Sunday, 19 March 2023

Sportswear, 1940s style

The knitting is progressing nicely but is not yet worth another post, so this week I'm looking at something I've had for a while but forgot to blog about - a Vogue Patterns counter catalogue from December 1940.

With a 6" ruler for scale

I've no idea what other brands' catalogues looked like at the time, but this is a substantial volume with board covers, and the pages held together with long metal pins.

It's over 1000 pages

Showing the pins which hold it all together

Like all pattern catalogues, it is split into sections. For this post, I'm looking at Sports and Beachwear.

Showing some of the new patterns

Each section has a page indicating which patterns are available in larger sizes. They seem to lean more towards the 'spectator' sports than the 'active'.

Fishing and bathing are the only sports referenced

Regular size patterns exist for a wide variety of sports. Skating was especially popular at the time, judging from the number of patterns for different outfits.

Skating and skiing

Golf and hockey? (Sport is not my strong point!)

Cycling and 'exercise'

More exercise, this time with an impractically large bow


I suspect that only Vogue would carry a pattern for a riding habit! I'm intrigued by the fact that there is no hem allowance on the breeches - it's the only trouser pattern with this information given.


No hems on the breeches

It's not all outfits for specific activities, though. There are some clothes more suitable for spectators.

Athleisure, but make it forties

By the time this catalogue was issued, Britain had been at war for over 12 months. Not that you would know it from these pages. Pattern prices are given in both cents and shillings and pence, and there is a reference to Vogue Pattern Service being based in Greenwich Connecticut, so it seems likely that the same catalogue was used in both the US and the UK. But the next year would bring the start of clothes rationing in Britain, and making dresses purely for ice skating would become a thing of the past. Certainly fabric-hungry items such as these skirts would be harder to make - if the patterns even remained for sale.

The skirts take up to five yards of fabric

There is however one pattern in this section which would certainly remain in use, and which subtly indicates the differing experiences of Britain and America at the time. It is described in the catalogue as a "coverall or pyjamas", but Vogue 8852 had appeared in the previous month's UK edition of Vogue Pattern Book under the name by which it would come to be widely known, a "shelter suit".

To wear "on the way to your refuge"

At some point I will write about other sections of the catalogue. For a 1940s fan like me, there is much to drool over - especially the dresses.

Sunday, 12 March 2023

Wondrella progress report

Writing an update post about a knitting project feels very different from writing about sewing, but here goes. These are very much the thoughts of a knitting newbie, so this may be a rather basic post for experienced knitters.

In a week, I've gone from this . . .

. . . to this (admittedly, I've not done much else)

The first thing to say is that for a newbie, especially one who is used to sewing patterns, a knitting pattern looks terrifying. All these letters and numbers! No diagrams! With sewing patterns I like to read through the whole thing before I even cut out, so I know what I'm doing. However no amount of reading this pattern though was going to make it any clearer; if anything, it was more likely to put me off even starting. So instead I decided that as I know how to cast on and do ribbing, I would do those, work until I got stuck, then learn the next technique I needed, and carry on. And I've continued in that vein ever since. I did follow Tasha’s advice of highlighting the relevant number for the size I'm knitting, which seemed vital for avoiding mistakes.

After the ribbing came the row increases to shape the body of the cardigan. The first thing I needed to do was consider by how much to shorten the lower body. Using the pattern schematic, Tasha's helpful YouTube video, and a shop-bought cardigan which is a similar shape, I calculated that my standard 2"/5cm reduction would do the trick. Then I worked out how to remove 14 rows (approx. 2" of knitting) from the pattern while still ending up with the same number of stitches at the end, and wrote my own, very detailed, chart.

Possibly information overkill - part of my chart

Actually for me, this was one of the easiest bits (what can I say, I'm a maths nerd!). Then I had to learn how to do left and right stitch increases. For that, I turned to this book.

I've found this so helpful

I’ve got a couple of 'how to knit' books but for me, this is the best one. I find the instructions, and especially the illustrations, easy to follow. And I like that there's also a clear photo of actual knitting.

Different methods of decreasing

Close-up of a diagram and photograph

The instructions on joining a new ball of yarn recommend keeping any leftovers handy in case they are needed for mending - which is a touch that I appreciated. There is also a page on how to do this.

How to keep your knitwear in use

Because I was doing the stitch increase over relatively few rows, the effect is quite marked.

The increases laid flat

How the cardigan will look

Initially I miscalculated and did the bind offs for the underarms in wrong places - which gave me more unpicking practice! The back and front right sections were then put onto holding pins while I worked the left front.

The fronts were quite easy and relatively quick to do. The rows were reasonably short, and there were various changes to keep it interesting - reducing stitches for the armhole, a narrow ribbed edge for the neckline opening (which, remembering the Butterick 5997 episode, I made slightly shallower), and shaping the neckline.

Part of the right front

The back, however, I have found very boring to do (So. Much. Stocking stitch). Fortunately, it's nearly done, and then come all sorts of interesing new things; knitting the shoulder seams, adding button and neck bands, knitting the narrow neck ties, and finally the sleeves.

