Author: Emma Sommerfeld

Knitting in Difficult Times — pre-war and war-times: the 1930s and 40s – part IV


At the same time, the first designers for knitted garments were at the peak of their success. They made classics that are still famous and popular today. Like, for example the jumper with a matching cardigan that Otto Weisz created in 1934 for the Scottish label Pringle and which is called the twinset. This twinset was especially fancied in the 1950s and again in the 80s, but it came to live in this pre-war era.

Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel (1883-1973)

Otto Weisz disappeared somewhere in the darkness of time. The most popular of all designers was possibly Chanel. She worked as a seamstress and had a shop as a milliner first, and she must have been a very independent and ‘modern’ woman herself. This

is one of my favourite pictures, showing her in her boyfriends clothes.

Since this kind of dressing was not socially accepted, she searched for another way to create garments that allowed more movement for a woman, so it seems quite logical that when she strived for simplicity in woman’s clothing, she found: Knitwear.

Knitwear meant not only more simplicity in design, but also in fabric. It is said that the French Manufacturer Rodier had bought some bales of Jersey for sports garments, but they wouldn’t sell. Chanel took those Jersey bales and made skirts and suits, so called ‘Complets’ for women – and they not only sold, but were the beginning of one of the biggest careers in fashion business.

Chanel made it into one of the first issues of Australian Women’s Weekly with a sweater design – the dark one on the left – but it’s interesting that Chanel was first published in an American magazine: in 1916th Harper’s Bazaar.

Even her simpliest designs were timeless and inspiring for more than one generation.



Another, quite different Designer was

Elsa Schiaparelli

To me, Chanel always was a fashion designer who made artful dresses. Elsa Schiaparelli was more of an artist who happens to make fashion.

Elsa Schiaparelli was born in Rome, but came to Paris as a young woman. Where Chanel searched for simplicity, Schiaparelli loved to be ‘shocking’. Dalì was a friend of hers – and some of her designs show – in my humble opinion — one of the reasons why those two had been friends.

There was an interview with her where she describes how to dress on a budget –

It’s interesting because Schiaparelli was the one who made things like this –

This one is called the ‘lobster dress’

or this one, the skeleton dress:

Besides these, she designed two things that had strong influence on the knitting world – no, not the shoe hat you saw above, but the so called mad cap, here worn by Katherine Hepburn. The mad cap is a simple knitted tube which was very versatile.

The second of her most famous designs was the trompe l’oeil sweater – made with an intarsia knitting technique – a style which became popular again during the 1980s.

Both ladies, by the way, were called to Hollywood, neither of them was very happy there – so they both gave up costume design and returned to Europe. None of these movies were really successful:


Fashion Shows –

Another thing that yarn companies used in order to make knitting even more popular as it already was, were fashion shows:

As an example, I want to mention the manufacturer Coats & Clark.

Coats & Clark first sold cotton, from 1936 on also wool. Most of the fashion designs recommended by yarn manufacturers held patterns for dresses and suits, simply because a knitter needed two or three times more yarn for a fine knitted dress with the long 30s skirts than for a short, close fitting sweater. And this is how coats presented their new designs. à

coats and clarks


And then there was the new artificial silk called rayon.

Rayon was invented in the very late 19th century but reached the state of massproduction only some years later. By 1905 the British silk firm Samuel Courtauld & Company was producing Rayon, and in 1911 the American Viscose Corporation began production in the United States. In those early days, rayon must have been a more simple version of our modern Viscose, means: a mixture of natural and chemical ingredients.

(Some parts from the cotton plants were taken and treated with copper salts and ammonium)

Rayon sometimes was called artificial silk, and it must have been very similar in look and touch to real, pure silk. But as far as I understand, Rayon works best when blended with other fibers, since it doesn’t cope very well with water – the fiber swells and looses shape, so in the 30s, when rayon was still very new, there were some stories around that rayon sweaters weren’t very funny to wear on a rainy day when a knitted sweater suddenly grew longer and longer.


So we had the magazines, the designers, the fashion shows and a wide range of fashionable new yarns – but yarn companies did more to encourage knitters to try more patterns.

Actresses and other stars and starlets were persuaded to knit in public or wear knitted items. Fashion and trends in those days were influenced by the same things as today: movies, magazines, sports idols – stars and their style. So when someone famous was seen with a beautiful knitted sweater – be sure that this became trendy. Famous style icons were Norwegian skater Sonja Henie, German Boxer Max Schmeling, Ronald Reagan and his first wife Jane Wyman, aviation pioneer Elly Beinhorn, Ginger Rogers, Cary Grant …

So we can say, that in the 30s, the knitters everywhere in the world were busy making garments out of need or to be fashionable dressed, preferably on a budget. And the knitting industry was busy providing the necessary supplies – yarns, patterns, whatever was needed.

At the end of this decade, all these trained knitters got even more to do than they ever had dreamt of – and the knitting industry had their hands full keeping pace with what was requested.