It's called The Mary Frances Knitting and Crocheting Book, or Adventures Among the Knitting People, and it was originally published in 1918. My copy is a handsome, hardcover facsimile reprint from the wonderful folks at Lacis and I will be forever grateful to them for making it available.
This was the last of long series* of how-to books starring Mary Frances, a little girl who had previously encountered the Kitchen People, the Thimble People, the Doll People and the Garden People. Apparently wherever she went, inanimate objects around her came to life and spoke to her. Nowadays we have medicines for that sort of thing; but Mary Frances just put up with it and learned to sew, knit, keep house, and cultivate begonias.
As The Mary Frances Knitting and Crocheting Book opens, our heroine is preparing for knitting and crochet lessons under the austere gaze of Great-Aunt Maria.
We don't learn much of Aunt Maria's backstory. She's either an old maid or a widow; but in any case she lives by herself with only her shawl and her bitterness to keep her warm. Her tongue drips the purest hydrochloric acid; a bracing counterpoint to the other characters, who wrap up every speech with a little pink bow.
Aunt Maria may well be my favorite person in the entire book. She's always ready to put the lid on Mary Frances when she swings manic and starts to bubble over. For example:
"Oh won't that be splendid, Aunt Maria?" cried the little girl. "I do want to learn so much!"Mary Frances timidly reminds the old dragon that her mother was unable to learn to crochet because she had one lame arm, but auntie dearest accepts this excuse with evident reluctance.
"It seems to me very strange that you do not know anything about such work," said her aunt. "Why, I made your father learn to knit when he was only six years old."
Mary Frances did not tell her Aunt Maria that her father had told her about those lessons, and how he had hated the work because, every time he made a mistake, his aunt would whack his chubby, clumsy fingers with a ruler...
"Mother would like to teach me," said Mary Frances, "but–"
"Your mother was not brought up right," snapped her aunt.
"Oh yes," said Aunt Maria. "I remember now. But your arm doesn't hurt..."Clearly, this is the sort of woman who believes that making a toddler pull a plow through a cotton field builds character. I just love her.
But we don't get as much of Aunt Maria as I'd like. In the best post-Edwardian fashion, Mary Frances's father is involved in a train wreck while traveling on business and her mother leaves the kids in Maria's care while she (also in the best post-Edwardian fashion) rushes off to nurse him. However, Aunt Maria's busy schedule of baking bread and reading temperance literature doesn't allow her sit around smacking Mary Frances with a ruler all day.
Enter the Knitting People.
They are wacky little band that includes Knit and Knack, the Knitting Needles; Wooley Ball, the ball of yarn; Crow Shay, a (did you see this coming?) mischievous crochet hook; and Yarn Baby, a pushy little yarn doll with flyaway hair who disagrees violently with everything everybody else says at all times. I know this is a knitting book, but I think she should have been a rag doll.
Presiding over all is a good fairy named Fairly Flew. She is so-called because when she helps you with your knitting, people will say your stitches fairly flew off the needles. Also, she is a fairy who flies. Flying fairy Fairly Flew. Say that ten times fast.
Anyhow, while Aunt Maria's down in the parlor playing "The Lost Chord" on the harmonium and crying into her medicinal glass of brandy, the Knitting People jump out of Mary Frances's knitting bag and start ordering her around. Mary Frances, who at this point in her twelve years on earth has already dealt with talking thimbles, brooms and garden implements is not remotely surprised and goes along with it.
The lessons themselves, which are copiously illustrated with drawings and photographs (all superbly reproduced by Lacis) are actually pretty darn good. I'm tiptoeing around the edges of crochet, myself, and have found them to be clear and helpful–no mean feat for a work almost a century old.
And much of the other content is a refreshing change from modern children's pap, as well. Mary Frances learns real skills using real tools and is taught the basics in order to make things on her own using her own ingenuity to benefit herself and others.** And then the housekeeper makes her go outside and play tennis in the fresh air. Really, I can't fault any of it. It's certainly the sort of life I'd try to provide (aside from the hallucinations) for little Euphemia Gladys, my hypothetical daughter.
Mary Frances certainly benefits and within days she's turning out finished objects. Good thing, too. She has this lisping brat of a baby doll, Mary Marie, who unfortunately keeps coming to life to say things like "Mama, foots told," and then Mary Frances has to drop whatever she's doing and crochet a damn pair of slippers. Every five minutes, Mary Marie wants something to cover her cold feet or her cold ears or her cold butt or whatever. And just when Mary Frances gets her warmly dressed, she starts whining for a book bag, a toy ball...it never ends.
I wouldn't be surprised Mary Frances often secretly suspected that Aunt Maria's lonely spinsterhood might be a pleasant alternative to having children.
I need hardly tell you that The Mary Frances Knitting and Crocheting Book, or Adventures Among the Knitting People has, in short order, become one of the treasured gems in my collection. In fact, Lacis has reprinted the sewing book as well and I plan to put it on my wish list. I'm hoping it'll give me a little more dirt on Aunt Maria.
*I first encountered Mary Frances when I pulled a copy of the sewing book out of a pile of garbage (where the weight of the stuff on top was canting the spine) in the rare books room at The Strand in New York City. I asked one of the dim-bulb twentysomethings who worked there to give me a price, which (after a forty-minute wait) he did–rudely. It was standard, marked up by 60%. Too rich for my blood. Frankly, I liked the rare books room at The Strand better when it was staffed by people who loved books instead of young dolts who would better spend their time organizing the goddamned stock instead of surfing the Internet.
**The end of the book even includes patterns for wartime Red Cross knitting.