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Converging Lines: Needlework in English Literature and Visual Arts
II/ Connecting Fibres

Worsted, Weave, and Web: The Cultural Struggles of the Fictional Knitting-Woman

Kathy REES


Contrairement à la couture, le tricot a toujours été considéré comme un art modeste et domestique, ce qui explique que sa représentation dans la littérature ait été moins étudiée. Dans cet article, Mrs Brown, la protagoniste de la nouvelle de A. S. Byatt, « Art Work » (1994), dont l’identité est clairement définie par son statut de tricoteuse, sert de filtre pour aborder les problèmes d’inégalité et d’injustice sociales, raciales et sexuelles rencontrés par « la tricoteuse », telle qu’elle apparaît dans plusieurs romans écrits entre 1840 et 1940. Tricoter consiste à alterner deux mailles, maille à l’endroit, maille à l’envers et à monter un vêtement en augmentant ou en diminuant le nombre de rangs. De la même manière, cet article croise deux mouvements et navigue entre passé et présent, afin de mettre en évidence les fluctuations périodiques – les progrès et les reculs – qui ont affecté le sort des femmes au cours de l’histoire. Dans de nombreux romans, les héroïnes du tricot font figure de marginales et apparaissent en lutte permanente contre différentes formes d’oppression par des actes et un vocabulaire liés au tricot. Dans la littérature précédant le vingt-siècle, une minorité d’entre elles seulement parvient à concrétiser ses aspirations et ce n’est qu’à la fin du vingtième siècle, lorsque le tricot n’est plus considéré comme une activité utilitaire mais reconnu comme une forme d’art que l’on voit des personnages de fiction tels que Mrs Brown s’épanouir et acquérir leur indépendance.

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1. The cultural and literary significance of knitting

  • 1 The hyphenated term, “knitting-woman”, first appears in Dickens’s novel.
  • 2 In Sarah Grand’s The Beth Book (1897), Aunt Victoria, a spinster reacts thus on being asked by Beth (...)
  • 3 In George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871-2), Susan Garth exhibits this redundant action during her tense (...)
  • 4 In Ellen Wood’s East Lynne (1861), Miss Carlyle “jerks some stitches out of her knitting” whilst di (...)

1Ask anyone to name the most memorable knitting-woman1 in literature, and the answer must surely be Madame Defarge, in Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities (1859). Everyone knows about the woman who famously knitted shrouds encrypted with the names of aristocrats doomed to the guillotine, and who pointed her knitting-needle “as if it were the finger of Fate” (257). The majority of nineteenth-century knitting-women were, however, rather less menacing, being constrained by patriarchal ideologies of domesticity. Knitting was integrated into the daily routine of female Victorian life: matrons regularly produced stockings whilst simultaneously teaching children, reading books, supervising servants, and gossiping with neighbours. It invariably functioned as a barometer of female emotions: the act of letting the knitting fall into the lap conveyed shock and horror,2 the needless unwinding of worsted betrayed indignation,3 and the jerking of stitches imparted scorn and disdain.4 After World War One, knitting became more of an option than an obligation, and in literature, was often utilised as a strategic exercise, most famously by amateur lady detectives who knitted to camouflage their surveillance of criminals. This article explores the multiple expressions of the craft, and the shifting depictions of its practitioners, as represented in novels written between 1840 and 1940. I examine these figures through the lens of a late twentieth century knitting-woman, Mrs Brown, protagonist of A. S. Byatt’s short story, “Art Work” in The Matisse Stories (1993). Her liberation - directly through the act of knitting - from her position at the nadir of the social, economic, political, and racial hierarchy to the point of achieving public acclaim and economic independence, resonates, illuminates, and finally resolves the struggles and compromises of her earlier counterparts.

2Despite the prevalence of the fictional knitting-woman, literary critical attention has focused more on needlework. Rozsika Parker (1984), Elaine Hedges (1991), and Talia Schaffer (2011) briefly mention knitting in their studies of domestic handicraft, but it is embroidery or fashionable practices like Berlin-wool work or glass beading, or communal projects like patchwork and quilting that take centre-stage. However, two recent books that engage solely with knitting include The Culture of Knitting (2009) by Joanne Turney, and Knitting Yarns: Writers on Knitting (2014), edited by Ann Hood, both of which provide useful models for this article. Turney’s readings are grounded in the physical and the specific; knitted objects are presented as forms of contemporary material culture. She examines developments in knitting since the 1970s through various critical discourses and this article similarly approaches knitting through its cultural significance, addressing particularly the politics of power. Hood’s collection of knitting-related memoirs includes personal reflections by several well-known authors, in particular, Alison Lurie, whose playful reminiscences incorporate historical examples and literary references. She wonders for example whether “good women knit and bad women crochet or do fancy work,” and compares Hester in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) who knits to support herself and her children, with Becky Sharp in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847-48) who knits in order to display her charms to Josiah Sedley (Lurie 179-180). Like Lurie’s model, this article explores the representation of the act of knitting in literary texts.

