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.

1 comment:

  1. I finally found your other blog. I love it, Kris. I wouldn't mind spending some time at a sitting... sounds like a lot of fun!