She Prevailed

Jane Moses Wood Roodhouse. This will be Jane in old age. Image sent to me by the late Martha MacDonald.

International Women’s Day today, so I thought I’d write a little about a pioneer woman in my family tree, Jane Moses Wood Roodhouse.

Few letters home or journals survive from women pioneers – so it is interesting to know anything  about the day to day lives of those women who upped sticks, crossed oceans, then hit the trail. And Jane left a narrative, currently lost – but which inspired Nelle Greene Strang’s journal-form book,  ‘Prairie Smoke’, published by Jane’s family in 1985, a copy originally sent to me by local history researcher, Martha MacDonald. Martha also put me in touch with my Roodhouse relatives.

Jane Moses Wood Roodhouse (1791-1860) was the daughter of my great grandfather x 5, Isaac  Moses, of Cawood, Yorkshire.  When widowed, she married a widower, Ben Roodhouse – a local farmer who had started life as Cawood’s butcher.

I’m related to both Jane and Ben, descending directly from her brother and his sister as well being related to her first husband, Abraham Wood.

Back in 1820, a Peter Roodhouse  bought a grist mill in the newly settled Belltown, Illinois.  He seems to have returned to England, where he died ten years later, but maybe his tall tales of life in America inspired his nephews, as they started pestering their parents, Jane and Ben Roodhouse, to emigrate.  In 1830, Jane and Ben duly emigrated to America with their nine children; Abraham, William, Isaac and Mary Wood and Jane, John, twins Peter and Ben and James Roodhouse.

The journey was not uneventful. One of the twins fell into the sea when the ship was still docked, in London. He was rescued by older brother, Isaac Wood.  Bearing in mind Isaac’s father, Jane’s first husband, had drowned – this must have been a terrifying moment, for Jane.

After the usual terrifying voyage, the family did what many immigrants did, and left their furniture in storage at the Great Lakes.  They travelled to Illinois, meaning to go back and retrieve their possessions later.  Only to find everything they had in storage had been stolen and the storage hut burned down.

They bought a large farm in White Hall, Greene County, from a fellow English settler, and settled down to farm. Land Tax records show that even after they were established in America, Jane still owned property back home in Cawood, Yorkshire. And this is something historians often don’t write about; the cliche is that women weren’t allowed to own land or property – but of course they could and did. Women were entrepreneurs in the nineteenth century (see current issue of ‘The Knitter’ for my piece on one such York woman).

The family’s first Illinois winter was harsh; a certain Abraham Lincoln also moved to Illinois that year and like the Roodhouses, was later honoured  with the name ‘snowbird’ – like everyone who lived through that viciously cold winter of 1830.  This winter tested the fortitude of the new immigrants.  For over two months, there were furious snowstorms and the wind blew the snow into cabins, between the logs in the walls, so much that people shovelled snow indoors.  Jane had lived a comfortable existence – educated privately in York, as a child, and brought up by affectionate but sometimes stern, Methodist principles.

In 1831, only months after they settled, Ben died of a fever, leaving Jane and the children to run the farm “without a helping hand” as ‘The History of Greene County, Illinois’ (1879) put it. It must have been incredibly tough in the early years and maybe more than once, Jane was tempted to return home to her undemanding life in Yorkshire.  But she persisted, like thousands of other immigrants, the world over – invested in new lives, making a better future for loved ones.

I won’t write at too much length about Jane here – her sons Ben and John went on to found the town of Roodhouse, Illinois, so the family history is well covered, elsewhere.

On International Women’s Day, I just wanted to share a few quotes from a book written by Jane’s relative, Nelle Greene Strang, ‘Prairie Smoke’ which describes Jane’s early days as an English pioneer in Illinois.  Nelle’s unpublished manuscript was found in an attic after her death in 1968. Nelle was Jane’s great x 2 grand-daughter.  

Jane’s journal is known to have still been extant into the 20th century, but is now lost.  It’s thought Nelle Strang may well have been very conversant with it.

