Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Shaker Stitches

The Shakers, an American religious community first established in 1774 that peaked in the 1840s with a membership of 6,000, began to decline with the rise of mass manufacturing in the late nineteenth century, and is more or less reduced to surviving artifacts, buildings, music, and crafts now, have always fascinated me. The irony is that the Shakers are now remembered mostly for the material goods they produced and that they considered of little importance rather than for the religious beliefs that were their motivating force, but though the spare beauty and sheer level of craftsmanship of the furnishings and other items that they produced has enormous appeal to me, I do find a lot of merit in some of their principles. (No, not the whole celibacy thing.) I find much food for thought and inspiration in the Shaker work ethic and embrace of simplicity. I think often of their founder Ann Lee's maxim on time management:

Do all your work as though you had a thousand years to live; and as you would if you knew you must die tomorrow.

I also like this rule of thumb for Shaker creations:

If it is not useful or necessary, free yourself from imagining that you need to make it. If it is useful and necessary, free yourself from imagining that you need to enhance it by adding what is not an integral part of its usefulness or necessity. And finally, if it is both useful and necessary and you can recognize and eliminate what is not essential, then go ahead and make it as beautifully as you can.

Or, more simply:

Don't make something unless it is both made necessary and useful; but if it is both necessary and useful, don't hesitate to make it beautiful.

And then there are these dictums, which I think work wonderfully as basic design principles:

Simplicity is the embodiment of purity and unity.

Beauty rests on utility.

That which has in itself the highest use, possesses the greatest beauty.

That is best which works best.

However, as interested as I long have been in all things Shaker and though I have tried to apply some of their principles above to my crafting processes, it did not occur to me that the Shakers were also knitters themselves until a few days ago when I came across the photo above, which is a 1949 photograph of a Shaker sister knitting, and was taken at Canterbury, New Hampshire, by Nina Leen.

This photo is of Eldress Fannie Estabrook knitting at Hancock Shaker village, Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and was taken sometime in the 1930s.

Knitting America: A Glorious Heritage from Warm Socks to High Art by Susan M. Strawn has some information on Shaker knitting (and I've drawn on it to write this post). For of course Shaker women were prolific knitters as most mainstream American women were in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century — they had to be. Homely but very necessary items like stockings and mittens couldn't be machine made at that time. Shaker sisters knitted many stockings, socks, gloves, mittens, fingerless mitts, wristlets, shawls, washcloths, chair cushions and rugs, both for use by the community and for sale, and as with all the goods the Shakers produced, Shaker knits were much admired for the excellence of their workmanship and design.

This is a picture of a Shaker-made rug, made by knitting tubes which were then sewn together in a spiral. One thing to keep in mind when looking at this or any other examples of Shaker knitting is that Shaker sisters knitted with "knitting pins", which were even smaller than than contemporary U.S. size 00 knitting needles. They were essentially long hairpins with knobs at one end. I look at that rug, lovely as it is, and I think about my experiences of knitting with the smallest knitting needles I've ever used (i.e., probably U.S. size 2/2.75 mm), and I think, umm, no, not even if I did have a thousand years to live. Mind you, had I been a Shaker back in the day, my poor knitting form probably would have gotten me reassigned to kitchen duty anyway.

The Shakers were never one to work in an unnecessarily inefficient or labour-intensive way. They were always very progressive and innovative when it came to adopting new technologies and even patented a number of their own inventions. Though in the early days the Shakers carded and spun their own wool, as milled fibres became available they were quick to begin to use them, and they began to use knitting machines, though due to the limitations of the machinery, and in order to maintain the quality of their work, they would still hand finish the garments by hand-knitting ribbed cuffs and edgings to otherwise machine-made items. They were also very willing to produce goods to suit the tastes of mainstream society. In the early twentieth century the Canterbury village Shakers installed knitting machines into some of their former laundry rooms and produced bicycle stockings and varsity sweaters for sale.

I suppose one of the Shaker's lasting contributions to knitting is the Shaker knitting basket. The basket above, from Shaker Workshops, is based on the Shaker knitting baskets used in the nineteenth century.

There is also a knitting stitch called the Shaker stitch, or Shaker Rib stitch, though I don't know that the Shakers invented it. (It is also known as the half fisherman stitch.) It's just as likely that they simply used the stitch so much in their knitted goods that it became associated with them. The Shaker stitch has a ribbed effect of vertical lines and is very stretchy and flexible, which makes it especially useful for ribbed cuffs and waistbands. Machine-made Shaker sweaters were very popular in the 1980s. I remember that at 14 I had one in aqua, and little guessed why it was referred to by the term it was. The video above demonstrates how to knit the Shaker stitch.


  1. thank you for this post. my dad loves shaker furniture but I had not considered their textile crafts until now. Shaker design philosophy still has enduring value.

  2. Aaahhh the cheap acrylic Shaker knit sweater style of the 80's. I still remember that year aqua was THE colour. My Shaker was a bright emerald green. I wasn't from a well off family so any of my trendy fashion pieces were well worn and beloved. I was absolutely devastated when the sweater was "killed" in a too hot clothes dryer. Funny the things we remember! I was fond of blouses buttoned to the top and fastened at the neck with elaborate brooches, too.

  3. The Shaker aesthetic is inspiring. But I'm afraid it doesn't leave a lot of room for things like the rubber chicken hat: