The season of the toecover

(Or what NOT to knit for Christmas.)

I’ve been sent a couple of things to review recently which I’m not going to mention. Sometimes I do this because they are inappropriate. OK, sometimes they are terrible (in which case I give feedback directly, but not here), but sometimes they are just plain wrong. And this is the season for it: the run up to Christmas. If I see another book inviting me to knit / crochet / weave / felt something – stockings / candy canes / decorations / skirts for Christmas trees / strange small gift items – I am going to scream. Or strangle / incinerate / shred / rip the offending object into small pieces.

These books are toecover production manuals, and they should be ignored at all costs.


This is a budgie cover, but it is also – most emphatically – a clear type of toecover.

Not come across ‘toecover’ before? It was part of our family vernacular, for as long as I can remember, and now I forget that it’s not universal. But it should be. It has nothing to do with sports equipment or anything medical, and everything to do with, um, ‘handicrafts’. Unfortunately.

It comes from the wonderful Betty MacDonald, and her book from the 1940s, The Plague and I, detailing her year in a TB sanatorium (doesn’t sound funny, but it’s a hoot). ‘Toecover,’ she writes, ‘is a family name for a useless gift. A crocheted napkin ring is a toe cover. So are embroidered book marks … pincushion covers done in french knots … cross-stitched pictures of lumpy brown houses…’

agh 2

She waxes lyrical for a long paragraph, but you get the picture. Those are toecovers. It’s easy to imagine that the toecover died out sometime around 1970, when everybody was too busy getting off of their heads to bother about making attractive napkin rings out of leather scraps and left-over yarn, but evidently not:


Thank you, Golden Hands.

And they still live and flourish today.

Think about it. What else are knitted iPhone covers, crocheted tree garlands that look as though the cat’s been sick, twee dolls for adults, wine-bottle cozies in moss stitch (or, indeed, any stitch), and most take-away coffee cup holders, especially those with hands? And in case you think I’m exaggerating, a quick search for ‘knitted gifts’ on Pinterest revealed the existence of what can only be described as a completely un-ironic frilly dress for a decanter. NO!

Magazines are the natural habitat of the toecover, especially at this time of year. Take the latest issue of Landscape, for instance, a relatively recent addition to the ‘I want that lifestyle’ area of magazine publishing. The latest edition, based around Christmas, features some things called ‘table stockings’. (I can’t photograph it, because I’d be breaking copyright and I’m being rude enough without tempting fate.) They’re not for the table legs – we’re not Victorians, honestly – but they are little socks, knitted in red with a cable pattern and a white cuff. You put your cutlery in them at the table. Apparently they ‘bring a light-hearted touch to the dinner table’. I knew that.

Surely those of us who do knit presents for our nearest and dearest are already bogged down making scarves, hats, gloves, socks, even the occasional definitely ironic sweater with a reindeer on it (check out this Rav project page for an, er, interesting take on the reindeer motif – but not if you’re easily offended), to bother about making tiny socks for spoons? Surely? Surely?

Posy Simmonds had a series of cartoon strips in the 1980s Guardian called Mrs Webber’s Diary; there were several incarnations with slightly different titles, but they were some of the most pertinent pieces of observation I’ve ever come across. In one, a daughter had called her mother to say that she had just been unsuccessful in a job application. It’s seen from the mother’s POV, and she suggests that at least missing out on the job would mean her daughter had time to care for her family – ‘you’ll have time to do it all properly … I was only joking, Jane’. She then says ‘…you’ll find something to do … look at me, I did…’ and puts the phone down. The last frame says it all:

AGH3 This is a toecover factory.

Do not fall into this trap. Do not knit bulky bookmarks, tiny hats to use as Christmas tree decorations, strange naked deformed dolls which are supposed to be cute, little house-shaped key rings which double up as key tidies or – the oddest one I found in a quick search – a strange chicken with something hanging out of its mouth, possibly a worm, possibly its entrails. It will end badly.

But if you do have spare time, knit socks – and give them to me. My nephew has just requested socks and I do not knit socks. Rats.

