By Cynthia O’Neill
I love antique consignment shops, the kind usually found in old carriage houses, or someoneâ€™s stand alone garage. No wonder when I flipped through the digital pages of my first vintage knitting and crochet manual, Woolcraft: A Practical Guide to Knitting & Crochet with Beehive & White Heather Knitting Tools [c. 1915] I became an enthusiast and a collector.
I was particularly attracted to photographs of textured crochet shawls in this book. These shawls inspired me to delve further into the stitch combinations and techniques in antique patterns. I have since conceived several original patterns through reading and researching old crochet manuals. Oâ€™Scarletâ€™s Fingerless Mitt pattern was born of an afternoon of rummaging through an old manual, Priscilla Wool Crochet Book: A Selection of Useful Articles From The Modern Pricilla [c. 1908].
I love this manual, edited by Lola Burks Hettich. On the very first page is a lengthy, well written essay on how to work the five loop star stitch, (today sometimes called “marguerite stitch”). Ms. Hettich writes â€œStar stitch, when correctly made, is one of the best and prettiest stitches in crocheting, being suitable for almost every article crocheted of silk or wool where a close stitch is wanted. It is one of the simplest stitches in crochet….â€ The kind voice of Ms. Hettich sharing her insights and knowledge of the star stitch erased any fears I may have had about working the stitch. Her words were so reassuring, so matter of fact, I wanted immediately to recreate a vintage garment in the star stitch.
I also found a baby pattern, Bootie in Star Stitch in another old manual, A Treatise On Embroidery, Crochet and Knitting, [c. 1899]. I decided to practice the star stitch working the bootie. But since I have teenagers, and no use for baby items, I quickly lost interest. Thankfully, I cured my distraction several pages away, where I found a lovely womanâ€™s chevron wristlet pattern.
I worked the wristlet pattern and once nearly complete, I thought the wristlet impractical and old fashioned. I personally would never wear a wristlet. Instead, I began working the star stitch along the top edge of the wristlet where instructed to crochet an edging. I worked continuous rows of star stitches, wrapping and wrapping each row upon one another, working upwards towards the hand from the wrist like an ice cream cone. I was designing the beginnings of a beautiful star stitch hand mitt with a chevron cuff pattern. Excited that I may have created an original and practical design I would wear, I meditated on how to construct the mitt well.
I like well fitting gloves. The lack of a gusset in my sample bothered me. I wanted a gusset like the one created in knitting, with increases across worked for the thumbhole. I immediately looked to the Internet. I Googled the key words: star stitch increase, crochet star stitch gusset, increase and star stitch, increasing in star stitch, but I found very little on the star stitch beyond the straightforward stitch shown on videos in all its common variations.
I returned to the Priscilla Wool Crochet Book instructions on how to work a star stitch increase. I marveled at Ms. Hettich’s use of simple yet engaging language to inform. Her explanation on how to increase in star stitch is as follows: â€œFirst Way – Four sts only are taken up, the short and long one down the side of the proceeding star and the fourth one in the short st into which was put the last st of the preceding star. Sometimes two extra stars are put in this same stitch and the term use is wi 2.â€ I understood easily, even without YouTube to supply visual cues.
Literally several weeks later, I was done. Edit after edit has been made to perfect the pattern, and to honor and showcase this beautiful stitch. I named my pattern Oâ€™Scarletâ€™s Fingerless Mitt.
Even if you donâ€™t see yourself designing, there are many garments, especially baby and children garments that can be recreated without any modifications from vintage patterns. In Woolcraft: A Practical Guide to Knitting & Crochet with Beehive & White Heather Knitting Tools [c. 1915] there are several patterns for crochet shawls that can be easily interpreted. The shawls are not lacey, but handsome and warm, perfect for a winterâ€™s day or a glorious gift to keep a loved one snug. I am recreating one, a Triangle Shawl, for my mother in-law, using Jojoland Melody super-wash 100% wool and a D/3 3.25mm hook. It is turning out beautifully. I may need to add additional rows to make it large enough, given the gauge may be a bit smaller, but with items such as shawls, these types of modifications are painless.
Antique patterns can be found on websites devoted to preserving and sharing antique patterns and researched within digital online public and university library sites. Most of the books, guides and manuals are no longer under copyright and should not be sold, nor should you have to purchase the patterns.
I feel fortunate others have salvaged these incredible resources for me to study and use. The antique books and manuals are filled with utilitarian and fanciful designs of such beauty and ingenuity that, when recreated today by hand in our manufactured world, constitute art. Many of the authors of these manuals are women- women who must have found independence, intellectual and financial, through crochet and the fiber arts in eras past, when women had few options. Itâ€™s their voice, their skill and their secret techniques I am drawn to discover too. Maybe, I search to hear their sisterly voices and to learn from their words, as I would today if they could be seen on YouTube.
Here are some websites where you can find vintage patterns:
Check out Cynthia’s patterns and workshops at moonloops.com
Cynthia Oâ€™Neill is a fiber enthusiast, a knitting and crochet teacher and fulltime wife and mother of three beautiful teenagers. Cynthia is principal organizer of a fiber project, working with local artisans and guilds to create original pieces to present a comprehensive overview of the various fiber arts. The exhibit will be shown November 2011 in The Cheney Gallery at Maryland Hall for the Arts in Annapolis.