Thursday, March 29, 2012


I was teaching in Madison, Wisconsin a few weeks ago when a thoroughly charming gentleman walked into my classroom and presented me with this,


once again confirming that in many ways I am a lucky sonofabitch.

Now, I do have new piece finished. It looks something like this,


but as it's still drying the official photographs will have to wait.

Instead, do you fancy a riffle through the delicious pages of The Ladies' Manual of Fancy-Work, published in 1883 by A. L.  Burt of New York, and edited by Miss Jenny June?

Jenny June sounds suspiciously like a pseudonym, doesn't it? Possibly a pseudonym for a thick-necked and paunchy cigar-smoking drapery salesman whose real name was Irv Magee?

One's suspicion only grows upon learning that Mr. Stephen Foster–who dreamt, famously, of Jeannie and her light-brown hair–also wrote a popular minstrel ballad with the refrain:

Did you see dear Jenny June
When the meadows were in tune
With the birds among the bowers
In the sweet summer time.

We're on to you, Irv Magee. We see you there, behind the pen, with your cigar.

Irv's taste in fancy-work, not unusually for the time, inclined steeply to the florid.


Among the curiosities are instructions for artificial macramé (which Irv calls macreme).


It's crochet.

Also, there are pages of line-drawings of whimsical Regency moppets suitable for transferring to embroidery fabric, drawn by a D-list Kate Greenaway impersonator who remains anonymous (and no wonder).


One of the vignettes has dialogue (click for a larger version), like a primordial New Yorker cartoon.


The Ladies' Manual of Fancy-Work was published in 1884. James Thurber was born in 1894. Just want to point that out.

There are advertisements, too, including several for yarn.


Nobody boasts anymore that their silk yarn has "dead lustre." Why not?

And since this manual of fancy-work is for ladies, there are also ads for ladies' things, like corsets.


My favorite, please don't miss it, is the "nursing" corset with the flip-top tit.

(Say that out loud a few times.

Flip-top tit.
Flip-top tit.
Flip-top tit.

You said it, didn't you? Out loud?

Are you at work?

I hope nobody heard you.)

Finally, the articles. Good stuff. Chinese embroidery, the history of the cashmere shawl, etcetera.

Here's one of them, in full.

Boys who Learned Needle-work

When the late Admiral –– was a young midshipman, he was sent on a voyage round the world in one of King George the Third’s ships. He was three years away, and, as he grew very fast, he found himself sailing in the Pacific Ocean with hardly a stitch of clothes to his back. His mother, sister of Admiral Lord ––, had taught her little boy to sew, so he got some canvas out of the ship’s stores, and cut out and made himself a new suit of clothes. His mother was very proud of these, and, when her son was an admiral, she used to show them to her grandchildren, and tell them the story.

Rather more than thirty years ago, a lady went to call on another one rainy afternoon; the house was built on a an island in a lake in Ireland. In the drawing-room were two little boys sitting on footstools, one on each side of the fireplace. Probably, the visitor looked astonished, for the mother of the little boys said in a low tone, “Please don’t laugh at them; what should I do with them on this island on a rainy day if they were too proud to sew?” One of these boys was a lieutenant in the Crimean War; he fought none the worse because he knew how to use the needle as well as the sword, when he with his men was for eighteen hours in the Redan on the memorable 18th of June.

The chaplain of an Irish institution had seen when he was young the straits to which the French artistocratic refugees were reduced, from having to learn how to do things for themselves; and he got a tailor to come to his house and teach his boys how to cut out and make and mend their own clothes. One of the boys is now an old general, but he sews on his own buttons to this very day; and when he was on service in one of the small British stations in Asia, he not only mended and patched his own clothes, but those of his brother officers; all the men of his regiment knitted their own socks.

Thanks for sticking up for the boys, Irv! Have another cigar!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Wee Wee Wee

I have always had an affinity for the small–possibly because I happen to fit neatly in that box myself, with plenty of room to spare.

Years of unfulfilled longing meant that when I saw this at a local thrift shop


I decided it was coming home with me.

