This week I had the amazingly good fortune to meet up and chat with Irene Baxter. Meeting Irene was a dream come true for me as she was one of the original mid-20th century knitting experts, working on many women’s publications and magazines in their knitting departments during her long career. So, with the wind howling around her seafront apartment (and accompanied by many varieties of delicious cake), I spent a lovely afternoon finding out about her experiences over the years.
Irene grew up around Blackheath and started work on Woman’s Weekly in 1938 as their resident knitting expert, continuing to work with them throughout the Second World War. After marrying and a brief sojourn in India where she and her husband started their family together, she returned to the UK South Coast, family in tow, and returned to work as Knitting Editor for Woman’s Realm in 1958. What started out as a 2-year contract extended into a 22 year career, during which she also headed up the Crafts Department. Her tenure there spanned enormous changes in the approach to hand knitting, yarn innovations, and peaks and troughs in handknit popularity.
I’ve condensed our chat, making it briefer to cut out some of our tangents, but you can also download a full transcript of our conversation.
So you said you were taught how to knit when you were 14, and it was your Aunt who taught you wasn’t it?
Yes she did, yes. She always lived with us, she always lived with my mother, I always called her my second mother really.
Did your mother knit as well?
Yes she did, yes. I don’t think she had the patience to teach me, but my auntie suffered it – because you do need patience!
Yes you do! I have good memories of my mother sitting and picking up dropped stitches.
So yes, I joined Woman’s Weekly in ’38, 1938, 2 years … well, just a bit before the War, but then after that during the War I was kept on on a retainer because they said it was a necessary occupation, but I also joined the Medical Mobile at Unilever House, and so I was 24 hours on duty at that and was 24 hours on Amalgamated Press which worked out very well. It was a bit of a hairy time.
I can imagine, that’s probably putting it mildly! What was your role? What did you start off doing?
Well I was knitting expert there, then I became Knitting Editor at Woman’s Realm. We used to have quite a good staff of checkers, those who wrote the patterns and so on. Then I used to choose the designs, and do the make up and all that sort of thing, press, and I did the photography, I worked on that. We went on location and all over the place photographing the various designs for the features, which was quite good. We also had at that time another magazine which did needlework and knitting, but that didn’t last too long. It lasted a bit but not so long as Woman’s Realm, but it was quite interesting.
Can you remember what that was called?
Yes, it was Woman’s Realm Home Sewing & Knitting. It was a monthly one. It ran for quite a few years.
Was that 1940s?
No it wasn’t as early as that, it was 1960s. I think it went on for quite a while, I’ve forgotten the actual amount of years – it was quite a long time but not as long as Woman’s Realm, or Woman’s Weekly. Because that’s been over 60 years, that started in the First World War – amazing.
So you went from Woman’s Weekly, Woman at Home and then straight onto Woman’s Realm?
No, when I got married I was still working on Woman’s Weekly and Woman at Home, then I got married in 1945, just after the war. Then I went to India and was out there for just about 3 years. I did a bit of freelance for quite a time, and then when Neil, my youngest son, was 7, I decided to go back because things were quite expensive with the school and so on. I was on Woman’s Day which folded, and then they offered me a job on Woman’s Own. I took it but I didn’t like it there, and Woman’s Realm approached me and said would I be willing to change. So I did and that’s when I joined Woman’s Realm, and I was there for 22 years. I started about ’58, but I did do a bit of freelance on Woman’s Weekly at that time.
And what did that involve?
Well I wrote patterns for them.
There’s something that interests me about the anonymity of designers at the time. You don’t see who the designers were from the 30s and 40s, they’re fairly anonymous. Were there well known designers? How did you feel about not having your name put to that pattern?
