-ed Cross's "Our Boys Need Sox: Knit Your Bit" campaign, ,aircned during World War I, became even more important during
II. as knitters played a vital role in supplying soldiers ^ clothes.
°i*hrave boys by Mrs. Abner Bartlett, of Medford, ^**achusetts, now 85 years." Soldiers being soldiers, ^v probably fancied the notes that said, "And when wars and camps you part—May some fair knitter w'*tn your heart," and "Apples are good but peaches are k^fer; If you love me, will you write me a letter?"
A lot of the soldiers responded. U1 needed the st,*kings badly The maple sugar was a treat and reminded me of the old times in the sugar camp at home," one wrote. "The mittens were just in time to do good service. The boys now gladly take the 'mitt* from the girls they left behind them," noted another. And there was this report: "We gave three rousing cheers to the ladies of the Hartford Soldiers' Aid Society. In this bleak December snowstorm, their hands and hearts are the warmer for what you sent." And this: "Your box recalled the pleasures of home (Grassy Pond, South Carolina) vividly to this war-torn soldier."
As in the Revolution, stockings were in critically short supply. One sister wrote, "If the stockings Uncle Sam provides are too thin, or too anything, let me know." Another sorrowfully returned to her Aid Society "Three pairs of socks, sent home in the knapsack of a dear brother who fell at Antietam." One leader even offered precious handknit socks to soldiers as a bribe to get them to wash their feet, and added a shirt and drawers in exchange for a "general ablution." Surveying their transformation, he whistled, "It looks as if Mother has been here!"
"Mother" was at it again half a century later in the "war to end all wars." Five widows of Civil War veterans at New York's Baptist Home for the Aged, now knitting for Sammy instead of Johnny Reb or Billy Yank, gamely challenged other knitters to beat their output, prompting newspapers to feature "knitters of the sixties." Everyone who could knit, did—from tiny 4-year-olds to Civil War veterans. They besieged Red Cross yarn depots. When the Navy League's Central Park Knitting Bee drew vast throngs of knitters, its chairwoman gloated that clicking needles echoed all the way to Berlin. One knitter acknowledged, "Knitting has become your food and drink... Sundays, weekdays, midnight, crack of dawn, street car, parlor, kitchen, all times and places are one. They exist only for knitting."
This must have been true tor Olivia Kindelberger, whose ten sweaters in less than seven days led to her coronation as "Champion Red Cross Knitter of New York." Leading town parades were platoons of knitters, their bosoms draped with bandoliers of khaki yarn, their needles tapping buckets to punctuate chanted mantras of "Knit Your Bit." Mormon women's strenuous knitting in church classes drew this rebuke from the General Board: "Our sisters will have plenty ot time at home and in the work meetings to do all the knitting for which they can obtain yarn and thus assist the Red Cross cause." Knitting bags grew so emblematic ot fidelity to war work that fashion magazines prescribed coordinating knitting bag with dress and hat. The ubiquitous bag even delineated characters in one-act plays presented to women's clubs or Red Cross gatherings: "dressed smartly but simply in tailored suit (and) carries cretonne knitting bag "A cheerful, motherly-looking person, well but comfortably dressed (and) carries a capacious, rather shabby knitting bag."
Knitting-infected vacationers at Atlantic City completed 10,000 sweaters in one season as novice stitchers sought instruction from the clusters ot venerable pros hunched over workbaskets in hotel lobbies. Thus reinforced, the young drew knitting from rubber-lined knitting bags while ambling along the beach—and even, it was reported, floating precariously in inner tubes. It is no wonder that "Nettie's Knitting Nighties for the Navy" won hands-down as their favorite Boardwalk song. For non-knitters, after a futile
Ltempt to organize a Nonknitters' Protective Association, it was farewell bridge and hello solitaire. K After the 70s, when war-spent knitters defected to other crafts, canny yarn companies launched such successful promotions to woo them back that the *30s produced a veritable knitting craze. Knitters were thus primed for wartime regeneration, when Bundles for Britain and war refugee organizations pleaded for warm clothes. After the American entrance into the war, the Army and Navy reported adequate supplies of "necessities," but knitters who felt compelled to knit anyhow created "comforts" for their men. Thousands, like the colonial "Knot of Misses," took up their needles, and in knitting helmets, gloves, sweaters and stretchy cotton bandages, they shared an experience not unlike that of their foremothers. One knitting veteran confessed to new recruits, "You see, 1 lost two sons in that other war, and somehow, doing this, I feel that I am helping to keep them warm."
