Saturday, November 19, 2011

Knitting in Nineteen Thirty

"I was six years old, and so was everyone else," said Amy, who is now eighty-seven, "and Mrs Scott was very Victorian and had no rapport at all with young children. Mind you, teachers didn't have to have in those days."

All the class had all been shown how to cast on a row of twelve stitches, and then how to knit the next row in plain knitting. In, over, through, off. In, over, through off.

When Miss Scott thought they had all grasped this she told them to carry on with it, and to come to her if there were any problems.

Well, it's a tricky thing, knitting, when you're six and so of course there were problems. Pretty soon a long snaking line of infants stood waiting by the teacher's desk, all with dropped stitches, lost stitches, lost needles, tangled wool and any combination of all of those.

Amy was determined not to have to join this boring line. She started knitting and muttering it to herself. "In, over, through" - - and at this point she paused. She wasn't sure about the "off" bit. Surely if you dropped the stitch off the needle - - well that would be a dropped stitch, wouldn't it? And that was what half the trouble at the long line at the front was all about. Dropped stitches. She heard Miss Scott muttering about them all the time.

So she decided to omit the "off" bit of the process. "In, over, through - - In, over, through - - "

But if you miss out the "off" bit then what you're doing is doubling the number of stitches on your needle. To Amy's surprise, pretty soon there were twenty-four stitches and not long after that there were forty-eight. When she got to the next row and heading for ninety-six, she ran out of room to squash them all on the needle.

It was a bit like that old story where the peasant has won some kind of ancient lottery and the Emperor of China (or some such: I am not sticking very closely to the letter of this story) tells him he can have whatever he wants as a prize. And he asks for one grain of rice on the first square of a chessboard, double that on the second - - double that on the third - - and by the time the peasant has done a few rows on the chessboard all the rice in China belongs to him.

And so it was with Amy's stitches, which were multiplying at a most alarming rate. With a heavy sigh, she joined the ever-increasing line at the front of the classroom.

Miss Scott was not pleased with Amy's ninety-six stitches. She removed eighty-four of them and all the knitting that Amy had done so far, and instructed Amy to start again. Amy was to knit her twelve stitches, remembering the "off" bit, until she had three inches of knitting, measured against a ruler, and then she was to return to the teacher.

Amy was not pleased with this outcome. As far as she was concerned, she had made a lot of effort to avoid dropped stitches, and it had all been thrown back in her face. Three inches was a lot of knitting, and it was distinctly dull to do. Though, in nineteen thirty, school was not expected to be interesting, of course.

After an eternity of "In, over, through, OFF, In, over, through, OFF" Amy's knitting measured about an inch and a half. It was then that she made an interesting discovery.

If you got your inch and a half of knitting, and pulled it enough, it would measure three inches. Hurrah! Triumphantly, she joined the queue.

Sadly, by the time she had progressed to the front of the interminable line, her knitting had shrunk back to its original inch and a half, and Miss Scott was most unimpressed with it. Amy was sent back to her desk to complete her task, which, grudgingly, she did.

After the three inch hurdle was reached, they were shown how to cast off stitches a couple at a time in each row to bring it to a point. The direction they were heading in was to knit several of these woolly oblongs-with-a-pointy-end and then they were to sew them all together to make slippers for their little brothers or sisters.

It was, of course, eighty-one years ago and so Amy can't quite remember if the slippers were ever completed.

Of course, the result of this story should be that Amy was so traumatised by this early experience of knitting that she never picked up knitting needles ever again.

However, that is not the case. What Miss Scott never realised is that Amy was one of the most talented infants ever to cast on a stitch. Amy grew up to paint, sculpt, embroider, sew - and knit anything at all with consummate skill. Woodwork and bricklaying are not beyond her, either - - or most other crafts requiring a clever pair of hands and an artist's eye. I once saw her make a dress by throwing the material on the floor, looking at it for a bit, and then cutting a perfect fit with no use of a pattern at all.

And my favourite childhood jumper was originally made by Amy for her daughter Lynda, and when she grew out of it it was worn by her son Frank, and when he grew out of it I became its proud owner and wore it until I could squeeze into it no longer.

Ah! Miss Scott, if only you'd known all this. How surprised you would have been.


Anonymous Ruth said...

I never learnt how to knit though my mother was a fabulous knitter. My dad's mum tried to teach me but my left-handedness flummoxed her. I expect in her day you weren't allowed to be left handed. After I broke my left arm at about 8 years old I became very good at using my right hand. I hold racquets in my right, played darts with my right, can use either for most tools except scissors which I solely use left handed. I can hold my toothbrush in either, regularly swap hands when putting on make up, my guitar was a standard right handed one. However , I still can't knit.

12:08 am  
Blogger Helsie said...

I'm a great fan of learning all these handcrafts. They make great hobbies and are useful too but I could never interest my daughter in learning to knit or crochet or sew anything. I think in the beginning you may have to be MADE to learn these crafts so that you can pick them up when you are more interested ( or need to !!). Schools these days often don't put the time that is required into teaching knitting and crochet as they have so many other interesting things on their agenda.

9:49 am  
Blogger Jennyta said...

I too am one of those poor left handed people who insisted on getting everything back to front. I still remember one of my teachers trying to teach me herringbone stitch and ending up practically having a nervous breakdown. "Oh just do cross stitch!" she bellowed at me eventually.

10:29 am  
Anonymous Mike Deakin said...

I'm one of the only blokes I know (in their 40s) who can knit! My father taught me how to. I can do scarves and jumpers and all manner of stuff... Not that I do of course! But none the less a skill I was taught along with cooking, ironing, hanging wallpaper, painting(for decorating) and making wine. All by my father.

11:30 am  
Blogger rhymeswithplague said...

What surprises me (I don't know about Miss Scott) is Frank wearing his sister's jumper. Is a jumper the same thing on both sides of the Atlantic?

7:40 pm  
Blogger Jan Blawat said...

At a Waldorf school, children are taught to knit. It goes along with teaching them math, I think. One day when I picked up my son after school, he showed me a sock he had knitted, with a turned heel and everything. I accused him of lying about knitting it himself, so we walked back into the handcrafts class and he had the teacher back up his story. He also learned to sew at the Waldorf school, to garden, do woodwork, and write in calligraphy. He's 25 now and all those skills have served him well.

6:32 pm  

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