History of Knitting Part IX: Knitting in the Great Depression

Knit Twin Set & Skirt - from Good Needlework and Knitting Magazine - Sept 1938

Twin set and skirt knitting pattern
Good Needlework and Knitting Magazine
September 1938

On October 24, 1929 the stock market crashed.  It was the start of the Great Depression.  For the next 12 years nearly every industry suffered as sales slowed and jobs were lost.  But there were two very notable exceptions, the cosmetics industry (especially lipstick sales) ... and yarn!

And it's easy to see why!  Knitting is inexpensive and worthwhile entertainment - if you spend your money to see a show or eat a fancy dinner you have nothing to show for it the next day.  If you knit, not only does it occupy your time, but you have a tangible item to wear!​

Knitting your own clothes was a thrifty choice, but it was important to women that their hand-made garments not appear to be thrifty and cheap.  Expensive, European designed sweaters were very fashionable in the 1930s - and easily copied by American knitters.  Yarn manufacturers designed patterns that emphasized stylish, fashionable clothes.  Hand-knit sweaters, twin sets (a matching cardigan over a pull-over sweater) and even entire dresses were popular.  Projects were big and the emphasis was on style and fashion over the classic and (yawn!) utilitarian socks, mittens and scarves that had dominated every era before.

Knitting became more than a hobby, for many women it became a profession.  As companies downsized and jobs were lost, the thinking at the time was that any available jobs should go to men since they were the primary breadwinners.  The exception was the yarn industry.

Yarn manufacturers realized that new knit fashions had to be sharp and well-knit in order to attract buyers, so women were hired as knitting instructors.  The yarn industry knew that an increase in the number of women who learned to knit would mean an increase in their yarn sales.  But more importantly, they understood that it was crucial to the industry that women knit well.  They knew that a woman wearing a baggy, ill-fitting and ugly garment while bragging "I made it myself!" would not entice her friends to become knitters (and yarn customers).  It was a worthwhile expense for yarn manufacturers to pay knitting instructors to help home knitters to improve their knitting skills.  Better knitters wearing stylish, well-knit hand-knit clothes enticed their friends to learn how to knit - and more yarn customers were born by the minute!

So while men were hurting for jobs, women were hired as knitting instructors, shop girls and saleswomen in yarn shops​, and models in shows to promote knitting fashions.  Most of these jobs were part-time, since it was well established that all available full-time jobs should go to men, but the income these women received had a significant impact on their household budgets. 

Hollywood surged in the 1930s, and ordinary folk looked forward to seeing their favorite stars on the silver screen.  Designers jumped on the Hollywood bandwagon and published pattern books with fashions modeled by movie stars.  You couldn't afford to buy Hollywood fashions - but you could certainly afford to knit yourself an outfit to look like a Hollywood star!

Lana Turner (left) in They Won't Forget - 1937

Lana Turner (left) in
"They Won't Forget" (1937)
Tight sweaters and perky figure earned her the nickname "The Sweater Girl."

Lana Turner's character in the 1937 film "They Won't Forget" was famous for her tight-fitting knit sweaters.  She was nicknamed the "Sweater Girl," and started the fashion for tight-fitting sweaters worn over a cone-shaped bra that became popular throughout the 1940s and 1950s.

Katherine Hepburn Knitting

Star Katherine Hepburn knitting and (gasp!) wearing pants!

As it turns out, Hollywood starlets didn't just wear knit clothes, many of them were knitters as well.  Joan Crawford, Jayne Mansfield, Audrey Hepburn, Shirley Temple and Katherine Hepburn were all known to knit on their movie sets.  Knitting was not fuddy-duddy - it had become glamorous!  The thinking was that if Hollywood stars, who could easily afford to buy their clothes, were hand-knitting their clothes - then you should, too!

Want to try out an 1930s pattern?  A quick Ravelry peek (search "1930") reveals lots of vintage 1930s patterns as well as remakes inspired by the 1930s.  Give us a call to help you with your yarn selection ... and get ready for the glamor of a 1930s Hollywood star!

Happy Knitting! ... Scout

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below 0 comments