The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe of Vintage Clothes

IMG_20160108_161656067.jpg

This week, I’ve been mostly marking essays from my undergraduate module Origins and Developments of Children’s Literature. Actually, I’ve been mostly marking essays about C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (1950) because the majority of the class are completely fixated on the book and want to write about it. Which is no bad thing really.[1]

I’ve done a lot of research about C.S. Lewis, particularly into in his use of landscape and the role that his memories of Ireland and his relationship with Ireland play in his fiction. I’ve given a couple of talks about his work and there was a brief time when I thought I might write my next book about his Narnia series. But then I got distracted by Victorian children’s books and the possibilities of archvies I’ve had to put Narnia aside for another day….

But I still get to lecture about Lewis and Narnia every year which is some compensation.

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe was published in 1950 though it was conceived of rather earlier. Lewis wrote to a friend in 1948 to say he was working on a children’s story “in the tradition of E Nesbit” and in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, he notes that the image of the faun in the snow had come to him when he was a teenager. But the story is set during World War II and it bears the marks of its wartime setting throughout.

Several critics have noted the influence of rationing on the story. Judy Rosenbaum observes that the meal Lucy shares with Mr Tumnus

“is not, it would seem, a feast befitting a wondrous kingdom. Yet meals of this simple, hearty variety abound in Narnia. One reason might be that as Lewis wrote the Narnian Chronicles, England was still living under stringent wartime/postwar food rationing. Every English child would have savored reading about these meals.”[2]

But the description of the meal doesn’t just make it seem like a wonderful treat in the midst of rationing, it also suggests that there’s something very odd about Mr Tumnus. The meal he provides for Lucy is almost totally comprised of items that were rationed and were increasingly hard to come by. So, the tea may even hint that there is something sinister about Mr Tumnus. Is he a black-marketer? Does this luxury and abundance come from his alliance with the White Witch?

But the aspect of rationing that interests me is clothes rationing.

Clothes rationing  came into effect in Britain in 1941. There are numerous  blogs about vintage fashion that cover the topic. Lucky Lucille has a fantastic round up of links about different aspects of rationingand The History Girls have some brilliant resources, including a review of the Imperial War Museum’s “Fashion on the Ration” exhibition.  One of the best things I’ve stumbled across is a radio show called “Harry and Edna on the Wireless” which combines old-timey tunes with up-to-date chats about the vintage scene: this episode features an interview with Laura Clouting, the curator of the “Fashion on the Ration” exhibition, and historian Julie Summers (who has her own wonderful blog here).

Clothes were so strictly rationed that, as Laura Clouting points out, a new outfit was seen as something you saved up for, a ‘dream’ purchase for some future after the war ended.[3]

large

Plan Your Future, Save with a plan, 1945 poster: Art.IWM PST 16368 Taken from http://www.iwm.org.uk/history/8-facts-about-clothes-rationing-in-britain-during-the-second-world-war

 

Clothes play an essential part in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe – they help to describe character and they shape relationships between characters. The children enter Narnia through a wardrobe (which is full of fur coats and mothballs).

Pauline Baynes illustration from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe

illustration by Pauline Baynes

So, for the most recent lecture on C.S. Lewis and The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, I decided to focus on the role clothing plays in the text.

 

In the seminar on Lewis and Narnia, I put up the clothing allowances and the number of coupons allocated to each item and ask students to add up how many coupons their outfits would have cost them.

There are always gasps of horror and giggles as we realise how prodigal our attitudes to clothing have become. There’s usually an argument about why dresses should ‘cost’ more than trousers and why men’s shoes have to cost more than women’s shoes, regardless of the size. Most of this year’s group were either cutting it fine or well over the rationed allowance (wearing socks over a pair of tights was a particular extravagance). One student this year had an outfit that ‘cost’ 60 coupons – more than a whole year’s ration. And then there’s always the moment that the realisation sinks in…no more new clothes for a whole year.

Always winter, never Christmas.

Which makes clothes in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe all the more interesting.

Think about the wonderful new clothes bestowed on the children when they reach Aslan’s camp. Or think about the luxurious furs worn by the White Witch and the weight and warmth of the mantle she drapes over Edmund.

