Keeping Warm in the 1930′s- Knit Underwear

It’s abnormally chilly here in San Diego!  This cool weather has me thinking of things to keep warm.

One of the biggest misconceptions that I’ve seen and heard about dressing the past is our perception of keeping warm.  Just like today, our 1930′s sisters layered and selected their cool weather garments with care.  Instead of freezing in rayon satin tap pants and sheer hose, with a flimsy rayon crepe dress and jacket of questionable warmth, I’ve got a few posts coming up of images of what you’d wear to keep nice and toasty in cool weather.  It’s easy to adapt these ideas to our wardrobe recreations.  Remember no one looks chic while they’re shivering!

First up, here’s some great images of knitted underwear.  If you’ve looked at vintage knitting books, you may recognize the look of these.  Many knitted books contained patterns for wool knitted underwear like these (similar to long johns today).  It seems they were especially prominent in UK publications.  So, a clever knitter could find patterns today and knit up a set to keep warm- or the seamstress might be able to make up a set inspired by these from knits, or adapt a modern set of long underwear to a similar look (remember, cotton and natural fibres dye, so you could give them a pretty peachy pink look like these below).

Some might be turned off by these- they’re not the satin and lace dainty underwear we’ve come to associate with the 1930′s.  But, remember, it’s better to be warm and outwardly stylish than shivering in cold rayon undies that will never be seen!  Sense is always chic ;)

Check it out… the original Snuggie!

National Bellas Hess- Fall and Winter 1937-1938

National Bellas Hess- Fall and Winter 1937-1938

National Bellas Hess- Fall and Winter 1937-1938

National Bellas Hess- Fall and Winter 1937-1938

All of these images are remastered from the National Bellas Hess Fall & Winter Catalog from 1937-1938

You can click on any of the images to take you to my Flickr and see a larger version you can read.

So what do you think?  Would you be up for these vintage warm undies, or would you rather wear something modern, or stick with the rayon ones we’ve come to associate with the 1930′s?

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26 thoughts on “Keeping Warm in the 1930′s- Knit Underwear”

  1. Dainty underthings are nice enough, but this is the stuff that makes my heart sing!

    Unfortunately, a move and home renovations kind of put a damper on my vintage underwear-knitting plans for 2012 (and all of my autumn/winter sewing). Hopefully wooly underthings will be in store for me during 2013 instead.

  2. Great article, on a favorite topic. Silk and wool knit underwear is still made today, and I dearly love it! Just wore one today, with a lace trimmed v-neck just peeking out from under my vintage cardigan. Modern leggings or tights usually the place below the waist for me. But most of what’s in these ads is available today, and just as practical as it was in the Thirties!

      1. Vermont Country Store used to carry cotton knit vests and short pants similar to some of these. They also had wool tights, and knit cotton slips.

  3. These are wonderful. In the past I’ve seen knitting patterns for underwear but I had no idea how common it would have been to wear such things.

  4. I would love a series on warm vintage underwear! Living in northern Sweden (about 250 miles south of the artic circle) learning how to stay warm was key when I began wearing vintage inspired on an everyday basis. Cotton knit tights, wool bloomers and thick over-knee legwarmers keeps me warm down to -20 Celsius. One problem I’ve encountered is how to keep the top of me warm. I’ve understood that in the 30s one would have a knit “vest” or a knit slip, but then it would also be cooler indoors. Today I would love to wear it when going outside, but inside the office it’s too warm, and it’s a bit unpractical to remove the bottom layer when getting to work. So instead I layer cardigans and made a really warm coat =)

    One question I would be really grateful if you could adress in these posts: which piece of underwear was layered with which? And in what order? Were corselettes and panties used with knitted slips? Panties and knitted bloomers? Also, as wool itches, did one wear a regular slip beneth a knit slip? I realise it’s a question of personal preferences, but still there had to be a general practice, like today when for example most people in our culture wear panties beneth their tights =) Would be so very happy and grateful for input in this area!

    1. That’s a great question, Erika!
      I don’t have any sources to back it up, but I would assume that you would still wear panties and corsetry under your knit slip. You would just use the knit version in place of the rayon or cotton version of a slip. Since a knit slip clings closer to the body, I would guess you would substitute knit panties, which were avaiable in a similar version to the knit “granny panties” of today.
      I am guessing that one would wear a cotton or rayon knit camisole and panties underneath the wool slip in order to keep the itching down, but I also think it depends on the way the wool was loomed. There are some very soft and fine wools available, so my guess that the underwear would be either of these or of a wool/cotton or wool/rayon blend if you were to place it close to the skin. Don’t forget, there were still a lot of people who wore wool bathing suits, which had a cotton lining in the crotch, so maybe the wool underwear had a similar lining or folks in the past had a higher tolerance for the itchiness! Since so few of these original knit underwear remain, and I’ve never seen them in person, I’m not sure to be honest.
      I’ll keep my eyes peeled in old resources to see if I run across any more info. Great question!

      1. Hmm. I actually DO have a vintage wool slip, in that perfect pink-peach. It arrived full of moth holes, so I popped it straight into the freezer, and I really haven’t had it out since. I need to take a look at it now – if I haven’t put it someplace else, it’s been in the freezer for a year!

