Knitty: little purls of wisdom
Ruby Lane

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.

Baby Elephant Talk
I once had this boyfriend whose sole culinary accomplishment was mastery of a much-cherished family recipe known as “Mrs. Hamilton’s Cake.” He said he got it from his mother, who invariably produced it when called upon to furnish dessert for a pot luck or family reunion.

My boyfriend’s mother was not a Hamilton by birth or marriage. Nor was her mother, nor indeed were any of her relations. As it happened, nobody in the family could remember who Mrs. Hamilton was. All that was left of her, so far as they were concerned, was a yellowing recipe card covered in loopy Palmer script, stained with seventy years of homemade macaroon crumbs and whipped cream.*

spacerToday we’re going to talk about a toy elephant pattern from the first half of the twentieth century with similar shadowy origins. Like the cake recipe, it has also been passed hand-to-hand. Unlike the cake recipe, I’m going to share it with you. I got it from my friend Sue Rothschild, of Rochester, Minnesota. She got it from her mother’s friend Ida, who…

But no, I’m getting ahead of myself. And I want Sue to help tell the story.

FH: I suppose if we’re going to record the full history of the knitted elephant, we ought to know something about how it is you started knitting.

SR: Well, it would have been in 1948 or 1949 – I purchased a beautiful wool sweater for my boyfriend, which had a gray and turquoise design at the neck. And I thought he should have argyle socks to match.

FH: Ah. Handmade argyle knee socks were the pinnacle of boyfriend gifts at the time, correct?

SR: Correct.

Now, the Jewish community in my hometown – Mattoon, Illinois – had helped two German-Jewish refugee families relocate to Mattoon from Germany around 1940. The head of one of the families was a doctor, and fairly well-to-do. But the husband in the other family was too old and too sick to work. So his wife, Mrs. Uland, opened a little knitting shop above one of the retail stores in town to support them both.

I went to her with the sweater, and told her what I wanted to do, and she helped me choose the wool. She was patient and a very good teacher. I can see her yet…she was a sweet lady.

FH: Wait a minute–your first knitting project was a pair of argyle socks?

SR: That’s right.

FH: And how did they turn out?

SR: Well, when I was finished I had one anklet and one knee-high.

FH: Oh.

SR: But he wore them!

FH: That was good of him.

SR: Yes, he was sweet. But he always rolled up his pant legs to show people what had happened.

FH: Oh. Was this the man you went on to marry?

SR: No. And that was it with the knitting for a little while.

[But it wasn’t the end of her work with fiber. In 1948, Sue won a scholarship to attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. And though she had intended to study business, a presentation by the female chair of the Home Economics department persuaded her to change her focus to textiles. After earning Bachelor and Master of Science degrees, she went on to teaching posts at both Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, Illinois and Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana.

Marriage in 1955 didn’t interrupt her career, but impending motherhood did. In 1960, after finishing the semester in a series of looser and looser outfits, she resigned due to a university policy that forbid pregnant women to stand in front of a class.]

FH: So how long after the socks until you picked up the needles?

SR: Well, a friend of my mother’s – Ida Cantwell – had made this elephant. This would have been around 1950. I’m not sure where she got the pattern from. The original I think maybe came from a newspaper, and her mother had sent away for it; but she had typed out a copy for herself and didn’t want it any more. So she gave it to me. And I couldn’t work from it. I had only made socks, remember, so I was knitting on one side and purling across the back.

FH: I can understand that. The original is rather...sketchy.

spacerSR: Right. So I decided to make my own instructions.

[Sue’s version (at right) is a testament to the determination of a lone knitter to rise above and finish. Using sheets of ledger paper, she systematically created a hybrid half-charted, half-written version that’s unlike any pattern I’ve ever seen in print.

That did the trick. Over the years Sue knit a score of elephants, recorded in a list kept tucked in with the patterns. The recipients included her own sons, nieces and nephews, the children of her husband’s co-workers, and – in a nice touch of poetic justice – a descendant of the family that had help the Ulands escape from Germany.

When she gave the list to me, her sewing-up needle was still stuck through it, ready for use on the next project .]

spacerFH: You really turned out a herd. Were they appreciated as gifts?

SR: Oh my, yes. I think so much so that they tended to be used as decorations instead of as toys to drag around. They were a labor of love.

FH: I have to ask – since you don’t crochet, how did you deal with the crocheted feet? I’m going to include a knitted alternative. What did you do?

SR: My grandmother, Ethel Hedges, always made the feet for me. She didn’t knit, but she was a professional seamstress, and she could crochet and tat. She could turn them out in no time.

FH: And I know that the charted instructions weren’t your only innovation with this pattern. I’m going to have to ask you about stuffing the legs.

SR (laughing): Oh, my. Do you really think we ought to include that?

FH: Yes, I do. Please tell me about your ingenious solution.

