Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Knit like a Professional

For a very long time, knitting was a honored profession, with its guilds, tools, and skills. Guild members traded knowledge and the trained their employees and apprentices, but there were no programs to teach knitting to the public. England had old, broad, and deep traditions of contract and commercial knitting rather than guilds per se. Guild members did not write books about knitting for sale to the public. Nevertheless, in Jane Austin’s time, ladies knit and there was no stigma to knitting very well or to using the tools of a professional knitter. In Jane Austin’s day, many ladies did knit like a professional.

Knitting as profession unraveled around 1820 as the government of Cornwall established schools of industry to teach the poor to knit. Suddenly there was a flood of lower quality knitting in Great Britain that depressed the price of all knit woolens and no professional knitters could make a decent living. To be a professional knitter in Great Britain was to be poor.

Victorian society ladies liked to knit, but they did not want to be mistaken for the poor. Thus, they avoided everything that would make them look like a professional knitter. Everything associated with professional knitting was taboo in high society. First and foremost they avoided knitting sheaths. Knitting sheaths were the tool and mark of the professional knitter. Then, ladies knit loosely to remind everyone that their family was rich enough to have central heat, and plenty of coal. They knit slowly. Their knitting was conspicuous consumption. They demonstrated that they could afford to spend all day knitting and accomplish little. And, they wrote books to instruct young ladies that they also must knit loosely, slowly, and avoid knitting sheaths.

We do not have the instruction materials from the early knitting guilds or the instruction, or notes from groups meeting after farm work to sing and knit for pence, or materials from the schools of industry where they taught the poor how to knit fast and tight with a knitting sheath. What we have are the knitting books written by Victorian ladies that make knitting sheaths taboo.

Let us get over that Victorian taboo on professional knitting skills and tools.

Good knitters should use the best tools available. Sometimes, and for some purposes, the very best tool for knitting is a knitting sheath. Knitting sheaths are part of a tool kit that allows one to knit better. For hundreds of years, the best knitters used knitting sheaths. They had good reasons. It is time for the best knitters to once again use the best tools.

I see five virtues for modern knitters in knitting sheaths:

  • First and foremost, knitting sheaths can help protect the hands and wrists of aging knitters from repetitive stress.
  • Second, knitting sheaths can help knitters knit faster and longer at one session so they have fewer WIP that do not get finished. This helps avoid the second sock syndrome. (Some knitters tell me that they knit for pleasure, and do not want to knit faster. They do not have to knit faster, but if we can show them how to have that same pleasant rhythm at twice the speed, they may enjoy having more FO for the same knitting time.
  • Third, knitting sheaths help manage fine needles allowing more intricate patterns and fine lace much easier. In this category, I would include Fair Isle. You would just not believe how much easier a knitting sheath makes Fair Isle and the other two-yarn techniques. A knitting sheath also makes the fancy gansey and Bavarian stitches easier.
  • Fourth, it allows the production of firmer fabrics. When I was just starting to learn about knitting sheaths, I walked in to a LYS owed by a famous knitting designer. I had a large swatch that I had knit from Patons Classic (Merino), and I had a question about knitting technique. The knitting instructor in the shop, took the swatch and looked at me in astonishment, her eyes went big, and her mouth dropped open, and she was silent for half a minute. I thought she was going to berate me for brining such cheap yarn into her very high end shop. Instead, she asked, “ How did you ever knit anything so wonderful?” I used a knitting sheath. I took a sweater in to a guild meeting a while back, and a master knitter that has been to thousands of “Show and tell”, came up afterword and stood over it, fingering it and looking at it for perhaps 5 minutes. Her husband is a master weaver. His reaction was, “That might make me take up knitting.” It was not some wonderful fiber, it was just Frangipani 5-ply, the least expensive of the modern gansey yarns.
    I mostly knit coarse wools fit for sailors. With finer (softer) fibers, a knitting sheath will help one knit something fit for a queen. Look at the knit fabrics in a very expensive department store – they are finer and firmer than standard for modern hand knit. Nobody knits that finely (except for socks) and tightly these days because it takes too long and is too hard on the wrists. Why do people like knitting socks? – One reason is because they like the fabrics produced on fine needles. However, they do not knit sweaters out of those fine fabrics because it would take too long and be too hard on the wrists. A knitting sheath changes that.
  • Finally, knitting sheaths provide a connection to the heritage of knitting. That is as true today as it was in the days when Mary Thomas was writing.
    People are going to say that I have a shop on Etsy, and discount what I say. However, I like fabrics that are firmer that what has been taught to hand knitters for the last hundred years, and almost everyone else that I talk to also likes firmer fabrics. This is acknowledged by a great many hand knitters that brag about how tight they knit. Take a nice firm fabric to a knitting guild show and tell and see what happens.

