Counting the Knitting “Texts” in Jane Austen

Pollyanna‘s father taught her to count the “glad” texts in the Bible. If I recall correctly, there were approximately 800 of them.

I’m counting the “knitting” texts in Jane Austen. Given the current craze for Jane Austen inspired knitting projects I was

Image @Wikimedia Commons

convinced that I would find dozens, or perhaps even hundreds of references to knitting.

I was wrong.

Want to know how many I found? 4. Four!

Only four instances of the word “knit” or “knitting” in all of the Jane Austen cannon. I’m not making this up. Most of them seem to be from Emma.

Persuasion by Jane Austen – Volume II, Chapter V (17) 

And she,” said Mrs. Smith, “besides nursing me most admirably, has really proved an invaluable acquaintance. As soon as I could use my hands she taught me to knit, which has been a great amusement; and she put me in the way of making these little thread-cases, pin-cushions and card-racks, which you always find me so busy about, and which supply me with the means of doing a little good to one or two very poor families in this neighbourhood.

Emma by Jane Austen – Volume I, Chapter X (10) 

Oh! yes; we are always forced to be acquainted whenever she comes to Highbury. By the bye, that is almost enough to put one out of conceit with a niece. Heaven forbid! at least, that I should ever bore people half so much about all the Knightleys together, as she does about Jane Fairfax. One is sick of the very name of Jane Fairfax. Every letter from her is read forty times over; her compliments to all friends go round and round again; and if she does but send her aunt the pattern of a stomacher, or knit a pair of garters for her grandmother, one hears of nothing else for a month. I wish Jane Fairfax very well; but she tires me to death.”

Emma by Jane Austen – Volume II, Chapter I (19) 

The house belonged to people in business. Mrs. and Miss Bates occupied the drawing-room floor; and there, in the very moderate-sized apartment, which was every thing to them, the visitors were most cordially and even gratefully welcomed; the quiet neat old lady, who with her knitting was seated in the warmest corner, wanting even to give up her place to Miss Woodhouse, and her more active, talking daughter, almost ready to overpower them with care and kindness, thanks for their visit, solicitude for their shoes, anxious inquiries after Mr. Woodhouse’s health, cheerful communications about her mother’s, and sweet-cake from the beaufet–“Mrs. Cole had just been there, just called in for ten minutes, and had been so good as to sit an hour with them, and she had taken a piece of cake and been so kind as to say she liked it very much; and, therefore, she hoped Miss Woodhouse and Miss Smith would do them the favour to eat a piece too.”

Emma by Jane Austen – Volume III, Chapter XVI (52) 

Now I say, my dear, in our case, for lady, read—-mum! a word to the wise.–I am in a fine flow of spirits, an’t I? But I want to set your heart at ease as to Mrs. S.–My representation, you see, has quite appeased her.”

And again, on Emma’s merely turning her head to look at Mrs. Bates’s knitting, she added, in a half whisper,

“I mentioned no names, you will observe.–Oh! no; cautious as a minister of state. I managed it extremely well.”

Are you as surprised as I am?

Now, to be fair, there are lots of other more general references to fiber art, many of which could be related to knitting.

Tools of the Trade

There are six  texts referencing “needles” and “needlework.” Technically, these are probably used in reference to sewing, netting, or embroidery, but who knows? Half of these appear in Mansfield Park. I can totally imagine Fanny knitting in a corner.

I found no references to “yarn.”

Products of the Needle

There are eight texts referencing “shawl.” Most appear in Emma and Mansfield Park. Shawls are:

  • Urged upon young women by their fathers on a cool evening
  • Brought as gifts from the East Indies
  • Used to cover one’s face
  • Fetched from upstairs, whereupon lovers are spotted from a window.
  • Wrapped abound one’s shoulders by a loving cousin
Novelli, 1791, The Attitudes of Lady Hamilton

Shawls are the ultimate plot device.

Recency Shawls

It seems that the best way to ferret out references to knitting in Jane Austen novels is to look for the names of tools or finished items rather than the name of the activity itself.


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