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Knitting in Victorian Times

Weldon's was an English paper-pattern company in that would go on to become one of the most recognized needlework publishers in Victorian England. Weldon's still exists, and every time I open an issue of Weldon's Practical Needlework, I'm intrigued by the items that I can't identify. Why did they knit these things? Today, it might be considered a waste of time, but in Victorian times, they had different needs, and time to spare.

Anklet to wear above shoes. Instructions were also given to fold up the bottom of the anklet, to emphasize the knitted ruffle on the bottom.
Knitted Boot Covering

Here's Interweave founder Linda Ligon to tell you about some of these items and the how and why of it.

Everyday Cloth

What's your everyday cloth? The rag you wipe your kitchen counters with? The laces for tying your running shoes, the towel for drying your coffee cup, the napkin by your plate at dinner? The pillowcase you lay your head on at night? These are purely functional. They are most usually store-bought, though you may have made or embellished them at one time or another, or you could if you wanted to.

Victorian and Edwardian women, those with the leisure to make things by hand, had a different view of what textiles were necessary in their daily lives or what was worth their creative effort. Of course they had the homely textiles described above (though the napkins might have had elaborate drawnwork and the pillowcases dainty tatted edgings). But they had more. So much more. Look through old copies of Weldon's Practical Needlework and your jaw will drop.

Pincushions Everywhere

You would have had a handmade pincushion in every room in the house (because you never knew when you might need a pin). Not just the boring tomato-shaped ones with a strawberry filled with emery on top either. Your pincushions might take the form of a rooster, a fan, a bow, a doll, a cream jug, a leaf, a witch's hat, a hassock, an egg, a spoon, a beechnut, an acorn, a folly! (And what's a folly? A pincushion that is "merely fantastic in shape.") You might knit, crochet, sew, or embroider your pincushions, and they would require some investment of time. What would you be thinking?

Finger Stall, a Victorian knitted bandage of sorts

Was It Modesty or Was It Boredom?

Victorian ladies were highly concerned with covering things. Not just their bricks, but their toasters, teapots, chair arms, piano lids, flower vases, cologne bottles, matchboxes-almost anything that would hold still. They might even have crocheted a covering for their ball of crochet cotton. They created little shades for their candles so that the naked wicks would not be exposed when they were not burning. They crafted multitiered frills for their baked hams (to avoid public exposure of a pig's ankle). This is a running theme throughout their craft publications. So many detailed project instructions for coverings, so much care and detail involved in their execution. They knitted coverings for their boots. That is, coverings for when they were wearing their boots down the street, so their boots would not get dirty or so they would not slip on ice. Of course, they also knitted coverings for their boots to wear when safely stored in the closet. They knitted fine cotton covers with straps (optional) to cover wounded fingers (called a "finger stall"). "These can be quickly made," their Weldon's Practical Needlework assured its readers.

The Why of It

Is this beginning to sound trivial or perhaps even a little neurotic? It shouldn't. Women above the working class had time. They had hand skills. They did not have computers or televisions or even radios to occupy their attention. They did not have jobs outside the home. What would you do in that situation? Small handwork projects for the home can provide so much satisfaction even if they are dispensable. Ladies of those earlier eras also made items that would seem perfectly functional today: shopping bags, nets for protecting their fruit trees, even netted billiard table pockets. But these were not plain vanilla items! The billiard pockets would have had fancy tassels. The shopping bag made of plain string would be "beautified with a piece of 1½ inch wide old gold colored fancy-edged ribbon." They represented a level of attention consistent with the aesthetic of the times.

A Continuing Tradition

Fast-forward thirty or forty years. Consider an apron-shaped clothespin bag and hand-made pot holders. Depending on your age, these are items your mother or grandmother might have made (to go with her apron with the clever little pockets and trim). Maybe the desire to imbue the simplest everyday textiles with personality and meaning skips generations, but it does not die. And today? Who has not seen a pattern for a knitted or crocheted or embroidered cell phone cover, iPod cover, laptop cover, or even television remote control cozy?

—Linda Ligon, from Victorian Times

Connect to knitters of the past with Weldon's Practical Needlework! Get this very special collection today, along with a free gift, the Victorian Times eBook!


P.S. Have you knitted vintage or antique patterns? Leave a comment and tell us about your experience!

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