Popular representations of Wales, and the Welsh — from the late eighteenth through to the late nineteenth century — often feature two sterotypical figures: a blind harper, and a peripatetic stocking knitter.
We see both figures in this print after Paul Sandby, which introduced his series of picturesque Welsh views. Blind harpers (of whom several celebrated eighteenth-century examples actually existed) are, in terms of the representation of disability, Welsh musicianship and national identity, highly significant in themselves, but this is sock of the week, and today our interest lies with the knitters, and their footwear.
What do we notice about the figure who, in the foreground of the image, introduces Sandby’s picturesque idea of Wales? First, she’s a talented multi-tasker doing at least three things at once: caring for a child, walking to market, and knitting a stocking.
We also notice her attire and accoutrements: the wrapper slung about her body in which her child is carried, the tie-on pocket worn on the outside of her skirts (a common practice for labouring women in this era) and the man’s felt hat, which is echoed in miniature on the head of her child (the routine wearing of practical and durable felt hats by Welsh women completely fascinated English visitors to Wales).
Following the direction of her gaze, we also see the stocking on long, double pointed needles in whose knitting she’s busily engaged, and looking down toward the ground, our eyes are finally caught by her unshod feet.
The barefoot knitter is making stockings for others, yet she wears none herself.
Many contemporary accounts of Welsh women mention that they went barefoot, knitting stockings they did not wear. “They are chiefly without shoes or stockings,” Elizabeth Spence pointed out in her Summer Excursion of 1809, while another tour guide from 1823 noted how Welsh women’s bare feet and men’s hats added to the “novel appearance” of these picturesque figures in the landscape who are “everlastingly employed in knitting, even as they walk.”
By other artists, in other images, Welsh stocking knitters are shown wearing a different kind of leg and foot covering…
“They [do not] use shoes in north Wales, save under peculiar circumstances,” noted one typical travel account from 1836, “but they cover their legs – not with stockings – but with something that more resembles a gaiter than anything else. It is a stocking, all except the foot: there is a long point that descends down the instep; and to keep this in its place, and prevent it from slipping up, it is hooked by a loop over the second toe, or that next the great one….”
“…these hermaphrodite stocking-gaiters are made of black or grey worsted – mostly black” the account concluded. Much like the practical wearing of men’s hats and men’s jackets, then, for this observer, the wearing of footless stockings by Welsh stocking knitters somehow made them seem less feminine.
In R Griffith’s depiction of Welsh Fashions, many picturesque sterotypes of Welsh women, and many elements that later became central to “traditional” Welsh costume are consolidated: white goffered caps worn beneath men’s hats (of various types and sizes); heavy blue hooded capes; skirts of striped red woollen flannel; kerchiefs and simple shawls. Managing children, livestock, baskets, carrying milk churns on their heads, and wearing garments borrowed from men, the working women of rural Wales were routinely represented as active and physically capable (in a way that would have seemed antithetical to typical nineteenth century ideals of femininity). The woman on the right further demonstrates her hardiness by her wearing of footless stockings. . .
. . . and Griffith’s image also includes the, by then, ubiquitous knitter, one stocking in progress, others – ready for sale – slung over her left arm. . . .
It’s interesting to note that the toes and tops of these stockings are knitted from white wool, with greyish-blue legs and feet, as this particular combination of undyed “welts and toes” with “blue-grey worsted” is mentioned in many nineteenth-century descriptions of Welsh hand-knitted stockings. For example, a Board of Agriculture report of the Domestic Economy of North Wales noted that the indigo dye (used to create Welsh stockings’ blue-grey colour) added about a shilling to the cost of a dozen pairs, and bard Thomas Jacob Thomas (Sarnicol) celebrated the route of the stocking knitters, through Cardiganshire / Ceredigion thus:
Gwisgwyr sane’r greadigaeth,
A ddaw yna ‘nghyd,
Sane glas a gwyn y Cardi,
Geir ar goesau’r byd.
Stocking wearers of all creation / Here are found / The blue and white stockings of the Cardi / On the world’s legs are found
We have come a long way from the barefoot stocking knitter with whom we began, but I want to return to her and ask just what it was about her–and all the other Welsh stocking knitters we’ve met today–that, during the rise of picturesque tours of Britain, so fascinated travellers to Wales. Certainly part of that fascination concerned the knitters’ indigence, and their endurance. As we heard at our symposium at the beginning of the Bluestocking club, just as well-kept stockings were essential to eighteenth and nineteenth-century ideas of respectability and politeness, so bare legs and feet would be read as signs of extreme poverty. Walking and working, in an era when women were increasingly excluded from the division of labour, the productive activity of hard-working Welsh knitters made them appear, to well-to-do elite observers, just as masculine as their hats.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Welsh stocking knitters were represented as picturesque curiosities, but, as the handknitting industry steadily declined over the following decades they became nostalgic figures too: relics, in their stovepipe hats and woollen flannels, of a bygone, simpler time.
I have written before about how nineteenth-century depictions of Welsh costume should be understood within the context of the emergence of those conservative nationalisms which sought to preserve in romantic aspic a particular idea of Welsh identity and Wales. The picturesque representation of Welsh women — “everlasting knitters” of the stockings they did not wear — seems a particularly stark example of how the realities of poor women’s labour might be neatly contained and packaged for the sentimental consumption of the nineteenth-century well-to-do.
For more about Welsh stocking knitters, see S.M. Tibbot, Knitting Stockings in Wales,” Folk Life 16 (1978) 61-73.