Girls knitting, 1918Girls knitting, 1918. Image courtesy of UA Archives.

Hand knitting was brought formally into the British school syllabus with the 1870 Education Act. It had been taught in many schools, and especially to girls for long before that, but was not formalised until the late 19th century. By the time of the First World War, knitting was a required element of girls’ education and of many boys’ too.

The examiner for the London School Board 100 years ago was one Ethel Dudley. She wrote the 1914 standard school book Knitting for Infants and Juniors which I recently consulted in the Knitting Reference Library. Sadly, due to copyright and library rules, I wasn’t able to show you a photograph or any of the text here.

I really love looking at old textbooks, (especially old textile-related ones) because I’m just geeky like that. This one was particularly fascinating because it was a textbook for the teacher, not for the pupils. The book showed how the teacher of this period was expected to instruct a class of both boys and girls from age five to eleven. At this point, British children attending state run schools were generally taught in separate single sex classrooms except when they were very young.

In the book, techniques are explained for the teacher using both diagrams and text and teachers are advised to physically demonstrate the knitting techniques in front of the class. This makes a lot of sense today in the light of what we now know about learning styles. It also suggests that either the teachers may not know all of the techniques or that they may need to improve on them in order to meet the programme of learning/teaching.

In her book, Dudley suggested lesson plans and instructions for patterns suitable for varying ages such as the following for five year olds:

‘Duster for school blackboards. Needles 5. Number 8 cotton. 30-40 minutes.
Cast on 18 stitches. K (chain edge) 36 rows.
Cast off and make chain of 12 stitches to hang up.’ (1930:14)

It seems surprising to me today, that five year old children would be able to produce a duster in 40 minutes. Certainly when I have been teaching small children to knit, even those who are ‘improvers’ would struggle with the speed of this due to the dexterity of their fingers. I’m not sure of the comparable weight of number 8 cotton (but would guess DK to aran weight), but number 5 needles are 5.5mm or US9.

Other items recommended by Dudley to be knitted by children at ages six to seven included lace-panelled, pieced and fitted doll’s clothes, and shaped and pieced slippers. I have to say that they appear much more complex than projects in knitting books for children of a similar age today.

So, is it just that knitting is seen today to be a leisure activity that children might be interested in as a hobby and therefore has to be simple and fun? Was it that 100 years ago, knitting was a necessary life skill that they had need to be competent at from an early age and therefore seems more complicated through our 21st century lens? Or do we expect less from our young learners today?

From the teaching point of view, I wonder whether the school knitting teachers of today would know all of the skills that Ethel Dudley had in mind for those of 1914, or perhaps we should have our own kind of training manuals today? In some ways, I’d love a book that told me how to teach people certain skills. As an example, it took a  few tries for my (adult) student and I to work out a good system for teaching her to knit left-handed with me as a righty.

What do you think to these century old differences in the percieved skill levels for teaching and learning to knit?

Do let me know in the comments.

Teaching Knitting a Century Ago
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3 thoughts on “Teaching Knitting a Century Ago

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  • 23rd October 2010 at 13:22
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    Fascinating post though I don’t think it needs to be just a hobby. It made me think of one question: if you assume knitting to be viewed as a “deprecated” skill in today’s schools, could it be reintroduced to encourage a “make it” culture, instead of a “buy it” culture? I can certainly see the benefit there as the economy tanks. What other valuable skills could be reintroduced?

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  • 6th November 2010 at 15:36
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    Thanks for your comments, Ben. Certainly in parts of the UK, knitting is being reintroduced into schools and colleges, which to my mind is great news as it is an important skill. I quite agree that it doesn’t need to just be a hobby, but unfortunately that is what it is, as yet, for many of today’s knitters.
    If you’re in the UK, did you see the Mastercrafts series about those skills such as weaving, wood- and metalwork that are being brought to the fore one more?

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