The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

A recipe for brioche (knitting)

…a Collation KAL (knit-along).

Cast on

We built our friendship with knits and purls over coffee in the Folger Tea Room. Sharing patterns, exchanging techniques, and giving fiber recommendations are still staple conversation topics for us seven years after we first met.

Rachel and Emily with their pal Playmobil Martin Luther on the day of their co-curated pop-up exhibition, “The Word they still shall let remain” (November 2017)

It seemed a natural fit, then, for us to co-author a post about a knitting surprise we found in the Folger collection (and not this kind).

Needles, notions, and noshes

Inspired by a book Emily recently gave Rachel (thanks, friend!) that features classic knitting patterns, A Treasury of Knitting Patterns by Barbara G. Walker (1998), Rachel decided to see if any knitting featured in the Folger collection.

Opening from Walker’s book, featuring instructions for Brioche Stitch, p. 45

The instructions in Walker’s book provide the specifics for creating each pattern, a short history of the pattern, and an image of a swatch. It does not, however, furnish full instructions for creating a completed garment or object. Instead, the patterns are like ingredients when cooking a recipe, which can be “prepared” in different combinations, allowing for substitutions and personal taste.

Knowing that she would best be able to find transcribed contents of collection materials in the Folger Manuscript Transcriptions Collection, Rachel began her search for knitting there. A large portion of this image collection comprises recipe books with contents that include cooking and medicinal recipes, and household and gardening tips. Each of us uses this image set almost daily. As the Metadata Librarian, Emily unites collection images with their descriptive data and maintains our digital image database collections, including the almost 12,000 images of manuscripts and their transcriptions generated by our volunteer paleographers (including Emily). In her role as Learning and Engagement Librarian, Rachel searches this collection and others to find unique and instructive materials for teaching primary source research skills and to answer research questions.

As Rachel searched this image set, interesting entries emerged across manuscripts that indicated knitting was a commonplace fiber art. Many medicinal recipes refer to wound healing as “knitting,” which means that there were a few false positives in the search results. A search for yarn returned many recipes for dyeing wool, and a couple of interesting medicinal uses for yarn and knitted goods turned up, too.

Above: A book of choice receipts collected from several famous authors a great part in monasteries and often experimented as to a great number of them, compiled by Thomas Sheppey, ca. 1675, V.a.452, p. 452. “ffor the after birth. Take a Skene of flaxen yarn, unwhit-ed, boyl it in water, and let the woman sett over the steam of it.”

Above: Receipt Book, ca. 1704-1787, W.a.283, p. 111. “For the complaint in the head, shave it & bathe the feet in warm water, twice or Thrice a week before going to rest: wearing in the night warm yarn Stockings”

Alternate uses for knitting needles were one of the more fascinating finds in the manuscripts. It appears that knitting needles were used for both medicinal and cooking purposes as a narrow and sharp utensil, good for piercing ingredients from earthworms to cucumbers.

Above: Receipt book of Penelope Jephson, 1671, 1674/5, V.a.396, f. 9v from “A snayle Watter Good for a Consumcon of the Jaundeys”: “allso take a quart of Earth wormes slit them one Knitting needles”

Above: Receipt book of Catherine Bacon, ca. 1680s-1739, V.a.621, p. 45 from “To preserue Greene Cucumbers Mrs Villers “: “couer them close till they are green, then take them vp & with a knitting-needle make a hole length wayes into euery one of them to a pound of Cucumbers

Above: Cookbook of Elizabeth Langley, 1757(?), W.a.113, f. 25v-26r from “To Pickle Wallnuts”: “Take 2 hundred of large Wallnutts, rub them with a peice of Coarse flannell & salt, then run a Knitting neadle through the long way of the nutts”

These search results make it clear that knitting was part of daily life in the 17th and 18th centuries. Only two knitting patterns with explicit instructions are available in the online collection, written in a 19th century hand, from a book of pharmaceutical recipes with entries spanning an impressive 200 years. The patterns appear in Part II of the manuscript, which was written from the back of the volume, upside down, probably to differentiate from entries by former owners. The two patterns were written with different pens, with strokes much thicker in one than the other. One pattern, “To knit mats,” cooks up a doily—a popular 19th century functional decoration.

Above: (use the image viewer to rotate the image!) “To knit mats” in Pharmaceutical recipes, ca. 1690, 1750-1870, pages 30-31. Image with transcription. Folger call number: V.b.286.

The other pattern, “A pence jug, or purse”—a fun coin-purse made to look like a jug—was written on a combination of loose sheets and on pages in the bound manuscript.

Above: (use the image viewer to rotate the image!) Final pages of “A pence jug, or purse” in Pharmaceutical recipes, ca. 1690, 1750-1870, pages 26-27. Image with transcription. Folger call number: V.b.286.

While the second pattern is mostly written with a pen that leaves thick strokes, this page shows an insertion by the same pen that wrote “To knit mats.”

After reviewing the transcribed recipe books that refer to knitting in the Folger collection, Rachel began to wonder why there was such a time discrepancy between 17th century evidence of home knitting and the appearance of written patterns that date to the late-19th century.

