They are to be seen knitting in all times and season, ‘from dewy morn to dusky eve,’ from January to December. On they go, looping and twisting, with remorseless industry
19th century British and Irish newspapers – and presumably readers – seem to have had a surprising fascination with women’s knitting. More particularly, they were intrigued and amused by the fact that some women seemed to be ‘always knitting’, at every possible time and in every possible location.
This amused fascination is quite evident in this first part of the series ‘From the archives: always knitting’.
The following excerpt was taken from a book published in 1832 and then reproduced in an Irish newspaper the same year. The author of the piece was a visitor to Germany and he notes the obsessive knitting of German women- which he considers almost as bad as their male counterparts’ incessant smoking.
The superior part of the creation, the ladies, do not often smoke; but then they have their scarcely less obnoxious indulgence – eternal stocking-knitting. The needles are never out of their fingers – Every hour of the day is filled with this work, as if the whole soul of the sex were made for nothing but stockings…this infinitely peddling and graceless employment.
Through every corner of Germany 99 in a 100 of the sex, be their condition what it may, spend the chief part of their waking hours, and possibly of their sleeping ones, in making stockings. They are to be seen knitting in all times and season, ‘from dewy morn to dusky eve,’ from January to December. On they go, looping and twisting, with remorseless industry; and if they could take their knitting-needles with them to church, they would consider them highly advantageous associates to their piety.
Even the…justifiable propensity of all females to look out of the window on all occasions, is vanquished by this master passion; and the most showy promenador through a German city, will see whole dens of women, machine-like, eternally twisting and looping, who no more think of glancing at his display than if they were so many spinning-jennies – But the more dextrous sometimes contrive to reconcile the two enjoyments, and by the help of a mirror placed outside the window, which they call an espion, the fair knitter can reconnoitre the external world, luckily without deducting a single moment from the grand business and pleasure of life.
Published in Southern Reporter and Cork Commercial Courier – 4th December 1832. Taken from The Year of Liberation, which seems to be the historical text and travelogue, subtitled ‘a Journal of the Defence of Hamburgh against the French Army under Marshal Davoust, in 1813′ by George Croly.
Article found at the fantastic British Newspaper Archive, see here.
The writer’s words are clearly exaggerated for humour, but do suggest the way that knitting was a commonplace activity for women, apparently partaken across social class, and not necessarily confined to a private home. They also imply that, while women may have loved knitting, it does not appear to have a terribly high status in the eyes of some men- a sentiment that re-appears in many of the future excerpts.
On a side- literary- note!
The excerpt above also unexpectedly offers an insight for readers of 19th century poetry. The author makes reference to a rather strange device: a mirror used by women who are knitting, to aid their observation of the outside world. This espion immediately brought to my mind the Tennyson poem, The Lady of Shalott, in which the cursed woman is unable to cease ‘Her weaving, either night or day,/To look down to Camelot’ and instead has to rely on the reflections provided by a mirror –
Before her hangs a mirror clear,Reflecting tower’d Camelot.
The mirror allows her to observe the world, to weave its ‘magic sights’, but remain safe from its dangers. (For full text, see here.)
The poem was published in 1833, the year after this article was published. It seems quite possible that Tennyson may have taken inspiration for his isolated Lady from such reports, or even his own experience, of women using these mirror devices while working on their craft.
While I’m sure that this does not come as a revelation to academics, I had certainly been taught to consider the use of the mirror in the poem as a device of Tennyson’s own invention. Instead, perhaps the idea of a woman being sequestered in her chambers, consumed with her work, only observing the ‘shadows’ of the outside world in her mirror, is not only a metaphor but also a more direct and literal representation of some contemporary women’s daily lives.
Over to you: did you enjoy reading these 19th century observations? Have you read any interesting historical accounts of knitting?