I do research on and recreate garments and objects from the past. My sources range from original items to photographs in books, periodicals, art works, literary references and period patterns. My research also involves the history of knitting needles and related implements.
The portrait in the corner is by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) of Elisabeth Alexeyevna (?), location and ownership unknown.
That was the question asked of me the other day during a demonstration and display of 19th century knitted items. The strange thing was a kneecap warmer and it was one of a varied collection of other strange things. To be fair, the question had been preceded by compliments and intelligent enquiries about the knitted items, and I do not think that the kneecap warmer was being singled out. It happened to be the last item viewed and discussed. The same question has been asked of me many times in a less descriptive way. What it comes down to is, simply, why do I knit these reproductions?
My reasons are several. First of all, I knit. I sleep, eat, wash, dress, work, read, etc. and knit. Knitting is part of the pattern of life. I come from a knitting family and I learned to knit when I was four, and, during childhood, I knit hats and variations upon garments for my toys. My earliest memories of being seriously interested in history date from about age eight and it was not long before a triumvirate of reading, handwork and imagination was born. It is still thriving to this day though now it has years of research as well as trial and error under its collective belt. What it also has is endless curiosity. My interest in history, both professional and personal does involve the major themes of government, battles, architecture, art and music but also, and just as importantly, daily life. Clothing and household items fall under the last category and how better to understand something than to recreate it. As I have said in an earlier post, we cannot truly experience the past but we can catch a glimpse of it here and there. This seems to be the explanation that satisfies most people, especially people who do not knit or do any type of handwork. Speaking of hands, though, on the other hand, why is any explanation necessary? The original question, is after all, rather rude. What is really implied, and sometimes asked, is why do I waste my time doing this kind of knitting? Is knitting objects that may be worn in select environments or never worn at all and are just demonstration pieces or exercises in threads or wool a waste of time? The next question usually is, “Do you knit contemporary things, too?” Replying in the affirmative seems to be reassuring. Is my historic knitting, then, even when it is presented in an historic setting, disturbing or am I just facing a more intense version of the “Why knit it when you can buy it?” query encountered by many knitters or, indeed, by anyone who makes something that can be purchased ready made be it a table or a pair of mittens. What I find unsettling (and sometimes annoying) is just that glint of concern in the eyes of the enquirer (and betrayal when it is a fellow knitter!) as they look into mine and ask, “Why?”
“Why not?” I reply. If anyone can come up with a better answer and not an apology for one’s art, please let me know.