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.
This neck warmer was inspired by a pub discussion about the perfect scarf / neck warmer which could keep your face, neck and décolletage warm in one garment. It uses the Roman Rib stitch pattern to create stretch and texture. Knitted flat, it fastens with 23 buttons which can be done up all the way for protection against icy winds or alternatively some buttons can be left open to create a collar, as seen in the picture. It can be worn with or without a coat, in place of a scarf and is a unisex pattern. Although fitting much like a cowl around the neck, the ribbing pattern allows it to stay in place.
Issue 10, The Comfort Issue has lots of other stuff to read and includes some really good patterns: go take a look.
One of the Jeeves and Wooster socks. Image © Giles Babbidge Photography
This pair of socks is part of the Mrs Miniver series. I decided to branch out on the original Mrs Miniver concept, and to knit a series of socks that would encapsulate the essence of literary characters and talk about their relationships. As I’m sure you are aware, Jeeves is the ‘gentleman’s gentleman’, the idle-rich 1930s playboy Bertie Wooster’s valet in P.G. Wodehouse’s series of books. Bertie can certainly be a bit of a prat, rather unable to look after himself and getting himself into all kinds of mischief. He is constantly reliant on Jeeves to sort everything out for him from the daily basics, on up.
I found a great pattern in the Knitting Reference Library for a 1930s Wonder-Sock which really is a marvellous thing. The toes and heels of the sock are knitted separately and joined on in order that they could be easily replaced and thus saving on darning time. I think Jeeves would approve. His part of each sock is, of course, knitted in black wool. None of Bertie’s ‘jolly purple socks’ for him!
From P. G Wodehouse’s The Inimitable Jeeves, p94-5
“He started to put out my things, and there was an awkward sort of silence.
‘Not those socks, Jeeves,’ I said, gulping a b it but having a dash at the careless, off-hand tone. ‘Give me the purple ones.’
‘I beg your pardon, sir?’
‘Those jolly purple ones.’
‘Very good sir.’
He lugged them out of the drawer as if he were a vegetarian fishing a caterpillar out of the salad. You could see that he was feeling it deeply.”
You can see the exhibition Mrs Miniver and the Plateaknits at Prick Your Finger yarn and haberdashery shop in Bethnal Green, London until the end of April.
The Knitting Reference Library event at the Hambledon in Winchester was a great success last weekend. We sat, we knitted, we chatted, we taught, we all started our Christmas shopping from the Hambledon’s stock, but most importantly we got the word out about the KRL.
Here are a few pictures of the proceedings:
We will have books, patterns and the Knitting Collections Guide. There will also be spare needles and yarn if you would like to learn to knit. The Hambledon is going to display a selection of our vintage knitting patterns in the window and showcase knitwear plus any related books.
There will be space to sit down and knit as well, so bring yours along. Hope to see you there.