Monday, March 24, 2008
Craft is the theme for the BAM Challenge this month, and while the theme is open to interpretation, I took the narrow view and read No Idle Hands: The Social History of American Knitting by Anne L. Macdonald. Spanning from early colonial America through the 1970s, the scope of the book extends well beyond just the craft of knitting - war, the changing role of women, fashion. Still, it is mainly of interest to knitters as that is the central focus, though I must admit there were craft references that even confounded me (What the heck is "picking lint"?)
The author used primary sources and quotes are used liberally throughout the book. For this reason, I found the chapter on colonial America the most difficult to read because of the style of writing from that period. But in general, it made the history seem more real as it was told through the words of those who lived it.
My favorite chapter was "Westward Knit!" which appealed to my love of all things remotely related to Little House on the Prairie. Here is described a method of dyeing yarn by first wrapping it in corn shucks to create gentle gradations in color. Also in this chapter was a story of a woman kidnapped by Narragansetts, who knit items of clothing for them to earn their food and good will.
Macdonald described the important role knitting played during wartime. A loyal informer to the army during the Revolutionary War would insert messages containing British military information in balls of yarn and "accidentally" drop them when General Washington's troops passed by. During World War I knitting for soldiers reached frenzied heights, spurring knitting bees where participants achieved such great feats as knitting an entire sweater in one day. Many men knit for the war effort as well, including prisoners at Idaho State Penitentiary, where two prisoners braided their yarn into a 25-foot long rope and used it to escape.
Some of the anecdotes in this book sound very familiar as a knitter today:
-Women who knit bathing suits, only to find out - in the most embarrassingly ways possible - that they were impractical for swimming.
-A knitter in the 40s, when argyle was very popular, described rigging a shoebox to keep different colored yarns separate to prevent tangling, which would have been useful for me a couple of weeks ago
-When patterns finally began to regularly include gauge information, many knitters simply ignored it, beginning our long tradition of not knitting gauge swatches even though we know we should
As a knitter, it is distracting to read a book about knitting. When I read about the constant sock knitting (two socks at a time, even!) during WWI and WWII I would suddenly need to put the book down and work on my sock; when I read about knitters finding ways to knit and read at the same time, I was inspired to scour the internet for a good book stand. Despite my inability to focus, it was a very interesting book packed with information - and photos! - of knitting throughout US history. Published in 1988, it doesn't contain knitting's most recent surge in popularity, and I look forward to seeing how some future book characterizes knitting and knitters in the 2000s.