Knitting + Reading = Heaven

Baby Booties knit in literary detective Miss Silver's style—a practical bootie that stays on. By Ileana Grams-Moog, from the Sept/Oct 2011 issue of PieceWork magazine

Reading is my first love, I think. My parents, brother, and sister are all voracious readers, and Mom and Dad set a good example for us kids—we all read every night before bed. (And sometimes during the day, too!)

In the last few years I've been listening to audio books while I knit. I absolutely love this combo. I was listening to a P.D. James mystery last night and detective Adam Dalgleish's aunt was knitting: "Her French grandmother had taught her to knit in the Continental style, so she held her needles in an odd way. Her movements were hypnotic." (I'm pretty sure that's the quote, if not, it's something very similar!)

This got me thinking about PieceWork editor Jeane Hutchins' article about needlework and literature, from the September/October 2011 issue:

A year ago, I introduced our special issue dedicated to needlework in literature
and asked you to let me know if you knew of additional books with substantive needlework references. You did and sent us hundreds of suggestions. Thank you!

Judging by your responses and your enthusiasm for that issue in general, we once again are exploring needlework in literature—a subject near and dear to my heart. So curl up in your favorite comfy space and get to know some more amazing literary characters, each of whom is a needleworker.

For example, from the prolific Patricia Wentworth, we have ace British detective Miss Silver, who "is aware that her knitting conveys an impression that helps her in her profession. She takes advantage of that, but her knitting is not a prop. She is a real knitter and takes her knitting wherever she goes." Then there's Eliza, Countess of Zeur, a double agent working as a spy for Louis XIV and William of Orange who features prominently in Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver: "Eliza has been observing troop movements and supplies of materiel, then translating them into binary code which she conceals in cross-stitches on her sampler." Sneaky!

And get your needles and hooks ready to dive into the eight projects—from cross-stitch and needle lace to knitting and filet crochet-inspired by the books mentioned above, along with George Eliot's Mill on the Floss, an original short story, a poem, a centuries-old legend, and more. Notwithstanding their literary roots, each project fits into today's lifestyle. Enjoy!

—Jeane Hutchins

My favorite article in this issue is by Ileana Grams-Moog, all about Miss Silver, a governess-turned-detective who is the brainchild of British author Patricia Wentworth. Here's an excerpt:

Miss Silver may be the most prolific and talented knitter in literature since the infamous Madame Defarge in Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities. Her creator, Petricia Wentworth, who was born in India in 1878 to English parents, began her writing career early and continued until her death in 1961. Though she won a prize for her first novel, which is set during the French Revolution, and wrote a number of other novels, she is best known for her mystery series featuring Miss Silver, which begins with Grey Mask (1928) and ends with The Girl in the Cellar (1961).

Cover of The Girl in the Cellar by Patricia Wentworth. This was the last Mill Silver book and was originally published in 1961. (Courtesy Ulverscrot Late Print Books)

I discovered Miss Silver in the 1980s when many of the Miss Silver novels were being reprinted in the United States. I liked them so much that I bought all thirty-two of them, some as lucky finds in secondhand bookshops. I have reread them many times. I enjoy them for many reasons, but a delightful bonus for me is that Miss Silver knits.

Knitting is not that common in literature, and it usually serves as a sort of stage prop, like a style of dress, to indicate something about the character of the knitter: that she is old-fashioned, or industrious, or a harmless old lady. While Miss Silver is both old-fashioned and industrious, she is not a harmless old lady. She is aware that her knitting conveys an impression that helps her in her profession. She takes advantage of that, but her knitting is not a prop. She is a real knitter and takes her knitting wherever she goes. In a given book, we may watch her cast on a garment, finish it, assemble and trim it, and immediately cast on for the next one.

—Ileana Grams-Moog

I don't know about you, but I can't wait to get my hands on some Miss Silver books! And since I'm the sort that reads the first book in a series followed by all the rest, in the correct order, I have quite a treat in front of me. I wonder if Ms. Wentworth's books are available on audio . . .

Read the rest of this article, along with many other fascinating bits and bobs about needlework in literature, in the September/October 2011 issue of PieceWork, now available as part of our special magazine subscription bundle!


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