Ex­plor­ing the knits of the Women’s Land Army

The Knitter - - Contents -


HERE HAD been a Women’s Land Army in World War One. In June 1939, the Women’s Land Army was set in mo­tion again, as it was re­alised that the threat of war meant food would have to be grown more in­ten­sively, and many male land­work­ers would be join­ing the ser­vices. By 1944, the WLA had 80,000 mem­bers; most were vol­un­teers, but some were con­scripted.

As the ‘Land Girls’ were not a mil­i­tary ser­vice, their uni­form was dis­cre­tionary. Women were is­sued with “…1 pair of cor­duroy jodh­purs, 2 white col­lared [fawn] shirts, 1 green pullover, 1 coat, 2 pairs knee socks, 1 pr lace up shoes… 1 pair lace up boots, we supplied our own un­der­wear, our wages were 17-/ weekly and 10-/ was for food (and

board) …” [From a let­ter do­nated to the WLA Project, York­shire Museum of Farm­ing]

Many women didn’t wear uni­form for work at all; some saved it to wear on nights out ‘down the vil­lage’. One con­trib­u­tor to the WLA’s mag­a­zine wrote:

There is a def­i­nite sense that whilst the WLA en­cour­aged women to wear and main­tain a smart uni­form, some women were prag­matic; in less for­mal pho­tos women can be seen wear­ing all kinds of jumpers. It was still ‘shock­ing’ to see women in trousers. The ar­rival of young women in a vil­lage, wear­ing the stan­dard is­sue jod­phurs could cause quite a stir. Mrs Taylor said: “…I can re­mem­ber when I was con­firmed in Hert­ford­shire while serv­ing in the Land Army, and the vicar was so dis­gusted at the prospect of me ar­riv­ing in my trousers that I had to bor­row a dress.”

Work­ing uni­form

The reg­u­la­tion Land Girl is­sue pullover was dark green, ma­chine-knit­ted, ribbed with a V-neck. Hand-knit­ted sleeve­less pullovers, non-stan­dard is­sue, ap­pear in pho­tos taken in sum­mer. Whilst the stan­dard is­sue V-necks may have looked smart and ser­vice-like, a higher neck­line would be warmer and more prac­ti­cal. A small ad in the Novem­ber 1944 is­sue of The Land Girl says: “FOR SALE. New, hand­knit­ted grey pullover, square neck, Bust 34 ins, no sleeves, 34 shillings…” To put this in per­spec­tive, a record of the ex­pen­di­ture of two women showed that they paid five shillings to rent a cot­tage - so clothes weren’t cheap.

Women en­rolled with the WLA, and were called up some time later. Clarice Ed­mond joined in Novem­ber 1941, and de­scribed get­ting her uni­form: “The en­rolling of­fi­cer…took my mea­sure­ments and I re­ceived my uni­form about a month be­fore I had my train ticket to Ip­swich. I hadn’t my par­ents’ per­mis­sion.”

“I saw a Land Army worker bi­cy­cling along the road the other day in South York­shire. She was very well turned out, and I gazed at her with plea­sure, think­ing to my­self how lovely it would be if all the mem­bers of the Land Army would take trou­ble with their ap­pear­ance, and wear their uni­form dur­ing their work­ing hours…” ! THE LAND GIRL, JULY, 1940 "

The women were then sent to be trained at a hos­tel, or lo­cal agri­cul­tural col­lege. Over a third of Land Girls came from cities, and many worked far from home. There was the chance to buy spares and ex­tra uni­form at the hos­tels, and there was a keen mar­ket in sec­ond­hand kit. Once trained, they would be sent to their farm.

