Friday, 18 January 2013

Reflections upon Historic Knitting at the End of a Year of Completion – Part Three

Costume Parisien (1802)
French School
coloured engraving
Archives Charmet

I have been knitting and making reproductions since childhood. My techniques and research skills as well as the availability of patterns and access to surviving objects for study have increased over the years but so have some bad habits. During the course of knitting so many historical reproductions this past year, I have had pondered the whole process, and in this penultimate post on this topic, I would like to offer a few guidelines that I will try to better adhere to this year.

ONE: FESTINA LENTE -Hasten slowly. I have always remembered this from my schoolgirl Latin classes but I so often fail to follow it.  I should work it in cross stitch as the first project of the year, and frame and hang it where I can always see it.

Handwork is a part of my daily life. Hardly a day goes by when I do not do some kind of stitching. I grew up in a home where my mother knit almost every day so it has been a lifelong custom and part of the family culture. Perhaps this is where  false confidence comes from? Just because one does something daily it does not mean that everything one tries will work out well. I know that much to my frustration. Look at the expression on the face of the lovely lady with the oversized knitting needles. I often have that fed up look on my face when I jump into a project after reading what seems a straightforward pattern or spending too little time with the sketchbook. My projects then become a trial and the needles burdensome, like hers.

TWO: Think out projects carefully in terms of yarn, needles, materials, and be prepared to do several versions and change needles or yarn until it seems to be right. I have had to do this quite a few times. As a quilter and fairly mediocre seamstress, I take multiple measurements before cutting. Knitting, however, is more forgiving, can be ripped out and, therefore, more friendly to risks. I also have to stop starting things late at night when all seems possible but rarely works out or makes me wonder what in the world I was thinking of when I look at the knitting the next morning.

THREE: Write or type out patterns.  I have done for years even when the pattern is composed of four simple lines, or so I think. By this practice, I can choose my size of “font” for my poor eyesight, lay out the pattern’s sentences on separate lines (easier to read and mark then in paragraph format often found in 19th century patterns) and become familiar with the stitches even before knitting. Knitting terms from another century simply need to be understood, not translated, a term I dislike in reference to patterns and which implies difficulty. Foreign languages, too, do not have to be a barrier whether they are ones that have been studied or can be translated by a service on the Internet or through a group on Ravelry.

FOUR: Do test knitting. I often try out a pattern on much bigger needles than called for in the pattern with an acrylic yarn which will stand up to being ripped out multiple times. This works especially well for patterns of lace on low metric/multiple zero-ed sized needles. I can then become familiar with the pattern and get an idea of what it should look like since many of the patterns I knit from have no images or, those who do, may not be completely accurate. As well as that, things often don’t come out in the size one expects especially as I almost always knit in the recommended size of the needles, when available. Are some of these patterns often merely a guideline, as the learned Tamar has suggested? After reading many, many patterns from the past, I am beginning to agree. I also tend to knit in centuries (even up to the 1970s) that did not produce patterns with gauge or tension so test knitting and swatching is essential.

FIVE: The materials are the biggest challenge when making a reproduction, and this will not change. Without samples of yarns from the past, it is extremely difficult to accurately reproduce an item. I have been able to study many extant stockings, garments, etc., and that helps, but I would dearly like to find some 19th century Strutt’s Cotton or Zephyr let alone the “thick soft floss wool” suggested in The Workwoman’s Guide of 1838.

SIX: Do not set unrealistic deadlines. Twenty years ago, I could whip up a cardigan in a week in spite of a much busier day and evening schedule. Now  sleep creeps up unawares. and my production time is also more limited by life’s current circumstances so I need to recognize that when planning projects.

Many of the reproduction projects I have made were and are knit on very fine needles, laterly from 0.75/6-0s to 3mm/3.25 US.  This kind of knitting, often worked in threads or cotton, also slows me down, and there have been projects that have rows that can take up to ten minutes or even longer each to knit. Extra time is sometimes needed for the completion of an object as the knitting may only be a part of the process.

Mistakes will also happen. I tend to be a perfectionist and will gladly rip rather than live with what might be to others a small, but to me, a glaring error which my eyes will always fix on every time I see the object. With this latest round of reproductions that policy, though, was eased, and I left in errors due to knitting too fast, falling asleep or, as I like to call it, failing to admire my own work as I knit in order to check it. I have, however, studied extant garments and items from the past that have errors in them so I am not that fussed over a few mistakes here and there in items for my own use.

Finishing touches, as mentioned above, such as making and sewing on a handle, covering closure rings with thread or crochet work, cutting and sewing lining, weaving ribbons, sewing on buttons, loops or borders of lace, which also have to be knit, will substantially increase, if not double, the projected time of work.

SEVEN: Physical comfort. Fine needles and non-springy cotton threads and yarn do not only cut down on production time but can cause pain, which can affect not just in the hands but also other parts of the body. I highly recommend frequent breaks, swimming and Pilates as complimentary habits to handwork. All of those cramped muscles in the hands, neck, back, legs brought on by sedentary habits and repetitive motions need stretching and better care to produce more projects.

End of Part Three

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