Originally published in Pom Pom Quarterly, Issue 24, Spring 2018
Philately – nope, it’s not a fancy word for licking male members, it’s the knowledge and appreciation of postal services, which is what Issue 24 is about. All the patterns found their design inspiration in specific postage stamps, which, in turn, dictated the country of origin of the yarn used for each one. The last in this list of stamps is the Penny Black. As the world’s first adhesive stamp, introduced for public use in Great Britain in 1840, the Penny Black was created to simplify and standardise the method for payment and delivery of mail. Thanks to her success, pre-paid lick-and-stick postage was quickly adopted by other countries and became not just a way to pay for messages and goods to get from one place to another, but also a means for national priorities and identity to be broadcast around the world. So much beautiful, groundbreaking, and public-minded design has traversed the globe in the diminutive (and affordable) form of stamps. Their proliferation birthed a new hobby: stamp collecting.
As a child, I used to collect stamps with my dad. What was depicted on the stamps and where they came from triggered much curiosity and conversation. It allowed us focused time together, supported by the wider family, who clipped cancelled stamps off their post and sent them our way. Once we had a good amount ready to go, we would soak the stamps off the fragments of envelope. It was a delicate balance of timing – they needed to be in the water long enough to dissolve the foul-tasting glue, but not so long that the stamps became mushy. Soaking happened in a brown glass measuring jug, out of which we would fish the stamps and carefully place them to dry on sheets of kitchen roll. Once dry, the stamps would be pressed between books to flatten them. From there, if we were being diligent, they would go straight into special stamp albums. Where to slot in new ones was an exercise in decision-making, grouping and cataloguing. As I write this, I realise how akin that process is to the one I undergo when finishing, blocking and posting a knit! I have given up stamp collecting, but its spirit lives on in my knitting practice.
The world wide web and other advances in technology have had a profound effect on analogue hobbies. Stamp collecting, trainspotting and ham radio seem unlikely to survive more than a couple more generations in current conditions. For other hobbies, such as knitting, it has been their salvation. While knitters often fixate on the gloriously hands-on-ness of knitting and celebrate historical styles and stories, it is our embrace of new technologies that has guaranteed handknitting’s survival as a contemporary pastime. Some of the language of knitting, however, is definitely the remnants of a different era: remnants that are worth examining, if not abandoning altogether.
I’m specifically thinking of the terms we use for how we form our stitches. The question “Do you knit ‘English’ or ‘Continental’?” might seem innocent enough, but them’s fighting words: the terms are a wartime throwback. Comparable to how German Shepherd Dogs became known as Alsatians and the Saxe-Coburg family became Windsors, ‘German style’ became known as Continental during and after the second world war as a way to avoid associations with Germany. However, while this neatly avoided namechecking a foe, the usage of ‘English’ as a catch-all to include Scottish, Welsh or Irish methods dredges up even older battles and nationalism. Differentiating oneself from ‘enemies’ might be understandable while bombs (or arrows) drop, and grudges stick around, though it is possible that antipathy may have waned enough to revert to calling it ‘German style’ once more. This would certainly better identify the origins of this method, in-line with the contemporary preoccupation with citing source – but perhaps we are better off using non-geographic terms to carry us into the future?
Throwing and picking are already in play as perfectly functioning alternatives to English and Continental.
In regards to knitting (but not fruit, trash, scabs or noses), a picker is someone who holds the yarn in their non-dominant hand and ‘picks’ it with the needle tip (held in their dominant hand) to scoop it through the existing stitch. This is what is still regularly called Continental style (as opposed to doing The Continental, which involves channelling Fred and Ginger). ‘The continent’ is an old-fashioned British-English term for other European, non-British or Irish countries. With all the regressive speak of late, it’s good to remember that, regardless of political affiliations, technically all of Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) and both sides of Ireland, are on the continent of Europe (and Eurasia, if looking at an even bigger landmass). ‘The continent’ though, described, en masse, the countries you’d reach by crossing the English Channel. Being ‘on the continent’ presupposed it was not your original or permanent location. Something preferable to being incontinent, of course, but not necessarily somewhere you’d describe yourself as being nowadays.
The truth is, ‘the continent’ is an increasingly quaint term for describing mainland Europe. This might make it endearing to use for knitters (who embrace many bygone pleasures), if it weren’t misleading as a marker of how people on ‘the continent’ knitted at the time that phrase was in more prolific use. Before our current epoch of internet-fuelled knitting (where we can share and learn so much from all over the world in an instant), knitters in Belgium, The Netherlands, France and Spain were primarily throwers. Many continue to be. A thrower is someone who forms their stitches by ‘throwing’ the yarn around the tip of the needle with their dominant hand. They often let go of this needle (also being held in their dominant hand) to such an extent that they can bring the yarn around the needle tip while it is inserted in the existing stitch to form the loop that will be pulled through to form the new stitch. You might know this as English style. In Japan it’s sometimes called French style. Many in Italy still call picking ‘alla tedesca’ (German style), because that is how they knit in the Northern regions, closer to Germany, whereas the entire peninsula threw their stitches ‘Italian style’ – so go figure. We can’t ignore that all these countries had empires which spread their knitting peculiarities (along with less pleasant practices), at the same time as they returned home with treasures. It’s worth noting that Portugal and many of the countries touched by its empire-building past have a completely different way of holding their knitting, with the yarn tensioned around the back of the neck while working with the wrong side facing.
Going in deeper, there’s also ‘flicking’ and ‘combined’, alongside a handful of others, to further identify, with increased precision, the variations of methods used to form stitches. Rootling around elsewhere in our basket of knitting language brings us to noxious terms such as ‘parlour knitting’ AKA ‘drawing-room knitting’ to describe a way to hold one’s needles to communicate refinement and poise. To me, these are even hairier than using English and Continental, as these terms were used to separate ‘ladies’ from women. They aimed to differentiate those who knit as a genteel hobby from those who knit in order to be able to clothe themselves and their families or earn an income.
So what does all this have to do with philately? Stamps travel the world as markers of national identity, because they are, the currency that pays for the passage of hard-copy words, pictures and items from one place to another, from one person to another. As with stamps, knitting (which significantly predates them) exists all over the world because of the movement of people and the sharing of information, innovation and inspiration. The long history of textiles stems from their portability for shelter, trade and beauty. Though styles of knitting can be adopted as markers of national identity, they are only transiently part of a place. On the whole, they came from a community or individual somewhere else. They stopped for a while, were fed and watered with knowledge and enthusiasm, then moved on elsewhere with added bells and whistles. Of course knitting styles are not legal currency like stamps are, so anchoring them to a place is much more complicated. There are increasing levels of sensitivity and knowledge around provenance, both of yarn and sheep and of design styles and inspiration, but at the same time there is a more global taste-making network which makes it harder for these things to exist in the future.
Continuing to use the terms ‘English’ and ‘Continental’ in regards to knitting style seems to me odd, on so many levels. They are geographically misleading, if not downright incorrect, terms that don’t mesh with the modern focus on correctly citing provenance and heritage. Besides, with their origins in nationalistic battle-speak, surely they are incongruous with a view of knitting as a peaceful and sociable activity. Admittedly, all this is a question of semantics, because they function as descriptive terms in common usage among English-speaking knitters. But the same could be said for many other descriptive words we would never dream of using in the present day.
Knitting practice has embraced the best of modern technology, now let’s make knitting language properly reflect our changing times too, so that it can serve as a model for the sensitive, diverse and smart community we aspire to be. Let’s go with throwing (out outdated language) and picking (new words that work for now.