knitting in literature: The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

Every once in a while I come across a reference to knitting in books I'm reading. It's always interesting to see what role knitting plays for characters in novels, and it's kind of fun to write here about my literary finds when they happen.

Last week I picked up The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly. It was on the "Too Good to Miss!" table at the library, a favorite place of mine to browse because there are always interesting selections on display, including books I never would have heard of otherwise. Calpurnia Tate is actually a novel for young adults, and since there is a big, fat "Newberry Honor" sticker on the cover, it's possible I'm just late to the party (that's nothing new).

Anyway, the book told from the perspective a 12-year-old girl so named on the cover, who wants to learn about science and nature with her eccentric and learned grandfather, instead of perfecting her cooking and sewing skills in preparation for a life of housewifery as her mother wishes. The year is 1899 and young women don't have many opportunities outside of marriage and family. This frustrates young Calpurnia, who wants to go to the university to study science when she grows up, and she doesn't see the point of tatting lace collars and embroidering samplers in school. She has six brothers and none of them have to learn to bake an apple pie. You get the idea. I won't go on about the rest of the plot, but I assure you it's a good read and at times very funny.

There are many references to various kinds of stitching and needlework, since Callie Vee (as she is called by her family) is supposed to be learning these skills, along with cooking and other housework. There is even an entire chapter called "Knitting Lessons," in which it becomes clear the author does actually know a good deal about knitting:

'Calpurnia,' said a tone I dreaded, ' I think it's time you graduated from knitting scarves to socks. There's nothing like good, thick woollen socks made by a pair of loving hands. If we start now, you'll have time ot make a pair for all your brothers before Christmas, maybe even for Father and Grandfather, as well. Wouldn't that be nice?' The pressure was on.

[a few paragraphs later]

'Let's start with...some plain small ones. We'll learn about patterns later. Cast on a row of, oh, let's say forty stitches, and we'll start at the calf.' She handed me four tiny knitting needles.
'Four?' I frowned. 'What do I do with four?'
'You knit in a perpetual circle instead of turning back at the end of a row.'
Help! I was clumsy enough with two needles. This was going to be much worse than I thought. Mother made encouraging noises while I cast on the first trow of my first sock. There were so many sharp needle points sticking out at unexpected angles that it was like juggling a porcupine.
...Slowly - exceedingly slowly--the mess of wool in my hands began to take shape. The afternoon passed, and although I wouldn't call it fun, it wasn't as terrible as I had feared. At the end I had in my hand one small, funny-looking knitted brown thing. I held it up for inspection and decided that it looked more socklike than not.

[Calpurnia complains of knitting to her grandfather]:

'And how do you like knitting?'
'It's not the worst thing in the world, I admitted, 'but there's such a lot of it. I'm supposed to knit socks for everyone before Christmas, and that's a tremendous number of socks. I'm hoping you like yours lain because I haven't learned any patterns yet.'
'I like my socks plain. I never learned any patterns either.'
'You can knit?' I asked, amazed.
'Oh, yes, and darn too. Several of the men in my regiment were accomplished knitters.'
He saw the look on my face and went on, 'We had to be self-sufficient in the field. If you needed a new sock, you made it yourself. There were no wives or sisters--or granddaughters, for that matter--to look after us...'

[Several chapters later, Christmas rolls around and the family opens their gifts]:

And of course they all got brown woollen socks knitted by yours truly, displaying various degrees of competence. J.B.'s socks, the first ones, were lumpy and deformed, but by the time I got up to the older boys, they looked passable; I had even managed to knit a modest cable pattern into Father's and Granddaddy's. Much was made over this later handiwork, which, while not too embarrassing, did not warrant the fervent praise it received. (I suspected a put-up job.)

Of course the story isn't much about knitting. It's about education and independence and opportunity, or lack of all those things for young ladies at the cusp of the 20th century. I wonder how I'd feel about knitting if I'd been forced to do it just because I was a girl. I bet I wouldn't like it as much as I do now!


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