Visiting Research Fellow Frances Casey reflects on how delivering two talks at the Centre for Design History, the first to TECHNE students and the second to MA Design and Material Culture students, has helped her to refine her research approach to knitting patterns of the First World War.

Knitting patterns by their very nature present us with a code. We need to approach them with some knowledge of this fascinating shorthand to understand the different stitch types and sequences, and so decipher how a garment is formed. In First World War patterns, this code can contain gaps, such as an absence of crucial construction information, or in some cases errors, such as misprinted stitch numbering. Patterns can be simple, or they can be a puzzle. When approached as research tools, there is an added dimension to their coded nature; patterns represent garments, yet they are not the actual garment, which exists independently. This mystery is compounded by the fact that very few of the original knitted garments from the First World War have survived to the present day: they were intended to weather the elements and they saw heavy functional use. Although First World War patterns can’t be guaranteed to tell us exactly what a finished garment looked and felt like, they do suggest the aspirations and concerns of makers and receivers.

In my research into war effort needlework, I am interested in how knitting and sewing garments for servicemen by people at home threaded its way through the social, economic and emotional lives of women and men during the First World War. After a long, intriguing and at times bumpy research journey, I received my PhD in 2022; but the desire to know more about this subject and to share the information that I have found along the way has only grown since then. Joining the Centre for Design History as a Visiting Research Fellow has given me the opportunity to prepare my research for publication, but it has also given me a forum in which to engage with students and researchers, and over this year I have found this engagement has greatly enriched my approach to the knitting and crochet patterns of the war.

During my fellowship I delivered two talks, one as part of the TECHNE symposium, ‘Thinking through Making’ and the other as a guest speaker on the Centre for Design History’s MA History of Design and Material Culture module on ‘Mediating Objects’. In preparing for these talks, I asked myself questions about the use of knitting patterns as research sources: why look at knitting patterns? how can we look at them? what can they tell us? The ‘Thinking through making’ symposium focused on a new design history research approach developed by Hilary Davidson in her 2019 article ‘The Embodied Turn: Making and Remaking Dress as an Academic Practice’, in which she outlined how methodologies which incorporate making and remaking historical clothing can help researchers to understand how textiles were produced and experienced by makers in the past. Several of the speakers described their creative and recreative approaches to researching a wide range of dress design, including the use of drawing; exhibition; millinery experimentation; and re-stitching and adapting cultural dress, which I found interesting and inspiring. In my talk, I wanted to think about what First World War patterns can tell us about the process of making garments and what this process reveals about the concerns, intentions and experiences of the makers. Despite the scale of the war production of knitted and crocheted garments for servicemen on the front line and in hospitals, First World War needlework has received very little academic critical attention. In the historiography, it is generally characterised as a period of early-war ‘needlework mania’ which was notable for disorganised production and poorly made garments. Approaching knitting and crochet patterns as part of a ‘thinking through’ process, however, has made me more aware of how knitting and crochet patterns were used by makers. They were a means of responding to and expressing understandings of what men were experiencing, and what the makers themselves experienced in the war.

For the talk, I explored how pattern designs emphasised comfort and functionality, showing a desire to respond to needs and to connect with men in service whilst also to make sense of the war by making something of use. Patterns revealed that women were not acting mindlessly, without co-ordination or organisation, when they took up early war needlework for the war effort. The so-called frenzy of early production was not a mania that served its own purpose. There was purpose to the patterns, and although some patterns would have been challenging, especially for novice knitters, their evolution shows a process of ‘working out’. This process is a natural feature of making, and even more experienced makers followed a thoughtful engagement with their patterns. This can be seen in the pattern in the image, selected from my talk, which shows a commercial pattern for sock knitting sold in 1915 called ‘The Man in Khaki’. This pattern specifies sock measurements in great detail to ensure sizing success, but what we can see here is that the knitter who worked with this pattern made several amendments to suit their wool, needle, and garment sizing, shown in the pencil notations where the maker changed needle size and altered stitch count. Interaction with the pattern suggests that making was very much a ‘thinking through’ process, which also incorporated a ‘checking’ process with makers assessing their work.

detail of a knitting pattern for making socks

Detail of ‘The Man in Khaki’ knitting pattern, 1915. Imperial War Museum K85/3666

The questions and discussion that followed the symposium talks were wide ranging and stimulating. They encouraged me to return to look at the variety of First World War patterns to investigate how making garments articulate a multiplicity of concerns and interactions. In a similar way, the talk that I prepared for MA Design and Material Culture students led me to think critically about patterns as ‘mediating objects’. This perspective clarified for me that patterns present a creative code which was engaged with, followed, shared and altered; they were adapted to express and cater to needs and objectives; and although they are not the finished garment, they are an integral and significant component in the design composition of garments, expressing skills, intentions and aspirations. Taking part in these talks during my fellowship has not only refined my research approach and findings, but it has opened up many more intriguing avenues to investigate.