Thursday, 18 February 2016

Thoughts On Austerity & Knitting

Nearly two years ago I wrote a blog post, Passing Knitting Skills On, talking about how both my grandmothers knitted but that for Granny B it was a hobby, whereas Grandma H knitted out of financial necessity.

Grandma H's needle holder - an reused girdle box
I've been thinking about that recently, mainly due to having so many projects stacking up to be knitted that I started to feel overwhelmed, as if knitting was a chore on my 'to do' list that I had got behind on. I certainly don't want my hobby to become a duty burden. Grandma H didn't have a choice, though, for if her growing children needed clothing in the cold weather then she had to knit a jumper because there wasn't any money to buy go out and buy one. Clothes were handed down and remodelled. My grandpa's old jumper would have been unravelled for the wool and reused to make something else. Grandma and grandpa H lived in their council house for over 50 years and only had central heating fitted in the early 1990s. Warm clothes were essential, as I discovered as a young girl when sleeping over at their house under a multitude of blankets and eiderdowns.

A Stitch In Time by Susan Crawford & Jane Waller
I feel blessed that for me knitting is a pleasurable hobby. I passionately believe in supporting British designers and yarns and thankfully I have the financial ability to do so. I take pride in wearing jumpers, hats etc that I've knitted myself in a way that would probably puzzle my grandma if she were still alive for she had no other option. Knitting and making your own clothes these days is much less for necessity and rather more about making a political statement: I want to wear British, choose not to support companies that exploit overseas workers and prefer to avoid mass-produced items when I can. It sounds a little holier than thou, but of course everything I wear isn't homemade or British - take my M&S knickers that say 'made in China' on the label or my chain store jeans.

Like many other knitters I adore vintage fashion. Past blog posts have reviewed Susan Crawford's A Stitch In Time books reclaiming vintage patterns, the book Vintage Knit, and Liza Hollinghurt's Vintage Knitting. I adore the style and glamour of the 1940s and 1950s and enjoy adding that look into my wardrobe. What can often be forgotten, however, is that for many women that era wasn't particularly stylish or glamorous at all. It was a time of war and rationing, when women stained their legs with tea because they couldn't buy nylons and the government prescribed clothing styles so as not to use excess material. In the first few years of the 1940s no-one knew the British would win World War 2. All they did know was that many civilians had lost their lives during bomb raids at home, and that of the millions of able-bodied men who had gone to fight, some hadn't come back.

Eilis (right) wearing a fetching knitted jumper in Brooklyn
A few months ago I went to see the excellent film Brooklyn at the cinema. It's a tale about a young Irish woman in the 1950s, Eilis, who, helped by her sister and priest, moves to America to find work and escape financial hardship at home. It's beautifully shot with great period detail. The clothes particularly caught my eye, with a what looked like hand-knitted cardigan of Eilis' taking centre stage. Sadly I can't find an image of it on the internet, but imagine a retro cardigan that would take pride of place in any vintage knitting book.

It's worn a lot in the film in Ireland then in Brooklyn when Eilis arrives in New York. That's because she hasn't got many other clothes. When she has been working for a while Eilis' clothes change to New York ready-made outfits with colour and an in-your-face-style. She goes from wearing garments of austerity to those of modernity and possibility.  In a piece by Sharon Clott Klanter for In Style magazine, the costume designer for the film, Odile Dicks-Mireaux, talks about her choice of cardigans for Eilis:
"She would have had quite a few cardigans, hand-knitted from Ireland. Then she would have some that she acquired in America that were slightly more stretchy and machine-knit, which wasn't as much available in Ireland. I wanted to show that there were just different things in America that you could buy."
My mum remembers her childhood with great fondness, but she also can recollect the joy and advancement she felt as an young adult when she was able to afford to buy a jumper rather than have to knit one.  I own Cath Kidston 1950s-print napkins and have a 1950s-style sofa. Mum sees them as kitsch - why hark back to things her mother had, with all their austerity connotations, when you can look to the new?

Image courtesy of keepcalmandcarryon.com
I take her point. We have some different tastes in clothes and decor, probably due to the generation gap and the eras we grew up in. Still, I may look at the 1940s and 1950s vintage era with fondness, but I wouldn't want to have lived then. Grandma H did a full day of housework - my mum remembers washing day and the mangle at home - then took in sewing to earn more cash. She was a children's nurse in the war but had to give it up when she married and had children herself. Besides, if I was born back then I probably wouldn't have survived very long having been born a month early into a world without special care baby units.

In his new book, The Ministry of Nostalgia, Owen Hatherley sees the rise of the 'make do and mend' and 'keep calm and carry on' culture as the political right's attempt to placate any reaction to enforced welfare cuts and austerity. It harks back to the romanticised Blitz spirit of us all being in it together when in fact the current cuts are hitting the poor and disadvantaged hardest. The 1940s and 1950s were actually a time, he argues, that socialist policies were implemented to improve the ordinary person's working lot: for example the creation of the NHS and the welfare state, and a rapid increase in council housing to rid the country of bombed-out squalor, but those are not things we think of when we wear our hair in a victory roll and sew a Cath Kidston cushion cover.

The book has opened my eyes to the vintage industry. I'll continue enjoying my hand-knitted retro knits and vintage styling along with admiring the values of prudence, community and shopping locally, but will remember to appreciate how women's lives have improved since the mid-twentieth century and the opportunities I have that were closed to grandma H. It's great for the planet and our bank balances to be thrifty, but it's not much fun if it's imposed on you because of poverty and/or gender.

What's your opinion? Please share it in the comment box below.

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