When Elsie Hone knitted this vest for her son Albert in 1932, she not only produced a practical garment which was worn for years, she also employed considerable creative skills that ensured the hand-knitted vest was both technically precise and aesthetically pleasing. Made in Melbourne during the depths of the Depression, Elsie apparently knitted this garment using bicycle wheel spokes as knitting needles.
Elsie Hone (1890-1987)
Women's domestic skills in plain sewing and knitting were an essential part of female education. Until well into the twentieth century, patching, mending, hemming, altering, making shirts and undergarments and knitting were taught to girls of all classes as part of the useful skill-sets deemed necessary for their roles as future wives and mothers. Needlework specimen books from the nineteenth century provide a valuable insight into the formal education curriculum for girls in Britain and Australia. Among the exercises pinned to the pages are miniature knitting samples of stockings, baby's hats and booties. These skills were also passed on informally from one generation to the next and it is likely that Elsie learned to knit within the home when she was young.
Born in Australia in 1890, Elsie Stone married Albert Edward Hone in 1907. The couple had six children, their fifth being Albert who was born in 1914. Elsie knitted the vest for Albert's eighteenth birthday in a Fair Isle design of beige, brown, yellow, green and red. The technique of stranded colour knitting known as Fair Isle originated on the Scottish island of the same name, which is part of the Shetland group of islands in the North Sea. The distinctive Fair Isle patterns are rooted in the designs created by the island's knitters in the nineteenth century.
Right: John St Helier Lander
Fair Isle knitwear became a popular item of casual menswear between the wars when, in 1922, the Prince of Wales wore a Fair Isle jumper to play golf at St Andrews in Scotland. As a result, knitting patterns for Fair Isle garments were regularly reproduced in women's magazines and wool suppliers' commercial patterns.
Men's Fair Isle pullover, 1940s (Bestway 1979)
Image sourced from Vintage Knitting Pattern Archive from the Sunny Stitcher.
The Brighton Historical Society has a number of nineteenth and twentieth century publications in its collection which demonstrate the wide range of knitting done for the family as well as fancy and novelty items made for the home, such as tea cosies and egg warmers.
While hand-knitting was a low-tech method of producing a garment in the home, requiring only wool and a set of needles, as Jennifer Isaacs states in her book, The Gentle Arts: 200 Years of Australian Domestic and Decorative Arts, women of Elsie's generation, "never felt happy sitting with their hands idle and always felt the need to make objects of beauty, but also of use, primarily for the family".
Madame Weigel, Australia
Elsie Hone's vest was so cherished that it was passed down through the family until it was donated to the Brighton Historical Society in 2011 by Ray Nilsson, who was the son of Albert's youngest sister Ina. Having only daughters, Albert passed the vest on to his sister's sons. Both the donor's elder brothers wore and out-grew the vest before it was passed on to Ray. Over the years that Ray worked at VACC Insurance Company in St Kilda Road, Melbourne and in the North Sydney, Canberra and Dandenong offices, whenever he wore the vest it attracted much attention as he recalled the history of its creation and subsequent ownership.
Laura Jocic, 2019
Page design by Jessica Curtain
Isaacs, Jennifer, The Gentle Arts: 200 Years of Australian Domestic and Decorative Arts, Lansdowne Press, Sydney, 1987. (Quote is on p.93).
McGregor, Sheila, Traditional Fair Isle Knitting, Dover Publications, Mineola, 2003.
Rutt, Richard, A History of Hand Knitting, B. T. Batsford, London, 1987.
The National Society's Instructions on Needlework and Knitting, England, 1838, via V&A Museum Collections.
This research was funded by a Local History Grant from Public Record Office Victoria.
Brighton Historical Society Costume Collection Project, 2018-2019.