Here at last is the haunting tale of a counterpane square from the 19th century that transmuted into a chunky 21st century shawl.
It began on a cold autumn night when the wind made the trees creak like the joins of an old rocking chair. A young lady had gone down to visit an old friend, who lived in a small house in the country. She had arrived too late to do much on the first evening, and after a short while trying to make small talk over a cup of tea, she had retired to her room and sat working for a while by the window, her face alight in the glow of the laptop. She wasn’t sure how long she’d been typing when a branch thwacked loudly into the window and startled her. She woke as if from a trance and lowered the lid of the laptop. Only now did she realise how cold she was; her neck stiff and her fingers almost blue. She blew into her hands to warm them, and stood up, hoping that moving around would help her poor circulation. She had always been a touch anaemic.
Putting the laptop aside, she paced to the bookshelf on the other side of the room to see if she could find a good book to read. She ran a finger along the dusty spines – there was Austen, the Brontës, a dog-eared copy of M.R. James stories – she’d read them all. Then she came upon a volume that was so worn that all the letters of the title had been rubbed off, and the spine was broken and threadbare. She picked it up gingerly, and found that it was a book of needlework. She paged through, wary of the loose pages – tatting, crochet, embroidery, ah, knitting! Most of the pages were loose. Sitting on the bed, she turned on the lamp and began studying the patterns. A black-and-white drawing for a knitted square caught her eye.
313.–Knitted Pattern for Counterpanes, Berceaunette Covers, Couvrettes, Antimacassars, &c.
Materials: Messrs. Walter Evans and Co.’s knitting cotton; 5 steel knitting-needles of a corresponding size.
According to the size of the cotton employed, this beautiful square makes different articles, such as counterpanes, couvrettes, &c. &c. If worked with Evans’s cotton No. 10, it will be suitable for the first-mentioned purpose.
It looked like four leaves held in a lattice. How pretty! She read the first line of the pattern aloud: “Begin the square in the centre, cast on 8 stitches, 2 on each needle; join them into a circle, and knit plain the 1st round.” Well that seemed easy enough, she thought. If only she had some yarn and needles, and she could begin knitting. She felt so chilly, and the sound of the wind made her rather uneasy. She continued to read the pattern, pretending she was knitting by holding imaginary needles and yarn. Even the sound of the instructions was soothing, and so was the gentle clicking. Soon, she was fast asleep.
In the morning she woke late. The light though the window was a dull heavy grey, and her eyes were bleary from sleep. Her shoulder ached from having slept so awkwardly. To her dismay, the book of needlework was on the bed, with several of its pages scattered about. She didn’t have time to gather them. Her friend had arranged a hike through an old abandoned estate, and they were leaving right after breakfast. She hurried to get dressed, and snapped her hair into a loose bun before rushing downstairs where she could already hear the clink of crockery.
In the evening, returning to her room, she was exhausted. They had rambled all morning, only stopping for an hour to have lunch at a pub, then in the afternoon they had visited no less than three museums. It was a little at odds with her idea of a relaxing country visit, she thought, as she gladly peeled off her muddy, soggy clothes and ran a hot bath. Once again she had an urge to read something, and she remembered the book lying scattered on the bed. She shuffled the pages into order impatiently. Perhaps this wasn’t the best book for the bath – she’d be sure to drop pages into the bath water. She put the book back on the shelf and since she had recently seen a new film adaptation which made her realise she didn’t remember the book very well, she picked up Jane Eyre instead. She had a long, leisurely soak, and emerged much refreshed, with feeling in her toes and fingers. She went to sit by the window, as she had done the night before. As she picked up the laptop from the dresser, she suddenly noticed the antimacassar on the back of the armchair. It was the exact pattern she’d been looking at the night before! That must have been why it had attracted her attention in the first place. How funny.
She sat down with her legs tucked under her, and studied the antimacassar. She still wanted to knit the pattern herself – it was very simple, really, almost the simplest form a leaf lace could take, and she thought it would be very pleasant to knit, and perhaps to sew the squares together into a blanket (if she ever had the patience). Her friend, who was a graphic designer, might have said it made effective use of “white space”, or something like that. She wondered whether anyone on Ravelry had made it, and what yarn they’d used. What was the pattern called again? She went to the bookshelf and picked up the book. Returning to her seat she carefully turned the pages to find the counterpane pattern. It wasn’t there. She went through every page of the knitting sections, but to no avail. Then she realised the problem. There was a page missing. Swearing, she got up once more and began searching for the missing page: on the floor, under the bed, in the bed, on the nightstand, on the bookshelf. Nowhere.