3Victorian knitting-women: from display to duty
During the eighteenth century, knitting was traditionally the preserve of working-class families, as described in Robert Southey’s interpolated tale of Dentdale families in The Doctor (1834-37), but by the beginning of the Victorian period, hand-knitting looked set to decline as stocking-looms were by then performing the task more quickly and efficiently. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, hand-knitting had rejuvenated itself into a popular art among the rich. Rejecting the coarse style of knitting practised by working cottagers, ladies adopted the elegant but inefficient style of knitting that allowed them to delicately crook a little finger in the air. In Sarah Grand’s The Heavenly Twins (1893), Mrs Orton Beg displays her rings and “the delicacy of her slender white hands” as she knits (95). Similarly, in Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), Bathsheba Everdene, knowing that she is the object of the male gaze at the harvest supper, sits “enthroned inside the window, occupied […] in knitting” (136). However, several chapters later, when Bathsheba’s romance has turned sour, she withdraws to a disused attic and vehemently rejects her maid’s suggestion that she should distract herself with knitting, dismissing it as a pastime that she had “always hated” (268–9). Out of the male gaze, Bathsheba has no patience with the task. During the nineteenth century, then, knitting shifted from a staple quotidian craft among working-class cottagers to a strategically adopted feminine pose.

4For the Victorian middle-class matron, on the other hand, knitting was a means of satisfying the Protestant work ethic, being visibly and continuously at work with her hands. Only in serious circumstances, as Charles Dickens notes in Sketches by Boz (1833-36), would “the knitting-needles [be] laid aside” (33). The transition from childhood to adulthood was often represented in literature by the image of a mother teaching her daughter to knit. In Silas Marner (1861), Dolly Winthrop regrets that she never had a daughter: “I could ha’ taught her to scour and mend, and the knitting and everything” (124). At all social levels, knitting was a literal and symbolic sign of nurturing maternity. Alexander Melville’s photograph, Queen Victoria, Princess Helena and Princess Beatrice Knitting Quilts for the Royal Hospital, Netley (1886) is carefully curated to downplay the Queen’s position as monarch, and to promote a maternal ambience through the act of knitting.5 However, the hint of coercion was never far away. The Family Friend (1876), a paired engraving and poem called “The Mother’s Lesson” by Richard Wilton, describes the child who does not want to stay indoors and knit when nature looks so inviting outside, but she learns from her mother that she “must give her days to duty” (157-58).

5Some daughters, like tomboy Jo March in L. M. Alcott’s Little Women (1868) resisted that duty: “I am dying to go and fight with papa, and I can only stay home and knit, like a poky old woman!” (5). However, even she acquiesces to the task when she falls in love, in Good Wives (1869), the turning-point from independence to conformity being marked by her earnest darning of her lover’s socks which are “boggled out of shape with his queer darns” (303). Even those parents who had higher aspirations for their daughters were often thwarted by this traditional duty, as is the case of Margaret Oliphant’s eponymous heroine in Miss Majoribanks (1866), whose father recognised her potential as a doctor, and regretted that due to social conventions, “she might drop down into worsted work and tea-parties” (400 my emphasis). Knitting was thus a rite of passage into Victorian womanhood, resisted by some but, finally, embraced by most.

2. Reading the nineteenth-century knitting-woman through the lens of A. S. Byatt’s “Art Work” (1994)

6A. S. Byatt’s “Art Work” is a present tense narrative, shifting into the simple past for the occasional flashback. Its immediacy encourages the reader to experience the dramatic changes that its protagonist undergoes, while the ordinariness of the protagonist’s name - Mrs Brown - underlines her role as an “everywoman.” As I shall show, her experience connects with the knitting-women of earlier texts. The protagonist’s name is also powerfully allusive: as Arun Kumar Pokhrel notes, “Mrs Brown’s creativity and inventiveness can be viewed in light of Virginia Woolf’s famous essay, ‘Mr Bennet and Mrs Brown’ ” (417). In that essay, Woolf suggests that Mrs Brown is the sort of character who “has the power to make you think not merely of itself, but of all sorts of things through its eyes – of religion, of love, of war, of peace […]” (Woolf 11). Accordingly, in this article, I use Byatt’s Mrs Brown as a touchstone to explore the significance of her textual counterparts. Knitting, furthermore, is defined as the “formation of a close texture by the interloping of successive series of loops of yarn” (OED). The act of knitting is based on the repetition of two stitches, plain and purl, creating a fabric by moving forwards and backwards, and on the shaping of a garment by increasing or decreasing those stitches. This article replicates those two movements, shifting between the present and the past, and tracing the historical fluctuations in female fortunes as they incrementally advance and regress.

7Mrs Brown is a cleaning lady of mixed descent, who knits “rainbow-coloured jumpers made from ping-pong-ball-sized unwanted residues of other people’s knitting” (40). She is an immigrant living in a council flat, with a court injunction to keep her vicious partner at bay. Being poor, she is an inveterate appropriator and recycler of odds and ends, producing garments in “screaming hues,” amalgamating “angora,” “lamé,” and “chenille” (59, 78, 80). She “just like[s] putting things together,” and observes, almost philosophically, that “what exists goes together somehow or other” (85, 60). Laurence Petit also comments on Mrs Brown’s self-declared “reliability,” recognising the word’s derivation from the Latin, ligare, meaning “the ability to connect” (405). Her abusive partner, Hooker, bears a name that also gestures at the making of connections, both in its sense as a tool used for crochet, as well as its illicit connotations of theft or prostitution. Ironically, this violent man was the trigger for Mrs Brown’s creativity, since he procured for her a knitting machine, “off the back of a lorry” (58). With this machine, which becomes her “prized possession,” Mrs Brown creates knitted artefacts that are eventually recognised by the art world as “absurd and surprisingly beautiful,” and which win her an exhibition (83-4). Mrs Brown is as “prim, or grim, or watchful” as many of her stoical fictional Victorian forbears, but unlike most of them, she achieves, through her knitting, both status and liberation (41).