Well what we did, we commissioned the designs to people who could execute what we wanted, although we did buy some designs from haute couture like Dior and so on, we did do that. We had their designs copied in our knitting, which was quite interesting. But mainly they were contributors that we got in touch with and we paid them for the design. We told them what we wanted, chose the colours and the wools and they designed it to our specification, and then we photographed it and published the pattern, that’s how it happened. But of course in the ’30s when I started on Womans Weekly I learnt how to write the technical side of it which was very important, because of course Womans Weekly always prided themselves on giving every detail, not just leaving people in the air, like the shaping of the lacy patterns and all that sort of thing. We gave all the details so that people could really do the pattern, whereas a lot of magazines just said, you know, work so many inches, then decrease so many stitches, they didn’t tell you how. So it was a policy that we told them everything.
That’s interesting. The knitting pattern as we know it was in its infancy, it was being created during that period as you say. You were the ones creating the rules. Were you aware of the spirit of experimentation at the time? Did you feel that there was a confidence about knitting during that time?
Yes I think there was actually, yes I think so. We had a lot of very loyal readers who used to write in and say how much they liked the patterns, the ones they’d done successfully. And of course Biddy Johnson who was the Editor on Woman’s Weekly magazine was a very well known editor, because she did a lot of the wartime slogans during the First World War, and she was on it from the word go. She was my Editor when I joined and she used to say that knitting was the thing – knitting and cookery sold the magazine. They couldn’t take knitting off the cover because if it wasn’t on the cover the sales went down. So we always had our design on the cover. Woman’s Realm followed that because I decided that we should do that, and I did a lot of covers for Woman’s Realm, quite a lot.
Can you remember any of the designs? Did you have favourite designs?
Yes quite a lot really. I have got a lot of the old magazines but I can’t get them – they’re on top of my wardrobe, but I have got them – not all of them but quite a few. Yes there are some that I like best really. Some patterns, I like lacy patterns, I like fine knitting myself. I don’t think it’s so popular, all this chunky knitting came in but I don’t know, I think some of the lacy ones are still coming through, but of course they do take longer and more patience really. There used to be a lot of 2-ply that we did in Womans Weekly days, very much so. And then the childrens’ patterns, they were quite popular, especially the baby ones, the matinee jackets and things which were very popular then.
Most of the patterns were designed for a 34” bust and one size alone …
Yes, we used to outsize them, ours went up to about 42″, the 40-42″ sort of range, but we did do the smaller range like 32-34″, 36-38″ like that. We did go into all the sizes.
The ’30s and ’40s tended to have a lot less choices size-wise.
Yes, people have put on a lot of weight, and they weren’t really catering for that size, but we didn’t have such big people in those days. I mean obviously there were large people of bigger sizes that wanted to be able to knit, you know, so we did cater for that. I think it was up to about 42″, not much more than that. But of course now they go up much more than that.
Was it just that these larger sizes didn’t exist? I mean they must have existed in some form or another, but were there people who felt slightly excluded from those fashion items because they couldn’t knit the bigger sizes?
I think that was the most popular size, I think after that they felt that the design wouldn’t suit them, which I don’t think it would really. You’d have to have something that was very sloppy, like a tent I should think.
Yes, it was all about the waist wasn’t it? It was all about this lovely deep, high-waisted …
Exactly. Obviously our models were quite … well they were usually 32-34″ size. I used to use Sandra Paul a lot, she was very good, and a lot of others that, they were very nice. One of them … the photographer, he’s married to one of my models and I hear from them every Christmas. But no, our models were about that size. They weren’t as skinny as they are now, but they weren’t obese at all. We did have one or two larger ladies for the older readers, we sometimes did that but it wasn’t every time.
Yes, I remember Vogue Knitting had a range for ‘Mrs Exeter’ for the older lady.
Yes, and we used to do a lot of his and her garments, you know, at that time it was very popular to have similar garments for him and for her, so we did that quite a lot. And family ones we did, sometimes we did children with the mother and father supposedly which was quite popular.
Am I right in saying that Amalgamated also owned Weldon’s and Bestway?
