Needled reviews:
Lise-Lotte Lystrup, Vintage Knitwear for Modern Knitters (Thames & Hudson, 2008)
Kari Cornell and Jean Lampe, Retro Knits: Cool Vintage Patterns for Men, Women and Children from the 1900s through the 1970s (Voyageur Press, 2008)

Most knitters will have noticed the recent ubiquity of all things “vintage” in the world of wool. There are numerous groups devoted to the subject on Ravelry, a lively trade in so-called “vintage” patterns, and a recent flurry of books. Jane Waller has just launched a reworked and rebranded edition of her popular 1972 title A Stitch in Time (not yet seen here) and two other books also appeared in 2008: Vintage Knitwear for Modern Knitters and Retro Knits: Cool Vintage Patterns for Men, Women and Children from the 1900s through the 1970s.

These books got me thinking about the way that terms like “vintage” and “retro” are applied to knitting. Being something of a stickler for historical specificity, I tend to approach such terms with caution, as they have always seemed to me to be rather misleading and lazy catch-all categories for “stuff from the past.” But a quick trawl through relevant websites and Ravelry forums revealed something quite interesting about the current usage of such terms. While “vintage” seems to be most often applied to garments from knitting’s “golden age” in the 1930s and 40s, “retro” is most commonly used in reference to anything vaguely kooky from the 60s or 70s, such as this popcorn-adorned hoodie, which any space cowgirl would surely be proud to wear.

(Fleisher, 1965; Cornell and Lampe, 2008)

These knitterly usages of “vintage” and “retro” are interesting, because they are broadly historically accurate—in terms of the two words’ etymology at least. According to the OED, “vintage”, in the sense of “classic” design, came into common usage during the 1930s, whereas the use of “retro” as an adjective first gained widespread cultural currency in the late 60s and early 1970s. But while there’s this incidental confluence between the origins of the words and the garment styles they suggest to many knitters, other usages of “vintage” and “retro” are a bit more, um, woolly — for example, when applied to particular styles, techniques, or methods of pattern writing in the world of knitwear design and marketing.

As regards pattern-writing, “vintage” seems a sort of shorthand for “inaccurate” or “error ridden” — as such, its a term that could perhaps be equally descriptive of the editorial practices of current issues of Vogue Knitting as much as any 1950s design. I’ve also seen “vintage” weirdly applied to techniques such as steeks, or knitting in the round: practices whose history extends back several centuries, and which have been used by knitters more or less consistently ever since. For some designers, “vintage” style seems to have exclusive reference to Victorian lace, while for others, its a term that’s solidly linked to colourwork or applied embroidery. Sarah Dallas’s version of “vintage” is certainly not Kaffe Fassett’s; nor, I imagine, would this “vintage” knitting classic have much to say to Melanie Falick.

(is this vintage? retro? or just plain astounding?)

The problem is, that “vintage” most often seems to be a shorthand for a designer’s particular style preferences, or (more troublingly) for what they deem “good taste” (whatever that is). And for those who market knitwear design to us, “vintage” is just one of those easy adjectival devices like “classic”, “timeless” or “heritage” that can be wheeled out in the service of selling more stuff. While “retro” seems to be most often used in (broad) reference to post-war design, “vintage” remains a real rag-bag of befuddled meaning. Do either of these books do anything at all to dispel the confusion? I’m not sure that they do.

The blurb of Lystrup’s book refers to vintage style both as historically situated (in the 30s, 40s, and 50s) and as entirely “timeless” — a little bewildering. The longer and much more careful introduction to Cornell’s and Lampe’s book also includes many miscellaneous usages of “vintage,” but does at least make clear what they mean by that term. Cornell and Lampe take a straightforward approach to all things “vintage” by arranging their patterns historically, producing a narrative of knitting fashion that is both engaging and accurate. Retro Knits is also handsomely illustrated with patterns and advertisements from every decade from the 1910s through the 1970s, and each of Lampe and Cornell’s selections of designs is prefaced by short, lively discussions of each era’s knitting styles. Lystrup’s patterns are reproduced without much context — fashionable, socio-economic, or otherwise — and the book as a book seemed to me to rather suffer from it’s lack of framework. Another shortcoming of Lystrup’s book is its styling. Now, this isn’t a matter of personal taste — its just that clothes look much better on real people than they do on dressmaker’s dummies. The styling of Lystrup’s book does little to make the patterns appealing to the reader/ knitter, and it is a real shame that the photography of her beautifully knitted garments does not show them at their best.

(“Evening Jacket in a Feather Pattern,” 1933; Lystrup, 2008)

Reasonable photography of a re-designed 1930s garment like this really is crucial: so much of knitting is based on trust, and knitters simply do not trust patterns written before the 1970s to give reliable results. Cornell and Lampe make the work of trusting the designer even more tricky, as their book includes no photographs at all of their re-sized and re-worked patterns. And, in reference to Cornell and Lampe’s book I will strike a personal note: I was really disappointed in the way their patterns had been re-sized. A couple of garments which they describe as updating to be ‘more in line with contemporary body sizes’ start at a 38 inch bust. Now, to those of us of diminutive height and meagre chest, this is more than a little frustrating. I had a similar problem with this book of Jane Waller’s (good historical research; bad sizing; terrible photography) in which every neatly tailored item of 1940s knitwear had been transformed into an outsized garment designed to fit a woman of amazonian proportions.


