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.
Elephant Talk I once had this boyfriend
whose sole culinary accomplishment was
mastery of a much-cherished family recipe known
Hamilton’s Cake.” He said he
got it from his mother, who invariably produced
it when called upon to furnish dessert for
a pot luck or family reunion.
My boyfriend’s mother was not a Hamilton
by birth or marriage. Nor was her mother,
nor indeed were any of her relations. As
it happened, nobody in the family could remember
who Mrs. Hamilton was. All that was left
of her, so far as they were concerned, was
a yellowing recipe card covered in loopy
Palmer script, stained with seventy years
of homemade macaroon crumbs and whipped cream.*
Today we’re going to talk about a
toy elephant pattern from the first half
of the twentieth century with similar shadowy
origins. Like the cake recipe, it has also
been passed hand-to-hand. Unlike the cake
recipe, I’m going to share it with
you. I got it from my friend Sue Rothschild,
of Rochester, Minnesota. She got it from
her mother’s friend Ida, who…
But no, I’m getting ahead of myself.
And I want Sue to help tell the story.
FH: I suppose if we’re going
to record the full history of the knitted
elephant, we ought to know something about
how it is you started knitting.
SR: Well, it would have
been in 1948 or 1949 – I purchased
a beautiful wool sweater for my boyfriend,
which had a gray and turquoise design at
the neck. And I thought he should have argyle
socks to match.
FH: Ah. Handmade argyle knee socks were
the pinnacle of boyfriend gifts at the time,
Now, the Jewish community in my hometown – Mattoon,
Illinois – had helped two German-Jewish
refugee families relocate to Mattoon from
Germany around 1940. The head of one of the
families was a doctor, and fairly well-to-do.
But the husband in the other family was too
old and too sick to work. So his wife, Mrs.
Uland, opened a little knitting shop above
one of the retail stores in town to support
I went to her with the sweater, and told
her what I wanted to do, and she helped me
choose the wool. She was patient and a very
good teacher. I can see her yet…she
was a sweet lady.
FH: Wait a minute–your first
knitting project was a pair of argyle socks?
SR: That’s right.
FH: And how did they turn out?
SR: Well, when I was finished I had one
anklet and one knee-high.
SR: But he wore them!
FH: That was good of him.
SR: Yes, he was sweet. But he always rolled
up his pant legs to show people what had
FH: Oh. Was this the man you went on to
SR: No. And that was it with the knitting
for a little while.
[But it wasn’t the end of her work
with fiber. In 1948, Sue won a scholarship
to attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
And though she had intended to study business,
a presentation by the female chair of the
Home Economics department persuaded her to
change her focus to textiles. After earning
Bachelor and Master of Science degrees, she
went on to teaching posts at both Illinois
Wesleyan University in Bloomington, Illinois
and Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana.
Marriage in 1955 didn’t interrupt
her career, but impending motherhood did.
In 1960, after finishing the semester in
a series of looser and looser outfits, she
resigned due to a university policy that
forbid pregnant women to stand in front of
FH: So how long after the socks until you
picked up the needles?
SR: Well, a friend of my
mother’s – Ida
Cantwell – had made this elephant.
This would have been around 1950. I’m
not sure where she got the pattern from.
The original I think maybe came from a newspaper,
and her mother had sent away for it; but
she had typed out a copy for herself and
didn’t want it any more. So she gave
it to me. And I couldn’t work from
it. I had only made socks, remember, so I
was knitting on one side and purling across
FH: I can understand that. The original
SR: Right. So I decided to make my own instructions.
[Sue’s version (at right) is a
testament to the determination of a lone
knitter to rise above and finish. Using sheets
of ledger paper, she systematically created
a hybrid half-charted, half-written version
unlike any pattern I’ve ever seen in
That did the trick. Over the years Sue knit
a score of elephants, recorded in a list
kept tucked in with the patterns. The recipients
included her own sons, nieces and nephews,
the children of her husband’s co-workers,
and – in a nice touch of poetic justice – a
descendant of the family that had help the
Ulands escape from Germany.
When she gave the list to me, her sewing-up
needle was still stuck through it, ready
for use on the next project .]
FH: You really turned out a herd. Were they
appreciated as gifts?
SR: Oh my, yes. I think so much so that
they tended to be used as decorations instead
of as toys to drag around. They were a labor
FH: I have to ask – since
crochet, how did you deal with the crocheted
feet? I’m going to include a knitted
alternative. What did you do?
SR: My grandmother, Ethel Hedges, always
made the feet for me. She didn’t knit,
but she was a professional seamstress, and
she could crochet and tat. She could turn
them out in no time.
FH: And I know that the charted
instructions weren’t your only innovation with this
pattern. I’m going to have to ask you
about stuffing the legs.
