Knitting in Difficult Times — pre-war and war-times: the 1930s and 40s – part IV


At the same time, the first designers for knitted garments were at the peak of their success. They made classics that are still famous and popular today. Like, for example the jumper with a matching cardigan that Otto Weisz created in 1934 for the Scottish label Pringle and which is called the twinset. This twinset was especially fancied in the 1950s and again in the 80s, but it came to live in this pre-war era.

Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel (1883-1973)

Otto Weisz disappeared somewhere in the darkness of time. The most popular of all designers was possibly Chanel. She worked as a seamstress and had a shop as a milliner first, and she must have been a very independent and ‘modern’ woman herself. This

is one of my favourite pictures, showing her in her boyfriends clothes.

Since this kind of dressing was not socially accepted, she searched for another way to create garments that allowed more movement for a woman, so it seems quite logical that when she strived for simplicity in woman’s clothing, she found: Knitwear.

Knitwear meant not only more simplicity in design, but also in fabric. It is said that the French Manufacturer Rodier had bought some bales of Jersey for sports garments, but they wouldn’t sell. Chanel took those Jersey bales and made skirts and suits, so called ‘Complets’ for women – and they not only sold, but were the beginning of one of the biggest careers in fashion business.

Chanel made it into one of the first issues of Australian Women’s Weekly with a sweater design – the dark one on the left – but it’s interesting that Chanel was first published in an American magazine: in 1916th Harper’s Bazaar.

Even her simpliest designs were timeless and inspiring for more than one generation.



Another, quite different Designer was

Elsa Schiaparelli

To me, Chanel always was a fashion designer who made artful dresses. Elsa Schiaparelli was more of an artist who happens to make fashion.

Elsa Schiaparelli was born in Rome, but came to Paris as a young woman. Where Chanel searched for simplicity, Schiaparelli loved to be ‘shocking’. Dalì was a friend of hers – and some of her designs show – in my humble opinion — one of the reasons why those two had been friends.

There was an interview with her where she describes how to dress on a budget –

It’s interesting because Schiaparelli was the one who made things like this –

This one is called the ‘lobster dress’

or this one, the skeleton dress:

Besides these, she designed two things that had strong influence on the knitting world – no, not the shoe hat you saw above, but the so called mad cap, here worn by Katherine Hepburn. The mad cap is a simple knitted tube which was very versatile.

The second of her most famous designs was the trompe l’oeil sweater – made with an intarsia knitting technique – a style which became popular again during the 1980s.

Both ladies, by the way, were called to Hollywood, neither of them was very happy there – so they both gave up costume design and returned to Europe. None of these movies were really successful:


Fashion Shows –

Another thing that yarn companies used in order to make knitting even more popular as it already was, were fashion shows:

As an example, I want to mention the manufacturer Coats & Clark.

Coats & Clark first sold cotton, from 1936 on also wool. Most of the fashion designs recommended by yarn manufacturers held patterns for dresses and suits, simply because a knitter needed two or three times more yarn for a fine knitted dress with the long 30s skirts than for a short, close fitting sweater. And this is how coats presented their new designs. à

coats and clarks


And then there was the new artificial silk called rayon.

Rayon was invented in the very late 19th century but reached the state of massproduction only some years later. By 1905 the British silk firm Samuel Courtauld & Company was producing Rayon, and in 1911 the American Viscose Corporation began production in the United States. In those early days, rayon must have been a more simple version of our modern Viscose, means: a mixture of natural and chemical ingredients.

(Some parts from the cotton plants were taken and treated with copper salts and ammonium)

Rayon sometimes was called artificial silk, and it must have been very similar in look and touch to real, pure silk. But as far as I understand, Rayon works best when blended with other fibers, since it doesn’t cope very well with water – the fiber swells and looses shape, so in the 30s, when rayon was still very new, there were some stories around that rayon sweaters weren’t very funny to wear on a rainy day when a knitted sweater suddenly grew longer and longer.


So we had the magazines, the designers, the fashion shows and a wide range of fashionable new yarns – but yarn companies did more to encourage knitters to try more patterns.

Actresses and other stars and starlets were persuaded to knit in public or wear knitted items. Fashion and trends in those days were influenced by the same things as today: movies, magazines, sports idols – stars and their style. So when someone famous was seen with a beautiful knitted sweater – be sure that this became trendy. Famous style icons were Norwegian skater Sonja Henie, German Boxer Max Schmeling, Ronald Reagan and his first wife Jane Wyman, aviation pioneer Elly Beinhorn, Ginger Rogers, Cary Grant …

So we can say, that in the 30s, the knitters everywhere in the world were busy making garments out of need or to be fashionable dressed, preferably on a budget. And the knitting industry was busy providing the necessary supplies – yarns, patterns, whatever was needed.

At the end of this decade, all these trained knitters got even more to do than they ever had dreamt of – and the knitting industry had their hands full keeping pace with what was requested.

Knitting In Difficult Times – 1930s and 40s – part III

What was knitted? Why and by whom?

WWI which ended in 1918, a bit more than 10 years before our era, and it had influenced the world of knitting in a way that is barely imaginable.

An adult woman in the 1930s had probably been in her teenage years during the First World War, when millions of handknitted items were made, partly due to patriot knitting, when socks or gloves were requested for the troops. Partly out of necessity at home, to have warm garments on cold days or to look fashionable with limited supplies.

And please remember – during the First World War, women’s fashion style changed considerably – from corsets under complicated layers of fabric and ruffles to garments that made moving far easier, not only for the everyday activities or sports, but also for working.

Women were still having a profession, which was a quite new thing after the first world war and reached a first peak in the 20’s.

