Knitty: little purls of wisdom
The Loopy Ewe

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.

Your Pattern Sucks

Every time somebody starts an online discussion with the assertion that, "In my day, patterns didn't have mistakes the way they do now," I gag just a little bit.

What day would that be, exactly? Must have been a short day, because at this point I've dug deep into designs from the 1820s to the present; and errata, like dropped stitches, have always been with us.

Sometimes you find major gaffes -- like the bottom end of the pineapple bag -- in books whose authors really do seem to have tried their best to be scrupulously accurate. Other times...

Other times you pick up Beeton's Book of Needlework.

beauty shot

This book -- or at least the edition I worked from -- shares nothing aside from a surname with the woman who brought out the classic best-seller Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management in 1861. Poor Isabella Mary Beeton died of puerperal fever in 1865, a few days after giving birth to her fourth child. She was only 28.

She was also an established brand name. After her death, as the family's fortunes declined, Samuel Beeton was obliged to sell the rights to her name to rival publishers. Beeton's Book of Needlework (1870) is one of the sad results.

Yes, sad. I know -- you thought I was a sucker for any knitting book with engraved illustrations and crabbed metal type. You thought I loved them all, equally, for all their faults. Hell, no.

To be perfectly honest, I cannot speak to the quality of the entire volume. A bit of time spent with the sections that cover subjects I know tolerably well, such as embroidery, seem fair-to-middling, especially as compared with other works from the same era. You could probably muddle your way through monogramming a handkerchief with this as your guide.

But the knitting section? A hack job, plain and simple.

Consider the introduction. It dwells on needle size for several paragraphs, noting that the English and "foreign" numbering systems run in opposite directions. There is even a life-sized, clear illustration of an English gauge to help you spot one in the wild.

And then knitting needle sizes are never mentioned again. Never. In pattern after pattern, all the advice you get -- if any -- is to pick needles that are "fine" or "coarse."

Now, this is not particularly unusual for 1870. It was pretty standard for knitting books to be laissez-faire about needles, well into the twentieth century. But to cover it in the front matter and ignore it in the back suggests a lack of attention to detail, and the patterns themselves bear this out.

There's a lacy, triangular neckerchief that was in line to be the subject for a future column. It's adorable, judging from illustration. A little bit of shaping, a charming pattern in the center, a matching pattern around the edge. Gimme.

Then you try to knit it and realize it's busted. Broke. The basic lace pattern is so far gone that no amount of charting, puzzling, and flinging test yarn about yielded anything that was even workable, let alone similar to the motif in the illustration.

beauty shot

This month's pattern, "Knitted Sock for a Child," also has an intriguing illustration. Even more intriguing was the supply list, which called for two needles. A sock on two needles? Worked flat?

That got me. I'm an awfully boring sock knitter -- ribbed cuff down to Kitchener toe, every time -- but I was curious as to how this was done. Or, given my previous encounters with this book, if it could be done.

Well, yes it can be. You can see that much from the photographs. The construction is certainly intriguing, and it works -- once you figure out what the direction to sew up the toe "like a gusset" means.

But it's a very, very sloppy pattern.

It begins well enough. The foot doesn't present any real problems, only a few moments at which common sense must be brought to bear in order to determine exactly how to do what you're being told to do. I don't mind those moments. A bit of brain-stretching makes knitting more interesting.

Then you come to the leg.

There are several places -- in the eyelet rounds, for example -- where the numbers just don't work out. Couldn't possibly have worked out. I wore through my test yarn trying to figure out the "open" eyelet pattern, which doesn't play nicely with the number of stitches on the needle at the end of the ribbing.

As you reach the bitter end, you can almost hear the anonymous designer thinking, "Screw it. My corset is killing me, the gin is calling, and it's time to go home." Her instructions give the impression of having been written in haste, without a second thought, maybe after she'd removed the corset and emptied the gin bottle.

At the cuff, I was forced to stare for hours at the engraving, then consult the instructions, then stare at the engraving. Finally, I picked up the work and knitted something that I hope splits the difference between the two. It's my best guess as to what the hell was intended.

Was it worth it?


It's cute. It might make a nice slipper; but it's not a very good sock. You have seams in rotten places, including right down the sole. The luscious Blue Moon yarn might be a little heavier than the yarn the designer had in mind, but even at a finer gauge I pity the child who would have been expected to wear this stuffed inside a shoe.

And I know what you're thinking: maybe it was a bed sock? Perhaps. Except that the book specifies other sock-like creations as being specifically for sleeping, but not this one.

Alas, if only Mrs Beeton had lived longer. She might have given us a top-notch take on knitting. Alas, this book is not it.

beauty shot

Translated by Franklin Habit from Mrs Beeton's Book of Needlework (1870)











spacer photos: Franklin Habit




Shoe: 5 inches measured heel to toe
Leg: 7 inches measured from heel to cuff


Blue Moon Fiber Arts Socks That Rock Heavyweight [100% superwash merino; 350 yd/320 m per 7 oz/198g skein]
spacer [MC] Will-O'-the-Wisp; 1 skein
spacer [CC] Blue for Ewe; 1 skein
Note: You can theoretically get three pairs of these sout of one pair of skeins, if you have a lot of little children you hate.

