Mary Hawkins, a long-standing member of Knitting History Forum, has spoken more than once at KHF conferences and meetings on framework and machine knitting, still a mainstay of the modern garment industry. She also volunteers at the Framework Knitters Museum in Ruddington. Mary has kindly offered us a very brief tour through the history of machine knitting, from William Lee’s invention of the knitting frame in 1589, to the technological advances of the post-war period. A Short History of Machine Knitting is available to read in the Resources section.
The Fries Museum in Leeuwarden, The Netherlands, has opened major new exhibition on the art of knitting. ‘Breien!’ or ‘Knitting!’ celebrates knitting in all its forms. Historical and contemporary work are placed in ‘conversation’ with each other. Items of traditional dress, fishermen’s jumpers, twentieth century knitting patterns, finely-knitted eighteenth century mitts and later caps or the oldest knitting sheath, for example, can be seen alongside the knitwear of Starsky and Hutch and contributions from artists and designers including Zo√ę Landau Konson, Christien Meindertsma, and Bas Kosters. Sarah Lund’s jumper makes a notable appearance! The setting is fresh, modern and intentionally quirky, with pieces mounted on mannequins with animal heads; installations such as ‘City of Stitches’, by Isabel Berglund, which enfolds the visitor in a knitted structure; dioramas of historical and modern knitting; touch trail routes and other methods of display invite engagement with the exhibits at all levels of interest: this is a child-friendly exhibition. This short video offers a taste of the exhibition:
Knitting! opened in October and runs until 28 August 2016. For more information, visit the Fries Museum website.
The day began with our AGM, showcasing KHF successes of the past year, as well as suggestions for improvements going forward. Positive feedback highlighted the growing need for the network for knitting history, which we hope KHF events, our discussion group, the website and social media presence provide. The Show and Tell was, as always, an eclectic mix of early to modern knitting, with contributions from members’ collections and historical reproductions from members’ needles.
Carol Christiansen’s much-anticipated presentation explained the process of creating historically accurate reproductions for the Shetland Museum, of late seventeenth century knitted items found with the Gunnister Man find. Exhaustive testing of the originals and experimentation with modern fibres was necessary to accurately recreate or simulate the variety of textiles, not all of which had come from Shetland. The different colours were due primarily to peat-staining and the original shades of the natural, undyed wool.
Kirstie Buckland brought her considerable knowledge and experience to bear on early Spanish knitting, particularly the finely-knitted silk cushions recovered from thirteenth-century tombs at the monastery at Las Huelgas. Kirstie also shared a medieval image she tracked down from a reference, showing the Virgin and Christ, accompanied by industrious saints. One of the saints knits a patterned sock on five needles, but no stitches in the painting connect the sock with the knitting needles – how miraculous!
Lesley O’Connell Edwards presented her research into the work and identities of the Hope family of Ramsgate, early Victorian knitting pattern designers or compilers, and publishers of several books on knitting, including patterns for essential items such as Magic Penwipers and Magic Puzzle Kettle Holders. Lesley recounted her trawl through reviews, advertisements and census records as well as hunting for clues in the knitting books themselves. A fascinating, ongoing investigation with as many twists and turns as a detective novel.
Zoe Fletcher presented a summary of her recent work into the possibilities of British wool, researching the properties of wool from different British breeds of sheep and how these properties could be exploited in knitwear design. She also demonstrated how this could be applied using Shima Seiki CAD and design systems, a marriage of traditional and modern technology. The project focussed on the 72 British breeds promoted by the British Wool Marketing Board and Zoe surprised and delighted all with her innovative approach to presenting the information in a way that is accurate, accessible and beautiful.
Finally, Jane Malcolm-Davies introduced the research project Knitting in the Early Modern Era, or KEME. As we related last month, KEME is based around detailed examination of surviving sixteenth century knitted caps, the wider aim of the project is interdisciplinary research, creating an economic map of early knitting and laying a foundation of terminology information on which further scholarship on knitting in Early Modern Europe may be built. In an informative and amusing presentation, Jane discussed the work so far, the methodology they would establish and invited contributions and assistance.
