Crazy Monkey Creates

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“No Idle Hands: The Social History of American Knitting” by Anne L. Macdonald May 1, 2009

Filed under: 2009,book review — crazymonkeycreates @ 1:26 pm

As a kid, I wasn’t much interested in History … at least, not in the way it was presented in the history classes I took. All the battles and names and dates with no way to relate them to human beings. I don’t have a head for that kind of history. I love the stories of history, and I remember having a teacher in High School who would tell stories (even though I don’t remember his name).

Those stories of history stuck with me much better than the dry name/date/battle lectures. When Ben & I went to the library earlier this week, I picked out some audiobooks, as they’re a way to get some imagination into our day, and I picked out “No Idle Hands: The Social History of American Knitting” by Anne L. Macdonald. Not only is it full of the stories that I’ve always liked about history, but it’s the history of knitting, which is fascinating in its own right. We take for granted so much, even as knitters. Like patterns with gauge measurements, schematics, and even photographs. In the discussion about having to protect one’s clothing and furniture from one’s hair pomade, there comes this bit:

A “French Pattern,” however, called for the knitter to shape the crown and then “when your cap is large enough round . . . knit until the cap is three-fourths of a yard long: make the end like the beginning.” Lacking a clarifying sketch, one’s imagination soars in ruminating on an object with a cap at each end to double the wear. For the imaginative, old pattern books supply the stuff of conjecture, such as a “save-all bag . . . so called because it may be made with odds and ends of netting silk, or all of one color, at pleasure [which can be worked] until the bag is long enough. The bag looks well with a clasp, and a tassel at the bottom.” It must be taken on faith.

or this bit on knitting for the confederate soldiers:

Young girls who had never learned to knit stockings because advances in the textile industry had improved “store-bought” ones gamely grasped the fundamentals under their elders’ tutelage. One student remembered her mentor: “With what delight, after days of toil, she would triumphantly hold up for examination the rude, ill-shapen garment for evaluation . . . [my] ‘soldier’s sock.’ Many a merry laugh has been provoked as the grotesque thing was submitted for critical examination.”

Show me a knitter who can’t commiserate with that though, of being so proud of the misshapen thing that they spent so much time on that they want to show it off to their teacher, and getting giggles at the scarf shaped like brazil, or the blanket that’s twice as big on one end as the other.

I’m only up to chapter 7, but if you’re looking for something that ties american history up with a slipknot to start casting on and knitting, I’d recommend this book in a second. It’s made me ask a couple of times why we never heard things like the fact that George Washington refused a salary during the Revolutionary War, but insisted that Martha Washington be paid for her trips back and forth to the front (knitting and doing handwork all the while to clothe the troops)? Why didn’t we hear about the wives and girlfriends who marched along behind the troops as support?