One question that came up at the Portsmouth sampler talk is a perennial question among stitchers and knitters alike: how did the adults of yore get such small children to sit still enough and concentrate to do these hand crafts? The samplers we saw during the talk were made by girls as young as 8, and two were made by a girl at ages 12-ish and 16; she’d clearly developed an affinity for needlework and done more than was technically required to show her proficiency with a needle. There is historical evidence to support girls having done a great deal of knitting during the colonial period as well; one girl’s diary that was excerpted in No Idle Hands recorded her making some progress on her knitting, probably of stockings, almost every day. The author theorizes that a certain number of rounds was likely required every day, before the knitter could go and do other things, stockings being as perennial a need as you can imagine they would be if they were handmade for everyone.
I’m always a little surprised when someone asks that. It’s not as though we don’t teach children today to sit still and develop fine motor skills. It’s just that it usually isn’t these fine motor skills. Knitting was an important and marketable skill for women in colonial times, and for some men too (there were jobs, like shepherding, that lent themselves well to knitting, and men were expected to do it). Embroidery was marketable also, regardless of social class. A poor to middle class woman could sell her work and/or make a living teaching others how to do it. A middle class to wealthy woman needed to be able to demonstrate her value on the marriage market. Both knitting and embroidery (and crochet and lacemaking, and a host of other crafts) were means by which someone could earn money and maintain her family, and they remained viable until into the 20th century (and some would argue, until now). To not teach a child how to do needlework was to hobble her economically. We would no sooner neglect to teach a child to read and write now.
So here’s my theory: it’s not that children now are less capable of knitting or doing needlework; it’s that the economic rewards of doing it (or the consequences of not doing it) are not nearly as great as they once were. Then as now, everyone learns to do what they need to do, like reading and writing, for basic success in life. Some people enjoy it and do more: reading and writing for pleasure, or profit. But what is done or not done is not a good measure of what can or can’t be done.
(Here’s another one: people will ask knitters why they bother knitting socks when you can just buy them much cheaper. Do people ask techies why they build their own systems instead of just hieing themselves down to the Best Buy?)