Yes, they were … when I was on Woman’s Weekly they used to co-operate with them a lot. Some of our things were often reproduced in their leaflets, and Scotch Wool Shop, they used to as well, but we didn’t do that on Woman’s Realm. Although a lot of the desigs were syndicated abroad, the foreign magazines bought them, which was very good really. And then a lot of the spinners used to subsidise a feature if we did one in their wools only and we did a colour spread, they would pay for the whole lot which was very good for the magazine. Then of course I also collaborated a lot with the fashion department and we did a lot of competitions, fashion competitions.
We did a lot of touring around the whole of the country, meeting all these people that designed something for a special occasion or something of that sort and we had to pick out – there were hundreds of entries of course – and we picked out the ones we thought were the best and then they would be chosen and we would meet them in various areas, like Manchester and Liverpool, and Ireland and Scotland, Plymouth, all over the country in other words, and London. They had to model the design they’d made, and that was a very interesting programme, and we used to tour around all these places, introducing and meeting the people who had sent in their competition garments, that was very interesting. Then we had a final, usually in London, Grosvenor House, and that was the final. The winner would be given a prize – I’ve forgotten what they got, about £600 I think. It was quite worth doing. It was very interesting and it also brought us together with the readers, we could see the type of readers we had, the very young and the older ones, we had a very wide selection of readers which was very interesting.
I also went onto the craft department for a couple of years and I used to do competitions for that, for soft toys and that sort of thing, we had competitions for that as well. It was all quite interesting.
You mentioned something earlier that you actually took some of the patterns from some of the haute couture garments – during the ’30s, a lot of the handknit patterns seem to be taken directly from the haute couture ranges, particularly during the early ’30s they had all these wonderful sleeves.
Yes they did.
Was that a fairly common practice, this direct link to the haute couture designs?
Yes it was, yes. We had to get their permission to copy them, designing them in knitting and crochet. At that time crochet was very popular, in the ’60s and ’70s, we did a lot of crochet garments, like wedding dresses and evening dresses, evening tops, and they were very popular, because they cost a lot of money if you buy them direct, but if you can make them it does save a lot of money. They were quite successful too.
I had a question about knitting during the War …
Of course we concentrated a lot on the Services, things that kept them warm. That’s what Biddy Johnson said, how important knitting was, because you keep all the troops warm. We used to do pullovers, mittens and socks and balaclavas, scarves and all that sort of thing that was really cosy for them, and we did a lot of things for children as well. But mainly we did concentrate a lot on the services, and it was very popular.
Was wool rationed if you were knitting for the services?
Yes, well it was rationed, so we had to be careful about the quantities, so that had to come into it as well, that’s why it was mainly garments like mitts and scarves and these sort of things which didn’t take too much. You could occasionally get a sweater or a waistcoat or something of that sort, and a balaclava doesn’t take too much wool, so those were the things we concentrated on.
I’ve found a dichotomy between that received wisdom that it was frowned upon not to wear anything too frivolous and yet I have found quite a few magazines from that time who really tried to brighten things up … lacy blouses, you can do this with your knitwear, put a bow on it etc …
Yes that’s true, but of course the lacy ones were usually done in a finer wool so therefore they didn’t take so much wool and that was very sensible from an economy point of view and a rationing point of view, so that’s really why we concentrated on that too. We did a lot of lacy garments and they were very popular, and they looked very nice too. They took a long time to make for some people, but they were popular definitely, and certainly the bright colours were popular.
From the advertising point of view, obviously revenue must have dropped …
Of course, you see the spinners used to subsidise us a lot and of course we had to put things on the cover which we always did, that made a lot of difference. And of course when we got colour, surprisingly enough most of the readers wanted to use the same colours we’d used, so they had to make sure they had plenty of that colour in stock around the shops, because distribution was a very important thing. There’s nothing more annoying if people can’t get what you’ve got in the magazine, so that was another fact that we had to be certain about, co-operating with the spinners.
Quite a few of the adverts in the early ’40s, Patons & Baldwin for example, saying ‘we’re still here, we can’t offer you much’, more or less saying ‘we don’t have much in stock’ but we’re still here, don’t forget us.
