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.
Mittens from Mrs Roosevelt
Eleanor Roosevelt knitting on the beach
at Campobello Island. (Courtesy Franklin
Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library
Whenever I work through an antique pattern,
my thoughts inevitably turn to another
knitter, long gone and utterly forgotten,
who may have pursued the same course
of knits and purls when The Workwoman’s
Guide or The Knitter’s
Friend were still hot off the press.
Usually, of course, this knitter is
a complete fiction. Sometimes she’s
an expectant mother puzzling over the
or a grandmother with a quiet afternoon
turning out yet another Pence
Jug. She may be called
Ada or Isabel. She may live on the American
frontier or in a London row house. She
may be knitting under a tree, or beside
a coal fire. She often, when confounded
by the same vagueness in the pattern
that confounds me, indulges in unladylike
and possibly anachronistic vulgarities. (“Oh,
@#$!% this @#%@^ nightcap,” said
This month, for a change, we’re
going to play with a pattern written
down in the last century by a knitter
who is anything but anonymous or forgotten:
Eleanor Roosevelt -- author, activist,
and wife of Franklin Delano Roosevelt,
the thirty-second president of the United
States. She was also, as it happens,
Not long ago, two manuscript knitting
patterns were discovered among her papers
by Mary Ann Colopy, a seasonal park ranger
at the Roosevelt/Vanderbilt National
Historic Site in Hyde Park, New York.
Mary Ann, who is herself a knitter, generously
offered me the opportunity to test and
She was also kind enough to chat with
me at length about her work in preserving
and sharing the legacy of Eleanor Roosevelt.
Franklin: So, what it’s like
to work at a place like Hyde Park?
What exactly do you do?
Mary Ann: As a seasonal park ranger,
I’m a historic interpreter. It’s
like being a teacher. I research, develop
and present tours of the four sites that
comprise the Roosevelt-Vanderbilt National
Historic Site: the home of Franklin D.
Roosevelt, Top Cottage, ValKill (the Eleanor
Roosevelt National Historic Site),
and the Vanderbilt Mansion. I also present
school programs and have developed programs
for special groups, and special events.
My goal is to make the story of the people
I am talking about change something for
the visitor. They can be touched emotionally,
or intellectually, or just have a good
experience with their families; everyone
leaves with something to talk about.
Franklin: What attracted you to
that line of work?
Mary Ann: I like a
good story, so that drew me to social
in historic house museums, you are surrounded
by everyday stuff, and every object can
tell a variety of stories. A house
museum that has been relatively untouched
since its occupants left, like Franklin
Roosevelt’s; or has rich documentation,
like Eleanor Roosevelt’s, is just
like your house or mine. The personality
of the occupant is stamped in the choices
made for furnishings, decorations, the
style of the house. I think it is fascinating
that we can “read” these
houses and objects and learn another
facet about the owners that may not be
revealed in their writings.
Franklin: And how did you become
interested in Eleanor Roosevelt?
Mary Ann: I’m
interested in women’s
history, and the motivations of people
who participate in reform movements.
Only about ten percent of historic sites
in the United States are devoted to women’s
history, so the chance to work at ValKill
Franklin: What can you tell us about
Mrs Roosevelt as a knitter?
Mary Ann: In her autobiography,
she writes that when she was five or
six, her nurse cut holes into the socks
she had knit so that she would learn
how to darn heels properly. Considering
the number of pictures of Eleanor knitting,
and the comments by others about her
constant knitting, she herself wrote
practically nothing about her knitting.
Her “My Day” newspaper columns
mention her own knitting less than ten
times in almost 8,000 installments. The
pattern collection in the Roosevelt Library
has things for babies and children, and
many raglan pullovers for her grown sons.
I have seen reference to her knitting
a sweater for her friend Lorena Hickok,*
and sweater measurements for her friend
Franklin: As part of her work in
support of the Allied forces in World
War II, did she become involved in
any of the wartime knitting programs?
