No Idle Hands: The Social History of American Knitting (book #94)

Anne L Macdonald, 1988.

A fascinating book, though it needs more crochet references. And if it were written now it would be differently feminist, I think.

Here is Washington “conducting plantation affairs by correspondence with his manager”, in several letters.

Doll at the Ferry must be taught to Knit and MADE to do a sufficient day’s work of it, otherwise (if suffered to be idle) many more will walk in her steps. Lame Peter, if no body else will, must teach her, and she must be brought to the house for that purpose.

The deficiency of Stockings is another instance of the villainy of those I have about me, for, as you justly observe, it is impossible for that Lame Peter and Sarah’s work could amount to no more than 60 pair. The Gardener’s Wife must NOW see that there is a just return of all that is given out and taken in, and when the work is handed over by her, to you. I am persuaded it will be safe. Let the Gardener’s wife give work to, and receive it from Lame Peter, as well as others; and then the whole will come under one head. Their reports ought to be dated.

And can Lucy find sufficient employment in the Kitchen? It was expected her leisure hours, of which I conceive she must have very many from Cooking, would be employed in knitting, of which Peter and Sarah do too little.

The same attention ought to be given to Peter (and I suppose to Sarah likewise,) or the Stockings will be knit too small for those for whom they are intended; such being the idleness, and deceit of these people.

The book is dedicated to a Peter – I like to think that this is in recognition of Lame Peter.

Macdonald identifies knitting as part of war culture. For instance, she mentions songs about knitting from the Second World War, such as five separate songs called “Knittin’ from Britain” in 1941, “Knit One, Purl Two” recorded by Glenn Miller, “Knittin’ on a Mitten” and “Stick to Your Knittin’, Kitten”. She quotes two 1918 plays. The Knitting Club Meets or Just Back from France, in which Jane, “very slender [with] a spiritual face … dressed in a shabby tailor suit, somewhat out of date, but with neat hat, gloves, and shoes” tells the members of a knitting group about what she has seen in Red Cross camps in France, energising people like Lucy, “a rather silly person dressed in the height of fashion, [carrying] a magnificent knitting bag”. Another play from the same year is The Knitting Girls Count One.

And a silly bit for J – “famed golfer Babe Didrikson Zaharias’s comment … “When I really want to blast one, I just loosen my girdle and let ‘er fly”.

The M helped me write this entry by reading bits out to me. The M says “I liked the pictures because they are black and white, not like normal pictures now, and there’s a picture of a little girl knitting with her grandma, and their swimming costumes are not like the swimming costumes we have now because they are knitted”.

Cartoon, about 1870, spoofing the Sorosis Society – an early women’s club.

Cartoon spoofing the Sorosis Society, c 1870.

The Winding of the Skein, 1868.

The Winding of the Skein, 1868.

Heel and Toe, 1873.

Heel and Toe

Winding Up the Yarn, 1897.

Winding Up the Yarn, 1897

Lines from “The New Woman and Her Grandam”, Nixon Waterman, 1897:

My grandam used to turn her wheel,
And spin the glistening tow;
Or knit a sock as she’d sit and rock
The cradle to and fro.
And when that sock was worn or town,
Oh, then with soft-spun yarn it
Was soon made new all through and through,
For my grandam she would darn it.

My grandam’s daughter’s (sic) spins
The wheel with her glistening toe,
The whole day long, for she isn’t strong,
So she daren’t work you know.
But when her wheel of polished steel,
With nothing to forewarn it,
Hits a snag kerplunk and gets a “punk,”
Why, she’s almost sure to “Darn it!”

(Judging by his book A Girl Wanted, Nixon Waterman was a pain in the neck.)


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