Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Teaching Knitting a Century Ago

By Inny

I first published this article over on my own blog IngridNation. My 'specialist subject' is craft skills education, and I often come across really interesting books in the course of my research. Here is my take on just one of them. Let me know what you think too.

Hand knitting was brought formally into the British school syllabus with the 1870 Education Act. It had been taught in many schools, and especially to girls for long before that, but was not formalised until the late 19th century. By the time of the First World War, knitting was a required element of girls' education and of many boys' too.

The examiner for the London School Board 100 years ago was one Ethel Dudley. She wrote the 1914 standard school book Knitting for Infants and Juniors which I recently consulted in the Knitting Reference Library. Sadly, due to copyright and library rules, I wasn't able to show you a photograph or any of the text here.

I really love looking at old textbooks, (especially old textile-related ones) because I'm just geeky like that. This one was particularly fascinating because it was a textbook for the teacher, not for the pupils. The book showed how the teacher of this period was expected to instruct a class of both boys and girls from age five to eleven. At this point, British children attending state run schools were generally taught in separate single sex classrooms except when they were very young.

In the book, techniques are explained for the teacher using both diagrams and text and teachers are advised to physically demonstrate the knitting techniques in front of the class. This makes a lot of sense today in the light of what we now know about learning styles. It also suggests that either the teachers may not know all of the techniques or that they may need to improve on them in order to meet the programme of learning/teaching.

In her book, Dudley suggested lesson plans and instructions for patterns suitable for varying ages such as the following for five year olds:

‘Duster for school blackboards. Needles 5. Number 8 cotton. 30-40 minutes.
Cast on 18 stitches. K (chain edge) 36 rows.
Cast off and make chain of 12 stitches to hang up.’ (1930:14)

It seems surprising to me today, that five year old children would be able to produce a duster in 40 minutes. Certainly when I have been teaching small children to knit, even those who are 'improvers' would struggle with the speed of this due to the dexterity of their fingers. I'm not sure of the comparable weight of number 8 cotton (but would guess DK to aran weight), but number 5 needles are 5.5mm or US9.

Other items recommended by Dudley to be knitted by children at ages six to seven included lace-paneled, pieced and fitted doll’s clothes, and shaped and pieced slippers. I have to say that they appear much more complex than projects in knitting books for children of a similar age today.

So, is it just that knitting is seen today to be a leisure activity that children might be interested in as a hobby and therefore has to be simple and fun? Was it that 100 years ago, knitting was a necessary life skill that they had need to be competent at from an early age and therefore seems more complicated through our 21st century lens? Or do we expect less from our young learners today?

From the teaching point of view, I wonder whether the school knitting teachers of today would know all of the skills that Ethel Dudley had in mind for those of 1914, or perhaps we should have our own kind of training manuals today? In some ways, I'd love a book that told me how to teach people certain skills. As an example, it took a few tries for my (adult) student and I to work out a good system for teaching her to knit left-handed with me as a righty.

What do you think to these century old differences in the perceived skill levels for teaching and learning to knit?

Do let me know in the comments.


  1. I'm a lefty myself and learned to knit at an after school program when I was in middle school! I have been knitting ever since.

    It amazes me that in the "olden" days the level of skill exhibited by crafts people is at a level we do not see today. Granted, a few artisans capture this, but overall I just don't see it in the majority of crafts. I have often wondered why this is so. That saying "They don't make things like they used to" rings very true. Artisans long ago took pride in their work; took their time with the work that they did, considered it an extension of who they were and that takes a lot of commitment; something the majority consider they do not have the time for. I find that very sad in this day and age.

  2. I think, as a school child in UK in the early 50's, we were taught skills such as knitting, sewing, patching and darning as seriouusly as maths and english. I can just about get my head around the time for a duster - not sure i could have as I was clumsy but the more nimble i think so yes - every girl certainly was taught to knit - I could darn well and patch neatly before I was ten. Also sew aprons and shoe bags - it's a different outlook - today children have many other subjects and distractions and the skills are not considered important. After the war with rationing still inforce until I was about ten or more they were important.

  3. Thank you both for your comments. I guess I was lucky to go to school in Denmark in the 80s and 90s and there we also had crafts taught as subjects in school as well as something as essential as cooking.
    Doing a craft and doing it well does take commitment and time, but for me I think the sad truth is that as long as people today don't want to pay for local crafts done well then crafts people just aren't able to put that effort into it. Luckily, local and handmade crafts do seem to be more and more popular but you still get people who have the money but who don't understand why they should pay a good price for something that is 'just' handmade by someone they know.


Thank you for stopping by - I would love to hear your thoughts on this post :-)