Monday, 28 February 2011

The Ladies' Work-Table

As I read through periodicals from the 19th century, the different treatment of needlework is striking. The article excerpted below is clearly on the "pro" side, with the attendant view that women should have no role in the work place. If they had no business there, then they had to find some meaning in their lives elsewhere -- one suspects, at the hallowed "Work-Table."

I loved this article's description of the manic pace of life at that time -- 1856 -- with its "ceaseless agitation," and the importance of the home providing a respite. The more things change... Present-day resources still exhort and encourage us to make the home a sanctuary from the stress of modern living.

(The original had no paragraphs, but I have broken it down to make it easier to read.)

In the daily routine of domestic life, we know of few things having greater influence upon its peace and comfort than the "Work-Table." In those restless dwellings where its office is a sinecure, and all is flurry and excitement, from the rising up in the morning until the lying down at night, composure of mind is as much jeopardized as rest of body is sacrificed. We live in days of ceaseless agitation. The intellect is ever at work, teaming with new projects and aiming at ambitious desires, every faculty being strained to attain the desired end. ...

It is true that these are, or ought to be, masculine abstractions, in which the gentler sex have no share. ... When men are tempest-tossed and spirit-torn, they return to their own habitations with ruffled spirits and a brow but half-calmed from recent agitation.

What is the result?

If the impressionable mind of the mistress of the dwelling catches the reflection, and her household duties and domestic interests are disturbed, then all goes wrong.

But, on the other hand, supposing that the master of the house comes in from that outer world of strife in which he has got so bruised and wounded, and finds those who are dearest to him on earth sitting calmly round that "Work-Table," which is like the centre of a circle of peace, what is the consequence? He looks round on the happy faces, all so interested in those gentle labors, which seem to make him blush for the excess of his passion.... How pleasant is it to look on those smooth brows and those calm lips? The works of those busy fingers are for him and his; they are either for the comfort or adornment of his home.

The girls hurry to meet him; the wife looks at him a little anxiously, fearing that something has gone wrong. Shall he give vent to his troubles that the outer world has forced upon him -- his fears his cares, his anxieties, his distractions?


He thanks heaven for the happiness of that home, which is as a haven of rest to his troubled soul, and sits down with feelings of softening gratitude among the circle gathered round the "Work-Table."

 Graham's Illustrated Magazine, December 1856 (Philadelphia, PA)

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Wednesday Workbasket: Party Hood, or Sortie de Bal

Materials: Two ounces of scarlet Shetland wool; pins, no. 16.

Cast on 78 stitches; knit 3 rows, then commence the pattern as follows:

1st row: Slip 1, a pearl 1, knit 2 together three times, thread forward, knit 1 six times, knit 2 together three times; repeat from a.

2d: Slip 1, a pearl 1, knit 18; repeat from a.

3d: Slip 1, a pearl 1, knit 18; repeat from a.

4th: Slip 1, a knit 1, pearl 18; repeat from a.

These four rows form the pattern, Repeat till one yard is completed. Cast off loosely.

For the crown, cast on 59 stitches, and knit the pattern as before; increase at the beginning and end of each row by making an additional stitch, till your additional stitches at each side are made. Knit, without increasing, till three nails are completed; decrease at the beginning and end of each row for three rows, then knit 2 rows and cast off. Pass the work through a thin solution of gum-water, and pin it out to dry upon a cloth stretched upon the floor. Make a cap with white silk, the size required; stretch the knitting upon it; sew it nearly round, placing the centre parts of each together; sew in the crown; cut lengths of wool and loop into the ends to form a fringe, as in illustrated design.

Originally published November 1855.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Aiken's Famous Family Knitting Machine

I found this article in the Wisconsin Farmer's Journal. I thought it provided such an interesting commentary on the times, as it was published eighteen months after the start of the Civil War, that I have transcribed most of it. (The same edition of the journal contained a poignant lament about the potential losses to agriculture and horticulture as a consequence of the conflict.) The women to whom this machine is recommended are not women seeking to fill idle hours with needlework with which to decorate their homes, but rather women who depended upon the production of their hands.

