Friday, 18 July 2014

Midwifery and Needlecraft

A few months ago I zipped through the first three seasons of the BBC-produced show Call the Midwife. I'd put off watching it for awhile even though I heard many good things about it because I didn't think I'd like it, but then I gave it a chance and was hooked from the first episode. Those involving storylines! The sociopolitical depth of the issues involved! The frequent hilarity! The period detail! And, not least among the many rewards of watching Call the Midwife, is that it features a lot of needlework and knitwear. Midwife Chummy is a highly skilled seamstress (out of self-defense, I am sure, because as a 6'1" woman in the 1950s, almost none of the readymade garments then available would have fit her), the nuns of Nonatus House have a daily needlecraft hour during which they make items for charity, the mothers of Poplar are frequently seen knitting, and the entire cast, from the midwives to the mothers to the random extras to the babies, regularly sport delightful vintage style knitwear.

However, for a show that does usually nail all its period details, Call the Midwife did demonstrate an absurd disregard for accuracy in episode eight of season two. In the screencap above, Midwives Jenny Lee (Jessica Raine) and Trixie Franklin (Helen George) are shown knitting. And they really are knitting, not just pretending to, which is great. But what's Trixie holding in her lap? Granny squares. Crocheted granny squares, against which she measures the size of her knitting to be sure they match. Is the blanket they are working on to be composed of knitted and crocheted squares?

No, it isn't. Here, Sister Monica Joan (Judy Parfitt), is shown "knitting" a granny square. No wonder she looks confused. Also, Sister Monica Joan is supposed to be a good knitter who can "knit in her sleep", as Sister Evangelina (Pam Ferris) comments, but it's all too clear that Judy Parfitt cannot knit at all.

And here we see the women of Nonatus House working together to assemble their "knitted" blanket while they anxiously await the news regarding the fate of their friend and comrade in midwifery Chummy, who suffered a hemorrhage when giving birth to her son and is undergoing surgery. This is something the show got right, as such work would be calming and very much in character with what these sensible, energetic, practical women would do, and this is a beautiful scene.

The finished afghan is lovingly laid over Chummy as she lies unconscious in her hospital bed after surgery. Happily, she rouses when her son is placed beside her, and all is well.

But I can't help being exasperated by the whole knitting/crocheting mix-up. For one thing, there is just no way those who worked on this episode didn't know they were making a mistake. Some members of the case are knitters in real life; Jessica Raine has said that they knit in the break room on set. Whomever made the decision to stage this plot point this way plainly didn't think it mattered. But it does matter, just as it would matter if a show were to confuse rugby with soccer. Conflating knitting with crocheting isn't some esoteric detail that only an initiated few will catch, but a silly mistake that will irritate every crafter in the audience as well as those who may not knit or crochet themselves but who recognize the difference, and there are not some insignificant number of us. More movie and TV directors need to understand this, and they also need to be careful about representing a character as an excellent knitter when the actor playing the character can't knit, or is only a beginning knitter. There are workarounds, such as showing an actor working on finishing details rather than the actual knitting (it is much, much easier to learn finishing skills), or showing the character merely sitting with the knitting in his or her lap rather than actually working on it.

That said, let's move on from the whole knitting/crochet kerfuffle in media topic and get to an aspect of Call the Midwife-related knitting that I'm sure we'd all much rather focus on: Call the Midwife-inspired knitting projects!

This pattern is for the real Call the Midwife fetishist, and it's an excellent rendition of the pillbox hats Jenny and the other midwives sport while cycling off to bring another new life into the world. This is the Midwife Calling Felted Pillbox Hat, designed by Kylene Moss Grell. It's available for $1.99(USD), and as a bonus it includes a pattern sized for an 18" American Girl Doll.

If you'd like a midwife-style burgundy cardigan, that should be easy to replicate, as it's a basic v-necked cardigan with five buttons. Your best bet is to use a vintage pattern from the 50s. The Yangtze Cardigan, designed by Courtney Kelley and published in Vintage Modern Knits: Contemporary Designs Using Classic Techniques might be a good choice if you nix the texture and pockets and scale the number of buttons back to five.

This Chummy doll, from the blog Amy's Gurumis, is crocheted, but is just too adorable not to include, and it's a free pattern. I did find a knitted Chummy doll, but it didn't look nearly as good as this one. Crocheting is the better option for amigurumi. I think if I were making this, I'd knit Chummy's sweater, though.

