Knitty: little purls of wisdom
Lisa Souza Dyeworks

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 Itches:

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 Ladies’ Work 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 name.

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.

So, Compromise Number One was switching to another version of the bag. I selected Jane Gaugain’s (from The Lady’s Assistant for Executing Useful and Fancy Designs in Knitting, Netting and Crochet Work) with a sense of relief. Mrs Gaugain (whom we’ve often met before in this column) is reliable and clear-headed. She understands that knitters have different tastes, needs, and inclinations.

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 rotten.

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 of it.

*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 was making.

beauty shot

by Franklin Habit, translated from “Pine Apple Bag” in Jane Gaugain’s The Lady’s Assistant for Executing Useful and Fancy Designs in Knitting, Netting and Crochet Work (1840)











spacer photos: Franklin Habit


Approximately 12 inches high (excluding ribbon trim) by 11 inches wide


Lisa Souza Sylvie [100% Bombyx Silk; 750 yd per 6 oz skein]
spacer [MC] Artichoke; 1 skein 
spacer [CC] Glory; 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 24-inch US# 1/2.25mm circular needle

spacer 1 stitch marker
spacer scissors
spacer yarn needle
spacer sewing needle
spacer 1 yard green silk satin ribbon
spacer green sewing thread
spacer 670 gold-colored metal beads (optional, not pictured; see Pattern Notes)


32 sts/48 round = 4 inches in stockinette stitch


[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 rich brown."

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 bag.

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.



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.

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 I-cord.

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.


habit-portraitBlank 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.