I've been knitting from vintage patterns for a few years…
Every knitter I know has a crazy amount of knitting books, possibly more than we’ll ever get through in depth. Although the craft is not a young one, we’re constantly looking for ways to update how it’s presented, so every year new books are published; from beautifully photographed technique guides to stitch dictionaries seeking to unearth new textures, but often you’ll find one definitive tome that contains most of what you need to know about how to push out your handknit boats.
Preparing for a talk recently I found myself rifling through my own collection and rediscovered this gem. It’s a fairly well-known book written by the early 20th century knitting doyenne, Marjory Tillotson. Originally published in 1934, it powered on through several editions – mine is a Fifth Edition published 14 years after the original in 1948. Tillotson was a popular hand knit designer who created patterns for spinners J Baldwin, and continued with them beyond their merger with Patons of Alloa in 1920 (to form Patons & Baldwin). She was a champion of ‘fashionable’ knitting and loved nothing more than to encourage knitters to go ‘off-piste’, adapt their patterns and knit according to their own measurements.
I can’t tell you how relevant this book still is, exactly 80 years on from the First Edition. You’ll find many very basic patterns but, bar some interesting dresses and suits in the ‘Fashion Supplement’ at the end, you won’t find the eyecatching designs of Margaret Murray and Jane Koster – instead, Marjory keeps her patterns basic with the intention of encouraging the knitter to add their own design touches. Incredibly clear diagrams help with this and support her instructions about techniques and measurements, such as this diagram for basic glove measurements – you can’t get much simpler and straightforward than this:
When you look at a diagram like this, naive but clearly drawn, it goes some way to unveiling the mystique around knitted fabric – start out with the measurements and shape and then, using your tension swatch, find a way of shaping your knitting accordingly.
Here’s another diagram which helps to break down the shaping in areas such as armholes, sleeve caps, shoulders and neck.
It’s not a definitive guide and the book can be problematic; as this blogpost from Barbara Knits Again points out, there are no methods for estimating how much yarn to use for each project, and in one section size 8 needles are recommended for a wide range of wools (although elsewhere in the book there is a simple guide chart for needle sizes, yarn weights and tension), but you can’t beat it for encouraging knitters to experiment with their designs.
I also love the sparky quotes on the subject from the Introduction to the First Edition, where she goes into detail about the techniques explained in the book which are intended to enable …
“… all hand-knitters to make jumpers, cardigans, babies’ woollies, etc., to their own measurements, and to their own designs, thereby converting the monotonous and parrot-wise method of knitting into a really creative art.”
She doesn’t stop there! The preface to the Fourth Edition notes that a new section entitled ‘The Fashion Supplement’ has been added, and comments:
“Readers are shown not only how to knit to printed designs and patterns, but how to create their own designs, so that the knitting art becomes not merely a pleasing and useful relaxation, but also a genuine means of self-expression.”
Isn’t that great? A genuine means of self-expression. And as if that wasn’t enough, the Fifth Edition declares that:
“Great pains have been taken to keep the work thoroughly up to date and, in preparing the new edition, designs that are no longer fashionable have been withdrawn and others substituted that admirably typify le dernier cri in modern knitwear, even in some cases to the extent of modifying the length of the skirts to bring them into line with the latest mode.”
Ah, le dernier cri in modern knitwear – what a lovely phrase.
So the next time you’re feeling the urge to experiment with your knitwear and are in the market for a new book, look no further than The Complete Knitting Book – your book shelves deserve it.