Yes exactly, yes. And there was a way of course where people could buy so much wool and they would keep so much by for them so they didn’t have to spend all their money at once, that was another advantage with knitting, they could spread the cost of it, it wasn’t such a big outlay, which was a help really, because things were quite tight in the wartime, and after the war for that matter, they were rationing for quite a while after, so all those things you had to take into consideration.
And of course the popularity of fair isle and colourwork, was that purely because you could use odds and ends or would it have been the fashion anyway?
Exactly, that was very popular and especially the Aran sweaters. When I was on Womans Realm we did a lot of Aran sweaters, they were very popular. They’re very difficult to make but people seemed to enjoy doing them. We did a lot of features on them – we used to photograph them in Scotland and I used to photograph them in a little yachting village in Sussex – Bosham it’s called, and we had some really good pictures there, lovely, very authentic ones. But they’re lovely sweaters and they’re very warm, and of course waterproof too because the sailors used to wear them. All the Aran stitches have a meaning, yes, they’re very good. They were interesting patterns to do, they were very clever. They wanted a lot of checking, we had to be very very careful about that, but I did have a very good team of checkers on Woman’s Realm, they were very good, but you know several people had to go over them because we didn’t like making mistakes, you soon heard about that if you did! But you do have to be careful, and the typing had to be very precise because the printers don’t understand it – if you put a nought next to a nought they would still put it on … instead of putting 100 stitches they’d put 1000 and it would throw things out a bit! So reading the pages was very tricky.
There are a certain series of books which were brought out by Margaret Murray and Jane Koster, I think the first one was in 1939 and they seemed to go through to about 1945 as far as I can see. Were you aware of them at the time?
I was aware of them, yes. I don’t think we did a lot with them but we were aware of them, yes. There are one or two people who wrote books and so on – they didn’t last all that long really, and some of their designs were a bit outrageous. Well I don’t think they suited everyone, I think people preferred the classics really. Because after all it takes a while to knit and often these elaborate patterns go out of fashion before you’ve finished it, so it’s not very practical.
What were the classics as far you were concerned?
Well you know … the Aran’s a classic, the design is usually classic, you know a sort of crew neck, V-neck, and done in reasonable stitches, either ribbing or a raised pattern, or even stocking stitch, all those.
One of the things I like about those books is that they had a ‘Ring the Changes’ section in the back of each book, suggesting a different stitch.
Yes they did. A lot of books published different stitches – they were interesting books and we did refer to them often really, they were like an encyclopaedia of stitches, they were very clever. Because you know James Norbury, he was the famous designer of the day and he wrote a lot of books – they were quite good. They were more basic stitches and that sort of thing, for beginners, and crochet too. Crochet became quite popular but not as popular as knitting – it was probably more for special garments like evening dresses, evening tops and wedding dresses, babies’ shawls and all that sort of thing. We went to the Shetland Islands and I learnt all about the Shetland shawls, there was a fantastic shawl which you could pass through a wedding ring, it was on 1-ply wool, and they had all the people that did all the knitting, this very fine knitting on size 17 needles and things like that, it was very very interesting. And then they spun all the wool themselves and everything, it was incredible.
So you did actually go up to Shetland did you?
Yes we did, we across all the islands and went up to Unst – Bergen is the nearest railway station! But it’s a very interesting place actually. It is based on the knitting more than anything else, it’s one of their biggest industries, Lerwick.
I’m wearing a jumper made of Jamieson & Smith yarn which is a Shetland company.
Oh yes, Shetland wool is lovely and fine, it’s very lovely. I like the fine wools – I’ve just made one in 1-ply actually which is quite nice – I’ll show it to you. I’ve got one of my crochet designs that we had in the magazine which was a very popular dress, a semi-evening … sort of cocktail dress, so I’ll show you that. But I also liked doing the edgings for tablecloths and that sort of thing, and that was very popular in the magazine. When I was doing the crafts I used to co-operate with the knitting and we used to do all sorts of edgings for various types of tablecloths, small circular ones, kitchen ones and that sort of thing and that was popular, I liked doing that. Those things are quite expensive to buy and although they take a while it’s worth doing because you save quite a bit of money, I like doing it.
