images of knitting #1

I have a small (but ever growing) collection of prints and postcard in which knitters, and the activity of knitting, are represented. Some of these are really very interesting, and I thought I’d occasionally share them with you here.

postcardfront

This card, which was posted with an Austrian stamp in 1916, depicts a ‘continental’ knitter working on a long stocking, whilst literally being haunted by thoughts of war. It is undoubtedly a sentimental image: like equivalent representations of industrious female knitters in Britain and America during the First World War, the needles seem to be there to enable this woman to be ‘doing something useful’ for the war effort, producing functional objects that also serve as testimony of her affection. The woman’s face is the very image of serene meditation — her surroundings are quietly and comfortably domestic; but the ghost of the war hangs over her pleasant home in the shape of the uniformed figure by the window. Is this half-present soldier conjured up by the act of knitting itself, as the repetitive action of the needles frees the knitter’s mind to wander among her thoughts and memories? Is knitting, therefore, a soothing activity that allows this woman to be comforted in her solitude by the idea that she is creating something equally comforting for her absent beloved? Or is the transparent figure an actual ghost — the soldier who has returned after death to haunt his faithful partner? If so, then knitting is an activity that transforms the woman into a tragic figure: an image of steadfast affection and domestic industry, steadily turning out socks for a man already dead.

I find this image interesting because it is troubling and because it disturbs those gung-ho ‘knit your bit’ stereotypes that are generally associated with the 1914-18 war effort. The way that the solider’s ghostly presence brings the war into the woman’s domestic environment is deeply suggestive, and the whole image is, in its own way, as unhinged as the narrator of Philadelphia Robertson’s poem, A Woman’s Prayer (1916), who knits on the edge of sanity:

“I am so placid as I sit
In train or tram and knit and knit;

Within the house I give due heed
To every duty, each one’s need,

Sometimes the newsboys hurry by,
And then my needles seem to fly

And when the house has grown quite still
I lean out on my window sill —

And pray to God to see to it
That I keep sane enough to knit”

I’ve scanned the reverse of the postcard, just in case any of you can decipher it.

postcardback

49 responses

  1. The handwriting looks like Sütterlin. I’ll give it a try. At school I had that bad behavior for a while to do my homework in Sütterlin so no one could copy. ;o)))

    • The Address:
      Hilde Seyff
      in Wien (Vienna)
      VIII Albertgasse 47

      Not sure at the moment but the young gentleman writing the post card might be called “Rudi”.

  2. The handwriting is indeed Sutterlin, but it deteriorates towards the end. I taught myself to read and write it while at school. The postcard seems to start with a term of endearment – mein liebstes …. (my dearest ….)

    Thanks for sharing this
    Connie

  3. Oh! The perfect image to use when teaching Sassoon’s “Glory of Women.” Thanks so much for posting it, Kate!

  4. All my time and energy spent knitting, it’s never been valued in a way that it would have during a war though. Everyone treats my knitting as “quaint”. You always give me knew ways of thinking about things Kate.

  5. Yes, I thought it was Mein liebstes Hildegard, perhaps… which is grammatically incorrect unless Hildegard is a young girl and being thought of as “Mädchen/Mädel” in dialect (here in Switzerland the article for mother becomes “das Mami”, switching from feminine to neutrum!!) but I didn’t learn the old style of German script so can decipher very little else; I’m trying to think of who I could ask!!

    The photo looks to me as if she’s imagining her soldier boyfriend/husband trudging along, grateful for his hand-knitted socks, which even if wet, are still keeping his blistered feet warm… ;)

    Anyway, thanks for that – and especially for showing the back as well.

  6. Hi Kate, I’ll ask my daughter who lives in Vienna. The adress on the card is just behind where she lives! Can’t read a word of it!
    Greetings from Antwerp, Chris and Colin my labby!

  7. I can read “Meine Liebsten Hildegard” And the date; August 15th 1916. . But the rest should be translated by a German reading docter’s assistant. (They can decipher the ugliest of handwriting)

  8. I don’t read German other than a few words, but the recipient of the postcard lived in Vienna. Not tremendously helpful, I know, but I was pleased to recognize the recipents name and her city.

