sock of the week no.3

This weeks sock is not one, but many . . . it’s the Stocking Knitter’s Manual – the world’s first sock-specific instruction and pattern book, produced by Scottish writer (and knitter) Anne Jane Cupples in 1868.

The Stocking Knitter’s Manual

Though pattern ‘receipts’ were regularly published in 1860s women’s magazines, instructions for socks were rarely among them. The knitting of decorative items like reticules was then a popular leisure activity among Scotland’s wealthy or middle class women, but the vast majority of sock and stocking knitters were working class women (and sometimes men) from rural and fishing communities. Such knitters had learned their craft at a young age, and had often grown up selling hand-knit stockings to supplement their family’s winter income. Stitch counts, shaping, and motifs were grafted into these talented knitters brains across the generations: they had no need of patterns.

But Cupples saw a need for stocking and sock instructions to be recorded, noting in her preface that the ability to knit was no longer so widespread, seemed to have skipped a generation, and that those just learning or teaching others might be in need of some assistance.

Cupples was a talented young woman who had been born into a middle-class Edinburgh family, married a famous local author, George Cupples, and who herself had literary aspirations. As a child, she’d spent a lot of time among the fishing community just north of Edinburgh in Newhaven.

Newhaven fishwives and their wares.

Cupples may have been encouraged in her stocking knitting by the example of the Newhaven fishwives, and she also describes herself as “indebted” to another Edinburgh woman, from whose work she’d “received instruction”. That woman was Jane Gaugain, the local yarn shop owner and author, who in the 1840s and 50s had begun to publish the world’s first books of knitting and crochet patterns.

My Jane Gaugain square in the Balance for Better blanket, celebrating Gaugain’s famous pattern for a pineapple-shaped bag or reticule.

Cupples was clearly a keen and experienced stocking knitter. The book includes stockings of several different sizes (designed for infants, children, women and men), three different heels (French, Dutch, and “common”) and a range of methods of gusset shaping, for flat feet or high insteps. There are instructions for shorter socks, too (which by the 1860s were popular for children), for stripey stockings, and for kilt hose. All the patterns are knitted top down, with no given gauge (the assumption being that all knitters would be working with sock-specific yarn, sock-specific pins, and achieve the same gauge).

Cupples’ instructions are very clear, and it would be simple for contemporary sock knitters (who knew that an “intake” meant a “decrease”) to successfully follow her patterns today. Alongside instructions for a wide range of basic designs, Cupples also included openwork motifs, for knitters to get creative, and make fancier pairs of stockings.

. . . with her own straightforward system of pattern notation.

The fact that Cupples’ Stocking Knitters Manual was extremely popular is proved by the fact that it rapidly went through several Edinburgh editions, and that Cupples’ publishers were keen to issue a follow up. Shortly afterwards, Cupples published another knitting title, with instructions for making counterpanes.

After making her publishing debut with the Stocking Knitters Manual and a children’s story, Unexpected Pleasures in 1868, Cupples went on to be a hugely prolific and productive author. She published more than fifty books in Edinburgh, including many works for children, and a history of her favourite local fishing village.

Cupples was not only a brilliant knitter, but an engaging writer, with a strong sense of her own Scots identity and a lively sense of humour. She and her husband, George, included among their correspondents Charles and Emma Darwin, and gave the Darwins (who, like them, were great lovers of dogs) the gift of a deerhound puppy, Bran, from one of their own litters. Cupples was a great admirer of Darwin’s work on evolution, particularly the Descent of Man, and his approach to the study of animals clearly influenced her own writing for children, in titles such as Tappy’s Chicks: and Other Links between Nature and Human Nature (1872), which explore the close interconnectedness of the animal and the human.

Knitter, pattern writer, children’s author and rational intellectual: Anne Jane Cupples is definitely worthy of inclusion in any club of bluestockings!

Images in this post are from my own copy of the Stocking Knitter’s Manual.