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.

1862. Female convicts at work in Brixton prison. By Mayhew & Binny. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons