Whenever I visit Gloucester for the day, I spend a lot of time browsing among the shops on Main Street. Gloucester is well-known for being an active fishing port, but there’s a vibrant art scene there and all throughout Cape Ann. Main Street is an eclectic blend of seafood and Italian restaurants, art galleries, gift shops and antique stores, all just steps away from the working waterfront. Occasionally I come across a gem of a vintage knitting book in the antique store and used bookstore here, and last Saturday, I scored a real gem, indeed. I assume there must have been a dust jacket at one point, but they don’t always survive. 😦
Let me (re?)introduce you to the Complete Guide To Modern Knitting And Crocheting by Alice Carroll. Published in 1949, this book is a wealth of information aimed at beginner knitters and crocheters. The Guide is sensibly structured to ease new stitchers into the art of each craft, propelling them gently from there into a variety of patterns and projects. An introduction to tools and basic stitches starts the book off, followed by stitch patterns for knit and crochet projects. The projects then are grouped into children’s, women’s, men’s and home decor sections. In the spirit of make do and mend, there’s a section on how to reuse wool that’s already been knitted.
From there, garment structure and more technical work become the focus. There are chapters on the essentials of knitting a garment, then on assembling a garment. More advanced techniques such as fair isle, lace patterns, even knitting with ribbon, follow.
Ah, early printing methods: when charts were hand-drawn, and everything was in black and white.
Mrs. Carroll then guides the needlewoman through socks and stockings, mittens and gloves, and finishes up with a comprehensive section on designing your own garments.
This book is impressive in its scope of information. The variety of garments is interesting, especially seeing the everyday items people made with wool–including swimsuits–before synthetic fabric was available. Some of the ladies one-piece dresses are breathtaking and diaphanous, while the baby and toddler clothes are endearing.
This pattern is for a “one-piece dress for the older woman.” The woman modeling it doesn’t look a day over thirty to me, but we won’t start any trouble over that. 😉
The book is a fascinating glimpse into a bygone era. Many of the patterns are items that were essentials in their day no longer have a place in modern society. Ellbow-length evening gloves were once de rigeur when in an evening gown, while “soakers”–knit panties for babies–have been made obsolete by modern absorbent disposable diapers. I won’t be knitting a snood to tuck my hair into, or an “automobile robe,” which is a lap blanket for traveling, any time soon, but there are two patterns that I wouldn’t mind, in all seriousness, giving a go.
The first is this Winter Hood, also called a Skating Hood. I think the Skating Hood should make a comeback, don’t you? I think if I were to knit this in a neutral color, either white, black, or grey, I could pull it off with a simple black winter coat. The adorable peak on top is a cheeky retro touch, no?
The second pattern is this gorgeous “Striped Slipover.” How stylish is that? Look at that fabulous woman wearing it. She’s fierce and she knows it. I suspect she might even be wearing slacks!! (dungarees, even!)
Look at how great that top looks, even in black and white. Color theory recommends reducing the colors you want to use to black and white to look at the shade values anyway, so this is a great example of that.
I think this might be wearable today without looking costumey…
…which brings me to the actual knitting of vintage patterns. There are a lot of problematic areas in this book when it comes to reinterpreting for the modern knitter. Clothes were sized differently back in the 1940s. Most of the ladies patterns state a size 16. That’s it, 16. There are no multiple sizes given. So do your own math. I don’t know what the modern equivalent is. The women in the pictures are more full-figured than the waifs that became popular in the 1960s through today, but I don’t think this 16 is today’s 16. So I will have to do my own math and measurement conversion. Which I hate. It’s going to be a fair amount of research, trial and error and swatching, but hopefully it won’t be impossible. If I have to, my ultimate backup plan is to pay for private knitting lessons at my LYS to have someone more experienced in designing help me write up a pattern with the modern measurements.
The needle sizes and yarn requirements in this book are very different than today’s standards. The needle guide depicts (steel only) needles sized fro 20 (the thinnest) to 10 (the thickest). So great, more research will be involved. Yarn requirements are in ounces, not yards. I suppose I could do an ounce to gram conversion, since grams are listed on modern yarn labels. Yarn weights are very different as well. The Guide lists worsted and fingering, but after that, things get a little weird. There’s Saxony, which is finer than fingering, used for baby garments. After fingering, there’s Germantown which, if I were to hazard a guess, might be DK Weight. Then there’s boucle, and angora, which need no interpretation. Finally, there’s Jiffy, which is “thick and bulky” so it’s safe to assume it means…bulky.
We need to bring back illustrations like this, too!
By far the weirdest piece of vintage knitting instruction comes in the section that talks about gauge. If you don’t get the correct gauge with the needle you’re using…eliminate the appropriate number of stitches in your row until you get the required gauge. Great, more math, which essentially means you’re altering the written pattern. I’m so glad I live in the modern world where knitting instructors teach us to simply go up or down a needle size. I wonder when someone figured that out.
Glaring historical differences aside, this is a terrific book that’s full of practical advice and as much in-depth instruction as an author can fit into one book. It can certainly be as helpful today as it was in 1949. Alice Carroll’s tone is in itself a lost art; she sounds like a ladies’ finishing school instructor who drinks tea with her pinky extended. She extols the virtues of living in an era in which knitting has surpassed mere function and warmth to take its place among fashion for fashion’s sake.
And on that note, check out this guy! He invented the male model pose!