Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Laurel Leaves of the wooly sort

Knitting instructions are finicky creations. Proof reading them is like trying to make sense of a random string of letters and numbers.  Today it's not uncommon to find erratas for the patterns published in both books and magazines. In the 19th century they skipped the erratas and left it to the knitter to figure out what the problem was. Combine the barely existing standardization, each author using her own shorthand, and the seeming complete lack of proof reading and 19th century instructions can be more a puzzle than anything else. I like puzzles so every now and then I set down and try to figure out one of the mystery patterns. Sometimes it's just because I'm curious, sometimes because someone else has run into a problem. Instead of cramming my notes into my bookshelf where they help no one besides myself I'm going to try posting them in hopes of saving someone else from counting stitches and scratching her head. 

The first installment is the Laurel Leaf from Elizabeth Jackson's The practical companion to the work table, containing selections for knitting, netting and crochet work, published in 1845. In this case the Laurel Leaf was intended for a half square shawl but other versions of it show up routinely in 19th century (as well as 20th) for various other items. It's a nice simple, slightly open pattern, perfect for a newer knitter or for working in slightly dim light. Elizabeth Jackson was nice enough to provide an illustration of the beginning of a shawl. Sometimes illustrations bear no resemblance to the  pattern, sometimes the pattern bears no resemblance to the illustration. The later is the case here. The image looks like a leaf, her instructions don't.
In fact, her instructions just don't work. Her original instructions can be found at the link above, in the interest of saving space I won't repeat what doesn't work. The problems start with the very first row, the pattern requires an odd number of stitches, she started off right but then blew it in the increases on the first row. The shawl starts at the bottom corner with just three stitches. Increases are worked along each edge at every pattern row and rows 6 and 16 have a spare set of increases (one at each end) to accommodate the pattern. My interpretation:
Work a Purl row after each pattern row

Cast on 3
1.   s1 yo k1 yo k1
2.   s1 yo k3 yo k1
3.   s1 yo k5 yo k1
4.   s1 yo k7 yo k1
5.   s1 yo k9 yo k1
6.   s1 yo k5 yo k1 yo k5 yo k1
7.   s1 yo k1 k2tog k3 yo k3 yo k3 k2tog k1 yo k1
8.   s1 yo k2 k2tog k2 yo k5 yo k2 k2tog k2 yo k1
9.   s1 yo k3 k2tog k1 yo k7 yo k1 k2tog k3 yo k1
10. s1 yo k4 k2tog yo k9 yo ok2tog k4 yo k1

11. s1 yo k5 yo k1 yo k4 k2tog k2tog k3 yo k1 yo k5 yo K1

12. s1 yo k1 k2tog k3 yo k3 yo k3 k2tog k2tog k2 yo k3 yo k3 k2tog k1 yo k1
13.  s1 yo k2  k2tog k2 *yo k5 yo k2 k2tog k2tog k1* repeat to 12 from end, finish:yo k5 yo k2 k2tog k2 yo k1
14.  s1 yo k3 k2tog k1 * yo k7 yo k1 k2tog k2tog * repeat to 14 from end, finish: yo k7 yo k1 k2tog k3 yo k1
15.  s1 yo k4 k2tog * yo k9 yo k3tog* repeat to 16 from end, finish: yo k9 yo k2tog k4 yo k1
16.  s1 yo k5 yo k1 *yo k4 k2tog k2tog k3 yo k1* repeat to 6 from end, finish: yo k5 yo k1
17.  sl yo k1 k2tog k3 * yo k3 yo k3 k2tog k2tog k2*  repeat to 10 from end, finish: yo k3 yo k3 k2tog k1 yo k1
Repeat rows 13-17
If using this for a shawl I strongly suggest slipping the first purl stitch to give a nicer edge and balance the slipped stitch in the knit rows. Below are images of samples worked by my interpretation. They are worked in a lace weight wool (akin to the Shetland recommended in the pattern) and size 3 (modern) needles.


 Pattern published for personal, non-commercial use only

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Prudery and Pianos – a Victorian Myth

Every once and a while I hear an odd story that Victorians were so very modest and prudish that they wouldn’t show their ankles or mention the word “leg” and that they covered piano legs with little drawers so as to not offend. Even as a young teenager I didn’t buy into the Victorian prudery myth. They were still having a lot of kids weren’t they? Victorian fashions, as varied as they were, all strove to exaggerate and accentuate the female form. I would expect a prudish society to hide bust lines and hips under lose sacks not make veritable billboards pointing them out. So, I set out on a hunt to uncover the origins of the myth. I expected a long and convoluted trail given the span of years but instead quickly found what seems to be the origin.

