Knit or Die

Imagine that you’re a woman of the early 17th century living in the Massachusetts Colony. Imagine that you and your family are set upon by marauding Native Americans, and you and your little daughter are seriously wounded and carried away on horseback. Your daughter dies after a few days; you carry on.

Your only personal possession, beside the clothes on your back, is a bag of knitting hidden under your skirt. Over the next weeks, it is your salvation.

This is the true story of Mary Rowlandson, recorded in A Narrative of the Captivity, Suffering and Removes of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, published in 1682. Reading it today, one is hard pressed to imagine the misery, grief, and despair she must have felt during the eleven weeks of her captivity. As a knitter or seamstress, you might be further challenged to imagine her productivity.

To curry favor with her captors and earn an occasional bit of horse’s leg bone or chunk of bear meat, Mary knitted and stitched. Six pairs of socks and a cap, six shirts, one shift, and one loin cloth are mentioned in her narrative—there may have been more. She raveled socks to make socks that would fit better. She cut up her own apron for one of the garments. She knitted as the tribe traveled from place to place, knitted on Sundays lest they “break her face.” Whoa.



Redemption Rock in Massachusetts. Mary Rowlandson’s release from her captors was negotiated at this site. Photograph by Stoskett and courtesy of Wikimedia.

When we think of knitting in the olden days, what springs to mind is often a sweet little old lady sitting by the fire with her needles and yarn, making, perhaps, a doily. But knitting had a ferocious side as well—knitting for survival. Mary Rowlandson is the epitome of a survivor. She was eventually ransomed back to her community, reunited with her husband and children, widowed, moved to Boston, remarried, and lived to the venerable age of seventy-four. Probably knitting all the while.

This is just one of the many terrific stories you can read in the new January/February issue of PieceWork, our special annual knitting issue. The ingenuity, determination, creativity, and fine craftsmanship of our forebears will make you proud to be a knitter.