Thursday, February 3, 2011


In my last post I talked about the way holding knitting needles has changed, and its utilization as a method of displaying social standing.  Similarly, the way yarn is held, which effects the way the knit stitch is physically developed, has changed over time, and was used by women as a form of social commentary as recently as the last century.

There are two popular ways to carry the 'working yarn,' which comes out of the ball and feeds into the live stitches. The first method is English or American style knitting, in which the yarn is held in the right hand, and is brought behind and around the needles in order to form a stitch.  This motion is called 'throwing' the yarn.

The other widely recognized method of knitting is called Continental or German style knitting, and requires holding the yarn is with the left hand, allowing the right needle to 'pick' yarn through the old stitch, to form a new stitch.  

Knitters tend to feel very strongly about the method of knitting they use.  Continental knitters argue that their method of knitting is faster, while English style knitters argue that it is easier for them to control the tension of each stitch.  Both of these claims are true, and knitters tend to prefer the style of knitting they are used to, which is often the method they learned how to knit using.

The real intrigue, however, becomes apparent when we think about greater trends of knitting style preferences over time.  I first thought of the historical and social interest in these knitting styles when reading Elizabeth Zimmerman's "Knitting Without Tears."  Zimmerman wrote about learning to knit in the English style from her mother, but being intrigued by her Sweedish nanny's Continental knitting.  When she decided to try Continental knitting for herself, Zimmerman was scolded by her "English governess, [who,] noticing my unorthodox way of knitting, uncompromisingly forbade the practice of anything as despicable as the German way of knitting."

Zimmerman professed her belief that the English style of knitting was developed by those using knitting sheaths, allowing for the least needle movement possible, relying on the motion of the yarn to control tension.  As expressed by Richard Rutt, we can date English knitting to a far later date than Continental knitting due to its depiction in paintings of knitting madonnas. German knitting likely developed in the same way as the practice of holding the needle over the thumb- members of the upper class took on the method of holding the yarn in the left hand to separate themselves from working knitters, and the lower classes adopted this method from the fashionable upper class.  

As we can see from Zimmerman's anecdote, however, there were social subtexts to yarn position as recently as the last 100 years- Zimmerman describes being scolded for practicing the Continental style of knitting in 1920, which belies a greater societal shunning of all things German, clearly caused by World War One.  Americans desperately wanted to distinguish themselves from the 'evil, socialist others,' and from the car purchases to knitting style, the choice of 'German vs American' became This distaste for German 'style' practices was only reinforced with WWII, and this elimination of the Continental knitting style remained, with the English style pervasively being explained in instructional books and articles, until Elizabeth Zimmerman endorsed it in her first book in 1971.  

Women (and men) who didn't feel comfortable getting too wild could still make important social statements about political affiliations and social standing simply by switching the hand in which they held their yarn while knitting.  This desire to use knitting as a way to make political statements has been pervasive over time and certainly deserves further exploration.  Look forward to learning more about political knitting in the future!

1 comment:

Meredith Ramirez said...

This is really fascinating Deborah, and the fact that many contemporary knitters use whatever methods they feel are efficient without much regard for the social implications of their choices definitely has political dimensions of its own. What's interesting to me is to observe the premium given to faster knitting, I believe not just as a matter of efficiency but also as an indication of skill and therefore the privilege of time to learn. I would imagine there was a time when the "worker" knitters did it super-fast and the nobles did it at a leisurely pace. Kinda like how in the old days more rotund bodies were beautiful because it was an indication of wealth through nutrition, but now it's thin bodies because it's an indication of wealth through the leisure of exercise...