  5. I love this post! I wish it had been around when I was first getting into vintage – most people just seem to freeze. :) I’d love to have a nice wool slip or petticoat.

    1. I know! I was so clueless. As I get more period sources I certainly am learning more about what to wear in certain weather circumstances.
      I agree- a wool slip or petticoat would be so toasty warm!

  6. I hate being cold so I’d welcome some warm underwear like these! I generally wear tights and leggings under my dresses in the winter to keep warm (and sometimes under my pants too! lol)

  7. I found this post and the discussion really interesting. Good to see all that original underwear. I have several knitted undies patterns, might try one when I have the time and patience to deal with the tiny needles and fine yarn that they are made with. It must have taken people ages to make their undies. How many sets would they have had?

    1. That’s a great question, Kate-Em!
      I’m guessing they wouldn’t have had as many as we would have thought. In several period articles I’ve read that a lady should wash her underthings once a week! So I would guess probably two or three sets per winter.

      In the WAC/WAAC list of Government Issue articles of clothing for WWII it lists 4 pairs each of summer and winter panties. I think that’s a good guess for what were the minimum standard. Find out more info here:
      http://www.blitzkriegbaby.de/waac/waac3.htm

      If I was living back then, I think I would have ordered from a mail order catalog ready-to-wear rather than knit my own! LOL! I’m such a slow knitter, especially when I know that the finished article would never be seen!

  8. I’ve been working at in the San Diego back country at our new museum, the Warner-Carrillo Ranch House. LORDY is it freezing out there. An adobe really holds in the cold. Our gallon of lamp oil froze as did the oil in our lamps and we couldn’t light them the other day.

    As I spent the day cocooned in both my thin and thick sets of Duluth thermal underwear, two pair of trouser stockings, my wigwam wool/silk socks, a camisole, jeans, two long sleeved tee shirts, a coat, two scarves and gloves, and my all weather Uggs, I thought about how unbelievably miserable I’d have been if I’d been wearing my period clothing.

    And I thank the heavens above we have not begun that program out there as yet!

    1. Oh wow! It must be freezing! Thank goodness you can wear modern clothing at present!
      I’ll have to get out and see that!
      Is there any connection between that ranch house and the Leo Carrillo Ranch in Carlsbad? I think that I remember that belonging to the Carrillo family originally and Leo buying it in the 1930s as part of his family heritage, but I’m unsure.

  9. Living in Chicago where it gets frigid, I am totally on board with this! Layering is key. Freezing is NOT fashionable. I recently knit wool ankle socks to fit inside 40s-styled winter booties (not appropriate for snowy days, but good when it’s dry) and I’ve been pondering some way to work up long underwear pants similar to what you’ve shown, possibly cutting a pair of modern ones at the knee and hemming them, perhaps with a bit of elastic. Silk is very warm and a popular choice for modern long underwear (as well as wool, though most seems to be wool-blend so if you wanted to dye, I’m not sure how that would work). I’ve also wondered about what material I could use to sew a very warm slip. You’re reminding me even more the need to figure out more layering pieces!

    1. Ditto, Tasha! I always focus on things people will see… undies aren’t nearly so exciting ;)
      I made a slip of cotton flannel and it keeps me nice and toasty when we go to a cold WWII event in February. :)

  10. I’ve been wanting to knit some vintage “thermals” for a long time. I think I may have to put them on my project list for next winter, once I get back to a normal (post-pregnancy) shape. I’ve found a few patterns for them through Ravelry that I’d like to try out.

  11. I have made several attempts through the winter at various knitted underwear patterns as I think the general concept of keeping warm and snug is wonderful.However to date I have not been that successful as finding the right sort of yarn to get the best tension is quite difficult.
    There are several posts littered about my blog touching on this.One of my major disasters was making up a pattern from the “Stitch in Time Book”.I used the suggested yarn,which was quite expensive but I thought i would be more likely to get a better result to use it, and it turned out absolutely hilariously ridiculous.So much so that just a few days ago I spent the afternoon unpicking it and will use the yarn for something else other than Winter drawers.
    Have a look! http://themakingsofanurbanrustic.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/winter-draws-on.html

    1. That is so interesting! I wonder how much of that is due to the fact that our yarns today are different.
      I really admire your determination!
      Thanks for the link to your blog! Your set is SO cute! Even though it’s not the look you were going for I think they’re just darling!

  12. my grandmother grew up extremely poor in the mountain of Kentucky (Appalachia area) in the 30s and 40s. girls were absolutely not allowed to wear pants to school, only dresses and skirts. She remembers taking her father’s wool pants that were so worn out from the knees down they weren’t able to be patched, and cutting them off as long as her skirts and tailoring the waist to wear underneath the skirt (with every pair except her church pair of stockings!) as she walked to school in the winters. Apparently all the girls did and would debate how long they could leave the pants and the teacher not notice.

  13. I remember my Grandmother wearing Snuggies…now I own a pair! Realizing that you’re turning into your Grandma (and liking it) is much worse than turning into your mother! lol

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