Sunday, March 24, 2013

Elizabethan Knitting: A Monmouth Cap

It's probably safe to say that knitting isn't going to be a hobby I'll be continuing on with in any serious way. Every craft is essentially built on the premise that the particular sort of fussiness and tedium that it brings to the table sits just below your tolerance level for monotony. Knitting is just not my particular brand of tedium.

I'm sure that's not the last time I'll say that.

Be that as it may, it's time to finish off the Monmouth cap and move on to the next craft.

Just a reminder that I'm using a pattern provided by historical knitter Jennifer L. Carlson here with some backup from The Engineer's years of experience and her multi-volume knitting library. We've taken some minor liberties with the pattern (like you do) and I'll get into those below.

The results might be imperfect, but as I always say when crediting sources in the afterword of a book: My sources are infallible within their professional realms, my hands are less so; any errors are my own.

The Monmouth Cap

For her demo hat, Ms. Carlson used Lion brand "Quick & Thick" yarn, which The Engineer tells me is a synthetic fiber. To get a similar gauge, she advised me to switch to wool and use two strands instead of one.

At some point, I plan to card and spin my own yarn (Woolmen's Company, here I come!) but for this project we're working "off the shelf" with Paton's Merino Wool in an 'oatmeal' color. It's a worsted weight, size #4 wool, 3.5 ounces per 223 yards. All of which is essentially meaningless to me, but she tells me it's important information for other knitters.

Working with double-strands is a bit of a pain in the butt, or at least it was for me. I kept getting the needle through one loop of the two and having to back up to where I dropped half a stitch. The Engineer tells me that my problem is that I'm a "tight knitter" and I need to ease off the tension a bit.

Step one: Cast 90 stitches onto three double-pointed needles like we did here. Leave an extra long tail, because Monmouth caps traditionally have a weird loop at the back because early modern knitters enjoyed having a big tail of trailing wool to get tangled in.

I know what everyone is thinking: Yes, I have a snoopy lap quilt. You may die of envy now.
Three needles is because this project is knitted "in the round", though as you can see, they should call it "in the triangle" because that's what it is. (The Engineer tells me I'm not allowed to rename centuries-old knitting procedures, but I think Pythagoras has my back on this one.)

The little pale pink, blue, and white circle thingies are stitch-counters. They're that color because knitting companies like to discourage male knitters, I think. I placed them every ten stitches.  Make sure to mark your beginning because it's how you're going to count as you go round and round.

Step two: Knit for five inches, moving round and round from needle to needle. Do this by knitting onto a fourth needle. As you work the stitches off each needle, that one becomes the fourth needle in your... square.

Okay, it's knitting "In the polygon" are you happy? It's still not a circle. (Fist bumps Pythagoras.)

Note: A small tablet computer isn't really mandatory for this process, though it's handy if you want to consult your online pattern without dragging out a real computer. Also: you can watch endless repetitions of favorite TV shows you've seen a million times before. The Engineer assures me that this is an integral part of knitting that I'm not allowed to mess with. Who am I to argue?
By the way: This pattern doesn't use the purl stitch, so I guess we learned that for nothing.

Step Three: When you get about five inches into your knitting, you can get that blasted tail out of your way by turning it into "I-cord", which is knitting back and forth four stitches at a time to make (basically) a teeny-tiny scarf, which you'll weave back into the middle of the bit of hat you've knitted for your loop.

I didn't take any pictures of that because I forgot to do it. I put up with that stupid long tail for the whole of the hat and then did it last. If you decide to make one of these hats, you should do as I say, not as I do.

Then you'll fold your knitting in half and knit the ends together to form the headband. The patterns warns that "this is the tricky part" which is an understatement. I think that the biggest problem was that I'm knitting with doubled yarn, so instead of picking up two stitches, I'm picking up for.

I managed it without screwing up for all of four stitches before handing it to The Engineer, in peril of my immortal soul from all the sublimated cursing.

We didn't take pictures of that either. (sigh)  Ms Carlson has plenty of excellent pictures of this process on her site, though.

Step Four: Just keep swimming. knit and knit and knit and knit, round and round and round he goes until you have something that you can kinda/sorta put on your head...