Clothes also reveal much about the characters in the story. For instance, Mr Tumnus’ dual nature is show by the contrast between his bare torso (his Pan-like wildness) and the red scarf muffling his throat (his essential domesticity).

In terms of rationing, we can look to the Beavers:

At the Beavers’ house, Mrs Beaver is busy sewing when the children arrive. Like the freshly-prepared meal that nourishes the children, sewing is a sign of a deeper trustworthiness. It’s a sign that the Beavers, unlike Mr Tumnus or Jadis, are frugal and are willing to make do and mend. Though they are Narnians, the Beavers adhere to the codes of food and fashion the children are familiar with from war-time England.[5]

And so to the wardrobe of war-time clothes…

When I visited the archives at the Imperial War Museum I found a bundle of knitting patterns. Some of them were terrible – things that could only be made for a joke, or for a post-apocalyptic horror movie where there’s no heating and fashion has been murdered in its sleep. But other patterns had the potential to pass as real garments and I planned to make a couple of them. The first one I made was a land girl’s pullover.

But then other projects and other archives grabbed my attention and I didn’t really think about the possible projects from the IWM for a long time.

Then in Autumn I heard that twin-sets were back.

I’m now pretty certain that this is a lie but the internet did a pretty good job of persuading me twin-sets were, indeed, THE thing to wear this winter. And I was pretty sure that Peggy Carter would be everyone’s idea of a style icon and I was certain that a twin-set would be just the ticket.

And so I turned to my notes and rediscovered this thing of magnificent and hideous beauty.

WP_20150822_001.jpg

Striped Twin-set from Vogue’s 20th Knitting Book

Just look at those shoulders!

This striped twin-set is from Vogue’s 20th Knitting book. I don’t have an exact publication date but the advertisement for Sandisons Real Shetland Yarns printed to the right of the pattern makes reference to coupons so I know it was published while rationing was still in effect.

 

IMG_20160108_161921093

This issue and several other issues of Vogue were used in the Imperial War Museum’s “Fashion on the Ration” exhibition.

The original pattern calls for 12oz of Sirdar Super Shetland 3-ply in dark green and 3oz of the same in light green. After a bit of research[6] I found out there was approximately 140 yards to the ounce of this yarn. It’s unavailable now so I cast on in Mabel and Ivy’s Supersoft 2-ply (Prussian blue because green makes me look like I need a lot of sleep and a generous amount of rouge). The Supersoft is rapidly becoming my go-to yarn for vintage projects.

Because I hate seaming, I decided to cast on the back and fronts together and knit them as a single piece. This didn’t seem to affect the overall width of the cardigan. The pattern suggests that it’s for a 34’’ bust but there is a lot of ease and the shape of the body (increasing gradually in width from the waistband to the underarms) leads to a very generous fit.

The pattern instructions are here. The magazine is laid out very strangely so I’ve had to use several images to reproduce the pattern. If you follow them in order, all should be well.

 

Modifications

Needles: I could not get gauge using the needles suggested in the pattern so I went down a couple of sizes. The ribbing was worked with a 2.5mm needle and the stocking-stitch worked with a 2.75mm needle.

Sleeves: I’ve had problems with the sleeves on vintage patterns before so I decided to add an extra half inch to the suggested length for the sleeves.

Buttonholes: The original pattern suggests adding buttonholes where needed as you knit but I wanted to try on the finished cardigan first before I decided how many buttons to use or where to place them. So I decided to add buttonholes afterwards as part of a buttonband. Once I had the cardigan finished I tried it on and marked where I wanted buttons with safety pins.

Button band: I don’t hate myself and so I decided not the follow the pattern for the buttonband (which suggests casting on six stitches and knitting back and forward until you have a strip long enough to face the entire edge of the cardigan). I picked up stitches with the 2.5mm needle and worked in K1P1 rib for 7 rows, adding button holes in the 3rd/4th row, before casting off in rib.

Shoulders: When I tried on the finished cardigan I realised that it was designed for someone with a serious addiction to shoulder-pads. As you can see from the photos above, it looks like it’s falling off my shoulders and I am losing the effect of that lovely high sleeve cap. I either have to invest in some shoulder pads or I will need to put a couple of stitches in the top of the sleeve to secure the sleeve cap in place and give the effect of narrowing the shoulders without having to rip back or fold the fabric. Will experiment and update.

