Here are a couple more postcards from my collection in which knitting is represented in association with regional / national stereotypes.
This is an American card dating from the very early 1900s. It is number 11 in the popular “St Patrick’s series,” whose tone is, of course, incredibly sentimental and nostalgic. One could hardly imagine a representation of Irish femininity more stereotypical — the knitter stands barefoot outside her “wee humble cottage” in a shamrock-encircled John Ford fantasy of rural domesticity. The knitting is a sort of accoutrement of her simplicity, and her bare feet are a familiar feature of other postcards in this series.
This card was produced in the early 1900s by venerable British photographers Judges (who are still in the postcard printing business after a more than a century). By this point, the figure of the “Welsh Lady” in stovepipe hat and shawl had become a recognisable tourist novelty. Here, the ball of yarn and needles have been taken out of the dressing-up box to form decorative additions to her “costume.” I am interested in the subtle shifts of representation of Welsh women’s hats — as, in many Eighteenth-Century accounts I’ve read, the wearing of men’s hats is described as masculinising Welsh women in various ways. In this context, Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby’s signature hats seem to be a deliberate form of costume, but by the time of Augusta Hall’s famous Cambrian sketches, the hats have become picturesque – and acceptably feminine – curiosties.
Augusta Hall, “Welsh Girl in the Costume of Pembrokeshire” in Cambrian Costume, Dedicated to the Nobility and Gentry of Wales (1834)
I am perhaps particularly interested in picture-postcard representations of the women of rural Wales because, where tea-drinking, hand-knitting, and “masculine” roles are concerned, there are so many similarities with familiar stereotypes of Shetland women.
As always, your thoughts and comments on these knitterly images are most welcome!
Renovation update! things seem to be going very well with the plumbing and plastering, though I am now in the odd and somewhat difficult position of having no water. I will now be offline for a few days as the work continues. Next time I post I hope to have a bathroom!
Here are a couple more postcards from my collection. Strictly speaking, these are reproductions of advertisments, but I am particularly fond of the Sunlight Soap image which, as you can see, has been pinned on my board for some time. I find it interesting for the way it represents knitting as a leisure activity, rather than as a part of women’s domestic labour. Washing is textile-related work for this nostalgically mop-capped woman, but the activity of hand-knitting is situated firmly in the category of “rest and leisure”. Since Sunlight has made the washing quick and easy, she can relax happily with her yarn and needles. This is interesting because, in other contexts at around the same time, hand-knitting was work and could easily be associated, in very different ways, with ideas of women’s labour. But quite apart from the questions it raises about what-is-work and what-is-not for women, I also like many things about the design of this advertisment – the giant ball of yarn in the foreground; the brilliantly white sheets waving gaily in the landscape; the knitter’s sense of contemplation; and the strong, bright colours of the image.
This advertisment — in which Jeanie and Jimmy are about to make a terrible mess on the carpet while playing sit-up-and-beg with a giant tin of digestives — is rather different. The yarn and needles are incidental to the scene, and seem to be there to give middle-class mother something to do, or perhaps to calm her nerves before she contemplates getting the dustpan and brush out. She stares at her offspring’s biscuity activities with a rictus grin which seems to say “put the tin back in the kitchen where it belongs, you wee shites.” Quite apart from the crumb-related horror that is about to unfold, the association of digestives with dog biscuits is not one you’d imagine Mc Vities wanting to cultivate. Extraordinary.
I love reading your thoughts about these images — perhaps particularly when you disagree with me — so all comments are very welcome.
In other news, I have a couple of designs to release! More about that tomorrow.
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.
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.