Land Girls and Coded Jumpers

I wouldn’t have lasted long in Wartime Britain.

If the tea-ration didn’t finish me off, the lack of knitting patterns would have done me in.

The ministry of war feared that knitting patterns could be used to send encrypted messages so it became illegal to send knitting patterns by international mail.  So knitters were stuck with whatever patterns they already owned or had to make up their own patterns.  To compensate for this inconvenience, the war office got busy making up knitting patterns and encouraging people to knit for the services.

As a result, there are lots of knitting patterns from World War Two in the IWM archive.  Earlier in the year I spent a happy morning looking through three archive boxes full of them.  There are more boxes but not everything is accessible at the moment because of the refurbishments.

The vast majority of these patterns are for men and there are dozens of copies of Service Woolies for Men and Knitting for the RAF/ARMY/Delete as appropriate.

And nestled in among them all a single, well-worn copy of Weldon’s Service Woolies for Women

servicewooliesforwomen

Imperial War Museum Archives Eph. C. Fashion (Knit WW2 & Postwar) Item number K05/2622 18 page magazine in good condition – No. 14 Pages 12-13 Land Army

It’s 18 pages long and it has about a dozen patterns for pullovers, gloves and scarves which are supposedly for the ladies in the forces though I bet a lot of people knit them for their own use too[1]. There are some vile things and some pretty nice things – it seems that whoever set out the patterns was quite fair-minded because from what I can tell there’s one decent item and one terrible item for each of the women’s forces.

I chose to make the Land Girl’s jumper mainly because it was one of the few things in my size but also because there’s a certain romance to the Land Girls.  The romance isn’t helped by things like Wartime Farm and the BBC show Land Girls which have convinced me that Land Girls lived in a jolly world of eternal summer and perfect hair.

I shouldn’t blame them.  This is the image of the Land Girl we are all familiar with.  The posters for the Women’s Land Army all show the girl in uniform[2] – usually a svelte, smiling, brunette standing charmingly in the middle of a countryside scene straight out of the world of Enid Blyton.

Look at her.  You can imagine her saying ‘spiffing!’ and lounging around in a sun-dappled cornfield drinking ginger beer. She’s all red lipstick and tight breeches and breezy wit. She rides on the back of a hay-rick.  She waves coyly at American G.Is and throws her head back when she laughs.  Sometimes she might lead a horse around a field – a nice horse, with ribbons in its mane, and a name like Clumper or Queenie or something.  She’s everyone’s summer girlfriend. And she is lovely.

Except I’m pretty sure it can’t have been like that. The photograph records in the IWM archive show an awful lot of rat-catching.  On the BBC WW2 people’s war archive some former Land Girls talk about thistle-bodging[3] and stone-picking and all kinds of hard, miserable jobs.  There are some wonderful photographs too.  These are taken from the People’s War Archive.  WW2 People’s War is an online archive of wartime memories contributed by members of the public and gathered by the BBC. The archive can be found at bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar:

There’s loads of information on the Women’s Land Army at the National Archives and at the IWM.  I plan to do a lot more reading up about Land Girls in the next few months but I suspect I won’t find many stories about scampering around in fields wearing red lipstick.

In the meantime, I decided to content myself with some Land Girl-themed knitting and picked “A Ribbed Pullover in Two Sizes” for my first IWM project.  These scans are taken from a copy I bought online – sorry about any shaky words!

Yarn

Khaki green is not my style so I decided to make this up in brown wool (Holst Garn supersoft – colourway: Conker).  I’ve knit with this yarn before and while it is kind of stiff and scrunchy in the ball it knits up into a fine, soft fabric.  The yarn is unwashed so it still has a whiff of sheep about it for that authentic Land Girl perfume.  Thankfully, the sheepishness soon washes out.  The grease helps stop the yarn splitting on the needle and has the added bonus of keeping your fingers nice and soft. The pattern calls for 10 oz of yarn but I haven’t a clue how much that is in new money so I ordered 300g initially to see where that got me.