It's helpful if you can hypnotize the cat to sleep and ignore the bag of jelly beans next to him. 
Step Five: Reductions. On row 46, you'll start the kind of knitting that you have hitherto treated as a grievous error. This means you'll knit as usual for four stitches and then force your needle through two stitches at once, thus reducing the number of stitches on your needle and the circumference of your circle.

Yes, the knitted results of your triangle/square/amorphous polygon is a circle. That's why they call it knitting in the round, of course. Sorry Pythagoras, it was a good run and a thousand years of knitters are sneering at us for questioning their collective wisdom.

Kids these days! I tell you...

These reductions happen gradually. First knitting together every four stitches, then every three, then every two and finally all of them until you have aching hands and a headache from passing a half dozen stitches between three needles THAT ARE JUST TOO DARNED LARGE TO DO THIS WITH!

(Deep breath.)

At this point, you can cast off to form a button as she indicates in the pattern, or you get to switch to a big needle and sew it together like I did.

Jelly beans aren't mandatory, but are advised for sustaining the soul while knitting.
As you can see, my results were a bit big, so we felted it. 

I'll go into the science of fulling/felting when we get to weaving. At the moment, we'll suffice to say that it's about agitating your knitted object in a basin of hot water with some kind of medium (we used detergent) to get the wool fibers to shrink and lock together into a more or less solid mass that you can then drape over a form to dry.

I'm rather proud of it and looking forward to never having to do it again because that wraps up the cappers guild and rounds off the Worshipful Company of Haberdashers. 

As you can see in the background there, I'm remodeling a kitchen and we have the worshipful companies of carpentry and joinery ahead of us. Sooner for me than for you, as you can see...

~ Scott

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Tools of the Trades: If you can't inherit them, buy them

Without a doubt, the best way to get tools is to inherit them. Not because it means you lost a loved one, but because inherited tools usually (hopefully?) come to you after years of tutelage in how to use and take care of them. Which is also to say that tools inherited tend to be in better shape than antique tools tend to be when you find them for sale somewhere.

A sad old Bailey No 5 awaiting rebirth as a usable tool. Rescued yesterday
for $12.00 from the shelf of an antique store.
I really feel you should mourn and doff your cap when you find a pile of old tools in a state of disrepair at a thrift store or in a flea market. It is the sign of a craftsman who failed to pass on his craft to the next generation. Rusted tools given away are the spoor of a dead craft lineage.

Then put your cap back on and buy them.

Apply some elbow grease to rejuvenating these treasures and apply them to keeping the craft alive in new hands that will appreciate them.

For me, this has been especially true with hammers and hand planes.

As you'll know if you've been following along for awhile (or will find out shortly if you're new here) I am something of a tool addict. From the antique stores, thrift shops, and flea markets, I have added to the hoard of 19th century tools I inherited. Or as I see it, I have given new life to tools that were destined for premature retirement on the walls of some kitschy restaurant or the shelves of some "Flea Market Chic" home.

Nothing annoys me more than to see tools used as bric-a-brac except maybe books abused in the same way and for the same reasons. I think tools are beautiful too, but as functional art, not inert sculpture to molder on your shelves. Use them or by God, give them to someone who will.

If you are a crafter, I hope you feel the same way when you see elements of your craft on the shelves at the local Goodwill. My wife supplements her inherited sewing implements with the same fervor I apply to woodworking and leather tools.

As always, the fall of one noble line gives room for new houses to rise and replace them. A quick tour of woodworking blogs will tell you beyond the shadow of doubt that the pursuit of handcraft is alive and thriving. While an increasingly mechanized world has undoubtedly managed to drive many to set aside the love of good tools meant to last generations in favor of ease and speed, the rise of the internet has also brought together communities of those who are fighting to keep their handcraft alive.

I mentioned Ravelry the other day as a gathering place for knitters both historical and modern. For the carpenter and joiner, there is LumberJocks and Sawmill Creek, for leathercrafters there is and for other crafts there are many more besides that I've forgotten or just haven't found yet. One of the great elements of these places is the sharing of resources and advice on rejuvenating these thrift store finds.

