I learnt to love knitting at a time when so much of our life seemed to revolve around textiles. In the afternoons, all the other housework done, my mum would iron and put away the washing or else sit and knit. Sometimes she would get out the sewing machine or spread fabric on the lounge floor, pin the paper patterns and cut out the pieces with the stainless steel dressmaking scissors. All our dresses were homemade from fabrics chosen in Gordon Thoday’s (an East Anglian institution, now gone) and we always had matching hair ribbons chosen from the haberdashery of an Ipswich department store. Between my mum, my auntie and my grandma there was constant talk of needlework: the quality of a fabric, the cut of a skirt, the fit of a bodice, pinning hems, choosing trim, tacking darts, finishing button holes and piles and piles of patterns.
But I didn’t just learn to love sewing and knitting around these women of my childhood, I also learnt it in the library books I devoured: Little Women, Anne of Green Gables and the Laura Ingalls Wilder tales of pioneer life travelling west across America. Each of these girl heroines found herself caught between the pressure to conform to a certain standard of womanhood and the longing to be free or educated or to live a life more like a man. And whilst they negotiated for themselves a safe path through the conflicting calls and constraints of womanhood a great deal of knitting and sewing was completed and I have sought it out again.
I thought I would share some of the exerts from my childhood reading that gave me such a romantic and must- accomplish mentality about my knitting. In days past it would always end in tears; the latest failed knitting project, dropped stitches and bodged techniques. At one time my family dreaded seeing the knitting needles come out. But more recently with patience and practice, youtube and a good note book I’m knitting more like a heroine in a nineteenth century children’s novel.
I hold the characters below at least 50% responsible for my knitting habits and 100% responsible for my romantic knitting notions.
Louisa May Allcot, Little Women
Little Women opens with Jo knitting, and what’s more it rather beautifully exemplifies the tension I have just described. Jo is complaining,
It’s bad enough to be a girl, anyway, when I like boy’s games and work and manners! I can’t get over my disappointment in not being a boy. And it’s worse than ever now, for I’m dying to go and fight with Papa. And I can only stay home and knit, like a poky old woman!” And Jo shook the blue army sock till the needles rattled like castanets, and her ball bounded across the room.
The socks Jo knitted were to be sent out for soldiers fighting in the American Civil War. At this time there were no standardised knitting patterns, wool weight or needle sizes. Knitting patterns offered a vague description of how to construct the garment rather than the row by row instructions we are familiar with today.
An 1861 sock pattern read,
The following rules are laid down for the direction of ladies wishing to knit socks for the soldiers: Get large needles and a coarse yarn; cast on seventy-eight stitches, and knit the leg 10 inches before setting the heel. The heel should be 3 1/2 inches long, and knit of double yarn, one fine and one coarse, for extra strength. The foot should be 11 or 12 inches long.
Laura Ingalls Wilder, The Long Winter
In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s novel, set in the severe winter of 1880-1881, we find the 13 year old Laura knitting petticoat lace every afternoon after the chores are done.
In the sunshine from the western windows Mary rocked gently, and Laura’s steel knitting needles flashed. Laura was knitting lace, of fine white thread, to trim a petticoat. She sat close to the window and watched the street, for she was expecting Mary Power and Minnie Johnson. They were coming to spend the afternoon, bringing their crocheting. . . . ‘Oh, bother! I’ve miscounted the stitches!’ she exclaimed. She unraveled the row and began to pick the tiny stitches up again on the fine needle. . . . The little loops of thread were dimming before her eyes as if she were going blind. She could not see them. The spool of thread dropped from her lap and rolled away on the floor as she jumped up.
The family are stranded in town with little in the way of food. Laura works on fine needle with cotton thread completing gift for her blind sister Mary to take to college,
Laura wound her lace into a roll, wrapped it carefully in tissue paper, and gave it to Mary: She fingered it lovingly and her face was shining with delight. ‘I’ll save it to wear when I go to college,’ she said. ‘It’s another thing to help me to go. It will be so pretty on a white petticoat.’
L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables
When I read of Marilla reprimanding Anne for not scolding the dish cloth I knew it had to be a hand knit dish cloth made form unbleached cotton yarn and based on a pattern passed on from mother to daughter, the kind of item a little girl could leaner to knit with. I also knew that you would never found Mrs Rachel Lynde knitting dish cloths. Mrs Rachel Lynde was a notable housewife of Avonlea, she ran the seeing circle and we are told that she spent hours at her kitchen window knitting. I have done a little research into the knitting habits of Mrs Lynde and found that the cotton warp quilts she knitted were probably virtuoso items designed to show of the finest knitting skills. We read that Mrs Lynde had knitted 16 of these quilts and in Anne’s House of Dreams we learn that Mrs Lynde makes a gift of two of these quilts to Anne,
‘I’m going to give Anne two of my cotton warp spreads,’ she resumed. ‘A tobacco-strip and an apple leaf one. She tells me they’re getting to be real fashionable again.’
The knitting historian jury is out on exactly what the quilts would have looked like but there seems little doubt that this was accomplished and time consuming work completed on extremely fine needles using the best cotton thread.
You can read about an example of one such historic cotton warp quilt here.
I’m hoping to be sharing my 90 minute baby mitt pattern here tomorrow. So, watch this space!