PieceWork: Discover Needlework in Literature

Mary Polityka Bush's hem-stitched tray cloth inspired by the needlework done by the characters in Colleen McCullough's The Ladies of Missalonghi. (Photograph by Joe Coca.)  
Bookmarks to knit, cross-stitch, and crochet. Designed by Margaret Sies and Julia Baratta. (Photograph by Joe Coca.)  
Gloves that may be used in Brian Friel's play Dancing at Lughnasa or made for a special person designed by Elizabeth Cobbe. (Photograph by Joe Coca.)  

A note from Kathleen: True confessions: I'm a Jane Austen junkie. I've watched the 6-hour BBC production of Pride and Prejudice several times (once in one sitting!) and I have the Masterpiece Theater series of Austen productions saved forever on my Tivo. I enjoyed the newer 90-minute movie, too, but as my friend Molly said to me during one of the scenes featuring Mr. Darcy, "The real Mr. Darcy never would have done that!" Long live Colin Firth's Mr. Darcy!

And of course I love how the women sit around the parlor working on their needlework and chatting. It reminds me of knit nights with my girlfriends. I enjoy reading the books, too! Jane Austen's novels are so engrossing for me—they put me in a different time and place, which is such a welcome reprieve from our time of cell phones, TV, and generally fast-moving life.

Imagine my joy when I discovered that the newest issue of PieceWork celebrates needlework in literature! Here's editor Jeane Hutchins to tell you more.

Needlework in Literature

One of my fondest childhood memories is of the day my grandmother took me to the public library to get my very own library card. I've had a library card ever since.

I read voraciously, as often as I can find a spare moment. Reading is my stress reliever, my hobby, my joy. There's at least one book in every room in my house as well as others in the car and in my briefcase (I never know when I may be trapped somewhere).

So I'm really pleased to give you this preview of our first issue of PieceWork dedicated to needlework in literature!

When we first talked about this as a theme, I began to compile a list of literary works containing needlework references. In addition to the ones we chose for this issue, here are some of my other favorites: A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros (especially lyrical are the passages about a silk rebozo), William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair, Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx, and Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities.

Do you know of others? I'd love to hear from you.

Below are a few highlights from the September/October 2010 issue of PieceWork:

—Agatha Christie's Miss Marple sat in a corner knitting so she could eavesdrop and no one would know. Miss Marple's spirit lives on in many of today's knitting mysteries.

—If you know a child (from toddler to teen), introduce her or him to needlework by checking out Julia Baratta's "Needlework in Children's Literature" annotated list. Who would ever guess that the hero of Jessica Day George's Princess of the Midnight Ball would be a knitter? The books span many time periods and cultures, and each is a delight.

—Discover the unique technique of netting in an excerpt from Jennifer Forest's delightful book, Jane Austen's Sewing Box: Craft Projects & Stories from Jane Austen's Novels.

—Knitting has a double meaning in the title of Elizabeth Cobbe's article, "Knitting Gloves in Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa," referring not only to the role that this activity plays in the lives of the characters in a play but also to the way in which it is accomplished, performance after performance, onstage.

—Plus 10 literary-inspired projects to net, knit, crochet, and stitch!

Aah, reading and needlework—I think it's the best combination. See for yourself with a free copy of this issue of PieceWork!


Other Things You May Like to Check Out:


Knitting Daily Blog
Kathleen Cubley

About Kathleen Cubley

Hello daily knitters! I'm the editor of Knitting Daily. I've been obsessed with knitting for about ten years now and my favorite projects are sweaters. I like the occasional smaller project, but there's nothing like yards of stockinette with a well-placed cable or a subtle stitch pattern here and there. I crochet a bit now and then—especially when I need to produce a baby blanket in time for the baby shower. I've been in publishing for 20 years and I'm finally exactly where I want to be: at the crossroads of knitting and communication. I live in Spokane, Washington and when I'm not knitting I enjoy gardening, snuggling with my dogs, swimming, reading, and playing in the snow in the winter. But, really, I'm pretty much always knitting!

68 thoughts on “PieceWork: Discover Needlework in Literature

  1. Can’t wait to get this issue!

    I have an example. In the book An Experiment in Love by Hilary Mantel, set in a college in London in 1970, the main character Carmel knits a sweater which she then embroiders and appliques with fantastic, “surreal” flowers and leaves, and wears it to a college dinner for a visiting dignitary.

