Friday, April 09, 2010
Knitting the Revolution
(and who could blame you,)
you can wander off again and I will doubtless write something more interesting someday.
I don't know a great deal about knitting as a craft, I'm afraid.
When I decided Maggie needed to do some knitting in The Forbidden Rose I went out and bought some yarn and five, two-ended needles to see how it felt to knit.
I kept losing yarn off the end of the needles.
Apparently the French of 1790 didn't need the endy bits that keep the yarn from escaping. Or perhaps using endy bits was considered unsporting.
If I'd been knitting wool, I expect it would have itched.
And if I did this all day long, I'd have really strong fingers.
Ok. Knitting needles.
In 1794, stockings were knit with double-pointed metal needles. Wood or bone needles existed, but were probably too thick for the fine gauge used on stockings. Four needles would be in the stocking, (sometimes three,) with another 'active' needle doing the work.
I don't think I actually 'said' what the needles Maggie used were made of. But turns out they were metal, ok?
Leaving the actual technique of knitting . . . we move into knitting as a social practice. Learning about this does not make your fingers itch.
I needed to know who knits and when for the story because I was asking myself whether Maggie would really have set about clacking needles in the time and place I wanted her to do it.
And I wanted to know what she'd have thought about knitting when she was doing it.
And whether she'd know how.
And they started young.
When you look, it seems to be stockings, this knitting everybody had hanging from their needles. The written references echo this. The working class women would have been knitting not just for their own families, but to sell.
The idea that knitting went on all the time, everywhere, is supported by Zola, in Les Halles. Lisa, the young woman shopkeeper, matter-of-factly engages in knitting between customers.
But was it only the poor who were taught to knit?
Here, Letters from a Resident in France, 1790, says:
"It is not only in the first or intermediate classes that these useful females abound, they are equally common in more humble situations, and only differ in their employments, not in their principles. A woman in France, whatever be her condition, cannot be persuaded to resign her influence with her youth; and the bourgeoise who has no pretensions to court favour or the disposal of wealthy heiresses, attaches her eleve by knitting him stockings, forcing him with bons morceaux till he has an indigestion, and frequent regales of coffee and liqueur."
And in a letter to George Montagu, May 17, 1763, Walpole writes,
"Madame de Boufflers . . . came hither to-day to a great breakfast I made for her, with her eyes a foot deep in her head, her hands dangling, and scarce able to support her knitting-bag."
Walpole is thirty years before the Revolution, of course, but it's a strong indicator that knitting was a commonplace at the highest social levels. Something every well-bred Frenchwoman would have learned to do.
I have more . . .
"Your ideas of French gallantry are, indeed, very erroneous . . . he adores, with equal ardour, both young and old . . . I have seen a youthful beau kiss, with perfect devotion, a ball of cotton dropped from the hand of a lady who was knitting stockings for her grand-children."
[all these italics in the quotes are mine]
Since this woman is a recipient of gallantry, it's likely she's somebody reasonably high on the social scale. And she's not doing fancy work. What she's knitting is of a decidedly utilitarian nature.
As an intriguing but not-so-terribly-useful-to-me aside --
Men knitted also.
Here's a quote from A Year's Journey through France and Part of Spain, by Philip Thicknesse, 1777:
"While the Englishman is earning disease and misery at his bottle, the Frenchman is embroidering a gown, or knitting a handkerchief for his mistress. I have seen a Lady's sacque finely _tamboured_ by a Captain of horse, and a Lady's white bosom shewn through mashes netted by the man who made the snare, in which he was himself entangled . . ."
The world is just endlessly weird, y'know?
Folks also knitted gloves.
I'm tossing this snippet in even though it's not France. Jane Austen, at Chawton, Sunday, Jan 24, 1813, writes to Cassandra --
I'm pretty sure the knitted fabric for pants and breeches was machine-made, however I will amuse myself with images of half-knit breeches hanging from the needles of the knitters of Paris.