It is written in a curious, archaic, not-quite-right for the 1830s, cod British-English; no doubt Miss Strang’s romantic, twentieth century idea of how English people might have sounded.  Yet some passages in it seem to be authentic, including many describing knitting, spinning and dyeing. And they are of interest both to the textile historian and those of us who want to read about women’s documented experiences, throughout history. 

Most nineteenth century women of most social classes, spent time knitting endless stockings, if nothing else. To have a stocking on the go would be analagous to a contemporary woman having a mobile phone to hand:

We did set an red dye and I did card a bit of wool whilst Mary did wrap the silver and did store it away in the chest. I did set up an stocking and did finish it by early candlelight… MAY 1834

Jane wrote of family friends’ sons visiting from England – poignantly, one of the boys died whilst staying with the Wood/Roodhouses in Illinois. And she wrote of everyday life; missing the ‘lanthorns’ that had been stolen from their storage; planting crops, looking after animals, and seeing a famous itinerant Methodist preacher (who was indeed at that place at that time). 

Jane had hoped to see native Americans, when on the trail to her new home; but her only sighting, disappointing her, was of some distant smoke, across the prairie.   Her lanthorns might have been lost but her spinning wheel must have travelled with her  (York was a place where some beautiful spinning wheels were indeed made, during Jane’s school years and beyond).  I have not been able to find out if Jane’s spinning wheel is extant but it is possible, as her portrait is, and the family continued to farm the same land well into the late 20th century.   In England, professionally dyed yarn could be bought at the shops, in town, or from pedlars who tramped from village to village, selling their wares. In America, Jane had to master new skills she’d never have needed back home.

Jane learned dyeing with new-to-her plants, from her servants.  A gentleman’s daughter, in England, by around 1800, would have had no reason to learn to spin. Yet Jane could, maybe speaking to the frugality and common sense of her Methodist family.

 Years after they settled, they paid an architect to reconstuct their house in Cawood, Yorkshire, going from Jane’s memory. I can find one house in Cawood that looks similar – but can’t be certain it’s the original.  They named the new, brick house “Cawood”.  I have found no evidence any of the Wood or Roodhouse children ever returned to Yorkshire, but they must have grown up hearing about “home” and the older children would have memories of their own.  A subsequent generation shared some family names with my own family in Cawood, which suggests to me that we were possibly still in contact with our American cousins, decades on.

Ben’s brother, Peter, died months after the family left for Illinois. He left a clock to his family “in America”.  How the will’s executors got the clock sent off, we will never know, but it may be this once glimpsed in ‘Prairie Smoke’:

The English clock does tick on these strange walls as it did in the Old World in the days of mine youth.  May, 1837

Jane was a middle aged woman with nine children when she came to Illinois.  She was often homesick for England. In describing the everyday details of pioneer women’s lives – the endless sewing, cooking, dyeing, spinning, and workaday knitting and the descriptions of the material culture of the pioneer home, Nelle seems fairly reliable.  The Roodhouses and Woods mixed with other English ex-pats; often lawyers and minor gentry.  As Methodists who had grown up in Wilberforce’s constituency, it is unlikely they will have had slaves in fact, they are highly likely to have been abolitionists, given their background in Yorkshire – Yorkshire Methodists were at the heart of the English abolition movement during Jane’s early years and her relatives were prominent Methodists.

The household did include servants, though, who Jane referred to as her “family”; including Jennie, who taught her about dye plants. In England, domestic dyeing was rarely done and only then, by miners’ or farm labourers’ wives; most knitters used undyed natural colours or bought commercially dyed yarn.  By 1830, few British people spun yarn at all as it was spun by the mile, by machinery and had been for decades.

Naturally dyed wool including wools dyed with lac and logwood.

