For almost as long as I’ve been a knitter,
I’ve been fascinated by the history of knitting. I’ve
especially enjoyed the mind-twisting process of working with
the often obtuse and obfuscatory language of antique patterns.
There’s a thrill, I find, in watching a project emerge
row by row and knowing that other knitters, long gone, followed
the same path.
The process of decoding, testing and correcting isn’t for everyone,
though; and so in this column I hope to share the excitement of the journey
by removing as many of the roadblocks as possible. You don’t need
to be a historian to come along–just a knitter with a curious mind.
Like a Hat Out of Hell
“Some days,” my grandfather
used to tell me, “you eat the bear.
And some days, the bear eats you.” It
was an oddly rural choice of imagery for
a man born and raised in Detroit, but the
point was well taken: your place in the great
food chain of life is subject to change without
notice. Though I remain uneaten, three months
in the arena with Frances Lambert’s
1847 take on a lady’s knitted traveling
cap have left me feeling distinctly nibbled
I admit that the cap is a curious choice
of pattern for Knitty. Its usefulness,
for any woman who doesn’t spend her
weekends lolling around a living history
museum, is limited. We have no true modern
equivalent. It was intended to be worn in
spaces – a coach, an inn, a hospitable
stranger’s parlor – where a hat
would have been too much; but to be entirely
hatless would have been both immodest and
possibly chilly. Though it perches high atop
the wearer like a nervous bird, it covers
the ears neatly and offers a surprising amount
If you are a woman who spends her weekends
lolling around a living history museum, you
are thinking, “My goodness, isn’t
that just the very thing!” If you are
not such a woman, you are asking, “Why
on earth would anybody make this?”
I’m so happy you asked.***
An enigmatic aura surrounds most historic
knitting patterns, particularly those that – like
this cap – were published without even
a sketch of the finished product. This makes
casting on a sort of casting off: you
plow into uncharted waters with at best a
vague notion of where you’ll end up.
The destination reveals itself gradually,
by stages. Those of you who have participated
in mystery knit-alongs will understand the
The danger, of course, lies in sailing up
a blind inlet while thinking you’re
heading for the Northwest Passage. It’s
not necessarily that there are errors in
the pattern, though often there are. It’s
more a matter of ambiguity in how maneuvers
are described. Miss Lambert might intend
for you to Do This, or she might intend
for you to Do That. You have no choice but
to guess which she means, and if you choose
wrong you may not find out for quite some
An average pattern will offer you one or
two such forks in the path. Usually I like
them. They add spice. This pattern, however,
was a conga line of ambiguities, including
uncertainty at several key junctions whether
Miss Lambert truly meant “knit” when
she wrote “knit,” or whether
she meant “purl.”
While it’s unfair to get to angry
with the dear lady – she was, after
all, attempting to convey in words what had
for centuries been taught by direct demonstration – I
confess that by the fourth time I ripped
out and re-calculated the decreases in the
crown, I began to hope she had died a painful
death and gone to a circle of Hell in which
she is forever poked with double-pointed
needles and peppered with insoluble pattern
it worth it, in the end? It was. I always
hope that these antique mystery knits will
turn up a twist or a technique that I haven’t
encountered before, and this one did. Even
if you have no interest in knitting the
full cap, check out the intriguing stitch
pattern that (kinda sorta) gets carried
through the entire piece.
At first glance, it looks like stockinette
with an occasional ridge of garter – but
it’s not. It uses radical decreases
and increases to create a stockinette-like
fabric that lies flat and does not curl.
I kid you not. What’s
more, Miss Lambert’s clever practice
of changing to a new color on fourth row
of her stitch pattern causes the shades to
blend gently from one to the next like watercolors. Enchanting.
It’s almost enough to make me to hope
she’s not actually in Hell.
*I know this for certain because after
finishing it I wore it around the house
for several hours on my very bald head.
There are few borders, gentle reader, which
your humble correspondent will not cross
to make you happy.**
** No, there are no pictures of this.
That would be one of the few borders I
will not cross.
***Because this would otherwise be a
dreadfully short column and the editor
would yell at me.
translated by Franklin Habit from My
Knitting Book (Second Series)
by Frances Lambert
Length from front edge of roll to tip of
peak: 8 inches
Height from crown to bottom edge of roll: 9 inches
Historic note:The original pattern calls for a selection
of five shades of any light color, plus white.
