My first foray into craft wasn’t knitting. It was embroidery.
I was ill, maybe about five or six (I could read, anyway, but only just), and my poor mother was fed up with me whining. She gave me some fabric with holes in it, coloured threads, a big needle – and an old book. The book was a dictionary of embroidery stitches, and the author was Mary Thomas. ‘Follow the pictures,’ I think she said, and I was captivated.
Admittedly, at first that was by the little cartoons on almost every page…
Soon I realised the instructions were good too, and that I could do this embroidery thing.
Then I got better, and that was the end of that.
‘A joy and a help to all knitters.’
The Daily Telegraph, reviewing her 1938 Knitting Book
Later I discovered Mary Thomas’s knitting books and I’ve come to really value them, especially her Book of Knitting Patterns. I turn to her books when I’m baffled or failing to understand something, or looking for a pattern. In a way, she is my UK equivalent to Elizabeth Zimmerman, but she’s more of an enigma, though her books – now more than 70 years old – are still in print.
Mary Thomas was a journalist, and worked as one at a time when the last pronoun a good journo would dream of using was the first person singular. So there’s no ‘I’, almost no personal information at all, no anecdotes from her own experience. She is very difficult to track down.
Mary (Hedger, then) was born in 1889 in Berkshire, but went to the US before WW1 to work as a fashion illustrator. She returned in 1913 and worked during the War as an army nurse in France, where she met her husband (they later divorced, but did have two children). She was interested in radical politics, especially the campaign for women to get the vote, and was later an active Bhuddist for many years, right until her death in 1948.
After WW1 she returned to the world of fashion, working as a journalist, and eventually became the editor of The Needlewoman. She left in 1935, when it was bought out (some things never change) and worked as a freelancer; that was when she really began writing her books.
Embroidery Stitches had come out in November 1934, and the Embroidery Book followed two years later. Mary Thomas’s Knitting Book appeared in 1938 and, in 1943, my favourite: the Book of Knitting Patterns.
It’s not exhaustive, and it was never intended that it should be. It is, however, basically progressive; it moves from the simple and straightforward to the more complicated and difficult. It builds skills, and that’s what I found so useful when I was learning to knit about 45 years after she’d written the patterns down. And I keep coming back to it, though there are many other pattern books, books that are more comprehensive and much more lavishly illustrated.
I value the clarity of her instructions, and I love the rather inevitable ‘vintage’ style: the generally precise if idiosyncratic grammar, the pernickety but thorough instructions and, of course, those cartoons by Margaret Agutter.
You can almost feel a slightly bossy needlework teacher from the 1930s standing over you, perhaps one with neatly bobbed hair, sensible but stylish shoes and probably (whisper it low) a past.
Yes, there is a frequent assumption that knitters are female, but unusually for the time she does acknowledge that male knitters exist, and that knitting has not always been an exclusively female pursuit (sorry, I think her style is catching):
‘…women knit almost by instinct, men now for pleasure, though not so long past it provided him with a means of livelihood…’
And how about this, from 1938? Truly, plus ça change, plus c’est la même flipping chose:
‘Knitting should be done thoughtfully. It should not be hurried. That is its charm to our generation, who live surrounded by a wild helter-skelter of speed. It is creative, and that is its supreme satisfaction.’
My hand is feeling a little better. Some time ago I knitted up a swatch from a Mary Thomas pattern, testing it for use in a shawl. I shall go and find it, and get out the stash…