SR: It’s a good elephant but I never liked stuffing them. And when Ida Cantwell made her elephants, they never stood up straight. So I was looking at the leg opening one day, and realized it was the perfect size for one tightly-rolled sanitary napkin. After that, I always used them and they always worked perfectly.

FH: And did anybody ever know?

SR: No. But they will now, won’t they?

*These being the only ingredients I ever managed to pry out of the boyfriend, who (like his mother) regarded Mrs. Hamilton’s Cake as a cherished family secret and refused in spite of much pleading to give me the recipe. But that’s not the reason I broke up with him. Not the only reason.

beauty shot

Translated by Franklin Habit from "Nursery Elephant of Wool," anonymously published c. 1930-1949, with revisions c. 1950 by Sue Rothschild.






spacer photos: Franklin Habit


Length: approx. 10 inches
Height: approx. 8.5 inches
Width: approx. 5 inches


spacer [MC] Cascade 220 Quatro  [100% wool; 220yd/201m per 100g skein]; color: #5011 Crème Brulée; 2 skeins
spacer [CC] Cascade 220 [100% wool; 220yd/201m per 100g skein]; color: #9421 Blue Hawaii; 1 skein.

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 #4/3.5mm straight needles
spacer 1 US #D/3 / 3.25mm crochet hook size (optional; see Pattern Notes)

spacer Row counter (optional but recommended)
spacer Safety pins or locking stitch markers
spacer Stitch holders
spacer Yarn needle
spacer Approx. 6-7 oz polyfil stuffing or cotton batting



24 sts/32 rows = 4" in stockinette stitch
Note: For this project, the yarn is knit more tightly than the recommended ball band gauge. This will produce a very firm fabric, for a toy that will hold its shape and look well when stuffed.

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

Flo is worked entirely in garter stitch (knit all stitches) on two needles. Because the fabric is reversible, no RS or WS is noted. For the Sides and Ears, both right and left sides are worked in the same way; the RS of one piece will be the same as the WS of the other piece.

The original pattern called for feet worked in crochet; instructions for these are included below, along with a knitted alternative (shown).

inc1: The increase used for this pattern is the backward loop increase. It is the first increase shown here, referred to as m1. This increase is different from the m1 increase used in most Knitty patterns.

Instructions for the Cable Cast On can be found here.

Instructions for Blanket Stitch can be found here.

Instructions for Mattress Stitch can be found here.

Instructions for Lazy Daisy Stitch can be found here.



SIDES (Make 2):
Using MC, CO 10 sts.
Row 1: [K1, kfb] twice, k to end. 12 sts.

Row 2: [K1, kfb] five times, k to end. 17 sts.

Rows 3-6: Work as for Rows 1-2. 31 sts.

Row 7: K1, kfb, k to end. 32 sts.

Row 8: [K1, kfb] five times, k to end. 37 sts.

Row 9: K1, kfb, k to end. 38 sts.

Row 10: [K1, kfb] twice, k to end. 40 sts.

Rows 11-18: Work as for Rows 9-10. 52 sts.

Row 19: K all sts.

Row 20: [K1, kfb] twice, k to end. 54 sts.

Row 21: K all sts.

Row 22: K1, kfb, k to end. 55 sts.

Rows 23-28: Work as for Rows 21-22. 58 sts.

Rows 29-40: K all sts.

Row 41: K to last 3 st, k2tog, k1. 57 sts.

Rows 42-44: K all sts.

Row 45: K to last 3 sts, k2tog, k1. 56 sts.

Row 46: K42, place all sts just worked on st holder; BO 1 st, k to end. Trunk will be worked over remaining 13 sts.

Rows 47-49: K all sts.
Row 50: K1, k2tog, k to end. 12 sts.
Rows 51-58: Work as for Rows 47-50. 10 sts.
Rows 59-61: K all sts.
Row 62: K1, k2tog, k to last 3 sts, k2tog, k1. 8 sts.
Rows 63-66: Work as for Rows 59-62. 6 sts.
Rows 67-69: K all sts.
Row 70: K1, k2tog, k2tog, k1. 4 sts.
Rows 71-80: K all sts.
BO all sts and break yarn, leaving a tail approx. 6 inches long.

Lower Body and Legs:
Transfer held sts back to needle, beginning at tail end of piece so that tip of needle ends up at head end (next to trunk). Join yarn at head end.

K 13 rows, ending with yarn at tail end.
Next Row: K16, BO 10 sts, k to end. Two sets of 16 sts.

Front Leg:
Working only over set of sts with yarn attached, k 23 rows. BO these 16 sts.

Back Leg:
Join yarn to remaining sts at inner edge (next to bound off sts).
K 20 rows. BO all sts.

Note: When casting on sts for legs, use Cable Cast On method.