The wood body hand plane you see to the left is one of many that I've rescued from oblivion. The seller didn't know what they had. They'd duct taped the throat of the thing for some reason (without actually covering the protruding blade, so I've no idea what it was supposed to accomplish) and jamed the blade in backwards with enough force that it took some doing for me to remove it.

Because I do my research before heading out to go looking, I identified by its maker's marks right away as an English-made mid-nineteenth century Varvill & Sons plane. The plane iron (that's the blade) was original and in decent shape with plenty of good steel under all the rust. The tote (that's the handle) is solid with no cracks, a common flaw with antique planes, and just needs to be tightened a bit. It's a bit rough, but where weren't any cracks or splits that went deeper than a quarter inch, which meant I could fill them during the restoration and have a perfectly sound tool to leave to my heirs and they to theirs.

All of which ends with me buying it for $14.00.

If you look hard enough, these things are out there. Even though I really do live out in the middle of nowhere, I can drive less than thirty minutes and find a trove of antique tools. In fact, the closer to the middle of nowhere you get, it seems, the more likely you are to find these things. I've done this all over the United States, and I can tell you that these tools are to be found everywhere if you're looking for them.

I think it's definitely worth noting that if you don't want to restore antiques you can buy new ones that are being lovingly handmade by modern toolmakers. Specialty retailers like Lee Valley and Woodcraft are filled to the rafters with historically-inspired tools. If you want to talk to people making their own, there's St Thomas Guild, and if you want to buy them, there's even a group in England called Daegrad Tools that has begun reproducing museum-quality tools for the reenactor market, based on archaeological finds. I don't have any of their tools yet, but I'm hearing great things about them.

The toolmakers are really the unsung heroes of the craft guilds and the modern crafts movement.

One of the "projects in the background" for this blog has been to procure and restore almost all of the tools I haven't built myself.  At some point I'll do a full series of posts on 'how to evaluate antique tools you intend to use' but I haven't the time to devote to really doing it right at the moment. So you have that to look forward to.

Two important notes, however, that I do want to mention:

  1. Antique blacksmith hammers are best avoided. While I do use antique hammers in wood and leatherworking, a hammer intended to use metal-against-metal can be over-hardened by years of use, and thus prone to chip or crack and throw the broken bits in your direction. You'll note as we go forward that all of the metal and forge work I do will be using new hammers.
  2. I tend to avoid buying planes that don't have blades unless I'm ready to add $40-$50 (or more) to the purchase price to get a decent replacement that will fit.  When we get to the Worshipful Company of Joiners, we'll discuss what goes into making our own plane blades, and you'll get a better idea of why they're so expensive.

In the meantime, the sun is out and my workshop is calling. I've a tankard that needs hooping and some horns that need to be cut and shaped into useful items. Not to mention a workshop in dreadful need of clearing-out before I can hope to do any joinery worthy of the tools I inherited.

~ Scott

Saturday, March 9, 2013

State of the project update...

Bonus Extras!

People who follow along on the project's Facebook page get timely updates, additional progress photos, research trips, discussions, links, and even construction tips such as this one: Put an old rolling pin inside your leather jack to keep from impaling your hand as you sew.

It's a bit like getting to see the DVD extras before the movie comes out!

Projects Currently Under Way

  • Hornwork cup & spoon
  • Leather bottel
  • Needlemaking
  • Coopered tankard (still trying to make the !@#$ thing water-tight)
  • Knitted Monmouth cap
  • A cob bread oven
  • Brick "hob" (a wood-fired cooktop)

Research in progress

  • Shoemaking
  • Advanced toolmaking
  • Cutlery
  • Elizabethan/Jacobean joinery
  • Harvesting wild yeast for bread and beer
  • Cooking & Baking
  • The Brewing of Ale and Beer

A Craftsman's Curriculum

You may look at the list of research projects above and rightly wonder how I'm organizing this project. As we've progressed, I confess that I have become somewhat obsessed with tracing the way that the companies and guilds lean one upon the other for their very existence, and from that study I have evolved a curriculum of sorts.

The central idea is that each project should, ideally, feed the next project in terms of tools made and acquired or skills learned or improved. In the current kitty of completed projects, we have thimbling, pinning and thanks to my cat figuring out how to operate Amazon's one-click ordering, needle making*. Also about to go on the shelf are coopering, wiredrawing, and girdling.

