If you love vintage clothing and you love knitting, then old patterns are great fun to collect. They’re usually cheap to buy and they give you a glimpse of the fashions and knitting trends of the past. And, of course, they also offer you the chance to recreate the garments and enjoy a bit of retro style today.
In World War II, when people were encouraged to ‘make do and mend’, there was a rise in home knitting, and during the years of austerity that followed, people continued to knit their own clothes. Knitting patterns from the 1940s and 1950s are often, therefore, for rather plain and practical garments. You’ll find patterns for serviceable sweaters and comfy cardigans; for hats, socks and gloves; for sportswear – including swimwear – and even for underwear. But by the 1960s, with greater prosperity and the increase in mass-produced clothing, it was no longer necessary to make everyday garments yourself, so knitting patterns started to show more flair, featuring interesting stitch patterns, bold colours and more challenging designs. When you look at knitting patterns of the 1960s the styles on offer are more exciting and more fashionable than before.
If you want to knit from a vintage pattern it isn’t quite as straightforward as using a modern one. To start with, the measurements will be imperial ones and so you will need to convert inches to centimetres and ounces to grammes. The needles used will be sized using a different system, so you will have to work out what the modern-day equivalents are – for a handy needle conversion chart go to our blog here.
It’s highly unlikely that you’ll be able to get hold of the yarn that was used originally, so you will have to find a suitable substitute. The yarn weight will probably be given in the pattern so this should give you a rough idea of what type of yarn you could use. The size of needle is also an indication of yarn weight. For example, if a pair of thin size 12 needles were used – equivalent to 2.75mm needles – then the yarn needed will be a fine weight. To work out how much yarn you need, look at the ounces given and convert this to grammes.
The tension guide on your pattern will also be an indication as to the type of yarn used – for example if the tension is seven stitches to one inch (2.5cm) then that is equivalent to 28 stitches to four inches (10cm), the standard tension for a 4-ply yarn. As with any pattern, once you’ve selected a yarn to use, you will need to knit up a tension swatch and then make the usual adjustments to needle size as necessary. (See Knit & Stitch Creative know-how 1 for information on tension).
Vintage knitting patterns often come in just one size so, if you’re not the given size, you may have to make adjustments to the stitch counts throughout your pattern. If, for example, you want to make a sweater with a given measurement of 34 inches around the chest and you want it to be 38 inches, you need to work out how many extra stitches you need for those extra four inches. If your pattern gives a tension of seven stitches to one inch, then that’s an additional 28 stitches. Because your sweater has two pieces, a front and a back, you have to divide the stitch number in two – you need, therefore, to add on 14 stitches to both front and back. Photocopy your pattern and then go through it, adjusting all the stitch counts.
Tackling a vintage pattern is probably not for a beginner and it might be better to wait until you’ve had a go at a few big projects – such as sweaters or cardigans. But even if you don’t go so far as to make up an old pattern, you can still be inspired by the design and style of knitwear from the past.