‘The Knitter’, Issue 100, is out now and in the shops. To celebrate the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Bronte’s birth, this year, I’ve contributed an article about a fascinating and previously unknown piece of knitting; a pair of baby socks, made for Charlotte’s baby, which were destined never to be worn.
They were found sewn into a book of Charlotte Bronte’s correspondence with Mrs Elizabeth Smith, mother of her publisher and friend, George Smith. So far as I’m aware, ‘The Knitter’ is the first publication ever to publish a photo of these poignant items.
Charlotte was pregnant when she died in 1855 of hyperemesis gravidarum. I had that with one of my pregnancies – for 20 weeks; all day, every day. It is not the way anyone deserves to die. Charlotte was already weakened, and possibly had incipient TB. Her friends had expected her to rally – more than one, was busy making baby items. Miss Margaret Wooler, Charlotte’s old teacher, colleague and friend, made an exquisite (not knitted) baby bonnet. These are possibly amongst the most poignant items in the entire Bronte Society Collection.
I won’t reprise the piece here (buy ‘The Knitter’, gentle Reader!) But I will give you something we couldn’t fit into the article as a bonus for my brilliant blog readers – some of whom I met at Baa Ram Ewe’s season launch, last week. More of that in an upcoming post.
A caveat. This isn’t a true reverse engineered version. I am not a sock knitter – apart from the occasional recreation of a stocking for Living History. There are things going on in this sock – the toe treatment for one – that I can’t pin down. So I looked at a contemporary published sock pattern, and I looked at the notes I took from looking at the sock in person.
I ended up knitting a version of ‘Child’s Sock’ from Cornelia Mee and Miss Austin’s ‘First Series of The Knitter’s Companion’, available here in a very late edition. Cornelia Mee (1815 – 1875) wrote a number of successful knitting manuals from around the 1840s onwards and often reprised her recipes for children’s socks, so this appears in one form or another, across more than one of her books.
In the 1841 Census, Cornelia, 25, was married to Charles Mee, ‘Berlin Wool Warehouseman’, and a teenaged Miss Mary Austin appears to have lived with them, working as their “shopwoman”, on Milsom St, in fashionable Bath. Like Jane Gaugain and Elizabeth Jackson; a wool shop owner, publishing her own books. Mary Austin was no doubt her co-author, “Miss Austin”. In 1851, she was mistranscribed as “Amelia” Mee, and now at 18, Daniel St, Bath. The 1851 Census is the first to give birthplaces, and so we learn Cornelia was a native of Bath, and Mary Austin, now 25, is listed as “sister in law” which means she was Cornelia’s sister so the books are co-authored by the sisters; Mary, as eldest unmarried sister, being addressed as “Miss” on the book’s title cover. Charles was still a “Berlin Wool Dealer”. The household have three servants. In 1871, Cornelia was visiting a family called the Fishers, in Liverpool and Charles and their family can be found at Brook St, in the parish of St George Hanover Square, London. Mary Austin still lives with them, and is listed as “Berlin Wool worker”.
The blue silk sock was made with YarnAddictAnni‘s Pure Silk Laceweight. And then a version of the sock, based on the original, using Sublime Lace Extra Fine Merino Wool, 25g, 100% wool in Colour 0397 (discontinued) – Ecru. I bought the Sublime on my way home from Haworth, the day I looked at the sock, whilst the precise shade of parchment/ecru of the sock, was still fresh in my mind; dropping in at the fabulous treasure trove that is Coldspring Mill.
Any laceweight would do for these (highly impractical) socks. But I should point out the originals are neither silk, nor merino; but cotton. They photograph with a fair bit of lustre so look to be silk in the images but they handled and looked, in reality, like cotton. It looked to be millspun, but with no loose ends it was hard to tell. Anyone who wants to Comment below on the skewing that’s going on – I’d be grateful for your opinion.
There were limitations to documenting the socks. They are sewn flat, into a book of priceless letters. So no turning inside out, and barely possible even to see the wrong side of the knitting.
The socks were probably not knitted by Charlotte Bronte herself – Charlotte was 5 when her mother died so it is feasible she was the only one of the three surviving Bronte sisters, who may have been taught to knit by her Cornish mother. But the socks came to The Bronte Society via a donation – the Seton-Gordon Collection, donated by Elizabeth Smith’s grand-daughter. Elizabeth Smith was born in Regency times – before published knitting patterns. So it’s likely this was a sock formula she had in her head. I looked at commercial patterns of the 1840s and slightly later as well, to get an insight into the heel and toe treatments but what we’re looking at here is, essentially, a Regency sock!
