logo - Join me in the 1900s early C20th
Florence Cole as a child

Knitting patterns & knitting needles
in 1940s and 1950s England

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Obtaining a knitting pattern

Collection of 1940s knitting patterns

1940s knitting patterns held in a plastic folder by the Lincolnsfields Childrens Centre, Bushey, and photographed there.

Knitting patterns were regularly included in women's magazines. Whenever a woman found such a pattern, she would cut it out and keep it because she never knew when it would come in useful.

Knitting patterns were also sold in wool shops, but they were relatively expensive and added to the cost of making the garment.

Often knitting patterns were loaned around among women.

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Knitting needles: sizes and tensions

Knitting needles were made of bone or steel (not stainless steel), and they came in different thicknesses, called the 'gauge'. The gauge affected the size of the stitches - the larger the gauge, the larger the stitches.

Victorian brass knitting needle container, still in regular use in the 1940s and 1950s.

My grandmother's Victorian knitting needle container which was still in regular use in my 1940s childhood. It was made of brass with a black patterned overlay.

Knitting needles could be bought from wool shops, but as they were effectively indestructible, most women built up a stock of them.

Unfortunately, even using the size of needle specified in the knitting pattern, one could never be completely certain that the garment would turn out to be the expected size. The problem was not entirely with the needles. It lay with the tension, ie how tightly or loosely one pulled on the wool when knitting.

bone crochet hook,tarnished non-stainless steel bodkin, and various knitting needles from the early 1900s

Some of my grandmother's knitting needles which were still in use in my 1940s childhood. I have included one of her bodkins and large crochet hooks because the bodkin illustrates the tarnish which was also on the non-stainless steel knitting needles, and the crochet hook shows the appearance of bone tools. Knitting needles in my childhood were often made of bone.

The pattern always specified how many stitches there should be to an inch and advised that if you knitted more tightly, you should use larger needles - and conversely, if you knitted loosely, you should use smaller needles. However, knitting is necessarily somewhat elastic, and without working a very large test piece - which no-one I knew ever bothered to do - it was impossible to be sure whether or not one was knitting to the right tension. This sometimes led to a rather disappointing result, in that hours of work could produce a garment that was too tight or too loose.

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The language of knitting patterns

A section from a knitting pattern, showing the knitting 'shorthand' for various actions.

Section from a knitting pattern, showing the knitting 'shorthand' for various actions. There are glossaries for these terms on the internet.

Knitting patterns used their own 'short­hand' for the various knitting actions.

This 'short­hand' has almost entirely re­mained un­changed over the years. There is one excep­tion, however: the abbrev­iation 'w' for wool has been widely replaced by 'y' for yarn to reflect the variety of man-made fibres which have replaced wool.

Knitting patterns and their shorthand were straight-forward to follow when you were used to them, rather in the same way as text spelling is on a phone.

If you can add anything to this page or provide a photo, I would be pleased to hear from you.

Pat Cryer, webmaster

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This website Join me in the 1900s is a contribution to the social history of everyday life in 20th century Britain from the early 1900s to about 1960, seen through personal recollections and illustrations, with the emphasis on what it was like to live in those times.