SR (laughing): Oh, my. Do you really think
we ought to include that?
FH: Yes, I do. Please tell me about your
SR: It’s a good elephant but I never
liked stuffing them. And when Ida Cantwell
made her elephants, they never stood up straight.
So I was looking at the leg opening one day,
and realized it was the perfect size for
one tightly-rolled sanitary napkin. After
that, I always used them and they always
FH: And did anybody ever know?
SR: No. But they will now, won’t they?
*These being the only ingredients I
ever managed to pry out of the boyfriend,
who (like his mother) regarded Mrs. Hamilton’s
Cake as a cherished family secret and refused
in spite of much pleading to give me the
recipe. But that’s not the reason I
broke up with him. Not the only reason.
Translated by Franklin Habit from "Nursery
Elephant of Wool," anonymously published c. 1930-1949,
with revisions c. 1950 by Sue Rothschild.
Cascade 220 Quatro [100% wool; 220yd/201m per 100g skein];
color: #5011 Crème Brulée; 2 skeins
[CC] Cascade 220 [100% wool; 220yd/201m per 100g skein]; color: #9421 Blue
Hawaii; 1 skein.
Recommended needle size [always use a needle
size that gives you the gauge
listed below -- every knitter's
gauge is unique]
set US #4/3.5mm straight needles
1 US #D/3 / 3.25mm crochet hook size (optional; see Pattern Notes)
Row counter (optional but recommended)
Safety pins or locking stitch markers
Approx. 6-7 oz polyfil stuffing or cotton batting
24 sts/32 rows = 4" in stockinette
stitch Note: For this project, the yarn is knit
more tightly than the recommended ball band gauge. This will produce
a very firm fabric, for a toy that will hold its shape and look
well when stuffed.
PATTERN NOTES [Knitty's list of standard abbreviations and techniques can be found here.]
Flo is worked entirely in garter stitch
(knit all stitches) on two needles. Because
the fabric is reversible, no RS or WS is
noted. For the Sides and Ears, both right and left sides are
worked in the same way; the RS of one piece will be the same
as the WS of the other piece.
The original pattern called for feet worked in crochet; instructions
for these are included below, along with a knitted alternative
inc1: The increase used for this pattern
is the backward loop increase. It is the
first increase shown here,
referred to as m1. This
increase is different from the m1 increase
used in most Knitty patterns.
Instructions for the Cable Cast On can be found here.
Instructions for Blanket Stitch can be found here.
Instructions for Mattress
Stitch can be found here.
Instructions for Lazy Daisy Stitch can be
SIDES (Make 2): Using MC, CO 10 sts. Row 1: [K1, kfb] twice, k to end. 12 sts.
Row 2: [K1, kfb] five times, k to end.
Rows 3-6: Work as for Rows 1-2. 31 sts.
Row 7: K1, kfb, k to end. 32 sts.
Row 8: [K1, kfb] five times, k to end.
Row 9: K1, kfb, k to end. 38 sts.
Row 10: [K1, kfb] twice, k to end. 40 sts.
Rows 11-18: Work as for Rows
9-10. 52 sts.
Row 19: K all sts.
Row 20: [K1, kfb] twice, k to end. 54 sts.
Row 21: K all sts.
Row 22: K1, kfb, k to end. 55 sts.
Rows 23-28: Work as for Rows
Rows 29-40: K all sts.
Row 41: K to last 3 st, k2tog, k1. 57 sts.
Rows 42-44: K all sts.
Row 45: K to last 3 sts, k2tog, k1. 56
Row 46: K42, place all sts just worked
on st holder; BO
1 st, k to end. Trunk will be worked over
remaining 13 sts.
Trunk: Rows 47-49: K all sts. Row 50: K1, k2tog, k to end. 12 sts. Rows 51-58: Work as for Rows
sts. Rows 59-61: K all sts. Row 62: K1, k2tog, k to last 3 sts, k2tog,
k1. 8 sts. Rows 63-66: Work as for Rows
59-62. 6 sts. Rows 67-69: K all sts. Row 70: K1, k2tog, k2tog, k1. 4 sts. Rows 71-80: K all sts.
BO all sts and break yarn, leaving a tail
approx. 6 inches long.
Lower Body and Legs:
Transfer held sts back to needle, beginning
at tail end of piece so that tip of needle ends up at head
end (next to trunk). Join yarn at head end.
K 13 rows, ending with yarn at tail end. Next Row: K16, BO 10 sts, k to end. Two
sets of 16 sts.
Working only over set of sts with yarn
attached, k 23 rows. BO these 16 sts.
Join yarn to remaining sts at inner edge
(next to bound off sts).
