National Library digs into archives to recreate vintage knitting patterns for new crafters

When the National Library of Australia (NLA) started scanning old newspapers and magazines and adding them to its Trove database, a search term was surprisingly popular.

“We started to notice that one of the most commonly targeted headings was knitting patterns,” Kathryn Favelle, director of community engagement at the NLA, told Christine Layton on ABC Radio Perth.

“What was happening was that a large online community of knitters was starting to dig through old newspapers and magazines for inspiration.

“We started looking and thinking, ‘What could we do with these knitting patterns and how could we bring them to a new audience?’

A modern take on the Judith sweater, featured in Vintage Knits.

The result was a book, Vintage Knits, recently published by NLA Publishing, which contains 25 knitting patterns from the 1930s, 40s and 50s along with stories about the history of knitting.

But Ms Favelle said creating the book was not as simple as copying the designs directly from archival documents.

“Often in old patterns only one size is provided in the journal or pattern book, now we are used to getting pattern books which give you four, five or six sizes to choose from”, a- she declared.

“The knitters they advertised for knew how to knit and fit [the size].

“Most of us don’t have that skill anymore, so Vintage Knits takes those old patterns and adapts them for modern knitters and also gives us some tips and tricks on how we can make our own adjustments.”

A 1939 sportswear sweater in Vintage Knits
A 1939 sportswear sweater in Vintage Knits(NLA Edition)

Have we stretched the time?

When development of the book began, the NLA approached volunteer knitters to test the original patterns and made a startling discovery.

“Their first attempt at knitting these vintage patterns, using the same ply of yarn and same size needles, often resulted in something much smaller than we expected for that pattern,” he said. she stated.

“Whether it’s a wool quality issue or the fact that our body size has changed and people are taller and broader, bigger in the shoulders than they were maybe 50 to 60 years ago. We had to experiment with the model to see what would work and give a similar effect today.”

Yarn has also changed and many fibers and brands recommended almost 100 years ago are no longer available, while knitters now have many other options to choose from.

The Margaret top, featured in Vintage Knits, page
The Margaret top, featured in Vintage Knits, was designed in 1936 to mimic a silk blouse.(NLA Edition)

Styles of a more constrained era

Styles from those decades were also significantly more fitted than modern knitwear, she said.

“One of my favorites in the book is called Margaret. It was created by a woman called Margaret Eaton and she was in response to a request from knitters for something that would replace a silk blouse.”

Published in 1936, in the midst of the Depression, the pattern responded to difficult times when readers were perhaps looking to reuse wool from an old garment and make something themselves.

It’s also quite simple.

“One of the reasons I love the Margaret is that it’s very simple garter stitch. If you only know one stitch in knitting, garter stitch is the one you learn first.”


Knitting is for everyone

Although traditionally a women’s craft, Ms Favelle said men also had a long history of knitting and it had seen a resurgence in popularity among all ages with the pandemic lockdowns.

“We often think of knitting as a women’s job and in the 1920s, 30s and 40s women would have been the dominant domestic knitters,” she said.

Like many people, Ms. Favelle learned to knit at home as a child.

“I remember being nine years old and walking into the local Top Ryde knitwear shop and choosing the yarn and pattern for my first knitted sweater. It was such a special moment,” said- she declared.

“My grandma used to knit a cute jersey for the new babies in the family, and I think it was probably her knitting that inspired me. But it was mom who taught me.”

ABC Radio Perth listeners shared similar memories.

Pink“My dad was in the Navy in WWII and he taught me the basics of knitting. Mom couldn’t knit to save herself.”

Clear: “My grandmother taught me to knit when I was four, then I stopped in my early twenties; but then I resumed during confinement in 2020.”

Barb“I remember being so excited when my dad came home from a trip and brought my sister a ball of yarn and knitting needles. I was probably around seven or eight years old. I made my future husband a sweater in 1967 of good wool. He still wears it – the only repairs needed are around the cuffs!”

Although she still knits, Ms Favelle said these days she often prefers looser styles that require less precision, and said there are plenty of how-to videos online to help beginners get started.

“It’s for everyone and it’s great that it really caught on during the long period of lockdown and uncertainty as we looked for new ways of doing things, new things to do with our hands.

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