8Mrs Brown cleans for an “artistic” couple, Robin and Debbie Dennison, who have two children. Debbie Dennison is a much put-upon middle-class wife, who has subjugated her artistic inclinations in order to guarantee the family income. In particular, she has suppressed her passion for making woodcuts to illustrate fairy tales with such scenes as “an old witch with a spindle,” and by that detail alone, Byatt hints at Debbie’s empathy with the knitting community (37). Robin Dennison lives a life of selfish privilege: he is a minimalist artist who achieves neither sales nor exhibitions. He ignores “unopened messages from the Income Tax,” leaving the management of home, children, and money to Debbie in order to devote his time to painting (47). Robin imitates his father’s tendency “to shout at and about the ‘charwoman’,” claiming that she fails to behave like “anyone with their wits about them” (57, 46). Unsmiling, Mrs Brown responds to Robin with “her own modes of silent aggression,” sending him into “a kind of panic of constriction” (48, 58). This gendered and class-ridden struggle echoes a scene in George Eliot’s Adam Bede (1859), where the privileged Squire Donnithorne is confounded by the knitting-woman, Rachel Poyser.

2.1. “Spearing” and “unspearing”: the knitting-woman’s emasculation of the male

  • 6 In Margaret Oliphant’s Kirsteen (1888), Mrs Douglas frets about her worsted being twisted too tight (...)

9Like Robin Dennison, Squire Donnithorne owes his wealth and position to his family rather than to his own efforts. Equally, just as Mrs Brown produces knitted artefacts that reflect on “the trivia of our daily life,” so Mrs Poyser makes an art-form out of the commonplace (Byatt 83). She efficiently manages the vegetative, animal, and human life of Hall Farm, pounding the butter and cheese, fermenting the beer, and knitting the grey worsted into expertly heeled stockings. In the chapter entitled “Mrs Poyser ‘has her say out’,” Squire Donnithorne attempts to bully Mr and Mrs Poyser into accepting a disadvantageous division of their land. The incident opens with Mrs Poyser “standing at the house-door with her knitting” in the quietness of the afternoon (Eliot 372). We have already been told that Mrs Poyser’s knitting “always lay ready at hand, and was the work she liked best, because she could carry it on automatically as she walked to and fro” (84). The Squire’s unfair demand puts Mrs Poyser on the defensive: she speaks “in a hard voice, rolling and unrolling her knitting” (374). Such a superfluous and repetitive action is uncharacteristic of this efficient woman, for it would have stressed the yarn.6 There is, however, serious cause for her concern: her husband’s family has lived in almost feudal deference to the Donnithornes for generations, and Martin Poyser is “really alarmed” by the Squire’s scarcely concealed threat that he might not renew the lease if they refuse his request (378). Mrs Poyser, however, must “have her say out” even if it lands her in the workhouse. The unleashing of her torrent of biting criticism is punctuated by her act of “spearing her knitting together with the loose pin,” and after enduring her vehement castigation the Squire walks out in “stunned surprise” (376, 378). After his exit, Mrs Poyser “unspeared her knitting, and began to knit again with her usual rapidity,” as though seeking relief in automatic action after so disquieting an interview (345, 349). The spearing metaphor with its phallic connotations conveys the violence of Mrs Poyser’s “repulse of the old Squire” and her simultaneous emasculation of her husband; her act represents both a revolution in female deference towards males, and a carnivalesque overturning of time-honoured relations between working-class tenant and gentry-landlord (381). The villagers celebrate both Mrs Poyser’s triumph and the Squire’s loss of face with “zest” but Eliot implies, by her reiterated reference to Mrs Poyser’s broken spinning wheel, that such shifts in power are only temporary. The broken wheel recalls the fourth-century saint, Catherine of Alexandria, being the attribute of her martyrdom, and reminds us of the long history of female oppression. There are several attempts during the course of the novel to get the spinning wheel mended, but it remains broken, suggesting that class and gender inequality would prevail indefinitely.

2.2. Madame Defarge’s encrypted register: knitting as revolution

101859 was a notable year for the emergence of the powerful knitting-woman, introducing Victorian readers not only to Mrs Poyser, but more dramatically, to Madame Defarge, whose single-minded intent to revenge class and gender oppression marks a literary apogee. In the Paris suburb of Saint Antoine, Madame Defarge is depicted “with her work in her hand” mingling with the women, “all [of whom] knitted […] the mechanical work was a mechanical substitute for eating and drinking” (178). In the manuscript draft of Book One, Madame Defarge was originally engaged in needlework, but Dickens changed her occupation to knitting “because of the notorious tricoteuses,” whose craft was already associated with murderous intent (Sanders 47). This shift to knitting was appropriate because, as Schaffer points out, needlework bore aristocratic connections (15). Dickens also exploited the notion of knitting as a narrative: Madame Defarge’s knitting is a register containing encrypted symbols that are incomprehensible to anyone else, coded information concealed for future use. Her husband claims that “It would be easier for the weakest poltroon that lives, to erase himself from existence, than to erase one letter of his name or crimes from the knitted register of Madame Defarge” (165). This rhetoric echoes, in both structure and sentiment, Jesus’s pronouncement that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God,” showing that even the sacrament is subordinated to the authority of this “knitted register” (Matthew 19.24). After Madame Defarge’s death, her deputy, ignorant of the fact, is frantic at her leader’s non-appearance at the execution: “See her knitting in my hand, and her empty chair ready for her” (Dickens 358). The unfinished knitting in another woman’s hand symbolises Madame Defarge’s ongoing influence, and certainly, her band of knitting-women continue inexorably, “never faltering or pausing in their work,” counting the victims of the guillotine almost to the final page of the novel (358).

