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.
The More Things
When I first became a knitter,
it was in part because my heart’s
desire was unavailable at the time from
any Boston department store: a pure wool
scarf, not less than seven feet long. That
was the practical reason I learned to cast
The less practical, but equally urgent,
reason: knitting was, in those dark days,
such a rare pastime that saying you knit
was akin to saying you preferred to make
dinner reservations via telegraph. It wasn’t
merely quaint, it was violently anachronistic.
It was freakish. It was for me.
Once admitted to the asylum, I began loitering
around the locked wing that housed the
antique knitting patterns. Through
jagged bars of nineteenth-century type,
under labels straight from Alice in
Wonderland (muffatee? is that a sub-species
of Jabberwock?), they appeared more fantastically,
exotically interesting than yet another
pattern for a cabled hat.
But time spent among them led me to realize
that what had seemed exotic was often only
a trick of perspective. Names change and
details evolve, yet a close scrutiny of
antique patterns often reveals how little knitting–and
knitters–have changed in eighteen
decades. Look closely at a muffatee and
you’ll discover not a monster, but
a fingerless mitt.
It’s easy to imagine that nineteenth-century
knitters were a species far removed from
our own. Romantic rumors have got about
that they were infinitely more patient
than we, and smarter, and faster; and that
they knit everything from underwear to
kitchen curtains with cobweb yarn on size
This is something of an exaggeration.
It is true that Victorian gauges often
include slots and holes for needles no
thicker than a gnat’s eyelash. It
is true that patterns from the time more
frequently call for yarns at the DK/fingering
end of the curve than they do for bulky
or giant wools. But such is the case in
our time as well. The median may have shifted
towards worsted, yet the popularity of
the extremely thick and thin continues
to wax and wane with fashion.
And I can’t believe – though
I admit this is pure speculation – that
Victorian knitters were any less inclined
than we to substitute yarns, adapt (or
ignore) pattern instructions, and select
projects based upon the amount of time
or the amount of wool they had available.
Then as now, the majority knit for pleasure,
not survival; and the pattern books suggest
that they favored the same sorts of projects
we do: stuff for the baby, stuff for the
house, stuff for charity or gift giving, and
stuff for themselves.
The “Summer Neckerchief” included
by Jane Gaugain in herMiniature Knitting,
Netting and Crochet Book*(1843) is
ancient by knitting pattern standards,
but to modern eyes it looks fresh as new
paint. It is the smaller, finer-gauged
cousin of another project in the same volume:
a full-sized shawl dubbed “Chinee” [sic] by
Mrs Gaugain in a probable nod to
the taste for Orientalism then rampant
in Europe, and possibly also due the shawl’s
very vague resemblance to plain, white
silk models imported from China.
Mrs. Gaugain – who ran a successful
Edinburgh haberdashery with her husband – was
among the first (possibly the first)
purveyors of hand-knitting supplies to
recognize that her customers would buy
more yarn if they were provided with a
profusion of tempting patterns. She had
a genius for giving knitters what they
wanted; this little triangle is no
exception. It is fun to knit, easily made
in other sizes or with other yarns, simple
enough to work in chatty company and versatile
enough to be worn with any number of different
outfits. Good selling points then, no less
An 1840s knitter would likely have worn
it with the point in back, and the ends
either tied, pinned or tucked into her
bosom. Turn it around, and wear it with
the point at the front in the current,
approved hipster fashion–and see
if this bit of early Victorian frippery
does not, against all odds, become a staple
of your twenty-first century wardrobe.
*It’s the book that’s
tiny, not the projects.
translated by Franklin Habit from Mrs
Gaugain’s Miniature Knitting, Netting and Crochet
Book (c. 1843)
Recommended needle size [always use a needle
size that gives you the gauge
listed below -- every knitter's
gauge is unique]
US #6/4 mm circular needle, 24 inches
pin or split ring marker
20 sts/40 rows = 4" in garter stitch Note: Exact gauge is not critical for this project.
PATTERN NOTES [Knitty's list of standard abbreviations and techniques can be found here.]
This project is worked flat, in one piece,
in garter stitch. Instructions for the Shawl
Variation follow the Neckerchief pattern.
Slipped sts: Slip all slipped sts purlwise, with yarn held
to front of work. Bring yarn between needles to back of work
before working next st.
Yarnover at beginning of row: Bring the working yarn from
front to back over the right needle before knitting the next
stitch. This is the method of increase employed at the long
(top) edge of the triangle, and it creates a very pretty row
of loops at the edge.
Joining a new color: Mrs. Gaugain calls for the knitter to “tie
on” a new color when it is introduced at the beginning
of a RS row. I prefer, instead, to thread the strand of the
new color onto a yarn needle and weave it lightly into the
WS of the fabric near the edge of the work, so that the first
maneuver of the RS row (a yarnover – see above) can be
performed. This initial weaving can be neatened up during the
Changing colors within a row: When switching from one color
to the next on a RS row, drop the color you have been knitting
with, and bring the yarn for the next color up under the yarn
of the previous color before you continue knitting. This will
twist the strands around each other, preventing a gap from
forming where the colors meet. On WS rows, bring the old color
between the needles to the front of the work, bring the yarn
for the next color up under the yarn of the previous color
and between the needles to the back of the work. (Yes, it’s
intarsia. But I won’t tell anybody if you won’t.)
Historic colors: The original pattern suggests pink or blue
for the border, and white for the center.
Information about blocking can be found here and
Begin Right Border:
Using CC, CO 3 sts. After you have worked
the first few rows, use safety pin or split ring marker to
mark RS of work.
Row 1 [WS]: Sl 1, k2. Row 2 [RS]: Yo, k3. 4 sts. Row 3 [WS]: Sl 1, k to end. Row 4 [RS]: Yo, k to end. 1 st increased.
Repeat Rows 3-4 16 times more, then work
Row 3 once more. 21 sts.
Begin Center and Continue Right Border: Note: Before beginning next row, see Pattern
Notes re. joining a new color and changing colors within a
row. Row 1 [RS]: Join MC, yo, k1; using CC,
k20. 22 sts. Row 2 [WS]: Using CC, sl1, k19; using MC,
k2. Row 3 [RS]: Using MC, yo, k to last 20
sts; using CC, k20. 1 st increased. Row 4 [WS]: Using CC, sl1, k19; using MC,
k to end.
Repeat Rows 3-4 77 times more. 100 sts.
Work Left Border:
Break MC and CC, leaving tails to be woven
in during finishing.
Rejoin CC to work, next to shaped edge
(edge with yarnover increases). Row 1 [RS]: Yo, k to end. 1 st increased. Row 2 [WS]: Sl 1, k to end.
Repeat Rows 1-2 18 times more, then work
Row 1 once more. 120 sts.
Loosely BO all sts.
Gently wet block, taking care to keep edges straight
and short sides equal in length. When dry, weave in ends on WS.
This pattern is the smaller cousin of Mrs.
Gaugain’s “Chinee [sic] Wrapping Shawl” from
the same volume.
To work the shawl, use a yarn of the same weight, but needles
two sizes larger (gauge will be very loose). Work pattern as
written, but continue working second section (center and right
border) until the piece measures 1.25yd along shaped edge.
Finish by working the left border as written.
For the shawl, Mrs. Gaugain suggests a brown border with a
pink or blue center.