Sunday, 4 December 2011

Elephant No. 63: Knitting

For today's elephant, I decided to knit the smallest thing I could find online. I was originally looking to make a knitted finger puppet, but I liked this tiny toy just as much.

The oldest knitted object to date is a pair of multicoloured knitted socks, found in Egypt and thought to have been made in the fourth century A.D. Most sources believe that knitting likely originates somewhere in the Middle East, spreading first to Europe, and later to the Americas.

The earliest knitting in Europe was produced by Muslim knitters working for the Spanish royal family. The designs produced by these master knitters were very elaborate, often worked in fine silk with as many as eight stitches per centimetre (twenty stitches per inch). Knitted items in this early period included cushion covers, wall hangings, clothing, and accessories such as gloves and stockings. Interestingly, the purl stitch—the reverse of a basic knit stitch—was unknown at the time, and knitters knit in the round on multiple needles, later cutting pieces apart if they were intended to lay flat.

From the fourteenth century onwards, knitted goods were produced for everyday use, and even the Virgin Mary is shown knitting in several medieval paintings. By the sixteenth century, the purl stitch had made its appearance, allowing for the creation of textured patterns within the knitted fabric.

"The Knitting Madonna" from the
right wing of the Buxtehude Altar, 1400–1410.
Meister Bertram von Minden (1345–1425)
Collection of the Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany

Knitting was originally done only by men, with the first knitting trade guild established in Paris in 1527. Knitting schools were also set up beginning in the sixteenth century, providing poorer families with a source of income. Stockings were the most important knitted item of the time, and English stockings in particular were exported to Germany, the Netherlands and Spain.

The first knitting machine—known as a "stocking machine" since that was its primary purpose—was invented by Englishman William Lee in 1529. Although the machine remained relatively unchanged for more than two centuries, by the early eighteenth century, new knitting "frames" and machines were being developed, allowing for the mass-production of larger items such as blankets and garments. As patterned fabrics became popular, various technical advances allowed coloured patterns to be knit right into the cloth, rather than embroidered on afterwards.

These days, most knitted items are produced on machines. Until a few decades ago, however, hand-knitting was still a relatively economical way to produce garments and other necessities. It was also common for home-based knitters to unravel worn-out garments, reusing the yarn to make something new. Hand-knitting has since become a primarily artisanal activity, used to produce unique clothing, textile arts and even high fashion knitwear.

For today's elephant, I used an online pattern by Melissa Mall. It involved working on a set of double-pointed needles to create a series of tube shapes in various sizes, so I chose a grey wool I had on hand, and used needles approximately the size indicated in the pattern.

I started by making the body. Not having knit in the round since I was about 13, this was harder than I expected it to be. I dropped stitches, twisted them around the wrong way, and had to start over a couple of times. The pieces are so tiny that I don't think I ever got the technique down perfectly. Making a sock might actually have been easier,  because a sock is big enough to see what you're doing.

After I made the body, I made the head, then two ears, four legs, and a trunk.

When the parts were all made, I stuffed the head and body with a bit of polyester fibrefill, then sewed them together. The pattern also said to wind some yarn around the neck to define it a bit better, so I did that too.

After that, I sewed on trunk, then ears, then legs.

The last thing to go on was a tail. The pattern also called for me to knit a little scarf, but I actually preferred to use two strands of fancy scrap yarn I had, simply knotting them together at each end. He's only a little over 5 cm (2 inches) tall, so the two tiny scarves that I started to knit still looked too big.

The pattern leaves it up to you to decide whether or not to add eyes. I kind of like him without eyes for now, although I may change my mind later.

I'm pretty happy with the final result, although it's not the most tidy knitting I've ever done. I also made him out of 100% wool, so if I wanted to make him even smaller, I could throw him in the washing machine—then again, maybe that would be a little cruel.

Elephant Lore of the Day
One of the most unlikely animal friendships is the bond between the baby African elephant Themba and Albert the sheep.

Themba was orphaned in 2008 at the age of six months, when its mother fell over a cliff. Vets at the Sanbona wildlife reserve in South Africa hoped that another elephant cow would adopt Themba; when that didn't happen, they took him in to make sure he didn't starve to death.

At the Shamwari Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre in the Eastern Cape region, Themba met Albert. The friendship did not have an auspicious beginning. Themba dashed over to the sheep, and chased Albert around the watering hole. Albert was deeply unimpressed, ultimately running to the far end of the segregated enclosure for safety. He stayed there for the first half-day.

Themba was very curious about Albert, however, and kept walking over to Albert, sticking his trunk through the bars and touching the sheep gently on the back. By the next morning, Albert had started venturing into the main enclosure. The two began exploring their enclosure together, with Themba's trunk resting companionably on Albert's back. After that day, the two became inseparable.

Interestingly, instead of Themba copying Albert's behaviour and behaving like a sheep, Albert copies Themba and behaves like an elephant. Albert eats what Themba eats, and has been learning Themba's technique for eating thorny acacia bushes.

Since the ultimate goal is to reacclimatize Themba to life in the wild, sadly the pair may one day be separated.

Albert and Themba snacking on an acacia tree: a tree that is not
normally part of a sheep's diet.
Photo: ©Caters

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