Thursday, December 13, 2012

Gobsmacked in Cambridge

A final note from the England trip, an addendum of sorts to the notebooks (one, two, three).

We spent most of the day doing what visitors do in Cambridge. College, college, college, Trinity Street (I bought a beautiful English-made bow tie at Arthur Shepherd), college, college, church, church, church, lunch.

It was mid-afternoon, the clock was ticking, and I had not yet set foot in a bookshop.

Working on a hunch that an ancient center of learning might yet have one or two of these to root around in, I asked Liz.

"Yes," said Liz. "I will point you at two. Tom and I can go have a drink at the pub while you browse."

(Liz has done this before.)

After some negotiation it was agreed that I should have one hour, thirty seven minutes before presenting myself at the pub.

"Now," Liz said. "Over there is the larger shop. Over here is the smaller shop, but they specialize in antique children's books."

I'll repeat that.

"They specialize," said Liz, "in antique children's books."

I think Tom said something after that, but I was already at one hour, thirty six minutes and ten seconds and didn't have time to fool about. I can talk to Tom any time.

The children's bookshop was the size of four phone booths. For those of you too young to remember phone booths, it was the size of those four retro novelty photo booths at Jerusha and Skylar's wedding in Williamsburg, the one your whole dodge ball team went to.

I walked in, and the first thing that hit me in the face was a shelf crammed with titles I have read about but never seen in person. This place is the physical embodiment of my lifelong wish list. Within seconds, I was confronted by four linear feet of what I gauged to be turn-of-the-century Caldecott.

"May I help you find anything?" said the nice lady at the desk.

"Gasp," I gasped.

"Well, do please let me know," she said.

I stared dumbly at the row of Caldecott for a moment. I tried to reach for a book and realized my fingers had gone numb.

Then, much as those who have survived environmental catastrophes say that an inborn, automatic survival instinct pulled them through, I heard a voice that was not quite my own say,

"Listen. I'm from America and only have a few minutes. I see you have piles of Caldecott. I'm also interested in Ernest Shepard, Arthur Rackham, Dulac, and Walter Crane. Oh, and I wonder what you might have in the way of needlework titles–especially knitting."

She sprang into action.

"Needlework. Hmm. Now, that's a tough one." But she had that look in her eye, the one book people get when presented with a novel challenge.

"I know," I said. "There really isn't much."

"Well, have a look at these." They were crochet books from the 1950s, aimed at the plucky post-war girl of twelve to fourteen.

"Sweet," I said. "But I don't really crochet."

"Hmm. Well, I'm afraid aside from those all we have at present would be some Girl's Own annuals with needlework patterns..."

"I like the sound of that."

"...and then there's that."

Up on a top shelf, cover facing  out, leaning casually against a row of who cares what, was this.


It's Jane Gaugain's The Lady's Assistant for Executing Useful and Fancy Designs in Knitting, Netting, and Crochet Work.

Jane Gaugain, in case she's not a household name for you (yet), is the woman you might call the mother of fiber arts publishing. She ran a haberdashery business in Edinburgh with her husband, she wanted to sell wool yarns from Germany, and she realized that you sell more yarns with pattern support. So she began to circulate patterns by request and subscription. (There is a wonderful article about her in this issue of Twist Collective.)

Then, in 1840, Mrs Gaugain produced her first book. This book.

This book, which is the beginning of everything that brought you all those knitting and crochet titles on your shelf. Elizabeth Zimmermann, Mary Thomas, Barbara Walker, Alice Starmore, Interweave, Soho, STC–it all starts here.

Now, please keep in mind that I went to England owning exactly one (1) knitting book that pre-dates 1880. And it's terrible. I mean, absolutely terrible. Fun as a relic, interesting to look at, useless to work from.

So for me, standing face-to-face with the first widely acclaimed, best-selling collection of knitting patterns was a little overwhelming.

But not so overwhelming that I didn't check the price. I was afraid to look.

It was really good. More than I'd normally drop on a single book–but really good. There aren't piles of knitting titles from this era lying around. Think about it. What do you usually do with outmoded books of knitting patterns? You throw them away, that's what you do. Or you donate them, or trade them, so that others may throw them away. And so it has always been.

