There is such a thing as seeing all beautiful around you – pleasant woods, winding white paths, green lawns and blue sunshiny sky – and not having a free moment or a free thought left to enjoy them in. The children are constantly with me, and more riotous, perverse cubs never grew. .. I said in my last letter that Mrs Sidgwick did not know me. I now begin to find she does not intend to know me, that she cares nothing in the world about me except to contrive how the greatest quantity of labour may be squeezed out of me, and to that end she overwhelms me with oceans of needlework, yards of cambric to hem, muslin nightcaps to make, and above all, dolls to dress. I do not think she likes me at all.
[Charlotte Bronte, letter to Emily Jane Bronte, June 8th, 1839].
Just published, in ‘Piecework’, July/August, 2017 – I have a piece about Charlotte Bronte and – possibly – her ‘dolls to dress’.
In 1839, Charlotte Bronte was 23 and embarking on life as a governess. She took a temporary job with the Sidgwicks of Stone Gappe Hall, in Lothersdale. Mr Sidgwick was a mill owner in Skipton. Her time at Stone Gappe was miserable.
Some time ago, a dolls’ house from Stone Gappe was acquired at auction by Temple Newsam House, in Leeds. The house itself is an eighteenth century ‘Baby House’ (essentially a sort of cupboard-as-dolls’-house). I haven’t permission to put up an image of the house or dolls, so you will need to check it out in ‘Piecework’. We took photos for our own reference, which we can’t publish, but I will use these as the basis for working out an 1830s’ dolls’ dress pattern for anyone interested, like those possibly made by poor Charlotte.
We went to Temple Newsam to look at the Baby House and dolls, with the help of one of their lovely curators. I hoped to use all my clothing historian fu, to try and figure out whether one or both of the dolls, may have been contemporaneous with 1839, so possibly, have been one of Charlotte’s loathed ‘dolls to dress’. Looking at the fashions worn by the dolls – I came to an interesting conclusion.
The two dolls themselves are handmade, but have some features in common with European – particularly the wooden Grodnertal – dolls of that era. If you search online for ‘wooden tuck comb dolls’ or ‘Grodnertal dolls’, you will get some idea of how dolls of the 1830s looked. The dolls’ clothes were made from cotton and linen prints, and wool fabric – their facial features embroidered in Berlin wool. They seem to have human hair – not uncommon for 19thC home-made dolls. One doll appears to be a cruder approximation of the other, and the style of their clothing is rather fanciful. Rather than entire gowns, both dolls wore a skirt and corset-like tops.
The dolls piece was my own little tribute to my dear friend, Caro, who died nearly two years ago. I inherited a few of Caro’s Hitty dolls, and have fond memories of an evening spent learning all about them, from her. Caro had a love of carved wooden dolls of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, as you can see from her Pinterest board.
I missed her riding shot-gun on this one – she would have loved behind the scenes at Temple Newsam, and getting to hold the 19thC dolls in her hand. She would have been far more knowledgeable about the Baby House itself, than I ever could be – and would have loved the little kitchen with all its miniature eighteenth and nineteenth century accoutrements. Then we’d have gone to the cafe and she’d have driven me mad by being her inimitable self; chatting to all and sundry. She had a marvellous way with curators. And would keep them deep in mesmerising chat so I could concentrate with documenting whatever it was I was there to document, without having the distraction of having to be make smalltalk, myself. (Useful as time can be limited when you are in somewhere, documenting an item, and those dealing with you have other places to be and other things to do).
There is always an absence beside me now, when I research. But this is one I’d never have done without her influence.
I will put up a pattern for an 1830s’ doll’s dress, just as soon as I can make one. I was hoping to accompany the publication with a pattern here, but have been ill since April so nothing got done. Starting to be on the mend (thanks NHS!) so will be back with an 1830s’ style dress for a 6″ doll very soon.
I must have been busy going back and forth with my time machine as also out last week – a piece in ‘The Knitter’ about the Land Girls of WW2, and also a pattern for a Land Girl jumper. It’s quite a leap from 1839 to 1939, but somehow I made it. If you’d like to read more about the life of Land Army or Timber Corps women – or make a 1940s’ style jumper handy for a spot of gardening – check out The Knitter, Issue 112.
Proof that sometimes, carrying a bit of ballast is a Good Thing. And also a timely reminder to oil and maintain your spinning wheel!
From ‘The London Evening Post’, February 24th – 27th, 1759, comes this cautionary tale:
We hear from Wingrove, near Aylesbury, in Bucks., that a few days ago, one Susanna Hannokes, an elderly Woman of that Place, was accused by a Neighbour with being a Witch, for that she had Bewitched her Spinning-Wheel, so that she could not make it go round; and offer’d to make and Oath of it, before a Magistrate, on which the Husband of the poor Woman, in order to justify his Wife, insisted upon her being tried on the Church-Bible, and that the Accuser should be present: Accordingly, she was conducted by her Husband, attended by a great Concourse of People, who flocked to see the Ceremony, to the Parish Church, where she was stripp’d of all her Cloaths to her Shift and Under-Coat, and weighed against the Bible; when, to the no-small Mortification of her Accuser, she out-weighed it, and was honourably Acquitted of the Charge. It is Observable that not eight years Since, one Ruth Osborn and her Husband, were by the too-credulous People of that Neighbourhood, duck’d in a Pond on a like Supposition, and used so ill, that the poor Woman was at last drown’d…
Knitting and sewing have always been feminist acts. Sometimes, it has been about activism as well.
