Fabric OF Britain – Knitting’s Golden Age.

Last night I spent an enjoyable hour in the company of knitters. BBC 4 had a programme about “Knitting’s Golden Age”. It was very interesting to see which way they took it and it was a safe bet that in the hands of BBC 4 it would be a thoughtful piece with actual facts. I was particularly interested in it because it started in a similar way to my dissertation which looked at the community within knitting and the different ways it interacts with a community beyond its own.

It began with the knitting becoming a “fashion” garment with the Prince of Wales wearing a Fair Isle jumper at a golf tournament in 1922.Prior to that, knitting was purely utilitarian and for the poor to keep themselves warm. So far, not bad, although knitting was also a decorative demonstration of how accomplished a young lady was. There was some lovely footage of sailors knitting sweaters whilst waiting to go and fetch their nets back in. The Prince however changed all that. Then there was a discussion about Fair Isle knitting – how it supplemented incomes and the speed required on such labour intensive work. Cut to some frankly terrifying speed knitting. I’ve seen fast knitters but crikey these women were phenomenal. I liked the link they made with the passing of information through the generations. It was very true for knitting at that time. It was also mentioned that in the 1920’s these garments were made with love.

Of course at that time knitting wasn’t just created on needles. Cue industrial knitting machines. At this point I nearly reached for hard liquor. I spent the 2nd year of my degree working on my technical folder – all of which was done on knitting machines. Not domestic. I mean 15+ needles to an inch industrial knitting machines which caused me to increase my happy pills and nurture a full-time smoking habit. Oddly enough since I finished that year, I’ve not smoked since. There’s a reason I hand knit.

The rest of the programme continued in a mixture of light hearted and poignant with knitted swim suits (Not as saggy as you’ve been led to believe) to knitting to help the war effort “Terribly monotonous – scarves. Soul destroying” (Amen sister!). It wasn’t just civilians knitting for the troops but the soldiers themselves. There were some amazing examples from The Imperial War Museum of jumpers knitted by POWs from whatever they could scavenge or improvise. One man used needles he’d made from a Red Cross box. The work was amazingly skilled and inspiring.

The programme continued through the decades taking in punk and the frankly wonderful Kaffe Fassett. I loved his honesty regarding stitches, saying that he’s not interested in fancy stitches. For him it’s all about the yarn and colour combinations. If you’ve seen any of his work, you’ll understand this entirely. If you haven’t, I urge you to do a quick search. It really will be worth your while. There was slightly too much time given to the novelty jumper and “Oo look what viewers knitted and sent in” but on the whole it wasn’t too cringey. The jumpers were of their time.

The only thing that slightly annoyed me was the insistence that “knitting is making a comeback!” It never really went anywhere. People still knitted, it’s just that the yarn available wasn’t always the best. Once companies made more luxurious yarns with easier care qualities then of course knitting would see a “resurgence”. And this so called comeback has been going on for at least the last 10 years so at what point does it stop being a comeback and is just “another way of making garments”?

Aside from the slightly silly “comeback” angle, the rest of the programme was enjoyable and informative. If you are in the UK, the programme is available on iplayer until 2nd October and I’d encourage you to watch it. Maybe with some knitting.


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