It means that when you do find Mrs Gaugain for sale, she's pricey. But this shop was not a specialist in this topic, and though they did note "scarce" on the front flyleaf they didn't price it to keep it lying around in space that could be better occupied by, say, a nice first of Wind in the Willows.

So I bought it, with a beating heart and just one sad glance at the big, blue, oblong, I'd-never-even-heard-of-it album of Caldecott illustrations that's still sitting there, probably, and she said they would ship it to me if you haven't yet bought my Christmas present.

When I left the shop, I checked the time. I had been inside for exactly ten minutes.

While strictly speaking I had another hour and twenty-seven minutes allotted to book shopping, I found myself unable to go on. After you find the book at the top of your Life List just sitting there, what's the point of trying to beat that in a second venue?

I didn't know what to do, honestly. I felt like a dog that had spent his life chasing cars, and then caught one.

I stumbled toward the pub, clutching Mrs Gaugain to my palpitating chest.

Liz and Tom weren't there, of course. They weren't expecting me for more than an hour. In fact they were probably expecting me to forget them entirely, then scream NO NO LEAVE ME HERE IN PEACE as they attempted forcibly to extract me from the stacks.

(Liz and Tom have done this before.)

I turned around and ran smack into them on the street. They were startled.

"What happened? Did you find something?" said Tom.

"Mmrrbrblp," I said.

It was all I could do to get the book out of my bag and show it to them. They, being kind people, did not even make fun of me (much) when I started to cry.

The copy's in beautiful shape. Sound and complete, right down to the hand-colored plates demonstrating netting.


Note the errant smudge of red left by the colorist, who was probably a tubercular orphan, aged four, or similar. Poor kid.

This is not, I hasten to add, a first edition. It's a third edition (1842) as shown by Mrs Gaugain's preface.


She notes:

The Work has again undergone a thorough revision by me, and from the Receipts all having been worked by many of the subscribers–the best means of ascertaining its correctness–several little inaccuracies in the former Edition have been detected and corrected.

Inaccuracies corrected? Does this mean–can it be?–that am I holding the corrected version of the Pineapple Bag?! Did she fix the decreases at the bottom?!!




K.Line said...

What a terrific post. Now I want this book! :-)

Kyle said...

Envious. You are to pack an overnight bag immediately, and hand carry that beautiful book directly to San Francisco. Lunch will be served (tea if it's the afternoon), and we will peruse page by page.

Translation: You are missed on the Left Coast. Come VISIT!


Barb T said...

What a find, Franklin!!! You'll have to continue to share the art work and maybe even a pattern now and then. Ple-e-e-ease.

LisaRae7 said...

Be. Still. My. Heart....

It could NOT possibly have gone to a better, more appreciative and loving home.

Congratulations, my dear!!!


Erin said...

Amazing story; I was completely riveted! This makes me want to start hunting down vintage knitting literature!

Also, I laughed out loud at the very last line.

Unknown said...

I felt the same way when I found a knitting book in my University library, when my Uni doesn't even teach textiles! It's a happy moment... :)

Anonymous said...

Got your Christmas early this year, eh? Congratulations on such a great find!

withmyneedles said...

Oh my goodness, such a beautifully written post, gets my knitting book collecting heart palpitating just thinking about it.

mumzie said...

I was one of the lucky people who had a peek at your book when you dropped in on our knitting group on your way back to the station. I am so jealous. I really should check out the local book shops more often!

Liz said...

I'm sure I wasn't *quite* that schoolmarmish... but then I realise putting you and antiquarian booksellers together is slightly fatal, so maybe I was... And now I can post the pic of you clutching the book.


AngelaH said...

I cannot believe it took you this long to tell us about this! What a fantastic find!

Gamba Girl said...

Congratulations on your find!!

Lucy said...

Was that The Haunted Bookshop? If so, I love that place. It's fatal to the wallet though.

Vivienne said...

