Historically speaking

Thanks to Alimum, I was spurred on to take a jaunt to the local library yesterday and pick up Richard Rutt’s History of Handknitting:

Why I haven’t been interested in the history of my craft earlier is a mystery, although I was worried that I’d feel like I was slogging through mandatory school reading. But there are plenty of illustrations, photographs, etc. to hold my attention, and Mr. Rutt is rather a witty fellow.

I only made it to page 25 before emptying my ice coffee, but here are some tidbits that I have gathered so far.

1. Knitting needles have been made out of lots of different materials over time: steel, brass, boxwood, ivory, whalebone, casein, briar, bone, erinoid, galalith, vulcanite, tortoise shell, aluminum, and bamboo.

casein needles

2. Knitting needle gauge varied according to manufacturer, even within Britain or the US. ‘British sizes were based on the British Standard Steel Wire Gauge, but were not always strictly to the standard’ (17). British needles maintained mm measures of .25 and .75, while German measures were at the .0 and .5 mm marks.

3. Rutt stresses the experiential nature of achieving proper tension: ‘…the handknitter’s knowledge of it must be intuitive and expressed chiefly through his fingers’ (16). He quotes Elizabeth Zimmerman, who says that “Time is a great leveller,” referring to the regularity of tension in older knitted pieces. Referencing wet blocking, he says that water can speed the process of stitches falling into place, but debunks the myth that knitters of the past were somehow that much more accomplished than those of us knitting today.

4. English style knitting is also debunked. Acknowledging that the form of holding the right needle like a pen is still most common in Britain, he says that it is not nearly as efficient as ‘cottage knitting’ (or Shetland) style, in which the right hand is over the needle and the needle tends to be propped under the right arm or in a needle holder of some sort. But, Victorian-era parlor knitters were concerned with delicacy and were prone to ‘airing of the little finger’ as in holding a table knife or a teacup… ‘[Ladies] thought of their work as artistic and refined’ (18).

Note: I could not find a photo that showed the needle being held pen-style, but my mother knits this way. I could only manage the Shetland style before switching to Continental, which is faster for me since I never mastered throwing. But Rutt claims that Shetland knitters could outshine not only English style knitters but also Continental.

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4 thoughts on “Historically speaking

  1. Interesting, re: #4. I have a friend who knits holding the right needle pen-style. It looks so awkward to me, but it seems to work well for her. There was a woman in my old knitting class who used to hold the left needle straight up between her legs and knit off that. That seemed so much more awkward but that lady churned out some crazy Irish knits in no time.

    I’m having a hard time picturing how Shetland style differs from English… I knit English, although I enjoy knitting Continental. I just can’t purl worth anything Continental.

  2. I think when Rutt refers to Shetland, he is talking about holding the right needle under the arm or in some kind of pouch to stabilize it, and then moving the left needle to do the work, almost the opposite of what the woman you mentioned does.

    It would also mean NOT holding the needle like a pen, but probably doing what you do, and what I was taught to do. And, to get that speed, it would mean throwing the yarn, something my mom does but which I never mastered in English style (I wrapped the yarn, which was very time consuming and ultimately why Continental is speedier for me.)

    Have you tried combined knitting? The idea behind it is that you essentially knit Continental style and purl in the more intuitive, less difficult way. Purling this way turns the stitches so that the back leg is closest to the end of the needle, requiring knitting through the back loop on a regular basis. There are some other modifications to make it work, but it’s worth checking out.

  3. Hmmm…. I actually knit “Shetland” style. I know they used to have pouches and stuff to hold the end of the knitting needle–but not having any of that, I hold it under my arm. So yes, I prefer 14″ straight needles, with smooth knobs, and if I’m wearing anything sleeveless, I prefer not to knit that way–cold metal in the armpit is not fun, and I don’t want to get deoderant all over my bamboos or woodens. Besides, for speed, metal really is required.

    How does it differ from English knitting? With the needle held firmly by something other than your hand, it almost gives you an extra hand. I use my left for maneuvering my other needle (and thus making the stitches) and my right for throwing, with my needle being held firmly in my right armpit. Not attractive, but actually much faster for me than when I use circulars or double pointeds. They’re just too short to stick in my armpit effectively, so I have to slow down and use my right hand to manipulate that needle as well as throw.

  4. Hm…. I guess I knit in a combination of continental with sometimes English style thrown in. I come from New England, so I guess I came by this method honestly. As a child, I learned to knit from my Italian mother and grandmother, and they both knit English style, so that’s what I originally learned. I taught myself continental much later on. Nowadays, I’m loving knitting on my circulars, usually continental, but sometimes English style.

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