2.3. Joseph Conrad’s knitting-women: cogs in the colonial machine

11In Byatt’s “Art Work,” Mrs Brown is not only disadvantaged by gender, social class and economic status, but is also racially marginalized, being half-Irish and half-Guyanese. She originates from two nations both brutally colonised by the British, and by his treatment of her, Robin perpetuates the racial prejudice of his ancestors. He maligns Mrs Brown as “lazy,” “filthy,” “chaotic and wild,” with a propensity to “filch” things, replicating the stereotypical treatment of Negro slaves by their white masters (46, 47, 58, 87). The brutality of such colonising language recalls Joseph Conrad’s treatment of the evils of western oppression in Africa in Heart of Darkness (1899), a text that uses – in surprising ways – the act of knitting to convey aspects of colonial savagery. When Conrad’s narrator, Marlow, visits the Headquarters of the Company that sends its functionaries to the Congo, he encounters two women who “knitted black wool feverishly” (15). Marlow reiterates their preoccupation with “knitting black wool” four times in three paragraphs. It would be more customary to say that the women were knitting with black wool, but the repeated absence of this preposition draws attention to the phrase and to the act. The terse combination of verb and object, “knitting black wool” seems to increase the aggression of their knitting as though they were generating the black wool by their exertion. Despite their uncanny knowingness, these women are cogs in the colonial machine. Their manipulation of a natural resource, in this case, wool, is suggestive of the Company’s propagation of wealth by its ruthless exploitation of the human and physical resources of the Congo. The act of knitting thus becomes associated with the rapacious world of imperial plunder.

12The black hue of the wool also returns us conceptually to the novel’s title, to the heart of darkness, for although the sun blazes in the Congo, the blackness of imperialism operates there both metaphorically and existentially. A pattern of black and white, reiterating the colonial binary, arises when Marlow notices that one of the dying Africans had “tied a bit of white worsted round his neck [… .] It looked startling round his black neck, this bit of white thread from beyond the seas” (25). Worsted is a high-quality yarn used for knitting and weaving, named after the Norfolk village that first produced it. The juxtaposition of the English medieval wool trade and the Congo jungle reiterates the “startling” contrast of white commerce and black nature. Conrad seems to imply that compared with the customary iron slave collars, this insubstantial worsted emphasises how contemptible the Belgian rape of the Congo really was: a flimsy wool circlet was enough to enslave a man.

2.4. From knitted shroud to knitted tump: an defiant celebration of life

13Conrad’s focus on the “bit of white thread” also conjures the symbolic acts of the three mythological deities, Clotho (the spinner), Lachesis (the allotter of a mortal’s life span) and Atropos (the inflexible cutter of the thread) who determined the fates of both mortals and gods alike. As Cedric Watts observed, Conrad followed Dickens’s characterisation of the knitting-woman as an aggressive, menacing figure, exploiting her association with these death-dealing Fates (52). Both writers employ the act of knitting to symbolise the evils of republicanism and imperialism. Conrad’s “uncanny and fateful” knitting-women produce a pall, consciously evoking Dickens’s Madame Defarge who knits shrouds “with the steadfastness of Fate” (Conrad 16; Dickens 107). In defiance of this death-centred tradition, Mrs Brown’s knitted figures assert instead an exuberant celebration of life. She exhibits:

a large knitted tump layered in skirts of scarlet and orange, grass-green and emerald, dazzlingly juxtaposed, [that] reveals, if the wools are parted, a circle of twenty or thirty little knitted pink breasts […] a kind of squat Diana of Ephesus without face or hands. (79)

14No more fingers of Fate but rather a multi-breasted symbol of fecundity, generosity, and sensuality. Byatt also reinforces the mythological resonances of knitting by staging Mrs Brown’s exhibition at the Callisto Gallery, named after the nymph who was seduced by Zeus, and gave birth to a son called Arcas. Juno took revenge by transforming Callisto into a bear, and just as the adult Arcas, out hunting in the forest, prepared unwittingly to kill the beast that was his own mother; Zeus intervened to transform both mother and son into stars: Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. Mrs Brown, like Callisto, an abused female, is elevated to “stardom,” since her life after the exhibition changes dramatically: events got “out of my control, rather, though I’m not complaining” (87). No longer imbued with death-weighted imagery, the knitting-woman now expresses life- and light-emitting qualities.

