Exploring the knits of the Women’s Land Army
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.”
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.
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