Has to have been the Haunted Bookshop. I've had several moments like that in there, but unfortunately only ever with the school stories they keep upstairs, and they do know the rarity of those and price accordingly.

Franklin said...

Vivienne, there's an UPSTAIRS?!

FiberQat said...

What a treasure! Congratulations on the find. It must have known you were coming and kept itself hidden until your arrival. All good books are that way.

Pity the pineapple pattern wasn't fixed.

Luna the Fairy said...

Sigh, a find like is like a lovely fairy tale, how exciting to actually live it out!

Anonymous said...

How EXCITING! and FUN! A hunt, a quest...fulfilled! "Mmrrbrblp," indeed! : )


Cara said...

Oh, Franklin. That is so cool.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations on a fantastic find. Truly a delightful tale of serendipity and good karma. I am a bit envious, but remind myself that finding a copy in the USA would be extremely rare. Enjoy it immensely. Joe-in Wyoming

Pam Sykes (aka Pretty Knitty) said...

The best wrap-up to a series of blog posts that I've read in a long time! Oh, and I'm sorry to hear about the pineapple bag pattern...

Anonymous said...

What a find! I understand the feelings you had when finding it. It was a bit like when I found a copy of one of Meg Swansen's books at a huge book sale, and saw it from beyond a four-deep group of browsers and setting aside my usual Canadian courtesy, elbowed my way through them to nab it triumphantly! A dollar later and Meg was mine, all mine. I don't feel, yet, capable of knitting from this beautiful book, but it's there for me to look at any time, and someday I will tackle a pattern from it. Enjoy your amazing book, Franklin!
samm at rav

Geri said...

Wow! What a find. Good for you. I hooted at your imagination about the 'tubercular orphan'. Enjoy!

Martha0051 said...

Aaaawwww. I'm so happy for you.

Lynne said...

What a wonderful find, Franklin. enjoy!

Overstap said...

What a Wonderful Marvelous Post...for This I love you so much despite the fact that we have never met in real. But hopefully one day we will. XX from over the Ocean

Michael Cook said...

Look at:

You can get open access to dozens of nineteenth century books, digitized. I ran across a lot of this, working on finding old silk info.

Not as good as getting your hands on a physical old book... but definitely easier to share!

Kirsty said...

Oh, I love Sarah Key! The Haunted Bookshop does dreadful things to my bank balance, especially their school stories (upstairs, which I gather you didn't get to).

Franklin said...

Yep, Michael - been using Rutt's digitized collection at Southampton for years, in lieu of the real thing.

Va said...

Clearly a seance is in order to ask about resolving the decreases for said Pinapple Bag. One cannot be asked to be kept on such tenderhooks.

Do you have a Ouija board in your house?

Love the photos and the story telling as always.

margaret in manhattan said...

you had me at Mmrrbrblp,

Kayten said...

I love you.

Leslie K. said...

I'm sure it had been waiting for you to turn up and take it home. So happy for both of you!

Robin said...

What a fabulous adventure with a prize at the end! Thanks for sharing.

weavinfool said...

Congratulations! It's better than catching a car, it's a book! You dog, you.

RubyC said...

I am surprised you took SO LONG to tell us about this well deserved purchase you made. I would have been shouting it from the rooftops from day I put my feet on solid ground.

Chris Laning said...

Franklin, that's wonderful. You can boast more about it -- we won't mind. ;)

And you DO know how to punch a mean punchline! (And it's not that I've just now noticed, either.)

Cinderellen said...

Clearly meant to be! Congrats on your acquisition!

Deb F. said...

My heart hammered with excitement as I read. Clearly I am a complete book dork.

Also, what do I have to do to either: a) get your address so that I can steal this book, or b) have it bequeathed to me?

My God, it's gorgeous. And so are you for sharing it with us.

Mother of Chaos said...

Ooooo! Great score!! Those moments have no substitute, they truly do not.

Other end of the spectrum, I have a sturdy wooden yarn swift I got for (if memory chooses to serve for once) $10 in a Gold Country antique store...where it was proudly displayed as - I kid you not - an 'antique CLOTHES DRYER,' complete with plastic clothespins.