As a sort of historian, I’ve written on the blog, and will continue to write, about nineteenth century women who used crafts to escape the ‘cage’ of domesticity.
It always fascinated me that needle arts were seen, culturally as the apogee of ‘femininity’ and yet were cleverly subverted by women and used to escape that same cage. I also write about and research women (and men) who used needlecrafts to express themselves, especially in that most hostile nineteenth century environment – the asylum. Even against all odds, people have used this ‘permitted’ form of expression, to revolutionise or provide commentary upon, their world.
Clothing has also been used, historically, to express revolution. The colour of resistance has varied down the years. From sea-green, to white, to pink. And many other colours too. In the English Civil War, the Levellers often wore a sea-green ribbon on their arms, to identify themselves. In the eighteenth century, educated women signalled their intellectualism by wearing blue stockings. (There were male bluestockings as well).
Suffragettes were identified with the colour white. White was chosen because it traditionally symbolised purity and ‘being good’ but also, women were refuting the suggestion that because they wanted equality, they were somehow ‘frumpy’. At the height of the suffragette movement, drapers’ shops were castigated for having white fabric in their window displays as a show of solidarity to their customers and they became identified with the movement. This suggests the link between crafts and activism is no new thing. Want to rebel? Make it yourself!
Earlier nineteenth century American activist Sojourner Truth often chose to be photographed with her knitting. As a slave, she had knitted and spun tirelessly. In later life, free, she often taught knitting in order to empower former slaves with self sufficiency. She controlled her public image by choosing to wear elegant, well made clothing as well as holding her knitting in photos, to convey her respectability and middle class values. In the same way the later Suffragettes chose to turn up to marches and public events wearing white to exploit its beauty and perceived femininity.
Pink pussyhats may be the new blue stockings. You’d have to have been under a stone not to notice the Pussyhat Project, recently. On one level, a sea of folk wearing pink hats has a dramatic, vivid impact. But appropriating a colour for a cause also implies solidarity and shared values. In a world where political correctness has been challenged, and for some it now seems ‘safe’ again to objectify women; where climate change is being denied, and nationalism and racism have reared their ugly heads, crafters have found a new way to express resistance.
Well-known designer Donna Druchunas has produced a free Ravelry download, ‘Knitting As A Political Act” and recently brought out a second collection, “What’s New, Pussyhat?”
I’m also working on a Catwalk Pussyhat ebook .. [See below] with 4 Missoni-inspired pussyhats and a bunch of my ink and watercolor sketches of people wearing pussyhats. 😀 It won’t be free but it’s an adjunct to the Knitting as a Political Act ebook. I’m done with the pussyhats for now and will be starting up a spring project where I am making little snowflakes, flowers, and hearts to hang up on bulletin boards around town attached to little posters with science facts, climate change facts, and notes about diversity and immigration.
Characterising women-the-Establishment-finds-threatening as “ugly”seems to come with the territory. In a week where objectifying successful women’s legs rather than their policies hit the headlines, I’d suggest the ‘ugliness’ lies elsewhere. I won’t link to the Daily Mail’s repellent ‘Legs It’ piece, because I’m not giving them even a single piece of traffic, if I can help it. But it seems to me little has changed in the past hundred years. And it’s easy to feel powerless in the face of such monumental levels of sexist crassness. Yet clothing, and the things we make with our hands, are not always superficial, and have a power in themselves. And that some clothing is handmade, in itself makes a statement.
In a way, making things with your own hands is the ultimate uprising as we take our own fate literally in our hands and say to governments: “This is unacceptable”. In a world where it is easy to feel powerless, unrepresented and voiceless, a world made by others – making something yourself, to express your feelings is a taking back of power.
A quick heads-up. I have two pieces out this month. One for the knitters and one for the genealogists.
For the knitters, there’s something about reverse engineering knitting from old photographs (‘The Knitter’, Issue 107). Probably something I should go into more depth with here on the blog, some time soon. Over the few years I’ve been figuring out ‘old knitting’ from images, I’ve developed a few tricks of the trade, and thought I’d share some insight into the process.
I think a lot of it is down to confidence. But also, simply by getting on and doing it, you develop an armoury of tools to do the job. Although with the caveat – any one person’s reverse engineered version of a piece of vintage knitting is only their interpretation and other interpretations are equally valid.
One other limitation is the extent of your own memory bank of techniques. And also, your hands-on experience of observing and recording similar items from similar dates.
As well as writing about reverse engineering from images, I looked at the pragmatic approach to reverse engineering – how to go about working from actual artefacts in museums, etc.
Talking of which…. Earlier this week, researching for an upcoming piece in a US magazine, I went behind the scenes at Temple Newsam House, in Leeds, and documented items from a dolls’ house, the very one Charlotte Bronte made dolls’ clothes for, in 1839. * Although this was looking at sewing, not knitting – the process for the reverse engineer is precisely the same.
You do need some other background knowledge to shed more light on extant items as well as reverse engineer and re-create from them. But the bottom line is still – observe and record. Think, research, observe and record some more! Whilst observing and recording, I found something really cool – and previously unrecorded elsewhere. This is where reverse engineering can add to our existing knowledge of the past, and how things were done or perceived, there.
I have written about my own process for reconstructing knitted textiles in ‘The Knitter’. But am fascinated by other textiles too – especially Georgian and Early Victorian clothing.