Recommended needle size [always use a needle
size that gives you the gauge
listed below -- every knitter's
gauge is unique]
24-inch US #5/3.75 mm circular needle
or safety pin
20 sts/28 rows = 4" in texture pattern
PATTERN NOTES [Knitty's list of standard abbreviations and techniques can be found here.]
The cap is worked in one piece from the
outer “roll” or brim to the “frill” at
p3tog: Purl next 3 sts together. 2 sts decreased.
p4tog: Purl next 4 sts together. 3 sts decreased.
Texture Pattern (Worked over an even number of sts): Row 1 [RS]: K1, [k2tog] to last st, k1. Row 2 [WS]: [K1, m1] to last 2 sts, k2. Row 3 [RS]: K all sts. Row 4 [WS]: K1, p to end. Note that changes of
color are always made at the beginning of this row!
Repeat Rows 1-4 for Texture Pattern.
It is a good idea to swatch the texture pattern before beginning,
to ensure that you are familiar with it.
Using CC1, CO 102 sts. K 1 row (a WS row).
Work Rows 1-3 of Texture Pattern.
Continue in Texture Pattern as follows, beginning with Row
4. When changing colors, always leave
a tail approx. 6 inches long of both
the color you have just finished working
with, and the new color.
Work 4 rows using CC2.
Work 4 rows using CC3.
Work 4 rows using CC4.
Work 4 rows using CC5.
Work 4 rows using MC.
Work 4 rows using CC5.
Work 4 rows using CC4.
Work 4 rows using CC3.
Work 4 rows using CC2.
Work 4 rows using CC1.
Using MC, p 1 row. This row marks the point where the front
roll will fold back. The side of the work which has
been the RS will now become the WS.
Continuing with MC, work Row 4 of Texture
Pattern, then Rows 1-3.
Shape back of crown as follows. Note that decreases used will
create holes in fabric; this effect is intentional. Row 1 [RS]: K1, [k2tog] 3 times, k1. Turn
work. Row 2 [WS]: [K1, m1] 3 times, k2. Turn
work. Row 3 [RS]: K8. Turn work. Row 4 [WS]: K1, p6, p3tog. Turn work.
Row 5 [RS]: K1, [k2tog] 3 times, k3tog. Turn work. Rows 6-8: Work as for Rows 2-4.
Repeat Rows 5-8 four times more, then work
Rows 5-7 once more. 67 sts: 8 sts at center, 30 sts at left
side of center, 29 sts at right side of center (when RS is facing).
Using CC3, continue as follows: Row 1 [WS]: K1, p6, p4tog. Turn work.
Row 14 [RS]: *[K2tog] 3 times, k1; repeat
from * 4 times more. Turn work.
Row 15 [WS]: [K1, m1] 19 times, k4. Turn
Row 16 [RS]: K42. 58 sts: 42 sts at center,
8 sts at each side.
Row 17 [WS]: Using CC1, k1, p48, k1. Short
row shaping is complete.
Continuing with CC1, work Rows 1-3 of Texture Pattern.
BO all sts.
TIES (Make 2)
Cut eight 24-inch lengths of CC5 and sixteen
36-inch lengths of CC1.
Divide lengths into six bundles of four
strands each: two bundles of CC5 and four bundles of CC1.
Take one CC1 bundle and two CC5 bundles and tie them together
with an overhand knot approx. 1 inch from the end. Fasten the
knot end to a blocking mat or the arm of an upholstered chair
with a T-pin or safety pin, and braid the three bundles together.
When approx. 3 inches of yarn remain, fasten with another firm
Trim ends to approx. 0.25 inch.
Using MC, create two three-inch long tassels. Attach one tassel
to each tie.
Historic note: As an alternative to the braided cords,
Miss Lambert recommends using lengths of matching ribbon without
tassels. She says these are “prettier,” and they
also happen to be less of a pain in the
neck to make.
Weave in ends. Soak and gently block.
When dry, fold back front roll along the MC stripe and use
a length of CC1 to sew CO edge to foremost edge of crown.
Using MC, firmly sew non-tasseled end of each tie to right
and left inside of cap, where front roll and back shaping come
together at a point.
This cap is worn very high, exposing most of the top of the
head. It should be tipped backwards slightly so that the sides
of the front roll cover the ears. Tie the cords just under the
right or left ear, whichever is preferred. When rough travel
is expected, for example by coach or on Mr. Cunard’s new
ocean-going paddle wheeler, a few judiciously-placed hair pins
may be employed.