Recommended needle size
[always use a needle size that gives you the gauge listed below -- every knitter's gauge is unique]
spacer 1 pair size US #1/2.25 mm needles

spacer 2 stitch markers
spacer scissors
spacer yarn needle
spacer half yard of matching narrow ribbon


24 sts/48 rows = 4 inches in garter stitch


[Knitty's list of standard abbreviations and techniques can be found here.]

The entire sock is knit flat from the sole up to the cuff. It is then seamed from the cuff to the heel, and across the center of the sole to the toe.

Historic Colors
The original pattern doesn't specify a yarn color, but does call for only one used throughout. The use of two colors is my own design choice. Follow your heart.

Ribbon Substitute
Ribbon ties are correct to the period but less than practical for modern wear. Consider making two appropriate lengths of slender I-cord if your toddler will not be sporting these in a living history setting.

M1 (make one)
Cast on 1 stitch as described under "Backwards Loop Cast On" here.
On the following row, k into the back of the new stitch.

Cable Cast-On. The method for the Cable Cast On may be found here.

Pick up and knit (pu and k). This technique is described here.

Mattress Stitch. This technique is described here.


Sole (first side)
With CC, CO 22 sts.
Row 1 [RS]: Knit.
Row 2 [WS]: Knit to last st, m1, k1. 1 st increased.

Repeat Rows 1-2 10 more times. 33 sts.

Knit one row. Working yarn will be at the heel (unshaped) edge of the work.

Toe Increases:
Row 1 [WS]: BO 28 sts (5 sts rem at this point), k to last st, m1, k1. 6 sts, including the increase.
Row 2 [RS]: Knit.
Row 3 [WS]: Knit to last st, m1, k1. 1 st increased.
Row 4 [RS]: Knit.

Repeat Rows 3-4 5 more times. 11 sts.
Knit one row. RS is facing.

Toe Decreases:
Row 1 [RS]: K1, k2tog, k to end.
Row 2 [WS]: Knit.

Repeat Rows 1-2 4 more times, then work Row 1 once more. 5 sts. Working yarn will be at the unshaped edge of the work.

Turn work. Use cable cast-on to CO 28 sts. 33 sts.

Sole (second side)
Row 1 [WS]: Knit.
Row 2 [RS]: K1, k2tog, k to end.

Repeat Rows 1-2 10 more times. (22 sts)

Knit one row.

Decide which side of the shoe is the RS. I choose the side on which the increases and decreases are least apparent. With RS facing, use MC to pu and k 68 sts along the top (unshaped) edge of shoe as follows: 28 along first side, place a marker, 12 across toe, place a second marker, 28 across the second side.

Knit 1 row (WS).

Row 1 [RS]: K to 2 sts before marker, k2tog, sl marker, k12, sl marker, k2tog, k to end. 2 sts decreased.
Row 2 [WS]: Knit.
Row 3 [RS]: P to 2 sts before marker, p2tog, sl marker, p12, sl marker, p2tog, p to end. 2 sts decreased.
Row 4 [WS]: Purl.

Repeat Rows 1-4 4 more times, until 48 sts remain, ending with Row 4.

Knit 1 row.

Ribbing row: [K2, p2] to end.
Work ribbing as set for 14 rows total.

Knit 3 rows.

First eyelet open row [WS]: [P2tog, p1, yo] to last 3 sts, p2tog, p1. 47 sts.
Knit 3 rows.

Second open row [WS]: [P2tog, p1, yo] to last 2 sts, p2.
Knit 3 rows.

Third open row [WS]: [P2tog, p1, yo] to last 2 sts, p2.

Knit 3 rows. Purl 1 row. Knit 3 rows.

Final open row [RS]: [P2tog, p1, yo] to last 2 sts, p2.
Knit 1 row.

BO. Cut working yarn, leaving a long tail that will be conveniently located for sewing up the leg of your sock.

Use mattress stitch to sew seam down back of leg from cuff to heel, changing from MC to CC when you reach the beginning of the sole. Sew sole together across center.

Align tip of shaped toe with sole seam, and stitch two toe seams as indicated in photo.

Weave in ends. Wash and gently block.

Run ribbon through Second open row and tie bow at front of leg.

habit-portraitBlank Franklin Habit is the author of It Itches: A Stash of Knitting Cartoons(Interweave Press) and proprietor of the popular knitting blog, The Panopticon. He travels widely to teach knitting and photography, and his work appears with shocking regularity in perfectly respectable fiber arts magazines and books.

If you manage to get these things onto the feet of actual children, he'd like to see pictures.