A Meditation in Stitches

Katie Worthing knits through the centuries

It was about 30 years ago that a child named Katie Worthing sat down with her grandmother, Maureen “Bunny” Worthing, and learned to knit. Katie’s earliest projects included endless chains loosely described as scarves, followed by a single square-ish attempt at a mitten.

Let’s just say, she’s come a long way.

A 1930s metallic cocktail jacket

Katie Worthing’s latest knitting projects have included a 1907 ladies outing coat, a 1919 Goldie golf sweater, a 1928 checkerboard sweater and a 1930s-era cocktail sweater with puffed sleeves.

Yes, she’s knitting her way through the previous century, one decade and one sweater at a time.

Worthing had inherited her grandmother’s knitting patterns from the 1940s through 1990s—some still in the original envelopes in which they had arrived at her home in Scarborough. Worthing would add to the collection when she saw old patterns at yard sales or on Craigslist or in a box on the side of the road. And she found them rather comical, wondering, for example, why is that sweater model posed next to that stuffed bunny?

Humor aside, there’s really only one thing a knitter with 500-some-odd vintage patterns will do, and that’s knit.

One of Worthing’s first historical knitting projects was a 1942 victory vest for her husband, Sam Heck, who, as development director for Victoria Mansion, has regular opportunities to dress in dapper historical fashion. During the 1940s, wartime frugality and fervent patriotism led to patterns using small bits of yarn and sweaters dotted with Vs for Victory, such as victory vests.

A checkered sweater circa 1921

“You can track that sort of knitterly engagement with politics all the way back to the Civil War, when there were massive efforts to knit soldiers socks,” Worthing says, making the parallel with the 2017 run on pink yarn to knit pussyhats.

Heck’s victory vest with tiny slip-stitch Vs all over the front inspired Worthing’s project and blog called My Sweater Century, which she began in January 2016, linked to a social network called Ravelry.

“It’s been fun to see some of the older ways of constructing sweaters, like starting at the back or knitting up over the shoulders, sleeves included, and down the front rather than knitting each piece individually,” Worthing says. “Those known but no longer common techniques have been fun to rediscover.”

Older patterns might include instructions for one side of the front of a cardigan and then simply tell the knitter to reverse it for the other side, whereas modern patterns spell out all the steps. Likewise, older patterns might not include a schematic, or illustration, in which case Worthing grabs pencil and paper and makes her own.

She enjoys the back and forth between zoning out and just knitting away and pausing to stop and visualize, calculate and problem-solve.

“It’s a blend of mindless and mindful,” Worthing said. “It’s sort of meditative. You get a rhythm going and you’re watching the stitches come off the needle.”

A Goldie Golf sweater from 1919

But it’s not always blissful. The smocking in the 1930s-era sweater called for metallic yarn that was just raw on Worthing’s fingers. With some breaks for instant-gratification projects like socks and mittens (which are no longer much of a challenge), the 1930s sweater took the longest to make: four and a half months from start to finish.

And then the 1940s pattern that Worthing selected had several errors in the instructions. Worthing wondered, did the long-ago knitter who used the same pattern persist and finish the sweater? Did she like how it looked on her?

Four sweaters into the century, Worthing does like how the finished products look on her. Her blog juxtaposes a primped and preened model from the 1940s wearing a sweater called “Versatile” with Worthing wearing the same sweater on her screened-in porch in Portland. “I like to imagine that the model in the photo on the right is dreaming about what it might be like to wear this sweater against a background of a grill, a yard-waste bucket and a dog,” Worthing writes in the post.

There’s something intriguingly retro about seeing classic designs on women from a time gone by…and something refreshing about seeing them still work in today’s world.

“People have enjoyed seeing the sweaters and seeing the patterns come back to life,” Worthing says. “But I’ve been surprised at how wearable every sweater has been. They seem so contemporary. If I pair a 1919 sweater with a pair of jeans, it looks normal. They’re totally classic designs. And I’m only changing what’s necessary to make it fit, so they’re truly authentic.”

Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer from Scarborough with an interest in living history.

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