The second piece in the shops right now is in ‘Family Tree Magazine’ (February 2017). I go on about how to trace your farming ancestors – both farmers and labourers and ancestors who followed other rural occupations. Take a look if it’s your thing. And let’s face it, anyone who does their family tree will eventually hit an Ag Lab or seventy.
The vast majority of my ancestors were yeoman farmers, and dairy farmers with a few other vital rural occupations – wheelwrights, shoemakers, and of course, West Riding clothiers – thrown in. So I have tried to share some of my experience of finding farmers – and Ag Labs – there. They can leave quite a paper trail – and as ever, with genealogy, your search is enhanced if you think laterally.
I’m off back to my current projects, now. Exciting news… there’s a new book in the pipeline and some historically-based projects will be coming out over the next few months so keep your eyes peeled! I’ll be back with how to knit Lancashire squares, soon – and another wartime letter from a child to her dad in the Forces.
“…Mrs Sidgwick…cares nothing in the world about me except to contrive how the greatest possible quantity of labour may be squeezed out of me, and to that end she overwhelms me with oceans of needlework, yards of cambric to hem, muslin nightcaps to make, and, above all things, dolls to dress…”
[Charlotte Bronte, letter to Emily Bronte, 8th June, 1839].
As promised long ago, here are some gansey alphabet charts, for anyone wishing to knit initials. These are 15 rounds deep. I prefer a serif. Some motifs are solid, some in moss (seed) stitch. These are solid. Spacing here is arbitrary – decide what looks good to you, when planning your gansey.
Clickable PDFs proved problematic for some, so I have loaded these as images. Not all quite the same size, but workable! Click on these to enlarge.
There are many alphabets available and these are not based on anything particularly traditional. Or untraditional. You can invent a little spacer motif between initials as well, if wanted.
You can put initials wherever you like; front or back; above the welt or even in the underarm gusset (If you could make it fit there!) I’ve also seen mention of ganseys with an entire name knitted into them – although not yet seen one in person.
The way I do it is to work about 3 plain rounds above the welt, then I start to place the alphabet – usually with a spacer, placed centrally between the two letters – on the front of the gansey, at the left. Then I finish with a roughly equal section of plain stocking stitch – say 3 rounds above the initials, before I start the body’s pattern.
This is by no means the ‘best’ or the one true way to do this, just I’m a creature of habit and people do ask from time to time, where to place their initials.
Although there is no evidence for dead mariners being identified by ganseys’ motifs or initials – there is some evidence for the initials helping return a gansey to its rightful owner, if it was stolen. In ‘Cornish Guernseys & Knit-frocks’, (1979), Mary Wright describes interviewing Jim Honey at Port Isaac who described what happened when his uncle lost his gansey, knitted by his grandmother.
…Twelve months after, Granny saw a man wearing Uncle Willie’s jersey. ‘Here,’ she said, ‘you got my boy’s jersey on.’ ‘I hab’n,’ he said, ‘Yes you have,” she said, and called a policeman to arrest him. ‘How do you know this is your boy’s jersey?’ the policeman asked. ‘You make’n lift up his arms,’ said Granny, ‘You’ll see I knitted a ‘W’ under one arm and as ‘S’ under the other and my boy’s name is Willie Steer – what’s his?’
And anyway, let’s face it, who needs to identify a loved one by initials on a garment that might peel off in the water …. That’s why sailors had tattoos, wasn’t it?
“THE WORK-TABLE MAGAZINE by MRS MEE and MISS AUSTIN… This is, of course, a lady’s periodical. The mysteries of the needle are illustrated by plates, some of them coloured, which will no doubt be clear enough to the bright eyes that may examine them; but which to ours are as impenetrable as Egyptian hieroglyphics.”
[Review. The Leeds Times, Feburary 20th, 1847].
To coincide with my article on Victorian knitting manuals in this month’s ‘The Knitter’, (Issue 105), I thought I’d have a go at knitting a Victorian gentleman’s scarf, or ‘comforter’. I’d long wanted to knit a comforter, after finding this reference to one in a newspaper account of my great uncle and favourite ancestor, X 3, John Fisher, working as a gamekeeper. I first wrote about this in “Fisticuffs: 1833 Style”:
Here was John Fisher, giving evidence in court about being assaulted by poachers:
…I clicked Debnam by the collar, and one of them said, D__n thee, let that dog loose, both dogs seized me by the heels and I kicked them off… I kept hold of Debnam and threw him on his back on the hedge. He got hold of my comfortable and tried to twitch it. I heard Wrightson call out: ‘Fish, fish, Oh! fish!’ I knew by that that he was done. I looked; and saw him on the ground; the men had left him, and he was trying to get up like a drunken man, but could not. I immediately received a blow over my shoulder from Goodricke, with the barrel of a gun. I cried out: ‘We’ll let you go!’ , and Wrightson said in a feeble way, ‘Aye, we’ll let them go!’ …
I’m assuming here John’s reference to “my comfortable” is the same as Victorian knitting manuals’ “Comforter” (Maybe a Northern variant of the word?)
As Christmas is coming and one of my sons requested a scarf with a ‘Ravenclaw’ theme, I picked up the needles to do that most dreaded of things: a scarf. To make the whole thing vaguely more interesting – insofaras any scarf knitting can be made interesting – I decided to choose and knit a genuine Victorian knitting pattern, or ‘receipt’. And to get even more bang for my buck, decided I’d learn a new (t0 me) technique. So, a double knitted Victorian scarf it was, then!