It's a home-built townhouse, front-opening. Age and provenance unknown. The style is decidedly of the first quarter of the twentieth century; but the windows that still retain their glazing are fitted with sheets of clear plastic. This could be a later replacement for celluloid/acetate, or it could mean a house constructed in the 1950s or later using an old set of blueprints.

However old it is, I love it. The exterior is agreeably battered and faded, with most of the pretty details intact.
I love the way the builder used just two colors and simple materials (wooden beads, bits of stock moulding) to achieve a richness of effect.


Inside, six rooms and an elevator. The elevator is operated via a crank in the base. It took some cleaning and oiling, but the car now travels up and down smoothly on the string while I hum "The Girl from Ipanema."


I've enjoyed imagining why the exterior was finished with so much care, but the interior was left completely unfinished. It might have been that a deadline (Christmas? birthday?) forced the doting amateur carpenter to deliver it half-made with a promise that interior decoration would follow. It might have been that the little owner was expected to do her own decorating, but never got around to it. It might have been that the miniature occupants got into such a dreadful fight over wallpapers for the front hall that they divorced and abandoned the property.

There's also a scenario involving alien abduction, but let's move along.

Whatever the reason, I'm happy the rooms are a perfect blank. In their current state, they have a melancholy I admire.


Also, were there even a scrap of 1930s linoleum, I'd feel honor-bound to preserve it. Since nothing period survives, I shall fill it up to my heart's content following my own fancy.

Of course that means needlework. A very small heap of very, very small needlework.

The scale of the house is not the 1:12 (inch-equals-a-foot) standard for modern "collector" houses meant for adults. It's 1:16, the old "play" standard for miniatures meant for children. Period furniture in 1:16 isn't impossible to find–the two metal chairs in the photographs are from Tootsietoy, a now-defunct maker once based here in Chicago–but it's uncommon, expensive, and often startlingly ugly. As much as possible, I want to make my own stuff.

I've already been knitting small, partly out of guilt. Remember Ethel? Ethel was supposed to be the doll who ended up in this, but proved unequal to the burden of all those layers. She was replaced by another model from the same agency. It happens all the time–even sample-sized gals aren't all built the same.

Ethel didn't complain, but I began to feel bad that she has ended up lying naked in a drawer for a year. She at least needs some frilly underclothes, lace-edged. I could buy doll's clothes. I could buy lace. But it's more fun to make them.

Enter the 00000.

This 00000 (also called five-aught, or 1mm) knitting needle was part of a bundle of antique double-pointed needles given to me as a gorgeous gift by a marvelously generous knitter I met while teaching at Sealed With a Kiss in Guthrie, Oklahoma. To give you some idea of the scale:

As I'm fortunate enough to have this blog read in many countries abroad, I put in as many small coins as I could find in the change box. I'm sorry that the selection was limited to places I've been. (Asia, Australia, South and Central America–I'm ready when you are.)

Now, standard needles go down to a completely hilarious 00000000 (that's eight-aught)–so I don't pretend I'm breaking any kind of record in working with a pair of five-aughts. Nutjobs like Betsy Hershberg (have you seen her new book, by the way? disgustingly good) would think nothing of this.

This is the finest work I've done yet, though. And it's fun. Like picking at a scab is fun.

Here's the edging for the bottom of Ethel's chemise, on the blocking board. The thread is DMC 80 Crochet Cotton, which is not much thicker than sewing thread.


