For almost as long as I’ve been a knitter,
I’ve been fascinated by the history of knitting. I’ve
especially enjoyed the mind-twisting process of working with
the often obtuse and obfuscatory language of antique patterns.
There’s a thrill, I find, in watching a project emerge
row by row and knowing that other knitters, long gone, followed
the same path.
The process of decoding, testing and correcting
isn’t for everyone,
though; and so in this column I hope to share
the excitement of the journey by removing as
many of the roadblocks as possible. You don’t need
to be a historian to come along – just a knitter with
a curious mind.
Courtesy of Lion Brand Yarn Company
I once got a message from a knitter that
read as follows:
Hi. I am trying to knit this baby outfit
and they call for a yarn that isn’t
made any more. It’s not in Ravelry.
You write about old knitting. Where can
I find out what the yarn was like
so I can pick a substitute?
The pattern, published in the 1920s by a
yarn company, warned in bold capitals that
it would be the height of folly and bad taste
to substitute anything for the company’s
own yarn: FOR BEST RESULTS USE ONLY SUPERIOR “HOTCHA” BRAND “LITTLE
FLAPPER FLOSS” OR YOUR BABY WILL GET
RICKETS. Or words to that effect.
The difficulty, of course, is that in the
intervening century HOTCHA BRAND and its
SUPERIOR yarns have long since gone to dust,
or been digested repeatedly by larger and
larger corporations. Good luck with getting
through to customer service.
When you’re dealing with older patterns
that were published by a yarn company, this
is the rule rather than the exception. That’s
what made me look twice when a student in
one of my antique patterns classes pulled
out a slim volume with LION YARN BOOK in
large letters on the cover.
“Lion as in Lion Brand?” I asked.
“I think so,” she said.
It was. Under the title, to the right of
a cheerful Ragtime-era soubrette with a shawl-collared
cardigan and a canoe paddle, was the familiar
trademark of a recumbent lion in a grove
of palm trees.
“When was it published?” I asked.
“The copyright is 1916,” she
“Hmmm,” I said.
A Long-Lived Lion I
had heard of Lion Brand Yarns, of course,
but to be quite honest hadn’t given
them much thought. I associated the name
with acrylics and novelty yarns–neither
of which is on my list of Favorite Things.
They also tend in these parts to be sold
primarily in large chain craft stores, which
in my little urban village of North Side
Chicago are less common and more bothersome
to reach without a car than small, independent
But I rather liked the idea of working through
a centenarian pattern using modern yarns
from the same company that had originally
published it. So I did a little digging,
made a few calls, and found out that far
more than the name and trademark had survived.
When it published “Lion
Yarn Book,” the
company was already well past the quarter-century
mark. Reuben Blumenthal established
the company in New York in 1878. Almost 135
years later, the company’s CEO is still
a Blumenthal – David, a direct fourth-generation
descendant of Reuben – and his office
is still in New York City. In fact, the majority
of Lion Brand’s leaders are Blumenthals,
all great-grandsons of the founder. A fifth generation – including
David’s son, Evan, now Director
of International Sales – is rising,
which I think must qualify the Blumenthals
to be the Rothschilds of the yarn industry.
I spoke with Jack Blumenthal, a Senior Vice
President with an intimate knowledge of the
company’s history, about how he literally
grew up in the business. His father, George
H. Blumenthal, was a trained textile engineer
who handled the company’s sales.
“From the time I was four years old,” says
Jack, “all I wanted was to be like
my dad. He got to travel the world, talking
to people, talking about yarn, which what
he loved. And I knew I wanted to do that.”
On the road, George not only promoted the
company’s lines but collected information
about what yarns knitters were looking for,
and where they
were looking for them. Like many New Yorkers
then and now, he didn’t drive, so
in each city he visited, he’d hire
Says Jack, “He’d always ask
the driver, ‘Where does your wife buy
her yarn?’ And in the early 1960s,
he noticed that they weren’t talking
mostly about department stores and small
shops any more–they were talking about
the new discount stores, like Ann & Hope
in Rhode Island. On one visit to Minneapolis,
in 1962, the driver took him to his wife’s
favorite store. A brand new place. It was
the first Target.”
Lion Brand also followed the market when
knitters began to ask for yarns that could
be cared for like the new wrinkle-free, stain-resistant,
wash-and-wear clothes** they could now buy
off the rack. George’s background in
textile engineering meant he understood the
nature and potential of the new man-made
fibers, and the company kept its business
viable by changing its yarns to meet customer
“Fads come and go,” says Jack, “but
we don’t mind. We like to swim upstream.”