In 1839 Englishman Frderick Marryat published a three volume work detailing his travels in America, A diary in America: with remarks on its institutions. In volume one he wrote:
“They object to everything nude in statuary. When I was at the house of Governor Everett, at Boston, I observed a fine cast of the Apollo Belvidere ; but in compliance with general opinion, it was hung with drapery, although Governor Everett himself is a gentleman of refined mind and high classical attainments, and quite above such ridiculous sensitiveness. In language it is the same thing. There are certain words which are never used in America, but an absurd substitute is employed. I cannot particularize them after this preface, lest I should be accused of indelicacy myself. I may, however, state one little circumstance which will fully prove the correctness of what I say.

When at Niagara Falls I was escorting a young lady with whom I was on friendly terms. She had been standing on a piece of rock, the better to view the scene, when she slipped down, and was evidently hurt by the fall: she had, in fact, grazed her shin. As she limped a little in walking home, I said, "Did you hurt your leg much ?" She turned from me, evidently much shocked, or much offended,—and not being aware that I had committed any very heinous offence, I begged to know what was the reason of her displeasure. After, some hesitation, she said that as she knew me Well, she would tell me that the word leg was never mentioned before ladies. I apologized for my want of refinement, which was attributable to having been accustomed only to English society; and added, that as such articles must occasionally be referred to, even in the most polite circles in America, perhaps she would inform me by what name I might mention them without shocking the company. Her reply was, that the word limb was used ; " nay," continued she, "I am not so particular as some people are, for I know those who always say limb of a table, or limb of a piano-forte."

There the conversation dropped ; but a few months afterwards I was obliged to acknowledge that the young lady was correct when she asserted that some people were more particular than even she was.

I was requested by a lady to escort her to a seminary for young ladies, and on being ushered into the reception-room, conceive my astonishment at beholding a square piano-forte with four limbs. However, that the ladies who visited their daughters might feel in its full force the extreme delicacy* of the mistress of the establishment, and her care to preserve in their utmost purity the ideas of the young ladies under her charge, she had dressed all these four limbs in modest little trousers) with frills at the bottom of them !”

The first red flag for me is the date, 1839. A very few years earlier most dresses were worn with skirts above the ankle, work dresses even shorter. Through the 40’s genre paintings show women in work dress with their ankles and even lower calves showing. They are not depicting fallen women, they are showing respectable mothers and wives. Even as women’s fashions changed and their skirts feel nearer to the floor girls and teens still wore shorter skirts.

Was uttering the word “leg” really taboo? I’ve always found this notion amusing. Imagine trying not to use it – have a limb of lamb for dinner. I haven’t ever noticed any creative use of English in an attempt to explain “leg” without saying it. Did they prefer “limb”? I doubt it. In a very unscientific study….I searched Googlebooks for the complete reign of Queen Victoria. “leg” was used in 36,000 volumes and “limb” in only 21,300. Yes, quite unscientific. But the difference seems to much to be explained away by chance.

So, am I right that it’s a myth or are we to believe those who perpetuate it as truth? How are we to interpret the passage, why would he write this is it wasn’t true? Taken out of context, by someone not well versed in the era, I can see someone buying into it, maybe. Of course taking a passage out of context can contort all manner of things. A closer look at Marryat’s work show a hefty dose of British wit, aka, satire. In fact just two years later Tait's Edinburgh magazine said in “Miss Sedgwick’s letters from to abroad to kindred at home:
“There are, however, many degrees between the ultra-delicacy of the American lady, who, according to the facetious Marryat, furnished the legs of her piano with nice little decent frilled trousers, and the natural feelings of Miss Sedgwick, who enters as strong a protest against the ballet as her mother may have done against the waltz”
Granted, Tait’s doled out sarcasm in generous heaps. But, this passage ends a larger passage telling about how shocked American women were by the ‘vulgarity” of the ballet. If poking fun at American women they wouldn’t then pull back on the sarcasm, making fun of the Americans was (is) a British hobby.

The notion showed up very sporadically in fictional works through the era. Every single one I found was describing some scene set not to the ninth degree but something done even more over the top.

For a time Victorians did have a penchant for covering all manner of things with pieces of muslin or other plain cloth (likely to protect from bugs or the ever-present ash and dust). Looking glasses, frames, brass items and upholstered furniture all come to mind. I've found no references to covering any part of a piano aside from draping a very decorative large shawl over it, more to show off the shawl than anything else.

Still reading but still not believing that this is a myth? Here's a challenge: find me images - photographs, paintings, home interior how-to's, fashion plates, etc. that show a piano with little leg coverings. Just make sure it's not accompanying a bit of satire written by some Brit trying to pick on the upstart Americans,