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“Everything suggests a beyond.”

—Isabella Bird

“Five days here, and I am no nearer Estes Park,” British adventurer Isabella Bird wrote to her sister from the Colorado Territory in 1873. “How the days pass I know not; I am weary of the limitations of this existence. I sat down and knitted for some time—my usual resource under discouraging circumstances.”

A middle-aged Victorian-era woman knitting is less than surprising. The surprise is where she is. This was the golden age of separating daily life into men’s spheres and women’s domains. Those who wore the trousers took care of interfacing with the world outside of the home, which is where those in skirts ruled. 

But Bird opted out of that framework. She traveled the globe, then wrote about what she experienced. A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, in which she nearly freezes to death a couple of times and is romanced by an outlaw, was her first best-seller. Other trips followed, including horseback riding through isolated parts of Japan shortly after it opened to Westerners; a trip from Baghdad to Tehran with British soldiers, and a climb through the mountains in India and Tibet. Near the end of her life, Bird was one of the first women inducted into the Royal Geographic Society. 

Bird shouldn’t have survived long enough to do any of this. As a child in the 1840s, she was ill with headaches, nervousness, and back pain. Doctors prescribed a variety of medicines, most of which only made her health worse. Open air seemed to help, as did learning to ride horses. In 1850, surgeons removed a fibrous tumor from her spine. Even after that, she found it hard to do much of anything because the “lassitude” and insomnia was unrelenting.

As a hail Mary, one of her physicians suggested travel might help and couldn’t make things worse. In 1854, Bird’s father, a curate in the Church of England, gave her 100 pounds and sent her to Nova Scotia to visit some cousins. Despite a rough crossing, Bird thrived in the face of the challenges of mid-19th century travel. She’d feel better abroad and worse at home—and so she’d plan another trip.

Through all of those journeys, Bird traveled with knitting in her valise, steamer trunk, or saddlebags. Like many knitters, she found that working a few stitches soothed the bumps of any journey. In the quote above, you can hear echoes of Elizabeth Zimmermann’s quote about unquiet minds. As a knitter, you can feel her distress when Bird and her luggage were separated in Ainepo, Hawaii. “By some fatality my pen, ink, and knitting were on the pack-mule; it was very cold, the afternoon fog closed us in, and darkness came on prematurely, so that I felt a most absurd sense of ennui,” she wrote. Who amongst us doesn’t understand how empty her hands felt?

Those same hands were mocked by a pioneer mother in a makeshift camp on Colorado’s Front Range for being too soft to help with chores. As a response, Bird improvised a lamp with a twist of fabric in a shallow bowl of fat and knit by its light. The woman’s daughter “snatched [the knitting] out of [Bird’s] hand, saying, ‘I want this.’” Rather than scold the girl, Bird held a knitting class for the woman, her daughter, and another woman in the settlement.

Unlike many of the male explorers from this time, Bird noticed the details of daily domestic life, like this glimpse of 40 schoolgirls in rural Tibet in 1889: “The teaching is simple and practical, and includes the knitting of socks, of which from four to five hundred pairs are turned out each winter, and find a ready sale.”

Bird’s trip to Tibet came after her five-year marriage to Dr. John Bishop, whom she met while her sister was dying of typhoid. After his death, Bird went to nursing school, earned her credentials, and founded two hospitals in India, of which one remains. 

Bird’s last trip was to Morocco in 1900. She had to be lifted in a coal scuttle to the shore because the seas were so rough that cargo could not be unloaded but a short, round 69-year old woman could, if only just. After her return to Great Britain, she died while planning her next trip. It’s likely she had knitting within arm’s reach.

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Adrienne Martini at MDK

Knitting While Elected

A Visit with Thistle Hill Weavers

My Life in the 1840s

About The Author

Adrienne Martini, the author of Somebody’s Gotta Do It, would love to talk with you about the importance of running for elected office or about all of the drama of holding a seat on the Board of Representatives in Otsego County, New York. Adrienne blogs when the spirit moves her at Martini Made.


  • A lady of distinction by her willingness to step away from the typical lifestyle of the time. Kudos for sharing her experiences. Her quests were definitely noteworthy.

  • Magnificent! I thoroughly enjoyed this yarn.

    • In my career I traveled all the time. Hotel rooms became my “bedroom” And I was never without any needlework or knitting with me. It was my solace, My time away from the world, And especially my time away from problems. It’s amazing what you can solve when give your mind a chance to forget for a while…… Excellent article, thank you!!

  • Isabella Bird . . . I wish we could sit down to tea. I feel a warm kinship to you and will work to find out more about your well-lived life, hoping that sparkly bits your rousing spirit will land on me and enrich my life. Namaste Sister, Knit on in Power and Peace

    • My father gave me “A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains” when I moved from Miami to Colorado Springs. My life in Colorado wasn’t nearly as exciting.

  • What an inspiring story to wake up to. Now I want to read her book and everything about her. I love these well researched snippets.