  9. Ok, here’s a transcription, followed by a translation, of what I can read of the text on the card, i.e. mostly the first half of it – as someone has already remarked in the comments, unfortunately the handwriting gets more and more illegible with every new line. The bits in square brackets are the ones where I’m not 100% sure if my reading is correct:

    “Mein* liebstes Tschoperl**,
    Ich soll zu den Kaiser-
    lichen am 20. [dis. ms.]. Mein
    Jahrgang kommt jetzt [an]
    die […] – Ich und der [Jose]
    Holleyn haben vorgenom-
    men einzutreten! Das [Noma-]
    denleben haben [wirs schon]
    […]
    Jahr verwünscht. Wir […]
    …“

    “My dearest Tschoperl,
    I am supposed to join the Imperial forces on the 20th [of this month]. It is my class’s turn […]. – Me and [Jose] Holleyn have resolved to enlist! We have [already] […] cursed this [nomadic] life. We…”

    * Originally, this read “Meine“, but the e at the end has been crossed out.
    ** An Austrian dialect word describing a slightly clumsy and/or naïve person, in this case apparently used as a term of endearment. Its use makes me wonder though whether the addressee was actually the writer’s love interest or rather his younger sister…

    • Thank you for the transcription and translation! Almost as interesting as the postcard.image. You can see why he chose this postcard to send to his “Dear Klutze”, whether sister or girl friend.

    • This is what I could read, nearly the same as C:

      Mein liebstes Tschozerl – (I see z and no p – maybe a mix of Tschoperl and Herzerl? Herzerl is austrian for sweatheart)
      ich soll zu den Kaiserlichen am 20.(…)
      mein Jahrgang kommt jetzt an die (…) – ich und der(…) Holleyn haben
      vorgenommen einzutreten. Das Nomadenleben haben wir schon (…) warten über ein Winter(…)jahr verwünscht – Wie geht es sonst – hast nimmer (…) Ich nie – (…)
      grüßt (…)

      Interesting: the “hochwohlgebor(en)” above the adress, which is a form of address for members of the lower german nobility or gentry. Has it been used as a joke? Or was this a usual form in Austria? Unfortunately the stamp covers the word after, which could be “Fraeulein” – that would be the english Miss.

      maybe someone gets the rest and can do a nice translation?
      My English is not the best.

      Yes, you could write a whole book.

      Thank’s for sharing!!

      • C and Antonia have deciphered it right, I think. The end of the message is more or less unreadable, and it seems to me that it’s been written in a bit of a hurry. By the way, it is not Sütterlin, it’s a script called Deutsche Kurrentschrift, as Sütterlin wasn’t taught in schools until the 1930s. However, some letters (like H in Hilde) are neither Kurrent nor Sütterlin, but something like a free and modern interpretation. Never seen that before…

        I am quite certain that the address reads “Hochwohlgebor(enes) Fräulein” (roughly: Most noble Miss), which I think must be meant as a joke as Hilde and the sender seem to be rather close, using informal “Du” terms thoughout the message.

        Anyway, thanks so much for sharing this interesting piece!

  10. I love old knitting images like this and collect what I can. This photograph reminds me of those taken in the UK in the 1920s that include ghostly images of soldiers killed in the 14/18 war. At the time there was a huge upsurge of interest in seances as (parents in particular) sought to get in touch

  11. I find it quite disturbing somehow……….I guess war always does that to me. But we DO need to be disturbed from time to time!! thank you for this. be well…………….

  12. This was written while the battle of the Somme was going on (July to November 1916). You have to wonder what “Tschoperl”s reaction was to this young man’s news. And how did this card survive two dreadful wars, and how did it journey from Vienna to the British Isles? It’s almost bewildering to think about.

  13. One could write a book about this little paper picture. Kate, thanks for posting. And many thanks [C] for the translation. Haunting and beautiful and totally fascinating!

