Tuesday 8 May 2018

How to Knit Gloves

‘How to Knit Gloves’ (for the Edwardian James Bond), 1911

‘Gloves are not very difficult to knit’, my grandmother wrote in 1911. A rather proud sixteen-year-old, who had probably just finished her first good pair, she prudently remarked that hers were ‘very useful as new finger-tips can be knitted when the first wear out.’

I am not a knitter, but I love the idea of knitting new finger tips for old, rather like Bond replacing his finger-prints to enable him to have a whisky while avoiding leaving identifying marks on a glass. Bond could, of course, have just worn gloves, but perhaps Q did not have the beautiful instructions that my grandmother had written out for knitting such a ‘useful’ pair.

There are long generations on my mother’s side of the family. I was 38 when I had my last daughter, and my mother and her mother were about the same age when they had theirs. So, generationally, it only takes us two hops to get back to 1911 when my grandmother, Mary McCombie, was sixteen, the same age as my eldest today. Mary was the first of four siblings, who filled their spare time with reading and radio, tennis and parties, and – Mary at least on one slow afternoon – knitting.

Hoping to gain some insight into my teenage grandma, I emailed her gloves recipe to my brilliant-knitting friend, Emma to see what she would make of it. Emma immediately plunged into the challenge of knitting Edwardian gloves…

‘These needles arrived today.’ Emma emailed back a week later, with the first of a series of photos. Mary had recommended using ‘4 steel needles’, which is a traditional way of knitting in the round. Today there are bendy needles that flex in the middle, like bendy-busses making life easier for going round corners. They make it ‘less like hedgehog wrestling’ Emma wrote, which seems a perfect way to describe knitting with traditional straights.

Mary had recommended 3 ply yarn for men’s gloves, 2 ply for ladies, but Emma soon saw that this would only produce a tiny and rather lacy, decorative glove, so she moved up a size, fortunately announcing, ‘I'm loving this!!!!!’

Unlike me, Emma understood Mary’s knitting language and was soon setting off on two rounds of purl (garter stitch), 8 rounds of plain (stocking stitch) and 2 rows purl. The first cuff appeared. #intertextualknittingphotography

‘Looking good,’ I wrote back, and love that tattoo!

Three more photos followed in rapid succession. ‘I can't help but smile at how your gran begins with "gloves are easy to knit”’, Emma wrote. Mary had chosen moss stitch - achieved by doing a knit one, purl one sequence, reversing on the next row.  ‘This gives the lovely bumpy effect you can see in the second picture. It's used if you want a robust garment, but it’s a bit of a fancy stitch that someone may use to show off.’ So either Mary wanted robust gloves or she was quietly parading her knitting proficiency.

Emma was knitting with the TV on. Despite using coloured wool threads as markers, as instructed, she lost count, but pressed on following her mother-in-law’s excellent philosophy that ‘flaws add character’. ‘Amazing work,’ I told her. ‘You are having a conversation with my grandma that I could never have understood, and it tells you a bit about her, her confidence and perhaps showy-offness, that I love.’ I sent her a photo of Mary aged about 16. Unlikely she had any tattoos, and certainly no Netflix.

The gloves were starting to look a bit mittenish, but Emma was soon ready to knit fingers. Mary’s pattern suggested 7 stitches per finger with 4 stitches added each side to ensure no gaps, but got a little vague in parts so Emma worked it out as she went along, sticking with the moss stitch.

Suddenly the first was done! ‘Now to make sure the second matches!’ Emma wrote as proud as Mary had ever been…

The result was a mossy, grey, 1911 work of genius, which Emma generously presented to me one evening a week later! I love them.

The grandma I remembered was an old lady (that’s the downside of long generations), but she was kind, and loving, and delighted at cheating at cards. I hadn’t put it past her to cheat with her gloves instructions too, but it seems she was rightly proud of her endeavours.

No doubt when the First World War started, just three years after Mary wrote out her knitting instructions, she again put her skills to good use. It is unlikely that her future husband, Alfred Smith, ever wore her wartime creations. He was posted to Turkey and served at Gallipoli, before being transferred to Egypt, but the nights did get very cold so you never know. I like to think that when they met after the war, and he was back in chilly England, she might have picked up her four steel needles again for him.

With thanks to Emma Dobson and Mary McCombie.

Emma Dobson

Mary McCombie

Mary McCombie’s ‘How to Knit Gloves’ full instructions