Visiting my grandmother’s house as a child was always a pure delight; other people’s houses, particularly grandmothers, and the possessions therein were always so much more interesting and exciting than anything we had at home. While the adults would chat over cups of tea and homemade cake I would squirrel myself away in her bedroom to explore her treasures. Sitting imposingly in the bay window of the bedroom was a heavy dark wood dressing table, its oval mirror mottled with age. On this dressing table sat an alluring leather jewellery box; this small unassuming box held my first treasure stash, clip-on earrings, pearl necklaces, and dress rings. It nestled among cut glass trinket bowls, eau de toilette bottles, and a large round box of blush coloured face powder.
I would entertain myself for hours dressing up in her costume jewels but what enthralled me most though was her wardrobe; once the doors were open a distinctive, not unpleasant smell, would waft into the room, slightly old and musty with a hint of nan’s lavender perfume. At that time she would only have been in her early fifties but my grandmother always seemed old to me with her pure white hair and her face lined with age. Playing with her clothes as a child gave me an insight into her past, almost like a link to a by gone era, something which I didn’t truly appreciate until I became older and had my own family. Peoples clothes and in particular those they crafted themselves say so much about the era they lived in and the lives they led.
She had raised her family (my mother and two brothers) while her husband was away in the Second World War in the mid-1940s and was very much from the ‘make do and mend’ generation. Nothing went to waste, my gran’s dresses were cut down and repurposed for my mother to wear, sewing and hand knitting were essential skills. War time rationing usually conjures up images of people queuing for food with their coupons at the ready, but wool was also in short supply and was rationed along with other everyday items. Buying a readymade knitted garment also used more coupons than buying the wool to knit your own, so of course, hand knitting made good economic sense. Clothing continued to be heavily restricted even after the war. Everything from the length of skirts to the size of collars was regulated, resulting in a slim, straight silhouette. Christian Dior designed the first pencil skirt in 1954 and his silhouette was quickly adopted by hand knitting pattern writers including those who designed for Wendy. Imagine the time it would have taken to knit a 3ply ‘wiggle dress’, so called because it tapered in at the knees causing the wearer to wiggle when she walked.
Such glamorous couture silhouettes were made famous by many a Hollywood actress including Marilyn Monroe, Dorothy Dandridge, Jayne Mansfield and Grace Kelly.
Hand knitting yarns in the 1950s became thinner and resistant to shrinking thanks to the introduction of new synthetic fibres. Many of our early archive patterns are knitted in 4ply, 3ply and even 2ply yarns, the synthetic fibre content was a selling point and highlighted on the front of the leaflets our wiggle dress was knitted in Wendy Nylonette 3ply. This is in stark contrast to today’s trend for quick to work projects in Super Chunky weight yarns alongside the demand for sustainable natural fibres.
By the time I knew my grandmother her days of war time austerity were over but the ethos which had been instilled in her remained. I would often see her standing over the stove watching home grown veg boiling in a pan, her long metal knitting needles tucked under her arms clicking away.