Girls knitting, 1918. Image courtesy of UA Archives.
Hand knitting was brought formally into the British school syllabus with the 1870 Education Act. It had been taught in many schools, and especially to girls for long before that, but was not formalised until the late 19th century. By the time of the First World War, knitting was a required element of girls’ education and of many boys’ too.
The examiner for the London School Board 100 years ago was one Ethel Dudley. She wrote the 1914 standard school book Knitting for Infants and Juniors which I recently consulted in the Knitting Reference Library. Sadly, due to copyright and library rules, I wasn’t able to show you a photograph or any of the text here.
I really love looking at old textbooks, (especially old textile-related ones) because I’m just geeky like that. This one was particularly fascinating because it was a textbook for the teacher, not for the pupils. The book showed how the teacher of this period was expected to instruct a class of both boys and girls from age five to eleven. At this point, British children attending state run schools were generally taught in separate single sex classrooms except when they were very young.
In the book, techniques are explained for the teacher using both diagrams and text and teachers are advised to physically demonstrate the knitting techniques in front of the class. This makes a lot of sense today in the light of what we now know about learning styles. It also suggests that either the teachers may not know all of the techniques or that they may need to improve on them in order to meet the programme of learning/teaching.
In her book, Dudley suggested lesson plans and instructions for patterns suitable for varying ages such as the following for five year olds:
‘Duster for school blackboards. Needles 5. Number 8 cotton. 30-40 minutes.
Cast on 18 stitches. K (chain edge) 36 rows.
Cast off and make chain of 12 stitches to hang up.’ (1930:14)
It seems surprising to me today, that five year old children would be able to produce a duster in 40 minutes. Certainly when I have been teaching small children to knit, even those who are ‘improvers’ would struggle with the speed of this due to the dexterity of their fingers. I’m not sure of the comparable weight of number 8 cotton (but would guess DK to aran weight), but number 5 needles are 5.5mm or US9.
Other items recommended by Dudley to be knitted by children at ages six to seven included lace-panelled, pieced and fitted doll’s clothes, and shaped and pieced slippers. I have to say that they appear much more complex than projects in knitting books for children of a similar age today.
So, is it just that knitting is seen today to be a leisure activity that children might be interested in as a hobby and therefore has to be simple and fun? Was it that 100 years ago, knitting was a necessary life skill that they had need to be competent at from an early age and therefore seems more complicated through our 21st century lens? Or do we expect less from our young learners today?
From the teaching point of view, I wonder whether the school knitting teachers of today would know all of the skills that Ethel Dudley had in mind for those of 1914, or perhaps we should have our own kind of training manuals today? In some ways, I’d love a book that told me how to teach people certain skills. As an example, it took a few tries for my (adult) student and I to work out a good system for teaching her to knit left-handed with me as a righty.
What do you think to these century old differences in the percieved skill levels for teaching and learning to knit?
Do let me know in the comments.
Last week I found a little, crackly plastic bag full to the brim with Brownie and Girl Guide badges. It was just under the box I was looking for which contained some sewing cottons. Although I knew that I still had the badges that I’d earned in the pack and patrol from the 1980s, I was delighted to find that the little bag also contained those from my Mum’s time in the Brownies in the late 1950s.
The only thing is, that I really don’t remember what they were all for. I don’t even know definitively which were mine and which were my Mum’s (although I’m fairly sure that the woggle is my Dad’s from Scouts). I really feel rather ashamed of this. I know that I put a lot of hard work into earning each of my little fabric badges of honour; that they meant so much to me at the time.
Part of me wants to make up new names for them: to give them new life and meaning from my childhood and my mother’s. How about the Spidergirl Badge for Climbing Trees, or the Bear Grylls Badge for Crossing Ravines on a Rope Bridge? Although perhaps Bear Grylls wouldn’t go in for the safety ropes, actually.
