No Idle Hands

During my family’s road trip during the holidays, I enjoyed the book No Idle Hands, The Social History of American Knitting, by Anne Macdonald.

It’s an interesting walk through history around the topic of the art and craft of knitting. It was intriguing to begin in Colonial times and enter the world of women at the time when Britain stopped all ships from bringing cloth to America. It suddenly became an imperative and then “fashionable” to wear home spun cloth. Then to experience the Civil War, when women in both the North and the South quickly organized very efficient groups to knit desperately-needed stockings for the soldiers that would protect them as they trudged through cold, wet snow. Then to visualize the women who knitted their way across America during the Oregon Trail as one way to deter boredom, mend their sadness of saying good-bye to loved ones, or to simply do something good for their family. Then through the World Wars with even more stories of women knitting for the distinct needs of their men. Of course, there are fun stories of women who “learned from their elders” to knit to join in. I found it striking to learn that many young women did not know how to knit even in the 1800s. They had left off learning the skill, since the stocking factories for the most part were doing a fine job making them, according to Macdonald. (Though many knitted their stockings to make them longer, warmer or with a better fit than those at the mills.) Of course, sometimes these young ladies struggled to make their stockings, having one become much bigger than the other and hoping that one could be felted to pair with the other.

There are many examples of women who picked up the skill of knitting, not because it was a necessity, but because it was an enjoyable occupation or hobby, some of which were First Ladies or other public officials.

I have often read in other places that it was sailors who spread knitting from one place to another in other countries. I have also read that it used to be that the women would spin the fiber and the men might knit it into something of use. This has brought up fun conversations with my husband, who personally has no desire to knit, unless maybe it involved needles the size of a pitch fork handle. Macdonald covers this subject well and in an entertaining way. She includes several pictures of the men who loved to knit and who joined in the “knitting craze” of the 40s.

I enjoyed reading about the days when children brought their knitting to school, sometimes much to the school master’s dismay. In other times, even little boys behaved better in schools because they enjoyed knitting while waiting for their turn in class. In colleges, students knitted at any opportunity they could.

It’s a fun book, even if “hair raising” at times. It gives a good overview of American culture through the years, who we were, what successes and mistakes we’ve experienced, all aside the art and craft of knitting.

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