PS: I popped into (and out of) a little craft fair yesterday, and discovered a toecover nest. Here are a few extras, not all knitting:

  • Earmuffs, knitted in eyelash yarn, but with dangly legs (why?).
  • A crocheted heart with ‘I [heart] my teacher’ embroidered on it. No scented stuffing or anything like that, just a heart-shaped thing.
  • A wooden circle, with ‘a round tuit’ pyrographed on – so someone could get a round to it (ho ho ho)
  • A decoupage box for holding those small packs of paper hankies… there were also several of these knitted or crocheted, too; I think this village must be prone to bad colds.
  • A fake nose. I need to explain this one: made out of pink felt, I think it was supposed to be a pig’s snout. It had elastic so it would stay on, clearly designed for a small child. Childline need to be advised.
  • A pile of blocks of wood or cardboard covered alternately in fabric or crochet, with embroidered titles. They were not real books – I mean, who’d want real books in their house when they could have a pile of fake ones?



37 thoughts on “The season of the toecover

  1. Vivian Fox

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I couldn’t agree more. I often feel a lone voice at my regular knitting group which is currently awash with wine bottle covers( one knitter is on her fifth!), gadget covers and misshapen Christmas mice. Many of the women are fantastic knitters but I cannot understand their project choices…..I guess Kirstie has a lot to answer for.

    1. kate Post author

      AGH! I feel the subject of the Toecover needs to be introduced, though I suspect it wouldn’t make any difference. Are wine bottle covers, I wonder, the 2014 equivalent of the 1950s lady who covered up the obscenity of a toilet roll? (Sociology 101: discuss.) And one of my Twitter responders has seen an apple cozy, yup, AN APPLE COZY. Do not, under any circumstances, mention that to your knitting group.

      We can’t blame Kirstie for everything, though I’m quite happy to try…

  2. lollyknits

    This is too funny!! if I’m knitting something, I want it to be useful! If I give someone something that they’re just going to shove in the back of a drawer, the thoughtfulness of spending so much time knitting them a present goes out the window, because you’ve given them something they DON’T WANT.

    1. kate Post author

      Good point – but I’m not sure the toecover producers even begin to think in that way. Or maybe they live in a world where spoons need little red socks and every apple should have a cozy.

    1. kate Post author

      THank you! Let’s start painting placards now, maybe preparing chants – What do we want? Real gifts! When do we want them? December 25th…

  3. goldie433

    This is the very best of woolwinding so far! I have just increased my vocabulary thanks to you. I wish someone would knit an apple cozy for me so I can do a show-and-tell.


    1. kate Post author

      Thank you – but I’m beginning to wonder, with a slight hint of dread, what I may have started by mentioning the apple cozy… Banana blankets? Courgette cushions?

  4. Kay in New Mexico

    I know these things! In my family they were called “ceremonial items.” (I’m an archaeologist, and archaeologists regularly label a find “ceremonial item” if it appears to be useless and they have no idea what it really is.)

    I love family-specific words; one of ours is “sidesaddle.” That’s a gift you give someone in the family (usually living in the same house) because you want it yourself. Think book, DVD,

    1. kate Post author

      I’m an archaeologist too, or that should be ‘was’ – had to make a living elsewhere – and I know exactly what you mean: if in doubt, say ritual. Actually, that’s exactly what we’re dealing with, isn’t it? Ho ho ho, to quote the big man with beard and the red and white coat.

      Sidesaddle is incredibly useful – I am going to start using it at once! Why did I never develop shorthand for this, I wonder?

  5. carys davies

    I am GUILTY. I used to knit tiny pianos and saxaphones as gifts at college (5cm tall). Now, I have knitted a mobile phone cover (for my old NOKIA Tesco Basic phone), it does the job of protecting it from knocks and scratches (it has a thick cable knitted in). So I claim it works. For presents, though, I agree, hats, mitts, scarves etc. Although even Elizabeth Zimmerman knits some christmas ornaments in the Almanac (while canoeing in Northern Canada, literally, which I suppose is her excuse).

    1. kate Post author

      !!!!!! O M G…

      I saw some splendid phone covers at the weekend – in eyelash yarn. Please tell us you’ve not used eyelash yarn. If so, definitely a toecover.

  6. Annie

    Bloody brilliant post Kate. And are you sure we’re not related? I thought my family was the only one that talked about toecovers. Childhood gifts from my father’s side of the family were almost always dismissed as toecovers – they probably were but my mother really didn’t like her mother in law so she could well have been baised. You are the first person I’ve ever come across who also uses the word.

    1. kate Post author

      Another toecover person! That’s it, we have to meet up at some point (except if we did, there’d probably be an enormous explosion and the world would be covered in a giant pink acrylic planet cozy, possibly one with feet).

