Monday, 17 November 2014

Victorian knitting with 1mm knitting needles

The Knitting Reference Library at Southampton University has digitised 67 pre-1900 books from the Richard Rutt collection (books that are out of copyright). This is a wonderful resource of a wide range of knitting recipes, advice, guidance, and social history.

The instructions to knit a garment are referred to as recipes, which in current parlance we refer to as patterns. The use of the term pattern seems to infer colour patterns and the yarns used, rather than how to make the garment. There is a lack of drawings or images of the finished items, and no gauges. In a few cases there are instructions to knit for a certain distance, but other than that, no finished garment sizes are provided, and certainly no details for creating the garments in multiple sizes. 

To start my foray into knitting a Victorian garment, I selected a baby bootee recipe: Baby's Shoes (a very pretty pattern) from The Knitters Companion by Mrs Mee and Miss Austin, which was published in approximately 1840-50. Here is a screenshot from the digital copy:

After some research at the Knitting Reference Library in Winchester, and some looking-up of standard wire gauge measurements, the nearest modern needle size I could find to Victorian No. 19 pins are 1mm DPNs. Not easily available. Most knitting shops only go down to 2mm needles for very fine lace knitting or socks. Luckily for me, the Knitter's Pride Karbonz go down to 1mm (US 00000), and were available by mail order.

Whilst waiting for the 1mm DPNs to arrive, I had a go using 1.75mm DPNs (the smallest I had in stock) and some 2 ply wool from my stash and I produced the first version of the baby shoes.

They came out about the size of a 3 year old's foot. For the second attempt I used 1mm DPNs and Yeoman Yarn's 1 ply merino wool that I had left over from making a Zandra Rhodes machine knit circular jacket. 

This one seemed to come out about the right size, though several friends with babies commented that the size is at the smaller end of baby feet, but suggested perhaps Victorian babies were (on average) smaller than today. The Victorian knitting recipes certainly assume a much higher level of knitting ability from the reader, and in some places are more of a guide than instructions. The finished shoes certainly received warm praise and lots of "ooohs" from the members of the Knitting History Forum at the annual conference last month.