19th century knitters, From the Archives

From the archives: Every other woman in Scotland knits…


Man en vrouw aan een tafeltje aan het meer, print by Johann Heinrich Maria Hubert Rennefeld, after Hein Burgers, 1855 – 1877. From Rijksmuseum collection- see here


In this fourth instalment of the ‘always knitting’ series, the focus is on knitting in Scotland in the late 19th century.

In his account in The Queen magazine (an earlier form of the modern day Harper’s Bazaar), the writer E.B.T. comments on the surprising ubiquity of knitters in Scotland, noting this activity goes across all classes, and even includes boys:

Every other woman in Scotland knits. The peasant women knit, the highest ladies in the land knit. Even the little boys learn to knit…

He also details the frequency of such knitting, first noting the way that apparently  middle to upper class women include their knitting hobby in every part of their day:

…the lady has taken her knitting to breakfast or luncheon. She has done a few new stitches before and after the meal, burying the needles in her table-napkin meanwhile. She has even taken the stocking out driving, or in shooting expeditions, and has never read anything, not even the newspaper, without knitting away all the while…

The knitting of poorer Scottish women is just as incessant, but the writer hints at the economic imperative lying beneath this activity and suggests that this frequency of knitting may not be from choice but necessity, given the poor payment it accrues.

The Scotch peasant knitters work walking along the road, knit sitting on their doorsteps, knit nursing their babies -always knit, in fact—and even then they earn very little, for it is a poorly paid trade.

Scottish, active 1843 - 1848)
Hill & Adamson (Scottish, active 1843 – 1848). [Two unknown women, Mrs Margaret (Dryburgh) Lyall, Marion Finlay and Mrs Grace (Finlay) Ramsay], 1843 – 1846, Salted paper print from a Calotype negative 16 × 21.1 cm (6 5/16 × 8 5/16 in.) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. See here

The writer does not display the amused indulgence or impatience that is often found in contemporary accounts of knitters. Instead, he claims that their constant activity is a little unnerving, reminding him of his own comparative idleness:

At last we have become accustomed to that eternal click of the needle, which at first made us feel quite nervous. Even now that endless click reminds us we are wasting our time, and that we are not industriously enough inclined…

19th Century Knit-inspiration: Shawl bedspreads

The article also discusses the knitwear that is most commonly available to buy in Scotland. Shetland shawls of varying degrees of price (from 10s to £20*) are described as being always in demand. The writer suggests an alternate use for such shawls that may also be a helpful suggestion for contemporary knitters who have more shawls than they can wear, or for those who like to collect beautiful old shawls from antique fairs or charity shops. (*About £30-£1,200 in 2005.)

A pretty idea for employing these shawls is to use them as bedspreads. For this purpose they are lined with thin silk, and a pretty deep frill of the same makes a kind of frame to the spider-like threads…Nothing of equal lightness gives equal warmth…They are delightfully warm and cosy for babies’ crib covers, and they have the advantage of being somewhat of a novelty.

Eureka Silk, 1880-1900. From here.

Sock innovation (and the fashions of 1892)

Just as socks are one of the favourite items produced by hand knitters today, it seems that socks or stockings were very popular among women knitting both for their own family and for public sale. Perhaps more surprisingly, it seems that there were also clear trends in the fashion of stockings.

There is as much fashion in stockings there is in anything else. The huge checked stockings seem to be quite out of date, and have descended to the tourist leg. Plain ribbed stockings of dark colour are all the fashion, and the more elaborate and marvellous the turnover the greater the triumph…

In 1892 the trend for interesting turnover cuffs on stockings gave way to some interesting innovations: the article seems to suggest that socks were knitted from the cuff down and after the turnover section was completed, the work would be turned inside out, before contiuning to knit the rest of the sock. Thus, meaning that when the cuff was folded over, the right side of the work would still be shown!

… [the tops of stockings] are knitted about four inches deep, and are then turned inside out, so that when worn, although turned over, they still show the right side to the world.

Tartan Trend

The most expensive sock in fashion was also the most complicated to knit, but perhaps the most impressive and wonderfully Scottish in appearance: the tartan sock! A hand knitted pair could cost as much as 2 to 3 guineas, or £126-£189 in 2005, and the equivalent of 6 to 9 days’ wages for a craftsmen in the building trade in 1890. As the writer points out, this intarsia technique makes tartan:

the most difficult stocking of all to knit…Some of the tartans require sixteen balls, all going at the same time. This, of course, requires a very experienced worker, and is consequently very well paid.


Over to you: did you enjoy this little insight into 19th century Scottish knitting? Have you ever come across a similar sock pattern where the cuff is turned inside out before continuing? Have you ever tried knitting anything in tartan?

See here for Part One of the Always Knitting series, and see the menu for ‘From the Archives’ or the tag ‘always knitting’.

All excerpts taken from the Ladies’ Column in the Dundee Evening Telegraph from Monday 8th February 1892; this article was itself extracted from an article by E.B.T. in The Queen, a magazine founded by Samuel Beeton (husband of the famous Mrs Beeton and publisher of her Book of Household Management) that featured high society life. Newspaper found in the fantastic British Newspaper Archive, see here.

Currency conversions from here.




6 thoughts on “From the archives: Every other woman in Scotland knits…”

      1. I just recently bought a knitting history book. I also did a lot of my undergrad studies around women’s knitting work:) It is fascinating!


      2. Oh wow, that must have been so interesting to study. I’d love any recommendations of any books that you’ve enjoyed about knitting or other fibre crafts/arts. I’m currently reading my way through The Subversive Stitch by Rozsika Parker about the history of women and embroidery-another truly fascinating topic!

        Liked by 1 person

  1. It’s packed full of information so it’s definitely not a quick read, but really thought provoking and I’ve really been enjoying it. I definitely recommend it if you’re interested in social history or needlework and other traditionally female arts.


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