No, not her. This.

This appears to be the answer to at least one of the questions of the shawls of Tess.

At issue is the possible construction and authenticity of the hand knitted shawls worn by the actress playing the heroine in the 2008 BBC TV production of Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, set in the 1870s. She has two shawls, both of a central yarn-over increase construction. A smaller black one which she sometimes wears as a hood and a much larger brown one which she wears as a body-warmer. Here are the two in action together:

However as you might be able to make out from the rather dim picture of the back of the black one, the garter stitch ridges run in the opposite direction to that of top-down shawls. In other words they point up towards the central spine rather than down.

A recent combination of circumstances led me to the obvious (but until then entirely elusive) conclusion that this is the result of a bottom-up construction to make a central diamond shape then, when it’s the right sort of size, each side of live stitches would be worked separately on the bias to complete each “wing” at the side of the shawl. In fact here’s the realisation, just as it appeared on the back of a rather important piece of paper seized from a pile on the desk:

Yes, it’s not exactly rocket science, but I was very happy! And in order to test the theory there is a wip on ravelry. Here it is in the early, diamond, stage on the bus:

Then came the second problem. Here are the black and brown shawls together from the back:

And here is the brown shawl loose, from the front:

The problem is obviously in the proportions. For the brown shawl at least (maybe not the black one, I can’t tell) the lengths are not those of a large right-angled triangle where the length of the “spine” is half the width of the “wings”. The much longer fronts compared to the shorter back of Tess’s brown shawl makes much more sense for the wrapped-round body-warmer – the proportions allow free use of the arms and the complete garment isn’t too bulky.

When toodling around the ravelry database looking at vintage shawl patterns I finally found the answer. The sontag is knitted bottom up. The original pattern, according to the helpful ravelry pattern page “was published widely in England and in the United States in 1861. All versions seem to be identical; I don’t know who published it first.”

It is easy to see how this pattern could form the basis for the brown shawl. Leave off the edging (perhaps adding in extra stitches to make up for its lack), make yarn-over increases in the middle either side of a central stitch, work in garter stitch and basically bob’s your uncle.


There’s no entry in my two-volume OED for the word “sontag”. The nearest is “sonsy”, a dialect word meaning variously “abundance”, “good fortune”, “comely” and, strangely, “trousers of a grey homespun”. There’s only Susan in the online Merriam-Webster. I now have another question without an answer. Where did this word come from?

Edited to add: An answer! If one can believe the Association of British Scrabble Players –Β sontag: a woman’s knitted cape, tied round the waist. [From the German singer Henriette Sontag, 1806 – 1854]. So now I know.


6 Comments on “Sontag!”

  1. Ivy says:

    Huzzah! You are obviously a star for working it out. I’m in awe. x

  2. frizzyLogic says:

    I think obsessive loon might be nearer the mark, but thank you πŸ™‚ Having whistled up the small one I’m seriously thinking of making a bigger sontag-type thing. It’s so practical for the cold! Although of course it wouldn’t be needed for months and months now.

  3. Felix says:

    A fantastic research journey into the history of the beautiful shawl which you showed me last week! I admire your diligence in searching out the pattern, and in exploring the means of construction.

  4. This was fascinating! Thank you! I’m trying my hand at making one. πŸ™‚

    I decided to try for just one column of holes in the back, rather than two parallel columns, because I think that the one from the show had just one row. It seems to work out okay if you do a YO increase in the middle of odd-numbered rows and a knit-front-back increase into the YO stitch on the even-numbered rows.

    Please wish me luck with the wing parts! I think that’s where it will get tricky.

  5. emily Van Overstraeten says:

    Hello! Thank you so much for this helpful post.
    But I wondered, do you maybe have a picture of the shawl laying flat? So you can see the wings? I’m kind of struggling with the wings.. I finished one, but I’m not sure it is looking how it is supposed to look. When you have finished the square and started at one of the wings, do you only increase at the inner side and do nothing at the outer side? Or do you decrease at the outer side? Because that’s what I understand of the very old pattern you referred to.
    Do you maybe have a pattern of how you created the wings?
    I hope you can understand what I am saying, I’m from Belgium so my english might not be so good… I hope you can help me!

    Best regards

  6. I didn’t get the wings right. 😦 It’s kind of an odd shape. I took a picture of it, but I can’t figure out how to post it here. If you’d like, you’re welcome to email me (erin at erinthomas dot ca) and I’ll send you the picture of how it turned out, so you can avoid repeating my same mistakes.

    So the first part of the pattern makes a square or diamond shape, as you know. The second part of the pattern, the wings, seems to come out as two attached parallelograms–like rectangles tipped a bit to the side. Only my parallelograms are tipped the wrong way. πŸ˜‰

    And the whole thing turned out too small (I wish I’d kept going on the square part to 100 stitches, instead of 80), so now it resides in my daughter’s dress-up chest.

    Sometime in the new year, I might try again.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s