  2. Mrs. Rachel Lynde from L.M. Montgomery’s Anne Of Green Gables is prolific in knitting her “cotton warp quilts”. What pray tell IS a cotton warp quilt? any ideas?

  3. The most famous example of double knitting is the pair of socks knitted simultaneously on one set of knitting needles by Anna Makarovna, the nanny in Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace

    When the pair was finished, she made a solemn ceremony of pulling one stocking out of the other in the presence of the children.

  4. The one I’ve always wanted to know how to do is the one at the end of “War and Piece”, where someone has been knitting 2 at once socks on the same needles and the second sock is inside the first:

    “Finished, finished!” little Natasha’s gleeful yell rose above them all.
    Pierre exchanged glances with Countess Mary and Nicholas (Natasha he never lost sight of) and smiled happily.
    “That’s delightful music!” said he.
    “It means that Anna Makarovna has finished her stocking,” said Countess Mary.
    “Oh, I’ll go and see,” said Pierre, jumping up. “You know,” he added, stopping at the door, “why I’m especially fond of that music? It is always the first thing that tells me all is well. When I was driving here today, the nearer I got to the house the more anxious I grew. As I entered the anteroom I heard Andrusha’s peals of laughter and that meant that all was well.”
    “I know! I know that feeling,” said Nicholas. “But I mustn’t go there–those stockings are to be a surprise for me.”
    Pierre went to the children, and the shouting and laughter grew still louder.
    “Come, Anna Makarovna,” Pierre’s voice was heard saying, “come here into the middle of the room and at the word of command, ‘One, two,’ and when I say ‘three’… You stand here, and you in my arms- well now! One, two!…” said Pierre, and a silence followed: “three!” and a rapturously breathless cry of children’s voices filled the room. “Two, two!” they shouted.
    This meant two stockings, which by a secret process known only to herself Anna Makarovna used to knit at the same time on the same needles, and which, when they were ready, she always triumphantly drew, one out of the other, in the children’s presence.

  5. In the British childhood favorite book “A Stable for Jill,” by Ruby Ferguson, pony-crazy Jill decides to knit her cousin Cecelia a pair of Fair Isle gloves in multiple colors on a fawn background. Jill’s aunt and cousin are completely overcome that Jill can do such amazing knitting, and wonder why she ruins her hands with stablework when she could be knitting instead. I have always wanted to duplicate the gloves as they sounded gorgeous. In later books, Jill struggles with the neckline of a polo-necked sweater (“jumper” to the Brit knitters) and buys yarn so her mother can knit her a “glamorous” green sweater.

  6. As a former English teacher and lit major, you have put together my dream issue!! Also, Ahab’s Wife or the Stargazer by Sena Naslund has many references to needlework as Una Spenser, the main character, uses her talents with a needle to support herself and for self-preservation.

  7. I’m English and love all English Lit. so enjoyed all the comments. Have just discovered Debbie Macomber’s Blossom Street series, butshe is a modern author who writes stores with romance. Debbie Macomber is a knitter and includes a pattern at the beginning of each book. The Blossom Street series is based around a yarn store. Very easy reading.

  8. The literature-themed issue of Piecework is wonderful. Piecework is my favorite magazine, and I look forward to each issue. Although I have grumbled in the past about magazines shipped in plastic wrappers, I will grumble no more after receiving the current issue of Piecework; it came ripped at the side edge throughout the entire issue. Plastic wrappers protect magazines from the hazards of the USPS postal system, but they add so much plastic to the environment. It seems that they are necessary evils!

  9. What a great combination!

    I remember reading the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and knitting/stitching was mentioned a number of times throughout the series. Also, J.K. Rowling has included both Dumbledore and Hermione in her knitting characters in the Harry Potter books (not to mention the jumpers that Mrs. Weasley has made for her family!).

  10. Miss Silver is the detective in Patricia Wentworth’s mysteries, and she knits constantly (in the Continental fashion, hands held low in her lap.) I prefer her knitting to Miss Marple’s because her knitting is always described in detail and the recipient mentioned as well. Who can forget the dark gray suit with emerald green stripes (so hard to get wool in wartime) for little Roger? or the Air Force stockings or the complete layette for Dorothy Silver’s unexpected twin?