When Queen Elizabeth came to the throne of England, three hundred years ago, such a thing as a knit stocking had never been heard of in all her realm. Nor, indeed, have we any reliable authority to suppose that anything of the sort had ever been produced anywhere in the world.* But the tense, unyielding hose manufactured upon the loom were an uncomfortable, unsatisfactory thing, and so some ingenious mind -- it is not known whose -- conceived the idea, and executed the plan, of manufacturing them with the use of needes, in such manner that they should be both seamless and very elastic. The first pair knit were presented to Her Majesty, in the third year of her reign, who was so delighted wtih them that she would never again consent to wear the stocking of the old style.

As the result of the royal example and of the remarkable superiority of this wonderful manufacture, knitting became at once immensely popular, so that high-born dames and royal ladies emulated each other in princely halls and gilded palaces.

But the process of knitting with the fingers was slow and tedious; and so the brain of one William Lee ... stimulated, it is said, by a strong desire to supercede the needles of a beautiful young girl, whose passion for knitting appeared more all-absorbing than her coveted love for him, contrived a machine... [The inventor] established a factory at Nottinghamshire, which, to this day, has been and is the great seat of hosiery manufacture in Europe. ...

About a quarter of a century ago circular looms were introduced into this country from Belgium and France; since which time there have been several American improvements, all finding their climax in the wonderfully simple, cheap and capable machine of J.B. Aiken, of Franklin, N.H. As a factory machine this is unquestionably the most popular one now in existence, and every day seems to be adding to the high esteem in which it is held. ...

But all this remarkable success did not satisfy the ambition of Mr. Aiken. ... A machine which should come within the slender means of even a very poor family, and thus diffuse its blessings as the Sewing Machine has done, was needed. The simple and effective 'circular' machine of which the above cut is an illustration, was the result of this worthy and persistent endeavor. So simple and durable in all its parts that there is scarcely a possibility of its getting out of order; so rapid in its working that when operated by the hand of a child it will knit over four thousand stitches in a minute -- if by the foot five thousand -- or if by steam, to which it may be adapted, sixty thousand! -- so small in compass that it may be packed in a box less than a foot cubic; and withal, so cheap that it can easily be made to pay for itself in one winter, it can hardly fail of a very great demand even in war times. Indeed the harder the times the greater the need, on the part of the poorer families at least -- and nearly all are feeling pretty poor about now -- of everything which may come as a help in securing the means of support. ...

The machine is adapted to the manufacture of stockings of every size and texture, undershirts, drawers, neck comforts, table covers, head dresses, cravats, caps, purses, rigolets and shawls, sontags, tidies, ladies' opera caps, undersleeves, nubias, scarfs [sic], suspenders, &c.

The price, owing to taxation, &c., has been increased $5 within the last month or two, and is now fifty dollars, including oil-can, wrench, screw driver, 20 extra needles, skein holders, yarn winder, and a book of instruction. But even this, for a machine adapted to so many uses, and with which so many may be made by even the younger members of the family in a short time, is cheap; and we recommend [it] to all families dependent upon their fingers for support, to all Soldiers' Aid Societies, and to all others, who, in these trying times desire to contribute to the public good by every species of honorable economy....

But even $50, small as the amount is,** will not be found in times like these 'growing on every bush,' and we have accordingly offered the machine to every enterprising friend of the FARMER who will furnish us with a club of 150 subscribers at one dollar each. If there are any young men whose mothers or sisters are dependent upon their hands for support, or any middle-aged men whose wives would cordially welcome so valuable a labor-saver as the Knitting Machine, now is their time to do two things at once -- secure a handsome present for those most dear, and at the same time extend the circulation of a worthy journal devoted to the best material and social interests of the people of the Northwest.

The Wisconsin Farmer and Northwestern Cultivator, December 1, 1862.

* They had, but were unknown in English-speaking countries at the time of this article. "The Oldest Knitted Stockings," an excellent article by Chris Laning in the Winter 2011 edition of Knitting Traditions, dates cotton knitted stockings to the 11th century, in Islamic countries south of the Mediterranean. You can see an example here.