Mary Ann: This is something
I am continuing to research. In some
autobiographies, it is stated that she
organized Navy wives to knit during World
War I. However, I have not been able
to find evidence that
she was the organizer. In her own autobiography,
she says she participated in war knitting–every
spare minute. But the New York Times articles
I have read do not list her among the
organizers of the Navy Comforts Committee.
Apparently there was squabbling between
different aid groups, and she may have
been involved in a group I have not yet
found. I haven’t yet read
her personal letters -- her handwriting
is terrible -- but I plan to begin
searching them beginning with letters
to her mother-in-law in 1917.
She was famously shown promoting knitting
at a tea at the Waldorf Hotel in September,
1941. Americans had been knitting
for several years as part of the “Bundles
for Britain” effort, and this tea
was to encourage production for American
armed forces. During World War I, hand
knitting was readily used by the armed
forces, as it had been during the Civil
War. But during World War II, there appears
to have been concern about hand knitters
diverting materials from commercial mills.
Again -- I am continuing to research
Franklin: Are there any extant examples
of her knitting to be seen in public
Mary Ann: The one piece that is on display
in the Eleanor Roosevelt wing of the
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) Library
is an army green raglan pullover that
she made for her friend Joe Lash while
he was in the service.
Not on display, but in the FDR Library
collection, are knitting needles, needle
cases, and knitting bags -- but no
other pieces of knitting. There are some
small pieces of embroidery, a pair of
needlepoint slippers, and a woven vest
embroidered by Eleanor for Franklin.
In the ValKill cottage, on display,
there are blankets with embroidered monograms,
hardanger embroidery tablemats, and a
reproduction of a knitting bag given
by Eleanor to one of her nieces.
A portion of the manuscript mitten
pattern found among Eleanor Roosevelt's
papers. (Courtesy Franklin Delano
Roosevelt Presidential Library
Franklin: How did you discover her
handwritten knitting patterns?
Mary Ann: Eleanor Roosevelt’s
papers are held in the FDR Library. The
knitting patterns are under the subject “Hobby.” But
originally those from the White House
years were separated from the pre- and
post- years. At the top of some patterns
was the drafter’s name, and then
I had to look in the correspondence files
to find related letters.
It was in the letters that I uncovered
a lot of interesting information, such
as Eleanor wanting a particular shade
of blue yarn, or asking for another sweater
pattern written out with different measurements.
Franklin: What was your reaction
when you found them?
Mary Ann: I was surprised
that there was so little information,
considering that Eleanor was a lifelong
knitter. Franklin’s hobby of stamp
collecting generated many articles and
But after thinking about it, several
things stand out as possible factors.
When Eleanor died in 1962, her place
in history had not yet been determined.
The contents of ValKill Cottage were
sold at auction, and the property converted
to apartments. Unless a family
member wanted some of the knitting artifacts,
they most likely would have been thrown
out. She was not a designer. She
knit because she could not sit still.
Her projects were very utilitarian, and
would have been worn and then discarded.
One reason some things were saved is
that they were inside a piece of furniture
that was not emptied until the Eleanor
Roosevelt wing of the library was constructed!
Eleanor’s knitting was something
she did for herself, to feel active even
when sitting. She would ask other knitters
for patterns, and share patterns with
other knitters. But outside of the world
of women producing garments for their
families, the patterns and artifacts
were not appreciated. And this is still
true in many ways for knitters. Knitting
is a folk art, passed from hand to hand.
Unlike many textiles -- such as lace,
quilts, weaving, and samplers --
it has not received academic attention
until very recently and has not been
appreciated as a craft.
Franklin: Do you see
Mrs Roosevelt as a role model for modern
men and women -- and knitters?
Mary Ann: As I have
read more about her, and read her writings,
I have found her to be a very complex
person. Although she came from the elite
class, her personal life was unhappy.
Her childhood was very difficult emotionally,
and the coping skills she developed early
on made her adult relationships difficult.
Her marriage was a disappointment, and
her children trying. But she found her
satisfaction in work, she said it could
feed the soul. As she became a
public figure, she traveled the world
as an advocate for human rights.
