Earlier this week I visited the Knitting Reference Library in Winchester to research some of their 1930s journals. I packed my lunch (banana sandwiches, as you ask), left the house and caught the train in the dark, drizzly gloom of a November morning. On arrival in Winchester, I was greeted with banks of beautiful, fiery, fallen autumn leaves and a somewhat bracing walk down the hill to my old haunt, the School of Art. I ordered up the journals that I wanted, and in the meantime did a little research in the library. There was a slim book with a tantalising pink cover that I brought down from the shelf: The Minerva Knitting Annual, 1950. Written by Jane Koster and Margaret Murray of Odhams knitting books fame, this was a lovely pattern book. It featured stars of stage and screen in the pattern photographs (black and white, of course), but most interesting to me was the small section in the back of the book about the history of knitting.

Crimean Balaclava
Knitted Balaclava from the Crimean War from the Minerva Knitting Annual 1950. Used with permission of the Knitting Reference Library.

The above sketch particularly caught my eye. This one-piece balaclava helmet was of the style worn by the troops fighting in the second Boer War (1899–1902). Except for variety in the size of the facial opening, this didn’t look a lot different to me than  the helmet-lining balaclavas seen in the Forces Comforts patterns of the second world war.

1941 balaclava illustration, with earflaps
1941 Knited Balaclava Illustration, with Earflaps

The accompanying text seemed to bear this out.

“1899. Needles began to click in earnest when the bugles sounded and the ‘Gentleman in Khaki’ was ordered South. Time has had little effect on the design of knitted comforts for the troops; the Balaclava helmet was as popular in the last two wars as it was in the Crimean, and the shape is unchanged since our ancestors wore helmets made of chain mail.” p109

I note that in the way the knitted stitches have been sketched, the neck’s pattern has been made to look reminiscent of the joined loops of chain mail too.

The balaclava helmet has indeed been around for a long time, although in fact Richard Rutt, in his History of Hand Knitting (1984) asserts that it was not actually called a ‘balaclava’ in print until 1881: 25 years after the end of the Crimean War. It seems that a knitted head and neck cover with a face opening like this was known as an ‘Uhlan Cap’ or a ‘Templar Cap’ in the nineteenth century. The British use of the name balaclava helmet comes from the garment’s association with the Crimean War: the town of Balaklava is in Crimea, today an autonomous republic in Ukraine.

The balaclava, or ski mask as it is also known today still dips in and out of high fashion, in addition to being worn as a practical piece of headgear. Its style and knitted flexibility also means that it can easily be used to conceal a person’s features, for instance as part of the Special Forces uniform, and it has also garnered a more controversial reputation in its use in criminal activities.

1981 balaclava from Emu pattern
1981 balaclava from Emu Knitting Pattern

Balaclavas were, along with a parka, the schoolboy clothing of choice in the early ’80s when I attended primary school. I don’t honestly remember what knitted headgear was in for girls at the time: I just remember being really envious of the furry hoods on the boy’s parkas. It seems that the boys weren’t the only ones wearing balaclavas around this time though. The concerned-looking chap above sports essentially the same balaclava pattern as that of the earliest picture. It doesn’t seem as if there is enough material to cover his face up any further though, and this may be better described as an ear-warming helmet than a face-warming one.

I have a friend who knitted a bright pink balaclava to keep her warm on winter’s days at her allotment, but other than her, and people taking skiing trips, I can’t think of anyone who has made or worn a balaclava helmet in the past few years. Can you? I wonder whether they are just in a down-swing in fashion now, or that with the advent of thermally lined hats and neckwarmers there just isn’t the need for them anymore in the autumn and winter….

Oh! The things that I ordered from the library? Yes, they came along after a half hour’s wait, but to see what I was researching you will need to keep an eye on Simply Knitting magazine early next year.


Another Balaclava for the Troops

3 thoughts on “Another Balaclava for the Troops

  • 11th November 2011 at 15:08

    Ha, you’re right, they don’t seem to be fashion items at the moment! 🙂 But people are still actively knitting them for soldiers, under the name “helmet liners.” There are some regulation patterns on Ravelry.

  • 13th November 2011 at 00:14

    I thought you might like to see this “helmet liner” pattern by Skein Lane in the US. There is also a free crochet pattern available from the same site. http://www.skeinlane.com/community/helmetliners.htm

    US Ravelry members who make these for the military sometimes have quite vigorous discussions about them, usually regarding the fibre content and the fact that very high standards are set by those collecting and sending them on (I have been told by Ravelry member ewescool that wool has fire retardant properties whereas synthetic fibres can
    melt causing horrific injuries). I get the impression that hundreds have been made.

    When the UK experienced very cold weather a while ago there was a feature on BBC Radio 4’s “Today” programme which was accompanied online by a photo from the 1940’s showing someone in bed wearing a balaclava. James Naughtie commented that balaclavas seemed like a good idea and this was passed on by Evan Davis on Twitter. When I tweeted the Skein Lane pattern to him he said that he wouldn’t make one himself but might pay someone to make one for him. He also said he was glad to see that crafts of this kind were still around. So far I’ve never got round to making one for him but I wouldn’t dream of charging him for it!

    • 14th November 2011 at 09:46

      Thank you for your comments. I just had a look at the Ravelry group and see what you mean about the vigorous discussions! Having asked around quite a bit in this country, there do seem to be little pockets of people here knitting for the forces at the moment, but not on the scale of the US. Or perhaps the troops don’t want them in the same way? Do you have any feedback on this? I know you’re better connected in these circles than I for today’s services.


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