Sick Day: Elizabethan knitting, Part One.

One of the reasons we haven’t been doing a lot of textile projects is because those are inside projects and I’ve been saving them to pepper in along the way when I am either sick or it’s just raining too hard to work outside.

Flu 2013 is a nasty taskmistress, so this has been a knitting week.

Yes, knitting. I was a Boy Scout and even used to be a mountaineer, so I’m good with ropes and knots, so how hard can it be? It helps that The Engineer is a knitter par excellence. So on this project I have a master to whom I can apprentice myself.

Knitting is, in essence, the method of using two sticks or “needles” to weave yarn by knotting it, weaving it through itself in rows to create cloth.

My first ever attempt at knitting received a resounding chorus 

of “Not bad, but have you tried…” which is what I love about 

knitters. They’re always so helpful.

Rudimentary knitting can be traced back to the Egyptians. I’m not going to dig too far into this, but rather refer you to the excellent History of Knitting written by the scholarly Bishop of Leicester, Richard Rutt. It is not a perfect book, which is noted by the author in the forward, but it is a very readable and excellent bit of scholarship that traces the history of English knitting as far as we can.

One of the reasons I’m going to gloss over the history, other than the fact that better pens than mine have been put to that task, is that there is limited documentary evidence. Knitted goods are mentioned in wills and account books, from which we can derive evidence of items that did not survive in large quantities, such as stockings. But most of what we have for knitting in our period is extrapolated from extent artifacts.

Which is my favorite kind of extrapolating.

Why aren’t there reams of literature from the period related to knitting? Because there was never a uniform guild of knitters. From the very beginning, knitting arose as a cottage industry, a poor man’s method of weaving cloth with minimal equipment. Even as late as the 16th century, knitting wasn’t an organized industry like coopering, though it was awarded crown protection in 1589 when Elizabeth I denied a patent to the inventor of the stocking frame because of the impact she feared mechanization would have on the homespun industry.

Yet, the homespun knitters never aligned themselves under a common banner as other crafts did.

The Museum of London holds a large number of examples of knitted items dating from the 16th century, including this child’s vest and this flat cap. From these items people with more expertise than I can figure out the type of stitches, the size of the needles, and the all-important method of casting on (the first row of stitches, which we’ll get to in a minute).

Those wonderful experts I mentioned have their own social network called Ravelry where yarn-neophytes like me can go and learn at their feet. It’s called, Ravelry (free membership required) where they’ve accumulated databases of extent knitted items and projects that are worked from their observations.

For this project, I am leaning heavily on their scholarship and wish to publicly acknowledge and thank them for being so open with their historical experiments. That kind of openness is part of what I love about working with craftspeople. The ethos of protectionism that gave rise to the “Mysterious esoterica of the craft and magic…” approach is long gone into the dustbin of history and given rise to the community of makers.

Casting On: The “Long Tail” Method

It begins with the cast-on. This crucial first row of stitches will determine how stretchy the edges of your knitted item will be and how well they will hold their shape. Bearing always in mind that I am a rank amateur who is learning this almost as I’m photographing it, here’s one of the extrapolated period methods of casting on.
I get by with a little help from my Engineer.

Everything begins with a slip knot. Take a long length of your yarn and tie a slip knot in the middle. The knot is on the tail, and the active end — that is the end you pull on to tighten the loop — leading to the ball.

Take the two ends and hold them with your off-hand, below the needle. Push your index finger and thumb between them in a “Y” shape to separate the two tails.

Use the needle to catch the yarn going over your thumb and draw it up as shown below…

Pull the thumb tail up over the other tail…

And then pass it underneath…

Under the tail and up…

Tying your knot as the loop come off your thumb.

This is the result.

Repeat these steps as many times as you need to (your pattern will tell you how many stitches to cast on).

Can’t follow my photos? Don’t want to learn from someone who just learned himself?

That’s okay.

From Ravelry to YouTube, the knitters community is vast and helpful. Eventually, I plan to actually start putting up videos on my YouTube channel, but no one wants to see the sniffly, snuffly, flu-ridden artisan. So in the meantime, here’s Youtube knitter Elsteffo giving a nice video tutorial on the long tail cast-on.

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