The scarf I knitted was “For a Comforter” from Cornelia Mee and Mary Austin’s ‘Exercises In Knitting’ (1847 edition).
Cornelia Mee was born at High St, Bath, Somerset on the 23rd of April, 1815; daughter of Thomas and Sarah Austin, nee Shoobert. According to Jane Sowerby in “Victorian Lace Today“, Cornelia’s father, Thomas Austin, was “a haberdasher. bookseller and undertaker”. Her mother’s maiden name may hint at the reason Cornelia got into the Berlin wool trade, although Sarah Shoobert was born in Hackney, around 1788, her grandfather came from Sachsen, Germany. It’s unclear whether Cornelia’s grandfather, John Conrad Schubert, was born in Germany or the UK, but he married in London in 1772 and his daughter Sarah was born in Hackney.
Cornelia’s parents lived in Bath. But the fact Cornelia’s death was registered in Hackney suggests they may have kept property there, despite living in Bath and later Mayfair, London. Her sister, Mary Austin was born in 1826, also in Bath. Cornelia had at least four older siblings, and three younger. Cornelia and Mary’s mother died in 1829 when Mary was only 3. Their father, Thomas, died the following year. Cornelia was 15. Cornelia seems to have continued her father’s shop, as a few months after her marriage, the Bath shop was still being advertised as “Austin’s Berlin Wool, French Silk and Embroidery Rooms”. It subsequently changed its name to “Mee’s”. Cornelia married Charles Mee, originally from Mathon, Worcestershire, in December 1837, in Bath. Cornelia and Mary were to live together for decades; Mary’s life taking the familiar route for many an unmarried nineteenth century younger sister; living with an older sister, brother-in-law and their family. Although she must have paid her way; working as a shop assistant, Berlin wool worker and later, as co-writer, with Cornelia.
By the late 1830s, Cornelia appears to have been in business running an embroidery company with Henry Faudel and Benjamin Phillips, as the partnership was dissolved – or rather, Cornelia took sole ownership of it, in January 1838. (The London Gazette, January 2nd, 1838). Faudel must have been close, as Cornelia’s eldest surviving daughter was named “Mary Faudel Mee”. In February 1839, Cornelia advertised that Austin’s Berlin wool warehouse was now in her sole control.
Although now, we think of the mid 19thC knitting manuals written by ‘Cornelia Mee’, she co-wrote her later books with her younger sister, Mary (“Miss Austin” born 1829), who for some reason, now seems largely forgotten. There were other sisterly duos co-writing knitting manuals in the nineteenth century; notably Elizabeth and Henrietta Ryder, in Richmond, Yorkshire. It seems the fate of the sister whose name is second on the book’s cover, is to be forgotten by history as the books seem to usually be described as “Cornelia Mee’s” when the ones with considerable knitting content were written by Cornelia and Mary. Cornelia and Mary’s patterns have been knitted up by some intrepid knitters (Search the ‘Patterns’ tab on ravelry.com). They look to be sophisticated and well executed designs. Cornelia and Mary’s “A Knitted Veil in Pyrenees wool” can be found on p.68ff of Jane Sowerby’s “Victorian Lace Today”, written in a way that makes it clear for contemporary knitters.
Like the Jacksons of York, their Berlin Wool Warehouse seems to have started with embroidery as its mainstay and then expanded into crochet and knitting, as these crafts grew in popularity amongst the middle classes in the 1840s.
If you go in search of her on the censuses, beware! ‘Cornelia’ was mis-transcribed as ‘Amelia’ on the 1851 Census. It was probably during her time here she started writing crochet and knitting manuals, starting in 1842 with the Manual of Knitting Netting and Crochet Work. In 1842, Cornelia announced in the papers that she had moved, implying the business had expanded:
C. MEE’S (lately Austin’s) FANCY NEEDLEWORK & EMBROIDERY ESTABLISHMENT is moved from 37, and 38 MILSOM ST to the above spacious and commodious Premises…. [No 41 Milsom St]
Crochet and knitting manuals seem to have come about in the late 1830s; partly as a response to the new availability of Berlin wool, in the UK. Most of the early knitting manual writers – women like Jane Gaugain, Elizabeth Jackson and Cornelia herself, ran Berlin Wool Warehouses, so there is a sense that the manuals came about partly as shrewd marketing for the yarn. Early manuals mention both Berlin and English wools – the Berlin often being a fine merino; the British from a sort of Leicester sheep.
Cornelia and Mary’s books were full of fairly everyday knitting; useful items, on the whole – not so much of the penny jugs or Victorian fol-de-rols. Although there are receipts (patterns) for lace, as well as workaday scarfs, wrist-warmers, and baby clothes. Cornelia published “Manual of Knitting Netting and Crochet Work” in 1842. She wasn’t the first woman to publish a ‘work table’ book – but she was one of the pioneers of the publishing phenomenon.