Lampe and Cornell’s Retro Knits is probably worth having a look at if you enjoy pattern styling and advertisements, as well as for the useful potted history it provides of twentieth-century American knitting fashions. But would I knit anything from this book? Probably not. I wasn’t that inspired by any of Lystrup’s patterns either, and other than her careful sourcing of contemporary British yarns, and the good size range of her patterns, I unfortunately can’t find much else to recommend about this book.

But my pernickety irritation at all things described as “vintage,” and my frustration that “modern vintage” never actually seems to be built for me, has probably been compounded by the love I have recently discovered for actual “vintage” design. Thanks to Ysolda, a whole world of wonder that issued in the 1930s and 40s from the Odham’s Press has recently opened up, and I have been really enjoying the encyclopedias and “practical guides” of the loopy, dictatorial, committed knitter that was James Norbury as well as the less loopy, but no less committed Margaret Murray and Jane Koster. Their books are generous, inclusive and engaging. They are full of knitterly wisdom, interesting stitch patterns, helpful design prototypes and tips that still strike a contemporary note, as well as original garments that the knitter with a bit of experience might well adapt to their own requirements just as easily as anything in Lystrup’s, or Lampe and Cornell’s, books. Odham’s publications are being sold for peanuts on ABE and other second hand booksellers sites. Now they are books I can heartily recommend.

(lovely Odham’s endpapers)

12 thoughts on “retrovintage

  1. My Mum knitted quite a few James Norbury designs back in the Fifties. Just bought The Penguin Knitting Book and I am going to knit a 4ply Cardigan from it. The sizing is OK from 34 to 38 and 22inch length. Susan Crawford has some great designs too. Looking forward to seeing your new yarn Kate, soon.


  2. A beautifully written and interesting view as usual.
    I am aware of the ubiquity of the terms “retro” and “vintage” in the collectibles and antiques trade and the hilarity which this can cause on a trawl through, say, Ebay.
    retrotat and vintageschmatte ?


  3. Such an interesting post. I used to live in Athens, Ga. where a certain neighborhood full of Victorian mansions was called ‘the Historic district’. However included within this geographical boundary was a lower income development made of brick from the 1960s, and the residents of the former were very clear that it was decidedly not part of ‘the historic district’. I always used to wonder why that area wasn’t also ‘historic’ in some way…


  4. The voice of James Norbury haunts me every time I get undressed: ” I find myself wondering if women think they can maltreat [their knitteds] as much as they like without harm.I have seen jumpers flung across a chair. I have shuddered at cardigans hanging from an ordinary hook behind a door. The idea seems to be”oh it’s only a woolly so it doesn’t matter”. (Penguin Knitting Book, pp 63-4) Oh James, not in this house.


  5. ‘A Stitch in Time’ includes the complete original pattern for every garment. The modernised versions are better than usual too (which is helpful for my 38″ bust, although at 5’1″ I still need to shorten everything I knit or sew).


  6. I leafed through Lystrup’s book when I was last in a knitting shop, and came to much the same conclusion as you did. Some of the patterns looked like they had real potential, but the photos were poor, and the ones I liked I had already downloaded in a free pdf from the Telegraph (now sadly gone). I didn’t spot the point about the sizing, but as someone with a 34″ bust, I’m equally disappointed. I have higher hopes for A Stitch In Time, and loved what I saw of the knits at the iKnit show in September.

    I had previously decided that I would make an effort to source actual vintage patterns to knit, so thank you for mentioning the Odham’s Press publications! I’ve ordered a couple of books via Abebooks (so cheap!) and am hoping to be lucky with some ebay auctions for early Vogue books, too.


  7. Enjoyed all of this.

    And I do agree about Jane Waller’s otherwise excellent book upsizing everything so much as to lose the essential styling characteristics. I have some 3ply and shall try to re-downsize a couple in the future, I think! (Not, for me, because I am less than a 38″ chest, but because I think almost all of the old pictures look better than the new).


  8. I just love the fact that you picked two words that are applied to so many styles in life (knitting …jewelry, fabric, furnishings, etc..) and pointed out that they are misused in knitting. If knitting, every”wear” else too. I always consider the vintage clothing shops in U.S. to be anything from 40s though the 70s. Retro seems to encompass anything from the 50s through the 80s. It is as if the meaning of words is continually stretched to mean more, esp in the face of marketing.


  9. I thought those endpapers looked familiar, so I went to my bookshelf and found an Odham book by Jane Koster and Margaret Murray, Modern Knitting Illustrated. It is wonderful.


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