15As well as challenging the traditional use of mythological imagery in relation to knitting-women, Mrs Brown also subverts the patriarchal/imperialist language. The strategy of most colonisers is to impose its language on the subject nation, for as Frantz Fanon observed in Black Skins, White Masks (1952), “Mastery of language affords remarkable power” (18). Being uncertain of their “ground,” both literally and morally, colonisers invariably subordinate their subjects, and Robin demonstrates this by his tendency to “lecture” and “overbear” Mrs Brown with artistic theory (50, 72). He “teaches” her that the juxtaposition of red and green produces yellow, asking:

“Can you see yellow?”

“Well, a sort of, how shall I say, a sort of wriggling, a sort of shimmering. I see what you mean.”

“I try to make that happen, in the paintings.”

“So I see. It’s interesting, once I know what you’re up to.” (68)

16Mrs Brown, as the colonised subject, can either reject the language of the coloniser, thereby cutting herself off from access to power, or she can subvert the language of the mother country by employing its idiom in order to answer back. Once she knows what Robin is “up to,” Mrs Brown can employ Robin’s language in her knitted artefacts, the effect of this being evident in the published review of the exhibition, which, rather than noting any “primitive” African qualities in her work, highlights its relationship to Western artists like Richard Dadd and Kaffe Fasset (83). Mrs Brown has answered Robin back by subverting his own idiom.

2.5. The binding and loosing of the nineteenth-century knitting-woman

17A parallel situation of linguistic colonization and subsequent subversion in relation to Victorian knitting-women may be seen in the juxtaposition of two books: Shirley (1849) by Charlotte Brontë, and Miss Miles, or a Tale of Yorkshire Life Sixty Years Ago (1890), written by Brontë’s lifelong friend, Mary Taylor. Brontë presents a scene where the twelve-year-old Rose is virtually “indentured” by her overbearing mother:

“Rose,” observed Mrs. Yorke, “solid satisfaction is only to be realized by doing one’s duty.”

“Right, mother! And if my Master has given me ten talents, my duty is to trade with them, and make them ten talents more. Not in the dust of household drawers shall the coin be interred […] I will not commit it to your work-table to be smothered in piles of woollen hose.” (336)

18In her protest, Rose appeals to the New Testament parable, desperate that her talents should not be “smothered” by the apparent endlessness of work-table tasks, nor more poignantly, “(s)mothered” by forceful parenting. However, the girl’s appeal is harshly repressed, and Rose meekly agrees to “bind [her]self an industrious apprentice […] even to the mending of my brother’s stockings” until the age of sixteen, promising that for four years, she “will not speak again about talents” (337). This contractual language casts Rose as an indentured servant, bound to unfree labour for a fixed period. The mother is voicing the tyrannical language of the coloniser, which literally reverses the meaning of the Christian parable of the talents (Matthew 25: 14-30). Rose duly resigns herself to the dictates of her mother’s work-table, becoming one of “those ‘terrestrial angels’ […] or ‘high priestesses’ of our domestic sanctuaries,” as suggested by the anonymous author of The Ladies’ Work-Table Book (1845), who insists that happiness and prosperity is promised to those who learn “to blend the useful with the ornamental” (iv). Rose’s presence in Shirley gradually decreases, until her final appearance when she is depicted serving her brother: by this stage in the narrative, Rose has been deprived of her voice (Brontë 492).

19As the fictional Rose Yorke declines, so the fortunes of her literary alter ego, Sarah Miles, ascend. Sarah is the protagonist of Taylor’s feminist bildungsroman, Miss Miles. Taylor’s Radical Yorkshire wool-trading family is reproduced as the Yorke family in Shirley. Taylor’s frustration with the homely passivity demanded of Englishwomen inspired her to travel abroad, eventually staying in New Zealand for fifteen years, where she traded in wool and cattle. By her writing, she seems to conduct an ongoing dialogue with Brontë, even after the latter’s death in 1855. In the opening chapter of Miss Miles, as if to contradict the destiny of the browbeaten Rose, there are allusions to young Sarah’s scorn for knitting. Returning home after sliding in the snow, Sarah receives an ironic greeting from her father: “‘And ye dunnot want to get to your knitting?’ the old man asked with a smile” (5). Later, she visits her musical brother who is rehearsing with his band, but is not made welcome: “‘We won’t go on. She’s no business to be here. Sarah, go home and get on with your knitting’ was the most disagreeable thing he could say” (21). Knitting epitomised the domesticity that Taylor resented, and she rallied other women to her cause by a series of articles in the Victoria Magazine, which proved sufficiently popular to be re-published as The First Duty of Women (1870). The titular emphasis on “duty” reads like a riposte to Mrs Yorke’s lecturing. In these articles, Taylor used the figure of the lone spinning woman, a staple in traditional folk-tale parlance, to explicate the economic oppression of women:

Their wants and their ability are proportioned to each other like those of the peasant girl of olden time, whose husband was taken prisoner in the wars. She heard his ransom was seventy gold pieces. She took her wheel and sat at the crossroads all day long to sell the produce of her spinning. At the end of the first year she found she had earned - one gold piece. (99)

20Taylor turns the patriarchal idiom against itself to warn the wider female community of the impossibility of their attaining power by conventional methods.

