Knitting for Time Travellers

Written by Lucinda

Recreating a vintage design brings the past to life, whether you’re knitting nostalgic toys, a doll’s outfit or a full-size cardigan. However, working from an original pattern is a bit like cooking from an old recipe book – measurements are outdated and technical terms may have changed. Before you cast on, here are a few things you should know…

Measuring up

The UK switched from imperial measurements in the 1970s. On-line conversion charts will help you calculate metric lengths and weights, otherwise remember that one inch is 2.4cm and one ounce is 28g.


Pre-1960s, people were shorter and slighter, and garments were tighter fitting, so double check the chest, back and sleeve lengths carefully. Garment patterns weren’t always given in more than one size, but look out for updated versions that have been adapted for modern sizes ranges.


Needle sizing has also changed: a high number used to denote a fine needle, but now it’s the other way round. Use the chart below to find the right pair for your project.

old size     new size

12               2.5mm or 2.75mm

11               3.0mm

10              3.25mm

9                3.5 or 3.75mm

8                4.0mm

7                4.5mm

6                5.0mm


Instead of giving a specific brand name and number of balls, vintage patterns are quite vague when it comes to yarn. Take the needle size as your guide to find a suitable weight and work up a tension square, using larger or smaller needles to get the right number of stitches. Your local knitting shop should be able to find the right wool if you get stuck.

old name          needle size        modern equivalent

baby wool           2.75                      2-ply or 3-ply

2-ply                    3.25                      4-ply

3-ply                    3.5                        dk

4-ply                    3.75/4                  dk

Technical terms

Not much has changed when it comes to how we knit, but there may be some unfamiliar terms, for example knit stitches are sometimes called plain or seam stitches in these vintage patterns. Abbreviations are sometimes referred to as contractions, where is short for wool, instead of a y for yarn, and g. st. is short for garter stitch – an instruction that would now be given as knit every row.