The stave tankard gave me additional shaping tools and practice with a shaving horse. That will play into the wood forms for the next phase of the bottellers, bowyers, and lastmakers. Of course, the leatherwork will naturally lend itself to shoemaking as well. Pinmaking brought me experience with bone, and thimblemaking (failure though it was) introduced me to brasswork.

Peppered in there are projects that I have going in the background such as knitting and spinning, which I will string together (so to speak) when the time comes, but presently lend themselves to the sort of rainy and blustery conditions that are winter in the great northwest.

Once old Sol starts to stay in the sky for more than a few hours at a stretch, the tilers and bricklayers will emerge blinking into the sun, and build us an oven and cooktop that will do justice to the efforts of the cook and baker.

And so on and on through the end of the year.

*True story. It used to be that thumbs were our major advantage in the race to stay at the top of the heap and then some brilliant idiot went and invented touchscreen technology.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Haberdashers, cappers, and the history of the stocking cap

"Your majesty says very true: if your majestie is remembered of it, the Welshmen did good service in a garden where leeks did grow, wearing leeks in their Monmouth caps; which, your majesty knows, to this hour is an honourable badge of the service; and I do believe your majesty takes no scorn to wear the leek upon Saint Davy's day."
                                - William Shakespeare
                                  Henry V

I suppose that I am a few days late for St Davy's day, that festival of Monmouth caps (and caps of every sort) festooned with leeks across the length and breadth of Wales.  The reason Shakespeare has Fluellen so jazzed to be speaking with the king about allium-adorned headgear is that King Harry was a man of Wales himself, born in Monmouth in the Year of Our Lord 1386.

But this isn't a tale about leeks. This is about a cap born of that same fertile corner of the Sceptered Isle, or at least named for it. The Monmouth Cap is nearly alone among Elizabethan headwear insomuch as you could walk down the street wearing one and no one would look at you twice. To the modern eye, it would seem, for all intents and purposes, to be a sort of wool watch cap not unlike the ones you see me wearing in a lot of photos.

Though I'm not above wearing a fedora if it's sunny and I need to shade my eyes, stocking caps (as my dad called them) are hands-down my favorite sort of cap for woodworking outside in the cold and damp of my Western Washington home. This is part of why I decided to make one as my first real knitting project.

There are as many patterns for Monmouth Caps as there are knitters trying to produce them. If you go looking on Ravelry, you will find any number of them on display.  The one I'm going is distilled from many of those projects, but mostly one featured onthe website of Jennifer Carlson.

I'm a big fan of the website maintained by Jennifer and Marc Carlson and will be referring you to their fine resources on diverse topics ranging from shoemaking to hornwork to medieval stitches. They are a font of knowledge and generous with sharing it all, almost to a fault.

The Cappers

The reason we're making a cap is to tie off the last of the Haberdasher's Company by discussing the duality that exists to this day.

Piled Fedoras - Byrnie Utz Hats, Seattle
Photo by Kristin Perkins
Walk into famed Seattle haberdashery Byrnie Utz and you will get the impression that haberdasher = hatseller. And in the United States for the most part, that is true. Sometimes you will find assorted men's fashions as well, but always, always, always there will be hats.

(Note: Normally I would link to them, but I can't because they're so old school they don't have a website or even a social media presence. If you want to see it, you just have to make the trip.)

As we've already discussed, historically, the haberdasher was a seller of small household goods and sewing notions. Which is not to make them seem small themselves, they rank eighth in precedence on the great roll of the City of London's livery companies and have been, at times, enormously powerful. Nevertheless, they were mainly the merchants of ribbons, pins, beads, buttons, purses, thread, combs, toys, gloves, and even sometimes household goods and even cutlery.

Almost a general store, to put it in American frontier terms.

They overlapped the Mercer's Company on many fronts and it's often said that they were spun off from that fraternity, though their own official history makes no mention of it. Like the Mercers, though, they were the retailers for many other trades, least among them the humble Pinners and perhaps greatest among them the Pewterers and Cutlers.