21Rose Yorke’s resentment seems to have expressed not only Taylor’s feelings but also Brontë’s own. Certainly, Virginia Woolf comments in A Room of One’s Own (1929) that in her creation of female characters, Brontë “remembered that she had been starved of her proper due of experience - she had been made to stagnate in a parsonage mending stockings when she wanted to wander free over the world” (70 my emphasis). Brontë and Taylor were protesting against a powerful institution that, ironically, was often imposed by women upon their own sex. Another “Mrs Yorke” is the eponymous protagonist of Elizabeth Gaskell’s My Lady Ludlow (1858) who actively inhibits progress for women. Although she opposes the “new revolutionary ideas” about education for the working classes, Lady Ludlow is persuaded to establish a rudimentary village schoolhouse (127). However, she insists that the girls “should have spun so many hanks of flax, and knitted so many pairs of stockings, before they ever were taught to read” (182). Accordingly, Mr Gray, the clergyman-schoolmaster set “some delicately fine yarn” and “a capital pair of knitted stockings before my lady, as the first-fruits, so to say, of his school” (182). The school is thus defined by its output in woollen garments, which Lady Ludlow, herself a knitting-woman, carefully examined and approved. Since the headmaster’s patron values only the yarn and the stockings, the school is doomed to perpetuate the girls’ working-class role, depriving them of any opportunity to overcome gender or class-related disadvantage.

22An education that prioritises textile production over cognitive development produces domesticated women, at all social levels, who measure their achievement by their ability “to blend the useful with the ornamental” (Work-Table Book iv). In Mary Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862), the maidservant, Phoebe, adorns her cheap furniture “with frills of lace and knitted work,” and Mrs Vincent, the schoolteacher, furnishes her room with “knitted curtains” (350, 253). Further up the social scale, Mrs Thornton in Gaskell’s North and South (1865), arranges her drawing room so that “each chair and sofa had its own peculiar veil of [white] netting, or knitting” creating an “effect of icy, snowy discomfort” (112). These knitting-women seem to collude with patriarchal constructs by obscuring their view of the world and of themselves, to live stifled within a cocoon of their own making. However, this impulse to shroud and screen themselves from the world changes as knitting-women start to appear in post-World-War One fiction, where the creation of such “webs” become gradually more affirmative.

3. The twentieth century knitting-women

3.1. Knitting for redemption in America

  • 7 The Green Jacket (1917); Dead Right (1922), and The Mysterious Office (1922).

23American author, Jennette Lee, wrote three detective novels in 1918-22,7 featuring the confidential agent, Millicent Newberry, who is an inveterate knitter. She knits “webs,” not for the purpose of self-immolation, but for active problem-solving in her job. When, for example, a client offers to send her the papers relating to the case they are discussing, Newberry answers:

“It is not necessary. I have it here” [. . .] She lifted it, and he saw a little zig-zag pattern in the even stitches. He stared. Her finger touched it.

“That is your case” she said.

“Do you mean to say - everything I have told you is knit in there?” He reached and touched it gingerly. (Office 11)

24Newberry explains to her clients that the process of encrypting the case-notes into the knitting generates a pattern that provides her clues: “she made three stitches and double-crossed them and looked at them thoughtfully;” there was “a curious tangle in the upper left-hand corner of her web that she could not account for” (Office 218, 231). Unlike Madame Defarge’s vicious secret coding, Newberry’s plans, “wrought in wool,” work towards beneficent purposes (Jacket 47).

  • 8 Statutes relating to Probation for Offenders were initiated in Boston, Mass., in 1859.

25Many of Lee’s knitting motifs convey Christian connotations. Firstly, knitting associates Newberry with light: her needles are “amber,” a resin that since antiquity was associated with sunlight, and her “flying fingers […] glowed with warmth” (Jacket 3-4). Secondly, the encryption is spiritually driven: “almost of themselves the needles were weaving for her the story;” “already the threads were gathered up and the unseen hands that guided the pattern were shaping it to a finish” (Jacket 221, 251 my emphasis). Even the detection process is often couched in knitting-related language: threads of evidence “were curiously twisted” but gradually, they became “untangled” (Office 62, 105 my emphasis). Thirdly, Newberry’s role is redemptive: she forges an agreement with each client that arrogates to her the right to give the criminal a second chance, by offering probation.8 To Alan, one of her rehabilitated offenders, Newberry says, “You are going to be strong – a leader among men. You will not slip again; [he] whom the Lord loveth, he lets slip” (Jacket 231). Here the Biblical verse, “For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth,” is rephrased using the knitting term “slip” (Hebrews 12:6). Lee subverts the condemnatory Dickensian associations of the encrypted knitting to convey spiritual and redemptive hope. She also transforms Conrad’s dreary world of black and white into one of bright hues of green, blue and gold, connoting natural, heavenly, and regal qualities.

3.2. Knitting as camouflage in Britain

  • 9 Maud Silver featured in a total of thirty-two novels between 1928 and 1961.
  • 10 Jane Marple first appeared in Murder at the Vicarage (1928) and thereafter in eleven crime novels a (...)

