A Stitch in Thyme?: Why Are There So Few Knitting Patterns in Recipe Books?

by Jennifer Sherman Roberts

When I first began researching early modern recipe books, I was struck by how they upended my expectations of the genre.

Some of the recipes seemed to me, quite frankly, weird: the making of puppy water, the application of dung to a wound, the addition of ground human skull to a medicine. And it became clear that they comprised all manner of early modern daily life, not just food. I was struck by how the recipes jostled together on the page, often with little overt organization.

In thinking about the genre, it struck me that this kind of writing is relatively unique to the domestic sphere. Recipe books look nothing like court documents or epic poetry, sermons or stage plays.

The Knitting Woman, William-Adolphe Bouguereau [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Knitting Woman, William-Adolphe Bouguereau [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
They do, however, resemble another kind of domestic writing: knitting patterns. Since early modern recipe books contained instruction for making food and medicine and cosmetics, why not instructions for making clothing?

From my experience with modern recipes and knitting patterns, it seems like a perfect fit: like recipes that specify ingredients and quantities in cups and teaspoons, modern knitting patterns indicate necessary materials in fiber content, exact yardage, and the diameter and length of needles. As with a recipe, this quantification is followed by instructions for converting the raw material to the finished product. The writing is plain and seldom figurative. Indeed, one could call a knitting pattern a “recipe” for clothing.

Knitting patterns, however, are singularly absent from recipe books of the early modern period. There is, however, a telling exception. Sue Davies has pointed out that the 1655 medical compendium Natura Exenterata: or Nature Unbowelled by the Most Exquiste Anatomizers of Her, contains several pattern at the end of the work.

In the Natura Exenterata, the patterns, like recipes, are laid out one per entry to favor ease of location and organization. And like recipes, the instructions are written in a straightforward, matter-of fact tone, with very little editorializing or figurative language.

To make Network like seven Eyes.
The first course, wind your thread about your pinne at every stitch, and the second course take two long stitches upon your needle and turne the second stitch into the first long stitch inward to your hand and pull it through your first stitch, and the thread of your first stitch, turn it inward through the second stitch down to your pinne like a loop or a Nouse, so that the thread of the loop must lye upon the nouse upper∣most, then work your nouse down to your pin, and the next stitch or thread that lyeth upon your nouse work down to your pinne, and make a stich.
Provided alwayes if your work go true you have two knots toge∣ther, and a wide bout between, and the next third course begin your work again and round your thread about your pinne at every stitch, as you did before at the beginning of your work.

It’s telling, however, that with the knitting patterns in this compendium there is no indication of the quantity or type of materials needed. The knitting pattern is composed exclusively of instructions, unlike a contemporary pattern.

It would be fascinating to know when that shift occurred. One

The ladies' knitting and netting book, 1838; University of Southampton Knitting Reference Library
The Ladies’ Knitting and Netting Book, 1838; University of Southampton

excellent resource for such a question is the digitized Knitting Reference Library at the University of Southampton. In that database, we can see some movement towards quantification happening in the mid-19th century. In The Ladies Knitting and Netting Book of 1838, for example, there is only occasionally mention of the type of yarn (“German Wool”) and no note of the size of needles required. By 1874, however, we can see in The Lady’s Knitting Book that “pin” (needle) sizes and type of yarn are frequently listed.

I wonder if the shift into recording the exact quantities of materials–together with the addition of pictures of the final product (as seen here)– reflects a contemporary insistence on mass reproducibility. There is an implied guarantee that, if the identical brand of yarn, the exact fiber content, and precisely the same size needles are used, the final product will be an exact replica of the (perfectly lit, professionally photographed) final object.

I wonder, too, about the future of these genres, recipes and knitting patterns. Crafting books and cookbooks are now often published under “celebrity” names. There are famous knitters like Kaffe Fasset, Debbie Bliss, and even Vanna White (of “Wheel of Fortune” fame). Issuing cookbooks are any number of cooking channel celebs, from Padma Lakshmi to Emeril Lagasse to Nigella Lawson. And both genres are being revolutionized by the digital world: whether one needs a recipe for crepes or cardigans, one need only consult Google.


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