Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Puffed Sleeves In The 1940s

Truly, fashion at the beginning of 1940 and at the end of 1949 should not be lumped together.  The attitudes and influences in the years immediately following the Second World War make for a very specific period of 20th century fashion, as does the introduction of Dior's new look.  For knitters though, a lumping together of years might be more forgivable.  After all, we are dealing less with high fashion, or even commercial fashion; just its trickle-down influence.  Also, because home knitters have to source their own materials, the continuation of rationing post war, and material shortages for the years to come affected home knitting fashion directly.

I'm Canadian, so most of the vintage patterns I find are British, Canadian, or British patterns reformated for Canadian import. This means that the terms I use for vintage patterns are usually British (ie yarn weights, needle sizes) and that all of my patterns from the 1940s are influenced by the Second World War and by the rationing that followed.
At no other time in modern history was knitting so newsworthy!
The War Knitting Marathon at the 1940 New York World's Fair

Several initiatives were already in place when war was declared and the British and Canadian Governments created and regulated many wooly efforts. These have been well documented, especially in the last few years. Try these posts to learn more about war time knitting. Of course these knitting initiatives served those knitting for the troops and wounded overseas, but also served the garment needs of the homefront. 'Make Do And Mend' is only one part of the 1940s knitting story. It is also only one influence on the creative home knitter of this period. Perhaps another post is needed. If and when I write it, it will be slotted in with a link here.
The conditions of WWII knitting made a pleated puff sleeve possible and popular.

Where the pads of the 1930s had extended the shoulder line slightly into the cap or puff of the sleeve, supporting the height of the puff, the puff sleeve of the early 1940s was often constructed and fitted flat at the top of the cap and, because of it's rigidity, and the shape and firmness of the shoulder pad, sat level with the shoulder, puffing every direction but up.
A 1940s puff; the flat, pleated top of the sleeve extends the shoulder line.  
A pad (visible on the left shoulder) helps to push the puff out.  
The firm lace and long cuff exaggerates the fullness at the shoulder.

Moving forwards, the puff sleeve of the later war years was much more extreme.  The WWII shoulder attempted to do two things:  appear soft and feminine (round puff), and to echo the uniforms and wartime spirit of the time (squared shoulders).  These two looks (which sometimes appear together in some of the more fantastic wartime sweater patterns) are controlled by three factors: the construction of the sleeve, the setting of the sleeve, and the padding of the sleeve.  Day to day, it is the pad that becomes indispensable.  With a mini collection of different kinds of pads, a home knitter could (and can!) change the feel of a jumper depending on the event, mood, or time of day.

Several factors also contributed to the practical possibility of these kinds of sleeves, and to the flourishing of puff.  Wartime sweaters were often knit with a yoke of a different scrap colour or stitch pattern, in part to save and use up scraps (remember that a British coupon was worth only 2oz of wool), but also because of the striking effect it creates.  A straight, no-nonsense line separates the two areas and sets off the whimsy of a slightly silly sleeve.  It also slims the shoulder no end; very dainty, but still efficient.  This visual effect was easy to achieve without too much experience and it is a great way to instantly evoke a vintage feel today.

A more experienced knitter might also knit the puffed section of the sleeve in the yoke colour or pattern, continuing the line of separation across the entire body.  Striking, and neat as a pin.  No one wanted to look frivolous or wasteful so few sweaters from this period were particularly lacy, or knit loosely or drapey, instead lace was close, creating a firmer fabric than typical knitted lace. A firm fabric is easier to fiddle with when it comes to setting the sleeve; a plus for a puff or sculpted sleeve.
Puffed and exaggerated shoulders were unavoidable; the fabric created by the body of wartime sweaters was one just begging to be inflated.

My 'Vantine's' Jumper has a yoke of a firm fabric to help with finishing.  Also note the firmness and pertness of the lace pattern.  It is delicate, but not drapey.

Sweaters needed to be more durable because for many, more time was having to be spent outdoors. This meant that padding and pleating could be added to greater effect. It also meant that the fabric of the sweater was sturdier, especially due to the scarcity of fine yarns. Many sweaters were knit of old, recycled sweaters or scrap yarn meaning that the wool was often stiffer than normal. Recycled yarn also looses it's elasticity and must be knit firmer.  Most sweaters of repurposed wool were knit in textured fabric, perfect for structural sleeves.  Although beautifully shown in 1940s patterns, at home stranded knitting was largely avoided over the top of the sleeve, and Fair Isle patterns were usually placed by novice knitters on the yoke alone.  Most sweaters were of one colour (on the sleeve) and of a textured stitch pattern so that in the finishing, the gathering or "easing in" of excess fabric at the head of the sleeve gave an instant structural look even if no special finishing techniques were used.  Make do and Mend, Red Cross depots, and Air Raids all meant that women were knitting in groups more than ever, and so specialty stitches and techniques could be shared (or not).  More home knitters and new knitters could now attempt puffed sleeves.
Granny, her mates in the WAFs, and their shoulders.
This look was in because of the unavoidable influence of military uniforms on fashion. Of course many women found themselves in uniform, but many women called to war work outside of the forces wanted to emulate this appearance of professionalism and patriotism.

