Tuesday 8 May 2018

How to Knit Gloves

‘How to Knit Gloves’ (for the Edwardian James Bond), 1911

‘Gloves are not very difficult to knit’, my grandmother wrote in 1911. A rather proud sixteen-year-old, who had probably just finished her first good pair, she prudently remarked that hers were ‘very useful as new finger-tips can be knitted when the first wear out.’

I am not a knitter, but I love the idea of knitting new finger tips for old, rather like Bond replacing his finger-prints to enable him to have a whisky while avoiding leaving identifying marks on a glass. Bond could, of course, have just worn gloves, but perhaps Q did not have the beautiful instructions that my grandmother had written out for knitting such a ‘useful’ pair.

There are long generations on my mother’s side of the family. I was 38 when I had my last daughter, and my mother and her mother were about the same age when they had theirs. So, generationally, it only takes us two hops to get back to 1911 when my grandmother, Mary McCombie, was sixteen, the same age as my eldest today. Mary was the first of four siblings, who filled their spare time with reading and radio, tennis and parties, and – Mary at least on one slow afternoon – knitting.

Hoping to gain some insight into my teenage grandma, I emailed her gloves recipe to my brilliant-knitting friend, Emma to see what she would make of it. Emma immediately plunged into the challenge of knitting Edwardian gloves…

‘These needles arrived today.’ Emma emailed back a week later, with the first of a series of photos. Mary had recommended using ‘4 steel needles’, which is a traditional way of knitting in the round. Today there are bendy needles that flex in the middle, like bendy-busses making life easier for going round corners. They make it ‘less like hedgehog wrestling’ Emma wrote, which seems a perfect way to describe knitting with traditional straights.

Mary had recommended 3 ply yarn for men’s gloves, 2 ply for ladies, but Emma soon saw that this would only produce a tiny and rather lacy, decorative glove, so she moved up a size, fortunately announcing, ‘I'm loving this!!!!!’

Unlike me, Emma understood Mary’s knitting language and was soon setting off on two rounds of purl (garter stitch), 8 rounds of plain (stocking stitch) and 2 rows purl. The first cuff appeared. #intertextualknittingphotography

‘Looking good,’ I wrote back, and love that tattoo!

Three more photos followed in rapid succession. ‘I can't help but smile at how your gran begins with "gloves are easy to knit”’, Emma wrote. Mary had chosen moss stitch - achieved by doing a knit one, purl one sequence, reversing on the next row.  ‘This gives the lovely bumpy effect you can see in the second picture. It's used if you want a robust garment, but it’s a bit of a fancy stitch that someone may use to show off.’ So either Mary wanted robust gloves or she was quietly parading her knitting proficiency.

Emma was knitting with the TV on. Despite using coloured wool threads as markers, as instructed, she lost count, but pressed on following her mother-in-law’s excellent philosophy that ‘flaws add character’. ‘Amazing work,’ I told her. ‘You are having a conversation with my grandma that I could never have understood, and it tells you a bit about her, her confidence and perhaps showy-offness, that I love.’ I sent her a photo of Mary aged about 16. Unlikely she had any tattoos, and certainly no Netflix.

The gloves were starting to look a bit mittenish, but Emma was soon ready to knit fingers. Mary’s pattern suggested 7 stitches per finger with 4 stitches added each side to ensure no gaps, but got a little vague in parts so Emma worked it out as she went along, sticking with the moss stitch.

Suddenly the first was done! ‘Now to make sure the second matches!’ Emma wrote as proud as Mary had ever been…

The result was a mossy, grey, 1911 work of genius, which Emma generously presented to me one evening a week later! I love them.

The grandma I remembered was an old lady (that’s the downside of long generations), but she was kind, and loving, and delighted at cheating at cards. I hadn’t put it past her to cheat with her gloves instructions too, but it seems she was rightly proud of her endeavours.

No doubt when the First World War started, just three years after Mary wrote out her knitting instructions, she again put her skills to good use. It is unlikely that her future husband, Alfred Smith, ever wore her wartime creations. He was posted to Turkey and served at Gallipoli, before being transferred to Egypt, but the nights did get very cold so you never know. I like to think that when they met after the war, and he was back in chilly England, she might have picked up her four steel needles again for him.

With thanks to Emma Dobson and Mary McCombie.