Pocket Flaps: I haven’t made these yet – I’m waiting to see if I have yarn left over from the sweater before I do anything rash.

Next up – half a dozen other vintage projects including trying to cook from William Morris’s recipe file, knitting from a 19th century lace pattern for Glasgow University’s Knitting in the Round Project, and my part in Roehampton University’s bran-new Archiving Childhood Project. And making the jumper for this twin-set!

***

[1] I secretly yearn for the day when Maria Edgeworth is given her due as a clever, forward-thinking writer of children’s books and is the star of a whole batch of undergraduate essays. Though it’s hard when she’s up against Lewis in the module. Lessons about logic and managing the household budget just aren’t as thrilling as talking lions. Pity.

[2] Judy Rosenbaum. “Critical Approaches to Food in Children’s Literature (review).” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 34.3 (2009): 297-299. Project MUSE. Web. 8 Jan. 2016. <https://muse.jhu.edu/&gt;.

[3] http://www.iwm.org.uk/history/8-facts-about-clothes-rationing-in-britain-during-the-second-world-war

[4] Plan Your Future, Save with a plan, 1945 poster: Art.IWM PST 16368 Taken from http://www.iwm.org.uk/history/8-facts-about-clothes-rationing-in-britain-during-the-second-world-war

If you’re more interested in the style than the history, I’d recommend Mrs. Fox’s Finery and Tuppence Ha’penny Vintage  which have numerous posts about vintage clothes, makeup, and hair which are very useful for all vintage enthusiasts and really just lovely to look at too.

[5] Though it is worth noting that the Pevensies are wearing fur coats when they arrive at the Beavers’ house. In WWII many fur coats were made of beaver-skin so I’m always a little curious as to what the Beavers really think about their fur-clad visitors.

[6] For ‘research’ in this instance read “creative Googling”

Advertisements

Make do and mend weekend

It’s been a make do and mend sort of weekend.

I spent Saturday morning at a darning workshop with Tom van Deijnen (better known as Tom of Holland) at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.

WP_20150919_001

Tom of Holland is a textiles practitioner who specialises in mending and in visible repair. He talked to the group about his practice and his decision to repair things, not because of a need to ‘make do’ but because of a desire to engage more deeply with the things we use and consume. As makers, we grow to love the things we have made. Every time we pull on a pair of hand-knit socks or wrap ourselves in a hand-made blanket, we are reminded of the story of the item – the hours put into making it, the materials within it, its flaws, its beauties. It’s all too easy to overlook the stories behind the objects we buy from the high street, or to see these stories as less valuable. Repair can help us to re-engage with these items and add new strands to the story.

In the workshop, we learned two darning techniques: Swiss darning (which is a bit like embroidering on knitted fabric) and stocking darning (for repairing holes in knitted fabric). Tom showed us some beautiful examples of decorative darning and encouraged us to try things out, to make mistakes, and to be brave with our new skills.

I found Swiss darning sort of relaxing. There’s a nice rhythm to the needle swinging in and out of the fabric, following the path of the original yarn.  After about ten minutes I was totally addicted. I want to Swiss darn everything. Cushions. Jumpers. Socks. The backs of other people’s coats on the bus. I could be like a darning Zorro, leaving my mark on everyone that comes within reach of my needle.

zorro

Obviously, my hat will be much nicer than his

Thankfully, just before I got completely carried away, we had a break from the darning and were taken on a little tour of repaired items in the Pitt Rivers museum. There’s a special exhibition on at the moment – Preserving What is Valued – and a museum trail of repaired objects. The tour added a different dimension to the workshop. There’s a tradition of mending that extends across the world, to every community and it was interesting to see where our own practices and habits fit into this tradition.

