History · Knitting · Techniques · Tools

Hooked knitting needles in the French parlor in 1817

I’ve noted the significance of “The art of knitting in its full extent” (Die Kunst Zu Stricken in ihrem ganzen Umfange) by Johann Friedrich Netto and Friedrich Leonhard Lehmann in several previous posts (but have yet to find a good way to vary the introductory paragraph). This was published in 1800 and reflected in German texts on knitting by other authors well into the 1820s including mention of the utility of hook-tipped needles. Both here and more generally in the craft press of that time, what we might call plagiarized wording is commonplace (earlier notions about the permissibility of the unattributed reuse of the work of others differed significantly from ours) but original material is often added, making it worthwhile to examine the full detail of what may on first glance appear to be a rehash of someone else’s earlier material.

Netto and Lehmann published a French translation of their book in 1802, which was then coopted in subsequent French texts. One, in particular, explicitly acknowledges the prior work of the German authors and also names the Swiss knitter, Dubois, who figured prominently in their book. This is the “Treatise on knitting – simple or complex” (Traité du tricot, simple ou compliqué) by Augustin Legrand. It is undated but displays the address where he was located from 1810 and includes an advertisement for material he sold there in 1817.

Legrand’s book also illustrates a burgeoning divergence between texts focused on domestic enterprise and those treating fancywork as a leisure activity. Whereas the German derivates of Netto and Lehmann are directed toward the former audience, the two gentlemen themselves together with Legrand more clearly target the latter. Legrand’s chapter “On needles with hooks” (Des Aiguilles à crochet) places such implements on the French recreational knitter’s workbench and adds yet another method for holding yarn to those considered in previous posts.

“These needles are of ordinary length and have a small hook at the one end similar to that of tambour needles. To knit with these needles, the thread is first wrapped around the left wrist to place it under slight tension. It is then held on the index finger of the same hand so that it is ready to be grasped by the hook that pulls it back through the stitch into which it was inserted. This forms a new stitch that remains on this needle.

It is easy to imagine that this work cannot fail to produce a great economy of time, and a greater regularity in the work. It is even claimed that by means of this process it is possible to make a sock in an hour.

All kinds of knitting can be performed with these kinds of needles; but they are especially recommended for gold and silver wire. This is because they reduce jarring and friction, causing less wear on the metal, leaving the work more lustrous.”

The reference to the production of a sock in one hour is all but certain to derive from a section in Netto & Lehmann that describes Dubois’s work (here). However, one of the salient details of Dubois’s method for flat knitting was his use of long needles, supporting one of them under his arm. Legrand specifically prescribes needles of ordinary length, thus precluding a fixed-needle technique, unless an unmentioned knitting sheath was also employed.

Similarly, Dubois’s method for working in the round (described here) uses a shoulder pin to feed the yarn to the front of the work. To the extent that Legrand is referring to this as well, the yarn-around-neck technique is replaced by what might be called yarn-around-wrist, feeding the yarn to the rear of the work.

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