knĭtt’ĭng, n. In vbl senses, esp. work in process of knitting. Derived from knot, thought to originate from the Dutch verb knutten, which is similar to cnyttan, O.E to knot.
There was a time not so long ago when most people knew how to knit and do basic needlework. Having learned the craft from their mothers or during military training they could darn socks, turn collars, sew on buttons, hem blankets, patch trousers and tack on badges and name tabs…and when they weren’t mending they were busily making – tatted rugs, crocheted doilies and runners, patchwork quilts, embroidered table clothes. Then, if they had a few moments to spare, they were knitting – blankets, sweaters, scarves, socks, pullovers, bobble hats, gloves, cardigans and, almost unbelievably, swimming costumes! (Those of us who had to endure knitted ‘cossies’ when we were children have probably been permanently damaged.)
During both World Wars this home based enterprise provided “Comforts for the Troops” – vast numbers of hand knitted items that made the lives of our armed forces a little more bearable.
“Of course to buy knitting wool for civilians’ clothes you had to use Clothing Coupons; however the WVS (the R for Royal was added later) organised knitting for the Armed Forces. These efficient women in dark green tweed coats, uncompromising green hats with a maroon ribbon and sensible shoes would provide wool, carefully noted down to make sure you returned the right amount, transformed into Comforts for the Troops. As our father was in the Navy, our knitting was for the Senior Service. My 2 elder sisters, 13 and 15, were excellent knitters and produced a gentle flow of dark blue socks, heels deftly turned, toes expertly grafted and sometimes great big thick grey Sea Boot stockings. I aspired to mittens, the kind which left fingers bare, my younger sister, 8, made wristlets to fill the drafty gap. Even my brother, 6, laboriously knitted a scarf, which we called Wavy Navy as it had a variable number of stitches and uncertainly shaped edges. The long-suffering Forces must have had some strange garments supplied to them, but we prided ourselves on the quality of what we made and even that scarf would have kept a neck warm on watch.”
For troops serving at the front, sailors facing the hardships of the Atlantic, bomber crews on their nightly raids into Germany or P.O.W’s behind the wire in distant Stalags the “knitted comforts” provided warmth and a reminder of home. On January 11th 1940 the chaplain of the 4th Cameron Highlanders wrote to his local newspaper, the ‘Courier.’
“Sir – may I obtain the courtesy of your columns to return thanks, on behalf of our commanding officer, Lt Colonel the Earl of Cawdor, for the generous supply of comforts which has been forwarded to us of the 4th Batt Q.O. Cameron Highlanders. In all we received 950 knitted articles, together with 2000 cigarettes and 150 packets of sweets and chocolates, and all these gifts have been appreciated by the men.”
With an increasing supply of cheap, ready-made clothes on the market in recent years one would have thought that interest in knitting and needlework would have declined but evidence suggests otherwise. The Craft Yarn Council in America reports that the number of woman knitters aged between 25 and 35 increased by 150% in the two years between 2002 and 2004. The same revival is happening in Britain. Sales of wool have risen by almost 30 per cent since the banking collapse of last autumn. There is also a wave of interest in knitting circles, with new members joining to swap wool and patterns. Arts and crafts chain Hobby-Craft reported that it had sold more than a million balls of wool in the past year, an increase of 28 per cent. Chief executive Chris Crombie said: ‘People of all ages are adopting a make-your-own attitude during the recession. Chunky yarns, which tend to be picked by first-time knitters because they are easier to handle, have proved to be bestsellers, with sales up 38 per cent.’
This upward trend was confirmed by John Lewis, which reported sales of needles and designer wool leaping 6 per cent compared with last year making haberdashery the fastest expanding department in their stores. ‘Knitting’ magazine editor Emma Kennedy said the renaissance began five years ago but accelerated recently…
“Over the past 18 months we have gone from one magazine to six dedicated to knitting,” she said.
“There has been a return to the craft industry, people are wanting to make their own clothes and are tired of the concept of buying and dumping, and there is more interest in make do and mend. A new generation is interested because the patterns are more up to date, so people in their teens and early 20s are looking at it and their grandmothers are saying, ‘I know how to do that. I can help’.”
Now as we all know St Margarets has always been at the cutting edge of anything new, and now it has its very own, dedicated Wool Shop called Mrs Moon in Crown Road. This is a place where both complete beginners and experienced pros will feel comfortable and encouraged to try something new. The shop can cater for any needlework or knitting task, from knitting a thick blanket for the spare bedroom to making a fine lace collar for a baby’s shawl. Next year “Mrs Moon” will be running beginner’s courses in knitting and crochet with workshops by knitwear designers. If you can’t wait until then the St Margarets knitting group – ‘Commuknity’ – meets on the first and third Monday of the month in the St Margarets pub from 8pm. They have just completed a blanket for Macmillan Cancer as part of a campaign to give a heating allowance to cancer sufferers.
The Commuknity Blanket
“Everybody tells me that they would love to knit, but they don’t have time. I look at people’s lives and I can see opportunity and time for knitting all over the place. The time spent riding the bus each day? That’s a pair of socks over a month. Waiting in line? Mittens. Watching TV? Buckets of wasted time that could be an exquisite lace shawl.”
Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, At Knit’s End: Meditations for Women Who Knit Too Much
“Take your needle, my child, and work at your pattern; it will come out a rose by and by. Life is like that – one stitch at a time taken patiently and the pattern will come out all right like the embroidery.”
Oliver Wendell Holmes
Mrs. Moon by Roger McGough
Mrs. Moon sitting up in the sky little old lady rock-a-bye with a ball of fading light and silvery needles knitting the night.
— from Martyn Day