Which is a good thing, since nowadays the
many of the trends George spotted are reversing
themselves under his son’s watch. The
market for acrylics hasn’t exactly
disappeared, but the renewed public interest
in natural fibers has led the company to
introduce the LB Collection, an elegant small-batch
line comprising merinos, cashmeres, organic
wools, cottons, and other emphatically non-acrylic
The happy rebirth of the small shop is something
the company has also celebrated – by
opening its own. The
Lion Brand Yarn Studio on West
15th Street in New York City (not far from
the company's origins on Orchard Street)
was a dream from Jack's first days in the
company, in the early 1980s. "We had
a vision of what the perfect yarn shop would
be," he says. The Studio, which opened
in 2008, is the realization – noted
for its cozy atmosphere, spectacular window
displays, and interior installations of knitted
and crocheted art. (For bargain hunters,
the company also offers a factory
outlet in the New Jersey
Meadowlands, complete with a large and comfortable
knit café in the middle.)
So, the company that produced the first
Lion Yarn Book in 1912 is still very much
alive and roaring in 2012; though instead
of a book with dozens of patterns, it’s
got a Web site with almost 5,000. Reuben
would be proud.
Old Pattern, New Yarn Now for the bad news.
I found a pattern in the Lion Yarn Book that
I absolutely had to knit – a toddler’s
pullover in the classic “Middy” mode
with bow and sailor collar. The design was
a shock to my system: all garter stitch,
one piece, knit flat, two simple seams. No
increasing except by casting on. No decreasing
except by binding off. So modern in technique,
so prescient of the work of Elizabeth Zimmermann
(who was born in 1910), that it’s almost
The Middy Jumper calls for several skeins
of Shetland Floss, a brand that isn’t
among Lion Brand’s current offerings;
but I figured while I was on the phone with
Jack I’d ask him to tell me about it,
maybe even dig up a sample from the vault.
That’s when I learned about the fire.
“The oldest yarns in the archives
go back to the fifties, a little bit from
the forties,” he said. “Almost
everything before that was destroyed.”
There was a long pause, during which I may
or may not have wept openly.
So, ironically, I was back to the usual
starting point of having only a brand name
and a small bit of fairly useless information.
The list of Lion Brand Yarns in the back
of the book describes Shetland Floss as “2
fold” (meaning two-ply); and it’s
not in the special category of “Dainty
Yarns for Dainty Work.” So we know
it had two plies and wasn’t notably
dainty. That doesn’t get a person very
far when trying to pick a modern substitute.
What to do?
Ultimately I was forced to estimate the
original gauge by comparing the number of
stitches cast on for the back to the chest
measurement for a child of twenty-four months
as designated by the Craft
Yarn Council of America (CYCA). I have
no way of knowing whether the 1916 designer
and the CYCA would agree precisely on
the circumference of the average toddler,
but it was as good a starting point as any.
Dividing half the chest measurement by the
number of cast on stitches for the back gave
me some idea of the stitches per inch, which
allowed me to guess at the gauge of the original
Shetland Floss: about six stitches per inch.
Then came another quandary. Six stitches
per inch usually means a sport or light DK
yarn–and the current Lion Brand lines
fall mainly on either side of that weight.
So I did what knitters past, present, and
future have ever done in this situation.
I picked the available yarn that I liked
best and adapted the pattern to make it work.
The translated pattern uses a larger gauge,
but unlike the original, this Middy Jumper
will survive a trip through the washing machine.
(Except the bow. Take the bow out first.)
*Until Jack turned 17 and began
traveling with his father on sales calls
as his driver. That’s how he learned
the business, he says – sitting and
listening to his father talk to buyers
and company presidents.
**If, like me, you always wondered how
an entire generation could fall in love
with acrylic, go ask your grandmother (or
any woman who came of age in the 1950s
or before) what fun it was to spend one
day a week, every week, bent over an ironing
Chest: 24 inches Hem to Underarm: 10 inches Arm: 9.5 inches
Lion Brand Martha Stewart Crafts Extra Soft Wool Blend [65% acrylic/35%
wool; 165 yd per 100g skein]
Gray Pearl; 2 skeins
Bakery Box White; 1 skein
Recommended needle size [always use a needle
size that gives you the gauge
listed below -- every knitter's
gauge is unique]
#3/3.25mm needles: straight or 1 24-inch circular as
yard of white or pale cream 7/8" wide satin ribbon
20 sts/20 ridges = 4 inches in stockinette
stitch before blocking
PATTERN NOTES [Knitty's list of standard abbreviations and techniques can be found here.]
The piece is worked entirely in garter
stitch. The body and sleeves are knit first, in one piece,
beginning with the back. Cuffs and collar are added before
the two side/underarm seams are sewn. Note that the front
panel is considerably larger than the back due to stitches
that are cast on when working the collar’s front placket.
