Historic Knitting

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I have just finished knitting a bag from a 19th century knitting pattern held by the Wellcome Library. It may seem odd that there are knitting patterns in a library devoted to the history of medicine and biomedical sciences but we do have a few.

Cornelia Mee's book and the knitted shell patternbag

Cornelia Mee’s book of instructions and the bag I knitted using them.

I  was prompted to check out the Library’s catalogue while reading Richard Rutt’s A History of Hand Knitting.  He mentions that the oldest known written knitting pattern is in a 1655 medical compendium with the, rather wonderful title, of Nature Exenterata: or Nature Unbowelled by the Most Exquist Antomizers of Her. The knitting patterns, which are tucked in at the back on pages 407 to 419, consist of instructions for different stitches and directions for a stocking.  They are not easy to understand and omit some key information, like how to finish the toe of the stocking.  Maybe the reader of the day would have known what to do but I struggled. A digitised version of the book can be found on Early English Books Online.

A much more user friendly set of patterns come from a cute little book written by Cornelia Mee and published in 1844. Mee’s Companion to the Work-table, Containing Selections in Knitting, Netting, and Crochet Work. Cornelia Mee was a needlecraft entrepreneur who, with her husband,  ran a shop selling wool and and related items.  The couple set up their business in Bath and moved it to London in 1858. Cornelia helped to promote knitting, crochet and embroidery as a respectable hobby, rather than as a source of income, by writing a series of instructional books aimed at the expanding middle class.  I imagine her as a combination of Kaffe Fassett and Patons Wool.

Mee's knitting pattern and knitting

Mee’s pattern for the shell bag and my knitting in-progress.

Making the bag reminded me of the therapeutic value of knitting. It requires just enough brain power to engage the knitter and, once you have worked out the pattern, it is easy to get into the flow.  All things considered it seems entirely appropriate that there are knitting patterns in the Wellcome Library.

Cornelia Mee’s instructions for the bag I knitted are below. As long as you know a bit about knitting it is reasonably easy to work it out from her instructions.  The “shell” pattern is created by increasing and decreasing the number of stitches.   The pattern block is made up of 19 stitches and there are eight blocks divided by columns of purl stitches.  You need to know that “seam” means to purl and that there is a mistake in round two. The pattern should read “seam 3” not “4”.  The original pattern suggests a sophisticated use of colour using 11 different colours arranged according to their tonal depth.  I am not sure if I did that justice but then, unlike Cornelia, I don’t own a wool shop.  The directions on how to finish the bag are rather vague. I knitted in eyelets into the rib, added an extra frill on the top and ignored the suggestion for silk tassels.  I don’t think Cornelia would mind.

“Shell Knitting for a Bag, in German Wool.

Pins No. 14. Take 11 shades of wool, begin with the darkest, and 5 rows of each shade; that is, 1 pattern done of each. Cast on 155 stitches, 57 on 2 of the needles, and 38 on the third.  First round:–Knit 4 stitches plain. Bring the wool forward,knit 1, bring the wool forward, knit 1. Repeat this 8 times. Knit 4 plain, seam 3. Repeat this all round. Second round:–Knit 2 plain, 2 together, 15 plain, slip 1, knit 1, draw the slipped one over the knitted one, knit 3 plain, seam 4. Repeat this all round. Third round:–Knit 2 plain, 2 together, 14 plain, slip 1, and pull 1 over as before, knit 2 plain, seam 3. Fourth round:–Knit 1 plain, 2 together, 14 plain, slip and pull over as before, knit 1, seam 3. Fifth round:–Knit 2 together, 14 plain, slip and pull over, seam 3. The stitches will now be reduced to their original number. Tie on the next shade, and repeat the 5 rows as before. Repeat this 15 times. Then take very small needles, and knit a binder, in simple ribs, in any of the shades, 15 rows deep.

The handle is made by knitting on 2 needles of the same size as those used for the bag, with double wool, in the following manner:–Cast on 14 stitches, slip 1, bring the wool forward, slip 1, knit 1, pull the slipped one over the knitted one to the last 2, which are both knitted; without bringing the wool forward, fold the two edges into the middle, and sew together with the double wool. Silk tassels to match.”

I found the lack of any illustration difficult at first but I have discovered that I am not the only person knitting from Cornelia’s patterns.  A group of knitters are working their way through another one of Cornelia Mee’s books, Exercises in Knitting, and posting the results online.  This shell bag pattern appears in that book too and you can see what others have made of it here.  If you get stuck drop me a line and I will happily give you my version of the pattern.

Sue Davies

Sue Davies is External Projects Officer at the Wellcome Library.

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