I think as knitters we like to think that our things are decorative but practical at the same time.
Yes, I think you have to look at that definitely, because people do watch their pennies a bit. I think they were a bit rash in the ’80s when everyone seemed to have lots of money to throw around, and I think that’s when knitting went out of fashion actually. People couldn’t be bothered and I think that’s because they had more money, but I think in the ’70s and ’60s when people didn’t have so much money they had to look for things to make themselves and to save money.
I’m thinking about the time when we started to see synthetic yarns coming into the market in the ’50s …
Yes, I didn’t like synthetic wools really, although we had to use them, but they were limited in a way. Well you can’t press them properly, and stocking stitch you have to press it afterwards to get the best results, but you couldn’t do it with synthetics and they’re not always comfortable to wear. They were easy to wash, that was the advantage, so they were quite good for childrens’ things. I wasn’t fond of them although we did have to use them, and of course they were cheaper, so that came into it, but I don’t think the results were as good quite honestly!
I think I’d agree with you! You also don’t find many garments left over from that time which are worth keeping, whereas if you find a 40s or 50s jumper it’s worth keeping, it’s a beautiful thing.
I think you can’t beat wool. With synthetics you can buy them cheaply so it wasn’t worth making them really. So where you’d buy Shetland wool or alpacas which cost a lot of money, but you do save a lot by making them, because to buy them, to buy a cashmere sweater is hundreds isn’t it? So if you make it it obviously does save quite a lot of money. And of course the classic design again, that’s what they use really isn’t it? They don’t date and you get lovely colours too.
When did you retire?
So you did see the whole ’80s through. Was that an interesting time?
Yes I did. Yes it was actually. I did a lot of freelance once I retired, it was quite interesting. It kept you in touch too, it’s quite a good thing to do isn’t it?
Was that for Woman’s Realm or just generally?
Well for the spinners and various magazines not only Womans Realm, various magazines actually, some of the younger magazines.
I guess during that time as well you start to see the rise of the knitwear designer as a known name.
Yes, and of course they knew me having been on Woman’s Realm, the spinners knew me because I was dealing with them all the time so of course it was quite easy for them to take my things, but of course I did like a lot of the cottons. We did do a lot of cottons and I like cotton, I think it’s a very comfortable thing to wear, and that was very good – with Twilleys, you know, they were very good. And then when crochet came in with them and I did a lot of home things with them, like doilies and all that sort of thing, various things. And of course the woolly hats and scarves were very fashionable and they are now, very fashionable. Young people love them don’t they? Some of them are very smart too. I know my grandsons like them.
And we’ve seen the rise in popularity of the sock patterns. I think there’s something about the portability of this small item you can carry around with you, it’s quite satisfying.
You can yes, well that’s the beauty of knitting too, unlike sewing you can’t take that around, you can’t take your machine, and with knitting you can pick it up and drop it as you want, you don’t have to continue it all the time.
And you can hold a conversation while you’re doing it, you’re present in the room.
Yes you can, you can actually yes, so I think that’s another advantage it has. I think it’s very therapeutic and I think it can help people, it’s a relaxing thing. I think it’s quite good for everyone, and there’s no age limit, anyone can do it really.
And you still knit now …
Yes, yes. I do it for my sons and myself too, I quite enjoy it.
That’s an interesting one, when knitting passes from being hobby to job, there’s a question of value, particularly for women: it’s seen as a very feminine pursuit, it’s seen as a feminine hobby – to value it then as a job is an issue at the moment which knitters are discussing as it becomes popular again, and a lot of people are expected to do it because they enjoy it, and people want to do it because they enjoy it “oh I always knit in the evenings anyway” and don’t expect to get paid for it.
Yes that’s true.
But also when you pass from hobby to job – in some jobs and in some hobbies that can mean you stop enjoying the thing itself.
