QUESTIONS AND SOURCES ON MEDALLION KNITTING

[Repost of material originally appearing on 8 August 2006]

More questions and comments today via eMail.

Do you always use the half-hitch cast-on on two needles for medallions?

No. For octagonal or square medallions predicated on a starting stitch count of 4, or for triangular or hex medallions that start out with 3 stitches, I tend to use an I-cord beginning, working one round of I-cord, then introducing more needles as the work grows. But my I-cord also starts out with half-hitches rather than another, firmer cast-on. I often use the cast-on tail to thread through the half hitch “spine,” drawing up the center purse-string style to make it nice and solid, but not lumpy. The only exception to this is if the center of the medallion is a large hole rather than a solid bit. If the edge of the cast on will be on display because it frames a central hole and structural integrity is key to a neat hole, then I use something more solid – either long-tail or one of the knit-on cast-on family.

I see several sources for learning how to knit lace in the flat, how about a source for the basics on inventing your own in-the-round medallions?

It’s true that analyzing and inventing medallions aren’t as widely addressed as flat lace. Some of the shawl books and specialized Shetland Knitting do go into a quite bit of detail on using lace patterns for center-out, radial increase pieces, but they mostly stick to squares. The most recent edition of Interweave Knits (Fall ’06) has an informative article on what to do if your lacy pattern is interrupted by changing stitch counts – again very useful, but only part of the story. The Lewis Knitting Counterpanes book put out by Taunton gives lots of patterns for medallions, but is rather less useful as a source of hints for designing your own.

In spite of all these great sources, my at-the-elbow source for medallion knitting tips remains the venerable Mary Thomas Book of Knitting Patterns. It’s the companion volume to her Knitting Book. Thomas is one of my personal heroes, both for these books and for her embroidery series. Judith in Oxon in the UK tells me that Mary Thomas grew up in her town, but is now forgotten there. What a shame.

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Knitting Pattterns was first published in 1943, and has been in print ever since – most recently in an inexpensive Dover re-issue (pictured above). There’s an extensive on-the-web preview of some content at Google Books if you’re unfamiliar with it (the 1938 Knitting Book preview is also available, current inexpensive Dover edition shown above). For two slim volumes I am constantly amazed at how much info they contain.

The Thomas books bridge the Victorian and post-Victorian era ladies’ pattern magazines, compendiums and encyclopedias of needlework (Weldon’s, de Dillmont) and modern knitting guides (Vogue, Principles of Knitting). Thomas tried to seek out what was offered in conteporary scholarly info on textile history, and to explain some of the more esoteric aspects of craft execution in a non-ambiguous way – targeting an audience interested in process and technique rather than in devised patterns. For example, she was one of the first to use a system of standard block symbols to represent knitting texture and colorwork patterns in graphed format.

Of course nothing is perfect. Her knitting history reflects the state of research at the time she was writing, and is not as devoid of folk myth as is R. Rutt’s, but it’s not bad either. The biggest criticism people have of the Thomas books is of the small illustrations sprinkled throughout. The drawings are by “Miss H. Lyon-Wood, Miss Dorothy Dunmore and Miss Margaret Agutter” and reflect a rather colonial world view (especially of non-Europeans) that today would be considered culturally and racially insensitive. Of all the books, the Knitting Patterns (her last) has the least of these little cartoons, and her earlier works on embroidery, the most. As an aside, it’s also worth noting that Agutter wrote books on cross stitch, crochet and patchwork quilting, and as a respected knitting expert, worked with James Norbury on Odham’s Encyclopaedia of Knitting. I’ve heard rumors that the other two seem to have provided small illustrations and marginalia for several other contemporary books, plus some childrens’ book illustrations, but haven’t been able to confirm them.

Overlooking these flaws, things that recommend Knitting Patterns include sections on all sorts of lesser seen esoterica, including Filet Knitting (knitting in imitation of fliet crochet); picot point knitting (an amazingly fiddly bit of freeform scrumwork to make petal and flower-shaped bits of detached knitting for edgings or raised decoration); and basic steps in medallion knitting geometries. On the whole, given the ubiquity and extreme inexpensiveness of the Thomas books (both can be found used for under $2.00 each), they are useful additions to anyone’s knitting library.

Other sources that delve into the mysteries of knitting medallions in the round include B. Walker’s recently compiled Fourth Treasury of Knitting Patterns, in which a non-traditional approach to medallion knititng is addressed as an offshoot of directional knitting; and unlikely as it sounds – in the standard center-out method, inJudy Brittain’s Bantam Step by Step Book of Needlecraft. I’ve written about the Bantam book before.

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