O, let me teach you how to knit again

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If you know me, you’ll know I like to knit*. Knitting is awesome – you can make something three-dimensional, shaped, and stretchy in two perpendicular planes using just yarn and some sticks. It’s been around for ages, developing from Roman/Egyptian techniques for making socks, and because it is relatively straightforward to learn (and requires little in the way of equipment) it was a popular activity. All of which meant that by Shakespeare’s time, the activity – and the language- were already in common usage.

Shakespeare uses it straight a few times – in Twelfth Night he talks of “The spinsters and the knitters in the sun” and in Two Gentlemen of Verona Launce says “What need a man care for a stock with a wench, when she can knit him a stock”**, and in The Taming of the Shrew Grumio calls for gentlemen “let their heads be sleekly comb’d, their blue coats brush’d and their garters of an indifferent knit”. Macbeth has the straight – and beautiful – metaphor of “the innocent sleep, Sleep that knits up the ravel’d sleave of care”

It's a sock, not a sleeve, but you get the idea.

It’s a sock, not a sleeve, but you get the idea.

Shakespeare uses knit brows often as a metaphor for frowning – he uses the phrase in Henry IV several times (my favourite is “Ambitious York did level at thy crown, Thou smiling while he knit his angry brows”), in Henry VI (“The widow likes him not; she knits her brows”), Taming of the Shrew (“Fie, fie! unknit that threatening unkind brow”) and Titus Andronicus “unknit that sorrow-wreathen knot”.

Julia Stiles demonstrates a "knit brow" for us in 10 Things I Hate About You.

Julia Stiles demonstrates a “knit brow” for us in 10 Things I Hate About You.

It also occurs as a metaphor for love and marriage. In Much Ado About Nothing, Claudio expresses his intention “Not to knit my soul to an approved wanton”***. On a happier note, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream Lysander swears “I mean that my heart unto yours is knit, So that but one heart we can make of it”. In Antony and Cleopatra Agrippa urgesto knit your hearts With an unslipping knot, take Antony Octavia to his wife”.

And that leads us to the wider issue of fealty and friendship. In Coriolanus Sicinius wishes “I would he had continued to his country As he began, and not unknit himself The noble knot he made.” In Othello Iago swears “I have professed me thy friend, and I confess me knit to thy deserving with cables of perdurable toughness”.

Knitting clearly had the reputation for being good solid stuff – in Henry VI Young Clifford cries “O, let the vile world end And the premised flames of the last day Knit earth and heaven together!” In Macbeth (again) Banquo says “my duties Are with a most indissoluble tie Forever knit.”**** Timon of Athens boasts “This yellow slave Will knit and break religions”. In The Tempest Prospero is pleased to note “My high charms work, And these mine enemies are all knit up In their distractions. They now are in my pow’r”

And so it’s also used to indicate someone is well-built. In Henry IV Talbot is unfavourably compared to “A second Hector, for his grim aspect And large proportion of his strong-knit limbs.” In Henry VI Warwick complains that “strokes receiv’d and many blows repaid Have robb’d my strong-knit sinews of their strength” and Love’s Labours Lost Armado talks ofwell-knit Samson! Strong-jointed Samson!”

Tennant_Loves_Labours_Lost

This is David Tennant in Love’s Labours Lost – he’s playing neither Armado or Samson, but I couldn’t resist…

On the whole, and while all professional knitters in Shakespeare’s day were men, I’m not entirely sure that Shakespeare really understood the process of knitting at all – in King John Arthurs says “When your head did but ache, I knit my handkerchief about your brows“, which I think would make any headache much worse. And in Two Gentlemen of Verona Julia says she will “knit it [her hair] up in silken strings”. In the interests of blogging integrity, I tried this and let me tell you, knitting your hair is NOT A GOOD IDEA…

Note to anyone who is unclear: this is braiding, not knitting...

Note to anyone who is unclear: this is braiding, not knitting…


* If you know me really well, you’ll know that’s kinda an understatement…

** I’m pretty sure this is lewd, but I need a decent referenced copy to be sure. Anyone else grow up on the Cambridge editions? I might have to look out my heavily annotated school copies…

*** BASTARD

**** He’s such a nice guy it’s so obvious he’s going to die…

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