Knitting clubs, like earlier Civil War Aid Societies, provided social outlets for women anxious about their men at the front. Even band leader Glenn Miller immortalized club meetings in his national hit "Knit One, Purl Two." Popular Science magazine, noting that knitting had become "an almost universal pastime among women," suggested lashing together cardboard tubes "such as the new linoleum is rolled up in" to form an umbrella-like stand that would allow each knitter to draw yarn from her own tube. When knitting-club wives of airmen training at Walla Walla, Washington, learned Aeir husbands were headed for the South Pacific instead of Europe, they dispatched completed helmets gloves to the Navy, grabbed their babies and headed home to mother. In 1945, Akrons Stitch and Bitch Club members dropped out one by one to greet their returning husbands, but thoughtfully rejoined when they realized one member's husband continued to be missing in action.
To World War II knitters, remembrances are still vivid. A knitter now in her seventies, who copied her infantryman brothers vest for two of his camp buddies, says proudly, "One went through the Battle of the Bulge, and the other went through the Italian campaign." A woman who knit bandages during her subway commute recalls: Td put fifteen to twenty stitches of Clarks Knit-Cro-Sheen cotton on a number four or five needle and just knit to the end of the ball." Another, confounded by an allegedly simple scarf, remembers, "I just knit those stitches until the end of the war!" One who in elementary school knit 6-inch "soldier squares" to be assembled into blankets, shudders, "I still avoid garter stitch like the plague!"
A wrenchingly familiar olive drab sweater is tacked to the wall of a case of Eleanor Roosevelt's needlework in the Hyde Park presidential library. A name tag (the kind used to mark clothes at camp) is the only indication that its young recipient was Joseph Lash, a soldier who survived to become the famous knitters biographer many years later—a tender testament to America's wartime knitting tradition. —
by Margaret Bruzelius
Pair of 1 7th-century Englishman's stockings, now sadly moth-eaten.
In the costume collection at the hack of the Edinburgh Royal Museum of Antiquities stand three mannequins wearing the ordinary clothes of the 18th century—dull, shapeless garments made of rough cloth. Discovered accidentally hundreds of years later, these clothes belonged to men who were murdered and buried in an isolated spot. Because peat preserved their remains, we can see their loose and much-mended knit socks and a small knit purse decorated with a pattern of Greek keys and a picot edge. Coins found in the purse helped to determine its age.
The next case in the museum offers a dramatic contrast to the first. The figures in this case wear evening finery of the same period that's almost perfectly preserved. Compared to the longevity of these showy pieces, the existence of some patched and baggy socks and a single slender purse seems rare and indescribably touching. These remnants fortuitously preserved remind us how few knitted relics survive today. For though knitting is an ancient craft that may have been practiced by the Egyptians, only a few relatively recent and well-documented folk traditions—such as Fair Isle and Guernsey knitting—have come down to us over the years.
Why has so little lasted? One reason is that knitted garments have almost always been used for hard wear rather than show. The few articles that have survived have been distinguished by their rarity and fineness: beautiful knit ceremonial gloves of silk and metallic thread, silk shirts with astonishingly intricate patterns. Most other knitwear has been of the warm and flexible kind that bends and stretches with wearing, such as knit socks, gloves, caps and underwear. It seemed as ordinary to its owner as our cotton underwear does today. And it was just this type of clothing that was worn out and thrown away, even in thriftier times than our own.
Knitted garments have also traditionally been worked in wool, or, if they were very fine things, in silk, so that even someone's favorite clothes, meant to be saved, were vulnerable to moths. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London, for example, has a splendid pair of hose with a wide striped cuff that draped over a bcx>t top. The socks are severely moth eaten, though they manage to maintain a jaunty air to this day.