You can read more about the Smiths, here.
Cornelia Mee and Miss Austin’s baby socks, had a slightly smaller number of cast on stitches: 53, as opposed to the 60 or 62 on Charlotte’s baby sock. Misses Austin and Mee recommended the knitter use “the finest Shetland wool” or “No.30 Knitting Cotton” and size 17 (1.5mm) needles. To put that in perspective, most modern knitting needle conversion charts only go down to size 14 – 2mm – needles.
I used Hiya-Hiya dpns – super bendy and work perfectly with a Knitting Belt (my tishie!)
In fact, I couldn’t have knitted these sans tishie, somehow – it made the whole process of knitting laceweight on 1.5mm needles not quite unbearable. (You don’t want to hear what I was saying when I did the 3 needle cast off, put it that way).
I decided to work a Dutch Heel and a Flat Toe. I’m not positive these are the treatments used in the original, but they are close. In fact, the original sock’s toe has something unaccountable going on, if you look closely, with some crazy and weird decreasing.
There are a number of recipes for what we’d now call babies’ bootees, in the Victorian knitting manuals – but comparatively few straightforward socks, like these.
NB: The originals had a much more rapid (every round?) decrease for the foot, after the instep and heel flap stitches were joined back in the round, than my Ecru version has. There is also a bit more shaping on the legs of the originals (Possibly one or two more shaping rounds than I did). These are most definitely not an accurate reverse engineered version, just an approximation for fun.
So, with no further ado, here’s the pattern for the white socks. (Not tech edited, so proceed with due caution). I just wanted to have a go to see if I could. Neither sock will be getting a companion, any time soon.
Charlotte Bronte’s Baby Socks
Tension: 12 sts and 16 rounds to 2.5cm
1 ball laceweight yarn. I used Sublime Lace Extra Fine Merino Wool, 25g, 100% wool in Colour 0397 (discontinued) – Ecru
CO 60 sts.
Work in K2 P2 ribbing, for 12mm [60sts]
Now, to work the plain stocking stitch leg section:
* Rd 1 -14: P1, K59
Rd 15: P1, K2tog, K55, K2 tog [58sts]
Rep from * once [56 sts]
Now commence the heel.
Divide the sts so you have 27 sts for instep on waste yarn, and 29 sts still live, on which you’ll make a heel. Continue to Purl the purl centre stitch (now centre of heel). Cont to work heel on these remaining 29 sts (centred on P seam st).
Work heel like this:
* Row 1: K1, Sl 1 rep from * to end row
**Row 2: Sl1, P1, rep from ** to end row
Or conversely, simply work in stocking stitch.
Rep these two rows – or work in stocking st – til you have made roughly 20 rows, ending with a P row.
Start Shaping Heel:
Row 1: (RS): K22, turn
Row 2: (WS): Sl 1, P to seam st, P7, turn
Row 3: Sl 1, Knit to seam st, P seam st, Knit to end
Row 4: Sl 1, P to end
Rep rows 3 and 4 one more time.
Row 1: (RS): Sl 1m Knit to seam st, purl seam st, K5, Sl1, K1, PSSO, turn
*Row 2: Sl 1, P11, p2 tog, turn
Row 3: Sl 1, K5, P1 (seam st), K5,
Sl 1, K1, PSSO, turn
Rep from * til all heel sts are incorporated onto one needle, end with WS row.
Needle 1: Knit across all heel sts. PU and knit 20 sts across side of heel flap
Needle 2: Work instep sts that have been waiting for you on the waste yarn
Needle 3: PU 20 sts along other side of heel flap, and then work the first half of the heel stitches only from Needle 1. Which means your round now begins at CENTRE heel.
PM at start rd.
Needle 1: K to last 3 sts, K2tog, K1
Needle 2: K across all instep sts
Needle 3: K1, Sl 1, K1, PSSO, K to end of round
Rd 2 : Knit
Rep these 2 rounds til you have your original 56 sts.
Then, work 12 rounds on these 56 sts.
I worked a Flat Toe.
Make sure half your sts are on instep needle (28 sts on Needle 2) and the other half are split evenly between two other needles (Needle 1 and Needle 2). (14 sts on each needle).