There were, of course, some female medical doctors or other women in high-valued jobs, but most women worked as sales clerks, secretaries, teachers or nurses, where wages were low. This means, that many of them had to be well-dressed each and every day, but on a budget. That might have been one of the reasons why dresses, for a long time the most proper kind of garment for a woman, weren’t that popular any more. Sweaters and skirts took their place. It simply was far easier to look fine and fashionable at work with skirts and sweaters that could be combined. And of course these sweaters usually were handmade – by a young sales clerk, secretary or teacher – or her loving mom.

What else was knitted?

Knitting has, of course, a long tradition. But knitted garments as outerwear were still a quite new thing. For a very long time, knitted clothing or accessories were for underwear only or for some really comfortable items for the leisure time at home.

We already saw that there were a lot of knitted sweaters. But besides that, sportswear was usually knitted. Sweaters for tennis or golf hat a great influence on non-sport-fashion, too. Swimsuits were also knitted

– and please don’t forget that these figure-hugging things were still very new and were considered as bold. There were laws which controlled how much skin should be revealed and how much had to be covered.

And then there was, of course, underwear. Since the fashion style was so very close fitting, underwear was made from very fine yarn and very figure hugging.

People, children and adults, usually wore a lot of underwear. First reason was, that heating was far more difficult than today. Second reason, that washing was far more work, and a lot of fibers couldn’t simply be washed. So underwear was meant to keep you warm and to shelter outerwear from sweat and smell. I found this advertisement I don’t want to withhold from you – Shetland wool was promoted for underwear.


Just to mention it.

Knitted things for babies were important, too. They were growing so fast …

And some women knit to support their husbands, and children, their families by knitting for shops, for example.

So far, most things had to do with fashion and what knitters made – the sweaters, sportswear or underwear. But to provide all those knitters with supplies, there was a knitting industry needed – means, above all, the yarn manufacturers.


The knitting industry

So far we heard that there was lot of knitting in the 30s from a lot of experienced knitters. The knitting industry kept watching this and tried to make the very best of it, using basically 4 different steps, opportunities and methods.

  • Magazines
  • Designers
  • Fashion Shows
  • Yarns


The 1930’s were the big era of magazines, and that is very lucky for us, the curious ones. It is even better that a lot of those magazines survived for such a long time.

Those of you who collect knitting patterns probably know that magazines from pre-war-time are not as easy to find as those from the years after war. Paper doesn’t like moisture nor fire, and what wasn’t destroyed during the war was used for heating or simply thrown away, eaten by mice or whatever.

In case you already noticed that or will see it now – I use magazines from all over the world when I search for knitting subjects or patterns.

For two reasons: first, Those journals from Europe, the US or Australia don’t differ very much in the content that we are interested in, so they are absolutely comparable. What was fashionable in the UK appeared also in Australia, and the difference in time or climate that might have been important then is not important anymore in retrospect.

Second, availability is a crucial thing. The Australian Women’s Weekly, for example, is nearly completely archived, and this archive is accessible.

Back to magazines: Vogue knitting, for example, was launched in 1932, and what you see here are covers from issues of Australian Woman’s Weekly, the French Petite Echo de la Mode, the Austrian Perfekt Mode and Monarch from USA – all of them from the early 30s – and these are just a few of many new magazines all over the world. These came out just in time to spread the new fashion trends and style of the 30s and encourage knitters to make the newest sweaters for themselves or their families.

All these pattern books and magazines were not only following the trend, that knitting was fashionable and that knitters asked for new patterns. There was also another side – a yarn industry that fought for survival in a time when money wasn’t easily spent. Remember that we are still during or shortly after the great depression. Magazines were developed because there were enough readers, and yarn companies wanted to meet those readers because they wished to be as successful as before, during the first world war and the years after.

As we already mentioned before: Knitted garments – means knitted things for outer wear – had a first flash in WWI, and it picked up again in 1920s. This was called the knitting craze, and when it slowed down a bit in the last years of the so called Golden Twenties, the crash in 1929 inspired knitters nearly all over the world to pick up their needles again. They simply were in need of garments. And we have to remember that knitting was an easy to handle craft. No machines needed, not much room in a probably crowded flat, and the knitting could easily be carried wherever the knitter goes. Even when economy was at the lowest, all the knitting related things kept the industry going.

Patriot knitting during the first world war had brought the knitting industry up, the companies grew during the so called knitting craze in the 1920s, and they were determined to prosper further during depression and after.

So magazines were one of the most important distributors for the yarn manufacturers.

One of the most interesting ones is the Australian Woman’s Weekly. This magazine was launched in 1933, and it was an instant hit, the copies increased to half a million within a few years and we can assume that this magazine probably reached nearly every household in Australia – bought by one person, lend to mothers, daughters, best friends, neighbours, stored in libraries.

And these magazines summed up the same tiny tidbids of daily life that we like to read in our magazines today. We have to keep in mind, that the 30s started with the Great Depression and ended with a terrible war, but between all these things people gave birth and died, fell in and out of love, read books from Margaret Mitchell or William Faulkner, listened to Glenn Miller and danced, saw movies with Claudette Colbert and Cary Grant and went to sports events everywhere in the world.

All these tiny tidbits of everyday life can be found between many other things in those magazines which were read by so many people that we must believe that content here was really powerful.

Another interesting and well-read magazine of those days was the ‘Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung”.

One more note: none of these two was a crafting or knitting magazine. But between all these so very important news, we see the advertisements and patterns that have to do with knitting – obviously, this was something interesting for readers, and yarn manufacturers met their customers here. We are before TV and internet … We can definitely tell that in the 1930’s, knitting was popular and the publishers of these magazines knew where they could meet the knitters and connect them with yarn manufacturers.

Part IV will come soon – and start with the designers – stay tuned 😉