Monday, April 22, 2013

Vintage Knitting & Crochet Patterns: Buyer Beware!

When it comes to buying vintage knitting and crochet patterns, the Latin phrase Caveat Emptor - let the buyer beware - needs to be taken seriously. I'm in love with vintage knitting and crochet patterns and have been collecting them for many years. This is just a small fraction of my collection:

 To look at the great styles of the past and the beautiful workmanship of previous generations of knitters and crocheters is always inspiring. However, it's important to remember that many things have changed since those patterns were written. Do not expect to buy a facsimile pattern or a cleaned up PDF pattern and be able to follow the directions!
Here's why: yarns have changed, needles and hooks have changed, sizes have changed, and most important standards of clarity have changed. The handbag pattern begins with these instructions:

Please keep in mind that the only parts of the pattern that are missing in this picture are the directions for the straps and inserting a zipper. In other words, this is all the instruction you get to make this lovely crocheted handbag from 1944:

What do the pattern instructions tell us to do? First of all we need 6 75 yard tubes of Jack Frost Cordet or we could substitute Soutashe, Ribbon Braid or Straw for that. Do you know what Jack Frost Cordet is or where to get it or the other yarns? The answer is that none of these yarns are available now. Cordet is now generally called corde and it's a dense, stiff yarn as is the soutashe. I'm not sure what ribbon braid looked like in the 1940s, but it definitely wasn't what we now think of as ribbon yarns which are usually quite lacy. I once had some of the yarn that was used to be called straw in the 1940s. It was very thin and dense also.

Looking further into the pattern, we're told we need a Size 5 White Crochet Hook. Would you know what size hook to use? Do they mean a vintage bone crochet hook? Possibly, but what size modern crochet hook should you use?

Modern knitting and crochet patterns always include the gauge which tells us how many stitches and rows equal an inch, or more likely 4 inches (10 centimeters). If we knew the gauge, we could crochet some swatches with yarns that seem similar to what is shown in the bag picture. After making several swatches, we would eventually find something suitable - maybe some heavy crochet cotton such as size 3. However, THERE IS NO GAUGE given in this pattern! This is not unusual for patterns published in the first half of the 20th century and earlier. Because of this, a lot more time would be necessary in order to come up with a suitable pattern for this bag.

Now let's examine the actual crochet instructions. We're told to make 79 circular motifs. That seems OK, but do they mean to actually make each motif separately, or do they want you to join them in strips? If you are to make each one separately, you're going to have a huge number of threads to weave into the inside of the bag! I suspect that the authors want you to join the motifs as you go along, but they don't say how. The finishing instructions tell indicate that strips of motifs should be sewn together, but they don't specify how to do that either. Looking at the bag, it seems to me that there are crochet stitches between the motifs, but the pattern makes no reference to them. Should the motifs really be crocheted together?

At the end of the pattern when we're told to attach the zipper, we're instructed to join two of the motifs together and attach them to the zipper pull. There is no mention of lining this bag with it's hundreds of loose ends from all those motifs. I would expect that the average crocheter would be stymied by these instructions and would give up on this pretty bag. What a frustrating waste of time and money!

The next time you're tempted to buy a vintage pattern, please keep all of this in mind. It's not impossible to duplicate the design, but it does take a lot of work and time.

Because I adore these patterns, I've started to produce some that I've updated - or translated - into modern knitting and crochet instructions so that they are doable. So far I've only done two: one for a belt and one for a hat that we would call a fascinator. Here are the two patterns I've updated.

 1940s Retro Crochet Belt Pattern

 1940s Crochet Tassel Hat Pattern

 To make these patterns, I first went through the process of figuring out what yarns would be suitable that are available now and what size crochet hooks should be used. I then retyped the instructions using large, easy to read type. (Did I mention that most of the vintage patterns are in tiny type?)

Then I worked on the pictures using Photoshop. I made them brighter and clearer, and just for fun I added color to the bag and belt. Each pattern shows several color variations to get your design started. I also added suggestions for ways to vary each pattern and finishing techniques so that the end result is professional looking.

Needless to say, each pattern took many hours to produce. I'd love to hear what you think of this project I've started. How interested would people be in acquiring these updated patterns? Please leave your comments here and I promise to answer them.

Meantime, you can get these patterns in my Etsy shop.


Jennifer said...

Great post! I've been crocheting for 6 months now and mostly make things from vintage patterns.. and they drive me absolutely crazy! It's almost like the directions are in another language and have to be translated for modern-day crocheting. It takes me longer to figure out the directions/yarn sizes/hook sizes since they were a bit different way back when, but it's so rewarding when a project is finally finished!

KnittingGuru said...

Jennifer, you are so right. I've started to make some updated patterns for two reasons. First, like you, I love those vintage styles. Second, not all crocheters and knitters have the time or talent to translate them into modern terminology or to figure out what the gauge might be and which modern yarns to use.

The patterns I publish as updated are completely rewritten so that people can avoid that work. I do it for them :)

angie matos said...

Thank you so much for sharing this post. I was about to buy some vintage patterns but first wanted to see what Jack Frost Cordet was for I am fairly new to crocheting and am in the process of learning to knit. This was a very interesting and helpful post. Thanks again.

Vintage Lin said...

Hi, I too am new to crochet and I have the Jack Frost pattern book but I have been making reproduction vintage clothes for years. I think the reason they dont give construction advice in this book is that they "expect" that being a lady in 1944, you will already know the basics of sewing and would even have made bags before and this is just a selection of the latest styles you can have. Lots of old dressmaking patterns have no construction information as you were again expected to know how to add a seam allowance or insert a zip. As a learner I am just using any old yarn I have in my stash and a crochet hook of the right size and I am just following the pattern to see what emerges.