The earliest "salons" began in the early 16th century during the Italian Renaissance and grew in popularity during the French Enlightenment. One of the earliest of these is credited to the Marquess de Rambouillet, an Italian-born French aristocrat, who set up a literary circle in Paris to gather together the noted thinkers and writers of the day. These early, somewhat-informal gatherings, gradually developed into the more formal salons of the 18th century with serious subjects such as politics and philosophy being discussed as well as literature.
One of the most striking features of the salon is that the hosts - known as the salonnieres - were usually women, at a time in history when women were not encouraged to have opinions on such weighty subjects or to draw attention to themselves by speaking out on such matters publicly even if they did. The salonnieres would be in the position of being able to decide who to invite to their salon - with invitees usually gathering in the host's own home; and with the objective of bringing about stimulating yet agreeable conversation amongst their guests. Successful salonnieres were highly regarded and envied by others.
Each gathering would commence with a reading, from a new or exciting novel or essay which would then be hopefully followed by a lively and exhilarating discussion, directed to some extent by the salonnieres.
In the 19th century, literary salons became hugely popular in the USA, with even the First Lady, Martha Washington, holding weekly gatherings at the White House. Possibly the most famous literary salon is that of american author, Gertrude Stein in Paris, where literary and artistic greats of the time would gather including F Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway. Stein also owned a large collection of art which was on display in her Paris apartment which visitors to the salon where able to view. It is this particular salon which I first read about as a teenager, causing me to long for sophisticated, grown-up conversation and the still un-found ability to conjure up clever witticisms whilst also knowing exactly the right thing to say about a book!
Despite so many of the Salonnieres being women, many of the literary guests were, of course, men. Throughout history groups of women have nonetheless been able to meet, converse and express opinions, whilst participating in crafts. For many British peasants, knitting was one of the few ways to earn extra income and entire families including young children would be involved in this 'cottage' industry of knitting socks, stockings, mittens, hats and more which would be sold on their behalf at markets up and down the country by enterprising merchants. The peasants would be paid by the quantity of work achieved so knitting took place at every possible opportunity. In British villages, groups of local people, would gather together in one home - primarily so that only one fire was needed and only one cottage required lighting, but also to tell stories, to sing and to gossip whilst they knitted.
As this exploitative industry died away so did the tendency for crafters to meet together in large groups. However when war broke out across Europe in 1914, and millions of young men went off to fight, the need to provide them with adequate clothing became paramount. Each British soldier was allocated three pairs of socks for every six months they were serving. However due to the horrific conditions on the battlefield, trench foot became a huge problem and many more socks were needed; and so appeals were placed in newspapers and women's magazines asking the nation's knitters to come together and knit for the troops.
The Queen herself lent her name to the Queen Mary's Needlework Guild, which produced an estimated fifteen and a half million items of knitwear during the four years of the conflict. Women would knit in private, at home, on public transport, but they would also meet up in village halls, at each others houses, and knit. There was a competitive element to some of this with some knitters determined to have a greater output than the next. The knitting would be collected up by organisers who would then pack up the knits and forward them to where they were needed. This determination to knit for the troops was echoed in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and America. Knitting patterns were provided across the globe by newspapers, magazines, yarn companies and the Red Cross whose patterns were utilised by many thousands of knitters.
There were songs and poems written about knitting, famous actresses were photographed knitting and even a play was written about a knitting group called "The Knitting Club Meets".
When the war thankfully ended, the groups and gatherings that had helped so many women through such dark times, closed down and knitting once again became a private activity. Grandmothers, mothers and daughters would still meet when the day's chores were complete, to gather around the fire to knit and mend, but the community element of knitting did not return until WWII began 21 years later and women were once again asked to knit for the troops. Groups quickly reformed and churches and village halls again became the centre of group knitting activities. Women also gathered together in each others houses to spur each other on and to converse.
One such "Knitting Party " was painted by Evelyn Dunbar in 1940, perfectly capturing this community-based knitting taking place. The painting was taken from real life with each of the 15 knitters sketched individually by Evelyn as they sat engrossed in their knitting. Most of the women can be seen knitting blankets, comforters or socks for the troops in shades of 'navy' blue or khaki and a huge pile of completed knits are piled up in the centre of the painting.
Competitive, sometimes acrimonious, these groups or parties were often the main focus of the week, keeping up people's spirits as they waited for news of husbands and sons from the front. Women from differing social backgrounds were often thrust together - with upper class women often assuming the role of leader - with mixed results, but ultimately reaching across social barriers that had resolutely been kept in place by those who benefited from them. Jam Busters by Julie Summers (who I have had the pleasure of meeting) exposes some of this when looking at the involvement of the Women's Institute (the WI) as one of the most active wartime groups and also the wartime diaries of Nella Last reveal some of the same snobbery that went on.
And this finally leads me to my love of 'domestic' fiction and non-fiction and my belief in the positive benefits of knitting groups, real or virtual. We have been fortunate over the last 20 years that knitting groups have grown and become so popular. Indeed in my own small town there are at least three knitting groups, however when I was growing up in the late 1970s and 1980s I knew no-one who knitted other than my mother and my grand-mothers. I had no contemporaries to talk to and the local knitting shops didn't encourage sitting and conversing. I would have dearly loved to have known that I wasn't on my own but I had to wait until the 1990s and the arrival of the internet to really understand just how many knitters were out there, most of them probably feeling exactly the same sense of isolation in their craft as me.
And so my Knitting Salon is a celebration of knitting groups, of literary salons and of the wonderful domestic fiction of the early twentieth century which tells us so much about the lives of the women, the knitters, who went before us. I have chosen three books from three decades which each reveal so much and I am designing three patterns which are in turn inspired by each of these. I have also created three colour palettes from which I will be hand-dyeing yarn which will be sent out to Salon members along with their books and their patterns.
And in addition, from September through to December of this year we will meet virtually and hold our very own Knitting Salon where we will converse about the three books I have chosen and we will knit and we will enjoy each others company like so many before us.
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