In which I muse upon the domestic arts...

Those of you who knit may be familar with two common styles: English (aka "throwing") and Continental. Recently, I encountered an interesting theory: that "English" knitting style was encouraged (I suppose at least in the UK) because of its palms-down, "ladylike" pose. This may be partly true, but I would also suggest that the technique is easy to learn, and produces even results, making it a good option for those who were only going to knit as a hobby, and for whom speed was not important. My historian's ear also perked up at the discussion, because of the implication that a ladylike posture was not valued in continental Europe, or indeed in Portugal (where they have a different style again).

My own knitting frustrations led me to the discussion. I have knitted since I was a child (sporadically), but with no great results. While I am an even knitter, I am so abysmally slow that I lose interest long before the project is done. To put it into perspective: championship speed knitters run at 100+ stitches per minute. Competent quick knitters are at 50+. I manage about 15-20. So everything takes forever.

Which brings me back to my curiosity about the speeds of knitting production, and particularly that Continental knitting is reputed to be faster than English. The "fast" option in the British Isles in fact seems to be "cottage" or lever style, in which the movement is streamlined by anchoring the right needle, in the knitter's armpit, in an attachment to a belt, or in the knitter's crotch (it's obvious why such a pose would not have caught on with Victorian ladies). Graceful it isn't, but damn quick. And for women in the Aran islands and elsewhere knitting for a living it was probably the fastest way to hand knit anything.

A couple of years ago, I discovered crochet (well, ok, I didn't "discover" it, I'm not the Christopher Columbus of textile arts). I taught myself (thank you, threadbanger!) and since then that's what I've mostly stuck to. Although it is the same basic concept: creating a fabric by looping and threading yarn together, it seems quicker than knitting.

Some beautiful crochet from the mid-19th century onwards have been digitised, showing some of the beautiful designs women used to make bags or cushions. As crochet, like knitting, shifted from being a manufacturing skill to a decorative hobby, it also became more generalised. Previously, different regions specialised in different crafts, and particular decorative motifs (part of the culturogenesis I research in urban spaces relates to the development of distinctive local costumes). The arrival of printed patterns made designs more general: you too can make an "Aran" or "Fairisle" sweater.

Along with the romanticisation of domestic arts that arose among middle-class Victorians, the low cost of labour (which meant an increasing proportion of the population could afford to employ the rest of the population as domestic servants), gave ladies free time to sew, knit, etc, as a hobby.

Domestic sewing machines (the Smithsonian has a fabulous booklet from 1929 online explaining the history of the sewing machine) and commercial dress patterns appeared in the mid nineteenth century, which made making one's own clothes (for the untrained seamstress) feasible. Although then as now, the amateur stitcher only made the occasional garment, not an entire wardrobe.

It's a romantic image of the woman sewing by candlelight to clothe her children, but before the machines arrived and sewing was by hand, most women did not make their own or their families' clothes. Rich women had no need (they used dressmakers) and poor women did not have the time. They repaired or altered clothes, and they bought second-hand or acquired hand-me-downs.Only professional seamstresses are likely to have made their own clothes.

I sew, but to make all my own clothes (let alone those for a husband and children) would take pretty much all my time. As in, it would only be possible if I didn't have to work. And it would still be more expensive than just buying them at a department store. (for me to buy the fabric, retail, for an outfit, can work out more expensive than getting the outfit when it's already been sewn together in a factory in some other country, where another woman's labour is being valued at much less than mine).

Perhaps because these are traditionally female crafts, the engineering skill is overlooked.

"I felt overwhelmed by the masses of circular creations that seemed to represent womankind's challenge to answer the riddle of pi in neverending cotton lace. It seemed odd to me that so many women could say that they are no good at math when they could create a perfect flat circle, or hexagon, or octagon, in lace pattern, no less.

Lace is a way of suspending holes within a stable fabric. So making a doily means a person creates pleasing, repeating geometrical pattterns with these holes, while at the same time making the number of stitches inrease by pi (3.14+) every time the diameter of the doily increases by the height of the average stitch's width.
― Sigrid Arnott

The mathematical and spatial ability in devising patterns can be quite high, as shown in the work of mathematician Daina Taimina, using crochet to model hyperbolic space.

The hours of work involved in making anything by hand mean those of us who do it (when it would be cheaper to just buy a machine-knitted sweater), are doing it for recreation - and perhaps to make something unique. But if anyone gives you a sweater they knitted this Christmas, remember that it probably took them hours each evening for weeks to make it.

For those of you on craftster or ravelry, you'll find me scampering round there as squirrelbythesea.