  11. Agatha’s Feather Bed by Carmen Agra Deedy is a beautifull children’s book with a story about an old woman, Agatha, who knits her hair into cloaks for the geese who have given up their feathers to make a bed. The wonderful illustrations explain how everything comes from something, and lead to countless discussions about the origins of what we use every day.

  12. I could not believe it when I got my copy of PieceWork and inside was a miser’s purse! I was part of a recent swap in which we had to make a small bag….well I didn’t want to do a cellphone case or anything so mundane so I did some research and discovered a thing called a miser’s purse. I couldn’t find any patterns or very good pictures, so used a small photo of one in a museum and went to work. I loved making it, and I am sure the recipient will also love it. I now have orders for 3 for friends. We are all going to use them when we go to fairs, ballgames, etc….any place we don’t want to carry a purse, but need to carry a phone, ID, and some money. Very safe and much nicer than a fanny pack.

  13. There are a couple of authors who write mysteries called Cozy Mysteries and involve owners of needlecraft shops.

    One is Anne Canadeo and the other is Monica Ferris. I find them delightfully pleasant. I hadn’t realized how comfortable it is to read a story that includes one of my very favorite things – knitting. In the Monica Ferris books she usually includes a free pattern at the end for cross-stitch, knitting, etc.

    It is like knitting with a friend.

  14. In the first book of The Norman Trilogy — The Bastard King — by Jean Plaidy, a wonderful work of historical fiction, the reader learns about William the Conqueror and his wife Matilda. Matilda was known for her exquisite needlework skills. The Bayeux Tapestry is a piece of embroidery measuring approximately 231 feet by 20 inches. Worked in coloured wool on bleached linen, it tells of William of Normandy’s rightful claim to the English throne and his subsequent invasion and conquest of England in 1066.

  15. Gone With the Wind has many needlework references. There is a chapter where the women get together to work on their needlework while one of them reads out loud from, I believe, Dickens.

  16. Jane Eayre ryer wrote a delightful series of books for young girls that have been republished by Lacis. The Mary Frances Knitting and Crocheting Book has a delightful story as well as patterns.

  17. Check out Cat Bordhi’s “Treasure Forest.” Both spinning and knitting play important – and somewhat mystical – role in this wonderful adventure/mystery written for young adolescents. The book also nurtures in the reader a deep inner connection with the natural world . . . a much-needed opportunity for today’s youth (and adults!) This book was intended to be the first of a trilogy and I hope Cat is working on book two between knitting workshops :)

  18. “A Jury of Her Peers”, a short story by Susan Glaspell is a marvelous classic about one of the main characters’ knitting. The tighert the knitting became, the greater the clue was revealed that the (uptight/nervous ) knitter was the MURDERER !!!

  19. I love this idea!!! I had read SWEATER QUEST & suggested that the knitting classes at the yarn shop where I attend classes might be interested in reading this book and then coming together to discuss the book. It was especially interesting, since our knitting instructor has taken several classes with Alice Starmore. We had a great discussion & decided to meet again.
    We are know reading CASTING OFF by Nicole R. Dickson. Some of us would like to knit an Aran afghan from the stitches described in the novel.
    Reading & Knitting, Life is Good!!!!

  20. There are always the Harry Potter books. Plus, there has been a deluge of knitting/mysteries published recently. There is Colleen McCoulough’s “The Ladies of Misalonge”.

  21. Don’t forget almost all of the Harry Potter series – Hermione knits by hand, and Mrs. Weasley makes sweaters for all her children, although her knitting needles are magic. Dumbledore remarks “I do love knitting magazines,” as he emerges from the loo after a long absence.

  22. Just wondered if you have seen the movie “Lost In Austen”? Just watched the dvd last week and enjoyed very much. The heroine reads Austen over and over. I do not do this so I wonder if those who watch & read Austen a lot would like this movie. Supposedly there are many Austen inside jokes that I probably missed.