To see whether other recipe manuscripts other than V.b.286 contained knitting patterns in them, Rachel visited the Manuscript Cookbooks Survey, to which the Folger contributes entries for its extensive manuscript recipe book collection. Manuscript Cookbooks Survey contains descriptive records of pre-1865 English-language recipe books and kitchen artifacts held in U.S. institutions, with support from the Pine Needles Foundation of New York.

Manuscript Cookbooks Survey home page. To search cookbook descriptions, select Manuscripts under Databases menu.

Normally, she would not think to search for knitting in a database that appears dedicated exclusively to food culture. But, armed with evidence from the Folger collection that recipe books did contain knitting patterns and other references to the craft, it seemed likely more examples would appear. With a brief search across all manuscript recipe book descriptions, Rachel found 16 other manuscripts indexed in this resource that contain references to knitting patterns, including: slippers, socks, a scarf, and lace for petticoats.

Much more frequently, however, the records only allude to the presence of knitting patterns, leaving us with further research to do. Glancing at the results, it quickly became clear that the recipe books that contain knitting patterns (rather than evidence of knitting) were all created in the mid- to late-19th century, just like the relevant portions of V.b.286. After sharing her findings with Emily, our next question became—what changed between the 17th and the 19th centuries that increased inclusion of knitting patterns in recipe books?

A stitch in time

Brioche knitting is known by many names: fisherman’s rib, shaker knitting, and patentsteek, among others. The name brioche originally referred to the finished product: small, round, cushy footstools and cushions popular in the mid-nineteenth century that resembled a round, puffy loaf of brioche bread. As the stitch used for these cushions eventually made its way into other patterns, the term began to refer to the stitch rather than to the cushion. Nancy Marchant writes in Knitting Brioche (2009) that the first English-language pattern she’s found using brioche stitch is the “Moorish Brioche or Cushion” in Miss Watt’s The Ladies’ Knitting and Netting Book (1840).1

Knitting in general was popular in the 19th century—mainly, though not exclusively, as a leisure activity for wealthy women. In addition to brioches, other available patterns included decorative shirtcuffs, a variety of baby garments, and, of course, pincushions that look like lemons. Another frequently found pattern was a pence jug—a coin purse in the shape of a tiny jug—which is the other pattern we see inserted in V.a.286. Happily for us, Franklin Habit has already recreated what looks to be this precise pattern so any of us can easily knit one for ourselves—or just see what the finished product would look like.

Our pattern is knit with Berlin. This material, also sometimes called German wool (as in our pattern) or Zephyr, refers to the fine and brightly-dyed yarn used for Berlin work, a popular needlepoint style of the time. Up until the mid-nineteenth century, about the time this pattern was recorded, knitting needles were made of fine steel and did not have points. UK needle sizing was (and still is!) based on standard wire gauge (SWG), although metric sizing is also used now. In the 19th century, we see innovations in knitting needles including the introduction of points, knobs on the end of needles to keep the work from falling off, and new materials including wood and ivory.

Cooking up a chart: ‘To knit mats’

Puzzling together the pattern was a collaborative act: Rachel, who has played around with brioche knitting in the recent past, recognized the stitch fairly quickly, and Emily figured out the short rows after some trial attempts at knitting the pattern as written and realized that each pair of rows had fewer stitches than the last. With the brioche and short rows figured out, we had the information we needed to knit through the pattern, and we each produced a small, ribbed wedge.

Left: Rachel’s swatch wedge
Right: Emily’s swatch wedge

Emily suspected from the beginning that the mat was meant to be a sort of doily, especially because of the size (meaning the relatively small number of stitches and the tiny needle size), and because we had seen doilies referred to as mats in Miss Watts’ The Ladies Knitting and Netting Book. Repeating this wedge over and over until it formed a circle would give us that doily—all that was needed was to add two rows to the end of the pattern to set each wedge up for the next.

She made a few additional minor changes to make the pattern knit up more easily and neatly. Emily had the idea to add a set up row so that you don’t need to jump immediately into brioche right from the cast on. Replacing those 9 k2togs with 9 plain knit stitches means that she needed to eliminate nine stitches from the cast-on. She then added one of those stitches back—for 21 stitches total—so that a nice selvedge stitch could be added to the edge of the brioche.

Wrap and turn instructions: Emily wrote the pattern without wraps for the short rows, because they’re complicated to use with brioche, and we don’t think the small gaps created by not wrapping the turns are very noticeable in this project. If you would like to wrap your turns, before each turn, bring the yarn forward, slip one stitch purlwise from the left to right needle, bring the yarn back between the needles, and pass the stitch back to the left needle. When you turn to begin the next row, your yarn will already be forward, so you can move right into slipping the first stitch. On row 18, you’ll pick up these wraps; just slip them with the stitch they’re wrapped around. On the following row 1, the brk (brioche knit) stitch will require you to knit three stitches together instead of two: the usual normal stitch and slipped stitch, plus the wrap.

