Friday, April 8, 2016

The History of Knitting: Part III, English vs. German

German / Continental Knitting *
Do you knit English (throwing) or German / Continental (picking)? 

German / Continental knitting is the older style.  Holding your yarn in the left hand and using your right hand needle to "pick" the yarn through the loop is a faster, more efficient way to knit than the English method of using the right index finger to throw the yarn around the needle. 

What?  So now all the English knitters are saying, "That's not true - I knit English and I knit very fast!"  I like to compare it to qwerty typing vs. hunt-and-peck typing.  If you lay your fingers on the middle row of the keyboard (called "qwerty" typing because the q, w, e, r, t and y keys are visible in the row above your left hand) it takes some time to learn, but the arrangement of the letters and the mechanics of human fingers are such that it is the fastest possible way to type.  If you look at the keyboard and use your two index fingers to find each letter (hunt-and-peck) you can still type extremely fast, but the fastest hunt-and-peck typists will never be as fast as the fastest qwerty typists.  The same is true for knitting.  Some English knitters knit very, very fast, but because of the physics of the movements the fastest English knitters will never be as fast as the fastest German knitters.

William Lee's Knitting Machine (1589)
The change in knitting styles is directly related to the invention of knitting machines.  The first knitting machine was invented in 1589 by William Lee, but when he asked Queen Elizabeth (the first) for a patent she refused because hand knitting provided so much needed income to her subjects.  Nearly 75 years later (1663) the London Company of Framework Knitters was granted a charter.  The knitting frame was a bulky machine and much too expensive for most people to buy, so knitting frames were purchased by wealthy investors who hired them out to knitters to use in their homes and then paid the knitters by the piece.  It was a middle ground between hand knitting and machine knitting in a factory (which came much later), but most knitting was still done by hand at home.

Improvements were made to the knitting frame here and there, but it was another hundred years before the next major change, and that was not a change to the knitting frame itself but a change in spinning technology.  The Industrial Revolution increased the amount of yarn that could be spun with the invention of the spinning jenny (1764), the cotton gin (1783) and the spinning mule (1779).  With a dependable supply of yarn, it was now not only possible but practical to establish factories that could knit by machine.

Knitting English, 1860 **
The purpose of machine-knit garments was to make as many as possible at a low cost in order to sell them at a profit.  As a result, machine-knit garments often were a lower quality than hand knit garments.  To increase profits "shoddy" was often used in knitting machines.  The word "shoddy" originated early in the 19th century and referred to shredding old wool fabric, then re-spinning the shredded wool to create new yarn and a new garment.  (Shoddy is the opposite of "virgin wool," which is wool that is spun into yarn for the first time).  The shredded, shorter shoddy wool fibers make an inferior product that wears down quickly, and today the word shoddy means an inferior item.

Hand knit garments were a higher quality than machine knit, not because of the knitting process itself but because of the materials used (virgin wool vs. shoddy).  But, the simple fact that machine knit garments were available changed the face of knitting.  No longer was a woman knitting as fast as she could to provide desperately needed socks for her family, since cheaply made socks could be purchased at a store.  Whether you bought your knit goods or made them at home didn't matter, the fact was that you could purchase them if you wanted to.  Now women were knitting to show that they were industrious women who were not prone to laziness (she doesn't have to knit, but she does anyway), a trait highly valued in the 19th century, and especially important when looking for a wife.  Knitting was slowly evolving from a necessary chore to a hobby.

As a result, the way a knitter knit was also changing.  German knitting is efficient, but English knitting is prettier and more graceful.  The actual knitting looks the same, but it is you, the knitter, who looks more delicate when gracefully winding the yarn around the needle with the right hand (especially if done while the little pinkie is extended up in the air!).  The Workwoman's Guide (1838) and Decorative Needlework (1846) both give instructions for knitting using the German method, but by the end of the 19th century The Art of Knitting (1892) gives instructions using the English method.

A favorite quote is from American Agriculturist Magazine, May 1864 (reprinted in Commend Me to A Knitting Wife): 
I will live in hopes one of these days of getting married; and if I do, I trust it will be to a woman who is a great knitter.  Of all the many accomplishments which adorn the gentler sex, I do assure them, from the very bottom of my heart, that I esteem knitting among the greatest.  . . . . Commend me, then, to a knitting wife – a gentle being whom I hope it will yet be my happiness to possess!
Today both English and German are accepted.  So which do you use?  Well, we don't care, we love all knitters here at FiberWild! (and we have both English and German knitters on our staff, to help fellow knitters of every kind).

Happy Knitting . . . . Scout

*  "Girl Knitting" by Albert Anker (1831 - 1910).  You can tell she is knitting German because the yarn is held with tight tension in her left hand - she is just about to "pick" the yarn in her left hand with her right-hand needle.
**  "Young Girl Knitting," 1860.  Original is owned by the Walters Art Museum.  The yarn is loosely held in her right hand, without any tension.  She either just finished "throwing" the yarn in her right hand or is just about to. 


Heute strick ich said...

I love you posts!

Syd T. said...

I too love your posts, and I knit both ways, saves on the wear and tear on my hands.

Post a Comment