26In contrast to the youthful American Millicent Newberry, the knitting protagonists in British interwar fiction, such as Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver9 and Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple10 are conspicuously aged, and ostentatiously focused on the domestic. “What a Victorian little person” thinks Charles of Miss Silver in The Grey Mask (1928) ashe became aware of a half-knitted stocking on her lap, steel needles bristling” (Wentworth 77). Similarly, in The Thirteen Problems (1932), when the reader first encounters Miss Marple, she sits knitting, wearing “black lace mittens and a black lace cap” (Christie 1). Although by the late 1920s, the “New Woman” was defining herself ever more explicitly by her rejection of Victorian mores, Wentworth and Christie employ anachronistic imagery in order to make the shrewd intelligence and ingenuity of their protagonists less threatening, both to male characters and male readers. Such writing belongs to what Alison Light calls the “literature of convalescence,” that is, crime fiction without the threat of violence, “an anaesthetising, bloodless, and recuperative genre” (69, 71). The focus on knitting served to soften reader uneasiness about this apparent female incursion into what had been a conservative and inherently male literary genre, as well as the wider post-war disquiet about women moving into traditionally male professions.

  • 11 Mrs Bradley appeared in sixty-six novels published between 1929 and 1975 (Herbert 22).

27In line with this appeasing form of characterisation, both detectives habitually knit baby clothes. In Wentworth’s Lonesome Road (1939) “the garment on [Miss Silver’s] needles was one of those small coatees which are showered upon expectant mothers,” while Christie’s The Thirteen Problems, opens with Miss Marple “knitting something white and soft and fleecy” (Wentworth 5; Christie 1). Like Mrs Brown who knits “candy-striped jumpers” and “rainbow scarves” for the Dennison children, the women are cast as symbolic defenders of the vulnerable and innocent, protecting the community from the effects of violence and crime (Byatt 59). Knitting is an integral part of their quiet pose. Silver and Marple frame their interviews by taking up or dropping their knitting: nervous clients are encouraged to talk as Miss Silver “clicks reassuringly”, while unwary villains incriminate themselves as Miss Marple counts her rows or flutters over dropped stitches (Lonesome 9). It would be difficult for middle-class women to go round making active enquiries as detectives, so the passive role of the knitter provides a gentle disguise. In terms of established power structures, Silver and Marple are essentially helpmeets to an exclusively male police force. At the point when order is being restored within the patriarchal society, they must quietly withdraw, for as Turney points out, Miss Marple “cannot make arrests or bring perpetrators to justice” (162). Gladys Mitchell, another writer of detective novels, recognized this contradiction at the time. She disdained such attempts to protect male sensibilities from the threat of female competence, and presented the task of knitting, even when used as camouflage for surveillance, as being too demeaning for Beatrice Bradley, her manly protagonist, to take seriously.11 Bradley, holder of several university doctorates, and consulting psychologist to the Home Office, “took out a nondescript piece of sorry-looking knitting and keeping her eyes on the iron gates by the lodge, commenced to knit, quickly and badly” (174). The humble pose of the knitter, then, may be a strategy for getting the job done, but it is also an indicator of an essentially amateur status.

3.3. The knitting mother: connections and tensions

  • 12 When Byatt has her protagonist use “hairy brown” string to tie together the knitted elements of her (...)

28Miss Marple, Miss Silver, and Mrs Brown are not the only protagonists who knit for the poor and vulnerable. In Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927), Mrs Ramsey, the wife of an eminent London professor of philosophy, is staying in the Hebrides with family and friends, just before the outbreak of World War One. She is engaged in knitting a “reddish-brown hairy stocking” for the son of Sorley, the lighthouse-keeper, who is “threatened with a tuberculous hip” (22, 4).12 Mrs Ramsay’s project harks back to Victorian philanthropy, and the patronage of the working classes by the rich, but being a hand-made gift also signals a common respect for the dignity of manual labour, a tradition from which Mrs Ramsay’s intellectual husband and friends are removed. Mrs Ramsay’s knitting thus signals her role as a force of connection between the disparate groups in the narrative.

29Mrs Ramsey’s knitting is, furthermore, much more complex than simply a demonstration of “self-sacrificing devotion to others” as Sayaka Okumura contends (170). She works “impatiently” complaining that she has to get “these tiresome stockings finished” for the proposed trip to the lighthouse (Woolf 4, 23). The stockings that connote social relatedness are thus compromised by the negative emotions attached to them. The process of knitting reveals deep-seated tensions within the Ramsay family. Mrs Ramsay’s pose as a knitter is a symptom of her complex relationship with her husband. “She did not like, even for a second, to feel finer than her husband,” and by this submissive bearing, Mrs Ramsey emphasises both to him and to onlookers her inferior status (28). It is a much more demeaning façade than that adopted by the lady-detectives. Despite Mr Ramsay’s intellectual reputation, he is emotionally vulnerable and relies on Mrs Ramsay’s constant reassurance that his status is valid in the eyes of the world. Their fragile accord is intuitively sensed by their young son, James, who early in the novel, serves as “a measuring-block for the Lighthouse keeper’s little boy” (19). James resents the unspoken demands Mr Ramsay places on his mother, and fantasises about killing his father with a knife or a poker, or any other phallic weapon. At the same time, he has the temporary comfort of feeling physically and emotionally connected to Mrs Ramsay, an emotion directly conveyed through her act of knitting. Just as Mrs Ramsay’s stocking constantly circles on its interlocking needles, so she encircles James “folding her son in her arm” and like the phallic knitting-needle, James “stand[s] between her knees, very stiff” (27–8). Mrs Ramsay thus uses her craft to connect herself with her husband, and with her son, but thereby triggers a classic oedipal rivalry between them.

