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Vintage Knits for Modern Babiesby Hadley Fierlinger
Most of us knit for babies today because we want to, not because we have to. We knit for them, as our grandmothers did, for the love of it. We knit because nothing else can give us the same soothing texture and emotion as a garment created by hand. While we sit and knit, our hopes and dreams are wrapped in every stitch.
Few things are more scrumptious than the cozy warmth of a new baby swaddled in a lovingly hand-knit blanket. We can practically smell the heavenly scent of that loved and worn blanket nestled under the chin of its tiny owner.
My passion for baby knits was born years ago when I met my friends new baby, Anya. She was wearing a beautiful tiny white eyelet cardigan that had been expertly hand knit. When I asked Anyas mother where she bought it, she explained that her own grandmother had knit it for her back in the 1960s. She had worn it as a baby, and she had saved it for her future babies. The cardigan Anya wore was in perfect condition, not a stain or pulled thread, after all those years. Every time I saw Anya after that, she wore a different vintage cardigan layered over a simple white T-shirt, just as her mother had more than thirty years earlier. It is a timeless style that captures the simplicity of babyhood-cozy, comfortable, practical, and sweet.
Inspired by Anyas sweaters, I promised myself that I would learn to knit, so one day I could create my own beautiful heirlooms for my children and grandchildren. With my newfound knitting passion, I launched Shescraftyknits.com in 2002, selling my own designs of hand knit baby wear. Over the years, I have designed knitting patterns that capture vintage style and meet modern necessity-less-complicated, updated classics that hark back to simpler days.
Heirlooms from Generations Past
Many of us have a baby keepsake box in which our mothers kept treasured mementos from our first year. If there was a knitter in your family, your keepsake box most likely contains a pair of tiny booties recording the brief moment when your feet were no bigger than a dolls. Perhaps you recall poking your toes through the holes of an afghan that always adorned the family sofa. These family heirlooms are treasures created to give warmth to the wearer and tactile memories that last a lifetime. If you are lucky, you may have a whole box of baby knits lovingly saved to pass down to your own children and grandchildren so you can continue the tradition.
Generations ago, knitting was an important skill that every girl needed to learn from an early age. In the beginning of the twentieth century, no shops sold layettes (complete outfits for newborn infants) or diapers, and knitters in the family had to create everything a baby was going to need for the first year (and beyond). Before published knitting patterns became available, knitters used jotted-down ÒrecipesÓ with guides on the general shape and size of a garment to be knit. The recipes were shared within the family and community to create practical garments such as socks, underwear, stockings, and baby clothes. Families knew the importance of thrift as well as the practicality of wool, which was the primary knitting yarn.
Early knitting pattern books started to appear in the late 1800s and were filled with very sensible everyday items for the whole family. In the early 1900s few women could afford to buy a ready-made baby layette, which was only available to the very wealthy, so everything was knit at home. To prepare for a new baby, most mothers created layette items months in advance. A lucky family would have an aunt or a grandmother busily knitting to help fill babys clothes drawers with fancy dresses, gowns, coats, and frilly bonnets for outings and celebrations. Babies mostly required simple items such as wool soakers, rompers, vests, blankets, leggings, and plenty of caps and booties. The most popular knitting patterns were designed with simplicity and thrift in mind. Usually they were made on very skinny needles with thin baby yarn, which took quite a while to knit and produced very delicate garments.
As babies grew, their fashions became more detailed. A few key items became the essentials that every toddler needed in the wardrobe: sturdy woolen pullovers for busy boys, fine merino twin sets for little girls, lacy eyelet cardigans for wearing with skirts, classic coats for wearing over babys Sunday best, angora jackets to put on over a dress, and spiffy berets and caps to accessorize outfits. After being worn by the current baby, these well-made garments would be carefully boxed up and saved for later children in the family to wear. The best patterns and designs would be kept in the family and used over and over for new nieces, nephews, and grandchildren, becoming family heirlooms.
Knitting for Modern Babies
The popularity of knitting ebbed and flowed during the twentieth century, becoming especially strong during economic recessions. In hard times, people turned to knitting because they could make things that they could not afford to buy.
The last decade has seen a return to the craft of hand knitting with emphasis on the activity rather than the product. Todays modern yarns appeal to young urban knitters who desire fashionable color palettes and luxurious fibers. Modern knitters have rediscovered the craft of hand knitting because it is fun, social, creative, and satisfying to make stylish garments that cannot be bought in stores. Knitting blogs and social networking sites like Ravelry.com have driven this new age of knitting, giving like-minded knitters a place to swap, sell, and share patterns, techniques, and inspiration.
