A Rant on Knitting
What was knitted in the 18th C? “Everyone knows” that old time people were frugal and saved money by “doing it themselves”. But....did they? Did an 18th C woman knit herself a lovely garter stitch shawl, happy to save the money for a square of wool fabric? Did she even use shawls? Afghans? Bedspreads?
Let us start with large, flat pieces of knitting. Yarn was, mostly, not homespun (except during the American Revolution, in certain areas, and I believe that the quality of that yarn is suspect, as so many at those spinning bees were rank beginners). Spinning was a large cottage industry, and high quality yarn was available. During the Revolution, yarn and fabric were either from before the blockades, smuggled, or homespun/woven. There isn’t any evidence not in advertisements, paintings, nor artifacts, of any knitted afghans, shawls, or blankets. It was faster to weave flat goods, and, as always, time is money. So a woman would be better served to make gloves, stockings, or caps, things that were shaped and uniquely suited to knitting, rather than flat goods which could easily be woven or purchased. With the exception of tiny, incredibly finely knit baby sweaters, (there are several in What Clothes Reveal, by Linda Baumgarten), there appear to be no sweaters or knitted shirts in the third quarter of the 18th C. Why? No clue...perhaps a fashion thing?
So, what is a knitting-loving reenactor to do? Well, there are a lot of options for knitting! Caps and gloves, fingerless mitts, and stockings were all routinely hand knitted. If you love knitting lace, a fancy pair (for “best”, of course) of fingerless mitts with a simple lace pattern (copy an extant pair, please, the lace *is* simple) or even a man’s night cap, to go with his banyan (MFA has one), knitted in cotton lace, would be wonderful. For those interested in heavier gauge knitting, a double ended “football” shaped, felted cap would be appropriate for a working man’s cap. Although there are now, finally, several decent Monmouth cap patterns available, I have yet to see anything that suggests that that particular style, with those details, was popular during the Revolution. If you want a Monmouth cap, avoid all patterns with a purl turning row! As soon as you see that detail, you know that the pattern is not copying the extant cap. I’ve yet to see a purl turning row in any period cap! If you would like worsted or Aran weight knitting, there are several caps that appear to be that weight (see the paintings in the links). Mitts can be made finely, in lace weight yarn, or more coarsely in fingering weight. The same with stockings (all knitted more densely than modern knits). Mittens appear to be like Classic Mittens, with round tops. Finally, babies sometimes wore baby waistcoats (buttonless cardigans), out of fine cotton, many stitches to the inch, with a textured knit purl pattern. Kitchener and grafting has not, yet, been found on any 18th C artifacts, although examples of 3 needle bind off and the invisible 3 needle bind off variation abound!
Ribbing was yet another, virtually unused technique. Garter stitch, or a garter stitch variation (from the right side, 2 knit rows, 1 purl row, repeat) were common. These edgings were worked in the round by either knitting and purling, in turn, according to pattern, or, when time to begin purling, slipping a stitch, passing the yarn forward, turning, slipping that stitch back, and then knitting around, on the inside. At the end of the row, knit the slipped stitch, and repeat the wrap and turn. The only difference from modern knitting is that they didn’t bother picking up the wrap, to knit with the stitch. A third way that they worked is, again, used for modern, where they worked the garter stitch back and forth, flat, then joined in the round to work the plain stockinette section, and sewed up the little seam with the tail (no ridge; they butted and whipped the edge).
A final option, if you can justify the time and place, is that there were several Young Ladies’ Schools that had the girls make knitted pinballs, which were then used, given as gifts, or sold. If you can come up with a reason to have been in Pennsylvania, and gotten one, or in England, ditto, then you can enjoy the challenge of knitting with 5-0 steel needles, and fine silk thread, at 22-24 sts/in and make yourself an intarsia and stranded pin ball!
So the do’s:
(all of the above can have loooong stockinette cuffs, if desired, edged with garter stitch)
stockings (plain stockinette with garter tops, purl relief, documented clocks if desired)
high end super fine color work silk knit pinballs
a high end, copied from an extant example, lace man’s cap
a high end, copied from an extant woman’s lace mitt
And the don’ts:
plain flat hand knit anything
flat lace anything
More research is needed for high end, fancy knitted bags, such as these
Finally, there are a few extant, clearly unusual artifacts of things like a textured knit/purl petticoat. It’s not clear that they were ever worn. Should anyone research and copy this sort of thing, please tell everyone all about the process!
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA Knitted man’s cap Accession number 38.1281
What Clothes Reveal by Linda Baumgarten, p. 159
Tokens of love: Quaker Pinballs by Erica Uten
Voyageur Cap by Sally Pointer
My own 18th C Striped Cap
My Monmouth Cap
(scroll to 233402 + A and to 23417
(I think the above were shortened, later, due to the different cast off yarn at the wrist)
From the Dutch Museum
Monmouth cap (notice the 3 needle bind off at the brim, and the tabby thing at the top, not a button!
Because I feel like it
Here is a painting, with Rich Woman Fantasy Handwork. See how there are two knitting needles, one stuck through the fringy stuff, supporting it? Totally not knitting...not fringe making...pure fantasy.
On the other hand, look at Mrs Mifflin. She has a loom, it's a backstrap, one can see the green ribbon holding it away from her, and a faint blue ribbon tying it to her (that is the backstrap). Then there is the tool in her right hand, forming the shed, and her left hand is spacing out the fringe threads, in a very believable manner. She might not be working the fringe, she might not know how, but if she doesn't, someone who did know how must have posed her!
This is apropos of nothing having to do with my research for Mrs Miles, but it's interesting, and I'm sure I'll want this information sometime, so it's best to write it down!
Choosing my clothing
As I was perusing my copy of Copley (available used, at not too expensive prices, they go up and down, this book is a must-have for research!), I noticed some mistakes. One does get used to this, eventually, but it continues to infuriate me! On page 307, in the discussion of Mrs. Paul Richard, it says that she is wearing a plain cotton apron, and that Copley only painted women in aprons twice. Well...that apron doesn't look like cotton to me, it looks like a not quite opaque linen, in other words, a very good every day apron, not one I'd wear to cook in! They reference p. 314, Dorothy Quincy, in her apron, but then, on page 319 there is Mrs. Mifflin, in what is quite clearly an apron!
Dorothy Quincy in her apron (I much prefer to link to the owner of the painting, but MFA website is not cooperating.)
Mrs Mifflin in her apron
Since Mrs Skinner and Mrs Winthrop both have gowns with robings and ribbons in a typical pattern, I think I will make my new gown in their style, with ribbons on the stomacher, in a pink rather like Dorothy Quincy's.
Introducing Mrs Miles
Good Day! I am researching Mrs Ruth Barrett Miles, wife of Captain Charles Miles, both of Concord. I have portrayed Mrs Miles before, but I need more information about the family. I may, yet, change my mind about who I am.
I want a woman who married in the 1750s, and has 4-6 children, aged perhaps 6 (no younger!) to 20 or so, in the 1770s. I think being a mother with my oldest children in the their early twenties or late teens will match me the best! I expect her to have been born in the 1730s, of course, to make this work. I'm finding some, in addition to Ruth Miles, I really like Thankful Sarah Balcom, unless she is Sarah Thankful Balcom. I need to find a stronger source for her! But, I love her name!
I am making a list of potential women, with as much information about them as I can find online. Next week I will go to the special collections at the Concord Library. The next step after that may be the MA archives. We will see! I'm mainly looking for wealth information, to try to judge who might have a silk gown and who perhaps has a printed cotton, as their best.