Images of knitting – 2


Here are a couple more postcards from my collection. Strictly speaking, these are reproductions of advertisments, but I am particularly fond of the Sunlight Soap image which, as you can see, has been pinned on my board for some time. I find it interesting for the way it represents knitting as a leisure activity, rather than as a part of women’s domestic labour. Washing is textile-related work for this nostalgically mop-capped woman, but the activity of hand-knitting is situated firmly in the category of “rest and leisure”. Since Sunlight has made the washing quick and easy, she can relax happily with her yarn and needles. This is interesting because, in other contexts at around the same time, hand-knitting was work and could easily be associated, in very different ways, with ideas of women’s labour. But quite apart from the questions it raises about what-is-work and what-is-not for women, I also like many things about the design of this advertisment – the giant ball of yarn in the foreground; the brilliantly white sheets waving gaily in the landscape; the knitter’s sense of contemplation; and the strong, bright colours of the image.


This advertisment — in which Jeanie and Jimmy are about to make a terrible mess on the carpet while playing sit-up-and-beg with a giant tin of digestives — is rather different. The yarn and needles are incidental to the scene, and seem to be there to give middle-class mother something to do, or perhaps to calm her nerves before she contemplates getting the dustpan and brush out. She stares at her offspring’s biscuity activities with a rictus grin which seems to say “put the tin back in the kitchen where it belongs, you wee shites.” Quite apart from the crumb-related horror that is about to unfold, the association of digestives with dog biscuits is not one you’d imagine Mc Vities wanting to cultivate. Extraordinary.

I love reading your thoughts about these images — perhaps particularly when you disagree with me — so all comments are very welcome.

In other news, I have a couple of designs to release! More about that tomorrow.

49 thoughts on “Images of knitting – 2

  1. Love reading your blog, and perusing your designs. I’m a crocheter not a knitter and find inspiration in your colour choices. Wish I could spend more time crocheting but I’m a carer for my disabled son who is 25 and has Cerebral Palsy. Hoping to go to the Yarndale event in Skipton in September. Have you heard about it? JS

  2. enjoying your dip into past marketing pix – wondered when Sunlight soap ad came out. Could the woman be working at her knitting because gets paid for that but not for washing and she’s freed up by the soap… Port Sunlight was where Univlever started its business – surreal part of the world to visit at night with all the factory lights glittering. Guess the soap came first before the port.

    1. I suspect you’re right – knitting brings in cash, while laundry is simply a chore. Or if not a paid activity, knitting is certainly more pleasurable than washing and can be done while seated comfortably. No stooping over a hot tub – no lugging great baskets of heavy, wet clothes.

  3. Re McVitties, it’s possible the message they’re trying to imply is “So good, you’ll beg for them”!

    Also, I suspect from her dress that Mother had a “daily help” and was probably thinking “Mrs Mopp will kill me/leave if those children really make a mess”.

  4. Jeanie and Jimmy’s house is full of interesting fabrics – the rug, upholstered seat, drapes, and mom’s satiny dress – wonder if the designer of the ad was also one of textiles…?

  5. Wee shites is right! What a hoot. Love the colours in the first card. Thank you and Obviously !! looking foreward to your next design post but keep well……….

  6. …a rictus grin which seems to say “put the tin back in the kitchen where it belongs, you wee shites.”
    Fantastic! Thank you so much for making me laugh so loud. I think it’s quite interesting how relatively drab their little room looks, doesn’t it, despite the velour furniture. I also wasn’t too sure if the girl was trying to make her dog beg for the biscuit, or her brother…

  7. I love the first one particularly, the lady looks so meditative as she’s knitting, and the washing is happily drying behind her! She looks like me, a lady who takes her knitting everywhere she goes in case she has a spare couple of minutes to do some! I have a handbag project just for this, as well as my other bigger projects that I work on at home.

  8. I would love to see a post about images of knitting in classic art. Do you have a few favorite paintings/sketches etc? Was there a region that chronicled knitting in art? I am heading to Iceland in 2 wks…any knitting recommendations would be great.

  9. Interesting that the girl seems to be treating her brother like Fido — “Say McVities!” Not sure how that would read in a gender studies context :-).

  10. Immediately thought of the woman in the second picture as E.M Delafield’s ‘Provincial Lady’ who does indeed (as someone says above) live in fear of the domestic help. The Sunlight one is lovely and I’m sure I’ve had childrens books with a similar style of illustration, so I really want to know who the artist was!

  11. The woman in the second postcard is not the children’s mother. She is a childless friend who was asked to look after the two angels for ten minutes – “Really, no more than 20!” – while Mummy popped out to buy a nice chop for Daddy’s dinner. Forty-five minutes have since passed and she is wondering whether Mummy has dropped in to see her friend Mrs Triskett, who is always so generous with the sherry at this time of the afternoon. She plans to have her coat on and be half-way down the front path as soon as she hears Mummy’s key in the front door. She suggested the lovely game of doggies to the children and is planning to give them musical instruments for Christmas. The “rictus grin” is caused by her imagining what Christmas morning will be like in that jolly household.

