History Knitting Leeds local history world war two

Bally Balaclavas

Wartime Knits

We’re going Balaclava crazy here.

Maybe because we’re still enjoying the Yesterday channel’s Colditz fest. Maybe because it’s bally cold out there chaps, what?

It all started with my attempts to knit an Edwardian balaclava, from M. Elliot Scrivenor’s 1903 ‘Knitting & Crocheting Book’. Even though what I was meant to be doing, was knitting a 1940’s balaclava…

A potted history of the Balaclava:

Richard Rutt, ‘the Knitting Bishop’ says that this sort of headgear was only known as ‘balaclava helmet’ post the 1880s, even thought they were unvented during the Crimean War,  1853-6.  The first reference I found in a search of the British Library’s 19thC newspapers online was actually even later – 1899, during the Boer War. I found this from The Standard :

Sir – So many ladies are anxious to show a little thoughtful kindness to our soldiers. I beg to suggest that they can do this by knitting a woollen cap known as the “Balaclava helmet”.

Having been asked to knit one for a brother in the 83rd Field Battery of Artilliery, I would like to know that each man enjoyed the same small luxury.

I am, Sir, your obedient Servant,


Nat of the Antarctic

Maybe the Artillieryman’s Daughter knitted a hat like this. M.Elliott Scrivenor’s Knitting and Crochet  Book was already in its Third Edition by 1903.Victorian and Edwardian patterns are notoriously eccentric but this was unusually easy to follow and unambiguous.  The original was knitted in the long defunct Paton’s 3 Ply Wheeling. I made it in 5 ply gansey wool from British Breeds. Handily, they do a khaki.  I alternated that with gansey dark blue. It is 100% pure wool and the beauty of British Breeds is that they sell in 50g balls so you don’t need to buy a 500g cone or mega-skein, to make a small thing.

The original pattern specified dark grey and A.N.Other lighter colour.

I chose it because it was an intriguing top down construction – very modern. The increases at the top don’t look pretty but serve their purpose. But beware – that wide rib (8 purl, 4 plain) grows like crazy!  The pattern did specify a tension (6 st to the inch), and I knew I could get that on 2.5mm needles. Despite getting it, the thing turned out big and baggy – so if I put this pattern out, I will do a slight re-write, to compensate. (Although the men in this family do have curiously pea-sized heads).

Took me 3 evenings to knit, pretty well. The sizing was so uber-generous and I’d knock one 12 st repeat out of it, if I knit it again.  I’d imagine my 5 ply was a thicker grist but as I achieved the right tension, and it’s a wool I have used before and performs well, I wasn’t overly concerned.

Another reason I chose this one was, it is stripy. Less of the terrorist/gimp associations about it!  I wanted Mr H to be warm at work (he’s sometimes a WW2 A.R.P warden – don’t ask). So unbelievably, it will actually get worn. Or would have, had it not turned out large and slightly baggy. A sizeable family of hedgehogs could hole up for the winter in it.

A few tweaks and this pattern would be entirely usuable though and I like the ‘comforter’ attached.  You have to be careful to knit it in non itchy wool, though! The  original 1903 book was illustrated with photographs – probably groundbreaking for a knitting book of that date..? I found myself thinking I hope the poor bloke in the photo there didn’t end up on Flanders Field…  Am sure this balaclava remained the style upto WW1, though.

I looked at other balaclavas including the one in the classic Paton’s Woolcraft books but most of them post WW2 seem to have been knitted flat so have an ugly sewn-up seam and rather unexciting construction. I now decided I wanted to knit him an actual WW2 one.

By some stroke of great fortune, a new and rather wonderful vintage shop just opened in York; the Vintage Emporium, 18 Fishergate, York, YO10 4AB.

The Vintage Emporium

We only discovered it because St George’s carpark was flooded a couple of weeks back, so we had to find a different way into town and amongst the treasures there, were some nice knitting pattern books.

I found a 1940’s pattern from ‘Knitted Comforts For Servicemen’. Straight away, just looking at it, you can see how the balaclava evolved.  It seems every yarn company was vying for the war effort knitters. So there are still large numbers of WW2 vintage pattern books and leaflets out there, published by various woollen mills.  These are going to get increasingly hard to track down.  I have spent years collecting James Norbury’s 1950’s knitting books – and even tracked down Elizabeth Zimmermans years before she was even heard of in the U.K, thanks to a mention by the Knitting Bishop. And just realised the big gap in my collection are the 1940s’ patterns.  With these patterns, gone are the Edwardian and Victorian ambiguities. Things are starting to feel more standardised by the 1940s.

Wartime Balaclava

Here’s today’s progress on the 1940’s balaclava.  Structurally, quite different. Knitted bottom up, and you knit the Front and Back flaps first, join, do 3 X 3 ribbing for a bit, then work your way up from there; decreasing at the top.

Be careful if buying on Etsy that you’re buying an original pattern, not a reprint. Unless you don’t mind, of course!

Last night’s episode of Colditz saw the beginning of the wartime balaclava. It looks to be smaller and snugger and in theory should be a faster knit. Again, I’m using British Breeds yarn – but in a now defunct shade of blue.  I had forgotten how much I fancied David McCallum and – more disturbingly – Anthony Valentine.

ETA: The wonderful Gina has linked in Comments to the V & A website which has downloadable vintage patterns.  Thanks, Gina! I didn’t know that actual patterns were available there!  And check out this blighter, he’s only gone and got a Balaclava – with earholes:

Here’s dad at the start of the War. I’d imagine this was taken for my grandad to keep a copy on him, wherever he went. He went to some hellish places: London in the Blitz, Belgium, and later, amongst the troops liberating Belsen.  If he had this photo, it will have meant the world to him.

The day after War was declared, his father (a sargeant in the T.A),  left to fight. Aged 12, dad had to leave his place at Leeds High School immediately to help my grandma, Lillie, run the dairy. He was an academic little kid, and disappointed to leave school.  When he was 17 in 1943, he joined the Paras and was posted to India, Egypt and then Palestine.  So he didn’t come home  til 1947. He was demobbed at Imphal Barracks in York, and returned home to Leeds. His father – who had seen him for the space of one hour in Trafalgar Square during the War when they were both on leave – walked right past him at Leeds station, not recognising him. His mother knew him instantly.

Lillie and Leslie at start of WW2

5 replies on “Bally Balaclavas”

there is a pattern from 1853 for a “helmet” and it looks a bit like a chainmail head covering. it is a mix of knitting and crochet. it looks nothing like the ones we knitted from the the 1880’s to the present day.


I have today found a copy of the “Knitted Comforts for Service Men” featured in your article. It was found in a box junk no longer required by a charity shop. I would like to know the date that it was published as I will donate it to our new Town Museum. The pattern book is slighly damaged though being folded for a long time, but still a gem.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.