Sustainable Design with Jane Waller
We interviewed Jane at her home in the Chiltern Hills in Buckinghamshire, surrounded by yarn, old knitting patterns and Jane's beautiful ceramics, where we asked her about her new book:
Knitting Fashions of the 1940s.
How long has it taken to complete your latest book?
I first started on it about 10 years ago. I had chosen most of the sweaters, had them knitted and taken most of the photographs when people seemed to stop knitting, and suddenly the publishers weren't that interested in going on with it. Then, about a year ago, I had a feeling that knitting was coming back and went back to my publishers and they said "No, its just a flash in the pan" but then it really did come back and they had to produce it in a hurry; such a hurry in fact that it wasn't out in time for the big knitting and stitching shows, such as Alexandra Palace, where I had a stand. I had to sit there with all my knitted garments around me, trying to sell this conceptual book, and everyone went "oh no" and walked past.
So what started your interest in old patterns?
It was purely an accident. There was this little old lady called Daisy Groombridge-Harvey who lived in a thatched cottage in Buckinghamshire and was possibly a relation of our family. She was a bit crazy and never threw anything away.
When she died she left the cottage to my father, because he had thatched it and helped look after Daisy and the cottage.
I am one of five children and when they went to unpick the cottage of all its wonderful objects I was in a hospital wing having an operation, so my sisters and brothers went there without me.
They found a foot and a half of newspapers all over the floor, with silver candlesticks everywhere. There were £5 notes rolled up and stuffed into the piano, and all sorts of weird but beautiful stuff from Groombridge Place, where she had grown up.
There was not a lot left by the time I went there. So I wandered out to the outhouses and they were packed full of magazines, like 'Good Housekeeping' 'Women and Home', 'Women and Children', 'Mother', and all those kinds of magazines which were produced after the first world war, when women and men had to learn to do things for themselves for the first time. Like bringing up a baby on your own without a nanny, cooking, sewing, knitting and needlework. I took them back in three van loads to London and they have formed the basis of the collection.
Then later on, a glass blowing friend of mine from the Royal College of Art had a mother who had escaped from Germany during the Second World War, and she had come to live in Yorkshire. She was a knitwear designer in Germany, and she continued designing all her life. When she died, my friend, Peter Layton, asked me if I would like his mother's magazines which he had found stored away in the loft. They were pretty dirty but he had an empty van coming back to London, as he was moving to London, and he put all the magazines in there.
So, I then had this double collection in my house, which was by then, one of the largest collections in the country, outside of the V&A and the British Museum. Other people have added to the collection, and eventually when I moved to this cottage in the Chilterns, there just wasn't room to house them all, so they now form a national collection in Winchester Art College Library. I have used the patterns from the collection to write all my knitting books, including this - my sixth.
So, when did you first think of using the collection for a knitting pattern book?
I was friendly with a lady called Norah Marshall, who happened to be Kaffe Fasset's first knitter. She looked through the magazines with me and was fascinated, as I was, by seeing jumpers with puffed sleeves, and jumpers which hadn't been worn by anyone since the 30's and still look fabulous. So Norah suggested I make photocopies of all the patterns I really liked, so we could share them and knit them up, without the original patterns being spoiled or disintegrating through use; so I opened some of the magazines up all over the floor and looked at the patterns and thought, "this is very interesting."
There was so much more more going on than I had originally thought. I saw all the 20's patterns were very straight up and down and flat chested with geometric patterns and just knitted in one great strip, in sort of tomboyish designs for playing tennis in and things like that. Then in the 30's, when you wanted to look very slender and tall and glamorous, the jumpers were much shorter and very feminine and fluffy, with beautiful butterfly patterns and puffed sleeves, made in yarns like angora, with beautiful detailed stitches.
Because of the depression in 1931 and 32, women had to knit all their own garments, because they didn't have enough money to buy clothes. Then, in the 40's, when the war broke out, women had to first knit for the troops, and then knit for themselves and their families. Cloth was in such short supply that women had to knit everything that had previously been made of cloth; things like coats, whole dresses and dressing gowns. They knitted all of their childrens clothes, including underwear. Clothes and fabric were rationed, so they couldn't afford not to knit.
There were little warnings in the magazines saying things like "we hope you haven't made the mistakes you made in the first world war, like making one sleeve twice as long as the other". The magazines then gave advice and tips to the knitters, such as "knit the front and back at the same time, then knit the sleeves together", so their knitting got better and better. The women soon started to compete with one another, knitting even when they were on buses and trains and in the air raid shelters. They would try to knit really difficult patterns, all tailored, and because the 40's jumpers had to be economical, all belts, buckles and frills went. Metal had to be donated for the war effort, so they had to even knit their own buttons.
The sweater designs are beautiful, absolutely wonderful, and are the reason I wanted to do my book. It was as a big conservation project, so that everyone would be able to knit up these lovely jumpers that I had seen in the magazines.
So which knitting pattern era is your favourite?
I think the period with the most excellent knitting patterns probably goes from 1936 to 1944/5, because in those days, jumpers didn't seem to be the same as these days. In those days jumpers really seemed to flatter the figure and they were tailored to make the women wearing them look so glamorous. They were special and individual, and by the time you had knitted one up it became part of you, and was something you had in your wardrobe that you could wear forever, and even if you had a hole you could then darn it and go on wearing it. They were special, and I think its very apt for nowadays - part of what I call sustainable design - that people should start making garments that will last instead of going out and buying new, and throwing things away all the time. You should love something you have spent your time knitting, so you should make something using the best yarns available to you, something that fits beautifully and will last for years.