 

First impressions

The first thing that strikes me about this pattern is how simple it appears to be.  There’s hardly any instructions.  The bit about ‘making up’, for instance, is barely a line long. The pattern author assumes the pattern reader is a) an experienced knitter and b) psychic.

While this pattern seems to have a gauge (yay) – it’s actually not a gauge at all.  It’s a cypher. The tension is ‘about 10 stitches and 11 rows’ but it doesn’t say to what…there is a rather unhelpful picture of the knitted fabric with the pattern

got gauge?

got gauge?

So I did a little swatch and got 10 stitches and 11 rows to 1 inch on 3mm needles (size 11) so I’m going to run with it and see what happens.

I cast on for the smaller size because I figure that ribbing is a fairly forgiving stitch and it will probably stretch or cling.  The sizes seem pretty vague anyway. I suspect this is a ‘one size fits none’ kind of pattern. Never mind.

Casting on

The pattern is simple and, if I’m totally honest, a little boring.  Nothing happens for rows and rows and rows. You increase a bit, then a little bit more, then a little bit more.  I am forced to count rows.  Karl gets excited by how often and how violently I smack the katcha-katcha on the head (mine’s shaped like a perturbed owl) and starts to mind it while I knit so he can smack it too.

Then all the excitement begins with the shoulder-shaping on the back.  Then there’s a MISTAKE!

It says you should end up with 36 or 40 stitches to leave on a spare needle but there’s actually either 46 or 50 stitches. So…either that’s a misprint or the pattern was never test-knit.

As I go on, and make the front I find MORE MISTAKES. The needle-sizes randomly change in the middle of the pattern.  The increases for the sleeves don’t work with the given gauge. The decreases for shaping the top of the sleeves make no sense.[4] So now I’m beginning to wonder if the pattern was ever test-knit at all.  Or even proof-read.

If they suspected that knitting patterns could be used to pass coded messages, I’m assuming that most patterns would have been checked by some official-type person.  How did these mistakes get passed over? Seriously, these people managed to crack the Enigma code – how could they not write a knitting pattern?

Then it clicked.

Maybe the pattern is a kind of test?

Maybe anyone making this pattern successfully would be immediately recruited to Bletchley Park on account of their genius?

Maybe I need to lie down.

After some strong tea and a sweet biscuit I calmed down enough to write out a new version.  Here: Land Girl Pullover

Verdict

I am impressed by how economical this pattern is.  I bought 300 grams of yarn (6 50g balls with 287m / 314yds in each) but just used 4 balls.  I have one full ball, one almost full ball and a fair amount of odds leftover.  I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have broken into the fifth ball at all if I was a bit more patient and didn’t try to knit the neckband before I started the sleeves..  This is economy knitting at its best – this sweater is the kind of thing you can knit when you’re down to the last couple of stamps on your ration-card.[5]

The ribbed material means the garment stretches and clings for any body shape and fits neatly and warmly.  I’m pleased with the finished garment too.  I would like it to be a little longer but that’s a problem I have with everything.[6]

Now to put on some red lipstick and find a hayfield…

 

Notes

[1] You could make these items in whatever colours you fancied though you could get khaki and navy yarns off-ration if you solemnly swore you were making something for the forces so it’s a good bet pretty much everything knitted in wartime was sludgy green or dark blue.

[2] The Women’s Land Army is a bit of a misnomer.  Actually, it wasn’t a military organisation at all and while there was a uniform (green pullover, brown trousers, brown felt hat, khaki overcoat) a lot of the Land Girls never actually wore it.

[3] I’m not sure what this is but it doesn’t sound like a lot of fun.

[4] Unless you have arms like a gorilla…

[5] You had to use your clothing ration to buy wool or cloth.  Each person received 66 coupons for a year (cut to 48 in 1942, to 36 in 1943 and to just 24 in 1945).  An adult  jumper or cardigan ‘cost’ 5 coupons throughout the war.

[6] I have a long torso.  Like a dog, I’m tallest when sitting.

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2 thoughts on “Land Girls and Coded Jumpers

    • Thank you! I think the people who came up with that one had read A Tale of Two Cities a little toooooo often…

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