At the risk of becoming repetitive, here’s another one of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, Night Watch (first published 2002), in our Lit Knit series…

Like Jingo, it features Commander Sam Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch as the main protagonist. This time, however, Ankh-Morpork isn’t at war with a foreign superpower but, so to speak, with itself: There’s a revolution sweeping the city’s streets, and as it unfolds into a full-blown civil war, Vimes and his watchmen realize that their allegeance lies with the people rather than with the regime that pays their salaries. Oh, and there’s also a psychopatic killer on the loose…

But among all this chaos and confusion, there’s also yarn and knitting. The first reference occurs on page 145* when Vimes has to arrest a young woman called Miss Battye who claims to be a seamstress. The problem here is that, like in Victorian England, in Ankh-Morpork the term seamstress is generally used as a euphemism for prostitutes. So when Vimes is informed that Miss Battye “also specializes in crochet”, he wants to know what crochet means, assuming it to be code for some sort of sex act. Only when Miss Battye replies, somewhat irritated, “It’s a kind of knitting (…). Fancy you not knowing that”, does Vimes realizes that he’s dealing with a real seamstress.

A second knitting reference comes towards the end of the book. When Vimes and his men are attacked by archers during the street fighting, they seek shelter from the arrows in the nearest shop. What they find in there comes somewhat unexpected for Vimes:

” ‘Can I help any of you gentlemen?’ said a thin, querulous little voice behind him. He turned and saw a very small, almost doll-like old lady, all in black, cowering behind her counter.

He looked desperately at the shelves behind her. They were piled with skeins of wool.” (p. 430)

They’ve ended up in a yarn store! And there’s even a customer in the shop, another eldery lady called Mrs Soupson just about to buy “four ounces of grey two-ply” (p. 431). A few pages later, though, we meet her again, in a much more agitated state, waving a knitting needle among the revolutionary crowd out in the streets (p. 437).

So, as in some of his other books, Pratchett employs knitting in a very stereotypical way by essentially associating it with the realm of the female, especially with elderly ladies. But, of course, employing stereotypes is what Pratchett does, and his use of over-exaggerated clichés is part of what makes his Discworld novels so funny. In Night Watch, too, the yarn store episode has great comic potential, especially if you try to imagine it as a movie with sound and everything: First, there’s the hectic scene of the street fighting, full of noise and movement, with carts dashing by and people running around, shouting and singing revolutionary songs. And then the sudden change of scene as Vimes and his men barge into the store and find themselves immersed in a place of peace and quiet, with two eldery ladies calmly chatting over a counter, and the walls stacked with soft, cosy yarn. It’s like going from this…

Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, 1830, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image © Wikimedia Commons

… to this

Georg Friedrich Kersting, Woman Embroidering (First Version), 1812, Schlossmuseum, Weimar. Image © Wikimedia Commons

… in the blink of an eye. And yes, in terms of clichés the contrast created here by Pratchett is also a contrast between things denoted as male – e.g. fighting, the outside – and things denoted as female – e.g. textiles and needlework, the domestic interior. And, by the way, a similar contrast may even be found in the character of Miss Battye, the seamstress: As it turns out, when she’s not busy crocheting or darning socks, she’s working for the revolutionary forces, smuggling weapons which are neatly hidden underneath all the yarns and threads in her sewing basket. Here, in a manner of speaking, the “manly” arms of war are not only in contrast but even in direct contact with the utensils of “female” needlework.

Ok, I could go on, but I guess I’ll better leave it at that – I’m afraid not all of our readers are as keen on Pratchett as I am myself ;-) Seriously, I almost feel guilty about bringing him up here so often and practically turning our Lit Knit series into Knitting with Terry.** The thing is, however, that among all my favourite writers, Pratchett appears to be by far the most knittophile – I believe that, from our previous Lit Knit entries, you will all have noticed how knitting comes up surprisingly often in his novels. As I found out only recently through Ravelry’s Ankh-Morpork Knitter’s Guild-group, there appears to be a simple explanation for this: Terry Pratchett is a knitter himself and, allegedly, even has his own sheep and spins his own yarn. Sadly, though, I may have to rephrase that last sentence in the past tense and say that Pratchett was a knitter. As you’ll probably have heard, in 2007 Pratchett was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s and since then his manual dexterity has been severly affected by the disease. By now, he even finds it too impossible to type his own books anymore, so I assume that knitting’s out of the question, too. As for the books, he now dictates them to an assistant, so in spite of his condition, he still keeps them coming. Well what can you say to that? Hats off, Terry, and thanks for all the joy you continue to give us!


* As usual, all page numbers given refer to the Corgi paperback edition of the book.

