Mary Thomas Knitting Book – Review – Focus on Bead Knitting

My well thumbed copy.  Kept alive by Dover and still selling.
My well thumbed copy. Kept alive by Dover and still selling.

First published in 1936 the Mary Thomas Knitting Book is just as informative now as it was then and is in my opinion the best modern resource book for any knitter interested in “bead knitting” or in “knitting with beads”. Every book on the topic or article about beads and knitting written in the last 20 years sources back to the Mary Thomas Knitting Book.

I am one day hoping to knit something like the baby set below, without the Mary Thomas Knitting Book I would never have considered it.

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London, England has some online galleries, including a Knitting Gallery, which was fascinating to view.  Of particular interest was the Babies Set dated 1800 to 1840’s, museum number 380 to C-1807, a sweater with separate sleeves and bonnet, all embellished with bead knit floral motifs, a treasure knit for a beloved baby.

Set of baby's clothing Great Britain Between 1800 and 1849 Hand knitted wool Length of neck to hem of jacket 21 cm; length of arms of jacket outstretched 26 cm; length of sleeve 18 cm; width of sleve at widest point 7 cm, crown to edge of hat 17.5 cm, width of hat at widest point 21.5 cm 380 to C-1907 These pretty baby clothes make up a matching set consisting of a jacket, pair of sleeves and a cap. They are made of stocking stitch decorated with an openwork design, clusters of pink beads and rose motifs made out of pink and green glass beads. The beads would have to be strung on the yarn in the exact reverse order of the pattern before the knitting began. The jacket and cap have tapes attached to secure the clothes to the baby. Separate sleeves were a common part of baby's outfits. The 1838 Workwoman's Guide illustrates and describes how to make a 'Knit Armlet...Little children, in severe weather, wear them over their little naked arms to prevent them from chapping'. .
Set of baby’s clothing Great Britain Between 1800 and 1849 Hand knitted wool Length of neck to hem of jacket 21 cm; length of arms of jacket outstretched 26 cm; length of sleeve 18 cm; width of sleeve at widest point 7 cm, crown to edge of hat 17.5 cm, width of hat at widest point 21.5 cm 380 to C-1907
These pretty baby clothes make up a matching set consisting of a jacket, pair of sleeves and a cap. They are made of stocking stitch decorated with an openwork design, clusters of pink beads and rose motifs made out of pink and green glass beads. The beads would have to be strung on the yarn in the exact reverse order of the pattern before the knitting began. The jacket and cap have tapes attached to secure the clothes to the baby. Separate sleeves were a common part of baby’s outfits. The 1838 Workwoman’s Guide illustrates and describes how to make a ‘Knit Armlet…Little children, in severe weather, wear them over their little naked arms to prevent them from chapping’.
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Mary Thomas Knitting Book as source material.

  • Another on-line source was an article about beaded knitting and bead knitting written by BagLady.Inc @2001.  While the article was primarily about the differences between the two styles of incorporating beads into a project and the pros and cons of each, what was of particular interest to me the source material – Mary Thomas’s Knitting Book. 
  • This was the same source material as the Thread’s article “Bead Knitting Madness” Threads Aug/Sept 1989.  The Mary Thomas book was the first source mentioned and annotated as the best available.

This was the first article I had ever read about bead knitting, an incredible art and the article that started me on my journey to learn more about the how of the art.  Shortly thereafter I found Mary Thomas Knitting Book.  There was a theme developing here.  I checked all of my beading books – all but one cited Mary Thomas as source material.  Without Mary Thomas there might not be any modern bead knitting!

Napier-Hemy beaded bag - circa late 18oo's - personal collection Lynette Meek.
Napier-Hemy beaded bag – circa late 18oo’s – personal collection Lynette Meek.

Mary Thomas’s Knitting Book was first published in 1938 and has been republished many times since.  It contains all of the basics of knitting – very much the how-to book of its time – of any time.  Mary Thomas’s ten pages on bead and beaded knitting hold the most comprehensive description and history of bead knitting available to knitters today.  The first one and one-half pages comprise the total sum of the history of such types of knitting.  Bead and beaded knitting crossed many borders and showed the influences of many types of realistic and romantic arts.  It appears to have started in the early 1800’s and continued into the early years of the 1900’s.  Bags were the most common survivors of these years as shown by the many samples in museum collections today.

Poetry in Stitches - Solvig Hisdahl
Poetry in Stitches – Solvig Hisdahl

Children’s garments, bonnets and tiny sweaters have also survived to be kept in museums, as baby clothes often become treasures to be passed down from generation to generation.  Solveig  Hisdal has a beautiful beaded and bead knit Baby Cap in her book Poetry in Stitches.

Beaded Pulse Warmers
Beaded Pulse Warmers

Beaded cuffs and mittens were very popular in Victorian times and these are showing something of a revival today as well.  Norwegian beaded pulse warmers, like the ones in Nordic Knitting by Susanne Pagoldh are becoming a more common sight amongst knitters as well as other styles of beaded mittens.

Bishop Rutt cites the Mary Thomas book as source material in several places in his book History of Handkniting.  He also wrote a biographical section on her in the same book.  Clearly Mary Thomas was more influential to modern knitting than I had ever realized.

Modern bead knitting will have to Thank Mary Thomas and other knitters like her who have made it their lives work to record and keep the history and techniques alive so that the art will not die and that future generations of knitters will be able to express themselves in this manner.