If you're curious about the itttybittyknitty experience, some quick beginner's notes:
  • Yes, it takes a while to find a comfortable grip. In fact, banish the word "grip" from your mind. Any attempt to "grip" one of these needles will result in a crumpled piece of wire. On the other hand, it seems to be normal and desirable that as you knit, the needles will take on gentle curves that fit your hands just so. I find this endearing. They're not just needles, they're obedient pets.
  • I have seen (but do not own) knitting holders from the 19th century that protected fine needles inside stiff metal (sometimes silver) tubes. Having now tried to transport a pair of five-aughts in a standard knitting bag on the subway, I understand why.
  • A magnifying glass is a great help if you are over sixteen. (I am.) Good lighting is vital, unless you enjoy gnashing your teeth until they shatter like cheap wineglasses. I have never been so grateful for my Ott Lite, which has both a huge magnifier and a clamp that holds my chart where I can see it.
  • My antique five-aughts have blunt ends. I'm looking to play with some modern five-aughts and see if they have pointed ends. Pointy ends are a boon when you're trying to work a double-decrease. Fooling about with blunt-ended fine needles has kicked up my appreciation of 19th-century knitters another couple notches. I've seen photos of those women operating these things with gloved hands, which I think helps to explain the widespread Victorian notion of female hysteria.
Finally, if you take your five-aughts out in public, exercise caution. I brought this to the coffee shop the other day.


It's a lace insertion for Ethel's chemise, yet another variation of the double-leaf motif that's been kicking around since the early 19th century.

I do a lot of knitting at this coffee shop. All the baristas know me. I've even taught a few of them the rudiments of knit and purl.

I was limping along, determined to make headway even without my magnifying glass and in dim light. I barely noticed the manager inching closer, pretending to wipe down empty tables but keeping one worried eye on me. When she was about two feet away she stopped and sighed with evident relief.

"Something wrong?" I asked, looking up.

"That is wicked small yarn," she said.

"You ain't kidding."

"Well," she said, "from over at the counter you can't see it. Or the needles."


"Uh huh. So you were sitting there...and moving your hands...and looking at them...and sometimes you were stopping to count...but it looked like you weren't holding anything."

"Oh, dear."

"I was sort of worried that maybe you were, I don't know–having some kind of knitting-related seizure?"

I reassured her that I wasn't.

But we all know it's only a matter of time.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

How Green Was My Bottom

I must be spring, because Knitty says so. The new issue is up.

I'm ready for spring. We have had a shockingly mild winter in Chicago, by Chicago standards. Mild, in our case, means there have been multiple winter days during one has been able to step outside without bursting into tears which immediately freeze to the side of your face.

Listen, you want to know how crummy winter is in Chicago? Winter in Chicago is so crummy that when I told a bunch of Icelanders what our January is like, they gaped at me.

"No," said one of them. "I think we are not calculating this correctly."

I repeated our average January low, and he whipped out an iPhone to confirm the converstion from Farenheit to Celsius. There was a collective gasp.

"This is inhuman. This is like Greenland. How do you stand this?"

Yup. A typical Chicago winter is shockingly cold to people from  Iceland.

And please don't start in with the "Oh, but you can wear all your wonderful sweaters and hats and mittens and...". One of the reasons I love being a knitter is that making my own winter gear gives me a false but comforting sense of being in control of the season, but I hate, hate, hate being buried under 16 layers of clothing. Do you know 16 layers of clothing do to a short, broad man? Do you? They make him look like a laundry pile with boots, that's what.

When it's time to retire, kids, I'm moving to the desert and I'm never going to wear anything with a #@$*! sleeve on it, ever again.

So, as I was saying, this is a blog post about the Spring 2012 issue of Knitty.

My contribution is an antique pattern, as usual. VoilĂ .


It's a bag in the shape of a pineapple. Of course it is.

Pineapple purses were a bit of a fad for part of the 19th century, probably because the fruit–being tropical and therefore exotic–fit perfectly into a more general mania for All Things Oriental, with the "Orient," in this case, encompassing pretty much everything from Japan to North Africa.

One of the most pleasing things about knitting a pineapple is that it's like knitting cables. The whole world thinks you've pulled off the most amazing feat of virtuoso yarn-based legerdemain, when actually all you've done is have a whacking great time with a very bewitching pattern.

Believe it or not, there's more going on in a plain vanilla sock than there is in this pineapple. The whole thing is based on one stitch motif, 16 stitches wide. Once I got going, I absolutely flew through the leaves and the fruit.

Then came the bottom, which is written out thus in the original:

P6, A all around.
Plain, all around.
Repeat these two rounds till the bag is almost closed, then draw it together with a needle.