There's no pattern yet available for this Sister Bernadette/Shelagh Turner doll, which is again from the gifted Amy of the blog Amy's Gurumis, but I just had to show it to you anyway. This doll can be transformed from nun to civilian/doctor's wife because her hair's removable.

Perhaps, though, you don't care to make either a replica midwife uniform or a doll and instead want a Call the Midwife-inspired piece that you can actually wear. This would be my approach too — I've never been able to get into costume making because one can only wear the costume a few times, and I'm certainly well past my doll play years, so let's look at some Call the Midwife knitwear.

Of all the characters' wardrobes on Call the Midwife, Trixie Franklin's is your best bet for cute knits to replicate. The flirtatious, outgoing, fashion-forward Trixie wears detailed, eye-catching, tricksy little numbers (was ever a character better suited to her name?). We see her in this short-sleeved top several times, and the 1950s twinset pattern displayed above (which is available for free) could be made to be nearly identical with some changes to the stripe pattern in the yoke.

I don't have pattern suggestions for these three sweaters but include them for your possible inspiration. If any of you do track down a readily available similar pattern and care to share it with the rest of us, please email me the link and I'll add it to the post. Some of you will have the skills to write your own patterns using a picture as your guide (and if you don't now, you may someday!). I love the checked sweater at the bottom especially and am mentally playing with it to see how I could make it work for me.

Prim and reserved Jenny Lee wears simple, classic clothes (and a lot of yellow), but although she also looks lovely her clothes seems less worthwhile to copy than Trixie's, because they are so very plain, and there's not much point in putting all that work into such a plain item. (There are loads of articles on the net telling people how to get the Call the Midwife look by matching the characters' outfits up with similar and readily available current clothes.) Moreover I suspect a large part of the reason Jenny Lee's clothes look so appealing is because Jessica Raine is in them, which is an advantage the rest of us won't have. Raine seems born to wear 1950s fashions and hairstyles, which suit her so perfectly that she tends to look better in them than she does in contemporary styles. She even manages to look good in the hilarious hospital nursing uniforms, which the head nurse assures her are "practically couture" but which feature enormous puffed sleeves which look like they pose a possible hazard to the patients. I for one wouldn't want to get whacked in the nose by one of those starched sleeves.

I do have this one pattern to offer. The bottom picture is the Lady's Evening Jumper, designed by Susan Crawford. It appeared in A Stitch in Time: Vintage Knitting Patterns, 1930-1959, Volume 2, and it seems to have been the very same pattern used to make Jenny Lee's short-sleeved version. Which is yellow, of course.

Nothing else is popping up on my image Google searches that really seems worthy of mention. The other regular characters tend to wear frumpier looking knitwear, as Cynthia Miller does, or little knitwear, as in the case of Shelagh Turner, who usually sticks to beautifully tailored classic wool suits. One-episode characters and extras do tend to wear some nice knitwear, but we don't often get a good look at the designs.

But let's not forget the little guest stars of Call the Midwife, who regularly sport lovingly handknitted items. Styles such as these babies wear are readily found in vintage baby clothing knitting booklets and will look as cute as these when put on a baby. Babies are even better at looking cute than Jessica Raine.

We do have a Christmas 2014 special and a 2015 season to look forward to, so I may do a follow-up post on more possible Call the Midwife projects.


  1. Wonderful! I love how you see things, and how you articulate! I always notice that Jenny Lee favors yellow, too, and so often wish I looked half as good in my clothes as she does in hers.
    And thanks for what you said about the "knitted" blanket. At best it's just really distracting to the episode.

  2. Heh. The series finale of Suburgatory featured knitting...which was probably even more inaccurate than this.

  3. I absolutely love CTM, also. I was disappointed to see the huge mistake they made having the actors churning out crocheted granny squares while holding knitting needless. The attention to detail throughout rest of the production is amazing. How is that no one corrected that? Or, give everyone crochet hooks instead. It was still a beautifully filmed and tender scene (Miranda Hart as "Chummy" is my favorite character.

  4. Oh, I am SO glad I'm not the only knitter who was incredibly annoyed by the crocheted afghan. I couldn't believe that in a show that seeming pays so much attention to detail, and beautiful sets and costumes would make a mistake like that!

  5. I was astonished that they called that afghan a knitted one. I think it detracted from the story while everyone at home was yelling, "It's crocheted!"