We no longer need to knit babys entire wardrobe for the sake of frugality, but babies still need a selection of practical favorites and some elegant pieces for special occasions. Today, even if you are short on time, you can knit something to mark the precious time when a baby is small. Infants need many simple caps and booties to help keep them warm, so a new mother always appreciates the gift of these hand knit pieces. If you start an heirloom blanket at the news of a pregnancy, youll have plenty of time to complete all those long rows.
Like many people, you may have a favorite item that you make when you learn that a baby is on the way. Often its a pattern that is quick and easy to knit using your favorite yarn. Knitting it over and over becomes so enjoyable and routine that you may no longer need to look at the pattern. Before you know it, youve created a basket of booties ready to give as last-minute gifts. What better way to welcome a little one into the world than with a gift made by hand?
Choosing Yarns for Baby Knits
Modern babies need not suffer the itchy torture of the hand knit woolen sweaters we were forced to endure as children. Today, we are lucky to have so many soft, gorgeous yarn options. Our grandmothers were not as lucky as we are. During wartime, finding yarn for a needed garment often meant unraveling old sweaters and knitting something new with the tangled, bumpy mess.
During the 1950s, less-expensive modern fibers such as nylon, orlon, and courtelle were an obvious choice, because they were easy to machine-wash, and they dried quickly. The new yarns created a tremendous demand for new patterns and knitting books. Womens monthly magazines often included knitting patterns, many of them for babies and children.
When our grandmothers needed wool for their stash, they could run down to the local five-and-dime. Every department store also had a well-stocked yarn department, and much of the yarn was either synthetics or the coarse wool that some of us remember being forced to wear as kids. Sixty years ago, baby yarn was very limited in color, unlike the rainbow selection today.
Knitters now have almost too many choices when it comes to yarn. From bamboo to silk, cashmere to cotton, we are overwhelmed with selection. As mothers and grandmothers from around the world know, when knitting for babies there is no better yarn than wool, because animal fibers like wool and alpaca are excellent insulators while allowing the skin to breathe and stay dry. Air circulation prevents germs from growing, making wool an antibacterial material. Because of these unique properties, wool was used as a cover for cloth diapers. It is also naturally flame retardant and will not ignite, which makes it especially safe for baby bedding and sleepwear. Wool can be worn in winter as well as during the cool nights of summer, because of its superior temperature-regulating properties.
There is a new awareness that natural fibers are far better for baby as well as the environment. Modern yarns made from natural fibers, such as organically grown cotton, wool, and bamboo, are popular in this age of allergies, asthma, and skin sensitivities. Modern eco yarns not only are a smart choice for the environment but also can be sourced locally and from independent producers in a wide variety of beautiful styles. Many home spinners sell small batches of hand-dyed yarns that are truly works of art. I have not specified any of these yarns in my patterns simply because they are not easily available to most readers; however, I encourage you to substitute suitable yarns in my patterns when you can (see Materials).
New and beautiful plant-based yarns are now made from bamboo, hemp, soy, and flax. I find that these fibers are best blended with animal fibers or cotton for baby knits, because the mixture seems to enhance their drape, insulation properties, and loft. For babies I prefer 100% merino wool or a blend of fibers, such as the Debbie Bliss and Rowan yarns that combine merino wool, cashmere, and microfiber. This mixed yarn can produce a strong, durable garment that holds its shape, is easy to care for, and is exceptionally soft-perfect for little ones!
Here are some common yarns and blends I use in this book:
• Wool: The natural fiber spun from the fleece of sheep. It is durable, is elastic, and has excellent insulating properties. Merino wool comes from merino sheep and is considered the finest wool yarn because of its longer fibers.
• Alpaca: The natural fiber spun from the hair of an alpaca. It is silky, soft, durable, and luxurious. While similar to sheeps wool, it is much warmer and has none of the prickly feel of wool. Garments knit with alpaca are lightweight and incredibly warm, ideal for baby. Alpaca is commonly blended with wool to increase its elasticity and maximize its uses.
• Angora: The natural, hollow-chambered hair from Angora rabbits, heavenly soft, fine, and many times warmer than sheeps wool. It provides the best natural insulation, while allowing body moisture to escape, keeping the wearer warm and dry. Pure angora can be too fluffy for baby knits, so I recommend a blended yarn like Angora Merino from Sublime, a blend of extra-fine merino wool with angora.
• Cotton: A relatively lightweight plant fiber that is good for summer clothing and blankets. It is quite breathable and is comfortable to wear next to the skin. Blue Sky Organic cotton is grown and harvested without agrichemicals and is exceptionally soft and lovely for baby garments. Cotton does not have the elasticity of wool, and some find it difficult to knit for this reason.
• Cotton and Wool: A blend such as Wool Cotton by Rowan is extremely soft next to delicate skin yet strong and luxurious. The 50% wool gives the yarn more elasticity and warmth than cotton alone would have. This yarn has a lovely texture and drape.
