Thursday, 10 January 2019

Knitted Garters

Over Christmas we were trying to do the King William's College quiz in The Guardian.  It is fiendishly difficult, even with the help of Google - the questions often seem to be carefully designed so that there is nothing obvious to search for.  And of course, I didn't expect to find any questions or answers that had anything to do with knitting.  But I did.

One relatively straightforward question was "Which gentleman of Worcestershire received a huge pike from Will Wimble?"  - straightforward, because searching for "Will Wimble" gave the answer quite easily.  (Sir Roger de Coverley, by the way. Which is also the name of a dance, how confusing.)

William Wimble appears in an essay by Joseph Addison published in The Spectator magazine in 1711.  He is a member of the aristocracy, but is a younger son and has no title or property of his own.  His interests and abilities would make him very suited to a career in trade or commerce, but because of his social standing, his family won't allow it.  Addison describes how he spends his time:

Will. Wimble is younger brother to a baronet, and descended of the ancient family of the Wimbles. He is now between forty and fifty; but being bred to no business and born to no estate, he generally lives with his elder brother as superintendent of his game. He hunts a pack of dogs better than any man in the country, and is very famous for finding out a hare. He is extremely well versed in all the little handicrafts of an idle man: he makes a May-fly to a miracle; and furnishes the whole country with angle-rods. As he is a good-natur’d officious fellow, and very much esteem’d upon account of his family, he is a welcome guest at every house, and keeps up a good correspondence among all the gentlemen about him. He carries a tulip-root in his pocket from one to another, or exchanges a puppy between a couple of friends that live perhaps in the opposite sides of the county. Will. is a particular favourite of all the young heirs, whom he frequently obliges with a net that he has weaved, or a setting-dog that he has made himself: he now and then presents a pair of garters of his own knitting to their mothers or sisters; and raises a great deal of mirth among them, by enquiring as often as he meets them how they wear? These gentleman-like manufactures and obliging little humours, make Will. the darling of the country.
I noticed the reference to knitted garters, of course.  I'm guessing that garters were usually either knitted by women for themselves, or they were bought, and so were made by professional knitters, possibly including men.  William Wimbles' other activities seem entirely suitable for men, and I assume that knitting was too - the mirthful part is that because he is a gentleman knitting for ladies, he can ask how they wear (which a tradesman could not, of course).

But I have other question, too.  What were the garters knitted in, what did they look like, how were they fastened?  1711 seems a bit early for knitted cotton, though I know very little about knitting at that time - maybe linen?  I'm imagining a strip of knitting, tied round the leg, but that may be completely wrong. And of course, they must have been knitted in garter stitch, surely?

So then I wondered when the term garter stitch was first used - I don't think I have seen it in 19th century knitting books.   The Oxford English Dictionary (available online in some libraries) gives supposedly the earliest use of any word or phase in print, and its first reference for garter stitch is from 1909.  That's very late, and I easily found a much earlier one (through the online newspapers in FindMyPast) in 1854, at the time of the Crimean War, in a letter to the Dundee, Perth and Cupar Advertiser:

SIR, Will you kindly insert in your Friday's paper the following simple directions for knitting comforters, &c., as they may be useful to those who wish to work something for our soldiers in the Crimea.
For Comforter — Cast on 70 loops on middling-sized pins, with wool called "wheeling,"  Knit brioche stitch (O, S,T, repeat).
One shilling's worth of worsted will make a good-sized comforter, and an ordinary knitter will be able lo knit one in three or four days. The same wool and stitch, or even garter stitch, may be used for muffetees.
Saturday is the school-girls' holiday: could their leisure hours be better occupied than in working something for our gallant men in the Crimea?  Let each girl purchase four-pence worth of wheeling and knit a pair of muffetees, and she will have the satisfaction of feeling she is contributing a little to the comfort of her brave and suffering countrymen in the East.
December 14, 1854. 

[The red for garter stitch is my addition.  I have corrected 'briothe' to 'brioche'. Muffetees were I think fingerless mitts. The abbreviations O, S and T were not standard at the time, so these would only have been comprehensible to someone who had a knitting book that used them - in fact the directions are altogether a bit sparse.]

This letter suggests that 'garter stitch' was a term that knitters would understand at the time.  But it's still a very long time after 1711, so doesn't tell me much about William Wimble's garter knitting.  I'll report back if I find out any more.


  1. I believe they could contain knitted patterns - possibly lace - a ref in Mrs Gaskell's Cranford has Miss Matty shocked at her neice's joking, such garters were frequently only 3 inches wide in tiny cottons. I quote from some pages in preparataion:
    "The cotton samplers I know of in Museums or collections are Italian, East European, German and probably Flemish/Dutch and range from c 1800 to c 1880. I have 3 lace ones, not of the best quality, but one is dated 1862 with continental numerals. The Workwoman’s Guide talks of garters being the first knitted items frequently worked in pattern stitches. Cranford confirms this as it has the heroine gently threatening to lose her garter so the beauty of Miss Matty’s (text refs these as “elaborate” “delicately-wrought” which strongly suggests lace) stitches can be admired. The book is set c1837 +, young Queen Victoria, era of first railways:

    “What she piqued herself upon, as arts in which she excelled, was making candle-lighters, or "spills" (as she preferred calling them), of coloured paper, cut so as to resemble feathers, and knitting garters in a variety of dainty stitches. I had once said, on receiving a present of an elaborate pair, that I should feel quite tempted to drop one of them in the street, in order to have it admired; but I found this little joke (and it was a very little one) was such a distress to her sense of propriety, and was taken with such anxious, earnest alarm, lest the temptation might some day prove too strong for me, that I quite regretted having ventured upon it. A present of these delicately-wrought garters, a bunch of gay "spills", or a set of cards on which sewing-silk was wound in a mystical manner, were the well-known tokens of Miss Matty's favour.” (Friends in Need, Cranford)"

    Thank you Barbara for your fascinations - I love your posts!

    1. Thanks very much for all this information, Sharon - the quote from Cranford is fascinating. So pleased you enjoy the blog.


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