My ancient hand injury – shh, it may be coming back but I’m trying not to notice in the hope it won’t be there if it’s unobserved, the ‘Shroedinger’s Tendon’ approach – made me reassess my attitude to knitting needles. Some are just more comfortable than others. Intrigued, I’ve been doing some research into the history of knitting needles, but that will have to wait because I’ve been distracted by knitting methods instead.
My health bollocky-bollocks (ahem, I’m not the most patient person in the world and this has been going on for far too long) is also affecting my whole attitude to the way I knit. ‘Irish Peasant’, I like to call it – lots of flapping needles, a style taught to me by my mother when I couldn’t grasp her ‘tuck the right needle in your armpit’ method, and taught to her by her ma, and to her by her ma, and so on right back into the depths of the Celtic twilight, and to a time when everyone lived in turf-covered cottages and spun in the street:
(Typical Irish village scene with spinner, not remotely posed, oh dear no, about 1910.
Photograph by R J Welch, from the collections of the National Library of Ireland)
OK, or at least to Dublin at the turn of the twentieth century. (I’ve had a good rant about stereotyping relatively recently, so I won’t repeat myself, though I will say that the above postcard is only missing the turf-cutter’s feckin’ donkey*.) I’ve given up on the armpit method, also handed down the maternal line and a style most likely adopted as a substitute for absent knitting sheaths or belts. However, I am hoping to try and channel the paternal side of my ancestry and try continental knitting, putting strain on a different part of my hands, but last night all I got was a horrible mess and an evil temper. And I even did a very good workshop on it a while back – boy, I wish I’d used it more promptly.
But this débâcle did make me stop and consider various knitting methods – not of continental knitting, because that’s comparatively straightforward, but the main styles of ‘yarn on the right’ knitting with straight needles, sometimes called English or American knitting. Essentially there are three: my Irish Peasant and the variations thereof; the supported needle method – my Ma’s preferred style, the one she failed to teach me – with one needle either under your arm or in a knitting sheath or belt of some kind; and elegant, refined, ‘drawing room’ knitting (aka ‘parlor’ knitting in the US):
You know the sort of thing, holding your needles like the woman in Harold Knight’s painting.
I have to admit that I do not understand why people knit in this way, which is surprising given that several of my friends use it perfectly successfully. Richard Rutt is interesting on its history, saying (and he is supported) that by the start of Queen Victoria’s reign ‘ladies’ had abandoned the older, under the palm, way of holding needles. Not that the rest of the population did, at that point. People who depended – at least in part – on knitting for their livelihood, those such as Shetland knitters or the sock knitters of Barmouth, Bala or Dolgellau
Rutt is the one who dubbed this pen-like method of holding needles ‘drawing room knitting’. It was more elegant, and also distinguished a ‘lady’ knitter from her less respectable sisters – you can even hold your little finger up in an affected gesture while knitting, should you wish to do so, as you might when holding a teacup (absolutely none of my friends do this, thank heavens). After all, ‘no feminine employment is better calculated to display a pretty hand and graceful motions than knitting’ (Annie S Frost, Ladies’ Guide to Needlework, US, 1877).
See? Like this, from the illustrations to Mary Thomas‘s 1938 Knitting Book:
where it is the only method given. Love those nails, by the way; so useful for undoing any knots. Admittedly, Mary T does go on to say that ‘the position of the fingers is exaggerated to show the placing of the yarn’, but still… (Completely incidentally, this method was made fun of even in Victorian times.)
There’s been speculation that most of the original drawing-room knitters made small or light objects with fine yarn, and to me that seems likely. Firstly, these items were more elegant in themselves, and secondly the major disadvantage of this method only becomes evident when you’re trying to work on something large or heavy. The whole weight of the fabric is draped over your thumb or hand. June Hemmons Hiatt also points out, in The Principles of Knitting (2012 ed), that some of the fabric is also bunched up between thumb and needle, plus your hand is trapped under the needle which ‘…is bad for you, plus it restricts the flow of stitches down the needle’. She adds that ‘other methods present fewer problems’.
But it caught on, nonetheless, raising interesting questions about why people adopt something which is inefficient despite having an older and more effective alternative. Here’s Rutt again: ‘Before long, working-class knitters, especially in Southern England, began to emulate the new fashion, which is inefficient and limits the speed of knitting.’ Interestingly, one of my friends initially began knitting more like I do but was sharply corrected by, and I think I’m remembering correctly, a great aunt. And I had never seen anybody knit like this until I went to university in Cambridge, in the strange and foreign land of southern England…
So do I really knit like an Irish peasant? No, I don’t – I knit like people have been knitting for centuries:
with my right-hand needle under my hand. It may be known as the ‘English method’ in some places, but it was evidently quite common in Europe; the above detail is Italian; it’s by Lorenzetti. Not just employed by the Virgin Mary, but by many more of us. So there, nineteenth-century style police.
And my other not-quite-inherited style? Underarm, you hold the work quite high – perhaps that’s why I couldn’t get the hang of it; it was always slightly out of focus. More relevant nowadays is the fact that you can’t stick a circular needle under your armpit, either. You’re also restricting your movement in a way that you wouldn’t if you used a knitting belt, but knitting belts fell out of use in many places during the last century (it was lovely to see them being used so normally when I was in Shetland). Incidentally, the work’s at the optimal height with a belt, too.
For myself, I also hold the yarn along the right needle, with my right hand operating like a kind of shuttle and the yarn held between my thumb and forefinger, rather than would round my fingers. I used to think this was odd until I found it praised by Julia Hemmons Hiatt for its excellent tension control. I also used to think I was slow – admittedly I am now, as I have to be careful, but before that – and then I went to a few workshops and discovered I was one of the quickest knitters there. In view of my current circumstances, it’s interesting that JHH says it’s good for someone who ‘lacks dexterity’, because of ‘youth, age or disability’. Does this give me a Licence to Knit, then? OO7.5? (Sorry, I’ve just finally seen Skyfall. Fab. And I’m not really a James Bond fan.)
I’ll leave with a shot of our knitting group:
Oh, all right, it isn’t – because some of our knitters do, after all and as I noted above, knit like ladies. So how do you knit? And have you ever tried to change?
* The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey by Patricia Lynch, 1934. This was one of my favourite books when I was growing up; I found it on my grandparents’ bookshelves. How my discovery escaped my mother’s ‘Celtic Bollocks’ sensor, I don’t know, given that it features two children called Seamus and Eileen, and they meet, among other things, a leprechaun and the salmon of knowledge…