Honestly now, do you really like your hand knit fabrics better than the knit fabrics in the clothes in fine department stores? If the department store fabrics are one bit better, get a knitting sheath, and knit like a professional.

The time for knitting like a Victorian lady is over.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for your updates! I appreciate them so much.
Any chance you will publish your $200 sock pattern?

Aaron said...

It was a plain boot sock, but knit tight from MacAuslands and Knit to fit. Measure the foot every couple of inches, and increase and derease to fit. Fisherman's rib across heel for hiking, not for ski. Ribbing done the top of the foot for rubber fisherman's boots, not for hiking or ski boots.

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much! I am going to review your notes and try them!

jellybean7 said...

Interesting article. Read book by Richard Rutt--wondered about some of the very things you mentioned; but at least he made a start on some very intriguing history. Re knitting sheath: My aunt, who was born in the very north of Italy in the early 1900's and passed away just a few years ago, always used a knitting sheath and thin needles; she always urged me to do the same. Someone made a crude one for me out of a piece of broom handle with a hole drilled down the middle--which actually worked quite well. I gave it up after awhile, especially when knitting in public. My mother remembered when knitting was a cottage industry , in Italy, although her family was not involved in that work--however thin needles, tight work and perfectionism appeared to be the standard.

By the way, I was taught by others to knit loosely,
which I still do, the reasoning being that for fancier work you might have to knit the same stitch more than once, and it is better done if the stitches aren't too tight. Any comment?

Anyway, thanks for posting your information.

Alison said...

So when are you going to have some of these tools available in your Etsy store?

According to my mother, my grandmother (from the North East of England) used a knitting pouch when knitting socks. It was no longer around when I was a child but I finally obtained one recently. I am amazed how easy it is to use. It relieves a lot of strain. The knitted fabric is sturdier than when I use the same needles without it.

I would like to try the needles and knitting sheaths you describe!

I note that the Beamish Museum (NE of England)has a collection of knitting sheaths but no knitting pads or pouches, so either both were used but the sheaths are more durable and survived to enter the museum's collection, or my grandmother was unusual in her choice of tool.

Aaron said...

I have made up some more stock and will put in Etsy next week.

There were a lot of knitting belts in Yorkshire, but they were tools for the chore of knitting, and discarded when that chore was no longer required i.e., end of WWI.

Knitting sheaths were also tools for a chore, but after 1600, knitting sheath replaced something (spoons?) as a preferred love token, and thus many knitting sheaths were kept for sentimental reasons. While it is clear that the love tokens were used for some knitting, my estimate from rate of wear that I see on my knitting sheaths is that they were not used for daily commercial knitting.

Aaron said...

Knit a stitch more than once? Do you mean "frog" and reknit, or increases and bobbles where the same stitch is knit several times?

For the first, knitters with knitting sheaths do not make mistakes and therefore never have to frog!! : )

Now, I do increases by knitting through stitches twice and bobbles at normal tension. In softer fabrics, this might leave a lump, but it is not an issue in my firmer fabrics - ie, the whole fabric is firm.

Anonymous said...

You wrote: With finer (softer) fibers, a knitting sheath will help one knit something fit for a queen.

The British Queen was freezing nearly to death during the ship parade at her jubilee in June - it was a pity that this old lady got only a lace shawl over her light silk coat in the really bad weather(lots of cold wind and sprays of rain, standing it for more than 4hrs in the bow of the ship).
I'm sure she would have appreciated a warm gansey underneath, with the silk coat over it for decoration....*gg*