I love all things vintage. I find the shapes and styles from vintage clothes and knitted garments are just so flattering and feminine. I think a lot of my designs reflect this whilst giving things a modern fit.
If like me, you love vintage style, you’ve probably at some point bought a vintage knitting pattern. There are some real bargains to be had, not only can you buy some fabulous vintage patterns online on sites such as Ebay and Etsy but you can also find them in your local charity shop or thrift store and also at car boot sales or yard sales. However, finding the pattern isn’t the problem. One of the main problems for most people with vintage knitting patterns is that they are designed for yarns which are not only no longer available, but which is almost impossible to substitute with a modern yarn.
A number of designers have noted this problem and realised that the average knitter does not have the skills or inclination to totally re-write a vintage pattern to suit a modern yarn and they have cleverly done all of the hard work re-writing vintage patterns for us. There are some absolutely gorgeous books you can buy of vintage knitting patterns adapted for the modern knitter. One of my favourites is Vintage Baby Knits by Kirsten Rengren, which includes over 40 patterns adapted from vintage patterns from the 1920s to the 1950s. There are so many delightful patterns in this book including some of the sweetest cuddly toy knits. For women’s patterns I recommend both of Susan Crawford’s A stitch in time books which are both available on her website here. Both collections include stunning patterns in a range of sizes from 30″ – 60″. On her website you can buy either book as a hard copy or E-Book.
This is all well and good but what if I’ve found a vintage pattern which I just have to knit – how can I adapt it for a modern yarn myself?
The chances of you being able to buy the actual vintage yarn that a pattern written 70 years ago called for is slim to none. You could always give it a quick search on Ebay, there’s no harm. But even if by some miracle you find it, what are the chances of the seller having the quantity you require in the colour you want? And remember, this stuff is going to be 70 years old – it’s not going to be in great condition and might whiff a bit. There are groups of seriously dedicated vintage knitters out there who insist on knitting their vintage garments in genuine vintage yarns and I salute their determination! However, for us mere mortals, it is much much more likely that we are going to have to substitute the yarn called for with a modern yarn.
The first place to start in adapting your vintage pattern for a modern yarn is to look at what weight of yarn the pattern was designed for. You’ll find that a lot of the older patterns (pre-1950s) call for a thinner yarns than we would typically knit with today. Back then, even 4-ply (fingering weight) was considered a quick-knit with many patterns being knit in 2-ply or 3-ply yarns. Very roughly speaking, a 2-ply is like a lace-weight yarn, so you could try substiuting 2-ply with lace weight yarn. A modern 4-ply is probably a little thicker than a vintage 4-ply would have been and when DK yarn became widely used in the late 1950s it was probably more similar to the weight of a modern 4-ply. So basically, the message is, don’t look at the pattern and see “4-ply” and run out a buy yourself 4-ply yarn and merrily cast on. You need to check the gauge on the pattern.
With vintage patterns the gauge will give you a far better idea of which yarn will make a suitable substitution than the name of the yarn or the category it was considered to fit into back in the time the pattern was written.
Use the gauge as your starting point for browsing suitable yarns. If you’re shopping in your Local Yarn Shop (LYS) take the pattern along with you or the gauge written on a scrap of paper and I’m sure they will be able to show you a range of yarns which will knit up to roughly that tension. If you prefer to shop online then most yarn listings in online shops provide the gauge details for each yarn.
The next step is to swatch with your chosen yarn to establish your gauge. If your gauge is spot on – brava! You’re ready to get stuck straight in. If you’re getting more stitches and rows per inch than the pattern called for, you need to use larger needles and re-swatch. If you’re getting less stitches and rows per inch than the pattern called for, you need to use smaller needles and re-swatch. If your gauge is off for stitches but fine for rows, or vice versa, then you should read my blog on swatching and adapting patterns to suit your gauge – it’s very math-sy but straight forward.
Go with the body measurement not the dress size
Another thing you really need to bear in mind with vintage patterns is to follow the body measurements rather than the dress size. Generally speaking, vintage sizes were smaller than today’s equivalents. For example if you wear a size 10 in modern sizes, you would need a size 12 to 14 in vintage sizes. A lot of years of “Vanity Sizing” changes have taken place in the fashion industry since these patterns were written as we all like to buy clothes in smaller sizes to make us feel better about ourselves. Guess what ladies? We haven’t got smaller, the clothes have got bigger, so when working from a vintage pattern measure yourself and go with the size which best fits that measurement. I’d recommend the same for babies and children’s patterns. Go with the actual chest measurement rather than the age.
If you take all of these tips into consideration then you should have a tear-free experience knitting from a vintage pattern. Good luck and I’d love to hear about your results.
If you absolutely cannot bear to adapt a vintage pattern for yourself then I offer a bespoke pattern adapting service, please email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org for more details. The price is dependent on the garment and how extensive the re-working of the pattern is.