Sunday, September 7, 2008

Brimfield: A Trip Through Knitting History, Part II - The Layette

This week was the third 2008 week of Brimfield - the largest flea-market in America. As I mentioned in my previous Brimfield blog, I love to bring the kids because it is so historically educational. May is generally wet and muddy, July is too hot for the kids, but September is perfect for introducing children to the magic of Brimfield.

THIS civil war memorabilia tent was run by a husband/wife team. The kids saw real muskets, brass buttons from civil war soldier's uniforms, bullets, photos...but the show-stopper was that the husband was an accomplished fife player and yearly attends a Yorktown reenactment where he plays songs from the revolution -each of which carried a particular directive along with its notes in the wind. The boys were transfixed.
HERE was a tent ENTIRELY filled with lead soldiers. My middle child was sold on this abalone shell as large as his head, so we brought that home with us. My eldest discovered Marvel Comics with this one from the 1960s. I bought it so he would have something to read on the way home, but was pleasantly surprised to find THIS on the inside cover...making it even more collectible -HI GOVERNOR!


At the tent which sold the comics, I came across these vintage knitting patterns by a company called, Lacey's, which published in the 1940s/1950s. My dear friend who evacuated to Dayton, OH after Hurricane Katrina is now pregnant with TRIPLETS, and as I have a lot of knitting in my near future, I snapped them up. I leafed through their pages, admiring the delicate knit and crochet layette patterns, I and was reminded of a poignant short story by Margaret Atwood entitled, "The Art of Cooking and Serving.":


The summer I was eleven I spent a lot of time knitting. I knitted doggedly,
silently, crouched over the balls of wool and the steel needles and the
lengthening swath of knitwear in a posture that was far from easy. I'd learned to knit too early in life to have mastered
the trick of twisting the strand around my index finger - the finger had
been too short - so I had to jab the right-hand needle in, hold it there
with two left-hand fingers, then lift the entire right hand to loop the wool
around the tip of the needle. I'd seen women who were able to knit and talk
at the same time, barely glancing down, but I couldn't do it that way. My
style of knitting required total concentration and caused my arms to ache,
and irritated me a lot.


What I was knitting was a layette. A layette was a set of baby garments
you were supposed to dress the newborn baby in so it would be warm when it
was brought home from the hospital. At the very least you needed to have two
thumbless mittens, two stubby booties, a pair of leggings, a jacket, and a
bonnet, to which you could add a knitted blanket if you had the patience, as
well as a thing called a soaker. The soaker looked like a pair of shorts
with pumpkin-shaped legs, like the ones in pictures of Sir Francis Drake.
Cloth diapers and rubber baby pants were prone to leaks: that's what the
soaker was for. But I was not going to knit the soaker. I hadn't yet got
around to visualising the fountains, the streams, the rivers of pee a
baby was likely to produce.

The blanket was tempting - there was one with rabbits on it that I
longed to create - but I knew I had to draw the line somewhere, because I
didn't have all the time in the world. If I dawdled, the
baby might arrive before I was ready for it and be forced to wear some sort of
mismatched outfit put together out of hand-me-downs. I'd started on the
leggings and
the mittens, as being fairly simple - mostly alternate rows of knit and
purl, with some ribbing thrown in. That way I could work up to the jacket,
which was more complicated. I was saving the bonnet to the last: it was
going to be my chef d'oeuvre. It was to be ornamented with satin ribbons to
tie under the baby's chin - the possibilities of strangulation through ties
like this had not yet been considered - and with huge ribbon rosettes that
would stick out on either side of the baby's face like small cabbages.
Babies dressed in lay-ettes, I knew from the pictures in the Beehive pattern
book, were supposed to resemble confectionery - clean and sweet, delicious
little cake-like bundles decorated with pastel icing.

The colour I'd chosen was white. It was the orthodox colour, though a few of the Beehive patterns were shown in an elfin pale green or a
practical yellow. But white was best: after it was known whether the baby
was a boy or a girl I could add the ribbons, blue or pink. I had a vision of
how the entire set would look when finished - pristine, gleaming, admirable,
a tribute to my own goodwill and industriousness. I hadn't yet realised it
might also be a substitute for them.

I was knitting this layette because my mother was expecting. I avoided
the word pregnant, as did others: pregnant was a blunt, bulgy, pendulous word,
it weighed you down to think about it, whereas expecting suggested a dog
with its ears pricked, listening briskly and with happy anticipation to an
approaching footstep. My mother was old for such a thing: I'd gathered this
by eavesdropping while she talked with her friends, in the city,
and from the worried wrinkles on the foreheads of the friends, and from their
compressed lips and tiny shakes of the head, and from their Oh dear tone,
and from my mother saying she would just have to make the best of it. I
gathered that something might be wrong with the baby because of my mother's
age; but wrong how, exactly? I listened as much as I could, but I couldn't
make it out, and there was no one I could ask. Would it have no hands, would
it have a little pinhead, would it be a moron? Moron was a term of abuse, at
school. I wasn't sure what it meant, but there were children you weren't
supposed to stare at on the street, because it wasn't their fault, they had
just been born that way...

...At the back of my mind, my feat of knitting was a sort of charm, like the
fairy-tale suits of nettles mute princesses were supposed to make for their
swan-shaped brothers, to turn them back into human beings. If I could only
complete the full set of baby garments, the baby that was supposed to fit inside
them would be conjured into the world, and thus out of my mother. Once outside,
where I could see it - once it had a face - it could be dealt with. As it was,
the thing was a menace.


Thus I knitted on, with single-minded concentration.
I finished the mittens, more or less flawless except for the odd botched stitch,
and the leggings - the leg that was shorter could be stretched, I felt.
Without pause I started on the jacket, which was to have several bands of
seed stitch on it - a challenge, but one I was determined to overcome.


Meanwhile my mother was being no use at all. At the beginning of my knitting marathon she'd
undertaken to do the booties; she
did know how to knit, she'd knitted in the
past: the pattern book I was using had once been hers. She could turn heels, a
skill I hadn't quite mastered. But despite her superior ability, she was
slacking off: all she'd done so far was half a bootie. Her knitting lay
neglected while she stretched out in a deckchair, her feet up on a log, reading
historical romances with horseback-riding and poisoning and swordplay in them -
I knew, I'd read them myself - or else just dozing, her head lying slackly on a
pillow, her face pale and moist, her hair damp and lank, her stomach
sticking out in a way that made me feel dizzy, as I did when someone else
had cut their finger.


For the rest of the story, click HERE.

Layettes have fallen out of vogue with the advent of the megastores, as most young mothers walk into the nearest Walmart a few weeks before birth and buy stacks of cheap Chinese cotton onesies, Pampers, and canned formula. This booklet, in a matter of seconds, swept me back in time recalling the beauty of a (nearly) lost tradition.

Anyhow, I was excited to find this in the booklet, a little set
with, what can only be a stork design. When the designer drafted the design, however, he/she mistakenly used square-celled graph paper rather than knitters graph paper, so that in the finished knit product, the storks legs are foreshortened and he becomes a squat bird...easily mistaken for a pelican (the Louisiana state bird!) ...and close enough to be meaningful for my
dear friend. Stay tuned for my version...

If YOU have any layette memories... or if you have inquiries about the
patterns, be sure to leave a comment!

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