This appeared in the Middletown Press March 19
By JENNIFER SHAFER WOOD, Special to Weekend
CROMWELL — Rebecca Bayreuther Donahue, vice president and longtime volunteer at the Cromwell Historical Society, has successfully combined her love of history with her love of knitting.
She recently gave a presentation on 19th-century knitting, "The Most Easy and Graceful Employment: Hand-Knitting in the 19th Century," in which the audience was shown patterns and articles knit from these 1800-era templates.
For her program, the use of the word "employment" is less of a modern-day connotation such as a "job" or "work," but more the original meaning, "an activity or the like that occupies a person’s time."
Bayreuther Donahue explained, "If you come in cold, knowing nothing about how people knit in the 19th century, hopefully this presentation will give you a start to do some more investigation." Her PowerPoint presentation ran through the social history of 19th-century knitting, to reading complicating patterns that are almost like reading another language to the uninitiated.
Her program is rich with pictures of original pieces of knitted garments from different museums. She also uses knitted examples that she knit herself using 19th-century patterns.
Bayreuther Donahue learned to knit in the seventh grade as an alternative to recess one rainy day. In college at the University of Connecticut, Bayreuther would knit through class. "I got some beautiful boat-neck sweaters done that way," she mused.
Bayreuther Donahue earned her bachelor’s from UConn in English literature/creative writing. She discovered a passion for history by reading historical fiction."The romance and the charm of an earlier day — that’s what got me hooked on history," she reminisced. While at UConn, she became one of four founding members of The UConn Civil War Reenactment Association, where she had her first brush with the world of living history. Bayreuther Donahue describes herself a living historian who is active in not only participating in historical reenactments, but also by knitting period clothing.
Bayreuther is the lead role-player (circa 1876) at Mystic Seaport, The Museum of America and The Sea.
As a role-player at Mystic Seaport Bayreuther Donahue became active with the costume shop and began to contribute to period costumes by knitting from 19th-century patterns. She explored different collections of knitted items housed in different museums. That was her first introduction into classic knitting, or knitting from another time period, she said.
Bayreuther Donahue explained that in the 19th century, cotton was very popular; especially cotton stockings, for in all the museums she explored, there were tubs full of historical cotton stockings. Her personal preference for knitting is with wool, especially handwoven. "I like wool. I know that for the reenactment and living history community, people tend to spin, or have their own sheep and hand spin, or hand dye. So wool is more available for doing that stuff," she said.
A local handspun yarn tends to have a few more inconstancies than a machine spun wool. A lot of knitters today really like that inconstancy, Bayreuther Donahue says. Not only for the feel of the wool, but also because the garment is made from an article handspun to one hand-knitted.
During the 19th-century, women had to provide the family with clothing. At the onset of the Industrial Revolution, the weaving mills for cloth and knitting were obsolete due to mass production.
Freeing women up from knitting as a necessity, during the Industrial Revolution, knitting became a pastime of the well-to-do housewife who had more time and domestic help to deal with the day-to-day tasks of life. The patterns and knitting needles changed to reflect the Victorian gentile, who sat in a silk dress knitting and sipping tea.
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, most books on domestic help and advice books of that period recommended that children as young as 5 should know how to knit their own stockings, hats and mittens.
Today, children and adults learn to knit as a hobby. The first stitch a beginning knitter will learn is the garter stitch, Bayreuther Donahue says, "which is the basic knit stitch, and you just knit, knit, knit. Without changing how you’re doing the stitch. The garter stitch is named such because one of the first garments knitted were garters, which would be tied around your leg to hold up your stockings up."
"Purling allows you to manipulate the yarn in a different direction and as the knitter gains experience, they can pearl. When you get the knit stitch and the purl, you can do basically any other stitch that there is."
Much hand knitting in the 19th-century mimicked what now is known as machine-knit, a fine-gauge pattern with small needles.
"The size of the needle determines the fineness of your stitch. For example, baby socks would be knitted with a small needle, like 000, and they come out to be a millimeter in diameter," according to Bayreuther Donahue.
The smaller the needle, the more the challenge, Bayreuther Donahue explained, because the knitting goes much slower and completing a project takes much longer. "But it’s all in the experience of the knitter," she said.
Knitting in the style of 19th century can be a lot of fun, especially knitters can get into the mindset of a 19th-century knitter. The patterns are much different to read than modern knit patterns. Knitters have to leave modern knitting behind by trusting the 19th-century patterns, Bayreuther Donahue says, "it was a much more organic process then we have made it today."
Modern patterns have all the materials at the top, such as gauge, yarn type, needles, special notions, ect., so knitters know what is needed before beginning a new project.
With the 19th-century pattern, knitters are likely to find surprises while working through it, as opposed to the surety of today. Bayreuther Donahue says, "modern patterns tend to be made by the big yarn manufacturers," who are interested in people buying their yarn to make a garment.
In the 19th century, patterns are written by people who weren’t interested in the success of the garment, therefore, there is no commercial tie and they were written with the idea of producing the highest quality garment rather the highest sales.
For information, visit www.cromwellhistory.org. Resources include "The Workwoman’s Guide By A Lady: A Guide to 19th-Century Decorative Arts."