Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Most Important Tool

I am excited to announce a new endeavor which will be taking place within the framework of this blog.  This semester, I am pursuing an independent study with the fabulous Dorothy Ko, studying hand knitting in a historical context, and focusing on social impacts of hand knitting, and the evolution of the craft to it's modern state.

Each week I will be posting an informational piece which will focus on a very specific aspect of knitting, and hopefully anyone who reads the blog can learn from it.  If you have any suggestions or topics you would really like to hear about, leave them in the comments.

For this first post, I will address what is arguably the most important tool in knitting- the hands.  After all, without them, knitters would never be able to manipulate one continuous thread into fabric, creating garments of the simplest construction or the most elaborate architecture.

The way the hands are held in knitting seems fairly uniform today.  Most instructional books will include an image of the hands positioned in this manner:

The needles travel under the thumb and palm, with the ends of the needle travelling down and along the wrist. Imagine the way you might hold a knife- this is the way that the needles are held.  However, as will become apparent over the course of the semester, women (and men) often used knitting in a far more subversive way, to make political or social statements within the realm of domestic acceptability, and the position of the hands was no different.  

Richard Rutt, in his A History of Hand Knitting, explains that by the beginning of Queen Victoria's reign, the position of hands during knitting was used to distinguish English ladies from working knitters.  Ladies began to hold their needles in a more 'delicate' fashion, allowing the needles to travel over the thumb, with the end of the needle pointing upward, toward the shoulder.  This way of holding the needles is more reminiscent of holding a pencil, and allows the hand to appear more ladylike, with the pinky extended.  The new way of knitting, more importantly, separated professional knitters from 'pleasure' knitters, allowing English ladies to physically represent that they knit for leisure, rather than for a living; that their knitting was a creative endeavor and a manifestation of ease and relaxation.

This manner of holding the hands was not only less efficient, but was probably uncomfortable for all but the smallest and most delicate projects (which ladies must have almost exclusively worked on).  Imagine, however, the weight of a heavier project, an afghan or even a sweater, concentrated solely on the thumb, and moving farther upward along the needle as the row nears completion.  The weight of the work must have made it much more difficult to manipulate the needles in the latter fashion.

After English ladies took up this new style of knitting, it soon became the vogue, with professional knitters taking up the style, despite its inefficiency.  Many English knitters today still knit in the way developed by English high society women.

It is fascinating that women altered the way they had trained their bodies to carry out a task, retrained their muscles and fine motor movements, in order to make a statement about social standing.  If anyone can think of other crafts in which people changed the way their bodies had become used to working in order to make a social statement, please leave them in the comments, and look forward to my next post in which I will address yarn position!

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