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.
University of Southhampton
Library Digitization Unit
If you have read and loved Lucy Maud
Montgomery’s classic 1908 novel, Anne
of Green Gables, you will doubtless
remember Anne’s neighbor, Mrs. Rachel
Lynde: sharp-tongued, eagle-eyed, and famous
among Avonlea housewives for having knitted
sixteen “cotton warp quilts.” She
churned them out, wrote Montgomery, during
long hours spent at her kitchen window spying
A character like Rachel Lynde is a rara
avis in modern fiction: a serious
knitter who is also an stone-cold pain
in the ass. She’s the hustle behind
four of the town’s charitable organizations,
but there’s nothing saintly or
nurturing in her personality. She does
not sport more halo than a skein of angora.
She would not bring homemade cupcakes
to The Friday Night Knitting Club.
She would be summarily ejected from The
Shop on Blossom Street for telling
the ladies there’s nothing wrong
with their lives that couldn’t
be cured by proper corsets and castor
I just love her.
I love her so much that I did a little
dance (Mrs. Lynde would not approve) after
turning up a A Knitting-Book of Counterpanes:
Toilet-Covers, Pincushions, and Other Articles
of Fancy Work, put forth in 1871 by
Mrs. George Cupples.* Mrs. Cupples’ counterpane,
you see, is a sibling of Mrs. Lynde’s
quilt. Both were products of the 19th and
early 20th century passion for “white
work”–ornate knitting and crochet
made with fine cotton. Here, at last, was
a small but tantalizing collection of patterns
for knitting my very own quilt, the better
to emulate my fictional heroine.
Of course, a knitted quilt is not,
strictly speaking, a “quilt.” It
is not an article of bedding formed
of multiple layers penetrated and united
by patterned stitching. Any quilter will
tell you this, even if you don’t
ask. But Victorian needlework publishers–and
presumably, their readers–do not
appear unanimously to have observed this
distinction. They used “quilt” interchangeably
with blanket and counterpane. It was big.
It was squarish. It was warm. You put it
on the bed. Therefore, it was a quilt.
Knitted “quilts” and
many of their sewn cousins also share an
underlying structure of patchwork: small
pieces stitched together to create the
larger whole. Whether
you were sewing a quilt or knitting one,
chances are you began by creating a “block,” the
basic unit that, when repeated, would form
the overall pattern of the quilt. Working
block by block was both logical and practical.
Blocks were (and are) wieldy, portable,
and easily memorized. Until it came time
to assemble the finished product, the maker
was never fussing with more than a handful
of yarn or fabric.
of sewn quilt blocks were invented during
the peak of patchwork’s popularity
in the nineteenth century. Probably the
most common motif is the star; its variations
alone could–and in fact do–fill
several weighty volumes. Mrs. Cupples opens
her book with eight counterpane blocks,
one of which bears a strong family resemblance
to a famous and beloved point of light
from the quilt galaxy, the Ohio Star [shown
I have recently, I confess, begun dabbling
with quilting; so this apparent hybrid
caught my attention. If you’re a
knitter/quilter, you may get a thrill from
the collision of your two worlds. If you’re
a confirmed knitter with a pushy quilter
friend who will not rest until you make
a star block, this may be the perfect way
to shut her up.
And don’t sweat it if you think
the star looks like fun but aren’t
inclined to commit to a whole quilt. Mrs.
Cupples herself wholeheartedly encourages
you to Do Your Own Thing, noting that, “the
intelligent worker will not fail to perceive
that the patterns are suitable for other
descriptions of ornamental knitting, such
as Tidies, Toilet Covers, Pincushions,
Mats, etc.” True dat.
Me, I knit the test block in cotton [shown
at left] and then turned queasy at the
thought of repeating it 49 times. So I
swapped for wool on the second go, and
made a pincushion. Mrs. Lynde would probably
call me a slacker. But Mrs. Cupples has
* She also, according to the title
page, wrote The Stocking-Knitter’s
Manual. I’d like to see that.
** Really, it looks like an Ohio Star
with a small nine-patch caught in its
throat. I have been digging around in
lists of star blocks, but haven’t
found a closer match yet. Anybody know
translated by Franklin Habit from A
Knitting-Book of Counterpanes: Toilet-Covers,
Pincushions, and Other Articles of Fancy
Mrs. George Cupples.
Will vary according to choice of yarn and
With materials below, finished block is approximately
7 inches wide by 6 inches high after blocking.
Recommended needle size [always use a needle
size that gives you the gauge
listed below -- every knitter's
gauge is unique]
set US #00/1.75mm straight needles
32 sts/48 rows = 4 inches in stockinette
PATTERN NOTES [Knitty's list of standard abbreviations and techniques can be found here.]
The star pattern, worked on the center
34 stitches of the block, is surrounded by a border of garter
stitch. Mrs. Cupples calls for 8 stitches in the right and
left borders; but if you plan to assemble multiple blocks for
a blanket, consider reducing them to 4 stitches each (a total
of 42 sts to CO). This will give you vertical and horizontal
borders of similar widths after sewing.
Use chart [see below] or written instructions
as you prefer.