Translated, this means:

Round 1: (Knit 6, sl1-k2tog-psso) around.
Round 2: Knit.
Repeat rounds 1 and 2 until you have a bag instead of a tube.

But there's a wee hitch. You're starting out with 320 stitches, and the first round is asking you work a repeat of 9 stitches evenly around it.

320 divided by 9 = 35.555555555555556. For those of you non-knitters reading this,* that's a big negatory.

So what to do?

In this case, we have to find a way to close the bag that a) works and b) will be as close as possible to what Jane Gaugain intended.

However, we cannot call, text, e-mail, Tweet or otherwise harass Jane Gaugain to find out what she intended, because even the worms that devoured the worms that devoured her mortal body have long since gone to dust.

We cannot reverse-engineer from the picture, because there is no picture.

We can have a look at a few photographs of extant examples of pineapple bags, though frustratingly few show the bottom and all are obviously knit from patterns that, while similar to hers, are by no means identical.

And we can guess.

We can consider the practical requirements of a bag, such as that a flattish bottom will be more practical than a long, conical bottom.

We can consider the aesthetics of the bag, which is heavily sculpted for three-quarters of its surface and would probably look best with a bottom that matches.

So, we begin by listing theoretical solutions.
  1. What if, instead of beginning with 320 stitches, we began with a near-ish number of stitches into which 9 would divide evenly?
  2. What if the use of "A" (for the double decrease) in Round 1 is a typo? Did Jane mean to put in a T, her symbol for for k2tog? The repeat would take up 8 stitches, and 8 stitches does fit evenly into 320! Ooh!
  3. What if the "6" in Round 1 is a typo? If we substitute a 5, the motif uses 8 stitches, and 8 stitches does fit evenly into 320! Ooh! Ooh!
With a little testing–by which I mean calculations that make my head hurt, followed by a great deal of knitting and then a great deal of ripping out–these three solutions proved unworkable. They all assume that there is some combination of plain stitches, followed by a decrease,  that will close up the bag in an attractive fashion.

As it turns out, no there isn't. Or if there is, somebody who is not trying to meet a Knitty deadline will have to find it. Some of the test-knits did begin to close up the bag, yes; but the closure looked like ass. (In this case, "ass" and "bottom" are not synonymous.) The math never worked, either. There always came a point at which the number of stitches in the repeat no longer fit evenly into the number of stitches remaining. Further adjustments could be made at that point, but it would have meant a set of decrease instructions so convoluted that they seemed way out of step with the succinct nature of the rest of the pattern.

Plus, did I mention it looked like ass?

The next option is drift further from Mrs G's two-round instructions. They look so elegant on the page–but if they don't work, they don't work. Hey, it happens. Then, as now, sometimes the instructions aren't just a little off, they're completely broken.

I decided to see what would happen if I had another shot at both Theory 2 and Theory 3–but instead of maintaining the same number of stitches between decreases, I'd have 1 (or 2, in the case of double decreases) fewer stitches between them in every decrease round. This is, of course, the common method for decreasing the tops of hats.

I started with Theory 2, and yup, the bag began to close. Slowly. Slooooowwwwwwwwllllyyy. I looked at the theoretical numbers again, counted the number of rounds they required, and realized I'd end up with a plain green cone, three inches deep, at the end of my pineapple. Not pretty, not practical, and way out of line with the look of the rest of the piece.


Finally, Theory 3, plus consistently reducing the number of stitches between decreases, yielded this:


If that ain't what she meant, she's welcome to come back from the dead and tell me so. I love it.

I don't love her final finish, though, with the bunch of green silk satin ribbon.** That's coming off and I'm replacing it with a tassel–Lisa Souza's yardage in a hank of Sylvie is so generous that I have plenty left.

I may even knit a mini-pineapple with the leftovers. (It's easy. Pick a multiple of 16 as your cast-on and go for it.)

*I'm not fooling myself. There are no non-knitters reading about how to troubleshoot the decreases at the bottom of a pineapple. I know.

**I dyed that flippin' ribbon myself because it was hard enough just to find silk ribbon, let alone silk in a green that matched. I want extra credit for that, dammit.