Laura Ingalls: Lace Knitter

I’m a big Laura Ingalls Wilder fan. I read all of her books as a little girl, more than once. I read them again when I was about 30 years old and recovering from surgery. I remember that as a wonderful time, even though I was bed-ridden for two weeks.

Laura Ingalss

The Ingalls girls: (left to right) Carrie, Mary, and Laura. Photographer and date unknown. Photograph © the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum, Mansfield, Missouri.

I wasn’t a knitter when I re-read the Little House books, so I didn’t take note of Laura or the other characters knitting in the books. I was so thrilled to see this article about Laura knitting, which appears in the May/June 2013 issue of PieceWork magazine. Author Mary Lycan does a fabulous job bringing Laura and her knitting back to life, along with providing fascinating background information about what was going on in De Smet un 1880. Here’s an excerpt from that article:

  • OF ALL THE NEEDLEWORK described in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, the petticoat lace that Laura (1867-1957) knitted during the Hard Winter of 1880-1881 speaks to me the most. As supply trains coming west from Minnesota were blocked by ice and snow, as food and fuel stocks dwindled to nothing, as shrieking blizzard winds blew snow into house-high drifts or scoured the street bare, thirteen-year-old Laura sat in her Pa’s store building in De Smet, Dakota Territory, and knitted lace edging on fine needles with a spool of cotton thread.
  • Winters were usually a season of relative leisure for farmwomen. After the hard work of harvest and preserving, drying, smoking, or freezing food for the coming winter, they could rest a little. Typically, they did their housework in the morning and served the main meal at noon. After the dishes were done and the baby put down for a nap, they could sit down with their needlework.
  • There was plenty of routine needlework to do. The four Ingalls girls wore wool dresses and petticoats over long flannel underwear, all handsewn from store-bought yard goods. Ma and Mary knitted socks for Pa and stockings for all the girls. Everyone had to be cocooned in wool coats, shawls, hoods, mufflers, and mittens before they could step outside.
  • Ma could knit socks by firelight or lamplight, and blind Mary could knit at any time. Early afternoons, with their strong sunlight, were the best time for the fiddly patterns and tiny stitches of Laura’s fancywork. Midday winter sunlight reflected from ice or snow was the strongest and clearest light of all.
  • Pa’s store building in De Smet, on the east side of north-and-south running Main Street (now Calumet), had windows on each side of the front door. That was just the place to put Ma’s and Mary’s rocking chairs for the most warmth and light, and that is where Laura sat to work on her lace on a Saturday in October of 1880:
  • “In the sunshine from the western windows Mary rocked gently, and Laura’s steel knitting needles flashed. Laura was knitting lace, of fine white thread, to trim a petticoat. She sat close to the window and watched the street, for she was expecting Mary Power and Minnie Johnson. They were coming to spend the afternoon, bringing their crocheting. . . . ‘Oh, bother! I’ve miscounted the stitches!’ she exclaimed. She unraveled the row and began to pick the tiny stitches up again on the fine needle. . . . The little loops of thread were dimming before her eyes as if she were going blind. She could not see them. The spool of thread dropped from her lap and rolled away on the floor as she jumped up.” [The Long Winter, by Laura Ingalls Wilder]
  • Then another blizzard struck.
  • When coal supplies began to run low in De Smet and trains were blocked again, the Ingalls family stopped using the coal heater in the front room and huddled around the cook stove in the kitchen in the back. The cramped, darker kitchen had a single side window. Laura kept knitting her lace.
  • When sunshine melted the frost on the window and it refroze into sheets of ice over the cold glass, she pried the ice off the panes, wiped them dry, and kept on knitting. She finished the lace before Christmas. The trains were still blocked, and so buying Christmas presents for anyone but Grace and Pa was out of the question.
  • Laura wound her lace into a roll, wrapped it carefully in tissue paper, and gave it to Mary: “She fingered it lovingly and her face was shining with delight. ‘I’ll save it to wear when I go to college,’ she said. ‘It’s another thing to help me to go. It will be so pretty on a white petticoat’ ” [The Long Winter, by Laura Ingalls Wilder].

—Mary Lycan, from PieceWork magazine, May/June 2013

How many of us have said something like “oh, bother!” when we’ve miscounted our own stitches? I love it. And Mary’s reaction to her gift is so touching. As part of her article, Mary Lycan chose a lace border that she thought might be similar to Laura’s lace. The pattern is a combination of Vandyke triangles and garter-stitch squares, and it would indeed look lovely on an 1880s-style petticoat.

All of this makes me want to read The Long Winter again! It was one of my favorites. And maybe I’ll do a little lace knitting and make Laura’s lace edging for a pillowcase, since petticoats aren’t part of my everyday wardrobe!

PieceWork magazine is always full of wonderful information and patterns that connect us to our favorite figures in history and introduce us to new ones. Subscribe today so you don’t miss a thing.

Kathleen Cubley

Featured Image: Delicate shell-motif lace from the New-York Tribune weekly edition, November 11, 1879, chosen by Mary Lycan for the lace that Laura knitted for Mary’s petticoat in The Long Winter. Photograph by Joe Coca.

Posted May 13, 2013. Updated April 29, 2019.

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