Knitting the Archives

By Rachel McGlone (@thiscraftyhist1)

If you walk into any charity shop, you are more than likely to find, somewhere, a box or folder full of old knitting patterns. The majority of people would overlook these – to those that cannot knit, the sheets look like indecipherable code, but even to those that can, the patterns are considered dated. But these publications are an archive of everyday material culture of their own, which merit engagement. The newly coined “Embodied Turn” is a trend gaining significant traction in the field of textile history.[1] It explores the benefits of remaking items from the past, using the process of reconstruction to recover experiences of those whose voices do not regularly form part of the historical record, such as women and minority groups. Historical reproductions can help “bring the past to life,” and, in the same way, knitting from an original pattern is a way to let those garments live again. [2]

The pattern I chose to reproduce was one with an original from 1946 (published in Dorette Designs Volume 3), but with a 2011 reproduction pattern also available (published in Susan Crawford’s A Stitch in Time Vol.2).[3] The modern publication made the pattern more widely available to the twenty-first century public and, as such, there is a larger chance of knitters unconsciously engaging with this archive of the past. One additional positive of Crawford’s book is that she publishes a scan of the original pattern alongside her reproduction, allowing readers access to the original archive item, even as a copy.

Knitting the Archives pattern
Image 2: Photo of original pattern included in A Stitch in Time Vol.2.

The purpose of my reflective study was to evaluate how the experience could be interpreted as a contact with the past. This method relies on inherent knowledge established through prolonged knitting experience, which may not be available to all researchers. I have been knitting for nearly ten years and have published a couple of my own designs.  Therefore, I am familiar with the craft and terminology. To better compare the two patterns, I set a couple of control parameters: I used the same yarn and needle size for each. The patterns both began with the same instructions, casting on with 52 stitches, and working a twenty row ribbed cuff.

The two patterns differed from here though, as the original required knitting flat on two needles, and the reproduction knitted in the round on one circular needle. The reproduction also added rows before starting the thumb and an extra pattern repeat before the decreases, which resulted in a longer mitten, as demonstrated by the final objects (Figure 1). Part of the reason for extending the pattern could lie in the changing of modern bodies. Women of the 1940s often had smaller hands due to childhood malnutrition. In the twenty-first century, a well-nourished adult is taller, with stronger bones and longer fingers, hence the need for a longer mitten.[4] This is an indicator of how difficult it is to directly translate historical patterns to the modern day, as they were designed for completely different bodies.

Knitting the Archives different types
Image 3 and 4: Left: knitting in the flat. Right: knitting in the round. Author’s own

How far, then, was this experience a contact with the past? Paradoxically, in order to examine how reproducing patterns engages the knitter with the past, I had to hold in mind the twenty-first century experience of knitting in order to perceive the contrasts with past experiences. The experience did make me consider, though, the nature of the change in skills between the past and present. I am more familiar with circular knitting (I make a lot of socks) than I am in flat knitting, whereas the majority of 1940s patterns were constructed from the flat. These two different construction methods, while producing near identical items, gave me an insight into the development of knitting as a practice over the twentieth century. However, I did not feel especially connected to women of the 1940s, perhaps because the rhythmic motions are too familiar to me.

From this reflective practice, I learned that contact with the past can be found in reproductions and traditions by those actively seeking it out. Additionally, the reproduction of historic patterns in modern knitting books mean that, even for knitters who do not intend to refer to the past, the underlying historicism of such patterns can accumulate to give the mind a nostalgic impression of knitting. It is important to note, though, that there are constraints to the practical applications of such historical reconstruction. Bodies have changed, construction preferences are different, and as such the fit of the items is different.  Yet within academic practice, such insights would not have been reached without this experiment. Overall, the process of knitting the objects helped to raise critical questions about the process of making. As such, the practice of ‘making as method’ can add to understanding creative processes with material culture, and should be more widely practised.


[1] Hilary Davidson, “The Embodied Turn: Making and Remaking Dress as an Academic Practice,” Fashion Theory. Vol.23, no.3 (2019) 329-362.

[2] Jenny Kidd, “The costume of openness: heritage performance as a participatory cultural practice,” in Performing Heritage: research, practice and innovation in museums and live interpretation. Edited by Jackson, Anthony and Kidd, Jenny (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011). p.217.

[3]“Dorette Designs – a rare kind of knitting,” on Pretty Old Patterns. Published 23/05/15. Accessed 12/08/19.

Susan Crawford and Jane Waller, A Stitch in Time: Vintage Knitting Patterns 1930-1959: Volume 2 (Southport: Arbour House Publishing LTD, 2011).

[4] SizeUK. The Results from the National Sizing Survey. Published 25/07/18. Accessed 24/08/19.

Additional further reading:

Appleby, Grahame., “Crossing the Rubicon: fact or fiction in Roman re-enactment”, Public Archaeology. Vol. 4, no.4 (2005) 257-265.

Lowenthal, David., The Past is a Foreign Country (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

Featured image: Two mittens, the left knitted from the 1946 pattern, the right knitted from the 2011 reproduction. Author’s own.

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