Furthermore, unlike woven threads, which can hardly be taken apart, knitted yarn
is easily unraveled. This meant that the yarn could then he used again to follow new fashions or to suit the tastes of a different member of the family.
But perhaps the most fundamental reason why knitted textiles have not survived is knittings very simplicity. We naturally value what seems both mysterious and costly, and knitting is neither. Unlike weaving, which requires a loom and other equipment that must be mastered, knitting is easily taught with simple and inexpensive tools.
This view that knitting is familiar and ordinary diminishes our sense of knitwears refinement and elegance, and also our desire to save it. As we learn about our knitting traditions, we should be wise enough to recognize the beauty of a process that simply by looping yarn through itself has kept us warm, comfortable and even stylish for so many centuries. After all, how often do we think, when we knit, that we are taking part in a tradition that goes back to the pharaohs?
by Margaret Bruzelius
You may think of knitting as a peaceful activity for people of equable temperament who like to work with their hands—hardly the stuff of which murder and mayhem are made. But are you aware of another more sinister knitting tradition that lurks in literature.7 Here, leagues of ferocious women, knitting needles in hand, swoop down on their prey like Furies. For the creators of these characters, their knitting serves as a metaphor for their inexorable purpose.
The great-grandmother of these formidable women is certainly Mme. Defarge from Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. We first meet her in her husband's wine shop: "Madame Defarge was a stout woman...with a watchful eye that seldom seemed to look at anything, a large hand heavily ringed, a steady face, strong features, and great composure of manner...Madame...was wrapped in fur, and had a quantity of bright shawl twined about her head, though not to the concealment of her large earrings. Her knitting was before her, but she had laid it down to pick her teeth with a toothpick."
Like the inexorable Fates whose spinning determined the span of a man s life, Mme. Defarge's knitting carries the death sentence for the heartless aristocrats she despises. Indeed, on the readers second encounter with her, Dickens makes the comparison himself: "...the woman who stood knitting looked up steadily, and looked the Marquis in the face He was driven on...the one woman who had stood conspicuous, knitting, still knitted on with the steadfastness of Fate."
Mme. Defarge's knitting, however, is not only a
A literary mix of knitting and mayhem symbol of eventual retribution, but a record of the aristocrat's evil deeds. When a fellow revolutionary-presumes to question her husband on her ability to maintain her list, he gets an unequivocal answer: 44 4 Jacques,' returned Defarge, drawing himself up, 'if madame my wife undertook to keep the register in her memory alone, she would not lose a word of it—not a syllable of it. Knitted in her own stitches and her own symbols, it will always be as plain to her as the sun It would be easier for the weakest poltroon that lives, to erase himself from existence, than to erase one letter of his name or crimes from the knitted register of Madame Defarge.'"
Never in the novel does Madame Defarge appear without her knitting. When a government spy attempts to ingratiate himself with her, he compliments her on her knitting and asks what it is for. 44 4 Pastime.' Said Madame, still looking at him with a smile. 'Not for use?' 'That depends. I may find a use for it one day. If I do— well...I'll use it!'" The spy retires, discomfited, but not before Madame has included his name on her fatal list. Indeed, even innocent strangers are subjected to her ferocity. When one presses her to reveal what she is knitting, 44 4 Many things,'" she replies," 4For instance ...shrouds."'
Dickens' chapter titles—"Knitting," "Still Knitting," "The Knitting Done"—attest to the symbolic significance of his character's busy fingers. After her death, her friend, The Vengeance, missing her at the guillotine, laments, "'Bad Fortune!...and here are the tumbrels! And Evremonde will be dispatched in a wink, and she not here! See her knitting in my hand, and her empty chair ready for her '" The other knitters continue in their places: "Crash!—a head is held up, and the knitting-women, who scarcely lifted their eyes to look at it a moment ago when it could think and speak, count One."
