Over the years I’ve gathered a small collection of knitting ephemera. This includes a few different styles of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century sticks, wisps and sheaths (used throughout Britain for supported knitting) and different kinds of representations–largely photographs or prints–of knitting all over Britain. Such representations do not afford some sort of transparent window onto the past culture of our craft, but are interesting precisely because the knitting is usually there to say something else: something about femininity and cultural memory, about discourses of work or leisure, about regional or local identities.
A while ago, I came across this in a charity shop.
This tiny brass bell looked very familiar to me because my parents have a similar one at home, which, just like the one I found, probably came from Wales. Inside the bell was inscribed the name “Jenny Jones”, and, when I noticed the figure was working away with yarn and needles, I instantly snapped her up.
But who was Jenny Jones? With a little research I discovered that Jenny, “the maid of Llangollen” was subject of a popular early nineteenth-century air, which celebrated the virtuous milkmaid to whom hoary mariner, Ned Morgan, longed to return to after years at sea on a British man ‘o war (the song was composed during the Napoleonic wars). The song was made popular by comic actor, Charles Matthews, who one imagines making much of Ned’s regional difference, as the lyric broadly speaks to then-familiar English stereotypes of the Welsh, including the fondness for cheese:
I parted a lad from the vale of my fathers,
And left Jenny Jones then a cockit young lass :
But now I’m return’d a storm-beaten old mariner,
JENNY—from JONES, into MORGAN shall pass,
And we’ll live on our cheese and our ale in contentment,
And long through our dear native vallies will rove ;
For indeed in our hearts we both love that Llangollen,
And sweet Jenny Morgan, with truth will I love.
This “Welsh air” retained its ubiquity for several decades, and, as was the way with the subjects of popular song, commemorative prints and figures of Jenny Jones soon began to be produced, in most of which she was depicted with her milk pail and knitting.
By the mid nineteenth-century, English visitors to Llangollen had begun to associate it more with Jenny Jones than with those those other famous ladies of the vale, Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby. “You must know something of the Vale of Llangollen,” Thomas Jevons wrote to his son Stanley, “so famed for its beautiful maid, Jenny Jones.” The number of commemorative items and souvenirs upon which sweet and virtuous Jenny was depicted rapidly increased.
You could use Jenny to knock on the door
. . . scoop tea from a caddy.
. . store your pins
or sharpen a pen nib.
And, as the ultimate souvenir of your Welsh visit, you could nip down to the photographic studio, pop on the striped petticoats and stovepipe hat the photographer had conveniently stored in his dressing up box, stick some yarn and needles in your hands and, as the very image of Jenny Jones, sit there and pretend to knit away.
All over Wales, hand-knitted stockings had long been a familiar means of supplementing rural incomes. Travelling from Bala to Llanrwst in 1798, John Evans saw women and children knitting everywhere he went:
“On market day, no one is idle, no hands in pockets are seen, but both the buyer and the seller are employed in knitting, and hundreds may be seen earning their subsistence as they walk along. Going out or returning home, riding or walking, they are all occupied in this portable employment.”
Visitors were as fascinated by the attire of these knitters as by the activity of their needles. In English travel literature of this period, the dress of the women of rural Wales is continually remarked upon as being archaic, masculine, or both: “They universally wear a petticoat and jacket fitting close to the waist of striped woollen and a man’s hat” wrote Catherine Hutton from her visit to Aberystwyth in 1787. Such “men’s hats” were of the practical low-crowned felt type which, in previous decades, might have been sported all over Britain by rural people of both sexes.
In several of the watercolours in the famous 1830s album of Cambrian Costumes commissioned by Augusta Hall (Lady Llanover) Welsh women are depicted with felt hats and partially-knitted stockings.
These twin accoutrements of “man’s hat” and knitting played an essential role in the myth-making activities of the Llanover circle, out of which the now universally familiar idea of “Welsh costume” began to emerge.
It was in such a “costume” that the sentimental, the beautiful, the steadfast maid of Llangollen, Jenny Jones, was continually depicted.
With her stovepipe hat of ever-extending dimensions, and her perpetually half-knitted stocking, Jenny Jones should be read in the context of those conservative nationalisms which, from the 1830s onward, sought to preserve, perpetuate, and propagate a particular ideal of Wales. Knitting stockings was a crucial activity through which many Welsh women and some men supplemented their family incomes, well into the closing decades of the nineteenth century. But in the figure of Jenny Jones, knitting is absorbed into a discourse of sentiment and nostalgia rather than that of productive labour.
As Jenny Jones, the Welsh knitter becomes a mere picturesque curiosity rather than a potentially troublesome symbol of women’s work and the ordinary realities of nineteenth-century rural life.
The brass Jenny Jones’ are from my personal collection. The pin dish and penknife are items currently available for sale on Etsy. The nineteenth-century prints and images of Jenny Jones and Welsh “national costume” are all reproduced from the publicly available digitised collections of Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru – The National Library of Wales. Many of the prints are available to view together here. You can browse the pages of Augusta Hall’s Cambrian costumes dedicated to the nobility and gentry of Wales (1830) at the People’s collection of Wales here. A detailed account of Augusta Hall’s myth making activities can be found in Celyn Gurden-Williams Phd thesis Lady Llanover and the Creation of a Welsh Cultural Utopia (U of Cardiff, 2008). For information about Welsh dress and “costume” generally, see the work of Christine Stevens (e.g., ‘Welsh Costume: The Survival of Tradition or National Icon?’, Folk Life (2004) pp. 56-70). Michael Freeman’s website is also a fantastic resource.