Emma Dobson

Mary McCombie

Mary McCombie’s ‘How to Knit Gloves’ full instructions

Pilots and Spies, Enablers and Resisters

Article written for the Chalke Valley History Festival

Hanna Reitsch and Melitta von Stauffenberg were the only two women to serve as test pilots for the Nazi regime. Truly remarkable women, both were made Honorary Flight Captains and both were awarded the Iron Cross… yet they ended their lives on opposite sides of history. I am delighted to be talking about their beliefs, decisions and actions as told in my new book, The Women Who Flew for Hitler, when I return to the Chalke Valley History Festival this June.

I was last at the festival in 2013, speaking about The Spy Who Loved, my biography of Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, the first woman to serve Britain as a special agent during the Second World War. You can hear a recording of that talk here. These days the questions that I am most often asked are; why the focus on women in conflict; and why the shift in perspective from the story of an Allied heroine, to that of two women serving the Nazi regime…

For a historian, the seismic upheaval of war brings fascinating stories not only of honour, courage and duty, betrayal, sacrifice and horror, but also of shifting priorities and perspectives. For women in Britain, the Second World War brought an end to many hopes and dreams but also new opportunities, notably in the workplace. For some, the conflict also brought the chance to serve both at home, and behind enemy lines. It was of course preconceptions about gender that made female special agents so unexpected and inconspicuous in the field, and therefore so effective when they were trained, armed, and sent to work in Nazi-occupied Europe alongside their male counterparts.

The well-connected daughter of a Polish count and Jewish banking heiress, before the war Krystyna Skarbek got her thrills from smuggling cigarettes by skiing across her country’s mountainous borders. Arriving in London towards the close of 1939, she was desperate to put her skills and experience to good use in the fight against Nazism. Being British and male were then the fundamental requirements of the Secret Intelligence Services, but Krystyna offered a unique opportunity to see how the enemy was organizing in an occupied territory. Deployed before the year was out, she became Britain’s first – and longest serving – female special agent, and was ultimately awarded the OBE, George Medal and French Croix de Guerre for her service in three different theatres of the conflict.

Krystyna’s principle motivation was her deep sense of patriotism. The conflict had enabled her to live a life of freedom, action and significance, but it had also left six million of her compatriots dead, and her ravaged country under the control of a Soviet-backed Communist regime. For her, surviving the ‘terrible peace’ that followed the war was harder than responding to the call to action.

Pioneering German aviators Hanna Reitsch and Melitta von Stauffenberg not only made their names in the male-dominated field of flight in the 1930s but, with the onset of the war, also became test-pilots for the Nazi regime. They, too, were motivated by both their sense of honour, duty and patriotism, and their love for personal freedom. Their understandings of what these words meant, however, were very different not only from Krystyna Skarbek’s conception, but also from each other’s.

With her blond curls and blue-eyes, Hanna looked the perfect ‘Aryan’ woman, which suited both her inclinations and her ambitions. Firmly aligning herself with what she considered to be the dynamic Nazi regime, when war came she proudly put her life on the line to test prototypes including the vast Gigant troop-carrying glider, the Me163 rocket-powered Komet, and even a manned-version of the V1 flying bomb or doodlebug. As a brilliant aeronautical engineer, Melitta, helped develop the Stuka dive-bombers, even insisting on testing her own innovations. She knew that it was only by making herself uniquely valuable to the regime that she might protect herself and her family – her father had been born Jewish. On 20 July 1944 Melitta supported the most famous attempt on Hitler’s life. Conversely in the last days of the war, Hanna flew into Berlin under siege and begged Hitler to let her fly him to safety.

The Nazi regime and its enormously powerful armed forces led to the suffering and death of millions of people, Jews of all nations, Poles of all religions, Russians, British, French, American, the list goes on. The Women Who Flew for Hitler searches for the truth about two female pilots, asking why they were so successful and how they felt about serving the Nazi regime. I hope that what it reveals – the good and the bad – will contribute to a better understanding of the ways in which Hitler was able to harness the resources of his country for his terrible purposes. It is no less important that we seek to understand these questions, as that we remember the courage, achievements and sacrifices of the brave men and women whose service in so many fields helped to defeat that threat.

Clare is due to give a talk at the Chalke Valley History Festival this summer,  if you are interested in tickets please go to this link.

First published for the Chalke Valley History Festival here