Lower Neck:
CO 1 st.
Row 1: Kfb. 2 sts.
Row 2: K1, inc1, k1. 3 sts.
Rows 3-8: K1, inc1, k to end. 9 sts.

Front Legs:
Row 9: CO 18 sts; k these sts, k to end. 27 sts.
Row 10: CO 18 sts; k these sts, k to end. 45 sts.
Rows 11-27: K all sts.
Row 28: BO 14 sts, k16 (17 sts on right needle), BO 14 sts. Break yarn, turn work.

Join yarn to remaining 17 sts. K 18 rows.

Back Legs:
Next Row: CO 12 sts; k these sts, k to end. 29 sts.
Next Row: CO 12 sts; k these sts, k to end. 41 sts.
K 27 rows.
Next Row: BO 16 sts, k8 (9 sts on right needle), BO 16 sts. Break yarn, turn work.

Join yarn to remaining 9 sts.
Next Row: K1, k2tog, k to end. 8 sts.
Repeat this row 6 times more. 2 sts remain.

Next Row: K2tog. Break yarn, leaving a tail approx. 6 inches long; draw tail through remaining st.

Use safety pin or split ring marker to mark CO end of work; this point is designated Point B in schematic.

EAR (Make 2)
CO 16 sts.
Row 1: K1, inc1, k to last st, inc1, k1. 18 sts.
Row 2. K1, inc1, k to end. 19 sts.
Rows 3-8: Work as for Rows 1-2. 28 sts.

Row 9: K1, inc1, k to end. 29 sts.
Row 10: K all sts.
Row 11: K1, inc1, k to end. 30 sts.
Rows 12-15: K all sts.

Row 16: [K1, k2tog] twice, k to end. 28 sts.
Row 17: K all sts.
Rows 18-21: Work as for Rows 16-17. 24 sts.

Row 22: K1, k2tog, k to end. 23 sts.
Row 23: K all sts.
Rows 24-27: Work as for Rows 22-23. 21 sts.
Row 28: K1, k2tog, k to end. 20 sts.

Row 29: BO 8 sts, k to end. 12 sts.
Rows 30-43: Work as for Rows 22-23. 5 sts.
Row 44: K1, k2tog, k to end. 4 sts.
BO remaining sts.

FEET (Make 4 of either knitted or crocheted version):

Knitted Version:
CO 5 sts.
Row 1: K all sts.
Row 2: K2, inc1, k1, inc1, k2. 7 sts.
Rows 3-10: K all sts.
Row 11: K1, ssk, k1, k2tog, k1. 5 sts.
Row 12: K all sts.
BO all sts.

Crocheted Version:
Ch 2.
Work 8 sc into second ch from hook. Place split ring marker in first sc to indicate beginning of round; foot is worked in the round, in a spiral.
Next 2 Rounds: Work 1 sc into each sc.
Fasten off.

CO 10 sts.
K 34 rows. BO all sts.


Wash and gently block all pieces. Weave in ends, except for yarn tail at tip of trunk on one of the side pieces.

Finish ears by sewing edges A and B together (see schematic).
If desired, use CC to work four-petal Lazy Daisy motifs on Side pieces as shown.

Pin Side pieces together along top edges. Beginning at Point A (see schematic) and working toward  head, sew pieces together using mattress stitch. Continue seam over head and down top of trunk, around tip of trunk (leave yarn tail at tip of trunk hanging on RS of work), and up underside of trunk, ending at third garter st ridge below upper inside edge of trunk (Point B on Side schematic).

Firmly stuff head and trunk. Join Point B of Underbody to Point B of Sides. Sew side and leg seams, leaving bottoms of legs open. Finish stuffing body through leg openings. Note that stuffing must be firm enough for toy to hold its shape after squeezing. (Give it a test hug – it should bounce back.)

Sew footpads in place.

Beginning at BO end, roll tail piece tightly, so that it forms a small, firm log shape, with CO edge at outside of roll. Sew CO edge in place, sew one end of roll to secure, then sew other end to rump of elephant.

Sew ears securely to sides of head from Points C (3 inches from front seam and 2 inches from top seam) to D, indicated on Side schematic.

Thread the yarn end at the tip of the trunk onto yarn needle and run it into and up along inside of trunk, causing trunk to curl upwards. Bring end of yarn to outside of piece and fasten securely, just about where Flo’s chin would be if she had one.

Using CC, embroider eyes as shown. If desired, use CC to edge feet and ears with blanket stitch.

Historical note: The original pattern calls for tying a length of satin ribbon in a flat bow around the finished elephant, and attaching a jingle bell to the tip of the trunk. As even a firmly-sewn jingle bell may pose a choking hazard; we do not recommend adding it if the toy will be played with by babies or very young children.

habit-portraitBlank Franklin Habit is the 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 lives in Chicago, near the zoo, which has no elephants.