All in all, it was another interesting event. The Knitting History Forum thanks our speakers for their engaging and informative presentations. Thank you also to everyone involved in organising the event and to all the delegates, members and non-members. This year’s symposium proved once again that the study of knitting history, while deeply interesting and often highly entertaining, is also vital both to our understanding of the past and our development of future textile technologies.
The speakers and their papers are listed in Knitting History Forum Conferences.
A new interdisciplinary research project will be taking a closer look at early knitted caps. The Centre for Textile Research or CTR in Copenhagen and Dr Jane Malcolm-Davies of The Tudor Tailor have been awarded a prestigious Marie SkŇāodowska-Curie Fellowship for “Knitting in the Early Modern Era: materials, manufacture and meaning“, or KEME. Based at the University of Copenhagen, the KEME team will be investigating in detail more than one hundred extant knitted caps from the Early Modern period, submitting them for technical examination and analysis, compiling an economic map of early knitting and clarifying terminology as a basis for future research to build upon. A database will be developed to make the information gathered in the project available online.
Jane will be speaking on “A knitting revolution? A scientific survey of sixteenth century knitted caps” at the Knitting History Forum Conference 2015 in London, Saturday 14th November. Her paper will introduce KEME and she will be appealing for knitters, volunteers and collaborators to participate in the project. A blog, Facebook page and Ravelry group called Strickersvej (Knitters Way) are to launch in November.
Since 2006, Dr Karen Finch OBE has been Honorary President of the Knitting History Forum. As textile conservator and specialist, Dr Finch‚Äôs warm personality and depth of knowledge enlivened early meetings. She delivered a paper on Needle Knitting in 1996 and spoke again in 2006 on archaeological finds from Copenhagen. Kirstie Buckland, a founding KHF member and herself an authority on early knitting, visited Karen at her home earlier this summer:
Karen Finch was born to a farming family in Denmark in 1921. She trained as a weaver and textile specialist, then married Norman Finch and moved to England in 1945. Here she quickly established her authority through the Royal School of Needlework and the V&A, voicing her concern about the lack of proper scientific conservation methods for vulnerable textiles. She began holding training classes for conservators in their beautiful house in Ealing but these classes quickly outgrew the house and in 1975 premises in Hampton Court Palace were secured for this purpose and the Textile Conservation Centre (TCC) took shape, culminating in purpose-built studios being attached to Winchester School of Art.
Dr Finch was the founder and first Principal of the TCC, known, respected and admired worldwide. Her contribution over the subsequent forty years was marked this summer by a ceremony when a unique volume of comments, extracts and pictures compiled by some of those conservators was presented to her. We are fortunate that at my suggestion to re-establish the former Early Knitting History Group (1993-2006), Karen immediately agreed to stand for President and was unanimously elected to that position at our inaugural meeting.
She is still greatly loved by her many friends, amongst whom I hope I can be counted. We first met over a Grenadier cap in 1975, and have since shared a lot of information and fun. Karen now lives with her daughter and family in Walthamstow where her spirit and sense of humour continues to engage all who go there.
Kirstie Buckland, September 2015.
All photos courtesy of Kirstie Buckland.
Join us for the Knitting History Forum 2015 Conference and AGM on Saturday 14th November 2015, at the London College of Fashion, 20 Princes St.
The Knitting History Conference starts promptly at 2.00PM. Speakers and papers for 2015 are:
- ¬†Carol Christiansen on ‘Late seventeenth century knitwear from the Gunnister Man find‘;
- ¬†Kirstie Buckland on ‘Saintly Socks and Silken Pillows ‚Äď a glance at the mysteries of some medieval knitting in Spain‘;
- ¬†Lesley O‚ÄôConnell Edwards on ‘Who wrote what when? A study of the publications of the Hopes of Ramsgate in the 1840s‘;
- ¬†Zoe Fletcher on ‘Designing for breed: Enhancing the potential for British wool in UK knitwear manufacture, through design, new technologies and marketing strategy‚Äô and
- ¬†Jane Malcolm-Davies on ‘A knitting revolution? A scientific survey of sixteenth century knitted caps‘.
There will be time for questions and further discussion from 5.00PM, after all the speakers have delivered their papers.
