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.
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.
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.
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.