Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Historical Knitting, Part I

It all started from a free pattern for a stunning (and simple!) stole. If, like me, you visit Elann often, then you certainly would agree that Shui Kuen Kozinski is a master of lace. Most of her exquisite patterns begin with a few lines of poem, as lovely as the patterns. This time, however, Shui Kuen started her Voyager Lace Stole with a quote, taken from a book published 150 years ago.

The lace pattern for the stole, like some of her previous designs, was adapted from another historical pattern extracted from a book named Home Work, A Choice Collection of Useful Designs for Crochet and Knitting Needle. Out of curiosity, I looked for the book online and found it in no time.

Home Work
was an impressive collection of crocheting and knitting patterns--well over 300 pages. As if these were not enough to persuade a frugal woman of nineteenth century to purchase it, the author/editor generously threw in a chapter of formulas for home-made skincare and makeup products: face powders, glycerin cream, rose cold cream, hair wash, etc. This "favorite of Marie Antoinette" caught my attention:

...a wash distilled from half a dozen lemons cut small, a handful of white lily leaves and southernwood infused in two quarts of milk with an ounce and a half of white sugar and an ounce of rock alum...
...the face at night was to be bathed with this water, which gave a beautiful purity and liveliness to the complexion.

Let us take a scientific look at the recipe: Lemon, lily leaves and southernwood are good sources of vitamin C, a natural brightener; they work as antiseptics as well--no acnes or pimples! Milk proteins work to tone and plump up the skin; and rock alum had historically been used as a topical astringent and styptic. Judging from the proportion of the ingredients, the wash should be mildly acidic--exactly what human skin wants. Really, this night toner should work wonders!

Now back to the needlework contents. I have yet to try crocheting so I cannot comment on a larger part of the book. A closer look through the knitting pages surprised me--I realized that many of the stitch patterns had been made available online before, and that I have fondly tried out several of them with good results.

So you may ask, can we use Home Work directly for our knitting? Probably not.

First of all, only written instructions were given for the patterns. There were not schematics or charts, and illustrations were sparse and not of the highest quality. Given that the author/editor focused largely on lace panels, inserts, and edgings, the lack of charts or clear illustrations, needless to say, could easily dampen a modern knitter's eagerness(1).

Even if you are feeling lucky, there is another problem. Precise descriptions and symbols that we use today had not appeared then. For instance, in the book, right-slanting and left-slanting decreases were indistinguishable--Ssks and k2togs were both referred to as "narrow"(2).

Although I would not knit directly from Home Work, this book is full of historical interest. It reflected how knitting, as a traditional craft, had developed during the past century. Why can't we see any serious Fair Isle or Aran knitting in the book(3)? Because these two branches joined the mainstream only after the turn of the century. A comparison of this book to any knitting book of today can show us how knitting charts, diagrams, symbols, abbreviations, formats, etc, have been standardized over the last hundred years. Not only can we flip through pages full of clear illustrations and beautiful photographs, but we can click the mouse for inspirations and resources. And not to mention the cornucopia of commercial yarns, needles, and gadgets!

Looking back, I have to hold the author, and the knitters of her time, in great reverence. And once again, I was reminded that I am a tiny part of a great traditional craft that's called knitting.

The preface of Home Work takes only a minute to read and I highly recommend it(page 1 and page 2):

...Home Work is a useful book. It is published with the hope that it will provide a pleasure and a help in very many homes...

Usefulness and pleasure--could anyone have summarized it better?


(1) Do you remember to whom Victorian Lace Today was dedicated?
...to the pioneering Victorian women who wrote the first knitting books and to the more adventurous women who knit from them.

(2) According to Jane Sowerby, the word "narrow" in early knitting instructions was equivalent to "k2tog". "ssk", or left-slanting decrease, came much later.

(3) Some simple Aran stitch patterns did appear in Home Work, such as the Raspberry stitch (or Trinity stitch).


opportunityknits said...

What an interesting find. I love how designers these days give tribute to the knitters of old, like Jane Sowerby's Victorian Lace Today book.

Connie said...

Cool sounding book. I think I would be frustrated by the lack of pictures and drawings of the lace, but it definitely sounds interesting! :)

Anonymous said...

What a PRETTY sketch. Makes me want to make some lemonade.

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