There are many theories on the history of the word 'haberdasher', and if I can find my magnifier, I'll quote some of them at you from my copy of the Oxford English Dictionary, but the one that I think rings truest is handily online. "Anglo-French hapertas 'small wares'".

In 1502, right at the start of the 16th century, the Cappers Guild either joined with or was absorbed by the Haberdashers, but they never completely soaked in. As a result there came about two schools of haberdashery. On the one hand we had sellers of small household wares and on the other were the hat emporia that I so greatly enjoy today.

Tonight, we sleep. Tomorrow, we knit!

~ Scott

Monday, March 4, 2013

A Beginner's Guide to Girdles: Basic Leatherworking

Yale Center for British Art,
Paul Mellon Collection
I've been to many renaissance faires and acted in quite a few, so I don't walk around with a clipboard, taking note of the inaccuracies. That would be boring and boorish. Nonetheless, I think the one I find the most vexing for me (because it would be the easiest one to fix) has to be the Big Errol Flynn Pirate Belts I see walking around with people attached to them.

Belts in the 16th century just were not that wide. And the buckles are almost always all wrong to boot. I look at a lot of old artwork, delving into the sketchbooks of the artists when they're available, and nowhere do I see those big belts. And the metal-detector finds back me up on this one. The buckles we find just simply aren't that big. On average, buckles of the period seem made to fit a 1/2 - 3/4 inch strap.

I can't help noticing these things. It's a curse.

It's important to note that in this time period, belts weren't for holding your pants up. That's a relatively recent development, actually. Belts were there to hold your knife, sword, and/or purse and not much else.  (The "I have everything I own tied to my belt" thing at renaissance faires also bugs the crap out of me, but I digress.) In the 16th century, your pants were tied either to the waistcoat or doublet with cords, called "points". In order to take your pants down, you had to take off your doublet or untie your points. 

And before you ask: Yes, methods for disrobing and going to the bathroom are a common topic of conversation for male reenactors.

A properly-sized belt worn above a row of bows where the man's lower garments are joined to his upper garments.
Take a good look at Robert Dudley at the top of this post. He was Queen Elizabeth's favorite throughout most of his life. The very image of mid-reign manliness at the height of Elizabethan fashion. See his sword belt? It's maybe 3/4 inch wide at best. Probably less.

I only bring this up because it's a pet peeve (and you thought I only had pet cats) and because when we do these projects, it's important that we're replicating items as they actually were, not as Hollywood (and your local renaissance faire) depicts them.

Of Buckles & Leather

The straps I use are generally 5/8 inch. Even this might be a bit wide. These original Tudor buckles from metal detector finds that are being made available for sale from UK website Crossman Crafts are affixed to 12 mm (1/2 inch) straps:  

Yes those are real Tudor artifacts. Buckles are so abundant in the finds and so often made of base metals that they're rarely rated as "treasure" in the legal sense, so they can be and often are sold and exported. Aside from the obvious auction sites you can buy original pieces several places online. I like Crossman mostly because the site owner is a craftsman after my own heart and quite generous with his advice to other craftspeople. There's also Gaukler Medieval, which offers a small and ever-changing trove of original items, including artifacts of various periods:

Of course you can't ever really own a piece of history, but you sure can rent one for awhile.

Note that the real buckles don't look like most of the ones you see at the stores or in movies. The most prevalent in our period are what's known as a 'spectacle' buckle. Meaning they look like a wee pair of glasses. They were made by casting in bronze and brass and/or various precious metals as suited the man or woman that ordered it.

At some point, we have to do some casting. The Goldsmiths, Pewterers and Founders companies lie ahead, of course, and that's what the soapstone in this picture is destined for. Casting projects will likely include buckles because they're an item that one always seems to need, as well as buttons and maybe some silly oddments like pilgrim's badges.

All that lies ahead of us, though, because the Girdler would have probably bought them or had them made special to his specifications by someone from one of those other specialties, then assembled them in his shop. If nothing else, the simple brass ones we're working with here wouldn't have been made much fuss over because they were for the more common folk such as your this humble craftsman whose hands you see here.

I think that I have a burr about belts because they're a very simple project. My first ever leather working project was a belt. I think I was ten. Even before that, my exposure to leatherworking was mostly limited to my dad or grandpa punching extra holes in my belt to keep my blue jeans from slipping over my scrawny hips.

