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Loopholes: The Knitting Nanny


Looking down at the bottom of a cardboard box I've been sorting through for days, there are several remaining artifacts; a packet of pokemon cards, some wobbly comics scrawled on graph paper pages and a folder of blurry photographs I took on school camp one year with my first Kodak disposable. But among these things, another object has caught my attention, a wooden device with a bespectacled face patiently meeting my gaze - my long-lost Knitting Nanny.

When I saw the pink and blue toy-like tool I instantly remembered. A summer of red loam, dry creek beds, cattle alleys and old stilted shearing sheds... On Christmas morning, I unloaded my stocking and met the Knitting Nanny with bewilderment. An ergonomic wooden tube painted in blue and pink with metal prongs and a tired but smiling face, I assumed with some bewilderment that I'd unwrapped a doll. But after a brief explanation and some direction, I set myself the solemn task of creating the longest length of knitted tube in the world. I spent days in the shade of a peppercorn tree knitting furiously while Christmas beetles buzzed around my ears.

An incarnation of the knitting loom, the Knitting Nanny was developed from a spool knitting device that consisted of four pegs, nails or staples hammered into a hollow, hand-sized wooden tube. And I'm not the only one with childhood tales of Knitting Nannys. Originally used as a way to teach children the basic principles of knitting, spool knitting has garnered many names and variations including Knitting Nellies, Noddies, Nancies and Knobbys as well as corkers, Strick Susels, Bizzy Lizzies and Knitting Bobs or mushrooms. Another popular title is the French Knitter, a name apparently borne from the hats made on larger-scale knitting spools during the French Revolution.

Interestingly enough, no one is certain of the origin of the knitting spool or its cousin the peg frame. While peg frames exist in museums, they are difficult to date with certainty. However, According to Richard Rutt in his book A History of Hand Knitting, there is evidence for the early peg frame in an 1879 account of textile guilds in Strasburg by Gustav Schmoller. Schmoller mentions the stühl or gestell, a knitting frame in 1535, as well as regulations drafted in 1618 about the number of stühl allowed in a master knitters workshop. This places knitting frame use and possibly various other spool knitting forms at around 400 years old at least.

Although my ambitions to make the record for the longest spool-knitted tube may have fallen short, I was not alone in my endeavour. In 1989, Edward Peter Hannaford began what would amount to an incredibly extensive continuous strand of french-knitted cordage. Measuring 21.75 km, Hannaford set a world record in 2005 for his efforts and continues on the undertaking today. Others like Francoise Dupre have focused on the knitting spool as an artistic tool, creating expansive artworks predominantly built with french knitting.

In the latter half of the 20th century, various small plastic looms using the same peg-knitting technique as knitting spools saw modern manufacturing. Some incarnations are larger, designed to facilitate the knitting of bigger items. Some are straight for making blankets or scarves and some again are rounded for making socks and hats.

Finding my old Knitting Nanny, I initially felt a pang of nostalgia. As I grew up, new toys replaced gifts from yesteryear and the little wooden tool found itself in the purgatorial storage box. But sitting with the painted device in my hand, I already felt compelled to start a new French-knitted project, taking up where I left off only a little while ago.



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Megan Kennedy is a writer and multidisciplinary artist based in Canberra, Australia. More of her work can be viewed on her website or Instagram.


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