From ‘Prairie Smoke’ by Nelle Green Strang:

The lads do assist in the felling of the trees and with the care of the stock whilst Mary and I do spin and knit. Jane does mind the small lads for they are ever in mischief as small lads do ever seem to be. Many stitches must be taken for we do number nine and no seamstress is at hand as in the Old World. I do wish to have a sufficient supply of garments and Lottie is most willing in all manner of labor. Strange does it seem as I do gaze about me but I have a stout heart and will not be always looking back over mine shoulder on the days of mine youth in England. Sept 1830

 

And:

…Verily I do lose count on the days that do pass so quickly by but I do mark this day. I was spinning by the open door for the air was soft and balmy and daughter Mary was combing her brown curls before the mirror when I did espy an horseman coming out of the timber… Oct 1830

 

Then there’s this:

… I do see William’s newly wedded wife spinning at the cabin door so she may oft look towards the field where if William and his brothers are busy with the grain… June 1832

And, from November 1834:

… Already I have an vast number of socks and stockings knit. Mary has knit mittens and she did double-hook and peg an pair far each lad and she is now knitting braces for the lads to present them at Yuletide.

And maybe my favourite:

Jennie’s mother did make promise to set the dyes for us for it is soon we will need the garments stitched for mine household. She does handle the dyes with much skill. Each year she does go questing about in search of madder and logwood and sassafras also. She has even used the dark juice of the pokeberry and she knows even goldenrod and iris will yield up a bit of juice for her use. Sept 1835

One of the grandchildren played a trick on the elderly Jane, when resuming her knitting:

Whilst the frolic did go on I did slip out to fetch mine knitting and when I did open up the chest an voice from within did say “Woman,what seekest thou?” I did draw back afrighted and did bang down the lid. I did return to mine chair and did sit a bit and did ponder on it and I did think mine ears had deceived me and I did again go to the chest and the voice within did say — “Woman,why fleest thou from thy fate?” Quickly I did turn about and when I did return

I was greeted with an shout of laughter. The lad did then come to me and did plead for mine forgiveness for his trickery and when I did grant him this he did make the fire — dogs hark and an robin did chirp upon the window sill and there was an mewing beneath the table and no pussy-cat was there. He did have the power to cast his voice where he did choose and did much enjoy playing tricks on those about him.   Jan, 1852

 

Jane was capable as thousands of less documented nineteenth century pioneer women. In the words of another relative, L.W. Roodhouse, “she built an estate, she educated her children, she prevailed.”

Mudag of naturally dyed fibre. Jane and family may well have had to learn to weave simple baskets for their own use – another pioneer skill. Mudags coming soon from us, here: https://www.etsy.com/shop/hemingwayandhunt
Advertisements

Combed To Death

skullhat

Pattern for this is available on Ravelry:

 

https://www.ravelry.com/patterns/library/bad-ass-snowflake-hat

 

And our Etsy shop here.

I made this from a widely available superwash DK – pretty well any strongly contrasting DK leftovers might do it. Designed especially for those of us who are ‘snowflakes’ – but bad-ass. Because knitting is political.

We have new nalbinding kits going up as well, just as soon as I can get the light to photograph them.  So we will be offering Mini Nal Kits and Macro Nal Kits – one with 50g of wool, one with 100g – one with a shorter bone needle (easier for some learners) and the other with a longer…   We’ll be at the Jorvik Viking Fest later this month – to make a change from being Luddites.

 

If you want to see us in our Luddite glory, we hope to be (weather permitting) at the Bradford Industrial Museum on Sunday (3rd Feb)  for our first Luddite gig of the year, at the Bishop Blaise Wool Festival.  Which we booked last minute, so we’re not being trailed.  We’ll also be doing a workshop at Craven Guild’s annual Bishop Blaise meeting, later this month.

I’ll hopefully have the great wheel and the 18thC tape loom with me at Bradford.  Come along and say hello!

