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

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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]

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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.

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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.

 

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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”

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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

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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.