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.
Fruit Knitting and
the Art of Compromise
When I began this column I made a promise
to myself. The translated patterns would,
in so far as possible, be faithful to the
originals. I would fix errors. I would fill
in gaps. I would sweep the garden path, but
not straighten it overmuch.
This was absolutely a reaction against the
first book I ever read that purported to
offer Victorian knitting patterns. I wrote
about it years later in my own book, It
It was full of the author’s clunky.
simplified interpretations of Victorian knitting
patterns. There were mouthwatering photographs
of original, nineteenth-century pieces, but
these she insisted were beyond my reach. “The
busy modern knitter,” she wrote, “has
neither the time nor the patience to devote
herself to such complicated work.”
Says you, lady.
I see no reason why a twenty-first century
knitter cannot have a swell time, if he so
chooses, knitting the old patterns as written.
They do not require six hands, two brains,
or the power of telekinesis. Usually, though,
they do require a bit of compromise.
Consider this month’s pattern. It’s
a purse shaped like a pineapple.
Now, you may never have considered knitting
a purse in the shape of a pineapple; but
in the mid-19th century, judging from the
number of extant examples and the number
of published patterns for making them, they
were Just the Thing. The craze was only for
pineapple bags, mind you, not for hand luggage
knit in the shape of fruits generally.
The first pineapple bag I ever saw was in
Montse Stanley’s essential The
Reader’s Digest Knitter’s Handbook – a
period example in a come-hither color illustration.
It looked hopelessly complex and very fussy.
I knew with sick certainty that some day
I would have to knit one.
The pattern I figured I’d use is in
the only Victorian knitting book of which
I own an original copy: The
Table Book, published in Philadelphia
in the 1860s. There is no author’s
name given, possibly because she was afraid
of angry readers coming after her. The patterns
in The Ladies’ Work Table Book are
the sort of that give the entire era a bad
The pineapple bag, in particular, is a doozy.
It rambles like an opium dream from one page
to the next without even a paragraph break,
only to end abruptly with the supremely helpful
phrase “…then knit the stalks
and narrow [bind] off.”
Then knit the stalks? Stalks? What are the
stalks supposed to look like? I grew up in
Hawaii across the street from a pineapple
field. I don’t remember any stalks.
How big are they? Answer comes there none.
For example, she helpfully offers a choice
of two gauges. The smaller uses "purse
silk," which in our time would mean
compromising with (for example) silk sewing
thread. She specifies a size 19 needle, which
in our time would mean the skeletal remains
of a US 0 that perished on a desert island
after a shipwreck. The larger bag calls for
Berlin wool (its modern substitute being
fingering weight) and a US 1.
Guess which option I picked? Go ahead, guess.
For the extra-fancy knitter, she suggests
beading the purse. If you love to bead, you’ll
love this. No waiting. You cast on 320 stitches, and
you bead every one of them. In case
you’ve ever wondered if there might
be a way to make a very long, tedious cast-on
row even less fun, here’s your answer.
I decided not to bead.
Finally, compromise was necessary when choosing
colors. In the interest of botanical accuracy,
Mrs. G. calls for four shades of green and
four shades of yellow–all in the same
yarn. Good luck, darling, finding that on
the shelf in 2012. I compromised with one
shade of each, but consoled myself by using
a hand-dyed pure silk yarn so gorgeous that
I would like to buy it pied-à-terre in
a fashionable part of Paris and spoil it
Maybe, on the whole, that wasn’t really
much of a compromise.
About the Pattern
The pattern is a tour-de-force of cleverness
-- maximum punch with minimum fuss. There’s
less going on here than there is in a plain
sock. I kid you not.
The leaves are knit in stockinette, the
fruit in reverse stockinette–but because
the work is turned inside-out which changing
from the former to the latter, purling is
never necessary. More amazing still, both
leaves and fruit use the same stitch motif–the
fruit simply swaps the position of the increases
and decreases every so many rounds, which
causes the fabric to break out in knobs.*
The final, completely unexpected compromise
was waiting for me at (literally) the end.
