Letter from Paris: Ribbed Mitts
After visiting Jane Gaugain’s grave in Edinburgh, I felt compelled to pull my own copy of The Lady’s Assistant from the shelf and knit something from it.
It wouldn’t be my first waltz with Jane. I’ve been a fanboy for years, and worked through plenty of her patterns.
There are ninety-seven entries under “Knitting.” This one caught my attention:
A new pair of mitts is always useful. They don’t take up my time, or much yarn. And as for the yarn, I knew I had what I needed in stash already. So that settled that.
Now, as for the pattern itself.
Nineteenth century knitting patterns are not, please rest assured, a form of cryptography. They are not meant to confound or perplex. No decoder ring is required. They often employ vocabulary and syntax that are now obscure or obsolete, but so do some patterns from the 1950s and 1960s. They may be unclear, confusing, or even incorrect, but so are some patterns from last week.
However, I will grant you that they do look odd. For example, here are some things you will not find in Jane Gaugain’s book.
- Illustrations. My edition of The Lady’s Assistant (the fifth, from 1842) has four engraved plates, and all of them show netting, not knitting.
Every knit in the book is a mystery knit. There are zero images of what the finished piece will look like. You get, at most, a title with one or two adjectives. If “A Very Pretty Turkish Purse” isn’t enough to go on, tough luck, tootsie.
- Gauge. You are never told to swatch for gauge, because you are never told what the gauge ought to be.
- Charts. Nope. Not even for lace.
On the other hand, here are some things you will find in the book. And keep in mind that these things–that we now take for granted–were (so far as we know) innovations pioneered by Jane Gaugain as she sought to express knitting clearly on the printed page.
- Thoughtful and clear typography. To be sure, earlier pattern writers had mentioned rows and rounds in order to guide the reader. Here, however, the physical structure of the knitting is reflected in the way the rows are arranged on the page, with clear breaks between each.
This is much easier to follow (and to edit) than the bulky, run-on paragraphs in books like The Workwoman’s Guide of 1838, which often sound like they were dictated by Molly Bloom in Ulysses.
- Abbreviations and symbols. You may have noticed these in the illustration above. To save page space and to make the instructions easier to scan, Jane replaces common terms with simple abbreviations. “Take in,” for example–meaning “knit two together”–becomes T.
She also uses the existing typeface to create intuitive symbols. Often, the abbreviation for a knitting maneuver is simply flipped upside-down to become the symbol for the purl version. So T, when upside-down, means “purl two together.”
- Keys and explanations. Yes, some of this presents a learning curve to the modern knitter. B, for example, is the symbol for purl, because purl is (sometimes) called Back stitch. P is not purl, but Plain stitch–which means a knit stitch. B for purl, P for knit. However, the meanings are clear because there is not only an introductory section with a full list of terms and their meanings; but also an “Explanation of Terms” that follows almost every pattern.
Beyond that, there are still some puzzles to solve. Happily, I enjoy puzzles.
For one thing, you can no longer order yarn from Gaugain’s haberdashery, which makes Jane’s instruction to purchase “ten penny skeins of fawn color” rather opaque. How much yarn is that, and of what weight?
This is where some historical knowledge and knitting experience come in handy.
The “Berlin Wool” of the pattern title was a strong, lustrous wool yarn from Germany that became wildly popular in the early 19th century: first for embroidery, then for knitting and crochet. It was available in an enormous range of colors (thanks to the arrival of artificial dyes). It could be either “single” or “double,” the latter being about twice as thick as the former.
In Jane’s pattern, the cast-on number is 80 stitches. A typical adult’s sock, as you may well know, is 72 stitches around at the cuff. If we consider the relative sizes of a wrist and an ankle, it’s not difficult to surmise that what we need to stand in for Berlin Wool is a modern fingering weight.
In the MDK Shop
The needles should be commensurate in size to give a firm fabric. I usually use a US size 0 (2mm) when I knit socks, so that’s what I would use here.
Beyond that, there are places where I admit that the pattern writing wobbles. This was a new discipline, after all. There were no standards and no rules.
Sometimes, Jane’s attempts at clarity go a little overboard, as when she explains three times that “mitten stitch” is p2, k3.
Elsewhere, she is frustratingly opaque.
With the hand complete, the knitter is told to “Return to thumb.” That’s it. How many needles does one use? How many stitches should one have on those needles? Jane doesn’t say. And if you use only the stitches you created when knitting the gusset–which seems at first to be what she wants–those stitches ultimately won’t be sufficient to do what needs doing.
To fill in the gaps–well, it helps if you have previous experience with mittens. Or know someone who does.
My students in antique patterns classes often chalk this up to “everyone back then” knowing how to knit, but such wasn’t the case. Remember, the ladies using The Lady’s Assistant were part of a new demographic–middle class housewives with idle hours to fill. Most of them very likely came to Jane Gaugain’s book and shop as novices.
So, what happened? Probably the same thing that still happens. The designer and editor assume the instructions are clear and complete; the knitters find that they are not.
Plus ça change …
In the end, and without too many tears, I had finished mitts that look extremely weird and unpromising …
…until you put them on a hand. Suddenly they not only work, they work beautifully.
One of the most amazing things about the design is how it adapts to fit hands of different sizes. My hands (you see one in the photograph above) are small–seven inches long from the base of my palm to the tip of my longest finger, three-and-half inches wide across the palm.
I put them on a friend’s hands, hands far larger than mine (nine inches long, four inches wide) and the mitts obligingly took on the shape without distorting themselves or pinching the model.
Having finished the mitts, I love them so much that I’m already starting a new pair in one semi-solid colorway from a favorite indie dyer. If you’d like to make a pair, here are two options.
One, for the adventurous, is to go ahead and work from the original pattern. I’ll put it here for you, in its entirety.
here is a link to the image above that you can download and print.
By the way, if you want to get all of The Lady’s Assistant without paying for an original copy (they are not cheap) you can download it from multiple sources, including here at archive.org.
If you’d like to work from my translation, which has been tested and tech edited, I’m putting that online for my Patreon subscribers at all three levels. (Usually, pattern access is available to the top two levels, but this one’s an exception.) Of course, you’ll also get all the other benefits of membership.
This is already a long and terribly technical letter, so I’ll close. I promise you something more fizzy and frivolous next time. Possibly even madcap. This is Paris, after all.