    • I am the knitter and I long to travel more. A bit tied to UK at the moment, so starting with seeing more of my home country

      • Amanda, the UK has a lot to offer! Like most people in most countries…last place they think is interesting is their own country.
        I’ve been playing with the idea of putting together an itinerary to travel England, Scotland Ireland & Wales, visit all the amazing yarn stores l’ve either shopped at online or heard about, but they’ve been beyond my ability to visit thus far!
        At the same time, l know l’ll discover more about these United Kingdom’s than l ever read in books or saw on t.v or any documentary… experience is the solace for the soul!
        Maybe we’ll bump into each other! B

  • Loved this article! I am always fascinated by women’s history especially when it involves knitting. Thank you for your research.

  • A friend named her daughter after Isabella Bird, based on the book “Six months in the Sandwich Islands.” The woman was amazing!

  • Such a nice read to begin my day!

  • Inspiring. She let nothing stand in her way. Will look for her book.

  • A knitter AND an explorer?! I could not love this more! Now I want to read everything I can get my hands on about Isabella Bird, especially if it’s written by Adrienne Martini.

    • BELIEVE IT OR NOT: I have a book proposal on Bird that has been making the rounds for three years that no one seems to want to pick up because “no one cares about female Victorian-era explorers.”

      • Oh yes, someone cares!! Keep trying to find a publisher. Perhaps a company that publishes knitting books? I’d by copies for myself and several others. Don’t give up!

      • Have you thought about self publishing through Amazon?

      • Could we write it from the knitting angle, and bring in the travelling. Knitting is a fabulous travel aid.
        Do you have pictures of her knitting or any of her knitting artifacts.

        • It would be wonderful if I did! Haven’t found anything so far, tho,.

      • I loved this blog post so much that I went on Amazon to see if I could get some of her writings. They are offering a Kindle publication “The Complete Works…..” for $2.00!! Can’t wait to read them all. Thanks for introducing us.

        • Thank you so much for this tip. I just purchased it! Can’t wait to get started reading.

      • I do! I do! I read her book about the Rockies but now I want to read more. Great article and sure hope you book gets published.

        • Is this my Albq. friend Celeste?

      • I would absolutely buy your book about Isabella Bird!!!

      • Just a few random thoughts….

        Her spirit of adventure and exploration is extremely inspirational. I cannot believe that is not relevant. No knowing is not the same as not caring.

        Out of Africa comes to mind, as does West with the Night by Beryl Markham (North Point Press). Isabella Bird seems to be fairly well recognized in Colorado. Maybe the University Press of Colorado.

        I remember reading about Nellie Bly and Marie Curie in 4th or 5th grade and seeing that the world could be open to anyone. There could be a female explorer on this list. I am not suggesting young adult literature. Just that people need to understand that there was a women undertaking the same journeys as her male contemporaries.

        I did not know that the Isabella Bird clothing line was named after a real person. It seemed to have a certain bohemian wanderlust quality.

      • They’re asking the wrong people then! I would love to learn more about Isabella Bird! And if there were other women like her, too.

        • Try “The Magnificent Mountain Women” by Janet Robertson (University of Nebraska Press). Fascinating reading!

  • I loved this article. Mind over matter. What an interesting person. I would love to read her book.

    • I don’t know how easy it is to get physical copies of her books – here in the UK there are many secondhand copies. If they’re not so available over there then Amazon Kindle is a good source or Project Gutenberg.


  • I love these historical profiles and accompanying photos. Knitters are a hardy lot! I am having a new home built. It is exciting and fun, but most evenings I sit down to run a few rows of yarn through my fingers. It is a balm at the end of a busy day.

  • Thank you for such a great article on Isabella Bird. I always have my knitting within arms reach at home or traveling. It’s nice to know that it is a common bond between the modern daily knitter and the magnificent woman and explorer, Ms Bird.

  • My favorite email each day is Snippets and today’s was fascinating! Thank you for sharing with us. I’m interested in reading more about Isabella Bird. And hopefully Adrienne Martini will find someone to accept her book proposal… as mentioned in the comments…afterall, historical fiction is very popular now!

  • Love this article! We have a cabin in Estes Park that my husband’s grandparents built in 1913.
    Isabella Bird is an important part if Colorado’s history. I had no idea about her knitting!

  • I had to go look her up and found quite a few of her books available on thrift books. I ordered a couple and I suspect I’ll be getting more after reading them. Thank you for this fascinating glimpse of history!

  • I’ve downloaded a number of her books for free on my Kindle (Amazon). There was also a clothing company that for some time had a line of gorgeous clothes named after Isabella Bird.

    • Just came here to say that our library has unlimited ebook copies of A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains – but I’m off to try Amazon, because my kindle is easier to read form.

      Thanks for the great article – a nice start to a good morning.

  • Really great article Adrienne. We now want you to write the book. Please

  • I love the history stories. She was a remarkable woman.

  • Great read – thank you!