Below is George Walker’s engraving of a Bishop Blaise ceremony around the time of the Luddites. Walker noted the men at the very end of the procession, with the crazy wigs made from combed wool tops, were the woolcombers (the woolcombing business owners and their families, and apprentices preceded them) “…with ornamented caps, wool wigs, and various coloured slivers.”  (‘Costume Of Yorkshire’, 1814, Plate 37).  The Bishop Blaise processions were held on February 3rd – Blaise being supposedly martyred by being ‘combed’ to death…

 

blaize
Courtesy Yorkshire Ancestors

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Weaving Silk Ribbons – and the Curious Phenomenon of Late Eighteenth Century Automata

b-m-297
Joséphine Bowes sits at a table on which rest the text of several plays in which she appeared when an actress at the Théâtre des Variétés on the boulevard Montmartre in Paris under the stage name Mademoiselle Delorme. Her dog, Bernadine, lies at her feet.
Josephine Bowes, Countess of Montalbo (1825-1874) by Antoine Dury 1850. IMAGE COURTESY of The Bowes Museum.

A while back, I was researching late 18thC/early 19thC automata, after coming across an advert in a Georgian issue of one of the York newspapers, for an exhibition of them – there will be more on this in my upcoming book.

The idea of some room in a cramped Georgian house, by the city walls, full of automata, was just too good not to investigate further.  In my researches, I came across a famous chess playing automaton; a Cupid automaton who played 2 operatic arias on the piano, a piano playing full sized lady automaton and even a disabled man who had a celebrated automaton-maker build him a pair of ‘automatic’ hands that functioned so he could pick things up.

Online, I came across mention of  a spectacular extant automaton – The Silver Swan, (1773), at Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, County Durham.  On our next trip up to Cumbria, we stopped in, timing our visit so we were there for 2PM, when the swan is wound up and “played”.  It is spectacular; slightly unnerving, beautiful, fabulous in every way.  You sit watching it just as a crowd in one of the Georgian exhibitions would have.  (Check out the Silver Swan on YouTube – there are a few videos if you’d like to see it in action).  It was bought by John and Joséphine Bowes in 1872, for two hundred pounds.

I usually go behind the scenes in museums and poke around in the reserve collections, documenting textiles – preferably 18thC and 19thC as you know, dear Reader – but such is the attraction, we have been back to Bowes Museum a few times in the past year, as ‘members of the public’ – simply to gawk at the textiles and the automata (they also have a tiny silver mouse).

 

29571303_559521021096821_537873412577441057_n
Swan meets someone almost the same age as it.

 

Talking of silver, I have always had a love of eighteenth century Spitalfields silk fabric – especially those brocades that combine a silver thread with a pastel coloured silk.   The jacquard looms which made that possible would have had something in common with the mechanics behind early automata.  (Incidentally, there is such a loom on display at Bowes).

Whilst at Bowes, something else caught my eye: the ribbon worn by Joséphine Bowes, in the portrait by Dury, above.

At first, I wanted to replicate it but my eighteenth century style band loom was already warped up with a repro, workaday linen tape.  Also, I wouldn’t be able to replicate a horizontal bar pattern, with such wide gaps between the pink silk and the silver metallic thread with a simple tape or inkle loom.  I could however, use  Joséphine’s ribbon sash as a jumping off point, to inspire a band.

img_2894
Mifflin Tape Loom, repro of 18thC American tape loom – often these were brought with settlers, from England. Made by Mr. Paul Parish. Used with Swedish band lock., woven backstrap. Repro 18thC linen tape in progress! 18thC home tape weavers held the warp with one hand or tied one end to a belt.

 

It is still not off the loom, but here it is so far (below) – woven with a simple inkle threaded-in technique.  I made this first attempt on a Schacht inkle loom, but will be returning to do something similar using my 18thC repro tape loom, made for me by the talented and inimitable Paul Parish.  I have the first of Mr Parish’s looms in the UK – it is called the ‘Mifflin’ loom as it it based on the loom in this portrait.  If you want to know more about tape looms, hold on, as I will be doing a more in-depth post about them, soon.  I’ll also be posting about the 1770s’ tape loom we won at auction, in the Derbyshire Peaks, late last year.