Although Dickens' vengeful Mme. Defarge has no equal among literary knitters, many mystery writers ha combined knitting and mayhem. Agatha Christie also used the motif of a knitted secret in one of her early yarns of Middle East derring-do, They Came to Baghdad.1 Victoria, the heroine, considering whether a knitted message could be managed, says, ii4Oh, I think you could Plain and purl—and fancy stitches—and the wrong stitch at intervals and dropped stitches. Yes—it could be done Camouflaged, of course, so that it just looked like someone who was rather bad at knitting and made mistakes...' Suddenly, with a vividness like a flash of lightening, two things came together in her mind ...the man with the ragged hand-knitted red scarf clasped in his hands...and together with that a name. Defarge."
This insight turns out to be the vital link needed to unmask a dastardly plot for world domination. In the final unraveling, Victoria asks the kindly British agent
(this is before the days of George Smiley) if there was really a message in the scarf. "There was a name," he replies, "the scarf and the 'chit' were the two halves of the clue "
Of course, Christies most famous detective, M. Hercule Poirot, does not number knitting among his eccentricities. However, Miss Jane Marple, an equally illustrious Christie creation, is not only a formidable sleuth but also an indefatigable knitter. Here is one typical description from A Murder Is Announced: "She had snow white hair and a pink, crinkled face and very soft, innocent blue eyes and she was heavily enmeshed in fleecy wool. Wool round her shoulders in the form of a lacy cape and wool that she was knitting and which turned out to be a baby's shawl."
Miss Marple, selfless creature that she is, never seems to knit anything for herself, but instead turns out endless items for babies. Time after time she draws out information by placidly sitting and knitting. As one of her interlocutors says in A Pocket Full of Rye, "It's nice in here today...with the fire and the lamps and you knitting things for babies. It ail seems cozy and homely and as England ought to be." Indeed, knitting is so much a part of Miss Marple's persona that we often hear of it only when she puts it down or loses her ball of wool. But while she may seem completely unlike the proletarian Mme. Defarge, she is just as tireless in her pursuit of justice. One of Christie's detectives even compares her to Nemesis as well: "Miss Marple was very unlike the popular idea of an avenging fury. And yet...that was perhaps exactly what she was."
A literary contemporary of Miss Marple's, Miss Maud Silver is another invaluable aid to Scotland Yard and a tireless knitter. She is the creation of Patricia Wentworth, whose introduction to any tale is a set piece whose focal Point is Miss Silver and her gently clicking knitting needles. Unlike Miss Marple's rather vague projects, Miss Silver's are detailed, as in The Case of William Smith:
tnree pairs of stockings each for Johnny, Derek and
Roger," or "she had finished the pair of leggings for little Josephine and had begun a coatee to match them." She is described as knitting so quickly that socks seem to revolve as she works them. Needless to say, she, too, always gets her man.
But knitters are not always on the side of justice. In Ruth RendelPs story 4tA Needle for the Devil," Alice Gibson discovers in knitting a method for controlling her violent temper: "Alice had never thought of knitting. Knitting was something one's grandmother did But it Pamela could make the coat...she was very sure she could. And it might solve that problem ot hers which had lately become so pressing " Alice becomes an expert knitter.
Late in life she unfortunately decides to marry, and her husband cannot bear to watch her knitting. Deprived of her therapy, Alice lies awake at night, dreaming ot projects she may not start. 1 ler temper rises and rises until she finally finds a new use for a knitting needle—with consequences fatal to her husband.
Another mystery writer, Harry Kemelman, shares Miss Rendell's view about knitting needles' possibilities, and iii Tuesday the Rahhi Saw Reel he supplies an ingenious new use tor one. Once again we are presented with an industrious, selfless knitter at work on "Christmas presents for nephews and nieces. I start early enough, but I always seem to he rushed toward the end. I keep three or four projects going all the time " This murder is not the result of knitting deprivation, but involves the craft as an essential part of modus operandi.
