Sontag!Posted: May 5, 2011
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 – sontag: a woman’s knitted cape, tied round the waist. [From the German singer Henriette Sontag, 1806 – 1854]. So now I know.