Fourth of July: Thinking about knitting and historiography

I’m knitting a shawl using natural white and indigo-dyed Finnsheep wool. It’s an exceptionally simple pattern with garter stitch stripes and an edging of an extremely simple lace: *yo, k2tog* across in one row, followed by three plain garter rows. There are some increases at each end of two of the plain rows. On the lace row, there are three plain knit stitches at the beginning of the row and should be a k2tog followed by two plain knit stitches at the end.

Somehow on my most recent lace row I ended up with k2tog followed by three plain knit stitches. WRONG.

I fingered my way back across the row, looking for an error, and failed to find one. The rows are moderately long at this point. I repeated the process and failed again. I counted stitches and came up with an odd number. The pattern will work on any odd number of stitches that is greater than seven. (K3, *yo, k2tog,* k2.) I counted stitches twice.

So I unknitted my way back to the beginning, still without discovering where the error had occurred. Twice.

A family member offered to check my count, and put in a marker every forty stitches. The result was an odd number.

I left the markers in and went to bed.

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Historiography means taking a look at how we think and write about history. It’s a study of methods and a way of discerning what filters are in place when we recount the events of the past.

I was fortunate in high school to take a class which had the dual purposes of teaching medieval history and historiography. Our textbooks were the two volumes of Henri Pirenne’s (1862–1935) A History of Europe. I still remember the feel of the two paperback books, the tones of their covers, the sense of their typography (dense!). I also remember quite a bit about the social and political forces at play between the fall of the Roman Empire and the 16th century, where Pirenne began and left off. I learned much more history from that experience than from years of being asked to memorize names and dates, useful as those facts might be.

In reading history, who is telling it? What do they care about? How careful are they to respect and interpret, without overreaching, the facts?

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In the morning, I counted stitches again. The final section has twenty stitches—there is an even number, thus the problem. I have either gained or lost one stitch.

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Another lesson in historiography came to me while I was spinning samples for what became The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook. As I was spinning, from time to time I would listen to an audiobook. The most memorable and interesting of these was Tamim Ansary’s Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World through Islamic Eyes. He reads the book himself, which added the benefit of having unfamiliar-to-me names pronounced correctly. In the spirit of Pirenne, he goes for the sweep of peoples and events.

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The thing about history, like knitting, is that sometimes we need to recount our stitches, or our stories, multiple times in order to come out where we want to be. And sometimes we need to call in help, or work together.

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Our library system has begun loaning books again. We place holds, drive to the library, call inside with our card number, and wait until a staff member has set our books on a table that blocks the entrance and has gone back inside. Then, masked, we pick up our titles. This is one of the few family errands I can currently take charge of. On Thursday I picked up our collection. (What does it say that I have the family’s 14-digit library card numbers memorized?)

My backup stitch-counter (whose markers made this morning’s accurate count easier to accomplish) had requested Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge, by Erica Armstrong Dunbar. It looked interesting, so I asked if I could read it first.

Cover of Never Caught by Dunbar
Cover of Never Caught by Dunbar

Within twenty-four hours, I had (1) completed it, (2) acquired a more nuanced understanding of the people involved in the founding of the United States, and (3) developed a profound admiration for the book’s author. With a skeleton of information and deep knowledge of what life was like at multiple social and economic strata in the eastern U.S. during the 18th century, Erica Armstrong Dunbar created a narrative that embraces the complexities and contradictions in both the humans and the sociopolitical environment.

Here’s one stunner of a set of sentences:

“Washington believed the customs collector could play a crucial role in recovering his slave woman, serving as the president’s eyes and ears on the ground in Portsmouth [New Hampshire]. / The president offered suggestions about recapturing the fugitive, and all of them were clear violations of the law. Washington understood the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, after all, he had signed the bill. His advice for the customs collector conveniently sidestepped all of the regulations that were in place to appropriately return a runaway to his or her owner.” (p. 139)

The author makes it clear, over previous and following pages, that Washington’s reasons were complex, and involved the intricacies of inheritance, “ownership,” his own financial straits, and his wife’s (as well as his own) views on slavery. (Hint: His evolved over time more than hers did.) (I was also grateful to know throughout my reading, because of the title and the genealogical chart in the front of the book, that Ona Judge succeeded in escaping slavery. That allowed me to observe the dynamics without the anxiety of wondering.)

For me, this does not diminish George Washington. It acknowledges his failings and frailties in conjunction with his strengths. It makes him and the times more human. He does not need to be superhuman to have played a unique and valuable role in the American Revolution and in the transition from a group of colonies to a new nation. In a way, his moral and physical pain makes his accomplishments more interesting.

How I wish Ona Judge had also been featured in my basic history education (in which Washington was a two-dimensional figure and she was invisible). Her story illuminates his, as his does hers. Her bravery is of a parallel order to his, operating in a differently hazardous environment, and also for reasons of independence from tyranny.

Thanks to Never Caught, my knowledge of how and by whom this country was founded developed a richness—and level of relevance—it had not previously possessed for me. I feel as if this book has given me a bit of treasure.

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What to do about my knitting?

  • Fudge a stitch.
  • Go back one, two, or three rows.

Stitch-counter says, “You don’t use lifelines?”

I say: “Folks figured out lifelines long after I learned to knit lace. Besides, who’d use a lifeline for *yo, k2tog*?”

I picked back, stitch-by-stitch, and at the beginning (last to remove) few stitches of the second row I found an errant yarn-over. I finished taking out that row, and began reconstructing it properly.

I could have fudged. But I’d rather have it right. I didn’t have to tear up the entire shawl to fix the problem. I only had to go back a few hundred stitches and re-knit them correctly.

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Same with my understanding of this part of our history. It’s not a speedy process, but it makes for a better project—or, in the case of the reading and thinking, life.

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6 Responses

  1. Kit Dunsmore

    I love the way you’ve tied these two things together. And now I want to read that book. We need more history that allows our heroes to be human, so that more of us humans can become heroes.

    • Deb

      It’s a splendid book, Kit. Well written–you’ll appreciate that, too! I agree completely with your comment about humanity and heroism.

  2. Valerie

    Hi Deb,
    What a well written piece for the 4th of July. I’ve reserved the e-copy of Never Caught from the library. Thanks for the recommendation.
    On a somewhat related note, yesterday’s episode of Hidden Brain was about Thomas Jefferson and his contradictory stances on slavery. https://www.npr.org/2020/06/29/884634146/the-founding-contradiction-thomas-jeffersons-stance-on-slavery
    Most interesting to me was at the end of the discussion when Annette Gordon-Reed contrasts her opinion of the founding fathers with the confederate separatists.

    This has been one of the most thought provoking Independence Day holidays in my life. It’s too bad that it has taken such dysfunctional times to make that so.

    Glad you didn’t fudge on your shawl….you will enjoy the end product much more!

    • Deb

      Thanks for your comments, Valerie, and for the note about Hidden Brain. I woke up this morning thinking, “I want to find out more about Sally Hemings.” I’ll be looking for a good book about her, but I’ll start with the NPR piece.

      And I’m glad I went back on the shawl. I unpicked, instead of just ripping back three rows, even though it took longer, because I wanted to–if possible–discover *where* the problem was. I did locate it.

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