The Art of Knitting

I arrived as a research fellow at Winterthur with one agenda—to gain perspective on late Victorian and Progressive Era–children’s games and toys that librarians provided young patrons of the period—and also with a hope that I’d find time to indulge my curiosity about knitting.

Almost immediately, I was shown a spectacular French text, L’Art de Tricoter or The Art of Knitting, published in 1802, which explained the creation of intricate and strikingly lovely hand-knits. Lingering over the pages of this volume and envisioning the strikingly fashionable knits that could be crafted from its pages was irresistible, no matter how many games and toys awaited.

“Knitter in the Garden” card. The Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, Winterthur Library.

“Knitter in the Garden” card. The Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, Winterthur Library.

My research interests, however, intersected anew with the discovery of dolls and toys that depicted knitting. A historic Young Ladies School game familiarized its players with the tools associated with the sorts of skills such as knitting, embroidery, and reading, which educated young women of previous centuries were expected to possess. While mathematics was included in the curriculum, this “knitter in the garden” card caught my attention. It’s a lovely, if perhaps idealized, and even sentimental image. It suggests, in many ways, that knitting is an artful practice.

This nineteenth-century card was not the only image of knitting created for young girls. During World War I, the pages of Ladies Home Journal featured paper dolls for readers’ children, and the paper doll children’s nurse also knitted. Both of her paper outfits included knitting paraphernalia—knitting bags, knitting books, and a sock in progress.

Left: Paper doll holding Knit for the Navy. From Ladies Home Journal. The Printed Book and Periodical Collection, Winterthur Library. Right: Paper doll holding Knit for the Navy. From Ladies Home Journal. The Printed Book and Periodical Collection, Winterthur Library.

Left: Paper doll holding Knit for the Navy. From Ladies Home Journal. The Printed Book and Periodical Collection, Winterthur Library.
Right: Paper doll holding Knit for the Navy. From Ladies Home Journal. The Printed Book and Periodical Collection, Winterthur Library.

This raised a new question:  Why do paper dolls knit?

Another item in the Winterthur collection suggests an answer. An essay by Susan M. Strawn explains that during the war, “Knitting and knitting bags appear to have become fashion statements, accessories for the patriotic—and fashion conscious—woman during the war” (Women and the Material Culture of Needlework and Textiles, p. 250–51). This home-front paper doll, then, was an evocative symbol. In her determined knitting, the nurse represents the styles and the concerns of the day. She has considerably fewer accessories than other paper dolls in the series, and the ones she carries are of a different sort. Still, knowing that her needlework made her fashionable, rather than simply serviceable, adds to the charm of this paper figure from the past.

Post by Jennifer Burek Pierce, Winterthur Research Fellow

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