Yes that’s true, it becomes a bit of a bind doesn’t it? Yes but a lot of people do do it in their spare time and get paid for it. But I notice, it’s very interesting because I was in Laura Ashley last week and I noticed they’ve got a whole lot of bedspreads in there in knitting
Yes and also cushions, well that’s another thing we did, we did a lot of cushion covers – knitting and crochet. They were popular but I noticed they’re actually selling them now. I didn’t look at the price but I imagine it’s quite expensive – Laura Ashley aren’t cheap are they? They were really great chunky wool, cable patterns and things. A cosy spread on the bed – I don’t know how long it would take you to do it,, a bit daunting. But of course people did make crochet bedspreads, they were popular. We made them in medallions which made it quite easy.
I do like cotton, I think that’s very good to work with. I’m making a border now for a tablecloth which is in cotton, it’s very good
Can we talk about shaping garments in the ’30s.
Yes. You started just after the welt and you started perhaps on every 6th row, you would shape each end to the armholes, and then of course shaping the armholes as well. But now, in fact recently – in fact in the ’60s and ’70s it started – where it was straight up to the armholes and very often they didn’t used to shape the armholes the same way, they just used to cast off so many stitches and have a sort of square armhole and the sleeve was fitted into that, so that made it easier for knitting.
But not quite so flattering?
No it wasn’t so flattering, things were a bit looser then. But especially in the ’30s sleeves were very fitted weren’t they?
And you consciously designed for a negative ease fit as well didn’t you? So something with a 34” bust could actually be 33”, 32.5”, something like that.
Exactly. There wasn’t much give in them at all, whereas now they usually have about 2” to spare don’t they?
And I think I’m right in saying that darts weren’t really used, either horizontal darts or vertical darts.
But the stitches that were used seemed to really lend themselves to tighter garments, so there was a lot of ribbing at the yoke and side panels.
Yes, yokes were very fashionable, we did the plain models and then just at the armholes you did a different pattern which was quite attractive really.
I’ve found quite a few patterns with a slightly ribbed side panels which I guess again gave it that slightly tighter fit.
Yes, yes. And then things came again – especially in the ’60s and ’70s, knitting became much more fashionable in their styles, they weren’t only classic designs, a lot of them were very fashionable like the couture that we used to copy. We had suits, skirts and jackets, they were very very nice really.
There were some very elaborate designs, beyond peoples’ capabilities really, but they were very attractive if you could do them, but I don’t think they were all that popular as they were so difficult and take so long to do, and I think people are a bit impatient with their knitting in a way aren’t they? They like to see results fairly quickly.
Yes, and I’m trying to say to people “slow down” because the results, if you spend a bit of time …
Yes, and of course the make-up is the thing they fall down on a lot, it is more difficult really. You’ve got to be careful with that.
And with the blocking as well …
Yes, the blocking, yes that’s right.
I guess that played a crucial part in older patterns especially.
It is a crucial part to get the right shape and the right measurements, definitely. It has to be carefully done. Make sure the iron isn’t too hot!
Knitting was taught in schools, is that right?
It was, yes. I suppose it was in the ’30s more, yes. I wasn’t taught at school but I know a lot of the schools did teach it. I did one or two features for beginners which was for children to learn and they were quite popular, but that was in the ’60s. They used to teach in schools as they did with cookery
I’d like to see more men knitting – bring knitting back for boys as well!
We finished there, but Irene then went on to show me some of her works which included a beautiful 1970s crochet evening dress with beaded midriff section, a delicate tablecloth edging, and a newly-completed garment, this wonderful 1-ply jumper with puff sleeves which she designed herself.
We’ve promised to meet up and compare patterns, I’m intrigued to see more of her work and her original patterns, and I promised to climb up to the top of her wardrobe to find her original patterns. We went on to talk about politics, the Obama/Romney conflict, the future of the Euro and the NHS – all I can say is I hope I’m as lively, charming and entertaining when I sail on into my 90s!