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Knitting America: A Glorious Heritage from Warm Socks to High Art

As many of you know, I’m an avid knitter. I’ve previously written about knitting from a variety of perspectives: ‘vintage’ inspired pattern books (Ohio Knitting Mills); the new(ish) street art trend for Yarn Bombing, as well as crafting and gender. Though I’m amazed by the work of avant garde designer Sandra Backlund, I really don’t know if it’s possible to emulate her patterns. In contrast to Tove Hermanson‘s cry for more modern and experimental knit patterns, I crave historicism and ‘vintage charm.’

My "Hush Hush" 1920s knitted nightie (of lace Merino)

And so, for the last six weeks I’ve been knitting a 1920s shift dress with a lovely feather and fan pattern detail and some ribbing.  It has been slow going – small needles and tiny yarn with lots of details. I just finished it this week and I have to admit that it’s satisfying to have come this far. About half-way through the project, I received a copy of the paperback, Knitting America: A Glorious Heritage from Warm Sock to High Art and so wanted to start reading it immediately. I resisted the temptation, and now that I’m finished with my dress, I get to explore the book!

Knitting America: A Glorious Heritage from Warm Sock to High Art by academic and knitter Susan M. Strawn (formerly of Interweave Press, and now a professor at dress and culture at Dominican University), is thoroughly researched and includes a good index, resources list and detailed endnotes. It is heavily illustrated (300+) with paintings, photographs, posters and vintage advertisements. It covers “The First American Knitters” (Chapter 1) of the 1700s through “Knitting Redefined” (Chapter 12) which brings the book up to 2007.

Not surprisingly, a good portion of the book connects women’s and children’s knitting to military activism and patriotism (especially during the Civil War, WWI, and WWII). It includes fascinating posters and slogans such as “Remember Pearl Harbor, PURL HARDER” and the red cross campaign slogan,”Our Boys need Sox, Knit Your Bit” (seen below). After thumbing through it, one really gets a clear message that the perception  of knitting transforms frequently in American popular culture – though it always seems to have been found valuable. Knitting America includes a few paragraphs on Native American knitting, and interestingly, that the popularity of knitting seems to have wained in the 1920s (it seems that due to the high demand for hand-knitted items in WWI, people were just burnt out on it by the 1920s).

Page 98-99 (From Chapter Six "The Knitting War")

The book also includes 20 historical knitting patterns, including various military socks, baby clothes, a particularly intriguing purse from the 1890s, as well as mittens, scarves and ties. The patters seem to be based on both actual historical garments (the Zoar Mittens below are from the Ohio Historical Society) as well as historical printed pattern instructions. covers the idea of knitting in American history with amazing breadth – everything from Civil War Reenactment Knitters (pg 49) to the emergence of ‘art knitting’ (pg 192) to Native Alaskan Qiviut Lace Knitting (pg 71) to Amish and Mennonite Knitting (p6 65) and even includes a photograph of Sojourner Truth knitting in 1864 (pg. 40).

Page 60-61 (Chapter 4: Traveling Stitches) including Pattern for 1880s Zoar Mittens

Of the 20 patters included in the book, I have my sights set on either the 1950s Men’s argyle socks (164) or 1930s Baby Soaker (pg 127) reprinted from the The Farmer’s Wife, March 1939. If anyone has tried out any of the patterns, I’d love to hear your feedback.

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