Teaching Knitting a Century Ago

Girls knitting, 1918Girls 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.


Historic Crafts

I first met one of the owners of Historic Crafts, Eddie, a couple of years ago when I started attending a local knitting group. We didn’t speak much at first, and I really don’t know why, because she turned out to be a very friendly Danish archaeologist who crochets the most amazing gloves. (and knits, and weaves, and sews …and I could go on).

As she knows, I’m a textile historian and big craft geek, so it wasn’t long before Eddie asked me if I’d like to get involved in her new website, Historic Crafts. So late last year I signed up as a blogger and on the launch in January 2010, wrote a little bit about what I do, and more recently some posts about spinning. There are all kinds of articles including using natural dyes, as you can see Historic Crafts blogger, Louise from Haandkraft doing in the image below (image copyright, Haandkraft).

The Historic Crafts website was set up by Eddie Roued-Cunliffe and Helene Agerskov Madsen and is a really great resource for anybody interested in craft history and making in general. It is based on a series of blog posts, how-tos and reviews by a little group of collaborators (you can find them here: bloggers). Some of the posts are even available in Danish!

In June 2010 Eddie and Helene launched the Journal of Historic Crafts as a supplement to the website. It isn’t exactly a more academic tome, but has much more in-depth information.  Whereas the blog-posts on the website are slightly more informal and divided into series such as “learning a new craft”, “Easter” or “Spinning”, the Journal has a more overriding theme. You can see one of my posts about the language of flowers there.

Go and take a look! From woodworking to tablet weaving, there really is something for everybody.


Myrtle Green © Kirks Studios, Cowes, IOW

This is the lady who got me onto my lifelong making kick. I was first taught to knit, sew and craft by my Nan, Myrtle Francis when I was about 5 years old, in the early 1980s. She seemed to be constantly knitting when I was young – she would make jumpers and cardigans for me with intarsia Mr Men, Smurfs or Care Bears on them, then later ones with Postman Pat for my sister. My Mum also knitted but with less enthusiasm (and probably with less time available). I remember her making a mohair cardigan for herself which my Dad washed soon after it was completed, shrinking it irretreivably.

She was a prolific knitter and sewer all her life and could easily adapt patterns to fit anyone. She also crocheted and I think kept all this going to ease the pain in her hands from arthritis: the more she used her hands, the longer her joints would keep going.

It was so exciting to go on holiday to her house on the Isle of Wight. I would be collected from the mainland by my Grandad (always known to me as Georgie), and we would take the bus down to get the passenger ferry across to the Island. It was a slow, slow journey on the ferry at that time. Taking almost a hour, there was enough time to have a leisurely lunch and to get out on the top deck to see how close we were to Ryde.

Isle of Wight Ferry by Just_Tom. Used under Creative Commons license.

After another ride on the bus to Newport, we were finally there. My Nan had the most wonder understairs cupboard which doubled as a food larder for pickles and jams, and craft supply area, with a good stash of wool and hundreds of patterns from the 1930s on. I was in my element in that cupboard and would sit and play for hours with my friend Amber from across the road.

I was a real bookworm when I was younger (actually, who am I kidding. I’m still a real bookworm. Nothing changes.) One school holiday, after I had read all of the children’s books in the house, and all of Amber’s ones too. My grandparents were fed up with me complaining of being bored, so my Nan taught me to knit on short metal green needles. It was an epiphany and the beginning of an itch that I still have to scratch every single day. I had all the usual problems with dropped stitches and adding about 25 more stitches as my garter stitch scarf grew and grew. It ended up a nicely triangled bright orange thing, but my teddy bear, Robert didn’t seem to mind.

So that’s how I got started. I’m still inspired by my Nan: in photographs, in her knitting patterns and her 1930s sewing book and even when I’m making something and think to myself ‘what would Nan do with this bit I’m stuck on?’

Tell me then, who taught you to make things? What were they like? Do they still inspire you today? Tell me about them in the comments: I’d love to have a conversation about this.

Badges of Honour?

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 Inny

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).

Friendsock, begun

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.

Just an Instuction Leaflet?

Bestway Men's Glove Pattern

Bestway Men's Glove Pattern

Issue 9 of Knit on the Net went live yesterday, and I have my first magazine article published!

I wrote a micro-study of the above men’s glove pattern which has been in my family for three generations. The pattern is well travelled and means different things to different people, having been used a lot for teaching. It has come to mean much more in my family than ‘just a pattern’; it has a whole life of its own with many layers of social connotations.

Teal Bestway Glove 2008

Teal Bestway Glove 2008

The article is adapted from a paper which I first presented at University of Southampton’s In the Loop knitting conference last summer. This is the first time I have submitted an article to be published. When I saw the theme was ‘techniques and traditions’ I thought it might fit right in, so I was delighted when editor Susan Crawford accepted it.

Issue 9, Wanderlust has lots to read and includes some really good patterns: go take a look.

I’m off to make a Mia hat.

From Skein to Ball of Yarn

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?