Recent questions on a lace-knitting list have included queries about old knitting patterns – how to read them, and how to knit them. I’ve been thinking about that, and actually did reply to the original question. But I’d like to take time to expand on my list answer.
The original questions were from a knitter attempting to create original pieces from patterns dating from the 1850’s and 1860’s. She was having trouble figuring out what size needles to use with what yarn in order to reproduce the fabrics as closely as possible. Only someone who was taught to knit post-World War II would want this type of detailed instruction. Our modern patterns are of quite recent historical origin. “Recipe” knitting, with yarn, needles, and gauge specified, is definitely new-fangled. Publishers before the mid-twentieth century found this an unnecessary waste of paper, being well aware that the knitters could and would modify patterns to suit themselves. How could publishers know this? Because they had either knitted themselves as children or watched female relatives or servants knitting for as long as they could remember.
A digression: My great-grandmother, born in 1876, taught me the basics of knitting and other needlework (quilting, embroidery and crochet) in my early childhood – 1961 and 1962, specifically. She was horrified that at the ripe old age of 6, I didn’t already know the basics, and had some sharp words to say to my long-suffering mother. Mother, in her defense, was great at polishing basic skills, but didn’t have the patience to start from scratch (especially with a tomboy daughter who really didn’t want to learn). Grandma Lay taught me the same way she learned from her mother – she gave me the appropriate tools, showed me how it was supposed to be done a couple of times, and then made me practice. While that had its bad points (I couldn’t tension English-fashion purl for decades – it was a mental block), it also had its good ones. Specifically, I'm not dependent on patterns for more than a starting suggestion, and I modify anything that appeals to me in whatever fashion I like. I do gauge swatches and actually use them, and am not intimidated by simple mathematics. All are useful skills to have in areas outside knitting…
Also, thanks to Grandma and that foundation, I’ve continued to learn through the years. Now I decide what sort of fabric I want and create it, either on knitting needles, with a crochet hook, on the floor loom or with the bobbins on a lace pillow. If I can’t find commercial yarns, I can create my own. I’m actually the first spinner, weaver, and tatter in the family since my great-grandmother and the first bobbin-lacer ever, as far as I know. There is an enormous freedom in that sort of wide-ranging education. There is also a tremendous amount of fun! Now back to the main purpose – historical knitting!
Patterns written in that era (1830-65) had several purposes, including education and relief from the feeling of isolation experienced by many rural women or those tending several small children at home. The population at large was becoming literate, and was finally able to count on timely mail delivery, so publication was practical. A certain amount of both leisure time and disposable income was becoming available to the middle class, and that middle class was growing in size. The industrial revolution and faster transportation had begun to touch daily life, making household production of fabrics and food more a matter of choice than a never-ending chore. Magazines devoted to various aspects of daily life became quite popular, especially with women in rural or small-town areas who wanted to know about the latest styles and trends in the larger cities. These magazines are fascinating reading; they touch on almost every aspect of daily life, and give a fairly accurate picture of that life. My grandmother kept the most important of her magazines (1920’s through 1970’s) handy, and referred to them often for needlework ideas and recipes.
Patterns written within the time frame referenced above (1850-60) make a lot of assumptions. First is that you already know more than a little bit about knitting, because you've been doing it since you were a young child. You already know that changing your needle size will change your gauge and fabric drape. So there isn't a recommendation as to needle size. It’s assumed that you know what sort of fabric you want, and you'll swatch or modify your knitting method to get that fabric. If it’s a pattern for socks, you know to use small needles for a firm fabric. If it’s a lace pattern, you’ll choose thread/yarn to match the weight of either the fabric you’re matching or the fabric you want to create, and swatch with your chosen thread to be sure you’re actually getting that fabric. You know that a warm shawl can be made in a lace pattern with worsted or even light-weight wool, and that a lacy summer piece requires a fine cotton thread and smaller needles.
A digression on one comment above: Why modify your knitting rather than simply change needle size? A couple of reasons come immediately to mind, both practical. First, because a knitter in the mid-nineteenth century probably only had two or three sets of double-point needles - one small, fine set of steel lace/sock needles in about a size 0 or 00, one mid-size set of something about a size 3-4, and one large set of around a size 8. Those were all the average rural knitter had to work with. And, when you think about it, those are also probably the needles you use most often yourself as a modern knitter.
Needle manufacture was a bit different then, as well. Steel needles were machine-made of hardened wire or made by a local smith, and were usually purchased. The mid- and large-size needles, at least here in the Appalachians, were usually whittled by a sweetheart or brother, or perhaps by the knitter herself, and size would vary with the skill of the whittler and the desire of the knitter. The fine steel needles were most likely a gift - my great-grandmother received hers the year before she married, and still had them in 1962, because she still did lace knitting on them then. They were carefully stored in a wooden container between uses, and there were 12 in the set, allowing them to be used for large circular items as well as fine two-needle work. She simply used the number of needles she needed for the project at hand. Her larger needles were made from branches from trees located on the farm. Some were gifts, hand-whittled by her husband or sons; most she had whittled out herself as she needed them. They were polished smooth from years of use and from her hands and the yarn itself. Aluminum needles were just becoming readily available in the rural Southeast in 1962, and she enjoyed looking at them, but I noticed that she used the wooden needles most of the time and left the ‘new’ needles for us. She also liked the idea of the circular needles becoming available at that time, but found them slow to use because of the poor joins.
The second reason to modify the patterns had to do with the yarn itself. In the 1850's and 60's, mill-spun yarns were widely available. But hand-spinning was still going on, especially in rural areas. So patterns concentrated on showing new stitches, techniques and currently fashionable fit and allowed those experienced knitters to choose how they wanted to use the information. Those of us who are spinners know all too well the differences between commercially- and hand-spun yarns. Modern knitters who are fortunate enough to be gifted with good handspun frequently become spinners themselves! And in the 1850’s and 60’s, spinning wheels were still basic pieces of equipment in most rural homes, and using handspun was a matter of economy – the sheep were there and grew wool every year that had to be sheared, so why let it go to waste?
Reasonable estimates of needle sizes used with specific yarns…again, it depends on the fabric you want. My own estimates, worked out from my own experience and watching my knitting friends and relatives are: size 30 or finer cotton – use 000’s to 2’s. Lace-weight wool/alpaca/silk/cotton – size 1 to size 5, depending on the fabric you want. Sport-weight yarn will use about a size 3-4; worsted weight yarns will call for something like those ubiquitous size 8’s or even a 10 1/2. Of course, if you’re doing socks, all needles sizes go down – you want a firm fabric. If you’re doing lace, needles sizes may go way up.
Great-grandma never fussed about swatching. She actually seemed to enjoy it and her ‘swatch blankets’ (afghans today) were treasured by those fortunate enough to receive one. She saved swatches, stacked neatly in a wooden box, until she had enough to crochet together into a blanket. Those swatches…sometimes she would make three or four 4-inch squares before she found the exact fabric she wanted. I can remember my grandmother teasing her that she wanted to finish up another blanket more than she wanted to make herself a new sweater.
So, my advice to those attempting ‘historical’ knitting is to swatch before you begin, and knit mindfully. Abbreviations aren’t necessarily the same, and you may not have a key. Hopefully you’ll have a picture of a finished article – use the scanner or a magnifying glass and blow it up as much as possible. You’ll be surprised at the detail that you can see that way. And don’t fret if you have to do more tinking and ripping than usual. Just think of all the experience you’re gaining!