  12. I find the first one so interesting from a soap perspective.. because sunlight itself will take stains out of most anything, regardless of what soap you use. So that advert could easily be an advert just for sunlight itself if you take the soap box out of the basket.
    Thanks for sharing!

    1. True. She had a perfectly good basket right there that she could have used to put her ball of wool in. Instead, it is rolling around in the dirt. It’s not even on the grass! its in the dirt.

  13. Your comment on the McVitie’s ad made me laugh. While the woman in the Sunlight ad really seems to be absorbed in something she enjoys, I think the mother in the second ad looks like she’s about to snap those needles in two. Or maybe just “snap” in general. Thanks for sharing these!

  14. You see, I think the woman really is the mother of the two children, and she is a knitter and doesn’t care so much about the crumblessness of her home. She really is smiling at her smart daughter who is in command of the situation and is teaching her brother the rewards of imaginative play.

  15. Interesting comment on what was seen as a suitable feminine pasttime. One can imagine that the producers of both of these were male and were not able to accept that a woman could possibly just sit and contemplate infinity without being busy at something. What I also find interesting from an historical point of view is how long this busy woman idea lasted.

  16. The McVities advertisement probably comes under one of my disliked types of ads – a “charming” ad created by a man who has no idea of what wives and mothers do all day. Think of the ad in it’s time – probably no vacuum cleaner but a heavy not particularly useful carpet sweeper with which to clean up the mess. Worry about bugs. All the picture needs is a large dog with wagging tail waiting to grab the treat (unless I missed it). No mom I know would be knitting and smiling at her dopey kids – she would be yelling: ” Ruth, don’t you dare! No dessert for either of you for a week! Now clean up your mess.” Then she would grab the package of biscuits and her knitting and retire to her bedroom with a headache and a cup of tea.

    1. Oh, it must be a typical British weather day with grey clouds looming and casting a shadow on the washing.

  17. I love these ad postcards! I have one for Birds Custard, no offence to them but I can’t eat custard, it has a delightful little girl, calling her father home for dinner…’Daddy! It’s dinner time, and it’s Birds Custard!’

  18. Could the ‘mother’ in the second image be knitting booties? Her grin certainly is fixed isn’t it ? She could be contemplating what her future will be like with another one on the way !
    Lovely images .

  19. I love both of these. The Sunlight Soap ad is so peaceful. Laundry is actually my…favorite?…OK, “least-dreaded” household chore, and I like drying things outside, and even doing a bit of ironing, especially crisp linens and cottons.

    The adult woman in the second picture reminds me of 1920s photos of the late Queen Mother, as well as pictures of my own grandma. (Both sans “rictus grin.”) I also love the couch and the curtain fabrics, but find the little girl’s dress disturbingly short. Also, despite my joy at working with textiles and fiber, keeping that white outfit clean and “camera-ready” would have been an impossible challenge for me as a little girl!

  20. I love McVities. Personnally I always am boggled by the image of the mum in heels and jewelry as as being representative of everday life. Don’t know about anyone else but when my mum and grandmother were dressed like that it meant that we were either immediately going to or coming from church. They did not lok like this by the time Sunday dinner was ready to go on the table.

  21. Your line: “put the tin back in the kitchen where it belongs, you wee shites.” is going to be my admonition of choice for a while. I’m in the US, so it will take them a while to figure out that I’m saying a “bad word”. An added bonus is that I’m the auntie and not the mama, so really teaching them new cuss words is part of my duty as the childless aunt.

    By any chance have you see any episodes of “The Bletchley Circle”? It’s airing this month on my local PBS station and I believe it is originally a BBC production. There’s an amusing (to me) depiction of knitting in the episodes (1&2) that I’ve seen so far.

    The main character is a former code breaker during WW II and is now attempting to feel fulfilled with her roles as wife and mother. When I first saw her picking up knitting needles, I though – oh, yes, perfect activity for a code breaker; the making and tracking of patterns in codes is just like knitting, especially when knitting without a pattern. But no, knitting is portrayed as the insufficient diversion for her stifled intelligence. Of course, lives don’t generally hang in the balance of my knitting, so there’s a dramatic tension difference there.

  22. I love the irony of the first one… A soap that brings you sunlight. And time to knit too! It’s a happy scene though, reinforced by the strong, bright colours, that resembles our knitting joy.
    And I would say the lady on the second one would probably have someone to do her dusting for her.
    Well, now I’ll dream about new KD designs…

  23. Lovely post as ever. Both postcards suggest every woman has her knitting at the ready always. I know I carry mine with me in a drawstring bag for those empty or dull moments in the car waiting or in line.

  24. Oh yes! “Put the tin back in the kitchen where it belongs, you wee shites”, is destined to become the family catchphrase of choice from now on. It made me roar with laughter. I agree with a previous commenter that the lady of the hoose is concerned about her domestics – ” it would be Phemie’s afternoon off, and if I ask Mrs Oatcake to clean it up, she’ll give notice”.