But the final word on the fatal aura of the knitter must be left to Ogden Nash in his poem "Machinery Doesn't Answer Either, But You Aren't Married to It."* For those of us who are at a loss to understand the thread of menace that these authors see in our quiet occupation, he articulates the rage of the non-knitter—
and takes his quiet revenge:
Sometimes she knits and sits, Sometimes she sits and knits, And you tell her what you have been doing all day and you ask what she has been doing all day...and you speak tenderly of your courtship and your bridal, And you might as well try to get a response out of an Oriental idol,
And you notice a spasmodic movement of her lips, And you think she is going to say something but she is only counting the number of stitches it takes to surround the hips; And she furrows her beautiful brow, which is a sign that something is wrong somewhere and you keep on talking and disregard the sign, And she casts a lethal glance, as one who purls before swine,
And this goes on for weeks At the end of which she lays her work down and speaks,
And you think now maybe you can have some home life but she speaks in a tone as far off as Mercury or Saturn,
And she says thank goodness that is finished, it is a sight and she will never be able to wear it, but it doesn't matter because she can hardly wait to start on an adorable new pattern, And when this has been going on for a long time, why that's the time that strong men break down and go around talking to themselves in public, finally, And it doesn't mean, that they are weak mentally or spinally,
It doesn't mean, my boy, that they ought to be in an asylum like Nijinsky the dancer, It only means that they got into the habit of talking to themselves at home because they themselves were the only people they could talk to and get an answer. —-
*From the collection "Verses From 1929 On," by Ogden Nash, from the kx>k Many Long Years Ago... (Little, Brown).
by Kelly Hargrave Tweeddale
Although historians know little about the origins of knitting, many believe it was practiced as early as the 4th century by nomads roaming North Africa." Later, Arab traders adopted the craft, which helped them wile away the hours as they traveled across deserts in camel caravans. This spread knitting to Tibet, to Egypt, and eventually to sailors of the Mediterranean, who exported it to ports of call along their trade routes.
Early evidence of multicolored knitting—now unfortunately lost—is said to date back to the Egyptian Copts of 600-800 A.D. During that period, the Egyptians were already known as master textile artists; they used knitting primarily for socks. Even the earliest relics reflect an extensive knowledge of color and design. The Copts produced intricate patterns through a stranding technique, combining such colors as red, dark and light blue, ocher, white, pink, green and brown.
These highly sophisticated patterns were apparently designed as defenses against the "evil eye." Some of them even took the shape of an eye, which was supposed to stare back at the evil one and counteract its harmful gaze. According to another common belief, a complex motif would trap that gaze and prevent it from doing damage. Many knitted symbols were used to ward off the evil eye, including crosses, the letter S, and the phoenix, representing eternal life. But the strongest protection was a pattern that included the threatening gesture of an upraised hand.
In 1272, Marco Polo recorded that the monks of St. Barsauma in Persia had knitted woolen girdles reputed to have great healing powers. By then, the Church had probably fostered the highest standards of medieval knitting, Pope Innocent IV was said to have been buried in 1254 wearing a pair of knitted altar gloves, as was the bishop interred at the cathedral church of Rome in the 14th century.
Monks weren't the only knitters of that period. Thirteenth-century- nuns arc credited with knitting the cushion covers found at the monastery of St. Mary of Huelgas in Spain. Founded near Burgos in 1187 by King Alfonso VI of Leon and Castile and his
Other articles in this book state that knitting originated earlier and in a different region. Current experts acknowledge that the true date and time of origin is unknown.
What do the Copts of Egypt, Queen Victoria and Coco Chanel have in common? They all were knitters. Indeed, since the I craft first arose, knitting has been associated with countless 1 cultural groups and historical figures, from Pope Innocent IV to 1 Mary Queen of Scots. I
This portrait of the Prince of Wales made Fair Isle pullovers and vests immensely popular.
wife Eleanor of Aragon, the monastery was a royal ahhey for nuns of high birth. Designed for the royal family, the cushions served as sacred pillows at burial. The H cushion of Mafalda, made for the illegitimate son of Alfonso VIII, is a prime example I of the period's most intricate color and pattern work.
It wasn't long before knitting appeared in paintings as a sacred craft, practiced by what arr historians call the "knitting Madonnas." In 1345, Ambrogio Lorenzetti painted the Holy Family, with Jesus as a child resting one hand on his mother's arm. In this enchanting scene, Mary knits in the round, using a purple yarn and four needles. At her side are about a dozen spools of yarn.