  23. As a loyal reader and librarian – here are a few more authors to keep on in mind for fiction relating to needlework:
    Elizabeth Lenhard CHICKS WITH STICKS
    Jennifer Chiaverini ELM CREEK QUILTERS (series)
    Judith Pella PATCHWORK CIRCLE (series)
    Maggie Sefton KNITTING MYSTERY (series)
    Isabel Sharpe KNIT IN COMFORT
    Gil McNeil BEACH STREET KNITTING (series)
    Debbie Macomber SUMMER ON BLOSSOM STREET (eries)

    I’ll probably think of a dozen more later but I loved the titles you mentioned!
    Keep knitting! Martha

  24. I have come across many modern books with needlearts as a central theme such as Kate Jackson’s Friday Night Knitters. andMonica Ferris’ series about Betsy Devonshire the latest title being Blackwork and Maggie Sefton”s Dyer Consequences. All are great stories and there are patterns included. What more can a knitter ask for.

  25. I am reading “Little Dorrit” also by Dickens, and the main character does needlework to eek out a living. You are right — anything Austin has needlework but because that is what was expected of society girls – their accomplishments were in music, art, needlework, etc. And of course, we all know Miss Marple knits!!! Agatha Christie’ s character always has her knitting with her (it is usually for her nephew). Carole

  26. From contemporary literature, i really enjoy reading Maggie Sefton’s series.
    Each book includes a pattern and a recipe!
    The tales focus on a knitting shop and some alpaca farms…. spinning, dying, knitting…. the whole kit!

  27. I just happened to be going through old issues of Piecework and found in the Sept/Oct 1997 issue the story “Safe Return” by Catherine Dexter about a young girl who knits mittens for her aunt while she is away on a sea voyage. I also read a book a few years ago that was called “Little Heathens” but I can’t remember the author, it was an autobiography about her childhood during the depression living on her grandfather’s farm. It had a pattern in it for a knitted shawl along with lots of recipes. It was a wonderful read.

  28. If you can get a hold of a copy of “Weekend Knitting” by Melanie Falick, there are two pages of books that have knitting in the literature. Some of the titles are:
    Wuthering Heights
    A Tale of Two Cities, E.Bronte
    Great Expectations, C. Dickens
    Goodnight Moon, Margaret Wise Brown
    The Lorax, Dr. Seuss
    The Mitten, Jan Brett
    Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll
    Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling

  29. In THE TALE OF TWO CITIES, I see Madame Defarge also referred to as Madame Lefarge, the famous knitter, also known as a tricoteuse. As my husband tells it she sat and knitted while some were guillotined!

  30. I devoured the “Literature” issue of Piecework the day my copy arrived in the mail. I couldn’t be more thrilled with the topic! In recent weeks I have been reading novels featuring strong women and set in the Southeast USA. North Carolina author Kaye Gibbons opens her novel “A Cure for Dreams” (1991) with the following:

    “When my mother was a young girl she spent the pinks of summer evenings sitting on the banks of Brownies Creek, where it flows into the Cumberland River. She always sat with a ball of worsted in her lap, knitting and dreaming of love coming to her.
    “The man in her one dream would ride up and surprise her on his horse, and then he would reach down and take the ball of worsted from her and toss it up in the air and shoot a hole through it. then he would reach out over the horse’s head and catch the yarn and hand it back to my mother, saying her beauty pierced such a great place in heart. Then he would ride off” (pp.3-4).

    How romantic!!!

  31. The most poignant tale of knitting in literature must be the blind grandmother in Heidi. Peter, Heidi’s dear mountain friend, lives with his mother and grandmother in grave poverty. The grandmother, who is blind, knits all day long, in the belief that she is helping to support the family through her handiwork.. She abhors the idea of being a burden to them. Every evening her daughter silently undoes the grandmother’s work, which is an un-saleable mess, and re-winds the ball of yarn so that grandmother can begin anew the next day and maintain her dignity as a useful member of the household. I think of this when I realize how important my fibre work is to me and how devasting it would be were I , in the future, to lose the use of my hands or eyes and be unable to continue with my passion.

  32. I read a book when I was a teenager that took place during the Revolutionary war. I have no idea of the title or author’s name. A young man, allied with the revolutionaries, knit his own hose and the different patterns were a coded message. He wore different stockings when he had information to pass along about the British troops. He had learned to knit hose when he had broken his leg as a child. His mother taught him to knit to keep him occupied while his leg healed. Yamuna

  33. I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure it was the mother in the book about the adventures of some cats who knit quite a lot. I remember it was some mittens she had knit that were really at the heart of the story. The it got dramatic and emotionally troublesome when the kittens lost their mittens. One part I especially remember is when they actually “soiled” their mittens.

