Back to Your Knitting: Postwar Britain in Wool

I was recently presented with with this delightful time capsule from a used-book sale:


Practical Family Knitting Illustrated by Margaret Murray and Jane Koster, Odhams Press Ltd., Long Acre London. The original publication date is unclear, but it says Reprinted 1947, so we’re bracketing the war one way or another.

High fashion may be what endures in fame and film, but there’s nothing like recommendations for everyday wearables to provide a big bagful of feel for the era. Who knows whether anyone ever knitted the items in this book – or, if they did, whether anyone willingly wore them –  though it did go into multiple printings around wartime, suggesting a certain success. Regardless, though, the book captures the assumptions of what one should wear if one is a practical family sort of person.


Here’s Mum now, with her cotton gloves for warm summer days. Summer gloves might seem like the poster child for impracticality, but no, the caption assures us, “in reality they are very hardwearing when made with strong glove cotton in a firm openwork stitch.”


Having once been a young girl in my ‘teens, I’m pretty certain no such person was ever pleased by camiknickers. They might have been an improvement on other options, though, especially in a world of chilly weather and rationed heating fuel.


The combination of warmth and comfort is an invention of the last fifty years at most. It’s no wonder that reminiscences of baby-boomer childhoods so often feature the word “itchy.” At least they’re not about to wear all that wool into the bath, through, right? – well –


Here’s a manly young fellow – and he’d have to be manly to go in swimming wearing 3-ply wool. Who came out of the water smelling more of wet dog, I wonder?

For city-dwellers who’d suffered through bombing, privation, and cold, however, perhaps the seaside was such a miraculous prospect that the swimsuit hardly mattered.


I love this image of Dad instructing toddler on the finer points of toy sailboats, in their handsome Fair Isle knits. One might imagine that Dad is only recently home from fighting on a real ship or a different kind of shore.


“Yellow is a cheerful youthful colour,” the caption assures us, that “fits easily into any colour scheme.” Any colour scheme, that is, determined by Mum, Gran, or whoever’s supposedly churning out these “easy fitting, hardwearing jerseys.” What with rationing, school rules, the evacuation from cities, and the general tone of the time, it will take another decade for the kids to start clothing themselves. Part of the transformation of the postwar era into the swinging era is the new ability of young people to create their own style – even if it meant a quick shrubbery change of school trousers into drainpipes.


Don’t you bet this sporty young troublemaker will be screaming rock & roll in a few years?