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Pink Needles
Amy's Vintage Office - exclusive Lorna's Laces colorway!

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.

And so we begin, with lace–for men.

Join Me for a Nightcap

The ancient ancestors of – the very first printed knitting books – date from the late 1830s, at the onset of the original Knitting Craze. Around this time knitting, which had once been the private domain of guildsmen and then the humble enterprise of cottagers, acquired a genteel cachet and was allowed into the drawing room.

Cultivated ladies newly addicted to needles and yarn needed patterns to work from, and publishers brought forth a flood of popular, inexpensive titles such as Jane Gaugain’s The Lady’s Assistant (1840).

At first glance, these early books appear to the modern knitter as an invitation to headache and madness. The vocabulary is archaic; what we call a “purl” may be called a “pearl,” a “turn” or a “seam,” even within the same pattern. The “recipes” are often written in a stream-of-consciousness style that anticipates James Joyce. The errors – even in works that promise on the title page to be scrupulously accurate – are legion.

And so the titles that fueled knitting’s rise to popularity gather dust, unexplored by any but the most adventurous historians and re-enactors. More’s the pity, because long-lost beauties are hidden beneath the pile of crabbed typefaces and run-on sentences.

One such is the “gentleman’s night cap” (sic) included in the knitting chapter of The Workwoman’s Guide, first published in 1838. The anonymous author, who signed herself “A Lady,” introduces it thus:

This cap has a very pretty appearance, something resembling old-fashioned insertion lace,
as there is an ornamented border round the head. It is done with fine needles and cotton,
and knit round like a stocking.

The “ornamented border” is a wonder. Knit from the bottom up, it provides a scalloped, lacy edge with a hint of elasticity. Even unblocked, it does not curl. Try it as the hem of a skirt or tank top, or at the cuff of a sleeve.

As for the cap, if you don’t happen to be or know a cold-headed Victorian gentleman, consider creating a infant’s version. Reduce the number of cast-on stitches (using a multiple of thirteen), increase the number of decrease points to seven or eight, and shape a rounded instead of pointed top. Worked in a fine yarn, this would yield a splendid christening bonnet, especially if used with a gown or shawl that also incorporates the lacy border.


spacer model: Tom Rothschild spacer photos: Franklin Habit


From the second, revised edition of  The Workwoman’s Guide, by A Lady, translated for the modern knitter by Franklin Habit.


Circumference: 22 inches at opening.
Depth: 11.5 inches from edging to peak.


spacer Steinbach Wolle Maxi [100% cotton; 550m/600yd per 100g skein]; color: 02 White; 1 ball

Recommended needle size:
spacer 1 16-inch US 0/2.25 mm circular needle
spacer 1 set of five US 0/2.25 mm double-point needles
[always use a needle size that gives you the gauge listed below -- every knitter's gauge is unique]

spacer Four stitch markers
spacer Blunt sewing needle

32 sts/21 rows = 4 inches in stockinette stitch
[Knitty's list of standard abbreviations and techniques can be found here]
YO2 (double yarn over): Wrap the yarn twice around the needle before working the next stitch.
Cast on 208 stitches. Join, being careful not to twist. Place a marker on the needle to indicate the beginning of the round.

Round 1: (P1, k1, p1, skp, k6, yo, k1, yo, k1)  around.

Round 2 and all even rounds: (P1, k1, p1, skp, k9) around.

Round 3: (P1, k1, p1, skp, k5, yo, k1, yo, k2) around.

Round 5: (P1, k1, p1, skp, k4, yo, k1, yo, k3) around.

Round 7: (P1, k1, p1, skp, k3, yo, k1, yo, k4) around.

Round 9: (P1, k1, p1, skp, k2, yo, k1, yo, k5) around.

Round 11: (P1, k1, p1, skp, k1, yo, k1, yo, k6) around.

Round 12: (P1, k1, p1, skp, k9) around.

Rounds 13 and 14: Knit.
Rounds 15-20: Purl.
Round 21: YO2, k2tog around.
Round 22: Purl, working the first wrap of each YO2 and dropping the second.

Repeat Rounds 13-22 twice more.
Purl 5 rounds.


Establish decrease points by placing markers after the 52nd, 104th, 156th, and 208th stitches. You will work decreases immediately before each marker.
Round 48: (K to within 2 sts of marker, k2tog) around.
Round 49: Knit.
Round 50: Purl.

When your stitches no longer fit comfortably on  the circular needle, transfer the cap to four double-pointed needles–one for each quarter–and mark the beginning of the round by placing a stitch marker into the first stitch. Decrease at the end of each needle to continue the unbroken lines of decreases.

As you near the end, I strongly advise working over a table to stabilize the cap and your needles.

Continue until four stitches remain, ending with a decrease round.

Do not bind off, but place the live stitches on a scrap of waste yarn.

Make a tassel according to your own fancy from the same yarn used for the cap, and secure it through the four remaining stitches. Weave in ends. Wash and gently block the cap. Do not pin out the lacy edge when blocking, as this will destroy the elasticity that is desirable for a good fit.
Suggestions for Further Reading

Rutt, Richard. A History of Hand Knitting. Loveland, CO: Interweave Press.

Lady, A. The Workwoman’s Guide. The original edition of 1838 is readily available from retail sources in a facsimile edition by Piper Publishing. The second, revised edition of 1840 (from which the nightcap pattern was taken) can be found online through

Franklin Habit is a knitter, writer, illustrator and photographer who lives in Chicago. His first book, It Itches: A Stash of Knitting Cartoons, will be published by Interweave Press in October 2008.

Visit his blog at