* Rd 1: Needle 1: K to last 3 sts, K2 tog, K1
Needle 2: K1, Sl 1, K1, PSSO, Knit to last 3 sts, K2tog, K1
Needle 3: K1, Sl, K1,PSSO, Knit to end
Rd 2: K
Rep from * until 16 sts remain.
I finish with a 3 needle cast off, on the right side of the work.
With many thanks to Sarah Laycock at the Bronte Parsonage Museum, Haworth and the Bronte Society.
The Brontes, Juliet Barker, Abacus, 2010
Knitting Vintage Socks, Nancy Bush, Interweave Press, 2005
Charlotte Bronte: A Life, Claire Harman, Viking, 2015
First Series Of The Knitter’s Companion, Cornelia Mee and Miss Austin, London (date unknown, but sock appears in various Cornelia Mee books, and probably prior to 1855).
6 replies on “Charlotte Bronte’s Baby Socks”
Are these socks made for Charlotte’s baby, after she was married to Mr. Nichols (in 1854) or are they the ones she made in 1850? I suspect the 1850 ones since they are in Mrs. Smith’s letters. In Charlotte’s letters to her she wrote:
“You demand a bulletin respecting the “little socks”. I am sorry I cannot issue a more favourable one; they continue much the same. Should they ever be finished, you shall certainly have them as a momento of Currer Bell.” Charlotte to Mrs. Smith, 9 January, 1850
“You can keep your little socks for Jacob Omnium’s nursling if you like. If they are too large one might (in another year’s time) knit a smaller pair for the purpose.” 20 May, 1851
Which is interesting considering Charlotte and George (Smith, her publisher) wanted to get married. Why was she knitting “little socks” then?
Yes, I read the original letter! At first I thought it was this pair, but I’m told that they came to the Parsonage in that bequest containing these letters, and so it is almost certain they were knitted by Elizabeth Smith, not Charlotte. ‘Jacob Omnium’ was,I think, a friend of Thackeray and George Smith; Matthew James Higgins.
It *is* a plied yarn, isn’t it? The skewing looks to me like a single yarn’s been used, but I’m sure you have checked this.
What an interesting article – I am currently reading the whole collection of Bronte books on my Kindle so doubly interesting to me. I am an experienced sock knitter. The skewing is likely because the yarn is single ply and this invariably skews. I estimate 72 sts are cast on but only 48 (or maybe 52 remain at the start of the heel. This would indicate that there must be regular decreasings either side of the purled centre back ‘seam’,. – a common feature on adult sized knee length socks at the time, which because of the skewing has rotated out of sight. The heel flap has an ingenious increase to create a shaping for a baby foot ‘s heel (something we don’t do nowadays) an increase of 3? sts either side of the back purled ‘seam’. The toe shaping appears to have started with a 6-or-so-stitch shaping, decreased randomly to 2-stitch and thereafter decreased as we do now, but on every row down to the last 4 stitches and who knows how the final 4 stitches were joined – that is out of sight. Knitting on size 17 needles would give a very lightweight little sock; but people did regularly use that size of needle for stocking knitting. I sometimes knit on 1.5mm needles and you get used to it!!
Yes, there’s definitely more going on at the heel flap there, than I documented. ;o)
I got the cast on at around 62 sts, but assuming slightly fatter grist yarn, cast on a couple less (also wanted a number divisible by 4).
The yarn is plied, and I’m fairly certain it’s commercial yarn – some manufacturers might be better than others, though, if it’s unbalanced! There are also around 16 sts at the cast off edge, (I think). The toe shaping does seem a bit random and clumsy in comparison to the heel.
A lot of commercial patterns seem to have been bootees rather than socks, and often knitted flat then sewn together. This is much nicer, though!
I knit with 2.5mm needles 90% of the time so wasn’t enjoying 1.5mm, although I have used them for other Living History stuff, and their one huge advantage is that they are easier to use with the tishie/knitting stick! With some use, my needles are getting as bent as the old ones you see in museums. Although some were made curved, and some straight, in the past. There are needles at around 1.5mm extant in the collection of the Bronte Society.
I don’t know anything about knitting, but I enjoyed reading about Charlotte Bronte. I never knew she died from HG. How sad. She is one of my favorite authors, with Jane Eyre being one of my all time favorite books.