In this way pads became as square as the squared shoulders (figuratively and literally)of the military, and padding raised them adding height in addition to width. With 'Make-Do" foremost in every knitter's mind, many pads were made of scrap fabric and were stuffed with yarn scraps or sawdust if cotton was scarce. These pads were adding height (new since the 1930s) and so were often knit or sewn square, rather like little beanbags.  Click here to read "Using Gauge Swatches as Shoulder Pads in the Vintage Style", part of the Quest for Puff series!

This free pattern from the Victoria & Albert Museum's War Time Collection features a custom knitted shoulder pad. 

The Shiap tried to kill the square look, introducing a sloped shoulder. It did not take off. Operating out of the States, rather than Occupied France, she was fighting the fashion houses' rebellion. The Couturiers showed manish shapes, awkward hems, ugly shoes and misappropriated hats, all destined (they hoped) for the wives of German officers; no one else could afford them. England stayed ignorant of this trend until well after the war; their shoulders would never become as bizarre.
Occupied France's lines had only a slight influence on British styles.

A peasant revival was inspired by land girls, though most land girls themselves could not participate in it.
Girlish puffed sleeves couldn't help but be popular, (a look carried over from the '30s) and stayed inflated and round until around the time the Americans joined the war. After Pearl Harbour the military inspired square shoulder won out for the most part, and puffs tended to be angled until Dior's New Look. This is partly to do with the fact that the fashion colonies were cut off from France. Forced to look elsewhere for mode, foreign designers pulled from the military look, and even the specific uniforms of local heros. It is at this point that the American and British commercial fashions really begin to take on a unique cultural identity.
The Peasant/Folk craze would continue to come and go as it had for centuries.  
For the home knitter it would become a haven of puff.

Dior launched his 'New Look' in 1947.  Of course it changed everything and part of it's success was it's very 'newness'.  It was achieved, however, by reviving some very old techniques.
You might think that the Look's rounded shoulder lines would kill our story and certainly annex the shoulder pad.  Although a square shoulder was instantaneously out of date, Dior's rebirthing of French Tailoring and Couture techniques, many unseen since Victoria,  made padding a staple.  Pads became more shaped, more like the ubiquitous pads of the 1980s.  Sleeve Heads, particularly for jackets were to become, and remain essential.
Pads can be used to give puff shape to a shoulder that was knit to be sloped.  
This look is a bridge between the square and the round shoulder.

Dior's line was universally lauded and in Britain it was seen as a breath of fresh air.  The American and British Governments however, were furious.  They were working very hard to ration a public who was confused about restrictions still in place after the war.  Dior's New Look, with it's ample fabric was very very expensive and hard to come by.  Nowadays, this would be a case for High Street knockoffs.  Britain, however was still rationing many garments and dressmaking materials, and would continue to do so for several years.  Also,  mills and design firms had both been restricted and could only produce a limited line of products.  Knitting was still essential, and now more of the home knitter's time could be spent on personal projects, rather than knitting for the troops.  The Red Cross in Canada and the US continued to collect for various worthy causes, but here too we see more involved patterns for the knitter herself.
Knitters continued to employ tricks like this one to conserve rationed wool; the contrast colour is embroidered over the body of the sweater, extending it's effect.  Perhaps the wool for the embroidery was salvaged from the pocket of another sweater.  The firm fabric of the sleeve (since the colour wasn't stranded) is perfect for pleating into a puff.

In February of 1949, wool clothing ceased to be rationed.  This meant that if the consumer could afford it, some items could be bought and no longer needed to be knitted.  Unfortunately, this didn't quite produce a renaissance of personal knitting as it had after WWI; knitting wool would remain rationed until 1952.

When it becomes readily available again, yarn will be a very different product and knitting will have to adapt.

Bring on the 1950s '60s and '70s.

You are reading "The Quest For Puff" ©Morgan Forrester

Up next:
Mid Century Peasant Puff
Coming Soon:
Vintage Sleeves: Puff Pleating
Vintage Sleeves: Seaming for Puff
Creating Puffed Sleeves Anew

This post is a part of The Quest For Puff Series. Read it from the beginning HERE.
PS  Sorry, I don't know what's up with the spacing.


Holly said...

Is it safe to assume that your Grandmother is the wee-ist WAF in the photo?

Morgan said...

I think I remember her talking about their uniforms...
that while she had to take some pieces in in places, Granny had less problems with her uniform fitting than the other girls did.
Maybe she said that she had to hem the skirts and jackets up,but didn't find them uncomfortable?
I wish I remembered.
In any case, I'm sure she did hem them. Knowing Granny, she probably used the salvaged length to either mend the uniform later, or to put towards another project.

Sophie said...

I have been following the 'Quest For Puff' and I can't believe how much historical information you're sharing on such a limited subject! I am really enjoying it.

Astrid said...

This is really insightful posting. Thank-you very much from Sweden

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...