  34. I clearly remember reading in “Anne of Green Gables” (Lucy Maude Montgomery) a bit about Anne’s frustration with her aunt, as she was forced to rip apart fabric and the piece it together for a crazy quilt…Anne couldn’t understand the whole point of it.
    Interestingly enough, it’s the one form of craft work I don’t do! I knit, crochet, macrame, cross-stitch, embroider, sew clothing, but quilting! never! Hmmm…wonder if Anne influenced me in some way?

  35. I write a crochet mystery series for Berkley Prime Crime. Hooked on Murder, Dead Men Don’t Crochet, By Hook or By Crook, and A Stitch in Crime are out currently. You Better Knot Die comes out in November.

    Molly Pink and the Tarzana Hookers, crochet and solve murders. There are also crochet patterns in each book.

    Betty Hechtman

  36. Rumplestiltskin- Spinning straw into gold, I was fascinated by this concept
    The Six Swans -about the girl who had to sew nettles into shirts for her brothers who had been enchanted into swans. She could not speak while she was doing it. She got them all done except one sleeve and that brother had a wing instead of an arm.
    Was anyone else salivating over the lovely shawls in the movie The VIllage or the childrens sweaters in the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe?

  37. My book club enjoyed “The Lace Reader” by Brunonia Berry, which describes lace making with whale bone bobbins, as well as lace reading, and witchcraft in modern day Salem. Eventhough I am the only needle worker in the group, everyone had stories about lace, from old table cloths, and doilies, to elegant wedding dresses.

  38. In the Odyssey, Penelope weaves all day and then unravels her weaving every night to keep the suitors at bay.
    Sleeping Beauty pricks her finger on a spindle before she falls into her long sleep.
    In the Movie La Vie en Rose, Edith Piaf is shown knitting and wearing hand-knit sweaters.

  39. In the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon, where the main character Claire a woman from the WWll period, time travels back to 1790’s Scotland.
    She marries Jamie and learns that men knit, he is surprised that she is surprised that men knit. She learns many more thing along the way the knitting was a surprise to me too. Great series of books. Anastasia

  40. This is an awesome issue and the comments overflow with great titles from fellow readers.
    As a shepherd/spinner/weaver/knitter and a librarian, I have to add some great children’s titles to this list. Favorites include A New Coat For Anna, Charlie Needs a Cloak, Pelle’s New Suit, The Mitten, Red Berry Wool, Symphony for the Sheep, The Goat in the Rug and Weaving the Rainbow. These make great introductions to the world of fiber arts for kids with great tie ins for simple lessons/projects. The fact they are reading is a bonus!

  41. I am having trouble finding any reference to Julia Baratta’s “Needlework in Children’s Literature”. Does anyone know where I may obtain a copy.
    Debra P

  42. I was recently asked this question,

    “What do you think Miss Marple would knit.”?

    I certainly can picture her sitting quietly in her corner, working on in secret. At the very end she reveals what’s on her needles. What else but a pair of knitted handcuffs! I think she would have chosen to do them in some very sturdy, very scratchy yarn!

    Although the concensus is, that in five of her stories, Agatha actually purposely allows her characters to escape punishment for the crimes committed.

  43. Embroidery is mentioned in Henry James’ novel”Washington Square,” and it is beautifully dramatized in the movie (starring Olivia de Haviland) made from it, “The Heiress,” which appears periodically on TCM.

    Embroidery is also mentioned (several times as I recall) in George Eliot’s novel “Middlemarch.”

    As I recall others, I will pass them on to you. cf


  44. “in the Plantation Household” a book based on the diaries of southern women, many enteries discuss their needlework. Also there was a film on Martha Washinton that shows her doing needlepoint. She made needlepoint covers for all her dinning room chairs at Mt. Vernon, beautiful. The film “Braveheart” the Princess of Wales embroiders. The opening of the film “Robin Hood” with K. Cosner, features one of the most amazing pieces of needlework of the Crusades (many yards long).

  45. Our book club just read “The Thirteenth Tale” by Diane Setterfield. In it is a chapter titled “Turning The Heel”. One of the neighbors in the story knits socks and she accidentally turned the heel twice on a sock, which indicated something bad was going to happen.