Crochet · Early instructions · Knitting · Structures

Pegging the origin of the slipped stitch

One of the nice parts about using a blog to present the results of ongoing historical research, is the ease with which a report of “the earliest evidence [of whatever] that has yet come to light” can be amended when even older evidence is uncovered. Since such work constantly strives to extend the resulting timeline, every new success paradoxically risks invalidating a previous one. The corresponding revision of the broader narrative may entail nothing more than noting that something is a few years older than previously believed. However, things such as the radiocarbon dating of a questioned fragment of fabric can necessitate a fundamental re-contextualization of previous documentation. This in turn can effect a major change in our understanding of, say, the origin of a given mode of looped fabric production.

I tacitly tweak posts on this blog to reflect subsequent insight without calling attention to such revision. However, there have been a few stop-press situations where the retroactive editing has been paired with a new post about the details of the more recently uncovered material. The last such case (reported here) arose from my having overlooked the first attested mention of Tunisian crochet — in a Swedish publication that I had in fact examined. It appeared one year earlier than the German source I had cited.

The present post is about a similar oversight with the first English-language reference to “slipping a stitch” in knitting, both in its ordinary form and in what is now called slip stitch crochet, but was then also regarded as a type of knitting. In this case, the date needs to be pushed back by all of two years and the locus moved across an ocean. However, the newly noted source has significant additional ramifications.

Lydia Maria Child (1802–1880) was a native-born monumental figure in the US American equal rights movements of her day, addressing sensitive core issues in several of her many widely read publications. She also wrote a series on domestic topics, including The Girl’s Own Book, published in New York City in 1833. What is labeled a ninth edition but has the preface of the second edition, was printed in London in 1837, explicitly for simultaneous distribution via all booksellers there and in Glasgow and Dublin. Where the US edition makes reference to “American little girls” the British one does to “all little girls” and it seems clear from the credits on its title page that it was authorized. It is similarly apparent from the US editions of the other works in Child’s domestic series that she paid attention to the British press and credited the references she made to it.

Both editions of The Girl’s Own Book include an identically worded chapter headed “Knitting” that begins by placing it in an unexpectedly marginal context.

“The favourite employment of our grandmothers ought not to be forgotten. It enables one to be useful in the decline of life, when they can no longer be actively useful; and it is a never-failing amusement. I never knew an old lady ignorant of it, who did not deeply regret she had never learned. Independent of these considerations, a little girl ought to know how to do everything; it may not always be necessary for her to sew and knit — but she should know how.”

Child had mentioned knitting in the initial book in her domestic series, The Frugal Housewife, which was primarily a cookbook first published at some time before 1831 (with the oldest edition available online from 1835), treating it as something less than truly useful except for making stockings.

“…cheap as stockings are, it is good economy to knit them. Cotton and wool yarn are both cheap; hose that are knit wear twice as long as woven ones; and they can be done at odd minutes of time, which would not be otherwise employed. Where there are children, or aged people, it is sufficient to recommend knitting, that it is an employment.”

The text in The Girl’s Own Book continues accordingly with instructions for knitting a stocking that assume the reader to be familiar with the underlying technique: “Many know the stitch of knitting very well, who are entirely ignorant how to shape a stocking.” These instructions extend over several pages and conclude with the note: “Whoever knows how to knit a stocking, cannot help finding out how to knit a mitten, if they look at one.” The paragraph immediately after that is the main focus of this post.

“There is a kind of knitting, called pegging, done by drawing the yarn through every loop with one crooked ivory needle. Little woollen shoes for infants are knit a great deal in this way; likewise suspenders. A very elastic kind of suspenders is made by knitting one stitch and slipping the next upon the needle without knitting, casting the yarn directly over it. The next time going round, this stitch and its loop are knit together, and the stitches which were knit before are slipped, and a loop thrown over them.”

This text is repeated nearly verbatim in the chapter on knitting in a book published in Dublin in 1835, titled Simple Directions in Needle-Work and Cutting Out Intended for the Use of the National Female Schools of Ireland. It is in a section headed “Scotch Knitting” and follows six numbered instructions, of which the third notes that “this sort of knitting is done with one needle only, which has a hook on the end.” A separate unnumbered paragraph follows these instructions and reads:

“This knitting is very generally used for infants’ woollen or cotton shoes. Suspenders may also be knitted in this way, and rendered more elastic, by knitting one stitch and slipping the next upon the needle, without knitting, casting the thread over it to the next stitch. The next row this stitch and its loop should be knitted together, and the stitches which were knitted before should be slipped, and a loop passed over them.”

The section heading was expanded to “Scotch or Shepherd’s Knitting” in a later edition. This craft is now most widely referred to as slip stitch crochet. A recent post about the origin of the latter name took the 1835 text to include the first attested mention of a slipped crochet stitch. The 1833 publication obviously has precedence and I’ve tweaked the other post to reflect this, promising to delve further into the US source in a subsequent post — this one.

The 1833 text also attests “pegging” as an American synonym for the British “shepherd’s knitting.” Read in isolation, “pegging with…one…crooked needle” could easily be taken to describe knitting on a peg loom. However, neither the US nor the UK text makes the slightest reference to that device, and the label shepherd’s knitting unambiguously indicates both the fabric structure and the implement used to produce it. This still leaves latitude for wondering about the derivation of the US term, which may have its roots in loom knitting nonetheless. (A mainstream French text from 1826 uses the term crochet to designate loom knitting.)

However that may actually have been, the US text weakens my previous belief about shepherd’s knitting not having the same traditional roots there as it did in the UK. I had taken this to explain why “slip stitch crochet” was a later American coinage. However, the corrected timeline only strengthens that geographic anchorage. My friend and co-ponderer over objects with this structure, Anne Marie Decker (who blogs here), also lets me know every now and again about an example of American shepherd’s knitting that she has recently come across. A comprehensive history of that craft will therefore include a chapter about its US manifestation of an extent that has likely only started to become apparent.

The instructions for ordinary knitting in Child’s text include explicit directives for slipping a stitch from one needle to the other without knitting it, in the current sense of the term. The Simple Directions do not label that process in the same way, telling the knitter instead to “take off one [stitch or loop] without knitting it.” This formulation appears at several places in the latter instructions. The only reference in them to a slipped stitch is in the paragraph taken from the description of pegging.

This means that the first attested use of both “slipping a stitch” and a “slipped stitch” is found in an American rather than a British publication, applying without differentiation to ordinary knitting and shepherd’s knitting. However, Lydia Maria Child does not otherwise figure with any prominence in the fancywork literature and doesn’t even seem to regard such activity as time well spent. Heeding the caveat in the opening paragraph of this post, it therefore seems reasonable to remain on the lookout for even earlier mentions of pegging and slipping.

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Roxanne Richardson
15 April 2021 15:16

What a fascinating book (and blog post). I love her opinions on activities she deems worth mentioning, but not worth partaking in, like Bead Bags: “They are so much work, they are seldom worth while to make.”

It’s interesting that distinct terms like “pass a stitch” and Shepherd’s knitting/pegging would converge into the ambiguous term “slip stitch,” particularly given that there is also a sewing technique called slip stitch!