  14. What a remarkable little gem! C’s translation is greatly appreciated. When I initially saw the photo, I wasn’t unsettled; I just thought she was thinking of the raison d’etre underlying her knitting. Different interpretations can definitely be unsettling. Ah the beauty of an image to allow for such a range. :)

  15. Fascinating Kate. At the time he wrote his pc, the Austro-Hungarian army was fighting on several fronts, though not on the Western F. The army was engaged in Serbia and Motenegro (against the Russians) and would soon declare war against Rumania. If he was an accomplished skier he may have joined the mountain forces engaged against Italy in the the South Tyrol. Another angle to the ghostly image was the growing fascination at the time with spiritualism, partly in response to the horrific casualty rate in all the combatant nations.

  16. I take this scene as meditation frees her mind and, therefore, brings the spirit to her while she knits. I for one feel the presence of my loved ones that have crossed over when I do my genealogy, cooking with their recipes, or knitting/crocheting… They are always with us.

  17. I have a nice one of a man knitting ages ago. He looks just like me when I try my hardest… I don’t really know how to send it though. Can I attach a picture here? Have a nice easter holiday!

  18. What a wonderful image. No matter how you read it it’s far more powerful than Kitchener et al. Is it strange that it was produced as a postcard? It seems far more propaganda than greetings card.

  19. Very interesting postcard! Do you, in you collection, by any chance, have a vintage postcard of hap shawls been pegged out to dry?

  20. So much to muse over! Thank you for sharing the postcard and the poem, and thanks to the commenters who mentioned Sutterlin and kindly transcribed and translated.

  21. Very very interesting. I also have a small collection of vintage and antique postcards, but not of knitters. Like a few people, I didn’t see this is disturbing or morbid, but rather a pleasant scene in which she is thinking of the kind gesture she can make by knitting warm socks. The posture and expression are consistent with what I’ve seen in cards from France and Italy of around the same period, and the “spirit” image consistent with photographic tricks that had been in use since the 1860s. (For lack of a better reference, here’s the wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spirit_photography) Nice find!

  22. Beautiful picture, great poem. It reminded me of this (british) wartime-knitting poem though, so I thought I’d share: Socks by Jessie Pope.

    Shining pins that dart and click
    In the fireside’s sheltered peace
    Check the thoughts the cluster thick –
    20 plain and then decrease.

    He was brave – well, so was I –
    Keen and merry, but his lip
    Quivered when he said good-bye –
    Purl the seam-stitch, purl and slip.

    Never used to living rough,
    Lots of things he’d got to learn;
    Wonder if he’s warm enough –
    Knit 2, catch 2, knit, turn.

    Hark! The paper-boys again!
    Wish that shout could be suppressed;
    Keeps one always on the strain –
    Knit off 9, and slip the rest.

    Wonder if he’s fighting now,
    What he’s done an’ where he’s been;
    He’ll come out on top somehow –
    Slip 1, knit 2, purl 14.

    I like how the metre of the poem depicts the rythm of the needles and how concentrating on the knitting keeps the woman from loosing it all together in her worries over her loved ones at the front.
    Some of her other works are quite bad though, unfortunately ;)

  23. Hi Just wondered whether you knitters would be interested in the following World War 1 snippets:

    In October 1914 Lord Kitchener (he of the pointed finge fame) issued a Call to Women, requesting that that they knit 1 million pairs of socks by Christmas. They complied and by December 1914, had knitted 3 million pairs and wne ton doing so.

    By Novemenber 1918, the Army had issued a total of 137,225,000 pairs of socks.

    There is a stitch called the Kitchener stitich which enables a heel to be “turned” without creating a crease

    The New York newspaper “The Sun” offered a weekly prize once the US had entered the War for the best knitting poem and the first second and third prize poems were compiled in an anthology named “Sock Songs”. Winners received 3, 2, and 1 ball of wool respectively.

    There are countless poems written about knitting which were published in anthologies, newspapers as broadsheets or just written up in a diary by the knitter/writer.

    One poor 9-year old girl wondered if she “would ever live to finish” the sock she was having to knit at school. I assume she did although whether the sock was ever finished I remain unsure.

    I currently have a commission for a book about Women in the First World War and have quite a section on knitting …

    If anyone has any more wartime knitting stories, please post.

    Viv

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