** According to The Inflation Calculator, $50 in 1862 is equivalent to $1061.85 in 2009 (the most recent year available for calculation) -- not a "small amount" for struggling families.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Wednesday Workbasket: Crochet Afghan

Materials: Scarlet and white six thread fleecy; large bone tricot-hook.

1st row: * Put the wool over the hook, pass over one, one single in the next; put the wool over the hook, one single in the next; put the wool over the hook, one single in the next, keeping all the stitches on the hook. Repeat from * coming back; pull through four loops, * one chain; pull through the chain and the next four loops on the hook. Repeat four *.

2nd row: * Put the wool over the hook; work a single between the clusters of last row; put the wool over the hook, one single under the same. Repeat from * coming back, the same as for first row. The second row is then repeated until the stripe is finished.

When all the stripes are finished, sew together on the wrong side. Work between each stripe one double, * five chain, one treble in the first, pass over one, one double on the next. Repeat from *. Each stripe is finished in the same way.

For the border, three rows are worked the same as the edge of the stripe, in scarlet, working the second and third rows into the five chain of each preceding row, and working at the corners two patterns in one stitch.

Originally published in 1875.

Monday, 14 February 2011

The Poetry of Knitting

My Valentine's gift to you: excerpts from an article entitled "The Poetry of Knitting," published in Household Words* on Saturday, September 9, 1882. The article describes knitting in various places around Great Britain, in particular Wales, Yorkshire and Cornwall.

The Welsh are described as using a "peculiar wool" that is treated "with an oil of so noxious a character that articles knitted with unwashed wool must be scalded seven or eight times before they can be quite cleansed of its penetrating odour." The Welsh "undyed wool" would "certainly bear away the palm at a wool show for softness and durability" -- were it not for the oil dressing used and the color of the wool, described as "just the colour of a very dirty sheep."

Switch to the Yorkshire dales, where knitting was done by virtually everyone in the first half of the century: "the waggoneer marched alongside his team, busy with his pins; the ploughman as he jogged home sideways on his lumbering horses, knitted industriously; even farmers on market-days talked of crops and cereals and knitted as they talked, in the very market-place."

Evidently the arrival of civilization, via the train, drove most men out of the habit of knitting or at least to knitting indoors in private, but the women kept it up.
They never move without their knitting and their knitting-sheath, attached to their waist by a belt, called a "cow-band" from its being made of cow-hide. ... A very common "fairing," Valentine's Day gift, birthday present, or sweetheart's keepsake, is a sheath and cow-band. Sometimes the swain carves a sheath with his pocket-knife from a bit of pin-wood out of his native woods... which he presents to his "ain lassie" at the trysting-stile -- a sure sign that she is very dear to him.
The description of a desirable marriage partner in Yorkshire is particularly awe-inspiring:
A lassie's value in the matrimonial market was calculated precisely according to her ability and quickness as a knitter. To be the "best knitter in the dale, able to make four bump-caps a day" was synonymous with being the "best match in the dale." Bump-caps, a knitted cap of a yard long, one half of which is turned in, are one of the chief manufactures of the dales.
Four yards per day is an amazing amount of knitting in anyone's book.

I'll leave you with the description of a Yorkshire knitting group, called a "sitting":
The "sitting" is often prolonged till midnight if the stories told are more than usually interesting, and the songs are hearty and fall in the temper and spirit of the meeting. ... They move in a peculiar way while knitting, a partly waving, partly rocking motion. A stranger coming suddenly in upon a "sitting" and ignorant of the sights and customs of the dales, is forcibly struck with the weird-like appearance of twenty or thirty creatures -- many of them almost in rags -- with unkempt hair hanging round their sun-bronzed faces, all swaying to and fro in time to the knitting-chorus.**
Sounds like a perfectly lovely way to spend an evening.

* The original Household Words was a weekly journal edited by Charles Dickens and published from 1850 to 1859. It sold for a tuppence per copy. His son resurrected it in 1881. The title was taken from a line in Shakespeare's Henry V: "Familiar in his mouth as household words."

** This website has further information about the history of knitting in the dales.