By all accounts, Milsom Street was a fashionable Bath address. By 1851, they were at 18, Daniel Street in Bath, with their three daughters, Mary, and three servants. (It’s possible this was their home and the business continued on Milsom St – I’m not sure). Cornelia had work at the Great Exhibition of 1851, and was lucky to escape the acid tongue of a reviewer in The Morning Chronicle, September 25th, 1851:
Mr Jancowski, of York, exhibits, in Class XIX., some rich but tasteless embroidery of a modern sort. Mrs Cornelia Mee shows, in various elements of secular design, much vigour and boldness. We regret that she has furnished no ecclesiastical work…
(She had already published a magazine of decorative ‘church needlework’ so her work wasn’t entirely secular. Cornelia won no prizes but an honourable mention at the Great Exhibition for “screens, and flags of all nations”, implying that embroidery was still the staple craft of her shop. “Screens” would refer to embroidered fire screens; possibly an earlier use of the colourful Berlin wool – knitting and crochet seem to have taken off after shops like the Mees’ and the Jacksons’ ewere firmly ensconced as embroiderers. The Mees moved to 229, Regent Street and were recorded there in 1858. It’s possible their Berlin wool warehouses were now a chain of shops, maybe in Bath and London; possibly further afield but I have yet to find advertisements to back up this supposition.
On census night in 1861, Cornelia was visiting the family of Henry Fisher, a timber merchant at the imposing 15 Rodney St, Liverpool. Cornelia didn’t give an occupation for herself. It appears she had some Liverpool connections, as her daughter, Mary Faudel Mee, was to die there, in 1870. Meanwhile, Charles Mee was now in London, at the prestigious address of 71 Brook St, and described himself as “Traveller/wine, hops, wool, needlework”. Sister Mary was listed as “Berlin wool worker” along with an employee, Annie McQueen, a 25 year old from Edinburgh. This is very suggestive of the excellence of ‘Berlin wool work’ in Scotland, and Annie McQueen can have been no stranger to the legacy of Scottish knitting manual writer, and Berlin wool warehouse owner, Jane Gaugain. (We also found an Edinburgh connection with one York Berlin wool warehouse). The whole story hints at the pan-European nature of the Berlin wool trade.
When I researched the York knitting manual writer, Elizabeth Jackson, I found she had many close family ties with Russia, and family members coming and going between Yorkshire and Russia – that was fairly typical of these female entrepreneurs/writers of the mid nineteenth century. It may be that the Schuberts also visited England and vice versa. This would explain the ‘German’ patterns and stitches that pop up in Cornelia and Mary’s work just as the ‘Russian’ ones in Jackson’s.
By 1871, Charles and Cornelia had a “Berlin Wool Shop” at 8, Brook St, Westminster (Mayfair). Cornelia’s death was registered in Hackney – where her mother had been born – in the final quarter of 1875. For a while, I could find no further trace of Mary Austin – I reasoned that she could be one of the Mary Austins who died between the 1871 and 1881 censuses – without getting death certificates, it would be hard to know. A search on BMD yielded a lot of Mary Austins and no way of knowing for sure, which was our’s. She may also have been one of the Mary Austins who married during that time, I thought which would explain why she was elusive in the 1881 Census. And I nearly never found Cornelia’s obit, either, as I had run a search for ‘Cornelia Mee’ and come up with nothing. Only to have the idea to try “Mrs Mee” which promptly not only gave me Cornelia’s obit but mention of the fact Mary died in December, 1874, the year before her sister.
I found Cornelia’s obituary in The Bath Chronicle for November 25th, 1875 which made the rather grandiose (and inaccurate) statement that Cornelia was the inventor of knitting manuals:
Our obituary contains a notice of the death of Mrs Mee, a sister of Mr E.Austin of Clifton. She may be said to be the founder of the literature of the work-table now so popular. Forty years ago, when residing at Bath, she issued a ‘Manual of Needlework’, which rapidly passed through several editions, and is still a standard work. Subsequently, in conjunction with her sister, (Miss Austin who died in December last), she produced ‘The Work Table Magazine’ a profusely-illustrated serial, which had a successful career. This was followed by a series of books having special reference to some particular department of needlework, such as embroidery, lace, knitting, netting, crochet, &c., all of which had large sales , and some of which have passed through upwards of a dozen editions. So well was she known as a mistress of art that Thackeray refers to her by name in ‘Vanity Fair’, and some other of his novels. Up to almost the time of her death she was engaged on a work in which flowers, and their language were to be illustrated by various designs in needlework.
Cornelia and Mary’s ‘Exercises In Knitting’ was published in 1846. I knitted the “For A Comforter” pattern (p.67, 1847 edition, here).
The pattern casually mentions working in “double knitting”. I guessed this was a stitch that appears to be stocking stitch on both sides but couldn’t immediately find much help online, as to how to do “double knitting”. When I did find instructions, for “Victorian double knitting” on a blog – they turned out to be completely incorrect. The Victorian knitting manuals weren’t much help, either; writers seemed to casually mention “double knitting” without ever describing how to do it.
Eventually, I found a very precise and helpful description of double knitting in another of Cornelia and Mary’s works, “Manual of Knitting: Beautifully Illustrated” which was by “Mrs Mee and Miss Austin” (1860 edition). With some random wool and needles (I used guernsey 5 ply and 3.25mm needles), it’s easier to understand if you cast on a small, even number of stitches and follow the directions:
Cast on an even number of stitches.
1st row. Bring the wool forward, slip 1 the reverse way, pass the wool back, knit 1, passing the wool twice round the pin, repeat.
2nd row. Bring the wool forward, slip off the double stitch the reverse way, pass the wool back, knit 1, passing the wool twice round the pin, repeat.
To knit your scarf, then simply repeat the “2nd row” for every row. On the final row, where you wound the yarn round double, just wind it round once so you end up with the same number of stitches you cast on.
This may not make sense until you’re doing it, but basically, on every row you’re dropping one of the ‘doubled’ stitches you made on the previous row, then creating a new one. This means you need to work two rows to make the scarf grow by one row as you’re only really working one side of the scarf per row (It’ll make sense when you’re doing it, trust me!)