    I enjoy reading your blog very much.

  25. I could enjoy looking at the Sunlight Soap ad for a long time. It has a surprising sense of space and beautiful perspective for a “posterish” piece. I also love the texture on the basket.

  26. The sunlight woman seems to be sitting on thin air.
    Anyone else see legs behind the first sheet? maybe she is about to toss her knitting and have more fun.

  27. The ad is a joke. A brother will beg, even from his sister, to get a digestive but she teases him by demanding more “Say McVities” . The Mom appreciates the fun. The dog provides the commentary; he has already done what’s required of a dog to get a biscuit so has resorted to staring at the biscuit box , so saying ‘just give me a BISCUIT you insufferable idiot’.

    Something like that maybe? :) Great post Kate. Always an improved day when I learn a new word.

  28. The first one I’m guessing is early 20th century, the second between WWI and II. No doubt ‘mummy’ is bothered as if the house is too messy when Mrs Overall turns up she’ll leave and ‘mummy’ will be discussing the ‘servant problem’ again with an agency. How dare all those uppity working class girls get jobs in factories, shops and offices rather than cleaning the middling classes homes!

  29. I love knitting in art. I like to observe how the knitters are holding their work, which differs according to the nationality of the artist or sitter!!

  30. Mother’s smile is at least partly genuine; she’s just persuaded the children off the sofa and onto the floor before they embedded crumbs of digestive into her nattily patterned velour. But now she’s contemplating the carpet and wondering whether it would be too much to send them into the garden given that the pervading gloom suggests that it is, as usual, pouring with rain. She thinks perhaps not.

  31. after reading that comments I felt I had to add remembered history here. When I was a child nearly even women knitted all women were encouraged to knit during ww1 ( lots knitted before that as well) and most never stopped.
    When I was young, women everywhere were knitting, on the trains, visiting, talking, laughing, their knitting went everywhere and was enjoyed, most women were skilled and many were gifted making patterns as they went (my friends mother took them to the pictures every saturday and knitted LACE in the dark, my friend was an amazing knitter but always scoft when praised and said her mother and grandmother where the great knitters). There was also the belief that to be idle (doing nothing) was NOT GOOD plus a huge waste of time. Grandma as a child had knitted stockings with machine ones being just for best, knitted underwear (spensers, vests, wrist warmers, elbow warmers, socks, etc). the culture of buying everything really didn’t take off till the late seventy’s, as a child I also had most of this except socks not stockings white hand knitted lace socks even our school socks were hand knitted Women where proud of their knitting and I knew many who knitted dresses and two piece suits (skirts and tops some were even three piece) in two ply with lace boarders and fine cabling. Houses were not heated the way they are now which meant the wearing of wool, which was mostly knitted. What happen was the price of wool went up, the quality went down (and horrible synthetics filled the shelves), cheap ready made clothing came in, women went to work in droves and had more money and advertising made it seem better to have store bought not home made (this happen to sewing as well). This is why for me reading your blog is such a pleasure, so many lovely knitters, amazing wools and great companies and wool wool wool. Another aspect that was inportant is that it belonged to them, it was very much a man’s world but the knitting was theirs; they chose, they designed and it was their pleasure not dictated by others, I knew lots of women who didn’t even use patterns (not even their own) but just knitted as they went creating beautiful garments just right for the lucky wearer, just right in style as well as fit, they could look at the future wearer and picture the garment and just knit it (insert big sigh). Knitting was also a protection from being given more work to do, the women was busy knitting so could not be asked to do something else (you may wonder but women were seen as the workhorse and her energy belonged to the family; I know women on farms who didn’t own gumboots because if they did then the outside work would be their’s as well and half a dozen children, no power, food to cook, nappies to wash- in the copper and home to keep, not to mention children and adults to clothe WAS enough, this is where knitting actually was her leisure, she could sit down, look busy, but because of the meditive nature of knitting RELAX. Knitting was a gift to women and most loved it even as we do now.

  32. I think the brown dog is a stuffed toy. There is another little black dog in the background by the corner of the armchair, hiding away just in case he is expected to eat one of those biscuits. It does look like the girl is making her brother beg for a biscuit like a dog (as someone mentioned previously).

    Maybe the mother is knitting a ruffle to sew along the bottom of the little girl’s dress so it doesn’t show off her bottom any more.

  33. Oddly enough, this is the second time I’ve run across a mention of McVities in just a few hours, and I have never heard of them before today. You probably never heard of Moon Pies!

  34. These are so nice! That last one baffles me too, strange to want to associate their biscuits with dogs’ treats. I’m about to (possibly) embark on a dissertation on working women, where I hope to be able to research and write about knitting as much as possible. Love these posts!

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About Kate Davies

writer, designer and creator of Buachaille (100% Scottish wool)