A note on gauge: Berlin wool came in multiple weights, so we relied on the needle size in the pattern to clue us into the gauge for this project.2 A size 14 needle using UK sizing is equivalent to a size 00 needle using US sizing. Because brioche creates such a loose and lofty fabric, it’s typically knitted on needles one to two sizes smaller than would normally be recommended for the yarn used. Taking all this into account, laceweight yarn on US size 00 needles should give us something close to the intended result. Of course, this isn’t a garment, and it doesn’t need to fit anything, so size doesn’t really matter. Use thicker yarns and bigger needles to make larger doilies: just choose a needle that’s one or two sizes down from what is recommended on the yarn label. To make things a little easier, Rachel and Emily are using a fingering weight or sock yarn on US size 0 or 1 needles.


brk1: brioche knit. Knit the stitch together with its yarn-over.
CO: cast on. With brioche stitch, it is best to use a stretchy cast on, like long-tail. You may also want to cast on to a larger needle.
dyo: Yarn-over twice for a double increase. On the following row, you’ll knit one stitch normally, into the front loop, and a second stitch into the back loop.
k2tog: Knit 2 stitches together.
ktbl: Knit through back loop.
m1a: Make one away.
sl1: Slip one stitch purlwise.
sl1p wyib: Slip one stitch purlwise, with yarn in back.
sl1p wyif: Slip one stitch purlwise, with yarn in front.
turn: Turn the knitting as if you were at the end of the row and begin knitting in the opposite direction.
yf: Bring the working yarn forward, between the two needles.
yo: Yarn-over.


Using US size 0 or 1 needles and approximately 100 yards of fingering weight yarn, CO 21 stitches.
After casting on, knit set up row, and then rows 2-18. This will create one small wedge. Knit rows 1-18 18 times, which will leave you with 19 total wedges. For the 20th and final wedge, knit rows 1-17, and then cast off all stitches loosely. Sew cast on edge to cast off edge. Block.
Set up row: sl1p wyib, [yf, sl1, k1] x 9, k2
Row 1: sl1p wyib, [yf, sl1, k2tog] x 9, k2
Row 2: sl1p wyif, k1, [yf, sl1, brk1] x 8, turn
Row 3: [yf, sl1, brk1] x 8, dyo, k2tog
Row 4: sl1p wyif, m1a, k, ktbl, [yf, sl1, brk1] x 7, turn
Row 5: [yf, sl1, brk1] x 7, k4
Row 6: sl1p wyif, k3, [yf, sl1, brk1] x 6, turn
Row 7: [yf, sl1, brk1] x 6, [dyo, k2tog] x 2
Row 8: sl1p wyif, k1, ktbl, k2, ktbl, [yf, sl1, brk1] x 5, turn
Row 9: [yf, sl1, brk1] x 5, k6
Row 10: sl1p wyif, k5, [yf, sl1, brk1] x 4, turn
Row 11: [yf, sl1, brk1] x 4, [k1, yo, k1] x 3
Row 12: sl1p wyif, k8, [yf, sl1, brk1] x 3, turn
Row 13: [yf, sl1, brk1] x 3, k9
Row 14: sl1p wyif, k8, [yf, sl1, brk1] x 2, turn
Row 15: [yf, sl1, brk1] x 2, [k1, yo, k1] x 4, k1
Row 16: sl1p wyif, k12, [yf, sl1, brk1], turn
Row 17: [yf, sl1, brk1], k13
Row 18: Cast off 11 stitches. k1, [yf, sl1, brk1] x 9, k1

Cast off

Left: Rachel’s completed “knit mat.”
Right: Emily’s completed “knit mat.”

It’s amazing to think that we may be the first people to knit from the pattern written in V.b.286 for the first time in 150 years. Puzzling together the pattern and knitting the doily felt like being in conversation with our anonymous nineteenth-century writer, who, by continuing to record her (knitting) notes and recipes in this book was in conversation with her seventeenth- and eighteenth-century predecessors.

To us, the most exciting part of this knitting project was the journey of mutual discovery we shared. We worked together to find background information and enjoyed sharing articles, patterns, and hypotheses in real time. We love any opportunity to make and create using the Folger collection—bringing items to life and sharing them with others is a great feeling. This project was made even better because we worked on it with each other!

We hope you enjoy making your own knit mats! Share your finished projects with us on Twitter @FolgerResearch.

  1. Jane Gaugain was another popular author of knitting patterns, which you can read online.
  2. Berlin wool (or Zephyr, as it was known in Germany) came in three weights. The coarsest was called double; the intermediate grade, single; and the finest, split.”

One Comment

  • Thanks for clearing up a bit of a mystery for me!
    I stumbled across the ‘mats’ pattern a while ago while transcribing V.b.286 and managed to produce *one* wedge, but after that I was at a bit of a loss, because although I assumed the pattern was meant to be repeated, I could never figure out how to get to the right number of stitches again. So after a few unsuccessful experiments I was forced to give up. Now I can rest easy.:)

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