This creates a nice a-line shape.
Gauge and needle selection: You’ll find that the gauge
indicated creates a firm fabric – not stiff, but tight
enough to minimize stretching and drooping.
To get gauge, you may well find yourself
using a needle two or even three sizes smaller than you would
normally choose for knitting the same yarn in stockinette.
Historic gauge and fiber: The figures used in the original
pattern indicate a slightly finer gauge of 6 sts to the inch,
to be worked in a pure wool yarn equivalent to a modern sport
weight. If you wish to work at this gauge, substitute the following
numbers for those in the modern pattern:
Cast on: 60 sts,
Cast on for sleeves: 40 sts each,
CO for collar fronts: 15 sts each side;
and adjust the rest of the numbers accordingly.
Counting Garter Rows. Garter stitch (working flat, knit all
stitches) forms ridges which are more prominent in the finished
fabric than individual rows. The pattern therefore counts ridges
more often than rows. Two rows create one ridge. Unless otherwise
noted, always count ridges on the RS of the fabric.
Knitted Cast On. For a tutorial, see "Knitting
BO in Purl on RS row. This small detail
called for in the original pattern, but it
results in a garter stitch edge so neat and
elegant that it has become my go-to technique for binding
off garter stitch. There’s a tutorial
Sewing Seams. I strongly recommend
stitch, which is strong, flexible, and becomes virtually
invisible in this project.
Starting at the lower edge of the back. With
MC, CO 50 sts.
Work in garter st (k all sts) until work measures 9 inches,
marking the RS of the work with a stitch marker or safety pin.
End with a WS row.
Sleeve cast on row: Turn work and, using knitted cast
on, CO 30 sts. K across all sts.
Repeat the Sleeve cast on row once more. 110 sts.
Work in garter st until portion above sleeve CO measures 4
inches, ending with a WS row.
Divide for fronts:
K 50 sts. Sl these sts onto a piece of
BO the next 10 sts for back of neck.
On the remaining 50 sts, knit 5 ridges
(10 rows) ending with a WS row.
Cast on for neck placket: Turn work. Using knitted
cast on, CO 12 sts. Do not turn work, but knit across these
62 sts until sleeve portion of work measured at cuff measures
8 inches, ending with a RS row.
BO 30 sts. 32 sts rem. Work 7 ridges. Break working yarn (leaving
6 inch tail) and place the 32 sts on a length of scrap yarn.
Return 50 live sts of left sleeve and shoulder
on left needle. At neck edge of live sts, join yarn and knit
5 ridges (10 rows) ending with a WS row.
Cast on for neck placket: Turn work. Using
knitted cast on, CO 12 sts. Do not turn work, but knit these
62 sts until sleeve portion of work measured at cuff measures
8 inches, ending with a RS row.
BO 30 sts. 32 sts rem. Work 7 ridges, ending with a WS row.
Turn work and k to end of sts. Return reserved sts from left
front on left needle and knit across all sts, joining right
and left fronts together.
Work on these 64 sts (note that front panel has more sts than
back to create an a-line shape) until front equals length of
back, ending with a WS row. Break working yarn, leaving 6 inch
With RS of front facing, join CC and work 7 ridges, ending
with a WS row. BO in purl on a RS row.
With RS of back facing, starting at upper right corner of back
hem (the original CO row), use CC to pick up and knit 50 sts
(one for every CO stitch).
Work 7 ridges, ending with a WS row. BO in purl.
With WS of collar facing, beginning at
right corner of collar, use CC to pick
up and knit 15 sts across right collar,
12 sts across back of neck, and 15 sts across
left collar. 42 sts total.
Work 19 ridges, ending with a WS row.
BO in purl.
With RS of sleeve facing, beginning at
right corner of lower edge of sleeve, use CC to pick up and
knit 36 sts.
Work 16 ridges, ending with a WS row.
BO in purl.
Repeat for second cuff.
Wash and gently block. Sew side/underarm seams. Weave in ends.
Beginning at lowest point of neck front, lace the ribbon
into the collar (in the same manner you would lace a shoe)
for about 2 inches. (Fastening a safety pin to the end of
the ribbon will help you to maneuver the ribbon in and out
of the fabric, about 2 sts in from the selvedge.) Tie a neat,
floppy bow. Trim ends to a suitable length.
This middy jumper has afforded him the welcome
opportunity to knit a garment for someone who
is smaller than himself, but not actually a
doll. He doesn’t
mind being small, really. It makes airplane
travel easier. He spends a lot of time on airplanes,
flying around to teaching gigs at fiber festivals.
Gosh, his life is hard.