My Knitting Work and the Day Dreams That It Calls to Mind – A Peaceful Reverie

This is the second written article in February of the School for Housewives 1902 series published on Feb 23, 1902, and is a longer article on managing the household.

School for Housewives – My Knitting Work and the Day Dreams That It Calls to Mind – A Peaceful Reverie

Just now it is a couvre-pied of shaded crimson, a gift for a dear old friend who, having everything that money can buy, will appreciate the tender memories of a forty years’ intimacy wrought into the warm-colored web. Her initials are to be embroidered on the central strip as a sure seal to set upon the sweet assurance that it was designed for her, her only. If the gift will have its story for her it has a hundred stories for me. Dickens tells us how the demoniacal Madame Defarge knit the names of the victims proscribed by the Republic into the work that went with her to the shop, the market place and the guillotine. A series of home-pictures glows under my eyes as I unfold, one after another, of the strips that will presently be crocheted together with rope-silk, after which the rug will be heavily fringed with shaded wools and silks. The setting and background of all are the same. The long, low library, lined with books; the rich glow of firelight and lamp, and on the other side of a Chippendale table that once belonged to Martha Washington, the reader whose well-modulated tones have given me within six months Lecky’s “Map of Life,” Justin McCarthy’s “Reminiscences” and “History of Our Own Times.” Just now we are deep in his “Four Georges.” It is a habit that goes well with the soothing continuity of knitting-work, to improve our acquaintance with out chosen author for weeks together. After many evenings of this close communion, we know him forever. My couvre-pied is better than a chronological table to me, an album of “snap-pictures,” visible to me alone. I could indicate the vey inch that grew into being under my fingers while Bradlaugh’s six months’ struggle to take the oath of membership was in telling, and the long, bright scroll on which is stamped in (to others) invisible characters the pathetic lingering of Queen Caroline’s last hours.


I learned to knit golf stockings while on the Scheldt, while our steamer was becalmed by the stillest, stickiest, thickest fog that has visited Holland in a century. We lay “As idle as a painted ship, Upon a painted ocean.” for three mortal days and nights, our dreads of famine imperfectly allayed by the purser’s assurance that we were victualed for a fortnight. An English matron, fair of face, ample of figure and low-voiced, was knitting golf stockings for her university son, and cordially offered patterns, wools and needles to me. Being English, she did not see the faint humor of the “situation” when I remarked that the transatlantic athlete would wear the stocking I had begun (if we ever saw land again) was 6 feet 2½ in his stockings, and that I expected to finish one pair before we got to Antwerp. I sent to London from Florence for pattern book and materials, and wrought six pairs than winter. They are written all over with scenes from “Romola,” “The Makers of Venice,” “The Makers of Florence,” Jamieson’s “Legendary Art” and Villari’s “Savonarola.” As they stride past me on bleak winter days, or when November stubble is russet brown. I have sometimes a queer constriction of heart and throat that means nostalgia. I could declare that I smell the violets which overflowed our table from October to March, and the roses so riotously abundant that black-eyed Lelinda strewed my chamber floor two inches deep with the damp petals to lay the dust before sweeping. Some woman, Mrs. Caroline Lee Hentz, I think, once wrote a poem to her knitting work – “My Companionable Kitting Work” the called it in her verse. Mine is solace, and sedative, gentle diversion, and effective guard against ennui and impatience, the confidante of restless discontents and of unspoken dreams. Forty-odd years ago I was guilty of the vanity – pardonable surely in a girl who prided herself upon making all her presents – of displaying the results months of happy occupation that never approximated toil to “a superior woman.” She praised judiciously and satisfactorily, if more gravely, than I had expected, and when the last article had been inspected laid her hand upon my shoulder impressively: “Dear child, do you know what I have been thinking of while this display was going on? That by rights all these things should be dyed as red as blood – the blood of murdered time!” Stunned as I was, I had the presence of mind to offer a word of extenuation, as I would have raised an arm to ward off a blow. “But I have done it all in the gaps left by other things – real duties, you know. I began them more than a year ago. They have been what grandmamma called ‘holding pieces.’ If I had been busy with them I should have been doing nothing in the ‘betweenities.’ When I was hearing my little sister’s lessons, and waiting for the rest to come in to prayers or meals, and chatting with girl callers, and entertaining father and the boys in the evening, and in the long summer days in the country, when it was too hot to practice or to write or study. I have always had a bit of work in my basket that I could catch up at any minute. I can’t feel that I have murdered time. I have only used up odd quarter and half hours instead of keeping my hands folded.” She pursed her lips and shook her had. “The ‘betweenities,’ as you call them, might have been filled with better things, my love. But I was not born ??? the world right. Each of us must account for herself for the talents committed to her. Only – the napkin is a napkin even when covered with the finest of needlework and edged with lace!” I hope – and I try to believe now – that she meant well. She bruised my feelings terribly at the time, and left a raw place on my conscience that was long in healing. As I gained in life’s experiences I worked my way out of the fog she had shed about my perceptions of good and evil, and set up for myself a theory as to “fancy-work” utterly opposed to my mentor’s, and, to my apprehension, quite as dignified.


Because it has a dignity of its own to keep up, I object to the compound word just used. The dainty devices that have grown under women’s otherwise idle fingers for a thousand generations merit a nobler classification. I do not speak of professional tasks done for money. That is labor. As soon as the work element informs the needles or crochet and netting hook, the graceful play ceases to be recreation and a benefaction. She who appoints for herself a certain number of rounds or a given space to be covered within a set time at once loses the best good of her diversion. But for her “holding piece” many a woman would have gone mad under the pressure of sorrow, the gnawing worry of sordid cares, the racking of suspense. Fancy-work lightens dark days and infuses poetry into the commonplace that but for this “maybe” would be one inexorable “must do.” Ah, the stories that are tragedies, stitched into the holding pieces bequeathed to us by our grandmothers and maiden great-aunts; the comedies, love-stories and poetry laughed and cried over and lived, while we fill in the blessed “betweenities” without which life would be all unparagraphed prose! Men and moralists who decry fancy-work as frippery and wasted time are ignorant of the sedative properties it possesses, so long – upon this I insist – as it is not allowed to degenerate into a task. The flash of the kneedle, the swish of the silk, the click of the knitter’s slender steels, the dart of the crocket hook in and out of the gossamer web it is weaving – symbolize mental and spiritual conductors. They carry off and dissipate harmlessly electric charges from nerves and heart. To secure similar ends our husbands smoke and play billiards, and – if rustic – whittle. Better a plethora of golf stockings, slippers and afghans than nicotine and shavings.

Marion Harland

The Care of Children
The Housekeeper’s Exchange
Making a Neat, Comfortable Pair of Slippers for the Bedroom

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