to the years of pre-war time and world war II, and we will hopefully see a bit of everyday life through the eyes of the knitter and understand knitted fashion a bit better by learning more about the people who made it in those days.

Overview: fashion

Between the 1920s and 30s, fashion changed very much. The boyish style of the 20s with short cropped hair, short skirts and long, straight sweaters which disguised more of the female body than they showed, disappeared completely in a very short time.

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Skirts became longer and had a high waistline, sweaters were close-fitting with a lower-edge that ended very close to this waistline. The change in this new look was important enough to make a song about it – “Wenn die Elisabeth …” – in English its: “My friend Elisabeth …” about a girl who is so very sad that her beautiful legs are now hidden under the new long skirt – ….  that she doesn’t like this new style at all

There were far more songs about knitting and fashion – like “all the girls are busy knitting jumpers” from the time around WWI.

All in all, this new, very feminine style of fashion outline was said to be far more womanly than in the years before, but this is only one aspect of this new silhouette.

It is right that the perfect shape of a woman in those years was tall, slender, with long legs and a small waist, all hidden under the already mentioned long skirts and their layers of fabric and wool but still vaguely perceptible since these new clothes were really figure hugging. So the look was feminine, soft and more elegant than cheeky.

But – whenever it is mentioned how feminine these looks were we shouldn’t forget that this fashion was also made to allow a lot of moving, in comparison to what was fashionable a bit more than 10 years ago, during the first world war.

1913
1919

Means, the sporty woman from the 20s, who loved doing outdoor things like playing tennis or riding the bicycle, is still there in the 30s – Sweaters for tennis or golf had a great influence on non-sport-fashion, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Moreover, sports were discovered as an important thing to stay healthy and look younger – so all in all the 30’s look was very feminine, but also right for the active woman, this was an ideal, too. As we can see here in this page of a magazine – tips for a flat belly. Not so very different from today ….

But let’s stay with the sweaters for a moment.

 

As if to support this elegant, but also young and fresh style, in the early 30s pastel colors were really popular, followed by natural shades. Unfortunately, there were not so many colored pics in those days, so we mostly have to rely on descriptions. But every now and then, a magazine cover or an advertisement was printed in colors, and since these are rare finds today, they are all the more impressive.

Fitting changed quite a bit during the 30s, from no or even negative ease – means very figure-hugging – to a softer and more wider shape.

Additionally, sweaters often had a lot of fancy details like bows, collars or accentuated fronts and sleeves, especially loved with contrasting colors.

The great variety of stitches and patterns show that there were some very skilled knitters around.

These collars, bows and intricated patterns are especially impressing because descriptions in patterns were often basic only –

“Cast on twohundredsomething stitches”, for example, is something all that is offered for a sweater. Gauge was rarely mentioned, and not even yarn length was offered, only weight. All in all, instructions were short and simple.

Obviously, pattern books were made for experienced and well trained knitters. Which leads us to another excursion: why were knitters in the 30s so well trained?

Please wait for part III – coming soon 😉

knitting in difficult times – the 1930s and 40s – part I

(this post is based on my lecture from 2015)

To understand knitting and fashion in those years, let’s talk for a moment about what happened during those years before WWII before we start with pre-war knitting.

Historical background

The 1930’s started shortly after the big crash in the stock market in 1929, known today as Black Friday. This crash led to a worldwide economic depression. People lost their money, their savings, and most of all in many cases  – they also lost their jobs.

I love this graph because it is so very descriptive – it shows the economy in the UK for the 30s – all these columns are directing upwards, only those from 1930 and 31 are going downwards – these were really bad years.

During this so-called Great Depression, unemployment was the worst problem, and the precious few jobs available were poorly paid. A lot of people in the whole Western world, no matter whether in Europe, Northern America, Australia or New Zealand – were simply very poor and had to struggle to feed their families.

Soup kitchens like this in Australia were a common sight:

The Great Depression hit the bottom some time around 1932, when unemployment affected more than one third of the population. Economy picked up to a variable extent in different countries worldwide soon after, but all that came to an end when the war spread out all over the world.

So the 30s started with a great depression and ended with a worldwide war, but between these historical landmarks, there was a daily life.

This daily life was influenced by very contradictory things. On the one hand, nationalism in its worst sense characterized these years, and it was a very conservative time. To mention only one example: Some of the governments programs for generating new jobs involved that married women should preferably stay at home – one income per family should have been enough.

On the other hand, there was cosmopolitanism and progress: these were the years when the world became a considerable degree smaller, for the first time. Airplanes were a new means of transportation, and despite the fact, that it still took more than a month to travel from Europe to Australia or New Zealand by sea, Charles Lindbergh was a kind of superstar after his flight across the Atlantic, and even women like Amelia Earhart or Elly Beinhorn hopped with their little aircrafts from Europe to Africa to Australia or to some far away island nobody ever had heard of before, and everybody could read about in newspapers and magazines everywhere, photos included.

This is, in a few rough sentences, the historical background for the knitting related daily life which is our topic here.

Definitely difficult times in more than one respect.

So we have the difficult times, and now comes the other half of today’s headline, the knitting.

Read more about it in part II – coming soon 🙂

Sweaters – and knitting in difficult times

When I started knitting sweaters again, I also started to learn more about knitted fashion in war- and pre-war-times. The most interesting years for me were the 1930s and 40s. In 2015, I  gave a lecture in Denmark during the Knitting Festival on Fanoe. I wanted to describe fashion – especially knitted fashion –  as part of culture and history in those hard times. I’d like to share parts of this lecture here during the following weeks. So if you are interested in knitted fashion, fashion history or cultural history – you might be interested. Stay tuned ;)!

prewar knitting,wwII,1920s