However, she said that human rights
begin in small places, too small to see
on a map. That is -- in back yards,
in playgrounds and schools, workplaces
and towns. It begins with individuals
making a difference in their own communities.
Eleanor was largely self-educated: she
learned to listen and ask questions,
to be genuinely interested in people.
How does that relate to knitting? When
one knits in public it attracts attention,
and conversations begin. Even better
if the conversation can be about the
charity knitting one is doing.
The end result is the mitten pattern
that follows. The manuscript was refreshingly
straightforward to work from, although
the shaping for the thumb is pure conjecture,
as the notes end with the instruction
to pick it up on three needles.
Like much of Mrs Roosevelt’s knitting,
these mittens are decidedly utilitarian:
easily made, easily memorized -- perfect
for a busy knitter with a large family
given to using, losing, and wearing out
their winter gear.
*An American journalist who, according
to some historians, may have become
romantically involved with Eleanor.
Translated by Franklin Habit from unpublished
notes in the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers of the Franklin Delano
Roosevelt Presidential Library.
Mrs. Roosevelt's pattern calls very specifically
for double-pointed needles, and therefore
we have kept it that way. It is easily
converted to magic loop or two circulars, if you wish.
like to think that Mrs. Roosevelt would
have been intrigued by these new innovations
Women’s S [M]
Note: These are the two sizes -- equivalent roughly
to a modern Adult Women’s Small and Medium, respectively -- accounted
for in Mrs. Roosevelt’s notes; but the underlying method
is so simple that adjustments for larger
or smaller sizes can easily be made.
[note: Print everything includes the essay at the top of the
page. Print only essentials includes just
the pattern and the first picture.]
Cuff to fingertip: 9.5  inches
Circumference at palm: 8  inches
Yarns Nordique [100% wool; 150 yd/137
m per 50g skein]; color: Chalk Blue; 2  skeins
Recommended needle size [always use a needle
size that gives you the gauge
listed below -- every knitter's
gauge is unique]
set of 4 US #4/3.5 mm double-point needles
of scrap yarn
ruler or measuring tape
24 sts/36 rows = 4 inches in stockinette
stitch in the round
PATTERN NOTES [Knitty's list of standard abbreviations and techniques can be found here.]
N1, N2, N3: Needle 1, Needle 2, Needle 3
Make two -- or three, if the intended recipient is inclined
to be absentminded.
CO 48 sts, distribute evenly on 3 ndls (16  sts
per ndl). Join to work in the round, being
careful not to twist. Rounds begin on
Round 1: [K2, p2] to end of round.
Repeat Round 1 until work measures
3  inches from CO.
Knit two rounds.
Round 1: N1 -- k8, m1, k8
(17 sts). N2 and N3 -- knit. 49
K all sts until work measures 4 inches
from top of ribbing or until mitten
is 3 inches short of desired length
to tip of longest finger. Note: if re-sizing, knit palm until
length from end of ribbing is equal
to width of palm when measured flat,
just above the thumb gusset. Or, in
Mrs. Roosevelt’s words, “Knit
Round 1: N1, N2 and N3 -- k2tog, k to end. Round 2: Knit.
Repeat these two rnds until 15 sts remain. Break yarn leaving
a long tail and run through all sts.
Pull top of mitten closed
an weave in yarn end on WS.
THUMB Slip 15 reserved sts at thumb gore from scrap yarn to ndl. With
second ndl and yarn, pick up and knit 9 sts along the top of
gore opening (24 sts total). Distribute sts evenly onto 3 ndls
(8 sts per ndl).
Rounds 1–8 (or until thumb is 1 inch short of
desired length): Knit. Round 9: N1, N2 and N3 -- k2tog, k to end. Round 10: Knit.
Repeat Rounds 9 and 10 until 8 sts remain.
Break yarn leaving
an ample tail and run through all sts.
Pull top of thumb closed and weave in yarn end on WS.
Wash according to yarn manufacturer’s instructions, and
gently block to shape.