always knitting, 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.




always knitting, From the Archives

From the archives: knitting while she works

Habitus et cultus Matronarum Nobilu et Rusticarum (Clothing and Manners of Noblewomen and Countrywomen) 1619 – 1623. From collection at Rijksmuseum (here)


In North Wales the women are very industrious; they are always knitting…

Another short extract today for the ‘always knitting’ series, which features 19th century commentary about European women’s apparently ubiquitous and incessant knitting. (See here for part one of series and see menu for From the Archives – always knitting).

The extract below is taken from an article in a Manchester paper in 1846 (itself extracted from the Sunday Times) and describes some pretty impressive multi-tasking by a Welsh knitter.


MAKING THE MOST OF ONE’S POWERS – In North Wales the women are very industrious; they are always knitting stockings at least, and sometimes doing more. We passed a sturdy-looking dame yesterday, who was knitting stockings, of course; had a load of wool on her head, a child tied on her back, and a cudgel under her arm, with which she was driving four cows before her. Nor was her tongue idle, for she scolded the cows in Welsh if they dared to swerve from the path she meant them to pursue. – Sunday Times.

The Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser – Wednesday 23 September 1846. From the fantastic British Newspaper Archive- see more here


Over to you: Are you a fan of knitting on the move or while you work? I’d love to hear about your experiences or any memories of similarly industrious family members or friends.



always knitting, From the Archives

From the archives: knitting stockings as they walk along…

Adolphe Braun (French, 1812 - 1877)
Canton de Zurich by Adolphe Braun (French, 1812 – 1877) , about 1869, Albumen silver print. 14.6 × 9.8 cm (5 3/4 × 3 7/8 in.) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. See here


waiting for customers, they are found knitting…

A short extract today for the ‘always knitting’ series, which features 19th century commentary about European women’s apparently ubiquitous and incessant knitting. (See here for part one of series).

I particularly love the photo above which I thought perfectly illustrated the extract. It was taken in about 1869 in Zurich and is a staged, studio shot of a woman surrounded by baskets of produce that she appears to be selling. The fact that the photographer chose to include a piece of knitting in her hand to re-enact this market scene, suggests how common it was for women sellers to be knitting while they worked.



…Cider, potatoes, butter, fruit, corn, and even flowers, are brought into the market on Saturdays for sale; and the women come in by companies, and are to be seen perfect pictures of health and cheerfulness, knitting stockings as they walk along, and even when they sit with their butter-baskets and bunches of flowers in the market-place, waiting for customers, they are found knitting.

Coventry Herald- Friday 10 November 1826. From the fantastic British Newspaper Archive (here).

Over to you: did you find this account interesting/surprising? I’d love to hear of any similar accounts of knitters in the 19th century that you’ve come across.


always knitting, From the Archives

From the archives: always knitting


Gustav Schauer (German, 1826 - 1902)
Meyerheim: Die Strickstunde/Instruction in Knitting, 1865-1875. Gustav Schauer. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

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.


“I Am Half-Sick of Shadows,” Said the Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse (here)

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?