Not much more to go - thank goodness

I must admit that I'm finding it very odd not having anything to try on as I go along, unlike sewing. Even when I've completed the shoulder seams, the high degree of curl in the fronts will make it hard to really tell what the completed cardigan will look like. Currently it looks alarmingly small, but I have checked the gauge and it is all fine, so I am relying on blocking to make it the right size and shape. The crucial thing is that I'm still enjoying doing something entirely new.

Sunday, 5 March 2023

Singer for your every sewing need

A short post this week. I'm continuing to work away at my knitting, and I have a new dressmaking project started, but neither are well enough progressed to be worth a blog post. So instead, here's a little leaflet from Singer which I came across recently. I think that it dates from the mid 1950s.

It's only four pages, a single sheet folded in half, and it provides details of the services available from Singer shops. These seem to have existed in most towns: this leaflet comes from the Liverpool shop, my buttonholer was originally bought from the Chester shop, my mother remembers there being one in Crewe, and her sewing machine came from the shop in Golders Green (a north London suburb).

Unfortunately, by the time I realised that the first photo was blurred, it was too late to go back and retake it. I've added the two sections of text below.

Learn to sew with Singer

"Topsy Turvy was my label when it came to home dressmaking and home was written all over it. Could a novice like myself become a proficient needlewoman? To my surprise the Singer Sewing Centre said "Yes" and proved it! After eight lessons of their expert tuition, I had made a dress - which certainly did not go unnoticed. Yes, it's all sew easy from now on!"

SINGER SERVICE . . . This little folder is presented to you to acquaint you with the many Singer Services. Firstly SINGER SEWING CENTRES where, in eight easy lessons from experienced instructresses, you can make yourself a dress as you learn home dressmaking . . . Then there is

The reference to the new dress not going unnoticed reminded me of something I read when I was studying for my Masters; "The Sewing Machine as Magic Wand" by Eileen Margerum in The Culture of Sewing. This looked at how Singer advertised its Teen-Age [sic] Sewing Course in the post-war years with the basic premise of 'make a new dress and get a boy'. While the language of this leaflet is less teen-oriented, the message is similar.

Things don't improve greatly on the second page.

Get your machine repaired or serviced

Having inherited her grandmother's machine, the narrator apparently needed her husband to suggest that it should be serviced. I was intrigued, though, that at this time Singer were describing their older machines as "first class" and worth keeping, rather than pushing the idea of a trade-in for a newer model. Admittedly, in terms of features there is not a lot of difference between my 1930s treadles and Mum's 1953 machine, so perhaps at that time the focus was on persuading customers to electrify. Which brings us on to page three.

Convert to electric sewing

The emphasis on having both hands free rather overlooks the fact that this advantage was already available to treadle owners, but never mind!

Finally, page four reverts to the fairy tale theme with a vengeance, complete with a fairy godmother with a magic wand.

Oh, to have a local button and belt making service now!

One of the things which I want to look at in my study of Vogue Pattern Books is sewing machine advertising, and it will be interesting to see how Singer advertisements in particular compare to this leaflet.

Sunday, 26 February 2023

Going back in time at the Western Approaches HQ

Western Approaches HQ Operations Room, September 1944 - from Wikimedia Commons

My first job after leaving university was at the Royal Insurance head office, in Liverpool. There was little space outside, so in the event of a fire our muster point was the courtyard of the nearby Exchange Flags building. In all the various times I stood there (fortunately, mostly for fire drills), I had no idea that I was standing above a piece of history.

Exchange Flags - what lies beneath?

The Western Approaches is the term used to describe the area of the Atlantic to the west of Ireland and the UK. During World War II this area assumed vital importance, as all supplies coming to Britain had to sail through it. Merchant ships were at the mercy of German submarine attacks, so a convoy system was introduced whereby the ships travelled in groups, protected by a small number of naval vessels. Liverpool became the main port for the convoys.

Western Approaches Command was initially based in Plymouth. However the fall of France meant that not only was the south coast no longer safe, but the convoys now had to travel around the north of Ireland. The headquarters had to be moved, and Liverpool was the obvious choice. The Royal Navy had already acquired Derby House in the Exchange Flags building, and the operation to protect the convoys moved into the reinforced concrete basement.

At the end of the war the Western Approaches HQ was closed up and largely forgotten. Parts of it were destroyed when a car park was built under the courtyard in the 1950s. The rest was left frozen in time, however, and is now a museum. I've been there before, but yesterday I went for a special visit.

The bunker headquarters had to be able to function regardless of what was happening above. As well as being bombproof and gasproof it had its own power supply.

The controls for the power supply

It's a warren of tunnels and rooms.

One of the many corridors

It had a telegraph room, and a telephone system.

I don't know if the Morse code aide-memoire is original

The switchboard

Sign by the telephone switching gear

But there was also a direct phone to the Admiralty for the Commander-in-Chief, if required, next to his office.

