In today’s blog I want to talk about working with knitting and crochet patterns from the Victorian Era, namely what was expected of the reader/crafter.
The first thing to remember is that the Victorian Era is actually quite a long period of time; 1837 to 1901, that is 64 years! A lot of things can change in that time period. I am basing most of my research for this blog on the collection of Victorian Knitting books known as the Richard Rutt Collection. They are avaliable online for free.
Crafters were expected to know their gauge well and know whether they were tight knitters or loose knitters. That means adjusting their needle sizes and yarn sizes accordingly. Often just a needle size or just a yarn size is given in a pattern and the reader is left to choose what would best suit it.
Readers knew how to select their yarn. In the earlier patterns it is generally just the breed of sheep that is suggested, for example; Sheltand, Merino, Andalusian etc. and there is no mention of plys or what we would today call weight. It seems to be expected that the reader knew, if they were going to make socks they would need a moderatly fine yarn, if they were going to knit baby items or shawls they would need very fine yarn and if they were going to make a coat or a blanket they would use quite thick yarn. This is most obviously evident for things like blankets or lace that don’t really need to “fit” the reader was often advised to choose the thickness of yarn that would suit the project.
These two above points also combine in a third which is that readers were expected to know how to change their needle sizes and even yarn sizes to increase or decrease the scale of a garment. Baby clothes especially show a whole range of needle sizes depending on the age of the baby. This is further supported by the fact that in many cases, excluding socks, a lot of items are only given in one size. Rather than assuming that all people were expected to be one size I rather think that people were epected to know how to alter the sizes.
A similar point is that crafters seem to be expected to either know from experience how to adjust garments to fit their own size or they were expected to test it out and reknit it to fit. Here is a quote along those lines: The Lady’s Knitting-Book First Series by E.M.C. “This pattern is for an ordinary figure, but after one trial the knitter will find it can be altered to any size.”(page 59) This instruction is given at the bottom of a pattern for a woman’s High Bodice.
In later patterns sometimes brandnames of yarns are given but very oftetn they are still very limited in the amount of information given. For example for socks and accessories a yarn called “Scotch Fingering” was often called for however further research has revealed that this actually refers to a group of yarns that came in 2,3,4,5 and 6 ply. Therefore they ranged in sizes and uses! It is evident that the readers would just know if they were going to knit baby’s socks maybe they wanted something rather fine but if they were going to be knitting a couvrette maybe they wanted something thicker.
Something that was maybe not expected of crafters but does seem to be common practice was samplers. The Victoria and Albert Museum has a lovely collection of samplers from the Victorian Era. These include both knitting and Crochet (amongst other things). I think that the reason for this was that especially early in the Victorian Era illustrations were not common in pattern books. This meant that the crafter could not be sure what a piece of lace or edging might turn out like without making it. This idea is further supported by one of the samplers that the V&A has which actually has tags which the maker added to show which sample corosponded with which pattern from Mrs Gaugain’s book of knitting, netting and crochet work.
Victorian Knitters and Crocheters seem to be expected, by pattern publishers, to be quite autonomous and knowledgeable about their respective crafts. The patterns seem to be more like detailed guidelines rather than the step by step patterns which we are used to today.
As someone who has always found myself altering patterns slightly as I go, to best suit my needs, I really like the way that the Victorian Patterns were written. Although I will confess they can be kind of frustrating when they assume that you know what is in vouge at the time. For exaple I have been recently been knitting some mittens which ended ” narrow in the usual way”. My instinct was to narrow on the two sides and then kitchner kind of like a sock. But I did some research looking at pictures of extant mittens from that period and discovered that they would most likely have a rounded top. On the one hand I would say that I prefer patterns which tell me which method they were thinking of as there are so many. On the other hand I can acknowledge that any of the methods would work and if it works it works and I can just choose which method I find most attractive. I think that that sums up the spirit of the Victorian Patterns. If you can choose yarn and needles that you like, if the end result is pleasing to you then it is a success.
I hope that if you are interested in working with Victorian Knitting and Crochet Patterns that you found this post helpful.