Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Rutt – A History of Hand Knitting

For the last few years, every discussion of the history of knitting has eventually resulted in somebody quoting Rutt, and that often being accepted as the final authority, because Rutt has so many sources, he must be right! That should not be the case. A History of Hand Knitting is manifestly incomplete, and often wrong. The common theme of his errors was to ignore the traditions of professional, commercial, and serious knitters. He ignored their tools and their techniques and this inevitably lead to erroneous conclusions about their knit products.

His first error is in his definition of knitting, where he limits it to yarn. In fact, many early knitters included gold filaments, and the incorporation of such metal wires does not prevent that work from being "knitting." Moreover modern knitting machines may use strands of synthetic material which is yarn only in the broadest sense, yet the fabric is still clearly knitting. Thus, the definition of knitting must one of process and topology, and not one of material.

Rutt wonders around his description of knitting needles without ever understanding that different knitting needles were used for different knitting techniques. (While he references commercial knitting techniques, he does not actually discuss them. Thus, glosses are deliberate, rather than purely ignorant.) Most importantly he fails to point out role of knitting sheaths in various knitting techniques. He fails to note that there were long steel needles used with knitting sheaths yeilding a spring action for knitting ganseys – this is one kind of needle with its own technical constraints. Shorter DPN could be used with other kinds of knitting sheaths (and different knitting technique) for knitting other kinds of objects. Despite later extensive quotes from Howitt, on the use of curved needles in the Yorkshire Dales later in the book, Rutt does not bring this information into his section on needles. And yet, it was the physics of a curved knitting needle (with a knitting sheath) that made the very fast knitting of the Yorkshire Dales possible. This is a completely different knitting technique from what is used with gansey needles, and a history of knitting needs to recognize that. Thus, Rutt does not describe the needles that were used by generations and generations of professional, commercial, and serious hand knitters. The cottage workers in England made exporting boat loads of hand knit hose to France possible. They are a big part of the history of hand knitting. These are the tools that made fine fisherman’s ganseys possible. Those ganseys made cod fish possible. The cod fish made the Church's "fast days" possible. Taxes on the knit goods supported the British Crown. These tools that Rutt ignores were critical to history as we know it.

Then Rutt talks about holding the needles and he ignores knitting sheaths and pouches. These had been at the core of techniques for professional, commercial, and serious hand knitters for centuries. What he does get right is admitting that the knitting styles that came in at the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign, slowed knitting down. However, those knitting techniques are the only ones he describes in detail and says little about the methods of hard working (and fast) cottage knitters. Rutt says, “Ideally only one needle should move”. This may be true for slow, elegant, stylish knitting in the post-Victorian drawing room, but it contradicts Howitt’s eyewitness description of how the fastest knitters ever known (the Terrible Knitters of Dentdale) did knit. They are an important part of the history of hand knitting and they need to be discussed by someone that understands what they did, and how they did it.

Rutt did not understand the tools used by generations of hand knitters. This is a deep and fundamental fault with Rutt’s knowledge of knitting.

Having glossed the tools and techniques of serious knitters, in favor of drawing room fashion, Rutt dismisses the work of Braham Norwick while acknowledging that the metal work discussed is topologically knit. Rutt says it is not knit because it is not yarn -that is silly! I have knit metal wire and the process is knitting; that is one must now how to knit before one can knit metal wire, and if you can knit metal wire, you can knit yarn because the process is the same. Anybody that has knit both knows this. Any knitter that has knit wire knows that after knitting wire, you go find some yarn to knit because it feels so good after knitting the wire.

And so on! That is my feelings on the first 25 of or Rutt’s 213 pages, and it does not get much better. He attributes dates without justification, and he missed important work. He makes mountains out of molehills and molehills out of mountains, and it is hard to tell what he is going to do with any particular reference.

I will gladly admit that Rutt cites a great many sources, but his analysis of those sources is faulty and out of context. If Rutt is cited, always go back and look at the original source. Rutt is not the last word in knitting. Rutt did not write a history of hand knitting, he wrote a justification of modern drawing room knitting.


=Tamar said...

Keep reading. It's not that he didn't make some choices I disagree with, but there is more information in there for the persistent reader. Rutt bounces back and forth; a comment about technique may be separated by several chapters from other statements about the same topic, because his organization is not linear.

Also, a book published in 1988 will have been in the printer's lineup for at least a year, after having been in the publisher's hands for at least a year before that. Some important work was done while the book was out of his hands, and publishers generally refuse to insert updates.

Anonymous said...

Don't be so hard on Rutt! You clearly have a great deal of practical knowledge and experience about the specialised area of knitting ganseys and using knitting sheaths and equally clearly Rutt's experience came from a different angle. The reason he is quoted so often is that there have been very few good books on the history of knitting. I would love to see a book from you because you have so much to convey.

Pat Silver

Susan said...

Yes, Rutt's work can stand a lot of revision. However, he deserves some accolades for being the first to assemble so much information, and for pointing the way to a lot more research. As a tool fanatic, I agree that his useful information on knitting tools is minimal. But he is still a pioneer, and I am grateful to have his work.

Aaron said...

Rutt did a lot of good work, and for that, people tend to think that he got everything correct. They seem to think that Rutt is a higher authority than the Scripture or the Pope. However, Rutt was just a "bishop", and not infallible.

Molly said...

I realize this post is over two years old, but I just ran across it and I'm wondering if you could recommend any other histories of knitting. I'm reading Rutt now, but I'd be thrilled to have another perspective. Thanks!

Aaron said...

There is a new book coming out, but I have not seen it yet.


Linda Hale said...

Aaron, any idea the title/author of this new book?