      I suspect we owe our joint knowledge of the toecover to the fact that our parents all knew Betty MacDonald’s book (terrifically popular in its time, and really deserves a second wind) and thought ‘toecover’ was wonderful shorthand for ‘that strange thing knitted by Auntie Nellie that nobody could identify’. Or, in your case, substitute ‘your mother’ for Auntie Nellie…

      1. Annie

        You’re right, I asked my mother and she remembers her father having MacDonald’s book and she and her sister both reading it. My grandfather was a typesetter for Butler & Tanner in Frome and we’re thinking they may have published the book for Hammond as that is where most of my mother’s family’s books came from.

        1. kate Post author

          Aha! I’m not at all surprised that ‘toecover’ stuck; it’s so useful. As is Kay’s ‘sidesaddle’ (buying something ostensibly as a gift which you want yourself). I introduced a friend to that at the weekend and in her family such a present is called a ‘William’, after Just William, who would buy things like catapults for his relatives when he wanted them himself.

          (PS: I checked my copy, but it’s an old Penguin and was printed at Clay’s in Bungay. How fabulous to have been a typesetter back in the days of hot metal!)

  7. Judith Donald

    And what about those bloody awful crinolined ladies for concealing the spare toilet roll? Very coy. Please tell me people aren’t still making those!

      1. Judith

        No!!! I must admit do a degree of guilt in the toecover department – I recently presented a box of tastefully knitted veg to friends to celebrate their acquisition of an allotment after seven years on the waiting list. I mean, what else could I do?

        1. kate Post author

          I think they’re not, because I’m certain they were a) not in eyelash yarn – I know, I know, I’ve a thing for eyelash yarn, and not in a good way – and b) not in screaming pink acrylic where it was inappropriate. No pink aubergines, for instance. I know a tearoom which has some gorgeous knitted cakes (beads make the decoration) on the side, but I wouldn’t class those as toecovers either, because they’re in an appropriate setting. Sitting in the window of a plumbers’ merchant? Toecovers.

  8. artistsgarden

    Great post! I do have to confess that I have made the bambi-like item from Golden hands, however, in my defence I was about 10(ish) and it was about 50, no 45 (or so) years ago.
    Anyway, with 2 craft fairs looming I must away to my studio, now, what little “toe covers” can I knock up quickly in shades of taupe that will sell for £4.99 each …….

    1. kate Post author

      I find that deer-creation thing quite scary, and will think of you in a different light, 10 or not!

      (If you still have any copies of Golden Hands lurking I’m sure you’ll find plenty of suitable suggestions for appropriate things in taupe…)

  9. welshhillsagain

    This is wonderful Kate. I had a much loved aunt who had a positive genius for the toecover present: unwearable knitted ties, huge ugly tea cosies which did not fit the pot, or any pot, crocheted comb cases for disbelieving fifteen year old boys…You have brought it all back.

    1. kate Post author

      Maybe we had the same aunt… ?

      The thing that worries me most is that they are not dead. Toecovers live and breathe – I wonder if there’s a correlation with the economic situation? Betty M though there was, and had a tendency to blame the Depression. Personally I think toecovers have probably been with us since the Paleolithic, and that if we looked at cave paintings long enough we’d see an outline figure running away from another figure, the latter waving a prehistoric toecover.

  10. fatblackcatjournal

    I would like to confess a fondness for pink crocheted poodle shaped loo roll covers because they are so far over they are ironic and camp! but yes the toecover.. I particularly hate crocheting around rocks WTF? AND TINS? revolting unhygenic and totally unnecessary. When I become ruler of the known universe TERRIBLE things are going to happen to people who indulge in this kind of stuff.

    1. kate Post author

      What you do, right, is find a nice round sea-worn rock. Then you build up fibre around it, in layers, felting it. Then you let the felt dry, slit it open, remove the rock (vital), and then close your little round purse/bag/toecover with a snap fastener. Then you sell it at a craft fair. OK?

      (With you on the mental illness front – and some of us have been knitting hats for the homeless. Quite – plenty of people need warming up!)

    1. kate Post author

      Aren’t they fab? I’ve got Egg and I, Plague and I and Anybody Can Do Anything, but not Onions in the Stew or any of her kids’ books. But everyone should read Plague. Everyone. No exceptions!


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