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.
"My wool garment? You have noticed it, have you? I had forgot, or I should have pointed it out. Have you ever seen anything so deeply rational?"
Post Captain, Chapter Twelve
This miniature version of the life/man size version that I am also knitting was worked in Dritz Sport (sock) yarn which I believe is from the 1950’s, on 1.50mm needles with 14 stitches/inch. The mini-Garment is 7 ¾” long and the sleeves and legs are extra long and there is a cowl for the neck and head. It would be stepped into pulling the legs up to the hip, then slipping the cowl over the head. The arms would be slid into next, pulling the torso section up over the shoulders and fastening, like a shirt, down the front, pulling up and buttoning the fall last. As Stephen Maturin further explains, “See, I can withdraw my head entirely: the same applies to the feet and the hands. Warm, yet uncumbering; light; and above all healthy – no constriction anywhere.”
The black headed pins are simply holding The Garment in place and are not part of it.
“’But no exposure to the sun as yet – I recommend the wearing of a close Welsh wig.”
Master and Commander, Chapter Eight
This was knit in Morehouse lace weight wool on 1.25mm needles at a gauge of 15 stitches/inch. It is 1 ½” wide and almost 1 ¾” long.
“Jack…put on a comforter knitted by his wife, still full of warmth and love though somewhat mangled by Brazilian mice…”
The Far Side of the World, Chapter Five
I knit this in tapestry/needlepoint wool from the 1970’s on 1.50mm needles with 12 stitches/inch. It is almost an inch wide and 8 ½” long. I cut holes and pulled it about a bit to create the mouse damage.
“…this arrangement left Mr. Joseph Sedley tête-à-tête with Rebecca, at the drawing-room table, where the latter was occupied in knitting a green silk purse… And as he talked on, he grew quite bold, and actually had the audacity to ask Miss Rebecca for whom she was knitting the green silk purse? ….”For any one who wants a purse,” replied Miss Rebecca, looking at him in the most gentle winning way.
[And the next day:]
“…Jos was left alone with Rebecca, who had resumed her work, and the green silk and the shining needles were quivering rapidly under her white slender fingers… “What a beautiful, byoo-ootiful song that was you sang last night, dear Miss Sharp...…my dear Miss Sharp, do sing it”…”Not now, Mr. Sedley,” said Rebecca, with a sigh. My spirits are not equal to it; besides, I must finish the purse. Will you help me, Mr. Sedley?” And before he had time to ask how, Mr. Joseph Sedley of the East India Company’s service was actually seated tête-à-tête with a young lady looking at her with a most killing expression; his arms stretched out before her in an imploring attitude, and his hands bound in a web of green silk, which she was unwinding.
In this romantic position Osborne and Amelia found the interesting pair, when they entered to announce that tiffin was ready. The skein of silk was just wound round the card; but Mr. Jos had never spoken.”
Two highly significant scenes in one of the masterpieces of English literature. A young lady engaged in demure yet useful work about which questions may be asked and conversation made without impropriety in an atmosphere fraught with tension, unease and expectation. Rebecca is knitting a purse, a mindless project, which, retrospectively, is amusing as Becky Sharp is one of the most calculating and ruthless women in literature, completely worthy of her surname. The purse may serve as an innocent (that is, a not too personal) gift and a display of her domestic talents apart from its monetary and sexual symbolism. That she chose to knit this specific item while husband-hunting is appropriate especially since she can only provide the purse and not the fortune thus handicapping her in the marriage stakes. Her attempts, however, to entrap the foolish Jos Sedley with her carefully planned “gentle winning way” and later with “his hands bound in a web of green silk, which she was unwinding” fail miserably for Rebecca but those interested in the history of knitting gain quite a bit of information. The “shining needles” which “were quivering rapidly under her white slender fingers” must refer to metal needles. I picture those commonly seen in paintings from the 18th (see my posts from March 4th and March 18th, 2008.) The silk was purchased in skeins and was then to be wound around a card. Was this a card of home production or a shop or distributor’s card? Was the “web” merely a literary analogy or had Rebecca dropped the skein (conveniently, I would think) and then had to request assistance to untangle it, or was she merely winding the length of a regular skein around a card. What was the length of these skeins? Becky had already knit a considerable part if not almost all of the purse for she refused to sing again (a coy trick) in order to finish the purse, implying that she preferred a productive instead of an entertaining use of her time. She was, perhaps, winding the last needed skein unto a card. How many skeins did a purse require? As for the colour, green was a traditional choice for this kind of purse in the belief that it brought good luck though not for Becky in this case.
In A History of Hand Knitting (Interweave Press, 1987), Richard Rutt mentions that modern editors of Thackery suggest that since Vanity Fair was published in 1847, this image of Becky knitting may not be an accurate one of a young woman's drawing room activity of thirty some years before. This interests me especially in relation to other knitting in the novel which I shall discuss in a future post.
I cannot find a knitting silk that is fine enough to reproduce Becky’s purse so instead I am using dark green DMC 25 Mouline Special embroidery floss on 1.75mm needles at a gauge of 10 stitches/inch.
This nightcap is from Weldon's Practical Knitter, Twenty-Sixth Series in the book Knitting/19th Century Sources, edited by Jules and Kaethe Kliot, Lacis Publications (no date.) The pattern also appears in Interweave Press's facsimile series, Weldon's Practical Needlework, Volume 9.
The pattern was easy to follow except for a few typographical errors in the rose leaf section. The three layer frill was made by first knitting a ribbed section with a frilled edge (fourth photo.) This section was folded back and stitches were picked along the folded edge for the second frill of six rows plus a bind/cast off row. The third frill was picked up at the base of the ribbed section, near the hairline, as well as around the rest of the cap. I did not care for the decorative edges on the original long knittted tapes so I left them off.
