Steganographic knittingPosted: November 20, 2011
Steganography is the art of hiding messages in plain sight. Perhaps the most famous example of coded knitting occurs in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities in the creation of Madame Defarge. Turns out she was a steganographic tricoteuse because she didn’t just sit and knit any old pot-holder next to the guillotine, she used her knitting as a form of code:
A creation of Dickens’ fertile mind, Madame Therese Defarge appears in his classic novel, A Tale of Two Cities. As a leader of the Jacques during the French revolution, she used pattern stitches as a code and knit a list of the upper class doomed to die at the guillotine. According to Rutt in his comprehensive A History of Hand Knitting, Dickens was inspired by the “tricoteuses”, women who attended the National Convention in which the fate of the unfortunate rich was debated during the French revolution, knitting while they listened. Such a macabre pastime earned them a reputation as sadists, and an archetypal evil character was born in Madame Defarge.
This was a true testament to Dickens’ talent. He was able to turn knitting, the frequent symbol of loving grandmothers and charming domesticity, into an ominous, cruel, inhuman act.
Needless to say several people have proposed how this might have been done since Dickens doesn’t give us the patterns, of which this is one:
Presented here is one possible way to encrypt names by using a unique set of three stitches for each letter of the alphabet, omitting the letter K and diacritical marks. A skilled, rapid knitter would be able to encrypt a name of eighteen letters and marks, such as Charles St. Evremonde, in only fifty-four stitches. Madame Defarge probably found a simple scarf, not a shroud, the best garment to knit in what would appear to be a somewhat abstract design. The cipher would be knitted only on the front side of the garment. Borders of garter stitch would be necessary to keep the coded section clear and the edges neat. Alternate rows would most likely be purled (purled back) to keep the encrypted letters relatively distinct.
Here’s another, rather more time-consuming, interpretation, part of a series of posts on using knitting to hide meaning.
According to this BBC programme about MI6 patriots in occupied Belgium employed the technique (at 10’20″ in):
They would get little old ladies who sat in their houses that happened to have windows that overlooked railway marshalling yards and they would do their knitting and they’d drop one for a troop train, purl one for an artillery train and so on and so on, so it was that basic stuff.
The wikipedia article on steganography linked to above gives an example of wool having a morse code message painted onto it (presumably dots and dashes applied in a contrasting colour to a base yarn) which was knitted into a garment worn by the courier. The recipient would then unravel the garment to read the message. I can’t find any confirmation of this widely-reproduced claim, unfortunately, but there’s lots about knitting morse code by texture or colour-work – just google it. I was surprised to find myself among the results, but I suppose it’s been a long-standing obsession. And I am not alone!
And if you watch that, then you’ll realise that it’s not just the tactile fabric itself that is potentially useful, it’s the patterns too. So much so that, during World War II, knitting patterns were treated with great suspicion as potential sources of illicit information and censorship offices banned the international mailing of patterns.
Just remember that, whatever your message, it’ll look and feel better and last longer if it’s 100% wool!