The instructions for closing the bottom of
the bag are succinct and elegant–just
two rounds, repeated without alteration until
you’re finished. But there’s
a hitch: they don’t work. What’s
more, they immediately don’t
work. In round one, Mrs G asks you to work
a nine-stitch repeat evenly into 320 stitches.
I’m not that good a knitter.
Without an extant example or a working email
for a dead designer to offer guidance, I
had to guess what the bottom of the pineapple
was supposed to have looked like and then
find a way to approximate it. I mapped out
four possible solutions, and tried them one
by one. The solution that worked was the
last one I tried, of course.
Ultimately, this meant it took two weeks
to knit the leaves and the fruit, and three
weeks to figure out those final decreases.
So whether you intend to knit the bag or
not, won’t you please take a moment
and admire my bottom? I’m quite proud
*Warning: Because of said
knobs, do not attempt to knit this purse
in public if you are a shy person and/or
desire privacy. I worked a large part of
my pineapple sitting in a city sidewalk café,
and otherwise blasé urbanites crossed
the street to ask me what the hell I
Approximately 12 inches high (excluding
ribbon trim) by 11 inches wide
Lisa Souza Sylvie [100% Bombyx Silk; 750 yd per 6 oz skein]
Artichoke; 1 skein
Glory; 1 skein
Recommended needle size [always use a needle
size that gives you the gauge
listed below -- every knitter's
gauge is unique]
24-inch US# 1/2.25mm circular needle
1 yard green silk satin ribbon
green sewing thread
670 gold-colored metal beads (optional, not pictured; see Pattern Notes)
32 sts/48 round = 4 inches in stockinette
PATTERN NOTES [Knitty's list of standard abbreviations and techniques can be found here.]
The bag is knit in one piece, in the round,
from the top opening to the bottom. When changing from green
(leaves) to yellow (fruit), the work is turned inside-out.
Historic gauge. Mrs. Gaugain’s
primary version of the bag was knit with
"purse silk" (akin in weight to
a thick sewing thread or silk embroidery
floss) on three double-pointed needles equivalent
to a modern US 00000/1mm. If you’d
like to try this option, CO 96 sts on the
first and second needles, and 128 on the
third. And good luck to ya!
Historic colors. The original pattern calls
for four shades of green, from light to dark;
and four shades of yellow, from pale to "a
If you wish to imitate the historic colors, do so as follows:
For the leaves, CO and work the first 7 rnds with lightest
green. Thereafter, change to a successively darker shade of
green every 7 rnds.
For the fruit, begin with the lightest yellow, and change
to a successively darker shade every 36 rnds. When all four
shades of yellow have been used, switch back to green. Work
four more repeats of Rnds 2–18, using each shade
of green from darkest to lightest in successive repeats. Continue
to use the lightest shade of green for the remainder of the
Beading option. The original pattern offers
the option of adding beads ("gilt"–gold-plated
or gold-colored metal) to the cast-on row
and to the tip of the knobs in the yellow
section of the fruit. Beaded stitches are noted in the pattern.
LEAVES With MC, CO 320 sts. If you are beading, place a bead on
every CO st.
Join to work in the round, being careful not to twist. Place
marker to indicate start of round.
K 1 rnd.
Begin leaf pattern: Rnd 1: (K6, yo, k1, yo, k6, sl1-k2tog-psso)
around. Rnd 2: K7, yo, k1, yo, k6,
sl1-k2tog-psso, (k6, yo, k1, yo, k6, sl1-k2tog-psso)
to last 15 sts, work the (k6, yo, k1,
yo, k6, sl1-k2tog-psso)
once more, removing the start of round
marker to work the k2tog. Replace the
start of round marker after the decrease.
Repeat Rnd 2 26 more times.
Break yarn, leaving 6–8 inch tail.
Join CC. Setup round: Knit around.
Turn the work inside out.
Note that your rounds will now reverse direction, and this
will leave a small hole at point where
Rnd 2 begins. Don’t
fret -- you can neaten it up during finishing.