Here is the Joséphine-inspired band in progress. Joséphine’s ribbon would have been made by an automated loom, by 1850, and extant silk ribbons of even a century before, were often sophisticated weaves.

Metallic and silk threads look spectacular but in reality aren’t more challenging to weave with, than wool, cotton or linen.

I have finished this ribbon but want to do a second, shorter one and there’s still some warp. I’ll photo the finished one.  The yarns used are in some cases, sewing thread (metallic); the pink is fine (2/60 NM) pure silk and the metallic threads were plied with some very fine, cream coloured linen.

Joséphine’s band would have been far finer, and made on more a complicated ribbon weaving loom.  Which would be capable of brocades and all kinds of things a simple, threaded-in inkle can’t achieve.

I have spent a lot of 2018 learning to do more complex pick up techniques but wanted to return to something simple, where the pattern was threaded in so a faster weave, reliant on the yarns used alone, for its visual impact.  Which meant I could only get alternating horizontal bands, but I’m pleased anyway with this ‘inspired by’.  It will be used for our 18thC Living History kit.

img_2844
Shuttle by Ampstrike (Estonia). Heddle Stoorstalka (Sweden).  Yarns: UK and Germany.
img_2865
Heddle from Stoorstalka (bought it myself – no affiliation). I had to ply the metallic Gutterman sewing threads with very fine linen yarn, on my spinning wheel as the metallic threads alone lacked body.

 

img_2866
Homemade width gauge to ensure consistent band width.

 

img_2878
I almost don’t want to take this off the loom. It looks so beautiful as a warp.

 

I am grateful to the museum for permission to reproduce the portrait that set me off on the silk and metallic ribbon quest.   I have loved weaving this, so far, and hope to weave many more – some brocaded, some like this, a plain threaded-in pattern.

For the spinners, weavers and dyers, I’ll be doing a workshop at the South Lincs Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers this Saturday. (Longdraw Spinning). Do come along if you’re nearby and want to learn how to do the classic longdraw, a la 18thC!

 

Finally… If you have never  been to the Bowes Museum – go, if you get the chance. There is plenty to interest anyone with an interest in textiles and costume with the fascinating Fashion & Textile Gallery. If you time your visit right, you may also get the see the Silver Swan.

https://www.thebowesmuseum.org.uk/

Sheep Hoard… I mean Herd

Sheep_pen_(Luttrell_Psalter)
Sheep Pen, Luttrell Psalter [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Following  Old English Word Hord  @OEWordHoard on Twitter, this Word Of The Day post caught my eye the other day:

 

 

scēap-heord, f.n: a flock of sheep.

 

Which I misread as “sheep hoard” – an idea so cool, I wanted to keep it.  But “sheep hoard” would be “scēap-hord”, and sadly, that doesn’t appear to be A Thing.

Talking of hoards, I’ve been starting to sift through and think about, our large collection of spindle whorls which date anything from Roman through to Tudor-ish.  And although most of them are British, I do have the occasional more exotic whorl.  We are having some repro not-lead medieval whorls made, which we’ll bring out in our Etsy shop when we have them, so keep an eye out.

Here’s some recent whorls we acquired – Karelian, mainly, but the first one on the right, which looks identical to some British whorls,  is French:

 

karelian etc

 

And these are a fairly typical detectorist/field-walking find from England which, without context, could date anything from Anglo Saxon through to late medieval:

decoratedwhorls7_medium2
Now with added dog hairs!

 

Lead whorls tend to be over-represented (in my collection, anyway) – because they are detectorists’ finds.  But archaeologists believe stone whorls were more common in medieval times – it’s just the lead are more findable.

When we do our talks, farmers often mention they have found lots of whorls – do feel free to send me photos, if you have found a stray whorl – and I’ll give you any information I can.

soapstonewhorls1_medium2

whorludndersides_medium2
Bone and soapstone whorl undersides.  Ring and dot is often – but by no means always – Anglo-Saxon

 

I fully intend to do a more detailed post, going into various styles and shapes of whorls, weights, decorations, and what is broadly dateable and how or if.  But that is for some point next year, dear and Gentle Reader.

