Monday, June 20, 2016

The History of Knitting: Part IV, Colonial Knitting

The Mayflower (knitting needles on board?) *
The first knitting machine was invented in 1589, so when the Mayflower set sail for America in 1620 the Pilgrims on board surely knew about knitting machines.  But there is no record that any knitting frames were brought along - and it's not likely, since space was at a premium and knitting needles take up a lot less space than a giant, heavy, knitting machine frame.

So the Colonial family's knitting was done at home.  The first record of a knitting machine frame in America was a full 150 years after the Mayflower landed, in a 1771 ad in the Virginia Gazette for a "newly invented instrument for knitted, knotted, double looped work, to make Stockings, Breeches Pieces, or Silk Gloves, Cotton or Worsted."

Knitting at home fit along perfectly with the colonial mindset.  Colonists abhorred idleness and laziness, and diaries of the period are often a dull list of the tasks accomplished each day instead of the juicy gossip and guarded secrets that we modern folks think a good diary should contain.  The greatest compliment was to say that one was an "industrious woman."  A good woman should be busy at all times, and in her idle moments waiting for a pot to boil or the bread to rise, she should pick up her knitting needles!

Girl Knitting by André Bouys **
As the Colonies were established and trade routes became more dependable, Colonists were able to purchase knit goods and other items that were shipped to the Colonies from England.  While it increased the variety of goods available to the Colonists, it also increased the taxes the Colonists paid.  The Wool Act of 1699 forbade Colonists from selling wool, wool yarn or wool cloth outside of the colony where it was produced, and also restricted the importing of wool produced within the British Empire.  All British citizens (including the Colonists) could only buy wool from or sell wool to their fellow British citizens.  The Wool Act increased the taxes of the Colonists (wool was taxed upon importing and exporting), and by restricting the markets where they could sell their wool it also potentially reduced their wool profits.  

The 1765 Stamp Act required paper products such as legal documents, magazines and newspapers to be printed on "stamped" paper, meaning paper that was printed in London and had received a stamp certifying that the paper tax had been paid.  Some had suggested a boycott of English goods after the Wool Act, an idea that gained greater momentum after the Stamp Act. 

When the Sons of Liberty was formed to boycott English goods and resist the Stamp Act, women followed with the Daughters of Liberty, vowing to forgo all British goods and instead spin, weave and knit all of their families clothing and wear nothing but homespun.

Martha Washington knitting ***
While a simple “spinning bee” used to be a social affair where women gathered to gossip and chat while spinning, spinning and knitting was now a political action.  Churches hosted spinning bees, and preachers preached while the women spun and knit.  Often after a day of spinning the men joined the ladies for picnics and rowdy renditions of Sons of Liberty ballads.  The amount of thread and yarn spun at the spinning bees was often published in the local paper as towns and congregations established rivalries to produce the most. 

Wearing homespun became a political statement.  At the first commencement of Rhode Island College (later Brown University) in the 1760s, the president proudly wore homespun clothing while conducting the ceremony.  At Harvard, the faculty and students all wore homespun clothing. 

Women were now in an unusual situation.  Women were not allowed to vote and it was considered inappropriate for a women of the time to be involved in politics, but in their role of maintaining their homes and purchasing or producing food and clothing for their families, they had the ultimate say in whether their family would purchase British goods in loyalty to England or produce homespun clothing as a show of independence. 

Knitting, 1793 ****
Martha Washington herself was a fierce knitter and was said to never be without her knitting needles.  During the Revolutionary War she spent many months in camp with General George Washington.  She was called “Lady Washington” and was said to be a grand lady, America’s own version of royalty, yet when Mrs. Troupe had the honor to visit Mrs. Washington in camp she said “We found her (Mrs. Washington) knitting and with an apron on!  She received us very graciously and easily, but after the compliments were over she resumed her knitting.  There we were without a stitch of work, and sitting in state, but General Washington’s lady with her own hands was knitting stockings for herself and her husband.” (No Idle Hands, page 39)

You may not knit as a form of political protest today (hey, I just knit because it's fun!), but whatever your reason for knitting, at FiberWild we're happy to help!

Want more?  My favorite book on the history of knitting in America is No Idle Hands: The Social History of American Knitting by Anne L. Macdonald.

Happy Knitting . . . . Scout

* The Mayflower in Harbor, painted by William Halsall in 1882 and now at the Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth, Massachusetts, USA
**   Girl Knitting by AndrĂ© Bouys, a French painted who lived 1656 - 1740.  This had been in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum and was sold in 2014.
***  A gorgeous lithograph of Martha and George Washington.  Unfortunately, I don't have any more information than that.
**** The caption on this 19th century costume plate says "Tricoteuse, 1793" which translates from the French as "Knitting Machine."  So is she the knitting machine?  Note that her yarn is held in a "pocket" on the outside of her skirt.  The original is in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

1 comment:

Syd T. said...

I can not tell you how much I enjoy the historical blogs you write! Thank you so much!

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