Both myself and my Mum were in the Brownies at the time of a big anniversary: she in 1960 at the 50th Jubilee, and myself in 1985 at the 65th. The badges we recieved to commemorate this are very much of their times, I think. I remember going on a coach with my Brownie pack to the local Girl Guide camping ground on a hot Saturday that summer. There were many, many other Brownie packs and Guide units there: more than I ever thought possible. It seemed so grown up at the time, toasting marshmallows on sticks at a campfire with the big girls.
Mum says that for the 50th anniversary they held a special service at her local church and she was one of the girls selected to carry a flag in the parade through the town to celebrate. I wish I had a photo of her to show you in her Brownie uniform, but it seems that she doesn’t have any. She didn’t allow me to get away so lightly though!
I have put the badges away again, in the little crackly bag which seems so much their home. I wonder if they will be added to by my future children, and whether in time they will remember what all of their badges were for? Things that seem so important at the time, important enough to keep for now 50 years fade into the background of memory with a sense of nostalgia. But I will be keeping them. I believe it is important to pass these things on, even if it is somewhat with a case of Chinese Whispers as to their original meaning. Isn’t that all part of family history and storytelling?
Katie and I have been great friends for just over a year. Having both moved into a new area, we made contact on a Ravelry board, looking for a local knitting group. Well we found one, which we still attend weekly, but the best thing was that we immediately clicked as friends. On the face of it we are very different: Katie is an American living for a couple of years in Britain and works as an instructor at an outdoor centre: I am a Brit who works in a museum. There is the odd cultural misunderstanding, such as that which is now known as ‘The Water Butt Incident.’ Whoever knew that my asking her to help water my garden would cause such linguistic hilarity! Not me…
So, I bet you’re wondering why I’m telling you all this. Remember Mrs Miniver’s Petulant Sock? Remember how I said I’d like to do a whole series of them?
Well, now I am.
To start, Katie and I are to make Friendsocks together. She and her husband return to the US next year and we will no longer be able to hang out and trade craft skills and make cookies. We have learned lots of things from each other: I taught Katie to magic loop and introduced her to the marvel that is Spaced, and she taught me to spin on a wheel and play Cranium. I think we’ll miss each other a lot once she’s back in America, so in the meantime we have hatched a plan.
We’re going to make two Mrs Miniver style double ended socks: one each to keep once they’re done. We plan to knit them up concurrently and swap them weekly at our knitting group, taking over where the other left off. We are not going to follow the same design or use the same yarn, but knit in a way that is typically ‘us’ and will independently show the way we individually like to knit. We’ll help each other when we need it and won’t worry if we can only fit in a few rows some weeks. That’s the nature of our friendship, thus it will be reflected in the socks.
Although in the early stages, I have started the first of the Friendsocks. Using some Rico Design Creative Poems Aran I have cast on a lace-patterned slouch sock. For the ‘me’ part of the socks I wanted to try a new technique: the lace in socks and a new yarn. That’s typical of me really: I don’t like to repeat what I’ve done before if I can help it. I like to keep learning something new each time. The yarn is a multicoloured pure wool aran. I particularly like yarn with a long colour change, and this changes from purple through to green and back again making wide stripes as it is knit up (below).
You can read Katie’s blog here: I’m sure she’ll have something to say about the Friendsocks too as they pass between us.
We’ll keep you updated.
from Twisted in Portland, Oregon.
This is splendid!
I really love Lego, but didn’t have the mechanised type growing up. Just imagine the My Little Pony carriages I could have built if I had! After seeing this video, I’m very tempted to go and buy some now. I’ve been thinking about making my own swift for a while, however I have to admit that if I had a yarn winder it might just sit there…
Alright, I have a confession. I like to wind my yarn by hand. It’s such an integral part of the process of knitting for me that I think that a yarn winder might distance me from the yarn. I’m not sure if I’m being silly here or not because I’ve never tried using one, but the personal contact through winding seems important to me.
Does anyone else have this quandry?