The Girdler's company did more than make average leather belts like these. They made fine girdles for ladies and sword belts for gentlemen. This sort of thing would be relegated to an apprentice, I should think. All the same, it's an important piece of kit.

For a simple, leather belt, there's only two pieces: A belt and a buckle.

It goes like this: 
  1. Order your buckle and cut an appropriately-sized strap or buy one at a leather working supplier like I usually do. Unless you buy your leather wholesale, the savings of cutting your own straps just doesn't pan out like you'd think it should.
  2. Cut a slot near one end of your strap to accommodate the tongue of the buckle. Leave an inch or two of leather at the end to wrap back and sew.
  3. The buckle slips on, with the tongue passing through the slot and given enough room to travel by adjusting the length of your slot. You might have to fiddle with it a bit. 
  4. Sew the buckle in place. I like sewing a little triangle as you can see, but there are plenty of other methods.

NOTE: Don't use pop rivets. They're convenient and I confess to having used them a lot before I learned better. Pop rivets are never really necessary and never look quite right. If you want rivets, go to your local hardware store and buy some proper ones and learn how to peen them properly.  

Honestly, sewing is much easier. Just punch the holes ahead of time and wax your thread like we did with the leather jack we made the other day.

Now, you might be saying "This article is incomplete" and you would be correct. The simple leather belt was the least of the Girdler's wares. Sword belts and fancy adornments for Milady's waist were the heights of their trade, but we're working on the lives of the commonfolk here at the School of the Renaissance Artisan.

Not that I wouldn't like to see input from some of the great craftspeople I know who specialize in those other areas.

Much like the pins we began this journey contemplating, what this simple leather belt gives us is a jumping off point for further explorations into the craft of those who cast the bronze and brass buckles, the craftspeople who tanned and sold the hides, and so on. This humble belt, assembled by a Girdler's apprentice, sits at the end of a long chain of suppliers, all of whom stand between us and the culmination of this project come December.

For the moment, though, revel in your perfectly period Elizabethan leather belt to gird you against a chaotic world.

~ Scott

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Sick Day: Elizabethan Knitting, Part Three.

When I started posting about knitting in the renaissance, my Facebook walls lit up with people sharing resources and images. I love knitters even if I'm not especially loving knitting... yet.

The most prevalent period images of knitting actually come in the form of the "Knitting Madonnas". In Catholic countries, it seems to have been a meme to paint the Virgin Mary (or one of her thematic surrogates) knitting or holding implements of knitting/spinning. Some of my favorites show her apparently trying to take her knitting tools back from a Christ child that's acting like a very human baby and playing with the spinning wand or whathaveyou.

I can't imagine why I feel a link to the Madonna trying to knit/spin with a fussy baby on her lap trying to "help"...

This house is overrun with yarn gremlins.

Here's a "Knitting Madonna" care of the Wikimedia Commons that pushes my start date for knitting 'in the round' from mid-1500's back into the dawn of the previous century as some of you were kind enough to point out.

I most certainly stand corrected on that point. (Click image to embiggen.)

And here are some "Spinning Madonnas" for you to ponder over on the Spinning Fishwife blog. (Hat tip to Kat Porter for that link!)

The Purl Stitch

In order to make the tidy, clothlike 'stockinette' stitch that seems to dominate period knitting, you have to know how to make rows of knit and alternating purl stitches. Which means learning to purl.

This is how we begin the knit stitch. Note that the needles are going through the loop of yarn in the same direction. The active needle (the right if you are right-handed, left if you're a southpaw) is behind the carrying needle (the needle carrying the previous row when you begin).

These are my terms. I don't know how everyone else thinks of these things, but they fit how I see this process, so I'm going with it.

For the purl stitch, the needle begins by going through the loop in the opposite direction, as shown below. Your active needle is in front instead of behind the carrying needle.

The "throw" is once again between the two crossed points, only this time passing in front of the carrying needle.

Once again, you use the point of your active needle to pick up the thrown yarn and pull it through to create a loop... 

When you ease the loop off the carrying needle onto the active needle, you've created your first purl stitch! 