Rnd 1: (K6, sl1-k2tog-psso,
k6, yo, k1,yo) around. Rnd 2: (K5, sl1-k2tog-psso,
k6, yo, k1, yo, k1) around. Rnd 3: (K4, sl1-k2tog-psso,
k6, yo, k1, yo, k2) around. Rnd 4: (K3, sl1-k2tog-psso,
k6, yo, k1, yo, k3) around. Rnd 5: (K2, sl1-k2tog-psso,
k6, yo, k1, yo, k4) around. Rnd 6: (K1, sl1-k2tog-psso,
k6, yo, k1, yo, k5) around. Rnds 7-9: Knit: (If beading,
place beads in Rnd 8 on the tip of each
knob–every eighth st, immediately
below the k1 between the yo’s.) Rnd 10: (K1, yo, k1, yo, k6,
sl1-k2tog-psso, k5) around. Rnd 11: (K2, yo, k1, yo, k6,
sl1-k2tog-psso, k4) around. Rnd 12: (K3, yo, k1, yo, k6,
sl1-k2tog-psso, k3) around. Rnd 13: (K4, yo, k1, yo, k6,
sl1-k2tog-psso, k2) around. Rnd 14: (K5, yo, k1, yo, k6,
sl1-k2tog-psso, k1) around. Rnd 15: (K6, yo, k1, yo, k6,
sl1-k2tog-psso) around. Rnds 16-18: Knit: (If beading,
place beads in Rnd 17 on the tip of each
knob–every eighth st, immediately
below the k1 between the yo’s.)
Repeat Rnds 1–18 6 more times, and Rnds
1–17 once more.
Cut yarn, leaving 6-8 inch tail.
Join MC. If you were beading, stop at this point.
K1 rnd. Work Rnds 1-18 four times.
Bottom Rnd 1: (K5, sl1-k2tog-psso)
around. 240 sts. Rnds 2, 4, 6, 8, 10: Knit. Rnd 3: K4, sl1-k2tog-psso, (k3,
sl1-k2tog-psso) to last 6 sts, k3, then
move marker 1 st to left, sl1, k2tog,
psso. 160 sts. Rnd 5: K2, sl1-k2tog-psso, (k1,
sl1-k2tog-psso) to last 3 sts, k1, then
move marker 1 st to left, sl1, k2tog,
psso. 96 sts. Rnd 7: (Sl1-k2tog-psso) around.
32 sts. Rnd 9: K1, (sl1-k2tog-psso)
to last st, k1. 14 sts. Rnd 11: K1, (sl1-k2tog-psso)
to last st, k1. 6 sts.
Cut yarn, leaving 6-8 inch tail. Run tail through remaining
sts and pull to close bottom of bag.
Weave in ends on WS.
Mrs. Gaugain requires that the bottom of the bag be trimmed
with “a bunch of green satin ribbon, rounded at the
points like leaves.” I rounded both ends of eight short
lengths of ribbon, then sewed them with silk thread to the
point at which the bag stitches were drawn together.
She also specifies that the finished bag is “drawn
in at the termination of the top leaves.” That’s
all she says, however–leaving it up to the knitter to
decide what to use for a drawstring.
I decided to use a braid, as follows:
Cut three 1-yard lengths of MC and braid them
together, knotting both ends about 3 inches in. Draw the cord
through the row of eyelets nearest the leaf tips. When the
cord is pulled tight, this causes the leaves to bunch together
in the most charming fashion. Add a tassel to the
tied end if you feel like a bag shaped like a freaking pineapple
just isn’t fancy enough.
Instead of braid you could use a length of silk cord or ribbon.
If you’re concerned with period accuracy, do not use
There are no indications in the original pattern that the
bag is to be lined; but if you plan to carry very small or
weighty items in your pineapple, and simple silk or cotton
lining sewn into the fruit is a very good idea.
ABOUT THE DESIGNER
Franklin Habit is one of those insanely
lucky people who plays with stuff like
this for a living. He wrote a book,It
Itches: A Stash of Knitting Cartoons (Interweave
Press) that recently came out in paperback.
His popular blog, The
Panopticon, veers wildly between
mid-Victorian sobriety and outright hallucination.
He will be using the completed pineapple
bag to carry his sneakers to the gymnasium.
Fashion is all about surprise.