This is not really a review. Instead, it’s more like a narrative of my experience with this large collection of books. Weldon’s Practical Needlework was a periodical publication that circulated around the British Empire during the Victorian era. It is believed that the first issue was published around 1888. It’s difficult to say an exact year because these bulky newsletters don’t have dates. The 20th century becomes discernible when the company’s phone number begins to appear on the front page of the publications. All of these newsletters were published by topic. The knitting ones, for example, had the title of Weldon’s Practical Knitter First Series. One of the selling points of these magazines was that they never went out of print. They could be ordered by title and series number. Another benefit to its audience was that it contained a lot of photographs and illustrations that were high-quality for the time.
Interweave sells the Weldon’s series in facsimile format. I decided to buy the deluxe edition because I couldn’t make up my mind which volumes I wanted to have in my library. Having never seen one of these before I was very surprised to see that there is plenty of text to read. There are many commentaries and suggestions to guide the Victorian crafter who wanted to do “Lady’s Fancy Work.” This makes it an interesting historical document about middle-class Victorian women who were eager to occupy their free time with various needlework activities. To my surprise, comparing the past with the present, an equal number of things are different as they are the same.
What’s the same? Well, to start with, a lot of the publications that intend to instruct the crafter refer to the days of yore, when past generations regularly did this or that craft but then it was “lost” or ceased to be practiced. The Weldon’s Practical Knitter First Series in fact presents knitting as a forgotten art and provides all the instructions necessary, with illustrations, on how to hold the needles, knit, purl, etc. Even tatting is treated as an “old-fashioned” hobby in the periodicals devoted to this challenging thread work. I had always imagined tatting as something that was considered “usual” in the 19th century! When I first read through these books I was also surprised to see the use of the word “cosy.” Apparently, it became a common way to talk about home decor in the British middle class in the Victorian days. Sock patterns appear in all the knitting publications, however there was also a separate series called Weldon’s Practical Sock Knitter. Victorian knitters, like many of us, were really addicted to sock knitting. There were even multi-colored sock yarns available! Sock knitting is presented as a useful and convenient activity that requires little thought, ideal for when a “Lady” is too tired to do something more complex. Does this sound familiar? There was also a series to instruct women on how to sell their makes which included “bazaar items” patterns to sew and embroider. Crazy patchwork, apparently, was very popular. I had no idea women made crazy quilts in 19th-century England. Above all, one of the things about patterns that hasn’t changed one bit since Weldon’s was the concept of trying to make everything easy to understand and execute for the crafter. Patterns in the Weldon’s newsletters are very often marketed as “quick and easy.” And, oh yes, let’s not forget the tea cozies. They abound in Weldon’s.
Of course, we can also observe how things have changed. To begin with, people don’t wear gaiters or fascinators anymore, along with a whole heap of other accessories. A gaiter was a long tube of knitwear that began below the knee and continued down to cover the foot’s instep. It was sort of like a leg warmer but with half a sock covering the tops of the feet. A fascinator was something women wore on their heads. They were often frilly and could be very extravagant. Also interesting is to see all the patterns for knitted and crochet underwear. For knitting I was very much surprised to see how double knitting was treated as totally run-of-the-mill and easy to do whereas today it is not very often done and is considered “extreme knitting.” As for sock knitting, I counted more than fifteen different style heels. Furthermore, if you read all the Weldon’s Practical Sock Knitter issues you observe how construction techniques evolved over time, culminating in the now standard “heel turn.”
Some of the text in these magazines also gives some insight into middle-class Victorian attitudes in England. The author, for example, informs his or her audience without mincing words that one should buy cheap, inferior-quality wool to make shawls for poor women (not cool). Disabled people were also talked about insensitively, as demonstrated by a pattern for “invalid’s boots.” Ladies who made crazy quilts were encouraged to use them for decorating their servants’ or children’s rooms, implying they were too common for the lady of the house to use. These days a pattern that does not list gauge or measurements exactly is not even acknowledged as a pattern. In Weldon’s there are instructions for one size which is very imprecise. Garment sizes are vaguely described as “for a girl of 4” or “for a gentleman,” etc. It was assumed that if the “Lady” used the knitting needle sizes and exact yarn indicated then that was enough to create the perfect fit. I suspect that there were many Victorian “gentlemen” who found their handmade clothing very uncomfortable. However, I suppose people were more prone to say “good enough, it’s done!” in Victorian England.
I’m really glad I bought this. It is very unlike a lot of old patterns and books I’ve read from the Antique Pattern Library. I will definitely use a lot of the patterns, especially the afghan blocks, knit and crochet stitch patterns as well as the embroidery and cross stitch ideas. If I ever decide to knit a block from these bulletins, however, I’ll adapt them for knitting in the round, as the patterns call for knitting four triangles and sewing them together. I don’t think it is too difficult to adapt them for the modern age.
I really enjoy historical things, so this collection is just the right thing for me. It’s not something to get for practical purposes — how ironic given the title!