Friday, February 19, 2010

My View of Knitting History

I am highly amused by the reaction that I get when I talk about knitting sheaths in history groups. Knitting sheaths are tools, like rocks and hammers. Sometimes they are the right tool, sometimes they are the wrong tool for the job. However, for me, it is funny for somebody that has never used a knitting sheath to vehemently say that knitting sheaths are unnecessary. That is like somebody that has never used a hammer telling a carpenter that hammers are unnecessary. I have to think that this is a residue of the Victorian loathing for the poverty associated with “knitting for pence”, and the Victorian distain for the tools of the impoverished contract knitters.

Actually, I thought about felt quite a lot. However, we have good knowledge that it was not much used aboard square rigged, sailing ships. So the real question is why was felt not used more? The answer is that felt clothing does not suit the kind of work done on a (square rigged) ship. As a result, the great sea faring centers have museums devoted to knitting, not felting. Felt clothing was very practical and popular on steam ships starting in the Victorian Era.

Knitting for subsistence fishing could be performed by wives, sisters, mothers, and other family members. However, Great Britain was a great sea faring nation with a navy that pressed crews - no chance for a mother to knit for her son while he served in His Majesty’s’ Navy. So there was commercial knitting for seamen as early as there were navy press gangs – and in France that was um – 1380? Customs tax records suggest that the wool that those French navy sailors wore came from England and was knit in the Channel Islands. Knitting was such a large industry in the Channel Islands that for a while customs tax on British wool exported to the Channel Islands was the primary income for the British Crown. When the Tudor Wool Act was passed, (to protect the Yorkshire knitting Industry) the Channel Islands turned to piracy, which was only resolved when Sir Walter Raleigh reestablished knitting on the Channel Islands as an industry. In those days, knitting was big business.

In Victorian days, knitting became conspicuous consumption in the tradition of Thorstein Veblen, Gary Becker, and Kevin Murphy. Knitting loosely proved that a lady’s house had central heat. Ladies wrote new knitting manuals to teach their students how to knit slowly and elegantly. Another great virtue of knitting slowly and loosely is no stress on the wrists. Thus, the ladies were able to discard the distained knitting sheaths. The old professional knitters did not write their skills down, and subsequent generations of knitters from all walks of life looked to the knitting manuals written by Victorian ladies. However, later generations of knitters forgot that those Victorian ladies had a distain for practical professional knitting.

As Mary Thomas writing in 1938 said,

Knitting sheaths, or sticks, as they were sometimes called, are now a feature of museum interest, but at one time, when hand knitting was a vast and flourishing industry and speed a matter of pence, every knitter owned and used these implements. . . .

 Mary Wright was one of the first to address the subject of knitting sheaths openly in her 1979 book, Cornish Guernseys & Knit frocks. (It is also worth noting that she damaged her wrists knitting a replica gansey on circular needles.)

In the old days, when knitting was an important technology, they were very, very good at it. One of the finest examples of knitting that we have is a fragment of silk hose with designs in gold filaments from the Arab world, knit in the Ninth Century. That was knit with the élan that separates the talented professional from the merely competent amateur. Yes, today we have people that do things like:, but it took her more than a month and she had sore wrists afterward.

In the Victorian era, we lost much our heritage of these professional knitting tools and expertise. We no longer have cadres of talented professional hand knitters with trade secrets, advancing their craft generation by generation. We forgot how to knit ganseys without sore wrists. We have forgotten how to hand knit silk and gold at 30 stitches per inch. With a few exceptions, now, we do “hobby” knitting. Our professional knitters are designers that make a living doing designs for “hobby knitters”. I look to history, not for history per se, but for clues that can let me be a better knitter in the future.

Knitters that come to me for “history” are going to be disappointed. Knitters coming to me for ideas on how to knit better are going to be amazed and delighted. I have used rocks (Clovis blades) to cut my meat, but sometimes a steel knife is - just better. I have pounded nails with a rock, but sometimes a carpenter’s hammer is – just better. I have used Addi Turbos, but sometimes DPN with a knitting sheath is - just better.

He, who knows only his own generation, remains always a child.


=Tamar said...

Sewing machines aren't necessary either but they certainly help.
Dutch fishermen did wear some felted work sweaters.

What is your source for French press-ganged seamen wearing knitted sweaters in 1380? I'm not doubting you, I just want to know the source. Spanish records report northern sailors wearing heavy knitted sea-stockings over their regular hose; a prince copied them to keep warm aboard ship.

It's an unprovable statement to say that nobody today knits fine work. Not all knitters have websites, nor do all knitters join Ravelry. Of those who do come to notice, there are knitters today who work reeled silk at 30+ stitches per inch or better. There is the bugknits website. There are also websites of people who regularly knit ganseys without damaging their wrists.

=Tamar said...

P.S. The Manuel des Demoiselles ou Arts et Métiers.... whose edition from 1830 (in 1830s French) is on Google books.
Page 192 begins a section
including "ganse" which appears to mean a kind of twisted cord.

I wonder whether there is any connection between that and the word "gansey" - could it be that two words collided, French ganse" and Channel Islands dialect "Guernsey", and blended to form "gansey"?

Aaron said...

Somewhere on ravelry suggests there is an old root word related to gansey meanining "related to work with yarn or spinning." Pure "old guy on the net speculation" says Guernsey may have been related to that root as a place where yarn work was done or vis-a-versa or not.

Archaeologyknits said...

Rock or hammer?
This is a question, but you look at it in a way that isn't realistic.

Maybe person A doesn't use a hammer because his religion prohibits it (cultural restriction).

Maybe person B looks at you strange and asks, "why not use a nail gun" (related technology you were unaware of)

Maybe person C looks at you and says "never heard of nails, I like screws and hammers don't help much there" (use o completely unrelated technology).

This is the problem of analogy.

Archaeologyknits said...

let me just add one more thing (sorry about the double post).
When I first saw you posting on ravelry, I got excited. Any time there is something new to learn about textiles I get excited. However, it wore off pretty quickly when I realized what you were saying would be essentially worthless to my work.
For something like this to have impact, to influence the Rutt's, to find its way into scholarly work, it needs citations and it needs up to date theory. If I were working on modern history I would be very interested in knitting sheaths, but would still have absolutely zero after reading your work.
So please stop acting like historians ignore your point, unless you are actually going to do something to show it to them.

Aaron said...


When I talk about the difference between using a rock to pound a nail and using hammer to pound a nail; this is not an analogy! This is a practical explanation and example of the physics. It is not precise, it does not go into the classes of levers and placement of the fulcrum, but it is graphic and people by and large understand it. Screws are a different kind of simple machine with different physics. Nail guns are collections of simple machines.

When I talk about the physics of levers and someone brings up analogies including screws and nail guns, it is reasonable to assume that they do not understand the physics of the situation. This is stuff that everyone in the class learned when I was in the third grade. When someone then does not understand a hammer as a lever, I do not know how to explain it in a more basic way.

Archaeologyknits said...

The problem is that you phrase it as
"I am highly amused by the reaction that I get when I talk about knitting sheaths in history groups. Knitting sheaths are tools, like rocks and hammers. Sometimes they are the right tool, sometimes they are the wrong tool for the job."
that is a simile, a form of analogy. it is specifically hung on an analogy of tools, not leverage.

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