Excellent! Now, keep going. I learned that stitch this morning and at this point, I've done a sum total of about eighty of them. Which isn't very many. Much more practice will be needed to create the kinds of beautiful knitted garments my beloved Engineer is capable of.

When you work alternating rows of knit and purl, the "right side" of your fabric creates that nice, flat, woven aspect that you see in so many sweaters, stocking caps, socks, and knitted whatnot.

Note: Purl stitches are almost inevitably looser than knit stitches. It has to do with working in front of the needle rather than behind it or something. I'm not sure I understand it completely at this point. However, I have learned that the farther I go, the more important tension becomes to the finished product.

Keep that trailing thread wrapped around your pinky or something, because loosy-goosy knitting isn't worth much in terms of warmth or aesthetics.

These are the two key stitches we're going to use to make our first knitted item. Straight out of Shakespeare: it's a Monmouth Cap!

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Sick Day: Elizabethan Knitting, Part Two.

Step Two: The knit stitch

There are two types of stitches that are prevalent in the knitted garments that have survived from the 16th century. The knit stitch and the purl stitch.  It's worth noting that unlike modern methods of using alternating knit and purl stitches to create elasticity, in the 16th century, the purl stitch was apparently used mostly for decorative purposes. The earliest example I can come up with of knit/purl ribbing used to add elasticity to stockings is this pair in the Victoria & Albert Museum dating from 1640. Though that child's vest I posted earlier today seems to me to have ribbing around the neck.

I'll let others argue the point.

Of course, now that I know how to do it, it seems a no-brainer. Of course that's the problem with working backward in time, trying to replicate items that predate modern methodology. What seems obvious to us took centuries of trial and error to accomplish.

For instance, three-dimensional knitting also seems to have been a long time coming. That's when you knit a garment rather than knitting a bunch of cloth that you then sew into a garment. Of course some sewing after the fact is inevitable when you're making something like a sweater (or so I'm told) but at times it seems like the early modern knitter saw him or herself as a weaver, making whole cloth to then sew into garments.  By mid century at least, they unlocked knitting 'in the round' which is to say knitting a tube, but things like the foot of a stocking were still knitted flat and then sewn together to form thier final 3-dimensional shape.

of course, all that is just academic if you don't know how to knit.

The Knit Stitch

Today, we're going to knit. Working from our row of cast-on stitches I made yesterday, we're going to insert the empty needle into the loop closest to the point so that they're going in the same direction, one behind the other.

Note in the image below that you can just tell that I have the trailing yarn looped around my little finger. This applies friction rather akin to a belay break in climbing, slowing the yarn as it unspools and maintaining an even tension for the loops we're going to be making.

The empty needle goes behind the needle holding the stitched.

This is sometimes called the "Thrown" method of knitting because you're going to 'throw' a loop of your yarn around the needle in back.

Then, use the point of your needle to pull the thrown loop through the existing loop...

And let the earlier loop slip off the end of the needle.

That's knit one.  Repeat that until you've moved all your cast on stitches to the other needle and you've completed your first row.

Keep going, moving the stitches from one needle to the other with knit stitches. 

The Engineer advised me that at the beginning it's important to work on keeping your tension consistent and try not to skip or drop stitches. This is more important at first than trying to actually make something, unless you want to make a scarf, which can be row after row of knit stitches. 

As you go along, you will begin to recognize the pattern of interlocking loops and you'll know you have it down. That's the basic stitch of historical knitting. At that point, it's time to work on a new stitch, the purl... which we'll do tomorrow.

Obstacles: Knittin' Kitten

One of the best things about knitting is that when you're doing it, everyone wants to help. One of the worst things about knitting, is that when you're doing it, everyone wants to help.

"Everyone" includes the local kitten.

A common obstacle my wife encounters when she's knitting her airy confections is feline assistance. I'm faring no better than she does. Unfortunately, cats make better scissors than they do knitters, but all is not lost thanks to the fact that we're both working with wool.

Wool has the blessed quality of felting when in the presence of moisture and agitation. To rejoin a kitty-clipped section of yarn, simply wet the cut ends (saliva actually works better than water, but water will do if you're squeamish).

Lay the wet ends aside one another in your hands and then rub them vigorously between you hands to bind the threads back together. 

