The reign of Queen Victoria in England was marked by the huge popularity of all kinds of lace, the rise of knitting as a hobby rather than as a way to make a living and the first time that knitting pattern books were published.
British knitter Jane Sowerby has a collection of these classic books and traces the history of the books, the women who wrote them and the lace patterns that evolved through different publications in her huge book, Victorian Lace Today.
A History of Lace
Victorian Lace Today provides a nice overview of the knitting scene in Victorian England, a time when just about anything that could be knit was knit and a time when knitting patterns were being written down and widely distributed for the first time. Through publications like The Knitter's Friend, The Ladies' Knitting and Netting Book and Weldon's Practical Knitter, patterns were developed, disseminated, reworked, some would say plagiarized, and knit by ladies far and wide.
Each section of the book deals with a different author or series of books on knitting and needle arts, with a bit of information about the publication itself and what was included followed by one or several patterns either inspired by or more literally copied from these publications.
Of course the knitting instructions of old were nothing like the ones we see today. There was no consensus on the terms that were used to describe the different actions of knitting, some designers used no abbreviations at all and many of the patterns seem never to have been tested by real knitters before publication.
Sowerby notes that she wanted to include a pattern for a border from a 1904 edition of Weldon's Practical Knitter, but "as I have found with many of these old patterns, the center oak leaf pattern was mathematically unworkable. Despite swatching and graphing, and with no illustrations as a guide, I could not arrive at anything remotely knittable."
Luckily for us she did find a lot that was knittable and adaptable to our modern standards of lace knitting charts (all these patterns are charted and without written directions for the charts), and she offers nearly 40 different patterns updated from the Victorian era. Most of these are for shawls, but there are other projects such a fichus, little knit collars the were originally worn over dresses to make them a little fancier or more modest when covering the chest was en vogue.
There are five patterns rated as easy as lace knitting goes, while 26 patterns are for intermediate lace knitters and seven are for those with a lot of experience knitting lace.
There are a wide variety of patterns, from the easy Shoulder Shawl in Syrian pattern, a triangular shawl with rows of eyelets for decoration; to the simple-looking but actually quite challenging Dolphin Lace scarf, worked with a double border and a wacky pattern of slipped and passed stitches.
There are many patterns to love here, such as the Lace Rectangle in Spider Net, a pattern that looks like flowers; Miss Lambert's Sheltand Pattern for a Shawl, using a classic Shetland shell pattern; the pretty Curved Shawl with Diamond Edging; a variety of scarves with wide edgings; the Half-Square in Trinity Stitch, which shows that stitch patterns used more than a hundred years ago are still popular today; and the light and airy Myrtle Leaf Shawl with Willow Border.
Many of the patterns use mohair, cashmere or other luxury yarns; potential substitutions are given at the back of the book. There knitters will also find a wealth of techniques and useful information on things like casting on, increasing and decreasing, grafting, knitting on a border (which is not a technique the Victorians would have used, but it does make life easier), blocking tips and hints for reading charts.
An in-depth section on designing your own lace patterns and borders takes readers through the many options available to them and even includes a worksheet to help knitters calculate a knitted-on border to work with the center lace panel of their choice.
Knitters who are interested in historic knitting patterns but who don't want to invest a lot of money or shelf space for the original pattern books (not to mention the time and frustration involved in actually trying to knit projects from the original books) will find Victorian Lace Today an indispensable guide to the genre.
It's a history lesson and pattern book in one and will leave readers with a deeper understanding of this part of knitting history even if they never knit a pattern from its pages. But I don't know how someone could look through the book and not want to pick up their needles to work a gossamer wonder -- and marvel at how the original patterns called for needles equivalent to today's 0000 US or smaller!
Publication date: April 2008