As discussed in a previous post, there is no demonstrable geographic or historical basis for categorizing the knitting of fabric primarily with twisted stitches as “Eastern,” or knitting with predominantly open stitches as “Western.” Similar conditions apply to the terms “English” and “continental” when used to designate the two most widespread methods for holding yarn.
Most early writing about that aspect of knitting technique treats the predominant local approach as the ordinary one. Where alternative methods are described, it is in procedural terms that may or may not be identified with the name of another region.
This can be illustrated starting with The Workwoman’s Guide written anonymously by “A Lady” in 1838. This describes what is now called the English method.
The Common Knitting Stitch
Hold the pin with the stitches on, in the left hand; with the right hand, put the other pin under the first loop, making the pin lie across behind the left-hand pin, while with the first finger, the worsted is drawn in front between the pins. Then with the end of the right pin, press this worsted till it is brought through the stitch in the form of a loop upon the right hand pin.
The author follows this with a description of the continental method.
Dutch Common Knitting
This is another mode of knitting the common stitch, and is more simple, and more quickly done than the usual way. Hold the pin-ful of stitches in the left hand, as also the worsted, which should be wound once or twice around the little finger, to keep it firm, and allowed to pass over the first finger to the pins. The right hand pin is then simply passed through the stitch, and catching the worsted outside, draws it through, and forms the loop on the right pin, an so on.
With the exception of the way the two methods are labeled, the difference between them is presented in essentially the same way it still is. In fact, in British writing the left-hand method was commonly called Dutch or German until World War I, when the latter term was supplanted by a geopolitically neutral alternative.
The effort to promote holding yarn in the left hand continued in the Victorian fancywork literature, where the perspective of the left-handed knitter simply went unrecognized. This is typified in the 1842 edition of Jane Gaugain’s The Lady’s Assistant in knitting, netting, and crochet work, emphasized there with a pointing finger and italics.
☞ In teaching any person to knit, they should be instructed, as the more elegant mode, to hold the thread over the forefinger of the left hand, and not the right as most people do.
A Dutch text published by Anna Barbara van Meerten in 1823 (discussed in detail in a previous post) describes the way yarn is held for crochet by comparing it to the ordinary method of knitting in Holland at that time.
This is held in the right hand, along with the thread being worked, about as though one were knitting.
In light of the 1838 English description of the Dutch method it might seem that the practice there had changed in the interim (as it did more widely with crochet). However, van Meerten describes the local technique again in 1835, in a Dutch translation of a German Encyclopedia for Women and Girls.
The thread is placed over the right forefinger and held by the fourth finger and the little finger, while the other fingers hold the needles… Some people wrap the thread around the left index finger, which is the same.
The translator’s preface says that she adapted some of the instructions to local conditions, so it is safe to regard wrapping the yarn around the right index finger as the preferential Dutch practice. I haven’t been able to locate the original German version and don’t know if this is one of the modified passages.
The rules and techniques of ordinary knitting are widely known.
These documents almost certainly do not reflect the full variation of local practice in the countries of their publication and obviously say nothing about subsequent trends. Skipping forward to the 1880s as described by Thérèse de Dillmont in her Encyclopedia of Needlework, the yarn-right method is presented as “the one usually practiced in England and France.”
The Germans on the contrary, lay the thread over the left hand, and can move the hands more quickly, in consequence. There are some ways of casting on, which can only be done in the German fashion.
The French edition of the same text makes no reference to England or France and implicitly describes the yarn-right hand position as the established method for a Francophone reader. It then contrasts it with the German yarn-left as just described.
Recent pedagogical material generally makes no presumption about the knitter’s handedness. It also strives to avoid regional categorization, with terms such as “picking” and “throwing.” Such alternatives require explanation, nonetheless, and only designate one component of the suites of actions that define a knitting style. The broader categorizations English and Continental are therefore still often encountered. They have also been joined by the more recently coined use of “Portuguese” as a designation for the yarn-around-neck method of feeding the yarn to the front of the work, which may well predate any of the regionally labeled methods described above.