After the tour, we came back to the workshop space and learned stocking darning (also called web darning) which I found trickier because knitted fabric just wants to stretch and filling in the holes feels a little like working against, rather than with, the fabric. I wasn’t so enthusiastic about stocking darning – I didn’t want to mob people on the bus – but I can see how functional it is and how useful it will be. I can think of at least four things in the house that need to be darned and now I sort of know how to do it.*

WP_20150919_010

My first attempts at Swiss darning and a stocking darn

So, Sunday came round and I was keen to try out my new darning skills. I settled in with a pair of very holey socks (so holey they could belong in a shrine), a cup of tea, and A Playful Day’s podcast which, serendipitously, was an interview with Jen Gale of Make do and Mendable.

WP_20150920_001

And then I REALLY started to think about mending…

Jen’s No New Clothes for a Year challenge seems tough. I love the idea of the slow wardrobe and I’m more likely to buy wool or fabric than new clothes from the high street but I feel that a total ban would be hard. There are things I just don’t know how to make – like shoes and waterproof coats and jeans – and I don’t know if I can really do without them. Am I cheating on my slow wardrobe if I go out to buy quick fixes? Is saying “I don’t buy things from the high street except for X” really hypocritical? Kate and Jen discussed the fears and the stumbling blocks that stand in the way of embracing this sort of sustainable living. For me, I worry about the feeling of denial (insert the long shadow of an Irish childhood here) Would it feel like a year-long Lent? How does this feeling of denial tally with the inspired, happy feelings I want to associate with my crafting? I find myself strangely reminded of Jeanette Winterson’s discussion of fasting – and I’m thinking about how greed and consumption apply to fashion and material culture, just as much as they do to food.

I’ve been thinking about sustainable and fashion and my own practices as a consumer a lot more recently. Some of this was sparked by teaching war-time texts and discussing rationing in Britain with students. When I teach C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and the Unicorn, I bring in rationing books and get the students to ‘add up’ how many coupons they would need to purchase the outfits they are wearing to class. We normally find that very few people could ‘afford’ their outfits under the strict rules around the clothing-ration in 1940s Britain.** Recently, I found my conscience piqued by the 2015 documentary The True Cost.  The documentary is sober and sobering – it talks about the problems of consumption in the western world and, particularly, our problem of confusing the things we use (like clothes and furniture) with things we use up (like food and fuel). The idea of throwing something out because it has gone out of fashion is crazy. And our appetite for endless things is getting out of hand. We have a consumption crisis. Our wardrobes are obese.

And so I’m having a make do and mend weekend. I’ve just book marked Felicity Ford’s wonderful post about gathering a Slow Wardrobe so I can go back and read it. I need to think about how making and buying work together and what role mending can play in my own life. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this too. Do you mend things? Do you have a slow wardrobe? What are the stumbling blocks you’ve found on the way? How did you over come them? And what advice can you give me?

~

*I was always warned that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing”. But, if something’s broken anyway, how much worse can I really make it by trying to fix it? It’s not like knitted things will suddenly burst into flames if my darning is a little crappy, right?

**Students are always surprised to find that Lucy’s feast with Mr Tumnus breaks all the rules of rationing. They have real butter and eggs and toast – a huge indulgence for an afternoon snack – and this excess marks Mr Tumnus out as a strange and perhaps slightly dodgy character.

Set the needles to Radio 4…

Stop everything! BBC Radio 4 have gone mad for yarn.  My work schedule has gone out the window in favour of tea, knitting and listening. And there was much rejoicing.  There’s free knitting patterns and loads of podcasts, including Kaffe Fassett on Desert Island Discs.  Yay! Check out the full list of programmes here

I’m not sure where my favourite thing is this Tweet of the Day by @jofosteruk

Tweet of the day by @jofosteruk

Tweet of the day by @jofosteruk

Or this confection from 1945:

p02hj0v1

I really like the idea of making lots of little birds…but those stripes are just so flatteringly vile.  Obviously, in an ideal world, I’ll wear a 1940’s brown sort-of-pussy-bow top WHILE knitting little birds.  Problem solved.

Treasure, sharks and shopping

http://www.headington.org.uk/shark/index.htm

The Headington Shark AKA “Untitled 1986” by John Buckley

 

Maybe the only thing my sister and I have in common is our love of vintage knitwear.

Not that we have any taste.  I’ve just started reading one of Gail Carriger’s novels (rollicking romps across nineteenth century London with extra dirigibles) in which the main character has no soul and, therefore, no fashion sense…and I am a little worried about me and my sister.

