The world of knitting is one where women have made their mark over the centuries. However, as knitting is a traditional craft, with skills and stitch patterns handed down through the generations, most knitters have remained anonymous. On this International Women’s Day we celebrate the unsung heroines of knitting and put them on a pedestal.
Most of the iconic knitting styles have come from regional traditions – think of Fair Isle sweaters, Aran jumpers, Shetland shawls and fishermen’s ganseys – and these typical patterns have origins that have been lost in the mists of time. The knowledge of how to work stitches and patterns were passed from mothers to daughters – and in some communities families had patterns that were all their own.
While much knitting was done simply to keep families clothed, it also offered women a means to make some extra money – knitting garments for sale or for exchange for goods. And because knitting is an eminently portable craft (no need for a sewing machine or cumbersome frame) it has often been done by women in their spare time or while occupied in another job – a perfect example of multi-tasking! In the Shetland islands, women carrying panniers of peat into town would knit as they walked. The famous ‘Herring Girls’ – migrant labourers who travelled the ports of Britain – knitted to while away the time while waiting for the fishing boats to come in.
However, there were some women who made a living from craft and who also managed to make a name for themselves. Jane Gaugain was one such knitting entrepreneur. She had helped her husband establish a successful haberdashery shop in Edinburgh and during the 1830s she began writing patterns for her customers. Taking advantage in the increase in middle-classed ladies taking up knitting, Gaugain published her first book on craft, The Lady’s Assistant in Knitting, Netting and Crochet, in 1840. It was hugely successful in both Britain and the United States, and ran to 22 editions. In it, and in her other books, she pioneered a system of abbreviated knitting patterns. Although we don’t use all of her terminology today, she paved the way for the ‘k1, p1’ we all know so well!
Another prolific knitting author from the past was Mademoiselle Eleonore Riego de la Branchardiere – an English woman who, thankfully, was usually known simply as Mlle Riego. In her lifetime she published 72 books on knitting, crochet and tatting – her first volume, Knitting, Crochet and Netting, appeared in 1846 when she was just 18. In 1851, she was running her own business – describing herself as an ‘authoress and designer’ – based in London’s Bond Street, and she exhibited her work at the Great Exhibition, where she won Prize Medal. Like Jane Gaugain, Mlle Riego capitalised on the popularity of crafts and ran a ‘fancy warehouse’ which sold equipment and materials to ladies of fashion.