** Don’t worry, though, the emphasis here really is on “almost”, so I’m far from castigating myself or anything…

So, another post in our Lit Knit series and guess what, it’s Terry Pratchett again! Hm, I’m beginning to think we ought to rename the series Knitting with Terry or something like that ;-)

Anyway, this time the book in question is Jingo, the 21st Discworld novel first published in 1997. In Jingo, the mighty city state of Ankh-Morpork finds itself unexpectedly at war with the even mightier Empire of Klatch which occupies the Discworld equivalent of Northern Africa, including camels, Tuareg and a somewhat despotic political system. To sum up the plot in a single sentence, Commander Sam Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch joins his hometown’s invasion force, sets out for Klatch and saves the day. That’s basically all you need to know, to understand the knitting part, so I won’t go into more detail here.

When Vimes finally returns home, he finds his wife, Lady Sybil, in the Slightly Pink Drawing Room of their stately mansion. There, Pratchett goes on to say, “she was knitting inexpertly when Vimes came in, but rose and gave him a kiss” (p. 399).* As with other knitting references in Pratchett’s novels, this seemingly incospicuous phrase actually says a lot about the character of the knitter. In this case, the crucial point is that Lady Sybil is knitting inexpertly. Why so? First of all, Lady Sybil is described as a bit of an amazon or rather a Wagnerian Valkyrie, and her favourite pastime is breeding dragons. So she hardly conforms to the role expected of women in traditional societies, and it’s only natural that her skills at traditionally female occupations like needlework should be slightly underdeveloped – a characteristic she shares with Granny Weatherwax. But, in the case of Lady Sybil, matters are even more complex than that. There’s another reason why she’s not an expert knitter, namely her status as an aristocrat who was born into the wealthiest and noblest family in all Ankh-Morpork. Traditionally, women of such elevated social status didn’t waste their with something as coarse and lower class as knitting, but rather idled their time away with more refined needlework like embroidery. Pratchett, it needs to be said, is well aware of this distinction: For instance, when young witch Magrat Garlick becomes queen of Lancre in Lords and Ladies, she realises that she’s expected to give up the independent life of a witch and stay home in Lancre Castle embroidering tapestries instead.

So, why then is Lady Sybil knitting at all? Because, she informs her husband, notorious socialite Lady Selachii has “organized a committee to knit socks for our brave lads at the front” (p. 399).* Remember, Ankh-Morpork is at war with Klatch, and the custom of war-time knitting was once extremely widespread not only on the Discworld but also in our own, for want of a better word, real world. At least from the 18th century onwards, and all the way to World War II women of all nations were expected to provide hand knit clothes, especially socks, for their husbands, brothers and sons when they went to war. So, for a very long time, knitting socks was considered an essential contribution to the war effort at home.

Pilliga Red Cross members knitting socks for soldiers in World War I - Pilliga, New South Wales, Australia, 1915. Image ©

This probably reached its height during World War I when even school children were recruited for this task. A particularly moving account of this is given by one Hermine Gerstl who was born in Lower Austria in 1903. In an autobiographical sketch she speaks about her life during World War I:

“One day, all schools received order to knit warm things for the poor soldiers on the front. The local school boards sent us large bales of yarn so that we could make snow masks, socks and knee warmers. (…) Our teacher chose those girls of whom she knew that they could knit well and beautifully; I was among those chosen. My friends and I were handed strands of greyish green yarn, needles and patterns for all the different sizes; first we had to learn the ropes by knitting wristwarmers and socks, then we carried on with snow masks and knee warmers. Each was worked in a single piece, knit two, purl two. (…) Before Christmas, we were handed Field Postcards, and we were allowed to write Seasonal Greetings and our adress on them and add them to the parcels of woollens; every soldier received a snow mask, knee warmers, socks and wristwarmers; these parcels were well wrapt and sent to the Russian front. I was lucky, I received a reply to my Seasonal Greetings (…). This young men wrote to me quite often (…). He also told me that (…) the next day he was going to go to the farthermost front line with his entire Company. One day, I received a note from one of his comrades, saying his good friend, Karl Kapronak, had been sent to the eternal home leave for Emperor and Fatherland, many of their Company had bled to death on Russian soil.”**

In Pratcehtt’s Jingo, things don’t turn out quite so gruesome: A peace is negotiated before the war has even really started, and all the soldiers go home unscathed. Indeed, Commander Sam Vimes returns to his wife so quickly that she welcomes him almost reproachfully: “And I haven’t even worked out how to turn a heel yet” (p. 399).*


* All quotes from Jingo refer to the “old” Corgi paperback edition with the original cover illustrations by Josh Kirby.

** Gerstl’s account is quoted from: Christa Hämmerle (Ed.), Kindheit im Ersten Weltkrieg, Vienna 1993, p. 124-125. The English translation is mine.