So how did you choose the garments featured in the new book?
I suppose it was personal taste. Some of the jumpers are so striking, I thought they couldn't have been designed yet, they are so modern. Some of them are reversible, and they all have interesting details like wiggly collars and special moss stitch areas and smart cables in strange places. Not the usual normal sweater. There's always something exciting about them and they're all different.
Do you have a personal favourite?
Oh dear, no I don't, because I wear the jumpers according to my mood, and there are so many beautiful jumpers I couldn't choose one.
Which contemporary knitting designers do you admire?
I suppose the most fun person is Kaffe Fasset, because he elevated knitting patterns to an art form, sumptuous and gorgeous, and you felt great wearing them. Now, I feel these less sumptuous 1940s jumpers have such a distinguished but individual quality to them, and it is quality rather than quantity that I go for. That, I think, can make you feel great! I love using 4 ply yarns. If you knit using fine yarns you actually use less of it, so it is cheaper to make. There's less weight when you are knitting, for you to hold up. There is also something rather nice about using fine needles instead of great big chunky ones.
I have found recently, more and more people asking me what it feels like when I'm knitting and does it relax me. And I must say, if I'm in a fluster, or have come back from work, if I just pick up my knitting and knit for an inch, or half an hour I become completely relaxed and feel okay again. So, I find knitting to be very therapeutic.
What are you knitting at the moment?
Something from "Stitch in Time", my first book, which is now out of print and sells on Ebay for very high figures. In "Stitch in Time" there are so many different types of jumper, that one of them jumps into fashion, or what you feel about another changes, it really is a golden well of recipes. Suddenly, I wanted to knit this jumper that I haven't knitted before because it feels right for now. It's called the Rose jumper, and has three crocheted roses that you add to it around the neckline when you've finished. I found a rather nice wool silk to knit it up in, which gives it just the right amount of weight to make the jumper hang in the right way. The sleeves are draped and not cuffed so the heavier weight will make them hang properly.
In the new book I've made sure there are very simple recipes to begin with, such as the army vest. My biggest tip is not to drop your needles, but to keep hold of them. If you do that you will get faster and faster and more even. So after the army vest you will want to tackle something more interesting, more of a challenge, and this is how it goes. You go from one challenge to the next until eventually you are competing with your best friend to knit really complex ones. The most complex jumper is the Willow pattern one, with your complete willow pattern dinner set on the front of your jumper, with every line different. I don't think I'd want to attempt that, but at the London Knit and Stitch show, these ancient knitting ladies walked past and said "Oh, I've knitted that" nonchalantly as though there was nothing to it. So you can get better if you go on knitting. You can knit really complex patterns; and some of the very lacy patterns aren't so difficult once you've got going. It's probably just four lines and four stitches you have to make different, but once you've done it about nineteen times you can knit the jumper straight off and it's no longer difficult, but I would always knit a tension square first .
What do you find yourself drawn to most when you find an old magazine, the social aspect or patterns?
It goes hand in glove, the knitting patterns really reflect the social history of the time and this is what I saw immediately when I had all these magazines opened out. They just reflected what was happening around them. I find it fascinating, and because of that, I thought it was important to write a history, so in the new book, as well as giving all the patterns, this is what I have done. I have read all the magazines that the patterns came out of, and through people writing in, and the advice from the editor, these fascinating stories of knitting through the war showed me how things really were for the women then.
I was able to pick up all these stories that were sad or hilarious and put them in the history. I hope the knitters will read them to amuse themselves whilst knitting the patterns.
The amazing thing is, is that the magazines were ephemeral things which you were supposed to give in for the war effort as waste paper. The two ladies whose magazines form the basis of my collection didn't. They were wicked, they hoarded theirs, refusing to throw them away.
So it is much more than a knitting book?
Yes, I hope so. I try to make all my knitting books reflect what was going on at the time, and I do that with my art books as well. I try and write a philosophy book as well as an art book, then you can look at it time and time again and it doesn't become boring.
There is such a wealth of information which is authentic and useful. They would nearly always put an approximate cost to knit. I look at hairstyles as well, they were amazing, or hidden away in snoods or turbans, to keep hair out of machines, for the women working in factories. There's always significance between the jumpers and what was happening in society. For example 1940's jumpers had three quarter sleeves, or to the elbow, as people didn't have enough yarn, and discovered you are just as warm as in a long sleeve jumper, so it wasn't necessary. Also, it was safer and easier for working in the factories - your sleeves didn't get in the way. Padding in the shoulders was to echo the epaulets on soldiers' uniforms, to make the women look tough and strong. Then, after the war, garment shapes went soft and feminine again and lost all hardness. Women wore "Maidenform" bras to look like Marilyn Monroe or Jane Russell. I lost interest when machine knitting came in, so the golden age for knitting for me ended then, but I am so happy there is now a knitting revival amongst people wanting to make something for themselves, which they will love and wear.
"A Stitch in Time" is to be republished by knitonthenet - click here for more details.
You can find out more about Jane at her website www.janewaller.co.uk
If you would like to purchase a copy of Jane's new book "Knitting Fashions of the 1940s",
follow this link to The Crowoodpress Press and buy it direct from the publishers.
Also see the latest pattern from the Jane Waller archive