Doors open at 10:30AM for registration. The first session from 10:30 to 11.00 is Show and Tell so please bring items for discussion. The AGM for KHF members runs from 11.00AM to 12:45, followed by a break for lunch. Lunch is not provided so please bring your own or buy locally. The London College of Fashion is just off Oxford Street so there is plenty of choice!
We welcome non-members and new members! Tickets cost ¬£25 and can be booked in advance or on the door. If you are not a KHF member, you can use the PayPal button below to buy your ticket. See payment methods page for alternative ways to pay.
Attendance at the Knitting History Conference is included in the KHF membership subscription, only ¬£15 annually. Members may renew or subscribe on the day.
Helen Bennett’s ‘Scottish Knitting’ is a frequent entry in bibliographies of knitting. Her 1981 doctoral thesis, “The origins and development of the Scottish hand-knitting industry”, is now available online from ERA, digital research archive of The University of Edinburgh.
Dr Bennett’s introduction states “The purpose of this study […] is to examine the evidence for the antiquity of the wearing and making of knitted garments in Scotland, and to establish a framework for the emergence of the industry in different parts of the country”. Ruth Gilbert, who kindly sent in this link, describes the thesis as the best general background available free online and we agree!
A quick reminder that this year’s KHF annual AGM and Conference is on Saturday 14th November 2015. The venue is the London College of Fashion on John Prince’s Street, just off Oxford Street and easily accessible by Tube or bus.
The Knitting History Conference is open to anyone. You don’t have to be a member to attend. Tickets will be available for purchase¬†in advance or on the door, but are included in the annual KHF membership fee, still only ¬£15. The papers are wide-ranging and thought-provoking – see a list of past speakers and their papers – and the conversation stimulating. The line-up is yet to be confirmed but details will be posted here in due course. Book Saturday 14th November in your diaries now!
Emerging Civil War, a website devoted to the American Civil War, published an interesting post on knitting for the troops in the 1860s. ‘Knitting in the Civil War South‘ offers an insight into the Southern home front.
Some of the many women ready to contribute to the war effort by knitting for soldiers were surprised to find the task more difficult than they imagined, and their exertions unappreciated. Newspapers lamented the quality of some of the items sent to the front by their female readers, complaining that they were too small for soldiers’ feet or even that they were misshapen. The Charleston Mercury remarked, ‚ÄúThe formation of some of the socks which they have produced does not indicate a very exact knowledge of human anatomy. I saw one last evening, which I am told, was intended for the foot of the entire Southern Confederacy. From its size, I judged it would make a rather loose fit.‚ÄĚ
The guest post is by Hannah McClearnen, currently taking a Masters degree at West Virginia University. Read the whole article here.
The underlying theme of all the museum’s exhibitions is “√ěr√°√įur‚ÄĚ or the “thread” connecting all textile techniques, past and present. Traditional knitting is featured, beyond the ubiquitous Lopapeysa or Icelandic jumper popular since the 1950s, including mitts, shawls and the patterned insoles used in traditional fish skin shoes.
The museum also has a space called “Halld√≥rustofa” or Halld√≥ra¬īs Room, devoted to the textile collections and work of Halld√≥ra Bjarnad√≥ttir, a twentieth-century champion of women’s rights, home crafts, textile education and traditional Icelandic textiles. See Gudrun Helgadottir’s 1991 paper, ‘Halld√≥ra Bjarnad√≥ttir And The Development of Textiles As A School Subject in Iceland’, from the Proceedings of the 3rd Nordic Research Conference in Sl√∂jd, G√∂teborg, Sweden.
Ella Gordon, a textile maker who also works at Jamieson & Smith and is a trustee of the Shetland Textile Museum, writes about her knitting, her collection of vintage knitwear and life on Shetland at her blog https://ellagordon.wordpress.com/.
Students of knitting history are well aware the craft has long proved adaptable in the face of innovation. In the last thirty years, knitting and technology have had some interesting encounters. According to this article from 2012, in the 1980s Nintendo worked on an add-on device for the Nintendo Entertainment System that would have enabled users of the NES to create their own designs and knit them. A brochure from the time includes the bold statement, “The Nintendo Knitting Machine is just one more example of the innovative thinking that keeps Nintendo on the cutting edge of video technology. And your customers on the edge of their seats.” The brochure boasted, “Of course we should probably mention that no other video game system offers anything even remotely similar.” In hindsight, there may have been a reason for that. Despite the confidence of the advertising copy, the Nintendo Knitting Machine was shown at the Winter Consumer Electronics Show at Las Vegas in 1987 but was never released.