The most famous of the knitting Madonnas is part of an altarpiece entitled Der Besuch der Engel bei Maria ("The Visitation of the Angels to Mary") Isee page 111. Painted around 1400 by Master Bertram of Minden, it depicts Mary in a room knitting a small crimson shirt on four needles. She has almost finished the garment and is ready to bind off. The child Jesus lies on the grass in the garden, completing a picture of domestic tranquility.
Later, knitting achieved a kind of nobility. Even before the craft became fashionable, Mary Queen of Scots, age 9, wrote notes in her Latin reader on how to make decreases in the leg of a stocking. By February 8, 1586—the day of her execution—many aristocratic ladies favored knitted clothing. According to one account of that event, Mary herself wore "her nether stocks of worsted, coloured watchett, clocked with silver, and edged at the tops with silver, and next her legs a pair of Jersey hose white." (In other words, white stockings under sea-blue socks with a silver decorative edge.)
Probably the most notorious knitter of all time was actually a fictional character—Mad ame Defarge, the leader of the female rabble in Charles Dickens's A Tale of Fwo Cities. In that classic, Dickens describes the women knitting as they watched the guillotine: "All the women knitted. They knitted worthless things; but the mechanical work was a mechanical substitute for eating and drinking: the hands moved for the jaws and digestive apparatus: if the busy fingers had been still, the stomachs would have been more famine-pinched...on the women sat, knitting, Hitting. Darkness encompassed them...where they were to sit, knitting, knitting, counting dropping heads."
Madame Defarge and the bloodthirsty tricoteuses of the French Revolution S OWec' rliar the lofty art of the aristocracy had become a craft for the masses. And the masses produced their own folklore, such as the story surrounding the origin of Fair Isle knitting. The story goes that the Shetland tradition was suddenly enriched in 1 588 when HI Gran Griffon, a ship from the defeated Spanish Armada was wrecked on one of the Fair Isles. The Spanish sailors who abandoned ship wore brightly patterned knitted garments, each decorated with what came to he known as the Armada Cross. Since then, that cross has distinguished authentic Fair Isle knitting.
Rut most of that is legend. In fact, there was no cozy exchange of knitting techniques. After the wreck of El Gran Griffon, the Fair Islanders, afraid that the influx of unwelcome visitors would cause famine, hid their food and animals. Many of the Spaniards died of starvation. Others, weak from hunger, were set upon by the islanders and hurled from the high cliffs into the sea. Eventually, the Spaniards sent a small boat to mainland Shetland for help, and the surviving men were returned home.
Shetland Islanders were famous during the Victorian era for the quality of their lace knitting. They made shawls from the finest Shetland wool, plucked from the necks of their sheep and spun into yarn as delicate as cobwebs. A thousand yards of yarn could be spun from a single ounce of that wool. And the work was so fine that a shawl measuring 6 square feet could easily slip through a wedding ring—indeed, it became known as the "wedding-ring shawl." To promote their business, the Shetland Islanders presented Queen Victoria, herself an avid knitter, with a pair of lace stockings and gloves. With her royal blessing, Shetland lace achieved world renown.
By the 1920s, knitwear was burgeoning. Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli brought sweaters and cardigans into fashion, leading to a popular song entitled "All the Girls Are Busy Knitting Jumpers." In 1924, Chanel designed the costumes for Diaghilev's ballet Le Train Bleu, in which dancers portraying flappers and their boyfriends wore hand-knit bathing suits and golfing jerseys. The latter was patterned after the Prince of Wales's eye-catching Fair Isle pullover. In A Family Album, published in 1960, the prince wrote:
"I suppose the most showy of all my garments was the multicolored Fair Isle sweater, with its jigsaw patterns, which I wore for the first time while playing myself as Captain of the Royal & Ancient Gold Club at St. Andrews in 1922."
Today, however, designers find inspiration all over the world, and in many historical periods. As a knitter, you can still create an air of royalty with a Fair Isle pullover. Or you can fend off the evil eye with an Egyptian border, or put romance in your wardrobe with a touch of Shetland lace. The possibilities are endless. So why not work the patterns of history into your next knitting project? —
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