The cap was knitted in white J&P Coats Royals Classic Crochet Thread (Size 10) on 3.25mm double point and single point needles with a gauge of 11 stitches/inch.
Mademoiselle Brongniart (1788) Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) Oil on oak, 65.1 x 53.3 cm. The National Gallery, London
Over the course of knitting for many, many years, I have amassed a huge collection of knitting tools. (We will not even begin to discuss that other component of knitting, “the stash.”) Needles that number in the hundreds, made of different types of woods, horn, bone, bamboo, plastics and metals. Just as the wand chooses the wizard, the project, in my case, always chooses the needles. My Aran sweaters have always demanded strong (now vintage) Aeros, fine lace work those sharp metal Inoxes and socks now glide into existence on recently acquired glorious Harmony Wood dpns. Reproduction knitting over two centuries in historically accurate ways in public also requires specific needles. At this point in my knitting career, however, I know what I like and what I need so many needles have been passed on to other knitters as my new policy concerning everything in life is to only keep what I absolutely need or will expect to use.
By extension, I have picked up some interesting knitting accessories along the way. The waist hook, which attaches to one’s pocket, belt or apron waistband, the knitting belt from the Shetland Islands and the knitting sheath from I cannot remember where. I just seem to have had it for a long time. Needles do not come in standard sizes and neither do needle gauges so many are needed.
Once the knitting is on those needles, I like to keep or carry it in some sort of textile storage such as reproduction workbags of Indian cotton prints and velvety cotton, 18th century pockets, and modern bags from the gift shops of various museums and institutions. Two of my current favourite carriers/storage bags are a gardening bag with extra tool pockets for the three or four pairs of socks always in progress, and the cloth bucket which stands so tall and holds so much and is the current home of The Garment as well as the Desolation Island mittens. The latest pair of half-gloves, historic or modern, make excellent walking or exercise knitting in their weatherproof nylon bag that clips onto clothing A zippered toile bag or the fold-over clasp bag made from left-over chair upholstery fabric, holds miniature knitting or the latest miser’s purse on the needles. Favourite reproduction fabrics that might never become parts of a quilt are either lining my needle boxes or are turned into more workbags of various sizes.
Martyn Downer’s book, Nelson’ Purse (Corgi Books, 2004) tells the story of a museum or antique professional’s let alone an historian’s dream. A collection that “was not a lost collection because no-one had ever looked for it or missed it” (page 56) comes to light and within it is discovered objects that prove to be of extraordinary historical value including the green purse featured on the cover of the book.
The appeal for me lies in the history (my specialty being the late 18th century/early 19th century with a serious interest in British naval history) as well as the creation of the purse which I have reproduced. It is described as “’Nelson’s pocket purse’…made of woven green silk…” (page 40) and “about 12 inches long and shaped like a tube with a tassel on either end. Coins entered it through a 2-inch horizontal slit halfway along. Two steel rings, each apparently covered in fine strands of hair, were then evidently slid down to the ends of the purse, gathering the material and capturing the contents.” (page 56)
In Appendix I, the author theorises that the purse may have been knit by Fanny Nelson. Allow me at this point to recommend Frances, Lady Nelson – the Life and Times of an Admirable Wife by Sheila Hardy, (Spellmount, Staplehurst, 2005.) Working with letters discovered in 2001 from Fanny Nelson to her husband’s agent, Alexander Davison, Ms. Hardy presents a very different woman from the one previously portrayed in books and on film. There is, however, no mention of knitting purses in this biography but that does not mean that Fanny Nelson might not have knitted the purse in question. In his book, however, Mr. Downer variously describes the purse as knitted, netted, and woven without regard to the fact that these are three very different techniques. I have also received a suggestion that the technique used was nålbinding which raises another interesting set of questions as to its origin. If Fanny Nelson did knit the purse, Mr. Downer suggests that she may have “purchased the necessary silk, or ‘twist’, from Thomas Gardom who owned a shop on St James’s Street which specialized in ‘Purse-Twist, Tassels and sliders’.” (page 465) Another, blue, purse of “doubtful provenance” is also discussed on pages 466-467.
Working with the measurements from the book and by counting the stitches on the purse in the two available photographs as best I could, I was able to reproduce the purse using approximately six skeins of dark green DMC Anchor Pearl Cotton Size 5 on 2.50mm needles, knit in garter stitch in the round, at 7 stitches/inch. It is very difficult to find knitting silk let alone affordable knitting silk. I am, therefore, not satisfied with the result using this cotton as it feels rather bulky. I could not find appropriate metal rings so I used plastic ones, wrapped with dark brown DMC Mouline Special embroidery floss to mimic silk although the rings on Nelson’s purse were wrapped with hair. What Downer calls tassels appears to me to be very small pompoms with curled ends, probably the natural twist of the silk. My pompoms do not, unfortunately, have that attractive twist.
Another purse was knit in stocking/stockinette stitch in nine colours of DMC Anchor Pearl Cotton, Size 5 at 7 stitches/inch also on 2.50mm needles. The plastic rings are covered in silver DMC Mouline Special embroidery floss. I am not fond of jewelry or hanging beads so I did not use either for the ends as was commonly done. I did, however, find a reference to thread ends on page 144 in Labors of Love by Judith Reiter Weissman and Wendy Lavitt (Alfred A. Knopf, 1987) and the ones on this purse are simple knots and tassels. I am currently working on two more purses using the thinner DMC Mouline Special embroidery floss, the challenge being to create a purse with the sheen of silk while not obscuring the delicate patterns by knitting with fine needles and thread.
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.