Sick Day: Elizabethan knitting, Part One.

One of the reasons we haven't been doing a lot of textile projects is because those are inside projects and I've been saving them to pepper in along the way when I am either sick or it's just raining too hard to work outside.

Flu 2013 is a nasty taskmistress, so this has been a knitting week.

Yes, knitting. I was a Boy Scout and even used to be a mountaineer, so I'm good with ropes and knots, so how hard can it be? It helps that The Engineer is a knitter par excellence. So on this project I have a master to whom I can apprentice myself.

Knitting is, in essence, the method of using two sticks or "needles" to weave yarn by knotting it, weaving it through itself in rows to create cloth.

My first ever attempt at knitting received a resounding chorus 

of "Not bad, but have you tried..." which is what I love about 

knitters. They're always so helpful.
Rudimentary knitting can be traced back to the Egyptians. I'm not going to dig too far into this, but rather refer you to the excellent History of Knitting written by the scholarly Bishop of Leicester, Richard Rutt. It is not a perfect book, which is noted by the author in the forward, but it is a very readable and excellent bit of scholarship that traces the history of English knitting as far as we can.

One of the reasons I'm going to gloss over the history, other than the fact that better pens than mine have been put to that task, is that there is limited documentary evidence. Knitted goods are mentioned in wills and account books, from which we can derive evidence of items that did not survive in large quantities, such as stockings. But most of what we have for knitting in our period is extrapolated from extent artifacts.

Which is my favorite kind of extrapolating.

Why aren't there reams of literature from the period related to knitting? Because there was never a uniform guild of knitters. From the very beginning, knitting arose as a cottage industry, a poor man's method of weaving cloth with minimal equipment. Even as late as the 16th century, knitting wasn't an organized industry like coopering, though it was awarded crown protection in 1589 when Elizabeth I denied a patent to the inventor of the stocking frame because of the impact she feared mechanization would have on the homespun industry.

Yet, the homespun knitters never aligned themselves under a common banner as other crafts did.

The Museum of London holds a large number of examples of knitted items dating from the 16th century, including this child's vest and this flat cap. From these items people with more expertise than I can figure out the type of stitches, the size of the needles, and the all-important method of casting on (the first row of stitches, which we'll get to in a minute).

Those wonderful experts I mentioned have their own social network called Ravelry where yarn-neophytes like me can go and learn at their feet. It's called, Ravelry (free membership required) where they've accumulated databases of extent knitted items and projects that are worked from their observations.

For this project, I am leaning heavily on their scholarship and wish to publicly acknowledge and thank them for being so open with their historical experiments. That kind of openness is part of what I love about working with craftspeople. The ethos of protectionism that gave rise to the "Mysterious esoterica of the craft and magic..." approach is long gone into the dustbin of history and given rise to the community of makers.

Casting On: The "Long Tail" Method

It begins with the cast-on. This crucial first row of stitches will determine how stretchy the edges of your knitted item will be and how well they will hold their shape. Bearing always in mind that I am a rank amateur who is learning this almost as I'm photographing it, here's one of the extrapolated period methods of casting on.

I get by with a little help from my Engineer.

Everything begins with a slip knot. Take a long length of your yarn and tie a slip knot in the middle. The knot is on the tail, and the active end -- that is the end you pull on to tighten the loop -- leading to the ball.

Take the two ends and hold them with your off-hand, below the needle. Push your index finger and thumb between them in a "Y" shape to separate the two tails.

Use the needle to catch the yarn going over your thumb and draw it up as shown below...

Pull the thumb tail up over the other tail...

And then pass it underneath...

Under the tail and up...

Tying your knot as the loop come off your thumb.

This is the result.

Repeat these steps as many times as you need to (your pattern will tell you how many stitches to cast on).

Can't follow my photos? Don't want to learn from someone who just learned himself?

That's okay.

From Ravelry to YouTube, the knitters community is vast and helpful. Eventually, I plan to actually start putting up videos on my YouTube channel, but no one wants to see the sniffly, snuffly, flu-ridden artisan. So in the meantime, here's Youtube knitter Elsteffo giving a nice video tutorial on the long tail cast-on.