Knitty: little purls of wisdom
Tightly Wound Yarn

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.

Knitter’s Block

image courtesy
University of Southhampton Library Digitization Unit

If you have read and loved Lucy Maud Montgomery’s classic 1908 novel, Anne of Green Gables, you will doubtless remember Anne’s neighbor, Mrs. Rachel Lynde: sharp-tongued, eagle-eyed, and famous among Avonlea housewives for having knitted sixteen “cotton warp quilts.” She churned them out, wrote Montgomery, during long hours spent at her kitchen window spying on passers-by.

A character like Rachel Lynde is a rara avis in modern fiction: a serious knitter who is also an stone-cold pain in the ass. She’s the hustle behind four of the town’s charitable organizations, but there’s nothing saintly or nurturing in her personality. She does not sport more halo than a skein of angora. She would not bring homemade cupcakes to The Friday Night Knitting Club. She would be summarily ejected from The Shop on Blossom Street for telling the ladies there’s nothing wrong with their lives that couldn’t be cured by proper corsets and castor oil.

I just love her.

I love her so much that I did a little dance (Mrs. Lynde would not approve) after turning up a A Knitting-Book of Counterpanes: Toilet-Covers, Pincushions, and Other Articles of Fancy Work, put forth in 1871 by Mrs. George Cupples.* Mrs. Cupples’ counterpane, you see, is a sibling of Mrs. Lynde’s quilt. Both were products of the 19th and early 20th century passion for “white work”–ornate knitting and crochet made with fine cotton. Here, at last, was a small but tantalizing collection of patterns for knitting my very own quilt, the better to emulate my fictional heroine.

Of course, a knitted quilt is not, strictly speaking, a “quilt.” It is not an article of bedding formed of multiple layers penetrated and united by patterned stitching. Any quilter will tell you this, even if you don’t ask. But Victorian needlework publishers–and presumably, their readers–do not appear unanimously to have observed this distinction. They used “quilt” interchangeably with blanket and counterpane. It was big. It was squarish. It was warm. You put it on the bed. Therefore, it was a quilt.

Knitted “quilts” and many of their sewn cousins also share an underlying structure of patchwork: small pieces stitched together to create the larger whole. Whether you were sewing a quilt or knitting one, chances are you began by creating a “block,” the basic unit that, when repeated, would form the overall pattern of the quilt. Working block by block was both logical and practical. Blocks were (and are) wieldy, portable, and easily memorized. Until it came time to assemble the finished product, the maker was never fussing with more than a handful of yarn or fabric.

Hundreds of sewn quilt blocks were invented during the peak of patchwork’s popularity in the nineteenth century. Probably the most common motif is the star; its variations alone could–and in fact do–fill several weighty volumes. Mrs. Cupples opens her book with eight counterpane blocks, one of which bears a strong family resemblance to a famous and beloved point of light from the quilt galaxy, the Ohio Star [shown at right].**

spacerI have recently, I confess, begun dabbling with quilting; so this apparent hybrid caught my attention. If you’re a knitter/quilter, you may get a thrill from the collision of your two worlds. If you’re a confirmed knitter with a pushy quilter friend who will not rest until you make a star block, this may be the perfect way to shut her up.

And don’t sweat it if you think the star looks like fun but aren’t inclined to commit to a whole quilt. Mrs. Cupples herself wholeheartedly encourages you to Do Your Own Thing, noting that, “the intelligent worker will not fail to perceive that the patterns are suitable for other descriptions of ornamental knitting, such as Tidies, Toilet Covers, Pincushions, Mats, etc.” True dat.

Me, I knit the test block in cotton [shown at left] and then turned queasy at the thought of repeating it 49 times. So I swapped for wool on the second go, and made a pincushion. Mrs. Lynde would probably call me a slacker. But Mrs. Cupples has my back.

* She also, according to the title page, wrote The Stocking-Knitter’s Manual. I’d like to see that.

