It began with a postcard.
I’ve always loved the traditional Penguin paperback covers, and I have a lovely box of postcards of some of the old covers, and often choose one to include in parcels or notes to friends. (It’s getting tricky though, now I’ve used up the uncontroversial ones. I always find the most deeply inappropriate cards when I’m looking – I suspect that sending Woolf’s A Room Of One’s Own with a birthday gift to a divorcing friend would not be clever, nor would sending De Vries’ The Tunnel Of Love as a thank you card to an elderly male neighbour.)
One card that I’d kept back was the cover of James Norbury’s The Penguin Knitting Book, originally published in 1957. Feeling curious, I searched online for a real copy earlier this year, but the prices made my eyes water – and it’s hard to knit with watery eyes, so I had to stop looking. But a random whinge on the Yarn’s Facebook page about my chances of reading this book any time soon prompted Golden Michele Mulkey to respond that the book was now re-issued and available. (Thank you GMM, wherever you are. 🙂 ) Wa-hey with a capital ‘Wa’! And in small paperback format, it was looking pretty darn affordable. My poor beleaguered credit card already knew that the game was up, and slipped itself out of my purse with a gloomy sigh.
So I thought I’d give you a review of the book, because it’s interesting and frankly, you might love it or hate it. Want to know which camp you’re likely to fall into? Read on.
First, some background. James Norbury was the Arne and Carlos of his time, the 1950s’ version of a celebrity knitter who brought out books to support his TV show. Plus ça change. History doesn’t record whether he flitted around the world knitting for adoring audiences and being generally fabulous, but he ought to have done. I wish I could have seen him in action, but he died in 1972, and I can’t find footage from any of his TV appearances online.
As you might expect from a book of that era, words are more plentiful than pictures, so the actual technicalities, the ins-and-outs of knitting, so to speak, occupy relatively few pages. Norbury was a man of strong opinions, mind. There was apparently a correct tension that one must master. Care of one’s knitwear was a subject particularly close to his heart, and he bemoaned having “shuddered” at “cardigans hanging from an ordinary hook behind a door”, or jumpers “flung across a chair”. Flung! Flung, I tell you! One can almost picture him clasping a hand to his brow in despair, before taking to his bed for a week with nervous exhaustion.
Anyway, having got that out of the way in the first 66 pages, what, you can almost hear Norbury pondering to himself as he sat in his favourite winged armchair smoking a pipe, fountain pen in hand, was he going to write about for the remaining 200 or so pages?
His answer was patterns, of course, a wide range of them for all ages with a few homewares thrown in, some of which are figure-flatteringly elegant and which would still work up nicely for anyone who loves a vintage knit, and some of which are probably best bypassed with a nervous smile. Instructions are given for one, or occasionally three, sizes. I offered to make the “man’s continental slipover” for the Stoic Spouse, but the look he gave me said, “I know an unscrupulously ruthless divorce lawyer and I’m not afraid to use the Toddler Twinnage’s inheritance to pay her,” so I shut up. See, he’s not so stoical after all.
The best thing about this book, I think, is the section on the history of knitting. I read about ancient nomads working on simple knitting frames at a tension of 36 stitches per inch. Knitting was perfect for those ancient nomads, being so portable, and the colourwork that I love and which long-ago spread to Shetland, to Scandinavia, and worldwide, originated in the Arab world. A sample of Arabic stranded stockinette colourwork apparently still exists from somewhere between the 5th and 7th centuries: man, I’d love to see that knitting. What one can see, if you visit the V&A Museum in London, is socks. These Arabic socks were made somewhere between 300 and 499AD and given their state of preservation, have clearly never suffered being flung across a chair.
Let’s gloss over the ancient Arabians’ lack of style: socks to be worn with sandals?! I shake my head in Norbury-like aesthetic despair.
Back in merry, plaguey, ol’ Blighty in the Middle Ages, we hit a golden age of knitted colourwork, and of (male) apprentices to the Knitting Guilds serving an apprenticeship of six years, half of which involved travelling around Europe studying with the masters of the craft. Before being admitted to the Guild and becoming Master Craftsmen themselves, they had to complete in 13 weeks a colourful knitted carpet incorporating flowers, leaves, birds and animals, plus a beret, a shirt, and a pair of hose with Spanish Clocks. People, if anything makes me want to undergo gender reassignment surgery and time-travel back a few hundred years (and very few things do), it’s this.
Anyway, if you’re a learner knitter and you want a how-to book, this probably isn’t the best place to start. If you want lots of colourful visuals, scurry elsewhere. But for both historical interest and interest in the historical, James Norbury is worth a look. Enjoy.