I read on Ysolda’s blog about the recent death of a knitting legend named Gwen Matthewman. I had never heard of her, but a news article made me curious about this Brit who could knit more than 100 stitches per minute and was a frequent guest on popular television shows in the 60s, and even into the 90s when she appeared on David Letterman.
I first found her wikipedia page, but it mentions only the Guinness World Record of her supersonic 111 stitches-per-minute knitting speed. Later, I came across a message board message from one of her sons who wrote that he and his sister timed their mother at home, when the pressure of record knitting was off, and she knit 121 stitches per minute—an acceleration of 10 stitches. (Sometimes it feels like I can knit only 10 stiches per minute.) She could probably knit even faster without the pressure of her kids timing her.
In 1968, when her knitting speed became known across the land, she was invited to Tokyo where she was pitted against (and trounced) two of Japan’s fastest knitters. (Also televised.) The “knitting professors” who set up this sting operation couldn’t believe the knitting “blur” and searched her for hidden electric devices. (I hope they issued 111 apologies per minute when they discovered that she had straight-up skill and experience.)
And really, in the 60s, what sort of knitting contraption could have been small enough to be concealed in a short-sleeved dress?
In a 1969 article in the Australian Women’s Weekly, she was headlined as “The Knitting Rocket,” which refers to her speed, but also to the Apollo 11 sweater she knit for American astronaut Neil Armstrong—in six hours. (With bulky yarn, it looks like, but still.)
These articles written by non-knitters never mention her style of knitting, but this video shows her banging out stitches with one needle under her arm, known as lever knitting or Irish cottage knitting. (Which is how the Yarn Harlot knits.) It’s a style of knitting used specifically for speed. (Also a style of knitting so foreign to me that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to learn it.)
So, let’s take a moment and marvel. She held an unbroken world record for speed. She knit on straight needles, so every part of every sweater (sleeves, body, yoke) was worked flat (purling!), then seamed. She appeared to enjoy intarsia colorwork. She knit a lot of men’s sweaters, the largest of which weighed 60 ounces (that’s just shy of four pounds). And once, when she found herself without a cable needle during a televised demonstration of cable knitting, she improvised with a matchstick she had in her purse.
According to her family, Gwen didn’t knit for the last 10 years of her life so she could spend time with her kids, grandkids, husband, and friends, but I suspect the true reason was that her home town of Featherstone ran out of yarn.
Thank you for your legacy, Gwen Matthewman. Our loss is heaven’s gain.