** Really, it looks like an Ohio Star with a small nine-patch caught in its throat. I have been digging around in lists of star blocks, but haven’t found a closer match yet. Anybody know of one?

beauty shot

translated by Franklin Habit from A Knitting-Book of Counterpanes: Toilet-Covers, Pincushions, and Other Articles of Fancy Work (1871) by Mrs. George Cupples.






spacer photos: Franklin Habit


Will vary according to choice of yarn and needles.
With materials below, finished block is approximately 7 inches wide by 6 inches high after blocking. 


spacer Koigu KPM [100% merino wool; 175yds/50 gm skein]; color: 1203 (Sun Yellow); 1 skein (note: one block uses approximately 0.5 oz)

Recommended needle size
[always use a needle size that gives you the gauge listed below -- every knitter's gauge is unique]
spacer 1 set US #00/1.75mm straight needles

spacer 2 stitch markers
spacer scissors
spacer yarn needle


32 sts/48 rows = 4 inches in stockinette stitch


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

The star pattern, worked on the center 34 stitches of the block, is surrounded by a border of garter stitch. Mrs. Cupples calls for 8 stitches in the right and left borders; but if you plan to assemble multiple blocks for a blanket, consider reducing them to 4 stitches each (a total of 42 sts to CO). This will give you vertical and horizontal borders of similar widths after sewing.

Star Pattern
Use chart [see below] or written instructions as you prefer.

Row 1 [WS]:  P9, k1, p14, k1, p9.
Even rows 2–20 [RS]: Knit.
Row 3 [WS]: P9, k2, p12, k2, p9.
Row 5 [WS]: P9, k3, p10, k3, p9.
Row 7 [WS]: P9, k4, p8, k4, p9.
Row 9 [WS]:P9, k5, p6, k5, p9.
Row 11 [WS]: P9, k6, p4, k6, p9.
Row 13 [WS]:P9, k7, p2, k7, p9.
Row 15 [WS]: P9, k16, p9.
Row 17 [WS]: P1, k15, p2, k15, p1.
Row 19 [WS]:P2, k13, p4, k13, p2.
Row 21 [WS]: P3, k11, p6, k11, p3.
Even rows 22­–28[RS]: K15, p4, k15.
Row 23 [WS]: P4, k9, p2, k4, p2, k9, p4.
Row 25 [WS]:P5, k7, p3, k4, p3, k7, p5.
Row 27 [WS]: P6, k5, p4, k4, p4, k5, p6.
Row 29 [WS]: P7, k3, p1, k4, p4, k4, p1, k3, p7.
Even rows 30–34 [RS]: K11, p4, k4, p4, k11.
Row 31 [WS]: P8, k1, p2, k4, p4, k4, p2, k1, p8.
Row 33 [WS]:P8, k1, p2, k4, p4, k4, p2, k1, p8.
Row 35 [WS]:P7, k3, p1, k4, p4, k4, p1, k3, p7.
Row 36 [RS]: K10, p1, k4, p4, k4, p1, k10.
Row 37 [WS]: P6, k5, p4, k4, p4, k5, p6.
Even rows 38–42 [RS]: K15, p4, k15.
Row 39 [WS]: P5, k7, p3, k4, p3, k7, p5.
Row 41 [WS]: P4, k9, p2, k4, p2, k9, p4.
Row 43 [WS]: P3, k11, p6, k11, p3.
Even rows 44–62 [RS]: Knit.
Row 45 [WS]: P2, k13, p4, k13, p2.
Row 47 [WS]: P1, k15, p2, k15, p1.
Row 49 [WS]: P9, K16, p9.
Row 51 [WS]: P9, k7, p2, k7, p9.
Row 53 [WS]: P9, k6, p4, k6, p9.
Row 55 [WS]: P9, k5, p6, k5, p9.
Row 57 [WS]: P9, k4, p8, k4, p9.
Row 59 [WS]: P9, k3, p10, k3, p9.
Row 61 [WS]: P9, k2, p12, k2, p9.
Row 63 [WS]: P9, k1, p14, k1, p9.

The chart for this pattern is very large and fits on a letter-sized page.
Click here and print the resulting page.



With MC, CO 50 sts.

Lower Border
Rows 1–9: Knit.
Row 10 (RS): K 8, place marker. K to last 8 sts, place marker. K 8 sts. (34 sts between markers.)

Row 1 (WS): K8, work Star Pattern Row 1 between markers, k8.
Row 2 (RS): K8, work Star Pattern Row 2 between markers, k8.
Continue in pattern as established until Row 63 is complete.

Upper Border
Knit 10 rows, removing markers as you come to them.



Soak and gently block completed square. Lay flat to dry. When dry, weave in ends.



habit-portraitBlank Franklin Habit is the Chicago-based proprietor of the popular knitting blog The Panopticon and author of It Itches: A Stash of Knitting Cartoonslink (Interweave Press), which has recently spawned both the Work in Progress Notebook and a 2011 calendar.

He doesn't loll about living history museums all day, since men in living history museums don't get to knit.