How do men knit – and why?

I was rather moved by the following analysis of a baby’s jumper knitted in the 1920s. You will have to click here for a view of the item in question.

Jumper, infants, hand-knitted, wool / plastic / cotton, made by Alfred Varley, London, England, 1926

Baby’s hand-knitted jumper made from a lavender coloured wool. It has long sleeves ending in a ribbed cuff and a front collar featuring a white spot on either side. At the back is a sailor-style collar which features a white and lavender trim that is also repeated around the waist. The collar is closed at the neck with three large, white, mismatched buttons taken from a pair of male trousers. The buttons are reinforced at the rear with blue and white striped fabric. The arms have not been worked to form the shape of the shoulder. Instead they extend horizontally out from the collarbone. Irregular stitches hold the two sides together. A hole on the back of the jumper may be the result of dropped stitches.
Production notes
This jumper was made by Alfred Henry Varley in London in 1926. Alfred had never knitted before and decided to make a jumper for his new baby daughter Phyllis. The jumper exhibits a number of irregular features and design flaws which can be explained by Alfred’s previous lack of knitting experience and decision not to use a pattern.

Phyllis did not get to see much of her father before his early death. She kept the jumper for many years before finally donating it, at age 80, to the Powerhouse Museum. The story of its making was passed on to her by her mother:

This jumper was made by Alfred Henry Varley in London in 1926. Alfred knitted the jumper for his new-born baby daughter Phyllis (the donor) who had been born in London in October 1925. The family lived in Newington Green Road, Islington.

Elsie Varley, Alfred’s wife, was a great knitter who made many items of clothing for her new-born baby daughter. Elsie was a teenager during the war years and likely took up knitting as a wartime activity. Alfred had never knitted before but decided that he would like to make something for their new baby after watching his wife knitting. Elsie gave him the lavender wool used in this jumper.

While it was unusual for men to knit at this time there were exceptions. For instance, men of the upper classes were often taught to knit as young children by their nannies. School children were sometimes taught and many sailors were knitters. Some soldiers received knitting lessons as part of survival training or learnt to knit as prisoners-of-war. Alfred Varley’s decision to knit a jumper for his new baby is less surprising given this context and the ensuing post-war knitting mania.

Alfred did not ask for knitting advice or use a pattern. However he watched Elsie knitting and according to his daughter probably looked at other knitted jumpers. Phyllis also suggests that he may have watched his wife reinforce buttons on other jumpers since he knew to add fabric behind the buttons. It is likely that the large buttons were taken from an old pair of Alfred’s trousers.

The donor said her father was a brilliant man who spoke seven languages fluently. She suggests that he would have been able to successfully duplicate knitted jumpers seen elsewhere. This ability is particularly evidenced by the elaborate trim. However the treatment of the armholes and the poor sewing on the sides betrays a lack of skill. Phyllis cannot recall her father making any other knitted items.

Now, doesn’t that tug at your heart-strings?

Men and knitting

Soon after noticing Ilga Lega’s ruminations on the difficulty of designing – in an interesting way, that is – for men, I came upon Janet Szabo’s blog for Big Sky Knitting Designs

She reported this discussion with her husband:

The conversation went something like this:

Me (having located a really cool cable pattern in one of my stitch dictionaries): Wow, I love this stitch pattern. This would be great in a cotton yarn as a guy’s pullover.

The husband: Cotton? Why would I wear a cotton sweater? It gets wet and makes you cold. I like wool.

Me: Hmmm, this design isn’t for you.

The husband: It’s not?

Me: No, this is for the Summer issue of the newsletter and wool isn’t really an appropriate choice.

The husband: What guy wears a cotton sweater in the summer?

Me: Think “metrosexual.”

The husband: I’d rather not.

Obviously we did not make any headway in the “knitting for men” department.

This is a great site and blog for technical discussions about knitting, by the way, such as recently a set of posts on how to set about turning your pattern into a range of sizes. Janet also puts out the Twists and Turns newsletters, dedicated to cable knitting with technical discussions and patterns. They are all available via .pdf download and I’d say they would be a great investment for anybody with more than a passing interest in cables.

Ilga Lega’s lament

Designing for men? Is there any point to it? That was the nub of Ilga Leja’s recent post on her blog: Designing for Men. Is it possible to combine interesting design with something men would actually wear? She said:

As I work on new designs, I am tempted to consider including more designs specifically for men. I have made a couple of forays already, with Balsam and Along the Boulevard scarf version for a man. But I have been recently challenged with the Along the Boulevard scarf by someone on one of the Ravelry forums who claimed that no man (unless gay) would choose to knit–or wear a scarf like that. When I asked him why, he answered by saying that men don’t tend to like anything made “with holes” and prefer garments worked in a dark or otherwise neutral colour.

He also went on to say that he could always tell when a woman had designed something, because it was often an adaptation of something originally designed for a woman. Guilty as charged.

We had an interesting discussion about this and it has made me think. I suspect he is voicing an opinion held by many male knitters as well as male recipients of knitted gifts. And as a designer trying to make a living at this work, I don’t want to produce a design that won’t be welcomed by male, as well as female, knitters.

And yet I can’t see myself designing a grey, cabled V-necked, cardigan vest for men, for example, especially since there are so many good designs like that available already. So the question for me is, “How to keep things interesting and challenging for me as a designer, while at the same time, acquiescing to the more conservative expectations of male dress?”

It is bad enough to be faced with the prospect of knitting for men, but having to design for them too, well, one can only sympathise at the plight in which Ilga finds herself.

Jared, aka brooklyntweed, seems to be able to design ‘new’ things for men which are interesting to knit whilst remaining utterly conventional. Most obviously ‘Cobblestone‘. Having said that, for a designer of Ilga’s incredible talents, designing a Cobblestone is hardly going to be satisfactory creative process.

Ilga Lega's In the Piazza
Ilga Lega's In the Piazza

I’ve just bought In the Piazza, half thinking ‘yeah, ok, a couple of oblongs, a few buttons, do I NEED the pattern to do that?’…but the pattern – wow! An amazing amount of thought has gone into making that ‘too-easy’ design work.

I am simply overwhelmed by the exquisiteness of EVERY Ilga Lega design. They don’t beg to be bought, it is more imperious than that, it is a demand. Will I have regrets on my death bed? I dare say so. But missing Ilga Leja patterns will not be one of them.

That’s the trouble, though, isn’t it? Nothing that is good about Ilga Lega’s knitting translates into a man’s wardrobe. NOT ONE THING. She could not bring herself to make something which is not beautiful and well, that will be her failure right there.

The only thing I can think of for Ilga is an alter ego. She needs to be like one of those writers who has two distinct styles under two names – Ruth Rendell vs Barbara Vine, or some such.

As far as I can tell there are two ways to knit for a man which are bearable. The first is to be happy to knit classic, plain, conservative styles in conservative colours but in the best wool. At the moment I ‘m knitting a chunky men’s sweater in pure cashmere and the yarn is quite sufficient to make the entire experience pleasurable.

The second is to trick them. I don’t know about the US, but in Australia you can do that by knitting them football socks, ie socks in the colours of their football team. I’ve just finished a pair in a nice slipstitch houndstooth pattern. I suspect that if they were in other colours he wouldn’t wear them, but in the RIGHT colours, well, he doesn’t even know he’s wearing a slightly interesting pattern.

Maybe you should think about knitting socks for men, Ilga???? There is just the teensiest chance you could make something – well, not beautiful, but handsome, at least – without them noticing….