Our Grandmothers Were the Original Reusers

Since we’re throwing our first workshop tomorrow, an Intro to Knitting class (find the details here: http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=218102534900209), I thought I’d regale you with a briefly researched history of knitting! If you’re totally jazzed about this, then I urge you to conduct a Google search on your own, because as I was studying the details of nalbinding (the precursor to knitting), my eyes were fluttering and fighting to stay open. Though I love history and anthropology–and knitting!–it just didn’t work on a dreary summer day. Until, that is, Wikipedia dropped this book on the table: “Make do and Mend was the title of a booklet produced by the British wartime government department, the Ministry of Information. Wool was in very short supply, and the booklet encouraged women to unpick old unwearable woollen items in order to re-use the wool.” Wow, that sounds so…reuse-y! Turns out, there was so much more to learn (and some correcting to do on Wikipedia, natch)!

Knit for Victory! This one actually dates to WWI.

Make Do and Mend was the title of a cluster of leaflets distributed by the Ministry of Information in Great Britain during World War II. (Fyi, these are the same people that brought us other catchy phrases such as “Keep Calm and Carry On” (which I now see on t-shirts), “Careless Talk Costs Lives,” and “Lend A Hand on the Land.” It’s very similar to our country’s own WPA poster campaigns.) With the help of a “Mrs. Sew And Sew,” the leaflets advised women on everything from how to darn a sock so that it lasts longer to keeping moths out of clothes to refashioning men’s jackets into children’s frocks. My favorite tip is this: “Don’t be afraid of using different materials or colours (so long as they wash the same way). Sleeves of non-matching material look perfectly well and the bodice of a dress can be different from a skirt.” Thanks for the fashion tip, MOI. Don’t think that’ll look like a rag doll in a never-before-seen Prince video at all.

In the forward to Make Do and Mend: Keeping Family and Home Afloat On War Rations, a collection of the leaflets published in 2007, Jill Norman candidly points out that these weren’t just tips, these were the way of life for women. Clothing was heavily rationed and on a coupon system, which amounted to a person, if they were lucky and rich, getting one new outfit per year. Dyes weren’t being used for clothing–since the chemicals could contribute to the war effort–and, with the introduction of Utility Clothing in 1941, everything from blouses to undies was built to last and function, not be stylish and comfortable. To further paint the picture: “Nylon and silk stockings were no longer available, so [women] dyed their legs with tea, and drew lines down the backs of their legs with an eyebrow pencil to imitate stocking seams.” Desperate times, well, y’know, make you do weird things so you look like you’re wearing stockings. Also during this time, women started wearing trousers and making their own hats and shoes, and kids started wearing jeans and turbans–a trend that siphoned its way down from their moms who were now factory workers. Night classes were held (we call them “workshops” now, ahem) to show women how to let out children’s clothes or restyle their own. (Apparently, this is when elbow patches became trendy!)

How To Patch Undies--It must be done! For your country!

Jumble sales became popular, as did thrift stores, thanks to Make Do & Mend.

All in all, the Make Do & Mend pamphlets help women, literally, make do: their husbands were away, they had to enter the workforce, they couldn’t find clothing for their kids, food was rationed. And yet, somewhere amidst all of that, was a resourceful voice reminding them that all they really needed was some creativity and handiness (and an eyebrow pencil) to get by. Whoever thinks this whole re/upcycling thing is new or merely a trend needs to talk to someone’s grandma, because for that lady it was a way of life.

Is it me, or does Mrs. Sew and Sew look like a marionette?

Hope to see you at the workshop tomorrow, y’all!

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