One of my Christmas gifts this past year was Odhams Big Book of Needlecraft. I saw it in an Oxfam book shop and gently nudged my brother in its direction. It’s a beautiful book (on the left) even before you open its wonderfully musty pages.
A few weeks ago, my knitting group took a little outing to a local vintage and handmade market. I saw a copy of The Big Book of Needlecraft there and knew immediately that it really wanted to come home with me. But I couldn’t shake a nagging feeling that I already owned this book. I flipped through it for so long that my knitters wandered off to other things, but didn’t see much inside that felt as familiar as the title. For only a handful of British Pounds, I decided it was worth the risk.
Of course I did have it, but there’s a reason I couldn’t be sure. With such a generic name and many different editions, it’s hard to gather real information about this book, but my research seems to indicate that my first copy (to the left in the top photo) is from about 1935. This makes sense – the cover design and illustrations are so very 30s / Deco, it’s hard to imagine it could be from any other decade. I’m not 100% sure, but I think the other copy, with the adorable thimble illustration on the cover (don’t you just want to embroider that on something?!), is from the late-40s / early-50s. And it’s only circumstantial evidence, but the newspaper clipping found inside (for a sewing pattern, I’m sure I’ll blog about that separately sometime), dated 1951, seems to agree.
What’s really interesting is how incredibly different the books’ contents are. The earlier copy covers a much wider range of topics: there’s chapters for ‘New Collars For Old Dresses’, ‘Needlework in the Kitchen’, ‘Glove Making’, ‘Hand-made Flowers’, and ‘Leathercraft’, as well as the expected discussions of embroidery, knitting, sewing, etc. The later edition is, with just a few exceptions, limited to the expected, but gives much more detail on those topics. As far as embroidery is concerned, the 1930s copy offers some stitch diagrams, but sticks mostly to project ideas and designs. Amazing, beautiful Deco projects and designs that I could happily spend years recreating.
And the 40s-50s gives you more technique to work with.
Neither were, as far as I understand, times of prosperity in the United Kingdom, what with worldwide Depression and Post-WWII economy and destruction to deal with. Interesting that the 1930s edition was interested in making a range of things yourself and giving them a touch of glamour with beautiful designs and stitchery, while the other is much more practical.
One other tiny note of interest is the presence of (and lack of) authorship credit. The earlier edition lists an editor and two assistants, as well as a separate author for every chapter — ‘Useful Washing Hints’ was written by Helen M. Paton — but the later is practically anonymous. There’s no author or editor listed anywhere that I can see. Curious.
Anyway, they are beautiful books and I love them equally, but for different reasons. The stitch diagrams and discussions in the later edition are, unsurprisingly, of practical use to me on potentially every stitching project I will ever do. The earlier book’s designs and illustrations are a huge inspiration, projects I’d love to sink my teeth into. I couldn’t possibly not have both on my shelf!