On a related theme, ‘A brief history of yarn in video games‘ briefly mentions this same story and further electronic, yarn-related surprises, including an iPhone knitting game from 2009, an unusual subject for future knitting history research. The language in this article may be offensive to readers.
Knitting designer Susan Crawford, with the assistance and support of curator Dr Carol Christiansen, spent several years studying hand-knitted garments and accessories in the rich collection of the Shetland Museum and Archives for The Vintage Shetland Project. Susan, co-author of ‘A Stitch in Time’, has now selected twenty-five pieces from the 1920s to 1960s for development into comprehensive, multi-sized knitting patterns. These will be published in a book with full-colour pictures, accompanying essays about each of the items and the knitting traditions of Shetland, and a chapter about the book’s creation, the history of the Shetland Museum and a foreword by Dr Christiansen.
The Vintage Shetland Project took four years and involved repeated trips to Shetland; recording the construction of vintage items stitch by stitch; the creation of custom software for ‘translating’ the stitches and the development of a new 2-ply wool yarn in the old style, ‘Fenella’, manufactured in a range of colours to match the garments from the archives.
Our followers on Twitter (@KnitHistForum) will already have read about a crowdfunding campaign towards the cost of self-publishing the book. Every day of the campaign, which ends 8 August 2015, Susan Crawford will be posting pictures from The Vintage Shetland Project on Instagram. The initial, modest target was met in a matter of days though there’s still time to donate and help cover further costs as detailed on the campaign page. Donations vary from low to high and each has an appropriate reward. Details, pictures, a video by Susan and an excerpt from the book can be found at https://pubslush.com/project/7016
The Costume Society was founded half a century ago. In honour of their fiftieth anniversary, fifty articles from the Society’s journal Costume have been digitised by publisher Maney of Leeds and are available free online to the end of July 2015. Many seminal, scholarly articles on the history of dress can be downloaded for free, including “The Englishman’s Swimwear” by Richard Rutt, published in Volume 24, 1990. While not specifically covering knitting, styles and construction of knitted garments and hand-knitting patterns are briefly (no pun intended) discussed. The article is a must for anyone interested in the serious history of men’s bathing costumes and swimming trunks, so often the subject of vintage knitting patterns.
Another article of interest currently with unlimited access is “The Hodson Shop” by Sheila B. Shreeve, from Volume 48, 2014, on a twentieth-century draper’s and haberdasher’s shop whose surviving stock is now kept at Walsall Museum. Small shops of this type throughout Britain sold supplies for knitting, crochet and other needlework as well as affordable, ready-made clothing including, no doubt, rayon jumpers of similarly unfortunate proportions to those sold in Edith Hodson’s shop! The article contains little information relating directly to knitting, but this evocative glimpse into a shopping experience common to many British knitters is invaluable.
To download these and other articles on costume history, visit Maney Online.
The¬†European Textile Forum is being held again in Germany this November. The theme for 2015 is “Non-Woven Textile Structures”, a topic covering a broad range of textile techniques such as braiding, netting, nalbinding and of course, knitting. This year’s speakers include Jane Malcolm-Davies and Ruth Gilbert.
The European Textile Forumallows textile professionals, historians and textile workers with no academic background to explore and discuss early textiles. The programme usually includes a mixture of academic and practical presentations – in 2009 they ran a practical experiment testing the influence of spindle whorl, fibre and spinner on spinning. In 2015 the following presentations will be included (in no particular order):
- Ruth Gilbert: On the terminology of non-woven textile structures and techniques, and why it matters
- ¬†Anne Reichert: A lime bast textile find from Lake Constance in a singular technique
- Ruth MacGregor: Demonstration and hands-on session on working with silk cocoons
- Micky Schoelzke: Silk reeling demonstration/workshop
- Heather Hopkins: Lightening talk presentations of unpublished findings from Pompeii, and a round-table discussion of these subjects
- Rachel Case and Beatrix Nutz: Reconstruction project of extant garments from Lengberg Castle, focusing on the non-woven parts (paper and workshop)
- Jane Malcolm-Davies: Knitted caps and knitting as a key innovation of the Early Modern era (paper and round-table discussion)
The conference runs from 2-8 November 2015 at the Laboratory for Experimental Archaeology in Mayen, Germany, the experimental archaeology research center of the R√∂misch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum (RGZM). On-site accomodation at the Laboratory is restricted and the conference can only accomodate a few more delegates but spaces are available. Please visit the European Textile Forum website for more information and to register for a place.