Wartime knit­ting

The Land Girl mag­a­zine rarely car­ried knit­ting pat­terns. Dur­ing my re­search, I could only find the oc­ca­sional glove pat­tern and no pullover pat­terns what­so­ever. Glove pat­terns were reprinted from Wel­don’s, and they seemed to favour a clas­sic Ring­wood­style tex­tured de­sign. In Septem­ber 1940,

The Land Girl car­ried a ‘Knit­ting Pat­tern For Land Army Stock­ing’, us­ing Wendy yarn, which was reprinted from Needle­work Il­lus­trated.

How­ever, Fem­ina Knit­ting Wools often ran full-page ad­verts, show­ing a fancy ribbed, polo-necked, close-fit­ting jumper that would be em­i­nently suit­able for the av­er­age Land Girl. They were made by a Not­ting­hamshire firm, Bairn­swear, which seems to have mar­keted wools and knit­ting no­tions to women in the ser­vices. The ad­vert notes that they sup­ply wools in “Khaki, Navy and Air Force Blue”.

In­stead of pat­terns there were plenty of tips on how to care for wool­lies, and, as you’d ex­pect dur­ing WW2, much ‘make do and mend’:

In our ar­chive at the York­shire Museum of Farm­ing, we have many doc­u­ments de­posited by Miss Ja­cob-Smith, a lo­cal sec­re­tary of, and or­gan­iser for, the WLA; these oc­ca­sion­ally give an in­sight into knit­ting dur­ing wartime. In a let­ter to Miss Ja­cob-Smith, “Joan”, who was home rest­ing af­ter an in­jury, wrote: “Time does drag here at home and not hav­ing much to do…I’ve been knit­ting a Fair Isle cardi­gan and done a lit­tle jumper…”

Some girls lived on the farm, oth­ers in ‘digs’ in vil­lages. Miss Fitzger­ald and Miss Fisher wrote how they:

Knit­ting by the fee­ble light of an oil lamp would prob­a­bly not be an un­usual thing, dur­ing the war. The work was re­lent­less; in­volv­ing early starts and long hours. In a let­ter to Miss Ja­cob-Smith, Mary Hol­ford wrote: “…The work is not so hard as it was at Mr Platt’s… I start work at 5:30 AM. Fin­ish at 10 o’clock and then re­turn to the farm at 2:30 PM un­til five o’clock, for the af­ter­noon milk­ing…”

Some of Miss Ja­cob-Smith’s farm visit records cover in­ter­views with un­happy women, re­quest­ing trans­fers; some had dif­fi­culty with the liv­ing con­di­tions, were be­ing ex­ploited, or just wanted to try a dif­fer­ent branch of farm work. Most seemed con­tent, if ex­hausted. And many were be­ing ex­posed to a new and dif­fer­ent way of life, leav­ing be­hind ev­ery­one and ev­ery­thing they knew.

“…PULLOVERS. If you catch these in bram­bles do not for­get that a timely re­pair will save a lot of un­rav­el­ling. All the Land Army pullovers will wash, if care­fully done…never hang up to dry - it ru­ins the shape - it is best pulled gen­tly into shape and laid flat on the ground, on a piece of pa­per, if pos­si­ble, to dry…” ! THE LAND GIRL, JULY, 1940 " “…found this very small cot­tage in the next vil­lage. …It has one bed­room; one sit­ting-cum-din­ing room and scullery, no wa­ter, a tap in the front gar­den, a drain in the back gar­den. The lava­tory is a shed with a bucket… We have a very large grate with an oven (no oven) and we have two ta­ble lamps (oil).…” ! THE LAND GIRL, JULY, 1940 "

Oc­ca­sion­ally, I found some fas­ci­nat­ing de­scrip­tions of life in the WLA, in­clud­ing this one that is re­ally in­ter­est­ing for us knit­ters, from a let­ter by a woman sta­tioned in the Shet­lands: “In win­ter the women knit most of the time and they make some lovely gar­ments. They have a belt around the waist which has a piece in front with holes to make it firm. I know one per­son here who knits 117 stitches in two colours in one minute.