The booth is soundproofed so nothing can be overheard

The Admiral's office

Although he was provided with a flat in Derby House the second commander, Admiral Sir Max Horton, preferred to spend much of his time in the bunker. He had a small room next to his office set up as a bedroom. Like the office, it had a window looking down into the Operations Room.

The bedroom

The view from the Admiral's quarters

The two-storey Operations Room is the most impressive room in the complex. The huge maps were painted by a Liverpool artist and signwriter, who was employed under conditions of strict secrecy, with no idea what his work would be used for. The positions of the convoys were plotted on the North Atlantic map, along with those of allied aircraft and reported enemy submarines. The plots were updated every four hours, or more frequently if urgent signals were received or orders issued.

The Operations Room

This weekend visitors have had a chance to see the Operations Room 'in use'. The re-enactment group 'V for Victory' gave a demonstration of how the room would have been used during a naval engagement - the one I saw was the tracking and sinking of the German battleship 'Bismarck'. Being in an enclosed space so separated from the outside world and busy with uniformed personnel going about their roles, it really gave a feeling of what the HQ must have been like.

The room in use

This felt as close as I will ever get to time travel

From my time dancing and re-enacting with Ya Raqs I have some idea of just how much work must have gone into planning this (and it was lovely to see some of my old friends from those days now with 'V for Victory), so thank you to everyone involved.

Sunday, 19 February 2023

Knitting again

It's only taken five years, but I'm back knitting again. I have actually done a few bits in the meantime, but nothing worth blogging about.

Knitwear, especially in vintage styles, is a perennial problem for me. I have a short torso (I have to take around 5cm/2" length out of bodices), so any shaped knitted garments tend to gather in unsightly folds around my waist. Very occasionally I have found shorter pieces and snapped them up, but my main sources were British Home Stores and Debenhams, now both sadly defunct.

From time to time I've been tempted by knitting patterns which I've seen online, but as I know almost nothing about knitting, and don't have any friends locally who knit, this seemed over-ambitious. Then Tasha, of Tasha Could Make That, announced a knit-along for her latest knitting pattern, and the prospect of some advice and hand-holding finally persuaded me to have a go.

I've followed Tasha online for ages, and been in awe of her knitting and dressmaking skills - especially her awesome plaid-matching abilities! She describes her latest pattern, the Wondrella cardigan as "Suitable for an adventurous beginner", and a brief online chat convinced me that this should be within my capabilities.

The pattern, and progress so far

Wondrella is designed to be knitted with two yarns together, but I decided against that on the basis that handling one yarn is quite enough for me at present. (On the evidence so far, this was the right decision!) Tasha had added that the pattern can be knitted in DK instead, so that's what I went for. I must admit that I chose a cheapish acrylic for my first attempt, as I'm not sure how it will turn out. The cardigan is a design I'd be happy to have in more than one colour, and it comes with several collar variations, so if it works I'll probably knit it again in proper wool. Here I must stress that my concern is based entirely on my abilities, not on Tasha's instructions, which are very detailed. There are a few bits which are new to me, but I'm reasonably confident that I'll be able to work them out when I get to them. I took the precaution of buying an extra ball of wool so that I can practise techniques as and when needed.

The first thing which threw me slightly was that the pattern is knitted on circular needles. This would be tricky for me as I knit with right needle tucked under my arm. It's how I was taught at school - a very long time ago - and I've never knitted any other way. A plea for advice on Instagram brought the information that a) this method has a name - lever knitting and b) it should be possible to knit the body at least on straight needles. I will have to learn knitting in the round for the sleeves, but I'll tackle that when I get to it. Hopefully by that stage I’ll be a more confident knitter in general.

There are no side seams to the cardigan, the body is knitted all in one. For my size, this is 155 stitches. I got to the end of the first row of ribbing, and discovered that I had made several mistakes both at the start and in the middle of the row. Sigh. After tortuously attempting to unpick a few stitches, I decided that it was easier to just unravel the whole thing and start again. On the plus side, I am now much better at casting on! This time I marked every 30 stitches with a stitch marker, so I stop at the end of each section and check it.

At worst, I only have 30 stitches to undo if I go wrong

A new project requires a new knitting bag, as the one I made previously is full of a part-done project! Some time ago I had acquired a couple of very badly made cushion covers in a mixed auction lot of sewing stuff, and had kept them because I liked the fabric. It is a cotton rep, in a very vintage-looking print, but the typeface of the writing on the selvedge suggests that it's actually modern. Anyway, I unpicked the covers, washed the fabric, and used it to make a new, roomy, bag.

Room for plenty of wool and the pattern folder

It has drawstrings on the inside to close it up, so that things don't fall out.

With the sides closed up

I also made a small zipped pouch bag for accessories such as row counters and stitch markers, as these keep getting lost in the bottom of my knitting needles bag.

A smaller bag for bits and bobs

Both bags are lined and both were 'no-buy' projects as I had everything, including the handles and zip, already.

A little bit more out of the stash

I doubt if I'll finish the cardigan in the knitalong timeframe, as I'm a very slow knitter, but I'm not worried if I don't. It will just be nice to have a vintage cardigan which actually fits.