Joyce Meader of The Historic Knit has confirmed more information ahead of the open house at her Hampshire home next month. The date is Wednesday 29 April from 10:00am to 16:00pm. Joyce says there is ample parking and she will kindly be providing bread, soup and homemade cake.
Please email or message Joyce ahead of the visit and let her know you are coming. Her personal details will not be posted here for obvious reasons. For more info log into the KHF Yahoo group to read Joyce’s latest post and respond to Joyce directly.
See our earlier post for photos from Joyce’s presentation at the Knitting History Forum Conference in November 2014. You can also see more of Joyce’s historical knitting and knitting pattern collection at her website.
Top photo: detail of a reproduction by Joyce Meader.
2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe. Among many events in tribute is ‘Fashion on the Ration : 1940s Street Style’, a new exhibition at the Imperial War Museum. Fashion on the Ration looks at ‘how fashion survived and even flourished’ in wartime Britain. "Displays of original clothes from the era, from military uniforms to functional fashion, reveal what life was really like on the home front in wartime Britain. This is a story not about the end of fashion but about creativity, innovation and coping in adversity, the impact of which can still be seen upon British style today."
The exhibition shows how the British attempted to maintain standards of appearance, concentrating on "on what people wore, their sense of identity and how they coped with the demands and deprivations." People of all backgrounds explored new sources of materials, beauty products and styles of dress as first intermittent supply, then clothes-rationing, took effect. Winston Churchill opposed the very concept of rationing clothes when first introduced in 1941. But Oliver Lyttleton of the Board of Trade believed rationing would ensure fair distribution of clothing across all sections of society, preserve limited wool and cotton supplies and release thousands of workers in the clothes industry for war work. Initially the allowance was 66 coupons annually but as the war dragged on it was cut to 48 coupons in 1942, to 36 in 1943, and in 1945 to only 24. Putting this into context, in 1941 stockings were 2 coupons each, a dress or skirt was 7 coupons and a wool dress 11 coupons. A man’s shirt was 5 coupons, trousers were 8 and a jacket 13: a three-piece suit would have been 26 coupons altogether. Material and yarn were rationed too: a yard of wool 36″ wide was 3 coupons while knitting wool was 2 ounces a coupon. Sob! In 1941 the Utility Apparel Order was issued to standardise mass-produced clothing and fabric and minimise waste, even limiting the number of pleats on skirts, buttons on coats and the length of men‚Äôs socks. Adult clothing had 100% purchase tax added.
Facing such restrictions, the originality and invention of the response by British people, designers and manufacturers is extraordinary. “It would be an added calamity if war turned us into a nation of frights and slovens”, declared Vogue in 1939. Clothing was altered, mended and darned, often almost invisibly. Woollen jumpers were unravelled and re-knitted. We’ve all heard stories of unusual materials re-purposed for clothing and cosmetics, such as ‘liquid stockings’ and parachute silk. Some women without access to stockings or the charmingly-named ‘Helena Rubinstein’s Leg Stick’ really did resort to tea or even gravy browning. Shown for the first time is a set of Countess Mountbatten’s underwear. Made out of a silk map given by a boyfriend in the RAF, it is undecorated apart from the printing of the map and is actually rather beautiful. Other items on display are a woman’s suit made-over from a man’s, a child’s coat made from a blanket and a bracelet ingeniously created from components of crashed German aircraft.
