Friday, April 09, 2010

Knitting the Revolution

It's a great pity to do lots of research and find stuff out and then realize you will never be able to use most of it. 

Over the last year, I learned more than I ever wanted to know about  who knit what, when and how in France in 1790. 
None of this will fit into a story. 

"Ah," says I to myself.  "I'll put it on the blog."

So if you don't care about knitting in 1794 in France,
(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.

Pictures.  I love pictures.  We have just picture after pictures of ordinary Frenchwomen of the period, knitting.  I'd guess hands were about always busy thus providing fewer playgrounds for the devil, as it were.

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 . . .

Here's an excerpt from A Residence in France During the Years 1792, 1793, 1794 and 1795, by an English Lady:

"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 . . ."

Knitted handerchiefs?
The world is just endlessly weird, y'know?

I do not imagine I will ever find a use for the willingness of European men to engage in decorative handwork.


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 --

"My mother is very well & finds great amusement in the glove-knitting, when this pair is finished she means to knit another, & at present wants no other work. "

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.


  1. Anonymous3:16 AM

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. @lw --

    The thought of a knitted woman's suit is daunting in the extreme.

    I suppose I AM now wondering how the material for men's pants was made in the Regency era. It 'clung' to the form. And we have picture examples of such clingy pants -- not satin -- after 1790. Probably before if I went looking for them.

    And I know they were smashing 'knitting frames' in circa 1806, though that may have been a machine for making stockings rather than a machine for making cloth.

    I don't see this as directly useful, but it has me all curious now. I will go research it eventually, when the fit hits me.

  3. Oh yay, a knitting post! I love knitting :-) Is there a way for me to cross post your post onto my knitting blog? If not, I'll simply link to it. It would be so exciting if I could find out whether knitting was common in Spain in 1492. It seems possible, but perhaps not probable, and I haven't researched it yet.
    I'm impressed with how everyone used to knit stockings with ease on fiddly metal needles; I wouldn't trade my bamboo circular needles for anything, having tried 4 double pointed needles once - the knitting part wasn't so bad, but to have to complete one sock and then turn around and make another *exactly the same* is such a pain...

  4. Hi Deniz --

    Oh, sure. You can pull the text from the blog and post it on your site. No problem.
    Or you can link to it, either one.

    The double-pointed needles seem to be everywhere in your hands when you're trying to knit. But if you were used to them, I figger they'd feel natural. So I didn't give my Maggie any particular difficulty working with them

  5. I love all the amazing info in this post! Even though it won't fit into a story it's fascinating. :)

    There's so much incredible history re knitting, thanks for sharing your research, esp as I know very little about knitting during that period. I'm definitely going to have to do some research of my own! Yay!

  6. Hi Betsy --

    One of the writing thingums -- it's sort of halfway between a tragedy and an annoyance -- is that we end up with great heaps of Lovely Information that we never get to use.

    If I were writing a contemporary I would have a very odd character who did nothing at all but walk around spouting these bits of useless information.

  7. Gemma2:20 AM

    "Folk Socks" by Nancy Bush is a source of knitting history and features lovely patterns based on museum pieces. Fascinating. As for the double-point needles, I use 5 (4 to hold stitches and one to work). Honestly, the stitches are very stable once you get used to the technique. I wish more historical novels had knitting in them.

  8. Gemma2:27 AM

    @Deniz, This article from Knitty, the online magazinem may answer your question about Spain in the 1400s. "History 101" by Julie Theaker.

  9. Hi Gemma --

    Knitting should be mentioned in historicals -- or, at least, historicals set in France. It seems to have been VERY common in my era.

  10. This is very intereting, Jo.

  11. Thanks. Glad you found it useful.

  12. Elf Ahearn4:47 PM

    Jo, what a charming post, and very informative. Now I'm going to have to go buy your books -- especially since you like cats.
    Elf Ahearn

  13. Thank ye kindly. And my cat thanks you too, perfectly happy to take all the credit.