1655 Knitting

PieceWork Magazine

Photo by Joe Coca.

I have long been fascinated with the history of printing. The invention revolutionized so many things–including needlework. The earliest pattern book is thought to have been printed by Johann Schönsperger the Younger of Augsburg, Germany, about 1523. Needlework pattern books proliferated over the course of the next few years, but all were for embroidery or lacemaking. The oldest-known knitting pattern wasn’t printed until 1655–in a medical compendium! And the instructions were printed as one sentence with only commas. Discovering this historical tidbit just made my day.

I was thrilled when frequent PieceWork contributor Chris Laning sent in a proposal on this for our 7th annual Historical Knitting issue of PieceWork. Here’s a portion of Chris’s article:

PieceWork Magazine

Chris Laning’s stockings adapted from the instructions included in Natura Exenterata, published in London in 1655.
Photo by Joe Coca. Wooden bucket courtesy of the Loveland Museum/Gallery, Loveland, Colorado.

In 1655, a compendium of household advice was published in London under the grandiose title Natura Exenterata: or Nature Unbowelled By the most Exquisite Anatomizers of Her. Wherein are contained, Her choicest Secrets, digested into Receipts, fitted for the Cure of all sorts of Infirmities, whether Internal or External, Acute or Chronical, that are Incident to the Body of Man. These days, having the “bowels” of Mother Nature pulled out and exposed to view may sound unappealing or at least puzzling, but seventeenth-century readers would have been excited at the prospect of having Nature’s “choicest secrets” explained and, even better, presented as remedies that would cure any health problem from which they might be suffering.

Books of “receipts” (recipes) were very popular in the 1600s, especially those endorsed by celebrities. Natura Exenterata ‘s celebrity is “[t]he most Illustrious and most excellent Lady, the Lady Alathea Talbot &c. Countesse of Arundell & Surry & the first Countesse of England.” The countess (1585-1654) is often listed as the book’s author, but she clearly didn’t write all of it, since some of the receipts are attributed to “my Cosin Standish” or “Dr. Martyn of Kernbeck.” She may have compiled the book herself, but just as likely, others may have done so in her honor.

Natura Exenterata comprises more than 500 pages of everything from remedies for “Soar Eyes” to recipes for marmalade, biscuits, broth, rosewater, and “Washing Balls” (scented soap). It includes gardening advice, beauty tips, medicines for the plague, instructions for “oil of earthworms,” a diagram showing how to splint broken ribs, four pages on choosing the right bait for different sorts of fish, and guidelines for restoring wine that has become “Sowre.”

The few pages devoted to textiles include about a dozen dye recipes (some rather sketchy), ten pages of fancy patterns in netting (confusingly referred to as “Knitting Network”), nineteen pages on “making Laces” (that is, fancy braids), and a single set of knitting instructions titled “Order how to knit a Hose,” which is the earliest known printed knitting pattern.



We’ve compiled the last 4 years–2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014–of PieceWork‘s annual Historical Knitting issue into a CD collection . And Chris Laning in the 2013 issue provides instructions for the stockings that she adapted from Natura Exenterata, complete with paragraphs and commas!