I’ve been collecting whorls, on and mainly off, since the 1980s, and the only holy grail left for me would be something with a runic inscription.

In keeping with the Old English theme, I spent some of yesterday making some charts for inkle weaving, of the Futhorc (runic alphabet). I don’t see why these couldn’t also be knitted.  But I can’t guarantee you they’d work as I haven’t tried either weaving or knitting with them yet.

It was an angular alphabet as probably designed to be carved, so it lends itself to being charted. For the weavers, these average around 5 picks (because you’d be weaving sideways) but some are a pick more or less than 5. Totally don’t know if this would work for knitting and won’t til I try it.  Which may not be soon.

Here they are anyway.  I’m guessing if you want to weave runes (and there’s probably more than one Northumbrian rune missing, this was just a quicky) then you already know what they stand for or can use the search engine du jour, to find them, so I put them here as a Yuletide gift – for anyone who wants to play with runes.  Not downloadable but feel free to do whatever.

 

futhf-r

 

 

futhg-i

futh y - s

fut t - l

futh ng - ae

futh yr - k

 

For now, I bid you adieu with a glimpse of my (16th century?)  clay (Tudor-ish?) what I call ‘Bellarmine’ whorls.  In fact, they’re possibly something else entirely, but I like to think of them as “Bellarmine” as the glaze looks, for all the world, like the glaze on Bellarmine jugs.

 

bellarminewhorls2_medium2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Snow On Snow

the-knitter-131_small2
The Knitter, 131. © The Knitter, 2018

 

The most recent one in my series of pieces about nineteenth century designers/knitting manual writers is out in ‘The Knitter’ 131. It’s about the Yorkshirewomen, the Ryder sisters – another sister act, like the West Country’s Cornelia Mee and Mary Austin.  In all these pieces I’ve tried to uncover new or previously unpublished  information about my targets – enjoy!

Meanwhile, on the blog, I’ll be turning my attention to eighteenth century tape looms (British and American) and showing you a beautiful Georgian temple, a blog reader brought along to the Masham Sheep Fair, this year, to show us.

I’ll also be documenting the our 1770s’ English tape loom as well as my reproduction ‘Mifflin’ loom made by the brilliant Paul Parish; and writing a little about inkle and tape-weaving for living history.  (I can’t find anyone in the UK currently making these, but Paul will ship them to the Britishers – message/email me if you’d like his details).

tapeloom
Rare English 1770s’ fruitwood tape loom, from Derbyshire Peak District. Needs some restoration.
44996434_709770386071883_3684204929120993280_n
Nalbinded hat in Oslo stitch with ‘Little Dragons’ tape border.

 

We have nalbinding kits here, for anyone interested – a very brief ‘How To’ booklet, alongside some British wool and a shorter-than-most horn or boxwood nalbinding needle – because for many, it is easier to learn with a short needle.

I’ve been busy lately nalbinding, tape-weaving and knitting up a storm.

 

Next year I’ve got some slight departures coming up in pieces for some US magazines – including a nalbinding How To for neo-nalbinders, and a piece about an incredible craft-related item from, of all things, the Donner Party. I never said I wasn’t eclectic!  I’ve long been fascinated by the history of the Old West – especially the Yorkshire card sharps and sharp-shooters, the Thompson brothers,  (whose lives were slightly more colourful than the sedate Ryder sisters’, has to be said), and occurences like the Fetterman incident and the Donner Party.

Talking of snow; I decided to put my money where my mouth is, re. knitting being political, and the Quintillion Snowflake Hat (for snowflakes) is the result.  It uses 5 ply gansey but am about to test it in DK.  It’s an eco friendly hat because it uses up leftovers of yarn and is a weird Fair Isle/Gansey mash-up.  So it’s been a busy few weeks, with the nalbinding, weaving and hat sample knitting.  Lots of new things to look forward to, dear Reader.