Another tip – work ends in as you go, by bringing them round to the front when you pass/drop the purl, then passing the tail to the back as you knit the knitted stitch. this will work the tail to the inside of the scarf.
When slipping and dropping, you have the yarn in front. When knitting and making the new loop, you have the yarn in your normal working position for a knit stitch. I found this works brilliantly with Portuguese Knitting, as I can work both the knit and the slipped stitches with the yarn at the front of the work (orientated as I’d normally have it, when doing a knit stitch with this technique) – which made it ergonomic.But it’s easiest to work Victorian double knitting by using the knitting technique you prefer and use normally.
I did a provisional cast on, to leave the scarf stitches live at the cast on edge, and then also left them live at the end. I then used “German Double Knitting” from Cornelia and Mary’s “Manual of Knitting” (1862 edition), for an edging; knitting it sideways and working the last stitch of every other row in with the live stitch of the scarf’s edge (K2tog), the same way you would with the edge of a Shetland shawl.
There are some very decorative looking edgings/border patterns in Cornelia and Mary’s books, but all looked a bit ‘girly’ for a scarf for my son, so I decided a narrow band of German Double Knitting – cast on with 9 stitches – would work. Here is their version of German Double Knitting (I made one correction to make it work):
GERMAN DOUBLE KNITTING
Cast on an uneven number of stitches.
1st row: P2, YO, Slip 1, *P1, YO, Slip 1; repeat from * to end of row
2nd row: ** P2 tog, YO, slip 1, repeat from ** to end of row.
The first row is not repeated. The whole is done like the second row.
When you have consumed all your scarf stitches, CO.
Jane Gaugain was possibly the first manual writer to develop abbreviations for knitting patterns – Jane’s shorthand, sadly, did not survive as it was a bit clunky; our contemporary abbreviations are more logical and intuitive than Jane’s inverted Ts, etc. Cornelia and Mary eschewed abbreviations and simply wrote instructions out in full. There are inaccuracies in some patterns, but generally where there is explanation, it is reasonably concise and clear. I found a mistake in the German Double Knitting but was quickly able to identify it, and adapt the pattern accordingly.
The original scarf requires “four-thread fleecy” yarn, and is knitted in alternating stripes of geranium and grey, with one wider stripe at each end, then most stripes 12 rows deep. No 11 pins (3mm needles) are recommended. I’m not sure, but suspect four thread fleecy is some kind of 4 ply. ‘Fleecy’ sometimes referred to wool from a Leicester sheep as opposed to the imported German wools.
The fabric produced is not going to be as well tensioned as your usual knitting – you have to try to be as consistent as possible when wrapping the yarn. Things will even out in the wash, as they usually do, with knitting, to some extent. I found myself wondering if Cornelia learned this from her mother – whether it was originally a German or English technique, or used in both countries?
The knitted fabric is genuinely ‘double’ and its advantage for a scarf is that it will be warmer, as well as more stable and having the same appearance on both sides without the knitter having to cast on double the number of stitches and knit a tube. The number of stitches cast on is 48, but you should be counting 71 loops over the needle on each row, once you’re up and running. Don’t forget to reduce the stitches back to your original cast on row number, when on your last row, or your scarf will have different width ends.
Also, as effectively you’re slipping and dropping stitches, it’s quite a fast knit. And definitely a technique I’ll use again when I need to knit a fabric that has a ‘stocking stitch’ appearance on both sides.
Victorian Lace Today, Jane Sowerby, XRX Inc., 2006
This is by no means a complete bibliography – if you are aware of something I haven’t listed here, get in touch and I will add it. Many books have not been digitised; and some that have are not first editions, making it hard to track down the various imprints’ dates when date isn’t given on the title page. I’ve given the earliest edition I can find mention of online, where I’ve given a date. The Knitter’s Companion appears to be a series – certainly being actively published in the 1860s, possibly earlier. I can only find a couple of titles, though.
A Manual of Knitting, Netting & Crochet Work, Cornelia Mee, 1842 (according to newspaper advert in The Bath Chronicle).
Mee’s Companion To The Work-Table, Cornelia Mee, Bogue, London, 1844
Exercises In Knitting, Cornelia Mee and Mary Austin,
The Work-Table Magazine of Church and Decorative Needlwork, Cornelia Mee and Mary Austin, Bogue, London, First Volume 1847
The Third Series of Crochet A La Broderie Anglaise Cornelia, Mee (Mentioned in The Bath Chronicle, November 25th, 1858, as an earlier publication)
Crochet A La Tricoter, Cornelia Mee, Aylott & Co., London, 1858 (Mentioned in The Bath Chronicle, November 25th, 1858)
Manual of Knitting, Beautifully Illustrated, Cornelia Mee and Mary Austin, 1860
The Knitter’s Companion, Cornelia Mee and Mary Austin, self published, into the 1860s. Seems to be a series of different books. One is titled “The Queen’s Winter Knitting Book, Series 3 of ‘The Knitter’s Companion'”, 1862.