{face-palm} About had to buy it just to RESCUE the poor thing...

KiniaCat Crafts said...

Your excellent description got my heart pounding a bit. That book is now in the right place.

Seanna Lea said...

That is awesome. I got choked up just thinking about it. I have some old books, but I don't have any great idea how old (no dates on the title verso of a copy of Brothers Karamazov).

steel breeze said...

Love it (and quite jealous!). The only "antique" books I have are Weldon's reprints and a reprint of Mrs Beeton's craft book. Enjoy! :)

Catie said...

I can't imagine why anyone would laugh at you for crying. I've got tears in my eyes and I'm a completely random stranger totally uninterested in knitting but who loves books so clicked through on this link when it showed up in a friend's journal. :) Congratulations! What a wonderful find!

Vero said...

Oh I just laughed my head off reading your post - SO glad you enjoyed Cambridge (I'm a Canadian export to Cambridge, UK)

It's a lovely place, and that is indeed a really lovely bookshop you went to.

In fact, once the Christmas rush is over, I'll have to go pop my head in for fun. :)

Kate said...

You were meant to have that book Franklin.

I do love "Plucky postwar girl" quote those were tough times in England.

Unknown said...

I'm usually by no means an avid commenter, but I just had to say that I love this blog. I'm currently finishing up a dissertation in 19th-century American literature, and when I'm not stuck in the past, I tend to be knitting. So this is just perfect, and I thank you heartily.

Ezzie Brody said...

I was led here by my friend Susan Doore-Levy. You have a wonderful writing style that I so enjoyed reeading! I used to knit when I.lived in Alaska. But gave it up when I moved to lower 48 & took up brewing beer & making wine...just not enough room in the "brewing" closet. Lol.

We are booklovers like you are but since we hope to go back to living on a boat we have switched to kindles. But we can still spend hours in old book shops!

Thank you for such a delightful read!

Anonymous said...

This has got to be one of my all time favourite blog posts. I love your blog, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. I also go weak at the knees in lovely old book shops and will seek this one out next time I'm in Cambridge. Thanks!

Winterhart said...

I am in agreement with Genevieve - this is a wonderful post. I am so happy for you to have found this! (And the shop itself sounds like a treasure!)

I am not sure that I could have left without at least looking at the Rackham and Dulac, but congratulations on Mrs Gaugain!

Jen Anderson said...

Holy cow...just...zowie.

JoAnn said...

sigh...Just as well the pineapple corrections weren't made. Your friends would have had to call the paramedics for you. If I ever get back to the UK I'm going to put a used book store on the TOP of my list.

Anonymous said...

"Gobsmacked" is an understatement! That book is 170 years old and it looks immaculate. If you want to talk about fate leading you to it, go right ahead. (After a sensational score like that, I would have asked for the rest of my list as well, but I'm greedy that way).
-- stashdragon

Sue J said...

as another book geek, I feel you JOY!!!

Kathleen Dames said...

So lovely (the story and the book). Congratulations on such a perfect souvenir for you!

=Tamar said...


Evalyn said...

This is the best story I've read in awhile. A Boy Finds his Book.

And: "the one book people get when presented with a novel challenge." Hah!

Patti said...

what a perfect christmas gift!

Anonymous said...

love your posts. we were all there with you in that shop.

(however, i would have gotten the caldicott too).

ikedho??? said...

What joy to discover you're still blogging...and as sharp as ever.

Alli said...

Gosh I remember you talking about this woman and her book in one of the classes you taught at the Frolic in Toronto! What an AMAZING find and it couldn't have gone to anyone more appreciative. Congratulations!

Mary deB said...

It's the holy grail! That illustration... divine!

Anita Figueras said...

Wonderful tale wonderfully told. Thank you for sharing it with us.

Susan said...

Oh, how I love your travelogues. I'm so glad it was a successful trip for you.

Pamela said...

What a coup! I love when you find such a treasure. My DD's significant other found a 120yr old copy of Macbeth for her for Christmas at a used book store for $1.50. Yes, you read that right, one dollar and fifty cents. It was obviously a school book for several other people, which for her is even better. Enjoy your marvelous find. Merry Christmas!