 

IMG_2578
Quintillion Snowflakes Hats

 

Remembrance

Like most Europeans, I had more than one ancestor killed in World War One.  Today I found my photos of one of them.  He died just over 100 years ago – my dad spoke of him when we were growing up, and his other uncle who died in 1917.

 

I thought it was very instructive to put the two photos of my grandma’s brother side by side.  Same young man, probably the same uniform, same hat. And maybe only two years’ difference, between the shots.  My grandma is the little girl on the right of the photo.  She adored her older brother, I was told. I can’t imagine how it must have felt, the day the family got that telegram.   There was no body found, no grave for anyone to visit.  Most of William’s colleagues lasted a few months in this unit. He lasted several years.  He is one of the names on the memorial at Soissons Cathedral. I’ve never been able to afford to go there so have never seen it. One day I’d love to.

My oldest son was born on a Remembrance Sunday and we gave him William’s name.

What I’ve always found striking is that you would think two decades not two years, had passed, between these two images being taken.  One is a boy; one looks like a tough, middle aged man.  I wonder if it’s the same hat in both photos?  The second picture is pierced round wonkily with a pin, and has his name written in ink, on the back and something my dad was told was a bloodstain. It does look possible.

Gunner William Boothman, Royal Artillery, X Battery trench mortars, (“suicide squad”), number: 107649.  He was my great grandparents’ oldest son.  He joined up the same day as his cousin, of the same name, also from Leeds.  The other William survived the war.

 

Politicians (donkeys) still sacrifice lions.  So – lest we forget.  Here is one of the faceless many.

 

Work For Idle Hands

Coming up to the final stretch, so to speak, writing the next book – which is going to be about the darker side of textile history.  At the moment, I have pieces coming out about the early writers of knitting manuals, which is slightly more cheerful territory. But I’m currently researching something much darker and so thought I’d share this snippet (image from a later period, but it gives you the gist).

 

Pre-Victorian, but full of the later nineteenth century belief that “the devil makes work for idle hands”, etc.  Whilst men were used in chain gangs, stone-breaking or road improving, or oakum picking (recycling tarry rope fibres); women were put to the task of sewing endless linen shirts, knitting stockings, or spinning line (flax).   Which shows you how soul-destroyingly boring they thought these tasks to be.  And also, how “improving” or “character building”.

 

From “The Morning Post”, (London), Monday, August 11th, 1817;

The system adopted by MRS FRY and the association which she has formed for reclaiming and improving the condition of the female prisoners of Newgate, has been eminently succesful. Within a period of little more than three months the women and girls have made nearly 4000 shirts, &c. They have knitted 220 pairs of socks and stockings, and have lately commenced the spinning of flax. The amelioration in their morals has kept pace with their progress in the habits of industry…

Almost twenty years on, Dickens was to describe a visit to Newgate in ‘Sketches By Boz’ (1836). He mentioned a piece of ‘pasteboard’ (cardboard) with quotes from the scriptures, propped against a wall in the dining hall.  Moral improvement seemed the aim.

He watched some of the women at lunch,  noting that one or two of them immediately picked up and resumed “needlework” after eating.  Dickens contrasted the women’s side of the prison where women seemed to be working, and purposeful – to the men’s where they “sauntered” around looking bored. So it seems Elizabeth Fry’s influence could still be felt twenty or more years on.

Check out The Knitter, Issue 129, for my latest piece on knitting history.  There are some more bits of knitting history coming up in ‘The Knitter’ so stay tuned – and I’m currently working on a very exciting bit of research on a Very Famous Incident, for a U.S. magazine – details next year, when it’s out.

Female_convicts_at_work_in_Brixton_Women's_Prison_(after_Mayhew_&_Binny_1862)
1862. Female convicts at work in Brixton prison. By Mayhew & Binny. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons