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.


a week of knitting in public

I knit on the train most days. I really enjoy the extra layer of rhythm that the clicking of the needles adds to the jolting of the train on the tracks. Sometimes people might comment or ask what I’m doing; mostly they have a quick look and get on with their thing. In short, I’m used to knitting in public; but this week public knitting was taken to a whole new level for me.

As previously mentioned, I took part in a university library outreach programme in Winchester this past week. The Knitting Reference Library held an exhibition in a small gallery space, ‘Cornershop’ which had once been a pet shop. Set up like a living room,’The Knitting Room’ had plenty of places to sit and look at patterns from the library or read knitting books. An exhibition of knitted objects from the handling collection were suspended from fishing line in the large bay window and duplicate vintage patterns displayed in the windows.  I was invigilating for a good part of the week, and knitted in public like never before (and knitted over half a cardigan). I think that some people thought that we were an art installation, and certainly it felt like that at times! We taught plenty of people, young and old to knit. On the second weekend, 13th and 14th June, it was World Wide Knit in Public Days and all week we were very much encouraging people to come in and have a go. Lots did.

Throughout the week the library staff and I taught people to knit from scratch, how to make pompoms and helped knitters to learn new techniques. I think we had about 10 brand new knitters in total and 6 pompom-makers! It was great to have a selection of knitting books on hand which supplemented my own knowledge. I tend to teach knitting by showing the person how by ‘doing’ in the first instance, but needed a reference for things like cabling.

It  was a really fun week and the exhibition worked on many levels. Many more people know about and will be using the Knitting Reference Library now, there was a coming together of existing knitters and the beginnings of new knitters. Two artists came in and made a sound recording of the gathering, which will lead on to further work as well. The Knitting Room became a focus for discussion and debate on the culture, heritage and process of knitting for the week. I’m hoping for this discussion to continue on in a range of media too.

From a personal point of view, I particularly enjoyed the interaction with other artists and knitters: bouncing ideas around, learning new techniques and planning new artwork. I got an awful lot out of the experience of teaching. Although I teach people to knit on a fairly regular basis, I’d not taught children to knit before: well, no under 10s anyway. I’ll be reflecting on how it all went and what I’ve learned from it  in a separate blog post later in the week.

I’d love to hear from you if you came to the Knitting Room last week. What did you think of it?

Also, go and visit Cornershop if you are in Winchester to see Winchester School of Art’s Textile Art 3rd year student Bethany Mitchell‘s You and Whose Army? which she will be installing this coming week.

n.b. All photographs © Ingrid Murnane and used with the permission of those photographed, or their parents.

world wide knit in public days

WWKIP days 2009 are on the 13th and 14th June. I have taken part for the last two years and it has been great fun. The idea is that knitting, a generally solitary act is brought out into the wider sphere. I knit in public most days, especially if I’m travelling on a train or bus, but the collective experience of knitting with a large group of people is entirely different to that (you don’t get the nosy people on trains asking if you’re knitting them a scarf when it is obviously socks for a start!)

World Wide Knit in Public Day 2007 by Todd Huffman. Used under Creative Commons.

World Wide Knit in Public Day 2007 by Todd Huffman. Used under Creative Commons.

I like that it gives a sense of community that I might usually only get when I attend a knitting group, but the thing about WWKIP day is that these are people that I might never have met before. They will have new ideas about knitting, techniques which I’ve never seen before, ways in which they hold the needles that are different to mine, even yarns which I’ve never heard of.  I have learned to knit lace and cables, had books and patterns recommended to me and myself, taught three people to knit in past years. It is a time to share ideas and be open to learning new and exciting things.

The Cornershop, Winchester by Zabdiel. Used under Creative Commons.

The Cornershop, Winchester by Zabdiel. Used under Creative Commons.

This year I’m going to be at the Cornershop gallery in Winchester (just behind the Hambledon on St Thomas’ Street) where Linda Newington from Winchester School of Art will have an interactive exhibition of items from the Knitting Reference Library. There will be a knitting lounge, reminiscent of that set up at the In the Loop conference last year. I’ll be there knitting and teaching on both days and also during part of the previous week (more details to follow).

It all looks to be great fun: hope you can join us, or if not please do visit the Knitting Reference Library at WSA if you’re round that way sometime. It holds the collections of knitters and knitting historians Montse Stanley, Richard Rutt and Jane Waller as its basis and is a brilliant resource. There are books, patterns, knitted objects, tools, photographs and magazines. The librarians are really helpful with finding all sorts of weird and wonderful stuff, and it is definitely not to be missed if you’re at all interested in the history of knitting.