Recently we were demo-ing at the Kendal Wool Gathering, and at some point in the early afternoon, a lady came in, walked up to us, and asked us if we’d be interested in having her old spinning wheel. She said she had just got in the building, we were the first people she had spoken to, and had a spinning wheel in the car ready to donate to someone who would use it to teach others. She’d been a teacher – now retired – and no longer wished to spin. She said she had taught very many kids to spin on the wheel in her teaching days. Would we be interested? That was one of those hairs stand up on the back of your neck moments as we had been about to launch a search for precisely that thing…
The week before, I had messaged a very helpful spinning teacher on Ravelry, and asked how to go about getting a spinning wheel or two donated, so we could teach at demos and maybe elsewhere, if there proves to be a demand. The kind of wheel I had in mind was something like an Ashford Traditional. My own wheels wouldn’t be much use. One is too fast for a beginner; it would be analogous to a learner driver getting into a Formula One car for their first driving lesson. Scary. The other, has proven too delicate to be transported around very much (in fact was returning to us, that very day at Kendal, from a stay in the spinning wheel repair-shop at Woodland Turnery). It is a lovely wheel, but not one suitable to be moved around a lot; more temperamental thoroughbred when what we need for demo-ing and teaching is a sturdy pit pony. I love both my Timbertops wheels dearly but neither are remotely ‘teaching wheels’.
Almost every spinner has tried, used, or owned as a beginner – and many kept far beyond being beginners – an Ashford Traditional or the little Ashford upright, the Traveller. I’d go so far as to say, from my generation (learning to spin in the 1980s) most people in the UK probably learned on one of these New Zealand made kit wheels. They were the most widely available wheel, and had a reputation for being reliable; slow enough for a learner but with the capability to grow with you; and pretty well ubiquitous in the spinning world, to the point that I felt a bit of a freak, having learned on a Haldane, then moved on to Jensen and Timbertops wheels. It is the spinners’ equivalent of ‘Never seen Star Wars’ – never spun on an Ashford. Few people can claim that. Yet for me, it was the truth. Never spun on one, or so much as touched one, til one evening I got the chance to fettle one.
One of my most treasured memories (and I have a lot) of my late friend Caro, is the evening she asked me to go round to fettle her secondhand Ashford Traditional that she hadn’t quite got her head round, yet. I took my own wheel with me, and spent a very happy evening fettling, tinkering, messing and finally – after over 30 years as a spinner – playing on a Traditional. And eventually, even got her spinning on it! We meant to meet up and do our little spinning bee much more often, but ‘life gets in the way’ etc – somehow these plans never quite come together and before you know it, the chance is gone. Lost opportunity. I had her spinning and smiling that evening, though and that is a great memory.
Now I’m a left-handed spinner, which means I can’t spin on a wheel like the Traditional with the flyer to the left of the drive wheel, for any length of time without getting back ache. But for the odd hour, it’s fine and to teach someone else (who is spinning right handed) it would make perfect sense. Yet, I have to admit, once I had Caro’s (1970s?) Traditional up and running, I rather liked it, to my surprise. To the point, I started looking on eBay but they always seemed to go for more than I could afford, the very word ‘Ashford’ being a selling point, and I really only wanted it to teach other people, because it has Scotch tension, and is the kind of wheel they’re far more likely to end up buying.
So, there we were in Kendal, being offered a wheel. I didn’t want to get my hopes up it was an Ashford Traditional; precisely the wheel I’d been about to put an ‘In Search Of’ post up, on Ravelry, for. The lady said she could go down to the car park, after a preliminary walk round the show, to fetch the wheel. I thought it was too good to be true. She’d probably not return to us, or find someone more worthy. (She’d already walked right past a lovely spinner in the doorway of the room where we were and somehow made her way straight to us, at the back of the room).
I tried to take my mind off it, and there were plenty of lovely people to meet and chat with – so a bit of time passed and t- whilst I went for a wander leaving Worser Half in charge – there the lovely lady was, with an Ashford Traditional under her arm. I missed my chance to chat with her again, as the wheel was sitting there, by our stuff, when I returned from my amblings. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to ask her first name, when I saw her, at least! But I was a bit stunned to meet with such serendipity and kindness. All I remember she told me of the wheel was that it had been used to teach many children, and that it had been stored in a slightly damp place (garage?) the past few months. I’d been a primary teacher probably at the same time this lady was teaching and had also taught many, many children to spin but only ever on spindles. Teaching is something you never really shake off, and I have been thinking for a while, of starting to teach spinning in the new year.
We had gone to Kendal with our small car packed up to the ceiling to demo. And had left precisely enough space to fit my repaired wheel, Betty, in for the journey home. So after the show, getting the Ashford in the car was a bit like doing Tetris in real life. And it took us quite a few goes, but eventually, we got it and we managed to stuff the car not only with the demo stuff, and my own wheel (Thankfully, we’d not done the usual thing and taken our Great Wheel) but also the new wheel.
I knew nothing of the history of Ashfords, so did a quick bit of internetting when we got home, and discovered the Ashford Traditional Time Line. A handy guide to help figure out when your Traditional was made. This put the wheel at maybe around 1980/81 (without the click fit bearings, but the tension knob is in the same place as the ’81). This very wheel may have been standing in a shop not long before the time I went to buy my first wheel, in 1984. Which is a strange thought. Have to admit, this late 70s-ish is my favourite type of Traditional, aesthetically – I hadn’t consciously noticed, over the years, but the spokes became fancy turned ones not long after this. I prefer the plainer spokes of the 1970s – more in character with the 20thC style of the wheel, those plainer spokes.
I like the wheel’s nylon bearings as well, only ever having had wheels with leather. Which has its limitations. The wheel is sturdy enough to be transported around, and after many years looking at old, old wheels as well as some recent but old-school beauties, like Timbertops, I’m actually quite appreciating this wheel’s no-nonsense utilitarian, work-horse style. A bit like my favourite spindles tend to be the plastic, 3D printer made ones in neon colours because I spend a lot of my life looking at the old lead ones!