Lisa K said...

Wonderful. Funny and so well-written. And perfect for those of us who covet both books and knitting.

Lisa K said...

Wonderful. You're such a lovely writer.

And perfect for those of us that covet both books and knitting. I was right in that book store with you.

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

That is so exciting. Will you be sharing pages from the book in the months to come? I wonder if Mrs. Gaugain ever realized the errors in the pineapple bag. Maybe she corrected them in a later edition? Thank you for this wonderful post. I always learn something new from your posts.

Sara said...

Darling Franklin, so glad you found something so exciting. This place sounds great. Maybe put a link up if she does international mail order? Just which rare and beautiful Caldecott album did you see? Not that I would poach or anything.

soxanne said...

Mazel tov on the extraordinary find!

janna said...

So cool! Please share some of the illustrations with us!

CeltChick said...

What a find! But I almost wish you hadn't answered your own question; I think I'd rather not know that the Pineapple Bag pattern wasn't corrected....
I agree that yours may be the happiest & most appreciative home for this "scarce" resource. Happy Festivus!

Bonnie said...

I'm so happy for you! I'm also happy for us, since this means we'll get more historical patterns from you!

Renee Anne said...

That is an awesome find! I remember before we moved, there were a few of the knitting ladies that would scour the racks at St. Vinny's on the day that the "new" books came out. They'd pick up books for $1-$5 and then bring them to knitting for us to buy and donate the money to Heifer Intl. I know someone got a Barbara Walker Treasury for maybe $3 and I think I picked up a first edition of an EZ book for $2.

Bizzy B said...

Love that story.

Margaret Mary said...

That is a great story. Congratulations on such a wonderful find. Merry merry Christmas!!!

Shelda said...


Score. You made me cry too. I love love love the line about being a dog who finally caught a car.

So thrilled for you.

Meg C said...

I would have fainted dead away on the spot! I'm glad you didn't, and were able to get it for yourself. Can't wait to see what future projects it inspires, too!

Please don't ever stop writing.

Barbara M said...

Franklin, I think that the book found you rather than the other way around. I doubt there's anyone alive who would appreciate and use it more than you will. There's no doubt that fate led you into that tiny shop.

Anonymous said...

I love your blogs. You got into an elevator at Knitting Vogue NYC wearing a kilt. I was standing behind you in a goofy volunteer t-shirt ogling, wanted to hug you from behind, too star struck to speak, but realized that doing this to a man in a kilt in NYC was probably not the best idea. So I'll just have to take one of your classes one of these days.


Kelly H. said...

OH, such a terrific find. Thanks for sharing.

Merry Christmas! Hope the midwestern blizzard didn't affect your holiday plans.

Smallest Friend said...

The last couple lines had me laughing out loud. Thanks, Franklin.

Cheryl Collins said...

I found my way here through the highways and byways of knitting blogs and was enchanted to read this description of a visit to my hometown ( I'm typing this about 25 miles up the road form there) and I know the Haunted Bookshop in St. Edward's Passage well. So glad you found such a special book there- it is a delightful shop.

Eileen said...

Mermph. Just a couple of weeks ago I found (sadly, a 60s edition) of a 1948 book I have been hunting for since I was twelve. (LOTS of years ago. Lots.)

But it doesn't compare to this! I really know how you feel. By the way, if you ever were horse-obsessed I can point you in the direction of some other children's books that are utterly lovely, especially if you have a fondness for New England. (Just thought I'd give you something else to yearn over.)

Anonymous said...

That couldn't have happened to a better book, or nicer knitter. I can't wait to see what you come up with for the rest of us as a result.

Kris said...

Oh my. My mouth literally dropped open in shock. What a find -- with all your familiarity with her work, it's as if you were meant to find it.

bxknits said...


Kathleen said...

What a great story, and what a wonderful find for you. I would have been clueless about the value of the book, being not much more than an advanced beginning knitter these past 3+ decades...but I find myself smiling for you, and holding back tears. Enjoy!

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