Thursday, August 16, 2007
Things Once Common, Now Extinct. No.1. Knitting.
From about 1929 – 1957 girls used to be born with a knitting needle in each hand. It was a kind of evolutionary and cultural blip, tricky for the midwives of the time but they coped. By marriageable age a girl was expected to be able to knit her own trousseau, and, in some of the remoter parts, a husband to go with it.
Knitting skills became so developed that during the Second World War women were often employed in munitions, taking the place of engineers. My own mother used to knit Halifax bombers. It was all done to the standard Sirdar pattern and straightforward enough, Mum said, although the tail-gunner’s turret required some concentration what with the reverse stitching.
After demob, when all the men came home, this kind of precision knitting was no longer required, but many women kept it up as a hobby. Instead of producing tanks and submarines they knitted clothes for their children – still with that same ironclad quality to the design. This is the knitting that I remember.
Take the balaclava helmet, for instance. It made me laugh this week to hear of some entrepreneur who’d come up with the idea of ‘slashproof’ blazers for schoolchildren – clothing able to withstand a knife attack - as if this was something new. Knife attack? The balaclavas my mother made for me would have been proof against heavy mortar fire. You could have dipped me in a volcano wearing one of those things and I’d have been OK.
Working on the munitions production lines had given Mum a taste for the mechanical, and it wasn’t long before she got herself a professional knitting machine. There was no stopping her then. The sound of the Passap whizzing back and forth was part of the background noise in our house, and not a week went by when we children didn’t sally forth into the streets wearing some creation calculated to stagger humanity. Jumpers, mittens, hats, skirts…I think I even had a pair of woollen swimming trunks at one point. Although I’ve been trying to block that particular memory out, and now I’ve gone and thought about it again. Damn.
And the wool itself…can’t imagine where that came from. Some very special shop. Beano wool, as opposed to Marks and Spencer wool. It was always flecked – pink with black fleck, green with pink fleck, black with green fleck. But purple with black fleck was the favourite, and this one used to match the complexion of the embarrassed wearer very nicely.
I begin to wonder whether the whole thing wasn’t an exercise in persuading children to leave home as soon as possible. It worked for me. On the very day that my mother knitted me a pair of stilts I ran away and joined the circus.
You really don’t see that kind of knitting any more.