Wedding dresses, with their increased yardage, presented a particular coupon-headache for brides who either could not or would not resort to black market goods. A bridesmaid’s dress made and worn by Janet Saunders in 1945 is indeed parachute silk. Evelyn Higginson‚Äôs 1943 wedding dress of pre-war figured silk, originally sold for making petticoats, was eventually worn by 15 different brides. Out of her own pocket, Barbara Cartland (yes, that Barbara Cartland), bought wedding dresses. She established a pool of hundreds of wedding-gowns lent out to hundreds more women who otherwise could not have afforded one. The thrift born then of necessity has much to teach us now regarding sustainability.
‘Fashion on the Ration’ features other, unexpected innovations. Gas masks might be an ugly fact of war but they could be carried in the bottom of a specially-designed leather handbag. Selfridges sold luminous buttons and brooches to make the wearer safe when walking at night because civilian car accidents in 1941 had risen from by over 2500 year since 1938, due, it was then thought, to blackout. A one-piece siren suit is ‘just the thing to pull on in a hurry’ when dashing for the shelter during night-time raids: a ‘onesie’, Home-Front-style. Nella Last described hers as “the maddest, most amusing thing a sedate matron of 51 ever possessed!” Rayon ‘Utility’ dresses provide a burst of vivid colour and pattern. With materials at a premium, styles were pared-down but striking. Many of the garments look wearable now. Perhaps that is why fashion keeps returning to the 1940s as a source of inspiration?
Knitting seems under-represented, given its significance at the time, but this outstanding exhibition nevertheless illuminates a significant aspect of life in wartime Britain. It is the perfect lead-up to the Museum of London’s conference on post-war dress in September. ‘Fashion on the Ration : 1940s Street Style’ runs until Monday 31 August 2015 at the Imperial War Museum London branch in Lambeth Road. More info at the IWM website. Their Wartime Fashion section may also be of interest.
Pringle of Scotland marks its bicentenary this year with a new exhibition. “Fully Fashioned: The Pringle of Scotland Story” is at London’s Serpentine Gallery for a short preview coinciding with Pringle’s show during London Fashion week. Featuring surviving knitwear from Scottish museums, photographs and items from private collections and the firm’s archives, the exhibition traces the company’s history from its origins in 1815, when Robert Pringle began manufacturing hosiery and underwear in Hawick, to its current position as a international knitwear brand.
The company was a leading proponent of knitwear’s move into fashionable outerwear and in the twentieth century became known for luxury knitting, particularly sportswear emblazoned with the distinctive Pringle Argyle pattern, as popularised by Edward, Prince of Wales. Included in the exhibition are items from the twentieth century as well as early Pringle knitted underwear and more recent pieces, such as a handknit with 3D print elements from the Autumn/Winter 2014 campaign.
The Michael Clark Dance Company has collaborated with Pringle to produce Knitwear | Movement, three short films ‘animating’ this history, while Alfred Watson was commissioned for their 200th anniversary marketing campaign, combining Pringle designs with the Scottish landscape. The films and photographs are also shown in the exhibition.
Following the preview in London, “Fully Fashioned: The Pringle of Scotland Story” will subsequently tour the US and Asia, before heading back over the border to the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, where it opens to the public from Friday April 10 to Sunday August 16 2015.
Top image credit:¬†Amy Barton
Ruth Gilbert has written a new book, “Knitting Unravelled 1450-1983”. Covering knitting and its uses from medieval to almost modern, it is, uniquely, aimed primarily at re-enactors, living historians, historical interpreters and all involved in period textile demonstrations. Described as “a practical guide” it answers fundamental questions for re-enactors such as “1. Should I be knitting? 2. What should I knit? 3. How should I knit? 4. Does it matter?”
Ruth is a textile historian who has published articles and presented conference papers on spinning and knitting history, including¬†at the Knitting History Forum, with which she has been involved since it was the Early Knitting History Group¬†in the 1990s. Ruth is also known to many in re-enactment as Beth Frend or Beth the Weaver, an authority on weaving, spinning and knitting and many, if not all things textile! This booklet will be invaluable to re-enactors and many others.
“Knitting Unravelled 1450-1983” is a slim but affordable A5 volume published by Hogwash Press at ¬£4 plus postage. It will also be available in the UK from Ruth herself at the Textile Fair, Kentwell Hall Open Days (participants only), Whittington Castle’s May Day event or the Loft Space at Standedge.