  • Wonderful! I have read of Isabella Bird, but not her writing. I must remedy that.

  • What a lovely article. I feel as if I almost know her. Thank you

  • Great article! Thank you!

  • This is fascinating! And inspiring!

  • Thank you for writing about such this inspiring woman, Isabella Bird. I just ordered A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains. Good reading ahead!

  • Thank you for this interesting piece. I’ve always been fascinated by another Victorian world-wide traveler, Marianne North. She was a painter of flora and fauna, and her gallery at Kew Gardens is one of my favorite places in the world to visit.

    I would definitely read your book!

    • I’ll love to return to Kew Gardens one day, and I’ll make sure to visit the Marianne North Gallery next time.

  • Thank you for this article. I’ve never heard of Isabella Bird and thoroughly enjoyed learning a little bit about this remarkable woman this morning!

  • Great story.

  • I read “A Lady’s Life…” years ago after visiting my sister in Colorado. I never knew about all of the subsequent journeys though! I heartily admire the people who took journeys back when it was so difficult.

  • Whenever I go on vacation the first thing I do is plan what knitting I’m taking along.

  • Yes, I love this article!

  • Isabella Bird is well known here in Colorado. While here, she climbed Longs Peak, elevation 14,259′! And when I think about the clothes and shoes she might have worn, I’m even more awestruck!
    Here are some links that might interest you. The first shows some photos of Longs Peak.:

  • Great article. Thanks!
    Lourdes Matos

  • Super interesting! Thank you

  • Read the book, A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains; it is my favorite book in the world.
    In a world contaminated by Barbie, princesses, and other deterrents to girls’ growth into
    functioning, useful human beings, we need more of Ms. Bird. Rock on, Isabella!

    • Yes! Bird not Barbie!

  • I was just in Estes Park today and was thinking of Isabelle Bird on the drive and then your article appeared. Loved her book I read when I was as younger, will have to read it again.

  • Thank you for sharing the story of this incredible woman.

  • Im a knitter my friend and I join up every week ,we call it our knitting circle but there’s only the 2off us ,our friends know they ate welcome

  • “A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains” is one of my all-time favorite books. I used to take it on backpacking trips as something to read at night—that was, until I discovered sock knitting. Now, of course, I take my knitting instead of a book.

  • That’s the kind of inspiration that needs to be shared in my women’s recovery group. Thank you, Lori

  • This is exactly the historical “thread” that binds cultures and make our need to create so universal…… I love to travel with purpose and find communities of knitters wherever I go
    Please continue with these historical bios!!!!!!!!!!!! Bravo!!!!!!!!!!!

  • I knit and crochet, we knitters all have just a little bit of Isabella Bird in us! What an inspiring woman!

  • I loved this article. What an amazing woman!

  • She looks like Hillary Clinton

  • I will be looking for this book, what a woman, I have just learnt to make socks at my knitting class and I love it, knitting takes me away from all worries, very mindful. Thank you for your article. Carol

  • A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains has been one of my favorites since Bill Caveness read it aloud every morning on Boston Public Radio. I had to read it again myself. It’s just a joy to travel with Isabells Bird on all her adventures.

    • Listening to a good reader reading aloud is such a vivid experience. All my favourite teachers… It’s such an opportunity to expose kids to writing they may never hear otherwise.

  • Loved reading this – now I need to read her book to learn more! Thank you.

  • An inspiring, wonderful story!

  • Love this!

  • I remember that clothing line, too, but can’t for the life of me remember the name. They had a long article about her in their catalog, explaining why she was the inspiration for their travel-friendly clothes.

  • This was fascinating. Thank you Adrianne.

  • Loved this piece. Just back from a trip to Estes Park and we dined at Bird & Jim restaurant, named for Isabella!

  • I watched a TV series about her recently (helpfully, I can’t remember what it was called, but it involved Ruby Wax, Mel B and Emily Atack following in her footsteps. They found it tough, so for Isabella to have done it without any mod cons is amazing).

  • Such a good read! Thank you

  • I so love stories of knitting’s comfort in history.

  • I’m always interested in women of olden times though I am unable to knit, I do crochet a lot though. Excellent article though.

  • Loved this artical. Please share more.

    So many women who designed our future by being strong and dedicated to making life better. Some never get to be known for their attributes. I am a crocheter love it. Have knitted some but love the faster flow of crochet. I taught myself to do both

  • Wow what and incredible woman who really lived her life, good for her

  • What an amazing lady of her time

  • Love the story of the lady knitter,I,m a knitter but have not traveled around the world,but I must admit I do take my knitting on holidays with me in england.

  • I too am a knitter I’ve been knitting since before I went to school I’m now 71 people today don’t realise how calming it is I’d hate to just sit and watch TV Always got some project on and its never far from me Just like miss Bird That was a lovely story to read

  • Interesting and fun to read look forward to reading more from you

  • Thank you for sharing Bird’s story. Very encouraging to the knitter who is also chronically I’ll.

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