30Despite, or perhaps because of these connections and tensions, Mrs Ramsay uses her knitting to create moments in time when everyone seems to be in accord: “Flashing her needles, confident, upright, she created drawing-room and kitchen, set them all aglow; […] She laughed, she knitted” (27 emphasis mine). This is, however, only a passing moment, one that is spatially bounded since Mrs Ramsay cannot “create” beyond the domestic setting, and temporally bounded because she will soon die. Later that evening, her husband comments: “You won’t finish that stocking tonight,” to which Mrs Ramsey replies: “No, I shan’t finish it” (89). Though an apparently trivial exchange, her statement is truncated, weighted, and ominous. The meaning soon becomes clear: three pages later we learn that Mrs Ramsay has died, leaving the stocking poignantly and symbolically unfinished.

4. From boundaries to boundlessness: the triumph of the contemporary knitting-woman

31Byatt concludes “Art Work” with the memorable image of a knitted sculpture: this creation marks the shift whereby knitting is recognised as an art-form, no longer a simple utilitarian craft. At first glance, Mrs Brown’s exhibition seems to imitate the impulse of her Victorian forebears, with their knitted curtains and veiled furniture, when she redesigns the walls of her allotted space with “partly knitted tapestries” and “swaying crocheted cobwebs” (77). However, Mrs Brown creates not only a knitted prison, but she furnishes it with a “twisted” lady with a “concertinaed” body that is constructed from remnants of woolly fabrics. The long limbs of the figure are “pink nylon,” and she is chained by “sinister strained tights,” while “her public hair is [a] shrunk angora bonnet” (Byatt 80). Into this figure, Byatt infuses numerous cultural referents that evoke the history of women’s oppression, while at the same time producing a post-modern art-form that transcends socio-cultural hierarchies and conveys multiple interdisciplinary meanings. Its “concertinaed” form also gestures at the nature of knitting, moving back and forth as well as increasing and decreasing, so that symbolically it links past and present.

32Mrs Brown’s figure is, however, individualised as “Princess Saba,” a name that Michael Wood claims is Arabic and which translates in Hebrew to “Sheba” (para.8). Significantly, it is at this point in Byatt’s narrative that the reader learns, as does Debbie Dennison, that Mrs Brown’s Christian name is Sheba. This revelation infuses the knitted sculpture with both an autobiographical identity, and an allusion to one of the most powerful queens in world history, a woman immortalised in both the Bible and the Koran. Unlike Defarge’s and Newberry’s encrypted fabrics, accessible only by their authors’ translation, Mrs Brown’s exhibits are open to any interpretation by any viewer. To the art critic, for example, they are “full of feminist comments on the trivia of our daily life,” while to young Jamie Dennison they are simply “stupiferous” (Byatt 83, 87). Jamie’s neologism, created by adding the suffix -ferous (from the Latin, ferre, producing or bearing) to the verb “stupefy,” emphasises how Mrs Brown’s knitted creations produce not only amazement, but also generate creativity in the next generation. Jamie’s vocabulary, hitherto shaped by the prejudicial discourse of grandfather and father does not equip him to appreciate Mrs Brown’s knitted artefacts, and so he must invent his own word. Byatt ends thus on a note of boundlessness: the knitting-woman has produced the knitted-woman which bears multiple signs and symbols conveying diverse truths and traditions, all of which may be endlessly deconstructed and reconstructed.

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1 The hyphenated term, “knitting-woman”, first appears in Dickens’s novel.

2 In Sarah Grand’s The Beth Book (1897), Aunt Victoria, a spinster reacts thus on being asked by Beth whether she had ever had children (223).

3 In George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871-2), Susan Garth exhibits this redundant action during her tense interview with Fred Vincy (619).

4 In Ellen Wood’s East Lynne (1861), Miss Carlyle “jerks some stitches out of her knitting” whilst disparaging the behaviour of lovesick females (361).

5 This image is reproduced on the website of the Royal Collection Trust:

6 In Margaret Oliphant’s Kirsteen (1888), Mrs Douglas frets about her worsted being twisted too tightly: “It takes the softness all out of it” (27).

7 The Green Jacket (1917); Dead Right (1922), and The Mysterious Office (1922).

8 Statutes relating to Probation for Offenders were initiated in Boston, Mass., in 1859.

9 Maud Silver featured in a total of thirty-two novels between 1928 and 1961.

10 Jane Marple first appeared in Murder at the Vicarage (1928) and thereafter in eleven crime novels and twenty short stories.

11 Mrs Bradley appeared in sixty-six novels published between 1929 and 1975 (Herbert 22).

12 When Byatt has her protagonist use “hairy brown” string to tie together the knitted elements of her installation, she seems to conjure Mrs Ramsay’s “reddish-brown hairy stocking”, forging another allusive connection with Woolf.

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Kathy REES, « Worsted, Weave, and Web: The Cultural Struggles of the Fictional Knitting-Woman », E-rea [En ligne], 16.1 | 2018, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2018, consulté le 14 octobre 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.6845

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Kathy REES

Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom
Kathy Rees completed her PhD on allusion in the work of Edmund Gosse at Anglia Ruskin University in 2015. After two years as an independent researcher, publishing articles on various aspects of Victorian literature, she became a CRA (College Research Associate) at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge.

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