Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The decline and fall of the knitting empire

After 1812, there was a movement to teach the poor (in work houses/ poor houses) to knit. As a result, there was a flood of hand knitting and knitters wages collapsed.  

By 1840, to be a professional knitter was to be poor. At this point, the tools and knitting methods of the professional knitter went out of fashion.  Knitters started pit knitting so as not to be seen with a knitting sheath.  And the knitting skills associated with using a knitting sheath were lost. Knitters stopped buying knitting sheaths, and the skills of making knitting sheaths were lost. Words for various specific tools and techniques were lost.

There were several contributing factors. Steam replaced sail reducing the need high quality seaman's sweaters. On the deck of a steam boat, a cheap felted pea coat is better than an expensive knit sweater.  Frame knitting became much better, and "machine-made" become fashionable. Homes, businesses, churches, and transportation were better heated, requiring less clothing to stay warm. All in all, there was less need for fine hand knitting.

The entire culture of professional knitting was lost in 3 generations. Talented young knitters did not go into knitting (if they could avoid it) because because knitting as a profession did not promise respect in the community or good wages.  Young people with elan went into other professions. Knitting as a craft form did not expand, and move forward.

Certainly, good Shetland lace was knit.  This was supported by developments in wool breeding and mechanical spinning. However, all of that lace knitting kept those Shetland knitters in poverty.  In 1885, a lady might buy a Shetland lace christening gown for her niece, but she bought it at Harrods, and would never actually talk to the knitter.  The best that can be said is that those lace knitters were being exploited.  Yes, they produced great quantities of fine lace, but that was despite their lack of tools and working conditions, not because of their poor working conditions. With better tools, better light, better shop conditions, and better yarns, they could have turned out better lace.  The best yarn they had available was in the 12,000 ypp range, with some silk blends going a bit finer.  It does take the finest tools and supplies to turnout the finest lace. If one is going to work at a professional pace with the finest needles, then one needs a knitting sheath to stabilize the needles. However, the skills of making such knitting sheaths were lost. One does not attempt the finest lace, if one is going to be blocking it outside.  One only does the finest lace when one has a protected attic to dry/block the final object.  One needs a dedicated work space for the finest knitting. Child care and a hearth (soot & sparks) are the enemies of the finest lace.  In contrast, a hundred years earlier the lady wanting lace would have gone into the lace make's shop and talked to the knitter.  In 1785, the knitter was more respected and better paid.  In 1785, the better paid knitter had a better work-space, better light, better tools, and was able to do better work.

In Brugge, we looked at a good, private collection of lace. Of course there was a lot of Victorian stuff that looked nice - until you put it side by side with lace that was 100 years older.

Finally, any competent hand spinner can spin Rambouillet at 47,000 ypp producing 2-ply at 22,000 ypp, which is finer than Gossamer Cashmere. And worsted spinning produces a thin yarn with good tooth that displays well when knit with fine needles.  These days, I do a fair amount of knitting on needles in the range of 1.0 mm - 1.5 mm. I found that I like those needles by working with finer needles.  I am starting to have some ideas about lace.  


=Tamar said...

Herman Melville tells of his own miserable experience of being a sailor too poor to buy good clothing, in his autobiographically based book "White Jacket" (I think that's the title, it's been a while since I read it.)

Jane said...

I'm puzzled about your description of Shetland Lace Knitting. They have Shetland Knitting belts that they use on the islands - if they wish, we don't have 'knitting police' here in the UK.

So why aren't you mentioning these leather, horsehair filled, knitting belts that you can still buy on Shetland and can be seen in the Lerwick Museum and the Museum on Unst?

Jane said...
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Anonymous said...

Are you saying you saw a collection of knitted lace in Bruges? I would be interested to know about it, since needlelace and its crocheted imitations are the traditional laces of Belgium. Or are you trying to make some kind of point about older methods being better in general? Are you aware that Orenburg lace shawls (which are actually knitted) have been blocked both indoors and outdoors for centuries?

For heaven's sake, stop already.

Aaron said...

Leather knitting pouches are are good tools for lace done on needles down to about 1.5 mm. I have talked about them extensively, and I recommend them to my students for some projects. However, when you are knitting on 0.75 mm needles, you will be using a knitting sheath. Knitting sheaths really do work better with the finer needles.

In Brugge, my wife talked us into a private viewing of a collection of lace. The family had been selling lace at that location for 300 years. This was their reference collection. Most of what they sold was Belgian linen bobbin lace. However, their reference collection was catholic.

Orenburg lace is/has been produced in many grades. Let me just say that modern Orenburg lace is made to be robust enough to be worn by somebody that does not have a ladies maid. Other styles of lace are made so delicate that they can only be displayed in protected environments. These must also be blocked in protected environments.

Anonymous said...

Do some research on Orenburg lace - you really have no idea what you're talking about here. It's almost as ridiculous as your assertion that spinners need huge windows and good light to produce gossamer yarn. No, Aaron, they don't. Look it up.

Jane said...

"Leather knitting pouches are are good tools for lace done on needles down to about 1.5 mm. I have talked about them extensively, and I recommend them to my students for some projects."

Well then it's even more surprising that you didn't mention Shetland knitting belts in your original blog post - to have left them out, but be criticising the quality of Shetland lace citing lack of knitting sheaths as a reason strikes me as bizarre. One could almost query if this is deliberately ignoring those historical realities that do not support a self-selected presentation of opinion presented as immutable facts.

Aaron said...

Dear Anonymous,

You seem to think Orenburg is the finest possible lace. It is not.

Modern gossamer yarn is in the under 22,300 ypp range for cashmere/ silk mixes. The best hand spun that I see around is about 30,000 ypp. I (hand) spin 2-ply wool of that grist. I consider that the beginning of spinning competence.

Silk, cashmere, camel, alpaca, linen, cotton and other fibers can be spun much finer.

Fine lace starts with fine spinning. And, if one is going to spin fine, one does need good light. Alden and Stephenie talked about what is required to spin fine one afternoon, as I sat with them in their rather excellent library.

I was not criticizing Shetland or Orenburg knitting in any way. They knit for their market, in a very unfair environment. I was only saying that if the environment had been more fair, they could have had better work space and better tools, and thereby produced a better product. I was saying that the Victorian attitude toward knitting reduced the quality of the available knitting.

A knitting pouch is a good tool for knitting the kind of lace that was knit in Shetland. However, if they had a market for much finer lace, then they needed other tools.

I think your problem is that you have never used a very good knitting sheath.

Anonymous said...

Remember the ridiculous stuff you used to write on Ravelry before you read Amos? Remember how sure of yourself and dismissive of everyone else you were? Yeah, I remember.