As these wheels started being produced during wartime, (1940, the Ashford Homecraft, a direct ancestor of the Traditional, according to the Timeline), it is also perfect timing for us, given the current research work I am doing on the Land Army. The perfect wheel finding us at the perfect time, in other words.
Knowing it had been kept somewhere damp (but not for long), we wanted to strip it down, to give it a thorough clean and fettle although in the end, the screws attaching the con-rod were totally seized and didn’t even shift with PlusGas – which I’ve managed to un-seize Edwardian sewing machine parts, before now! Ashford now recommend when assembling a wheel, you rub a bit of wax on the screws, and if that had been done, we’d have had no problem. There was a bit of a wobble on the wheel but no massive damage we could see. We decided in the end not to remove the wheel and hub from the axle, but just clean the visible bits of axle with a thin bit of cloth (a bit like flossing). As whatever was causing the wobble didn’t seem to be debris on the axle, from what we could see…
And a loud squeak came from the leather con-rod joint. Replacements are available but in our case, we couldn’t replace it as the screws holding it in were seized, so instead we have liberally applied dubbin over the past couple of weeks, and now the squeak is now minimal and will hopefully be eliminated over time, with more dubbin. I’d prefer to use my Brooks Proofide, I keep for my leather bike saddles, as that’s the best leather conditioner there is – but predictably, now I need it, it has proven elusive, so the wheel got cheap dubbin instead.
After sanding, the wheel drank a couple of coats of oil. It’s now really ready for another coat – apparently, coats with gaps of hours or days (or weeks) between is a good idea for long-starved wood.
The kind lady who gave us the wheel said she’d lost the bobbin brake on the way, (“I swear I saw it when I put the wheel in!”) so we replaced that with a £1.99 one from Fibrehut. Older wheels have only one spring on the bobbin brake – newer ones have two; one either side of the mother of all. So the current kits have two springs – which we stuck with. (Seem to recall I may have used an elastic band on Caro’s, unless the old spring was there – not sure). I have spun on a double drive all my spinning life, so Scotch tension is a novelty.
Apart from the missing bobbin brake, its only other problem was the lone bobbin’s core had swollen and it had got stuck on the flyer shaft. We soon got that off, and got a couple of replacement bobbins. The shaft has cleaned up just fine. I oil this pretty well every time I sit down at any wheel, so it should not be a problem, from now on.
The wood of the entire wheel was stained in places (but not warped or split). The back end of the mother of all was most affected – but again, no ply-wood split or warped. I think if it had been stored in a damp place much longer, the wheel would have really started to suffer, though. We gave the wheel a light sanding, then applied my favourite magic potion I use on my vintage sewing machines, Parker & Bailey’s ‘Orange Oil Polish’. (Available from Lakeland). Several coats of oil over a period of a couple of weeks, and the wood looks much, much better. Apart from the treadle which, even with a sanding, looks a little bit – sad. But nothing that affects its functionality, so we won’t be replacing it.
I will leave it as a single treadle although double treadle conversion kits exist. I have used double treadle wheels for years but have no problem with single treadle, either. This is another huge advantage of getting a wheel like the Ashford Traditional – you can get spares and upgrade parts, very easily. I can’t really overstate that, as someone who usually has wheels that have hard to track down parts. Life is easier now we have Woodland Turnery, as we can get bits replaced, new bobbins, etc. But life wasn’t always so simple! The repair on Betty, by the way, now has her back to her old self. Apparently, when I bought her, my Timbertops Lonsdale, Betty, had a very old crack in a rather hidden part of the gubbins, which the seller couldn’t possibly have known about, nor did I, despite stripping her down and cleaning as well as I could. The crack was very old, Woodland Turnery thought, as it was literally black. One day, it all got too much and Betty fell apart. She is now fixed. I’m told the Lonsdale was a prototype wheel, essentially, and so many spinners with longer legs than me, find it a bit inconvenient to spin on as there is little clearance above the pedal. I have the legs of Gimli, so no problem here. But thought I better mention it as I’ve extolled the virtues of my Lonsdale in the past, not realising its limitations for people with longer legs – sometimes stumpy legs are an advantage! I should have realised my legs were freakishly short, as we once had an old Volvo, and I could only drive it with the seat as close as physically possible, to the steering wheel and even then I could only reach the pedals at tip toe (and I’m 5’6″). Clearly, a car made for Scandinavian supermodels, not Gimli.
Quick oiling and spin on it this morning, and the Ashford appears like it will be great for demos and teaching. I am going to spend 5 minutes a day teaching myself to spin right handed on it. Because it’s about time I did. My entire spinning life has been spent with uprights with centrally placed flyers or the Chair Wheel with the flyer set to the right of the drive wheels. But I think it makes sense to teach people right handed or left, whichever they choose. (Unlike the Great Wheel where it is, of course, left handed).
The wheel was given to us, so we could teach new spinners, so we hope to get plenty of chances to do just that, in the coming year. As he found us at Kendal, I’ve christened him ‘Kenny’ which seems like a suitable war-time name for a war-time design classic.
I will be forever grateful to that anonymous woman who came to Kendal with a 1970s’ wheel in her car, on the offchance she’d find someone who could use it. We can and will use it. Life is full of missed opportunities so am glad I took this one, when it presented itself.