• Cashmere: Made from the underhair of the cashmere goat and known for its luxurious softness. Combined with merino wool and microfiber, as in Cashmerino yarns from Debbie Bliss and Cashsoft by Rowan, it is a delightful yarn for babies.
• Silk and Cashmere: An exquisite blend of silk with the best-quality Himalayan cashmere fiber. This noble yarn has an extraordinary softness on the skin.
For the patterns in this book, I have, wherever possible, chosen yarns that are easy to care for and lovely to knit with. Most of the yarns wear well and, with proper care, make great heirlooms for future owners. The suppliers are listed at the end of the book, in case your local yarn shop does not carry a particular one. In many patterns you can easily substitute a yarn of comparable weight if you are careful to do a gauge square before starting, to ensure perfect results.
Always follow the care instructions on the yarn label, as each fiber has its own requirements. I have chosen yarns that are hand washable or machine washable wherever possible, for ease of care.
Washing and drying knits: If the yarn specifies hand washing, use a tiny bit of wool detergent (I love Ecover and Soak). Hand knits should never be rubbed with soap; instead, gently move them around in the water. Rinse in clean water, remove in a bundle without twisting, wrap in a towel, and gently squeeze out the water. Never hang a knitted garment to dry, as hanging destroys the shape. Air-dry on a flat surface on top of a clean cloth or towel. Keep out of direct sun, as the rays can yellow some light fibers. Dry cleaning is not recommended, because the residual chemicals can harden the fabric.
Storing: To preserve your heirloom knits undamaged for future generations, it is important to store them properly. First wash and press the garment, and wrap it in acid-free tissue paper (available at packaging stores). Then seal it in an airtight plastic storage container or zippered freezer bag to protect it for years and keep moths out.
Mothballs are no longer considered safe to use, because they contain harmful chemicals. Many natural remedies help repel moths. One of the most popular ingredients that our grandmothers used is lavender, which can often be found in moth-repelling wash products for wool items. Or knit the easy Lavender Sachet (page 79) to store with your knits or to give as a gift. Other popular herbs that are thought to repel moths include rosemary, mint, thyme, ginseng, cloves, and lemon. Regularly check your stored garments to refresh the herbs and see that each garment is safe.
About the Patterns
I created this pattern book to share with you some of my favorite classic knits for babies. While several patterns are for the beginning knitter, most cater to those who have mastered the basics and whose skills include basic shaping and following intermediate instructions.
Many of the designs were inspired by my growing collection of vintage knitting pattern books, which date back to the 1890s. I also included well-loved patterns from my Shescraftyknits.com collection, such as the Double-Breasted Car Coat, Matinee Jacket, and Cabled Booties, as well as Anyas Cardigan, which inspired me so many years ago. Youll find simple yet timeless designs that are waiting for your own modern touch and embellishment. Have fun adding vintage buttons, simple embroidery, playful pom-poms, and fabric-covered buttons to your creations. I hope you find many inspirations in this book. Happy knitting!
Babies need so many caps during their first few months, to help regulate their body temperature. This simple cap is easy to knit with seed and garter stitches. Its made with a gorgeous merino blend that is machine washable for easy care. You could easily substitute a soft cotton for warmer climates.
0—3 (3—6, 6—12) months
Circumference: 12Ó (13Ó, 14Ó) (30.5 [33, 36] cm)
1 (1, 1) 50 g ball RYC Cashsoft Baby DK (57% extra-fine merino, 33% microfiber, 10% cashmere; 143 yds [130 m]), in #801 Horseradish
US 6 (4 mm) straight needles
Yarn needle for finishing
22 sts and 28 rows make 4Ó (10 cm) in garter st
CO 61 (71, 81) sts.
Rows 1—8: K1, *p1, k1; rep from * to end.
Change to garter st (knit all sts each row), and work until hat measures 3Ó (3½Ó, 4Ó) (8 [9, 10] cm) from beg.
Row 1: K1, *k2tog, k8; rep from * to end-55 (64, 73) sts.
Row 2 and all even rows: Knit.
Row 3: K1, *k2tog, k7; rep from * to end-49 (57, 65) sts.
Row 5: K1, *k2tog, k6; rep from * to end-43 (50, 57) sts.
Row 7: K1, *k2tog, k5; rep from * to end-37 (43, 49) sts.
Cont to dec in this manner on every other row, working 1 fewer st between decs each time, until 13 (15, 17) sts rem.
Next row: K1, *k2tog; rep from * to end-7 (8, 9) sts.
Break off yarn, and thread it through rem sts. Pull tight, and secure end. Join seam. Weave in ends.
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