Tuesday, 8 July 2008

A Dickens of a Post....

I’m a Winner!
No, that isn’t some sort of Tony Robbins self affirmation thing. I am actually a winner! This week I won TWO (2) (deux)(1+1) competitions.

First I won some lovely sock yarn and sock bag from Knittiotherapy. Knittiotherapy was raising money for Breast Cancer Research (always a good cause) by doing the Midnight Moonwalk, which is the annual 26.2 mile stroll (ahem) around London. She delivered the prize this morning and it is gorgeous!!

And if that wasn’t enough (it was) last night I found out I won a signed copy of the Harlot’s latest book “Things I Learned from Knitting (Whether I Wanted To or Not)” from YKnit! If you haven’t checked it out yet – give it a listen. WonderMike and Stephen (hizKnits) are funny and recent guests have included the Harlot and Cat Bordhi.

I’m struggling with knitting at the moment. Not physically. I just can’t seem to find a project that sings to me. I’m finishing up something today and should be able to get some pics and post it later this week. In the meantime I’m browsing the pattern sites and books looking for some inspiration.

Things I Think About When I’m Not Knitting
I re-read A Tale of Two Cities a few weeks ago, and as ever the overriding question while reading the novel is: How exactly does madwoman Defarge knit the names of those to be executed into her knitting?

This perplexed me when I first read the story in high school, and has continued to plague me since.

For those of you unfamiliar with the story, it is set in London and Paris (thus the two cities) around the time of the French Revolution. There is a soppy, beautiful, kindhearted girl Lucie (blah – we hate her, every single male in the novel falls in love with her), her husband Charles Darnay (really Evremonde) and an alcoholic lawyer Sydney Carton. Lucie has a sometimes senile, sometimes lucid father who is a doctor when lucid and a shoemaker when not.

Madame Defarge, arguably the most famous fictional knitter of all time, is a central character in the Paris part of the story full of hate for the aristocrats of France generally, and the Evremonde’s specifically. She will not rest until she has seen all of their heads rolling on the grass in Place de la Revolution. Madame Defarge is never without her knitting in which we are told she is coding the names and crimes of all who are to be condemned.

I have recently watched two film adaptations of the novel, and it is clear to me that this is not a question which interests film makers in the least. Look at this example from the 1980 BBC adaptation. Sheesh. Worsted weight yarn in stockinette followed by a few rows of garter is not a code people.

In fact, Judy Parfitt, the actress playing Madame Defarge, looks quite uncomfortable with those needles. Fair to say this isn’t a great adaptation. (Almost as unconvincing as the knitting code is the storming of the Bastille. If this film is to be believed, this was accomplished by the knitter, her husband and about 6 toothless extras.)

In the 1958 film starring Dirk Bogarde, the knitting is equally codeless. Some pretty straightforward stockinette stitch in a single colour. At least this actress looks comfortable with knitting needles in her hands! (And they had lots of toothless extras when storming the Bastille. As you would.) I preferred this to the 1980 tv series.

Since then, I’ve been trying to determine what coded knitting would look like, and what the practicalities of knitting it would be. (This is in preparation for my own, yet to be announced revolution.)

Knitting the letters would be a pretty easy code to crack, and frankly pretty hard to achieve and keep track of across multiple rows bearing in mind that while knitting Madame Defarge is otherwise engaged in her wine shop or busy plotting revolutionary activities.

Ideally I think you’d want something where a letter could be represented in a single row, so you could ‘write’ the words as you knit, and if you had to put down your knitting to serve some wine to a fellow revolutionary you would immediately know where you are when you picked it up again.

Morse code (or a variant) seems the most likely choice. Morse code hadn’t yet been invented, but Madame Defarge was pretty darn clever so I think she had devised her own.

You could knit the code using colours – as I have here (apologies for the messy and less than stellar colourwork). Purple is dot, and blue is dash. Each cluster of blue and purple is a letter – blue/purple is ‘a’, blue is ‘t’ etc. I used a pink space between letters and a double pink space between words. This particular example says ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. I was pleased to notice that if you write the text as you knit the rows, when you turn it round to read from the top it reads perfectly from left to right.

Although this was pleasing (and quite compact) I have to say that I doubt your average vengeful revolutionary could be bothered faffing around with colours, carrying the colours back across the purl rows and then untangling the mess.

It would take more stitches (but probably less cursing) to knit a Morse code-like code in a single colour, with a stockinette background using a single ‘purl’ stitch for dots and two purl stitches for dashes. A light colour would preferable for better stitch definition and easy reading! If I were a really good knit blogger I would have also done a sample this way.

But I’m not.

To make up for it though, I’ve got two more film adaptations winging their way to me now. Further Defarge updates to follow. Bet you can't wait!


The Caked Crusader said...

Can I join your revolution please? I have good "mob" skills.

fleegle said...

'm having trouble finding a project too. Been swatching a flipping through patterns for a few weeks now.

As for coding, I would just knit the names in purl stitches on a stockinette background.

carolyn said...

I read that book at school and absolutely loved it. Thanks for reminding me of it, I could easily read it again.

I'm very impressed by the code knitting detective work ;) You obviously have just the right qualities to lead a revolution!

Kristina said...

Congratulations on the prizes! Fabulous.

I also liked your take on Madame Defarge - did you see my blog post on her? (you copycat, you! heh heh) Rather less erudite than yours, obviously. If you're interested it's here.

cici said...

Great Post...Congratulations!!!!!You lucky girl:)

the Lady said...


I think she used knit and purl stitch combos to symbolize either letters or names, it was something only she could "read" from her fabric - just like all knitters can "read" their fabric to see if they missed a stitch or dropped a stitch or did a purl when they should have knit. I think she carried it an extra step though - in modern terms and the English language, maybe moss stitch would mean "m", stockinette would mean "s", and by alternating stitch combos, knitters could easily "write" a name into their fabric, and to a non-knitter or anyone without the code, it would just look like a piece of knitting.

Vive la revolution!

Opal said...

Congratulations on your wins! I love your methodology in cracking the MDF code. I look forward to hearing more about what you think of movies coming your way. :)

Anonymous said...

I love it. I have often pondered what her codes must have looked like.


Anonymous said...

Look here:


the tricoteuses de la revolution were a symbol of the working woman. of course, there were (there are) excesses...


Llamabean said...

I was just thinking tonight about what book I should read next, in high school we read an author's work vs. all the classics, however, my husband has A Tale of Two Cities and I never realized it had knitting in it. Thank you piquing my interest.

Anonymous said...

What about a lacy code, with yarn overs? - lanajoh

=Tamar said...

Wasn't there a line about her using an "especially vicious stitch" to indicate "kill on sight" or something? It sounds like her knitting must have been full of knots and lumps. The tricoteuses were paid to be the howling mob, so her work didn't have to be any good. But the consensus has been that the author knew nothing about knitting.

Anonymous said...

lol, your MDF story is brilliant! I thoroughly enjoyed reading every word and love how you knit up your own little code work. And congrats on your 2, count 'em, two wins! Yay!

Would you mind posting this or some of it in the Dickens group? I'm sure we (you rather) could drum up some much needed discussion. Thx Soo!