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Florence Cole as a child

Obtaining and preparing wool
for knitting in 1940s & 1950s England

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The knitting wool/yarn

Knitting was almost always with wool before the early 1950s because there were no man-made fibres, and cotton and linen wasn't elastic like wool. One of my friends was once very proud of her knitted white cotton summer cardigan because white cotton kept its colour whereas white wool went cream - but the cardigan lost its shape quickly, and she only wore it a few times.

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Obtaining the wool: (1) The wool shop

Knitting scarves, gloves and pullovers etc oneself was common in the rationing and austerity of the 1940s and 50s. Every town had a shop dedicated to selling wool, knitting patterns and knitting needles, usually along with items for sewing and embroidery.

Skeins and batch numbers

A skein of wool - as wool was bought from wool shops in the 1940s

A skein (or hank) of wool - as wool was bought from wool shops in the 1940s up to the 1950s.

A skein of wool twisted, with one end tucked inside the other, to prevent tangling.

The skein of wool twisted, with one end tucked inside the other, to prevent tangling in storage or transit.

The wool from the shop came in loose coils called skeins or hanks which were dyed in batches. To be sure that every skein used in a garment would match every other skein, it was important to buy all skeins for a garment together and to check that they all had the same batch number. Some women could not afford to buy all the skeins together, and the shop would reserve them for a specified length of time.

Wool thickness: ply

The wool came in three thicknesses - at least I only knew of three - called ply. 3-ply seemed to be the standard for most knitwear. 2-ply was for fine garments, although they could never match the fineness of the shop knitwear of today. 4-ply was for heavier garments such as scarves, hats and heavier clothes. I can't ever remember seeing really chunky wool.

Pre-shrunk and normal wool

Skeins from wool shops were not pre-shrunk in the 1940s and early 1950s - and wool certainly did shrink when it was washed. Woollen garments had to be washed very carefully and dried flat on a towel. Hours of knitted effort could be wasted in a few hours by poor washing.

The wool that reaches the customer today has improved immeasurably from the wool of my childhood. One can reasonably expect it not to shrink.

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Obtaining the wool: (2) Unravelling old knitwear

Unravelled wool in a loose skein, ready for washing and drying to remove its kinks.

Unravelled wool in a loose skein, ready for washing and drying to remove its kinks..

Wool unravelled from old knitwear, kinked into the shapes of the original stitches.

Wool unravelled from old knitwear, kinked into the shapes of the original stitches.

Another way of obtaining wool was to unravel it from a knitted garment that had either got too small or had holes or thin parts. Unravelling was easy because knitting was a form of chain stitch. All one had to do was to snip an end and pull. However, the resulting wool wasn't smooth or straight because it had been 'set' into the shape of the stitches. So women first had to coil it into loose skeins to wash and dry it to remove the kinks.

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Winding the skeins of wool into balls

Wool could not be knitted directly from skeins as it would quickly get tangled. It had first to be wound into balls. This process required two people - although there were various gadgets that never worked properly which claimed to replace the second person.

One person had to hold out the skein as shown in the sketch while the other person would take one end, pull it off the skein and wind it into a ball. The person holding the skein had to watch which end the wool would be wound from next and move that arm towards the other person, so that the wool would slip easily off the hand. Then that arm had to be moved back and the other arm had to be moved forward, in time with the person winding.

Winding a skein of wool into a ball.

Winding a skein of wool into a ball. Holding the skein was invariably a task for children, and was very tiring because arms had to be outstretched and swung in and out and to and fro to allow the wool to come off the skein at constant tension.

It was very tiring to keep doing this with outstretched arms, and also extremely boring as so many skeins needed to be balled for a whole garment. Inevitably the task fell to children, and many a child had to sit in front of mother or grandmother, arms outstretched, swaying them forwards and backwards while mother or grandmother unwound from the skeins and wound the wool into balls.

In the 1910 version of TV's Upstairs Downstairs, there was a brief clip of Sir Hallam Holland holding a skein of wool for his wife who was winding it into a ball. The script had him saying that he often used to do this for someone else in his family. Yet he clearly never had in real life, and there was no-one old enough on the TV set to tell him that he was doing it wrong! He held the skein loosely so that it sagged, which would rapidly have come off his hands and tangled; and he did not move his arms forwards and backwards and to and fro with the flow of the wool, which would have resulted in the wool catching on his fingers.

Boys' hand-knitted pullovers and jerseys from the 1940s and 50s.

This detail from a photograph on a Silver Street School page shows how usual it was to wear hand-knitted garments and how intricate stitches and patterns were commonplace.

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Obtaining the wool: (3) Using up leftover wool

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

Pat Cryer, webmaster

There were invariably lengths of wool left over from knitting a garment, and these were carefully kept.

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Wool for Fair Isle knitting

Fair Isle knitting

Boy's jersey of Fair Isle knitting

Knitwear with coloured repeated rows of patterns was common and I suspect that the fashion developed because it meant that odd lengths of wool of different colours could be put to good use. These patterns were known as Fair Isle knitting.

My mother was about 18 when WW2 began, so her recollections were very clear. She told us quite a lot about making the best of things during the rationing and shortages. She talked about unravelling worn jumpers and washing and straightening the wool, and re-knitting it, often as Fair Isle with its intricate repetitive and multi-coloured designs. The different coloured wools are carried across the back of the knitting, which meant that thin wool could be used while still making a thicker warm garment.

My mother and her workmates used to swap tiny balls of different colours of left-over wool, so that they could make all sorts of attractive things. They made gloves, mittens, scarves and berets this way, using up tiny scraps of wool.

Sandra Hanson

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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.