A tangled history of knitting

NO IDLE HANDS, THE SOCIAL HISTORY OF AMERICAN KNITTING by Anne L. Macdonald, New York: Ballantine Books, 484 pp. $19.95

OK. So, I never learned to knit. I bite my fingernails. I'm a yuppie. I come from a long of line of nonknitters (although my grandmother has been known to sew an entire dress by hand). Take your pick. For whatever reason, I never cottoned to the idea of rubbing two sticks together to make a sweater.

Now, Anne L. Macdonald, a self-described ``lifelong knitter'' and president of her own mail-order business - knitting, of course - has put me, and others of my ilk, in our demographic places in her new book, ``No Idle Hands, The Social History of American Knitting.''

I think I like it. My place as a nonknitter, that is. After nearly 500 pages of American social history refracted through the rather woolly prism of knitting, I remain a confirmed nonfan of knit-one, purl-two. There are several reasons.

Whatever skills Macdonald possesses as a knitter and CEO, prose writing cannot be counted among them. If ever there was a topic crying out for a New Yorker approach, this is it.

What Macdonald gives us instead is an extensive textbook entry. To wit: ``Virginia's Assembly established a spinning school and agreed to a premium of ten pounds of tobacco for each dozen pairs of worsted or woolen stockings knit from yarn spun in the colony.''

While up north, ``Boston whetted the public appetite for spinning by sponsoring contests on the Common where young and old, rich and poor, flaunted their skill with the wheels and had a rousing good time.'' It is a less-than-satisfying mix of historical precision with overly general and often stilted prose.

Neither is organization the author's strong suit. While the book is chronologically discursive, a chapter's internal discipline is at best a jumble of diary entries, historical facts, quotations from newspapers, and so forth. Themes that might have provided a framework for Macdonald's prodigious research (her bibliography runs to 38 pages) are few and far between. She is also reluctant to draw any conclusions, sociological or otherwise.

The book is not without its compensations, however. Macdonald clearly feels on firmer ground the closer she treads to modern day. Perhaps it is because she has lived through the 1950s that she ventures rather more trenchant observations on the postwar back-to-the-home movement.

``Even with labor saving devices, housewifery expanded to exalt performance rather than escalate freedom,'' she writes, and ``American advertisers ... not too subtly fanned the flames of domestic preoccupation by redefining woman's ``feminine'' nature....''

Two more points merit mention. One, there is a plethora of odd-ball facts - many of them humorous.

These include references to the knitting marathons of the '20s, the ban on knitting in Canada's House of Commons gallery, the ``knitters' burnout'' chronicled by The Atlantic Monthly in the 1930s, the nugget that the Duke of Windsor was an avid closet knitter. Other fun facts are for the knitting maven only, such as ``Late Forties knitters revived angora.''

Of more concern, however, are the nearly constant references to knitting as a means of therapy, a way to calm the nervousness of the ``hysterical woman.''

These sentiments, notes Macdonald, were expressed in a mid-1800s needlework book, ``With some women brain-work is impossible. It produces all sorts of diseases and makes them at once a nervous wreck.... The quiet, even, regular motion of the needles quiets the nerves and tranquilizes the mind and lets thought flow freely.''

Lest the reader take refuge in the thought that such attitudes are only olde worlde notions, Macdonald quotes several 1980s women who insist, ``Knitting keeps me out of psychiatry.'' She also notes that a suburban Philadelphia yarn shop displays a large ``Knit your way to health'' sign.

One nearly shouts for joy at the inclusion of the assiduous comments of Quakeress Maria Mitchell, the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences: ``It seems to me the needle is the chain of woman and has fettered her more than the laws of the country.'' Unfortunately, Macdonald's book, so clearly intending to celebrate the occupation, only confirms this perception.

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