K 20 rows. BO all sts.
UNDERBODY Note: When casting on sts for legs,
use Cable Cast On method.
CO 1 st. Row 1: Kfb. 2 sts. Row 2: K1, inc1, k1. 3 sts. Rows 3-8: K1, inc1, k to end. 9 sts.
Front Legs: Row 9: CO 18 sts; k these sts, k to end.
27 sts. Row 10: CO 18 sts; k these sts, k to end.
45 sts. Rows 11-27: K all sts. Row 28: BO 14 sts, k16 (17 sts on right
needle), BO 14 sts. Break yarn, turn work.
Join yarn to remaining 17 sts. K 18 rows.
Back Legs: Next Row: CO 12 sts; k these sts, k to
end. 29 sts. Next Row: CO 12 sts; k these sts, k to
end. 41 sts.
K 27 rows. Next Row: BO 16 sts, k8 (9 sts on right
needle), BO 16 sts. Break yarn, turn work.
Join yarn to remaining 9 sts. Next Row: K1, k2tog, k to end. 8 sts.
Repeat this row 6 times more. 2 sts remain.
Next Row: K2tog. Break yarn, leaving a
tail approx. 6 inches long; draw tail through remaining st.
Use safety pin or split ring marker to mark CO end of work;
this point is designated Point B in schematic.
EAR (Make 2)
CO 16 sts. Row 1: K1, inc1, k to last st, inc1, k1.
18 sts. Row 2. K1, inc1, k to end. 19 sts. Rows 3-8: Work as for Rows
1-2. 28 sts.
Row 9: K1, inc1, k to end. 29 sts. Row 10: K all sts. Row 11: K1, inc1, k to end. 30 sts. Rows 12-15: K all sts.
Row 16: [K1, k2tog] twice, k to end. 28 sts. Row 17: K all sts. Rows 18-21: Work as for Rows
Row 22: K1, k2tog, k to end. 23 sts. Row 23: K all sts. Rows 24-27: Work as for Rows
sts. Row 28: K1, k2tog, k to end. 20 sts.
Row 29: BO 8 sts, k to end. 12 sts. Rows 30-43: Work as for Rows
22-23. 5 sts. Row 44: K1, k2tog, k to end. 4 sts.
BO remaining sts.
FEET (Make 4 of either knitted or crocheted version):
CO 5 sts. Row 1: K all sts. Row 2: K2, inc1, k1, inc1, k2. 7 sts. Rows 3-10: K all sts. Row 11: K1, ssk, k1, k2tog, k1. 5 sts. Row 12: K all sts.
BO all sts.
Work 8 sc into second ch from hook. Place
split ring marker in first sc to indicate beginning of round;
foot is worked in the round, in a spiral. Next 2 Rounds: Work 1 sc into each sc.
CO 10 sts.
K 34 rows. BO all sts.
Wash and gently block all pieces. Weave in ends, except for yarn tail at
tip of trunk on one of the side pieces.
Finish ears by sewing edges A and B together
If desired, use CC to work four-petal Lazy
Daisy motifs on Side pieces as shown.
Pin Side pieces together along top edges. Beginning at Point
A (see schematic) and working toward head, sew pieces
together using mattress stitch. Continue seam over head and
down top of trunk, around tip of trunk (leave yarn tail at tip
of trunk hanging on RS of work), and up underside of trunk,
ending at third garter st ridge below upper inside edge of trunk
(Point B on Side schematic).
Firmly stuff head and trunk. Join Point B of Underbody to Point
B of Sides. Sew side and leg seams, leaving bottoms of legs
open. Finish stuffing body through leg openings. Note that stuffing
must be firm enough for toy to hold its shape after squeezing.
(Give it a test hug – it should bounce back.)
Sew footpads in place.
Beginning at BO end, roll tail piece tightly, so that it forms
a small, firm log shape, with CO edge at outside of roll. Sew
CO edge in place, sew one end of roll to secure, then sew other
end to rump of elephant.
Sew ears securely to sides of head from Points C (3 inches
from front seam and 2 inches from top seam) to D, indicated
on Side schematic.
Thread the yarn end at the tip of the trunk onto yarn needle
and run it into and up along inside of trunk, causing trunk
to curl upwards. Bring end of yarn to outside of piece and fasten
securely, just about where Flo’s chin would be if she
Using CC, embroider eyes as shown. If desired, use CC to edge
feet and ears with blanket stitch.
Historical note: The original pattern calls
for tying a length of satin ribbon in a
flat bow around the finished elephant,
and attaching a jingle bell to the tip
of the trunk. As even a firmly-sewn jingle
bell may pose a choking hazard; we do not
recommend adding it if the toy will be
played with by babies or very young children.