“It is noth­ing to see a woman walk­ing along the road go­ing to the hills for peats with a Kishie on her back and knit­ting all the time. A Kishie is a round rush bas­ket which fas­tens across the shoul­ders and chest with a rope. Most of the older women…when work­ing have a black or brown Shet­land shawl over their heads and shoul­ders, but the younger women and girls wear lighter colours… I shall al­ways be glad that I once lived in Shet­land and knew some of the peo­ple and a lit­tle of the life.” This let­ter from O. Horn, ‘Life in Shet­land’, was pub­lished in The Land Girl, Novem­ber 1944.

Is­sued with just one pullover, many women will have knit­ted a ‘spare’ or two. Ex­tant pho­tos show women wear­ing ca­bled or ribbed knits, with all kinds of neck­line - not just the reg­u­la­tion pullover’s stan­dard V-neck, but polo and tur­tle necks and oc­ca­sion­ally, even a square neck. ‘Sports’ knits tended to be made from DK rather than aran yarn. As most 1940s’ jumper pat­terns re­quired ‘3 ply’ or ‘4 ply’ yarn, it seems DK (then called ‘8 ply’) was seen as the go-to yarn for a heav­ier, out­doors pullover.

In­spired by the past

My start­ing point for de­sign­ing our Land Girl pullover on page 46 was look­ing at pho­tos of Land Girls wear­ing both stan­dard is­sue and hand­knit­ted jumpers, and also ex­am­in­ing a stan­dard is­sue jumper held in the Land Army ex­hi­bi­tion at the York­shire Museum of Farm­ing.

I was ex­pect­ing a khaki jumper, but in fact the orig­i­nal colour was a strik­ing sea-green, very much like Baa Ram Ewe’s Dove­stone in shade ‘Ec­cup’. I knew the pullovers, as a work­ing gar­ment, were fairly tight-fit­ting (loose sleeves or welts could get caught in ma­chin­ery), so I also

! ‘A CHRIST­MAS MES­SAGE’, G. DENMAN, IN THE LAND GIRL, DE­CEM­BER, 1940 " “…I dare­say there is not a mem­ber of the Land Army to-day who would not give away most of her Christ­mas presents if she could stay in bed till 9 o’clock and then get up to a break­fast of hot sausages and cof­fee…”

knew I’d have to make some­thing with some neg­a­tive ease.

In­spired by wartime knit­ting, where a dif­fer­ent colour is often thriftily used for sleeves or part of the body, I de­cided to go with a slightly dif­fer­ent pat­tern on the sleeves to the body. I scoured copies of

The Land Girl, and was dis­ap­pointed not to find a jumper pat­tern. But there was a glove pat­tern that looked re­mark­ably like the tra­di­tional ‘Ring­wood’ knit-and-purl mo­tif, so that played into the de­sign process. For the neck­line, I de­cided that if I were out in all weath­ers, I’d rather have some­thing warmer and more prac­ti­cal than the stan­dard is­sue V neck.

I’ll leave you with my favourite snapshot of life in the WLA, found in Miss Ja­cob-Smith’s record cards: “…Ruby also seems very happy … Ruby was rid­ing on the han­dle-bars of Mr Ramshay’s bi­cy­cle - Mr Ramshay rid­ing the bi­cy­cle - and they ap­peared to be get­ting along ex­cel­lently, and thought the idea of them both rid­ing on one bi­cy­cle a great joke…”

1 A con­tem­po­rary car­toon of a Land Girl, with the in­scrip­tion “Any­thing To Oblige” 2 Re­cruit­ment poster for the Women’s Land Army 3 The WLA mem­ber­ship card for Miss Dorothy Ja­cob-Smith, num­ber 22569 Land Girls wore their own hand­knits as well as the stan­dard is­sue pullovers

Land Girls danc­ing with men of the US Eighth Army Air Force in Suf­folk, 1943 Three Land Girls with their trusty bi­cy­cles

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