We love horrible things.  Terrible, textured, awful things that could make angels weep.

On Saturday we went on a little adventure to Headington a town with a shark in a house and more charity shops than you can shake a stick at.   In the back of one of these shops we found a basket of old knitting patterns hidden away under a shelf.

We sat on the floor and went through them all, cooing over the hairstyles and sleeves and the poses and lamenting the fact that modern pattern books seem to only show models in weird and elaborate scenes – holding fancy drinks or laughing in an apple tree or digging a ‘flowerbed’ to hide the suspicious bundle at their feet.  I eventually settled on five of the patterns and went to the counter.

WP_20140727_012

The woman at the counter looked at me, looked at the patterns, looked at me again and narrowed her eyes in vicious suspicion.

“You’re not going to MAKE these, are you?”

“Oh yes, I hope so.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“Hrump.” This is the noise she made.  If you say it out loud, exactly as I’ve written it, you can make that noise too.  Don’t forget to frown as you make it.

 

 

I call this a successful haul.  I’m not totally sure about the shape of the blue 1980s(?) number but we’ll see.  You never know when the urge to dress up as a sailor-orphan will strike.  I’m totally sold on the flowery Tyrolean thing.  My sister has asked for this one for Christmas.

 

If she’s lucky, she might even get it.

 

 

 

 

 

Sewing, or, a farce in three acts

So far, this blog has mostly been about knitting.  I knit a lot and I’m good at it which means I knit a lot and so I get better at it.  But there’s loads of crafts I’m not very good at and I know I should practice more and get better.

Take sewing.

I have a complicated relationship with sewing.  I’m happy to put on buttons, take up hems, make little bags and easy patchwork blankets and whatever.  But I really want to be able to make my own clothes.  I have high ambitions.  I blame my mammy.  She’s great a making clothes and so I have a skewed opinion on what ‘homemade’ clothes should look like.  She’s keen for me to learn too – she bought me a sewing machine for Christmas a couple of years ago.  And for ages I told myself that the reason I didn’t do much sewing was because I didn’t have enough space or time or space/time or whatever.

So, I bought myself a craft table earlier this year.

1554383_10151904133183553_1984032908_n

There it is.  As idle as a painted ship or something.

I shouldn’t have done that.  Now I have to accept my own role in this farce.

And it is a farce.  It starts with noble ideals and descends, first into comedy and then into buffoonery.   The whole thing is bathetic.

Act One: I trip down to the haberdashery.  I select fancy fabric.  I watch in awe as the haberdasher snips a tiny bit of the cloth and then just RIPS the rest of it down.  And in a perfect straight line too. I can’t do this so I am jealous and impressed.  And then I get the stuff home and it sits around in a bag for months making me feel guilty. I ignore it and knit instead.

Act Two: I get a sudden urge to sew ALL THE THINGS.

Which isn’t practical because craft should be a slow delight rather than a sudden act of violence.

My sewing is a bit like a one-woman riot.  I fight with the fabric and fight with the patterns and stab myself with pins and have to put band-aids everywhere and then I’m even clumsier and then instead of practicing sewing, I just practice swearing.  My sewing skills are not nearly as good as my swearing skills.

Act Three: And in the end I hate the things I’ve made because all I can think of is the hot hours of stabbing, swearing frustration and I can’t wear them.   And then they sit in the press and glare at me and make me feel guilty.

Cue hysterical laughter and curtains.

I tried sewing at the weekend.  I had great intentions. I picked out a pattern and traced it out on nice tracing paper and got the iron out and everything.

And then there wasn’t enough fabric.

And then I was miserable.

And then Charlotte (crafter and clever person) sent me this.

 

10296885_10154206525725231_9199767907121772194_n

And it’s all clicked into place.  Obviously, the problem with my sewing is that I’m secretly afraid that a visitor will call and interrupt my fabric raptures.  And there is, clearly, a direct correlation between my sewing skills and the general untidiness of my hair.  Bald people are probably brilliant sewers sewists dressmakers.

So, next weekend I’m going to try to look neatly put together and see if that makes me any better at sewing.  I’ll keep you posted.