Wednesday 2 May 2012

The Complete Knitting Book

I wrote in a previous post about a booklet of patterns designed by Marjory Tillotson during World War I.  At that time she was employed as a designer of knitting patterns by Baldwin's, a spinning company in Halifax, which merged with Patons (of Alloa in Scotland) in 1920. Marjory Tillotson married at about the time of the merger.  As was common in those days, she was not allowed to carry on with her job after she married.   However, she continued to  design knitting patterns for many years, as a freelance designer.  (1)     

She also wrote books on knitting, and I bought a copy of one recently.  The Complete Knitting Book was first published in 1934.  It must have been very popular - there were 5 editions by 1948. Mine is the 4th edition, published in 1940.

She says in the introduction that knitting should be a creative craft, by which she means that knitters should not "rely upon stereotyped directions and designs, and copy slavishly those printed directions."  This must have been a very unusual approach at that time (still is, for that matter).   So the book starts with general principles of knitting, and then follows a long section on different stitch patterns.  The section on "The Knitting of Garments" gives layouts for standard types of garment, so that in theory you can choose a stitch pattern and a yarn, decide on the measurements for the garment you want to produce,  measure your tension and then knit a garment that you have more or less designed yourself. 
Measurement Diagram for Woman's Jumper

The diagram shown is for a woman's V-neck jumper.  The letters indicate the points where the knitter should take their own measurements, e.g. CD is the required length of the neck opening, GG is the circumference of the wrist and so on.  The numbers shown are examples for a particular size and tension - plain numbers indicate the number of stitches, those in circles show the number of rows.  Numbers in brackets occur where you have to decrease over a number of rows - e.g. for the V-neck, the diagram indicates that for the given size and tension you should decrease 12 stitches over 63 rows - the [5] shows that you should decrease on every 5th row.   (It requires quite a lot of arithmetic to work everything out, but evidently many knitters were prepared to do it.)   She does give outline knitting instructions, but really, the instructions are all in the diagram.  e.g "Back:  Commencing at hem, cast on AA measurement of stitches.  Rib CA length, then introduce required pattern design, either plain, open-work or coloured, and shape according to diagram."

One problem that she couldn't completely solve, it seems to me, was how to estimate the amount of yarn required.  For the woman's jumper, she says that the materials required are "4 to 5 oz. 2-ply, 8oz. 3-ply or 10oz. 4-ply fingering wool and size 8 needles."     It's a bit odd, for one thing, that size 8 needles are recommended for such a wide range of yarns - if you used finer needles for the finer yarn, the estimate would be off.  But also, if you used any kind of novelty or non-standard yarn, the yardage per ounce might be very different  (although you wouldn't know until you had knitted with it - it's only quite recently that spinners have stated the yardage on balls of yarn).

Incidentally, I spoke to someone recently who worked for Bestway in the early 1960s.  Bestway published knitting patterns for yarns from many different spinners, but sometimes they wanted to suggest alternative yarns, and needed to give accurate quantities.  When she first worked there, as the most junior employee, she was given the task of measuring the length of different balls of yarn,  so that the number of balls required could be estimated, based on the total yardage.  What a tedious job!  Whoever decided to print the yardage on the ball-band did us all a great favour. 

1. Cally Blackman, Handknitting in Britain from 1908-39: the work of Marjory Tillotson, Textile History, vol. 29, pp. 177-200, 1998. (2)
2. I think it adds a touch of class to have footnotes in a blog post. 


  1. That diagram reminds me of ones I've seen in Japanese knitting books (well, in photos of them, I don't actually own one) - they do everything with diagrams and numbers too. I wonder why it caught on over there but not over here?

  2. I'm not familiar with Japanese knitting patterns at all. Personally, I find Marjory Tillotson's diagrams a bit confusing - it seems to me that she tries to convey too much information in one diagram (though colour would help, I think). I like to have charts and diagrams, as well as instructions - but then some people don't like charts at all, e.g. if they are knitting lace or Aran-type patterns, and I find that baffling.

  3. Hi Barbara, Just dusting off my book shelve & grabbed "The Complete Knitting Book".
    Mine was printed in London under Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons, Ltd. & is dated 1936. I worked most of my career in the textile industry & some areas had old stuff they wanted tossed - their loss - my gain.

    Donna OK - Ontario - Canada

    1. Hi Donna. How lucky to have rescued such an interesting book - and an early edition.


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