Numerous old and vintage knitting patterns are available for free online. But they can be worthless if you don't understand the instructions or can't translate them to modern knitting terms. A lot of old Victorian-era patterns, for example, don't mention yarn size or needle gauge and have no illustration for a visual reference. What to do? In the following video about working with vintage knitting patterns, Karen Brock from PieceWork magazine explains that there are a few tips you should keep in mind. Also be prepared to experiment a bit. Watch the video and she'll demonstrate how she tried an old pattern (the porcupine stitch) three different ways before settling on an approach that worked best.
If you have a vintage knitting pattern that doesn't seem to show the right needle, yarn or terminology, remember the following tips.
Needle size: Very often older knitting patterns (particularly Victorian ones) use English knitting needle size, which decreases as the knitting needle diameter gets larger. Contemporary knitting needle sizes are just the opposite. For example, a size zero English needle converts to a contemporary size 11. On the other end of the spectrum, a vintage size 11 would be contemporary size 2. You may also need to experiment making the pattern with different needle sizes. Double pointed steel needles were used to make some of these patterns and it's likely you'll use something different to create the same style.
Yarn: The yarn styles and sizes we accept as standard now weren't used or referenced in many older patterns. Very often wool or cotton may be the only reference to the yarn type. Acrylic, not surprisingly, is never used. Some of the references may be unexpectedly oblique. As Karen explains in the video, a Shetland is typically a kind of lace yarn. German Lambs' wool is a sport weight. Berlin is a fingering weight.
Terminology: Many patterns don't have abbreviations that are accepted as today's standard, and the books didn't have stitch glossaries because knitters at the time generally understood the instructions of the day. However, many patterns, even ones in the same collection, didn't have standardized terminology. Confusing? Yes, it can be. For example, a term like "yarn over" may be written as "Turn over" or just "over." "Make a stitch" might be "yarn forward," "wool forward" or "bring forward." "Knit two together" can be just "N" for narrow or written as "kt together."
Working with vintage knitting patterns, you'll need a little bit of patience and willingness to experiment. Want the video "Translating Vintage Patterns," to get more details and examples.
Watch "Translating Vintage Patterns" for more details on working with older instructions.