Annoyed, and a little worried that she had ruined her friend’s book, she flipped to the front page.
DESCRIPTIONS AND INSTRUCTIONS,
SIX HUNDRED ENGRAVINGS,
OF TATTING PATTERNS.
POINT LACE PATTERNS.
INITIALS AND NAMES.
PILLOW LACE, AND LACE STITCHES.
Every Pattern and Stitch Described and Engraved with the utmost
Accuracy and the Exact Quantity of Material requisite for
each Pattern stated.
At the top corner was a note in elegant handwriting: “Elsie Witherell, 1942”
She typed “beeton” into Ravelry. It seemed no one had knit the counterpane square, but there was a shawl at the centre of which was the same motif. She added it to her knitting queue. Then she went to bed.
Her Mother rang her at 7am. It was still pitch dark, and her legs felt sore after yesterday’s long walk. She turned on the bedside lamp and listened to her Mother. Her Mother didn’t have anything to say, so she only talked for half an hour. She was worried about her as usual, wanted to know was she having a good time, why hadn’t she called yesterday, what was the weather like, was the food edible, was her friend as nice as she remembered? She answered the questions monosyllabically when she could, and doodled on a pad on the nightstand to keep awake. But when her Mother finally rang off, she couldn’t get back to sleep.
She lay in bed, waiting for it to be late enough for her to go downstairs. She wished she could go down and make herself a cup of tea, at least, but she didn’t know where anything was, and besides, she might wake her friend up, and she hated waking people up, especially when she was a guest in their house. So she lay quietly, listening to several clocks ticking, and the wind hissing in the trees, gentler today. She may very nearly have drifted asleep when she heard a faint thud, as of a hinge settling. Even though it was a strange house and a strange room, she was instantly awake, and certain that someone had opened the door to her room. The door wasn’t visible from the bed; it was around the corner and at the end of a short entryway, on one side of which stood a large mahogany wardrobe. She hadn’t bothered to unpack, since she was only staying for a few days, and had never thought to look inside the wardrobe. Now she was sure whoever was in her room was searching for something in that wardrobe. Before she could issue a tentative, “hello,” she heard the hinge thud again, and the intruder had left.
All hope of sleep now extinguished, she got out of bed, flung on a cardigan and peeked out of her door, hoping to see whoever it had been, but the hallway was deserted. She padded barefoot to the master bedroom. The door was ajar and her friend was snoring loudly. Not wishing to disturb, she turned back towards her own room and started in fright when she saw a trail of yarn – the same yarn that had been used to knit the antimacassar – winding its way out of her door and towards the staircase. It traced a path up the small bumpy stairs that her friend had said led up to the attic.
“Oh, nothing up there, just old boxes and stuff.”
A little ashamed at the absurdity of her reaction, but at the same time intensely desiring a reassuring presence, she hesitated in front of the bedroom door. Should she knock? She sighed. No, she couldn’t think of any sensible reason to knock, and when she turned back towards her bedroom, the trail of yarn had vanished.
Find out what happens in Part 2 tomorrow!
Small & Large
‣ Approx. 600m / 656yds [800m / 875yds] of aran- weight (worsted) yarn held double (including yarn needed for fringe).
‣ or approx. 350m / 383yds [465m / 509yds] of super bulky yarn. (Remember that if you use super bulky yarn, your fringe will also be chunkier).
‣ 12mm (US 17) 80cm / 32in long circular needles.
‣ 6 sts / 7 rows over lace stitch (used in wings).
‣ Gauge isn’t critical, but it will affect the final size and yardage of the shawl.
‣ Make sure the lace looks open and clear.
‣ Central square will be approx. 44 cm / 17  in wide.
‣ Finished wingspan (discluding fringe) will be approx. 170 cm / 67 in, and height, 66  cm / 26 in.
‣ Stitch marker,
‣ Crochet hook,
‣ Tapestry needle for weaving in ends.
Thank you to my marvelous test-knitters: Abby, Anni, Chooi Wah, Heather, Julianne, and Mary. And of course my lovely eagle-eyed tech editor Akshata Dhareshwar!