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The University of Southampton

Knitting collection all stitched up for new exhibition

Published: 27 May 2008
Knitting collection

Attitudes to hand knitting have changed over the last two centuries - while many people from an older generation are continuing to knit, there has been an explosion of interest from a younger generation. Today there is a great deal of fresh talent in the knitting world, especially young, enthusiastic and creative 'cool' knitters.

Now, a new exhibition at the University of Southampton explores this ancient craft which is rediscovering its popularity. 'In the Loop: highlights of the Montse Stanley knitting collection' is now open to the public until Friday 13 June in the University of Southampton's Special Collections Gallery in the Hartley Library.

Montse Stanley (1942-1999) was a knitter, historian and collector, who created a private collection of knitted clothing and objects, and an extensive library on knitting. Her collection is now held by the University of Southampton, divided between the Library's Special Collections and Winchester School of Art (WSA).

Knitting patterns, knitted objects including toys, purses and items of clothing, knitting tools and rare postcards combine to paint a fascinating picture of the craft of knitting over 200 years from about 1800 to the present day.

Based around five themes, including the development of knitting patterns; postcards and knitting tools, and beads, bags and purses, the exhibition reveals the treasures of Montse Stanley's collection and explores hand knitting and knitters within a cultural and social history of those 200 years.

Knitting patterns on display include one for a daring knitted 'Bloomer suit' printed in 'The Household Friend: a magazine', dated December 1851. There is also a 1960s Patons pattern leaflet for a mini-dress designed by Mary Quant and an official booklet of instructions sold by the Royal Air Force during the Second World War to encourage knitting for their servicemen and women. Its clever use of entertaining and glamorised images made knitting seem enjoyable as well as patriotic.

An intricate black lace cotton mantilla, a traditional and distinctive Spanish woman's headcovering from Montse Stanley's native Barcelona dating from the mid-19th century, contrasts with two simply knitted, dressed toy elephants which probably represent the characters Arthur and Flora, from the well-known children's books about Babar the elephant by Jean de Brunhoff.

The collection includes hundreds of postcards which depict aspects of knitting worldwide. A French card posted by a serving British soldier from a field post office in France on 17 July 1916 bears the message: Je m'applique à bien tricoter les objets qu'on va t'envoyer (I'm working hard at knitting the things to be sent to you'). As a form of propaganda, images of knitting conjured up thoughts of home and family and in both World Wars, women and children were encouraged to knit small garments such as socks and mufflers for the armed forces.

Knitted toy elephants Arthur and Flora, from the Barbar stories, are part of the exhibition
Knitting collection

There are a number of purses and small bags on show. In the 1800s these items were a common form of gift in their own right or as containers for gifts of money. Many were made as mementos of public events, such as military victories, or were bought as souvenirs. One of the items on show is a long purse - also known as a stocking or miser's purse - knitted in the mid-1800s. Made of red and fawn silk and coloured glass beads, one to each stitch, the pattern forms flowers, stems, leaves and geometric shapes and looped tassels of pink glass beads.

Linda Newington, Head Librarian at Winchester School of Art, says: "As an internationally-admired exponent of knitting, Montse Stanley valued objects as a vital means of instructing and inspiring present and future knitters and designers. This collection is a specialist legacy for them and future generations of students, scholars and enthusiasts, forming a kind of 'stitch bank', something like an herbarium or seed bank. I hope the exhibition will encourage makers, designers and scholars from a variety of disciplines to explore it further."

Barbara Burman, the dress and textile historian who has co-curated the exhibition, adds: "This collection of knitted objects is impressive in both range and richness, offering an interesting and varied picture of many aspects of knitting. It also shows the remarkable range of form, style and function that knitting achieved in over 200 years."

Professor Chris Woolgar, Head of Special Collections, explains: "Many museums preserve varied examples of knitted objects within their collections, but the Montse Stanley collection is distinctive in uniting objects, printed matter and ephemera to relate a fuller history of hand knitting."

The exhibition is on display in the Special Collections Gallery on level 4 of the Hartley Library on the University's Highfield campus until Friday 13 June. It is open every day Monday to Friday from 10am until 4pm and entry is free. There will be a second chance to see the exhibition between Monday 14 July and Friday 25 July to coincide with the international knitting conference at Winchester School of Art.

The Montse Stanley knitting collection forms part of the University's Knitting Reference Library. The Reference Library is the focus of a three-day international, interdisciplinary conference 'In the loop: knitting past, present and future' in July 2008, which the exhibition accompanies. The Library is held at WSA, where it is regularly updated with books, exhibition catalogues and knitting patterns.

Notes for editors

  • Digital images of items in the exhibition are available from Communications on request.

  • The University of Southampton's Special Collections Gallery in the Hartley Library was created in 2004 with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund and a major investment by the University in the remodelling and extension of the Library. There are three or four exhibitions each year based on the collections. Visit for more information.

  • The University's archive holdings date back to the twelfth century and fill approximately five miles of shelving. The collection includes archives of international significance with a connection with the region, most notably in the Wellington, Palmerston and Mountbatten Papers.

  • The University of Southampton is a leading UK teaching and research institution with a global reputation for leading-edge research and scholarship.

    This is one of the country's top institutions for engineering, computer science and medicine, and home to a range of world-leading research centres, including the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton, the Institute of Sound and Vibration Research, the Optoelectronics Research Centre, the Centre for the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease, and the Mountbatten Centre for International Studies.

    We combine academic excellence with an innovative and entrepreneurial approach to research, supporting a culture that engages and challenges students and staff in their pursuit of learning.

    As one of the UK's top 10 research universities, we offer first-rate opportunities and facilities for study and research across a wide range of subjects in humanities, health, science and engineering.

    We have over 22,000 students, around 5000 staff, and an annual turnover in the region of £325 million.

  • For further information
    Professor Chris Woolgar, Head of Special Collections, University of Southampton,
    Tel. 023 8059 2989, email:
    Linda Newington, Head Librarian, Winchester School of Art,
    Tel. 023 8059 9293, email:
    Sue Wilson, Communications, University of Southampton,
    Tel. 023 8059 5457, email:

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