Knitting Tips and Information for Re-enactors.

Knitting Tips and Information for Re-enactors.

By Phyllis and Paul Dickinson

CROCHET: NEVER! Crochet was brought to Europe during the Crusades in the 11th and 12th centuries, but was not used in the United States or the English Colonies before the 1840's. Much of what people think is crochet is actually one of a number of other looping techniques. Crocheting snoods (hair covers) was NOT done in this time period. Crochet becomes fashionable with Queen Victoria, and by the 1850's was a popular craft among the middle and upper class women who sat in their parlors doing "feminine" things. Nothing should be worn that is made of crochet for this time period. If you are into the Civil War, opera capes, beaded bags, and lots of other crochet items would be common, but NOT BEFORE!!!

knit mitts
A pair of gauntleted mittens
RIBBING: Avoid using ribbing! Knit and purl ribbing (kl, pl or k2, p2, or k3,p3) was rarely used in this time period. Stockings were held up by garters, mittens and gloves were gauntleted.

KNIT IN THE ROUND: No seams! Knit items were constructed by knitting in the round. This eliminates the need for knitting one row, purling the next to achieve a stockinette fabric (knitting is faster than purling). Seams in knitted garments are weak spots, feel lumpy, and don't wear well.

KNITTING NEEDLES: Always steel! All references to knitting in this time period mention ONLY steel needles. Wooden needles are not sufficiently durable, and whalebone needles came into use when the fashionable Victorian women sat in their parlors and knit lacy things (after 1840).

KNITTING NEEDLES: Always small sizes. Don't use anything over a size 4 or 5. Knit items from this period are in small gauges (7-15 stitches per inch, 5-20 rows per inch). 0, 00, 000, and 0000 were commonly used. (Needles were not sold in sizes: the needle sizes given are MODERN AMERICAN needle sizes).

YARN SIZE: Small diameters and multiple plies! Knit items were ALWAYS made with at least a 2-ply yarn, with three and four-ply being very common, and six-ply frequently used. (Six ply is made by plying three two-ply yarns together.) NEVER USE SINGLE PLY YARN! Yarn was small in diameter, the modem equivalent being fingering and sport weights. Remember, these people were expert spinners and could spin very thin threads it is more accurate to use an even, modern factory made yarn than to use a bumpy, irregular yarn.

knit socks detail
Knitting a hat in the round with metal needles.
NO ELASTIC: Elastic came into being in the 1850's after the process of vulcanizing rubber was perfected by Charles Goodyear. Elastic is thread-covered rubber strands woven together. Knitting is, by its construction, elastic (meaning stretchy).

STOCKINGS: Knit in small gauge, on small needles, with small 2-4 ply yarn. Don't put ribbing in the tops, and use garters to hold them up, not elastic. Stockings were recycled by cutting off a worn-out foot and knitting a new foot on an old stocking leg, so having a different shade of yarn for the foot of your stocking would be typical of a working class person.

HATS AND CAPS: knit in small gauge, on small needles, with small 2-4 ply yarn Many styles of hats and caps were felted AFTER being knit for extra warmth and durability, although felting removes any elasticity (stretch). Ribbing is NOT used, nor is elastic.

knit hat
Knit stocking detail. Note the one-piece heel.
SWEATERS: they didn't exist as we know them in this period. The closest thing would be the knit waistcoats, of which few survive, although there is a lot of mention of them in period literature. Knit waistcoats for working people resembled the silk waistcoats of the royalty (like the one Charles I was wearing when they cut off his head), with a placket neck and straight sleeves. Knit waistcoats were worn UNDER the linen or cotton shirt, so they would NOT be something anyone would see! Cardigans, pullovers, sweaters worn as a top layer are NOT worn until later.

WORSTED YARN vs. WOOLEN YARN: Worsted yarn (from combed, not carded, long wool fibers) is more durable and if spun properly, is hard to distinguish from a woolen yarn in a completed garment. Durability is the key concept for knit items in this time period, so do not use flimsy, poorly spun, or singly ply woolen yarns. Woolen yarns are best used in hats and other items, while stockings should ALWAYS be made with more durable worsted yarns.

COLOR OF YARNS: Browns, black, greys and whites are natural sheep colors. They would always be appropriate, although certain breeds of sheep from this time period did NOT produce all colors of wool. The range of colors an expert dyer can obtain from the dyestuffs available in this time period are astounding. Do not limit yourself to the natural colors: get a book that shows the colors possible from natural dyes and dyes of the period, and use those colors as a guide. Blaze orange and Peter Max shades are surprising to the eye in this time period, but those colors are possible to obtain from natural dyes. When in doubt about color, consult a dye book for comparison.

SHEEP: If you are spinning your own thread, stick to the breeds of sheep that actually existed in the time period you are representing. Modern breeds have very different wool compared to the old breeds, and the yarn spun from the old breeds using the appropriate period techniques will produce a much more accurate finished product.

For documentation on all of the above, consult our bibliography.

Article © 1997, Phyllis and Paul Dickinson